Episode 27 of “Homage to Luxenben.”

I did not participate in the acclaim that greeted Captain Siegfried Mueller when he mounted the podium. True, he had treated me decently enough aboard the PLS Starbound when I was brought to Luxenben, but now I had a premonition of what he was about to say and I was not looking forward to it.

Mueller was as brusque on stage as he had been on the deck of his ship. He wasted no time on salutations.

“When I was prevailed upon to search for the kind of planet the company needed to win the award, I had no illusions as to the difficulty I was getting into. I had a mathematician run the numbers. He told me that, out of the billions of infected planets, only a thousand or so were in the stage we needed at any given time. True, we only needed one, but where in the hell was it? Even the best scanning devices in the galaxy would do us no good unless we stumbled on it.

“The pressure on me and my crew was enormous. Ours was to be the company’s first and last chance. SVI’s finances had already been stretched to the breaking point. If the mission failed, it was curtains for Project Seedfaith and very likely for the company as well.

“Naturally we equipped our ship as best we could to improve our odds. For long-range scanning we had sensitive spectrometers that could detect such things as the density of a planet’s pollution, the composition of the pollutants, the heat and light radiating from its urban centers, and so on. Shorter range scanners revealed such things as the health of its vegetation and the percent of its surface covered by civilization’s artifacts. Computers on board could interpret all this stuff and tell us in a few seconds whether any particular planet was worth a second look.

“Well, the first few weeks of the voyage couldn’t have been more discouraging. Hundreds and hundreds of unproductive flybys with not a damn thing to show for it but a lot of lost sleep. We never even came close to what we were looking for. Besides that, we were beginning to run low on supplies and the crew’s morale was shot. Nor was mine much higher. Even stubbornness has its limits, you know. To tell you the truth, by the end of the seventh week I was on the verge of throwing in the towel. I would give it one more week and that would be the end of it.

“The breakthrough came two days later at 2:30 in the morning, April 25th of last year. The officer of the deck woke me up with the news. On our seven-hundred and fifty-sixth observation, the computers were flashing ‘nominal.’

“We immediately slammed on the brakes, so to speak, and reduced altitude so we could confirm the spectrographic findings with visual information. For the next couple of days we looked at the planet’s population densities, urban degeneration, land abuse, and so on. Well, when all this stuff started coming in positive we could hardly believe it. We had hit pay dirt. The one in a million shot. Whatever you want to call it.

“That night we had our­selves quite a party. At least that’s what they told me afterward. I appointed Mr. Brimley, our resident teetotaler, as our designated commander and everyone else on board as designated drinkers. About all I remember is that the bottle got passed around pretty extensively and that there was a lot of singing although not necessarily of the same song at the same time.

“After we sobered up the next morning, I held an officers’ meeting in the wardroom. Just because we had convinced ourselves that we had found a suitable planet, that didn’t mean we had the facts necessary to convince the government. Our report to them had to include a before-and-after comparison—someplace that the inhabitants hadn’t gotten around to messing up yet compared to someplace they had.

“Accordingly, I ordered the launch of one of our landers to acquire as much information as possible on a pristine area.. There is not enough time, obviously, to go into all the technical data that was collected on this mission, so let me just summarize that part of the report dealing with the crew’s subjective observations.

“The untouched areas of ‘Planet Hallelujah’—that was the working title we gave it—revealed that it must have been a thoroughly agreeable place before being overrun by its Semi-intelligent species. Indeed, wherever the crew found an undeveloped area—wherever they got ‘a peek of skin,’ was the way they put it—Hallelujah’s exotic sights and smells made it one of the most sen­suous astronomical bodies they had ever encountered. Hallelujah’s variety of flora, in particular, struck them as fascinating and in many cases, absolutely erotic. Mind you, those were their descriptive terms, not mine. The crew gets to talking that way, you know, when they’ve been on the road as long as they had.

“This is not to say the crew approved of everything they saw of Hallelujah’s native conditions. They complained about the planet’s overabundance of water which, when combined with the fact that by far the largest part was saline, represented, as they saw it, an enormous waste of geography. They were particularly critical of Hallelujah’s fauna. They spoke of sharp-toothed predators converting their weaker neighbors into gory feasts and of the herbivores displaying bad manners at waterholes. Personally, I rather doubt that Luxenben’s own animals are any better behaved but the crew’s prejudiced orientation gave them another excuse to blame everything wrong with Hallelujah on its Semi inhabitants. None of Hallelujah’s animals, they insisted, could have shared the same planet with these Semis over millions of years without adverse effects on their character and personality.

“Anyway, now that we had a benchmark from which we could quantify the inhabitants’ track record, we set out to examine the other end of the scale, Hallelujah’s inhabited areas. Once we made enough visual observations from aloft to get our bearings, we launched another mission to capture solid evidence of the damage done by Hallelujah’s inhabitants. We took countless photos, tested air and water quality, and stole whatever documentation we could get our hands on—encyclopedias, professional journals, periodicals, textbooks, and the like.

At this point, Captain Mueller paused, scanned his audience thoughtfully, and then announced, “Let’s take a short break here. The company would like the adults here to view some of the visuals we took so that, as SVI employees, you’ll understand what our missionary expedition to Hallelujah will be up against. At the same time, you really don’t want your kids to see this stuff, believe me. So I’ll give you a few minutes to usher your youngsters out of the hall. And if any of you decide to duck out with your kids till the show’s over, I wouldn’t blame you in the least. For those who stay, let me give you a tip. Take turns keeping one pair of eyes shut like Fried and I do. You can suit yourselves, of course, but I’m warning you this thing gets pretty offensive. Any questions?”

“Did you ever learn what the natives called their planet?” a voice from the back called out.

“I hadn’t mentioned it?” Mueller answered. “Sorry. Earth. Yes, by all means, Earth.”

 

In the ensuing five minutes or so that it took those heeding Sig’s advice to exit the auditorium, I debated with myself whether or not I should join their number. Whereas I thought myself inured to whatever would be shown, the thought of being thrust back into the world’s torment, after having spent all these months trying to forget it, was almost too much to bear. Noticing my nervousness, my friends did what they could to encourage me to leave. Apprehension pulled one way, curiosity the other, and in the end I vacillated too long. Before I knew it, the houselights dimmed and Sig had resumed speaking.

“Understand this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive view of Earth. Remember, what we wanted to show the government were the before-and-after extremes to prove our point as to where this place is headed. Naturally, there were a lot of conditions between these extremes that we didn’t bother to record because, one, we didn’t have the time; two, whatever was in the middle would be smashed with the rest anyway once dichotomax takes over; and, three, an unbelievably large portion of Earth’s population is actually living under the extreme conditions we’re going to show you.

“Okay, let’s get started. I’ll try to keep my mouth shut up so you can concentrate on what’s on the screen.”

 

And with that, the show began. I could not possibly remember all the twenty or so visuals that made up each set of photos; but enough come to mind, I believe, to give the reader a good idea of the session.

The first group of images, entitled “Population Growth,” first elicited a collective murmur of surprise and then half-stifled gasps as the presentation proceeded. There were, for example, charts showing the accelerated, not to say, alarming, recent rise in the world’s population, shots of the rush-hour crowd in a Japanese subway station, the surges of humanity trying to make their way down a narrow street in Calcutta, a jammed eight-lane highway in California, crowds of Muslims attending the Haj, and a soccer stadium filled to overflowing in Caracas.

The segment that focused on “Diminishing Resources” also provoked disapproving noises, in this case growing so loud that Mueller had to interrupt his presentation with a plea for silence. Included in this segment, as I recall, were a denuded piece of farmland in Colorado, the dried banks surrounding Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea, deserted rigs on a depleted oil field, drift net fishermen hauling in depleted catches, desertification in Eritrea, and manmade forest fires in Indonesia.

Despite Sig’s repeated requests for silence, the next set of images on “Pollution” produced responses that were louder than ever. Among the photographs illustrating this depressing category were a snapshot of Mexico City’s air pollution, scrap heaps in Bombay overrun with children junk peddlers, blackened beaches on Spain’s Atlantic coast, acrid fumes pouring from coal-fired power plants in Poland, New Jersey’s monumental waste disposal site, Bangkok’s filthy waterways, a mine field in Vietnam, and a dead coral reef in the Bahamas.

Whatever reaction the previous sets of stills had evoked was but a prelude to the raucous protests that accompanied the following shots on “Poverty.” There were shots of a favela in Rio, an Ethiopian woman carrying a seventy-pound bundle of kindling wood on her miles-long trek to market, gaunt migrant farm workers picking fruit in Washington State, a squatter’s village in Bangladesh, a queue of women waiting to pump dirty water from a well in Azerbaijan, the bent figure of a Chinese peasant planting rice, a line of people asleep on the streets of Calcutta, a miserable refugee camp in Gaza, a sweat shop in Haiti, and row upon row of dying AIDS victims in Botswana.

Unexpectedly, the audience actually fell silent during the next group of images devoted to “Famine.” It was, I suspected, a matter of outrage fatigue. In any case, what exclamations were appropriate for a naked child with a bloated stomach dying of hunger? A parade of starving refugees trying to reach a camp tens of miles distant? A gaunt woman with no milk to give the baby at her breast? Flooded areas dotted with hundreds of forlorn stick figures looking not so much as though they were drifting to death as from it—skeletons quick-dipped in flesh and set out in the sun to dry.

“The one thing there’s never a shortage of,” Sig cut in, “is guns. You can count on at least a few wars going on somewhere at the same time.”

He then ran the concluding set of photos titled “Armed Conflict.” The silence that continued to prevail was broken only by the scuffling of feet as a scattering of attendees found their patience at an end and joined those who had deserted earlier. Meanwhile the unblinking camera caught a hospital ward filled with veteran amputees, a fleet of warships in formation, a band of guerillas leaning against some trees in the jungle, columns of army tanks rolling down a dusty road, bands of child-soldiers armed with assault rifles, a submarine armed with nuclear missiles slithering out of port, victims of a chemical attack stacked like cordwood along a highway, a barbed-wire enclosure housing bacteriological weapons, a terrorist training camp, a military cemetery that stretched as far as the eye could see, a squadron of bombers leaving contrails in the sky, a gang of street thugs, and goose-stepping regiments parading before their dictator leaders.

“This last shot,” said Sig, “really doesn’t belong in this series, but I’ll explain why we have included it. As you know, a number of planets experienced a revolutionary period of genuine creative destruction that left room for new ideas to take root. After this period of upheaval, some managed to develop a religion akin to Cartism that enabled them to pull away from the edge. So we knew government was bound to ask if there were any chance that Earth could follow a similar constructive course. The answer, I’m afraid, is no. At least not on its own. Sadly, Earth’s history has taken a different path. True, there had been a renaissance of sorts and some things did change. Church authorities admitted they may have made a few mistakes. The canons they issued and the burnings at the stake were, admittedly, overzealous interpretations of internal guidelines. Clerical errors, you might say. Thereafter they would allow science to progress provided society left control over religious thought to the church. Rational thought, encapsulated in the word ‘method,’ was sanctioned only under the condition that it always be handcuffed to science. Belief was to reign everywhere else. Needless to say, Earth’s renaissance fell short of the clean sweep that more fortunate planets enjoyed. ‘Punctured evolution’ our boys called it.

“To illustrate the situation, this one picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Our lander crew came across a beautiful church on a college campus that contained the huge stained glass window you see here. It occupied an entire end wall behind the altar. Magnificent, isn’t it? Look at the artistry, the craftsmanship. Think how mesmerizing it must be for worshippers who, raising their eyes from their hymnals, find themselves gazing upon this masterwork. Now look at the subject the window immortalizes. It obviously is meant to convey some fundamental precept—something on which their whole belief system rests. Well, there he is—white beard, flowing robes, stern visage, and all—descending from the mountain carrying a stone tablet engraved with their god’s commandments. In other words—after thousands of years of accumulated practical experience, after the brightest minds of the ages had filled libraries with their treatises, after enormous changes in humanity’s cultural and physical environment—they had come up with no better a religious ethos than one dating back to the “stone age.” Salvation, the window infers, can be found only by looking backward. All the reassurance one needs can be found in the scriptures. When the dichotomaxian tidal wave hits, just hide your head in its pages.

 

“Well, that’s it. As you can imagine,” Sig said after the house lights came on, “I’ve shown this on several occasions and I still lose sleep every damn time. Anyway, why don’t we pause for a few minutes so you can collect your kids and stretch your legs a bit? After the break, Joseph Brimley, our very competent executive officer, will take over. He’s the guy who was directly involved with what happened next.”

As applause rose from the audience—it had grown stronger with each succeeding speaker—my two Semi friends commiserated with me. Matty gently patted the top of my head with her bill and Eddie pushed his muzzle into the side of my leg. Given that the old bird’s home planet had self-destructed and the little beast’s homeland was in the process of doing so, I was touched by my friends’ willingness to set aside their own disappointments and attend to mine. Just in case Rosanne was similarly affected, I leaned slightly in her direction in case she chose to impulsively bring my head to her breast. Unfortunately, whatever the dear girl’s emotional state, she chose not to relieve it this manner. Instead, she sat dry-eyed staring stoically ahead.

 

On the voyage to Luxenben, I recalled, Brimley had been easier to talk to than the captain. Whether he’d be any easier to listen to now was another story. As far as I was concerned, the meeting was going from bad to worse.

“Thank you, captain,” began Joseph Brimley. “Our investigation of Planet Earth, as Captain Mueller mentioned earlier, came at the tail end of our trip. That left us low on fuel and other supplies, so we didn’t want to hang around Earth any longer than we had to. We cobbled together a report, bundled it up with the visuals you’ve just seen and some other exhibits, and transmitted the package just as soon as we possibly could.

“I am happy to say the government’s response was both swift and affirmative. We had a green light to go ahead and enlist the two Semis who were to be brought back to Luxenben, trained, and then returned to Earth. Why only two people to attempt this initial penetration of Earth’s thick religious skin? As a matter of policy, Space Ventures has always proceeded cautiously into uncharted territory. We expect mistakes. Even welcome them as a learning experience provided they are small ones. Caution dictated that we spend no more money, time, and effort on this exploratory, trial-and-error phase than was absolutely necessary. We felt the team, properly managed over a period of two years, should be able to lay the groundwork for the full-scale conversion force that was to follow. And it went without saying that the team would have to be composed of native Earthlings. Injecting Luxanders into the scene would so muddy the results with extraneous matters that we’d end up with no reliable data at all. Not to mention the unnecessary risk to Luxan lives that would have entailed.

“Okay, now that you understand our assignment, let me return to our situation at the test site. Time being of the essence, we elected to simply follow the same procedure we have always used to enlist specimens for the zoo—that is to say, running a classified ad in a number of metropolitan newspapers stating our offer in a forthright manner. Normally we receive a few dozen replies or so, however, from what we already knew of Earth, we expected far more.

“And we were right. Not dozens of letters but hundreds of them. We joked among ourselves that there were just two types of Earthlings—those who were desperately asking us to help them escape and those who hadn’t seen our ad. Think of the state of mind these letters attested to. These poor devils were ready to chuck their station as Earth’s top-banana species in exchange for becoming specimens in a zoo they knew absolutely nothing about.

“Let’s see. I kept a few of them,” Brimley said as he fumbled through a sheaf of letters. “Here’s one. ‘Better fled than dead.’ Another. ‘Better incarcerated than incinerated.’ I like this one, too. ‘Better zooed than screwed.’

“We were, of course, happy to have so many candidates from which to choose. To be sure all the applications were carefully read, we put together a committee of noncoms and asked them to cull out the prospects that most closely matched the criteria we had been given before we left. We were looking for a young person with the abundance of enthusiasm, stamina, and energy needed to confront the vicissitudes he’d encounter as our missionary. Counterintuitively, another qualification was that he be religious-minded rather than atheistic. Our researchers had found that it was far easier to supplant a Semi’s existing religion with Cartism than to convince an atheist of the necessity of religion to begin with.

“Our selection committee spent several hours going over the applications without finding a suitable candidate until one of our readers flourished a photograph of this intense young man absolutely resplendent in what we assumed was religious paraphernalia. A little black box strapped to his arm, a funny cap on his head, earlocks, prayer shawl over his shoulders, and unquestionably circum­cised. And, we could hardly believe it, in his application letter he said he was a member of a tribe of chosen people who think it’s their responsibility to save the world. Hell, what better fit with our specs could we have asked for? I took the application to the captain, who quickly agreed we had the first of our two men.

“Mr. Neuman, please join us on stage, if you will. Up until now for security reasons this young person has heard congratulations for his ordination into the Cartist ministry only from the small band of his colleagues in Product Development. Ladies and gentlemen, do your best to compensate for that necessary imposition.

On cue, my young friend stepped awkwardly out from the left wing and, waving stiffly with one arm, acknowledged the applause with a self-effacing smile.

While the audience was loudly applauding her husband, Rosanne did nothing but stare blankly down on the clasped hands in her lap. I was just as miserable. The old saw about being careful what you wish for came into my head. At one time I wanted nothing more than seeing Neuman sent back to Earth. Now that I was aware of the circumstances accompanying his return, I would have given anything to see him returned back to the safe confines of Research. Eddie started to applaud Neuman’s appearance with the rest, but then abruptly stopped when he looked at Rosanne and me.

As Neuman stood beside him, Brimley went on. “Once we had settled on our first missionary, the selection committee chose a second man whose qualifications seemed to nicely complement Mr. Neuman’s. As it turned out, an anomaly in our takeoff procedure, that I won’t go into now, resulted in our return without this gentleman. However, we have since filled the position with another capable person who was Mr. Neuman’s mentor on Earth and, as such, will undoubtedly prove invaluable to him upon the team’s return to their native planet.

“I want you all to understand the debt we owe this man. Neuman’s tragic breakdown reduced the poor young man to a near catatonic state. We had all but given up hope for his recovery when Rabbi Samuels appeared on the scene. The rabbi may not fit your image of a ministering angel, but the effect of his presence on Neuman was the same. With few words, but with round-the-clock attentiveness, this good man gradually coaxed Mr. Neuman out of his stupor and back into the sentient world. And once our young man began to function normally, he proved remarkably resilient.

“Let’s welcome, then, our second missionary, Rabbi Eli Samuels.”

If the applause that greeted Samuels’ appearance on stage resonated less loudly than Neuman’s, the rabbi took no notice of it as he cheerfully strode on stage and wrapped his arm around Neuman’s shoulder.

“Now that I’ve got the two of you on stage, why don’t you say a few words?” suggested Brimley. “You’re the ones who’ll be doing Project Seedfaith’s heavy lifting at first. It’s only fitting that you have the last word.”

 

A nod from Samuels turned the speechmaking over to Neuman who began, “There’s not a hell of a lot for me to add,” the boy said. “Just a couple of things. Mr. Brimley’s already told you how Rabbi Samuels and the vets helped me recover. But they weren’t the only ones. Rosanne was by my side the whole time. Feeding me when I didn’t want to eat. Keeping me awake when I wanted to sleep. Talking to me all the time when she couldn’t be sure I was listening. Believe me, I’d still be plumb loco if it wasn’t for her.

“And somebody else helped, too. The Founder. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? Being helped by a guy who’s been dead for hundreds of years. What I mean is that when I began to get better, Rosanne started telling me about stuff he said. You know there was a time on Earth when I used to talk to God. Well, there in the sanatorium I was talking to the Founder and, I know it sounds crazy, but it really helped.

“And it’s going to help people on Earth, too, cause we’re taking the Red Book with us.” At the mention of this holy writ, the audience predictably applauded. “Hold on, folks. I’m not talking about your Red Book. I’m talking about ours. The Semi version. So another person I owe a lot of thanks to is the guy who translated it. And so do all the people on Earth although they don’t know it yet. Mr. Stelzer, stand up. It’s not every day we Semis can get a hand from a bunch of Fulls. You might as well take advantage of it too.”

And I did indeed. It wasn’t the loud uproar that Neuman’s appearance had occasioned, but it was satisfying nevertheless.

“And another thing,” Neuman continued after my fifteen seconds of fame had been spent, “they took me on rides, you know. Mostly through the countryside, but a lot of other places too. Towns, research centers, industrial parks, museums. You’ve got a helluva nice place here, you know that? So I guess you could say that Luxenben was a pretty good therapist, too. I guess that’s all I have to say.”

When the applause provoked by Neuman’s brief statement died down sufficiently, it turned out that Samuels had something to add. “A little something, if you don’t mind,“ Samuels began. “The company has told us ‘Don’t make waves. Just a few ripples to prepare the way so the next Seedfaith phase shouldn’t be such a big surprise. And like good bubele, Neuman and I will do what we’re told.

“But maybe you’ll be in for a surprise. Who knows? What kind of surprise? Go back five thousand years. I’m talking about Earth, you understand. Here’s this lousy little band of Hebrews with long beards, poor as dirt, trying to scratch some kind of living out of the desert. While over there are mighty kingdoms with armies, slaves, palaces, temples, store houses, everything. Yet somehow this tiny group in the desert convinces everybody to dump their all their idols in the trashcan and pray to their Hebrew god instead. That’s salesmanship, for you!

“Okay, maybe that’s not the whole story. They got a little help from some ex-Jews and it took a couple centuries, but that came later. The point is, it was those old Hebrews with beards who got their foot in the door and turned the world upside down.

“So what I’m trying to say is that it’s not like Neuman and I will be starting from scratch. Our ancestors paved the way. They even gave it a name, Tikkum Oylem.

“Naturally, we’ll have a little explaining to do. Back then things were in a mess. Enemies throwing rocks, wives and kids running in an out of the tent, the desert sun, whatever so it’s not so surprising they made a mistake. It’s a wonder the old Jews got anything right,. But getting the name wrong was not such a gantse gesheft. Well, they got the sex wrong too, I guess. Anyway, it shouldn’t be a big deal for Neuman and me to apologize for the mistake and straighten things out. We’ll tell them that there really is only one god just like the old Hebrews said but it just wasn’t ‘Adonoy,’ that’s all. It was ‘Mother Nature.’

“Maybe Neuman and me aren’t as good salesmen like the old Hebrews but we’ll have better merchandize. Az got vet helfn un mir veln lebn, we’ll let you know how things worked out when we come back in a couple of years.”

 

Leopold Hampton had a few parting words, Pilkinson announced a final meeting of the Earth strategy committee at 9:00 AM on Thursday of this week at the Research Conference Center. And the meeting was over.

The audience, now out of their seats, filled the hall with shouts of approval and much applause mingled with the resounding sounds of head clonking. And as if these forms of approbation were insufficient, there followed one I had never seen before, foot clapping—the latter performed by standing, apparently with relative comfort, on one’s heads, four-pillared-like, and energetically slapping together the soles of one’s shoes.

Matty and Eddie, apparently hopeful that their close association with the featured guests of the meeting would be noticed by other Semis in the audience, would have gladly stayed on, but I would have none of it. I didn’t feel like talking to Neuman, Samuels, or anyone else. I hurriedly bussed the girls on the cheek, squeezed their hand, and hustled my two friends out the door.

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