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"They can't land!" said Evin Brahma. "My entire crop will go up in flames."
But the Amlok Macbeth was on its way, like it or not. And, legally, Evin Brahma had no business planting his crops on the spaceport in the first place.
"But I have a long-term lease," said Evin. "Mayor Floshot did the deal with me himself."
True, the mayor had done that. But the deal was illegal and the money had gone into the mayor's own pocket. What's more, the mayor had died the previous year, and had died broke, his financial resources exhausted by illegal gambling on pig races, a form of entertainment greatly enjoyed by the five million inhabitants of the planet Velis Tantris.
Evin's next step? His insurance company.
"See?" said Evin, stabbing at the document. "Says here. Starship compensation. Full compensation for loss of crops, loss of profits - the whole deal."
"For unscheduled landings, to be sure," said the insurance agent.
"Well, any landing is unscheduled!" said Evin. "Nobody's used this spaceport for the last hundred years! Since when is the Amlok Macbeth a scheduled service?"
"Since it was registered as such," said the agent. "Here. Let me explain the fine print."
One explanation later, Evin Brahma knew he had lost. Legally. But there was another way to handle this. Why couldn't the Amlok Macbeth go land at Akarana, just like any other starship? That, after all, was where the main spaceport was located. With a little persuasion, surely this could be arranged ....
There were protesters camped on the spaceport itself, camped on the narrow access track which bisected Evin Brahma's two vast fields of maize. It was because of the protesters that the Amlok Macbeth had not yet landed. Instead, that military spacecraft was circling the planet in geosynchronous orbit, waiting for peaceful negotiations to clear the way for a landing.
The planet Velis Tantris belonged to the Zafari Jahar, a transcosmic federation otherwise known as the Harmonious Commonwealth. Theoretically, Velis Tantris was ultimately subordinate to the authority of the federal government. But, in practice, the federal government had to tread carefully, since the tyrannical exercise of power would surely cause Velis Tantris to secede from the commonwealth, regardless of the consequences of such secession. Consequently, the Amlok Macbeth could not simply land and burnt the protesters to death.
The morning after talking with his insurance agent, Evin Brahma began his day by breakfasting with the protesters. His next stop was Esintaplan, the High Temple of Babril Hestek, the God of Slovenly Degradation.
Petra Cap, age eighteen, was the high priestess - the only priestess - of the High Temple of Babril Hestek, the God of Slovenly Degradation. In that role, she made a burnt offering to the god every morning before school. What she burnt was garbage: apple cores, old newspapers, fish heads and so forth. Technically, the fouler the better, but Petra couldn't be bothered hunting around for anything really degraded, so what the god got was everyday household trash. That was enough to keep it from killing everyone on the planet.
If it still existed. If it still had the capacity to kill.
"What do you want?" said Petra Cap, when she emerged from the temple to find Evin Brahma waiting for her.
"What do you think?" said Evin. "I want you to stir up this god of yours."
"Stir up?" said Petra, smoothing back her blonde hair from her face. "Invoke, I think. That's the word we use with gods. Oh, and we speak of wrath, not anger. You want me to invoke the wrath of Babril Hestek."
"I didn't come here from smart backtalk," said Evin. "I came here for action. I want this ship to be trashed into carpet tacks if it dares land."
"Carpet tacks?" said Petra. "What are carpet tacks?"
"The little nails used to keep carpet in place," said Evin. "Don't they teach you anything at that school of yours? Anyway. Will you do it or won't you?"
"You're wasting your time," said Petra. "The god doesn't work any more."
She spoke of it as though it was a worn-out machine, like a tired old alarm clock or a refrigerator with leaky seals. And, indeed, Babril Hestek was exactly that. Ten thousand years previously, the God of Slovenly Degradation had been created by the Yanthelapotha, the ancient alien race known as the Builders of Gods. It was a machine, and very few people pretended otherwise. But now it was breaking down.
"Listen to me," said Evin. "A scarecrow doesn't have to chase crows. The crows just have to believe that it might. That's all."
"I get it," said Petra. "Okay. I'll give you what you need."
"Right," said Evin. "I'll come here at lunchtime with my camera. You go in with an offering or whatever it is. Don't you worry about making the threats - I'll do that. All you have to say is, yes, you invoked the god, and, yes, I asked you to."
"Won't you get in trouble?" said Petra.
"No," said Evin. "I already checked with my lawyer. That's freedom of religion for you."
The High Temple of Babril Hestek stood on one side of the spaceport, directly across from the massive granite monolith which, if legend could be believed, blocked humans from trespassing onto the former location of one of the gateways into the transcosmic wilderness known as the moid.
Ten thousand years before, if legend could be believed, the moid had been a safe and pleasant place, a kind of large indoor park, its roadways efficiently connecting the various planets which humans inhabited. Then the Yanthelapotha had arrived. They had done their best to destroy the moid, and had inflicted their various bizarre gods upon the scattered peoples of humanity, and then they had departed to wherever it was they had gone to.
At lunchtime, Petra showed up with a dead cat - roadkill, as it happened - and a bunch of fishheads she had begged from a fisherman. Evin Brahma took photos then, bearing her offerings on a silver salver, Petra entered the temple.
Petra Cap entered the temple and the smell of burnt soap enfolded her. As Evin Brahma had made clear, there was no need for her to try to invoke Babril Hestek. The threat would be enough. So she had brought along some study material to keep her busy.
However, Petra found it difficult to settle to study. For some reason, she always found herself wanting to do whatever it was that she was not supposed to be doing right now. If it was her duty to wash the dishes then she found the urge to study come upon her. But, if she had a serious need to study - to cram for some upcoming exam, say - then she found that she really wanted to go swimming or to take herself to the gym and pump some iron.
Yawning, Petra flexed and stretched. Then started as the air in front of her wrinkled. The lights in the temple, part of the package given to the planet by the Yanthelapotha, dimmed from gold to red then brightened to a harsh and pitiless white. Though Petra had never spent much time studying the religion she served, she knew the basics, and she knew that she was about to see something she had never seen before: a manifestation of Babril Hestek.
"No," she said, in horror.
Turning, she tried to run, but her body locked up at the first effort to flee, and she was trapped, paralyzed, poised in the air in a manner which was both unwilling and effortless, despite the fact that she was off balance - one foot advanced, her weight thrown forward in the start of a sprint. Only her eyes were free to move.
At first, she could not see the god. Then, slowly, as if she were a statue on a turntable, she was silently cranked around to face it. The pace of this maneuver was maddeningly slow. The Yanthelapotha, according to legend, had been a very fast-living race, and had employed dilatoriness as their favorite punishment. Petra was being punished for having tried to run away, and she was suffering impossibly.
Finally, after what felt forever, but was actually only three and a half hours by the clock, Petra had been cranked right round so she faced the god fair and square. Even after all that time, the manifestation of Babril Hestek was far from complete, and, as it hung in the air in front of her, the god was an indistinct cloud composed of blurred swatches of vague pastels. Then, as Petra watched, the shimmering cloud slowly coagulated into into globes of the softests blue, green and gray. Then, with a suddenness suggestive of a hugely violent acceleration, these globes abruptly thickened and enlarged themselves, each becoming the size of a baby's head, their colors changing, hardening into strident blue and alarm clock orange.
Suddenly, Petra was released from imprisonment. Taken unawares, she fell to the floor of the temple. Looking up, she spoke.
"I did not summon you," said Petra desperately. She picked herself up from the floor. "I did not! Do you hear me?"
As if in response, the blue and orange globes began to hum on a high pitch. The hum began to judder and slip, screaming upward half an octave and then dropping again, setting Petra's teeth on edge.
"Stop it, stop it, stop it!" screamed Petra, clapping her hands to her ears.
Miraculously, the sound was cut off, ceasing with an axe-striking abruptness. In unison, the globes glurped open, revealing the glistening linings within. Half-digested organisms clung to the linings - frogs, scorpions, small snakes, and things with multi-jointed legs which Petra did not recognize, and had never been able to find in any database.
"I know your need," said Babril Hestek, speaking to her through the stones of the temple, so that vibrations from the flagstones underfoot juddered through her feet unpleasantly.
"I," said Petra.
Then found she could not say anything further. Not because of any external restraint but because of her own paralyzing fear.
She took a deep breath and felt her shoulders rise. She exhauled and tried again, this time extending her arms downward to their full length and pushing her hands down so her shoulders would stay down. A deep, slow breath. But there was something wrong with her diaphram - she could not expand her lungs properly. Maybe her newly-invented trick with her arms and hands was a mistake. She shook the rigidity out of her arms and tried again.
"I you wish to speak, then speak," said Babril Hestek. "I am a god, and my patience is not infinite."
A witty response formulated itself: as a god, you should work a little harder on the infinite. You gimcrack heap of junk, you. But Petra did not dare voice it. In fact, she was worried that even thinking as much might have been a mistake.
Deep breath. Slow breath. Hold ... and exhale. Now, when you speak, drop down half an octave. Descend from the girl to the woman. Alto, not contralto.
"I didn't summon you," said Petra. "Nobody did. I don't need anything from you, thank you very much. Nor does anyone."
"Your community speaks through you," said Babril Hestek. "You require the destruction of the interlopers who threaten to contaminate the saved domain. Very well. I will destroy the next ship which arrives on this planet. You may go."
"I will not go!" said Petra. "You have to listen - "
"Go!" roared Babril Hestek.
And Petra Cap found herself precipitated backwards. Invisible forces had her in their grip, and they slammed her through twists and turns then ejected her into the late afternoon sunlight, where Evin Brahma was still waiting.
"What in hell!" said Evin, as Petra picked herself up from the grass.
"What?" said Petra, looking at Evin's shocked face.
Then she felt something moving in her hair, and threw up her hands, then wrenched her hands away from the writhing things that grew there, then screamed, and was still screaming when the ambulance arrived.
When Petra Cap presented with dozens of lithe and slender snakes growing out of her scalp, the doctor experimentally cut one away with a scalpel. However, the resulting wound bled profusely, and that was when the doctor figured out that the snakes were plugged into Petra's own blood supply.
Pretty much instantly, Petra Cap was famous throughout the transcosmic civilization of the Zafari Jahar. And, when the warning went out to the Amlok Macbeth, it was believed. The snakes that had replaced Petra's hair provided a kind of incontovertible authenticating signature from the god itself.
"There is a problem," said Ebron Labek, the commander of the Amlock Macbeth. "Let me reveal our true purpose in coming to this planet. We are here to intercept a hijacked ship. The ship is the Brentroza Norloa. It will arrive in two days. Communication with the ship is impossible. The god's decision to destroy the next ship must be reversed else all on board the Brentroza Norloa will die."
Petra Cap did her best. Toting a fire extinguisher, which she used periodically to subdue her restless snakes with blasts of dry ice, she made repeated trips back into Esintaplan, the High Temple of Babril Hestek, the God of Slovenly Degradation. There she prayed, wept, screamed, threatened and implored. But all she heard in response was the echoes of her own hoarse and ragged voice, and the occasional singing of a cicada which had found its way into the interior of the temple and had been unable to afterwards escape.
Two days later, the Brentroza Norloa landed.
The landing of the Brentroza Norloa was like the landing of any starship. Outside the ship, a force field. Outside the force field, a wall of seething energy. Trapping those raging energies, a second force field.
What happened then, however, was anomalous.
By rights, the ship should have collapsed its exterior force field, unleashing the trapped energy and burning Evin Brahma's maize fields. Then, after a suitable delay to allow heat to dissipate, the inner field should have been released, and the people should have exited. But none of this happened.
"It seems that Babril Hestek, the God of Slovenly Degradation, has killed everyone on the ship," said a media commentator.
And for the next ten minutes this news dominated the entire transcosmic civilization of the Zafari Jahar. The awakening of one of the mechanical "gods" created by the Yanthelapotha was a threat to the entire civilization, and dominated people's minds accordingly.
An hour later, however, the ship began to broadcast a recorded message. It went out on radio waves and, for good measure, it was sent forth as coded signals by the communication lights built into the ship's hull - a primitive method of signalling designed for worst-case disasters in the vacuum of deep space.
"We, obedient to the demands of our god, Tavama Plaza, have committed collective suicide by starvation. Our reasons and our manifesto follow."
The next day, the inner force field failed, and the trapped energies rampaged into the ship, melting the hull and savaging everything within. Ten seconds later, as the ship's main powerplant failed, the outer force field also collapsed. Enough heat was left to start a couple of small fires in Evin Brahma's maize fields. Fire trucks soon brought the burn under control, but the maize crop was completely destroyed in the course of the subsequent salvage operation to recover what could be recovered from the Brentroza Norloa.
In the wreckage of the ship, enough physical evidence was found to support the story told by the suicides. They had apparently invented their own god during their voyage, and had died in obedience to the commands of that god.
A week later, all the snakes growing from Petra's scalp died in the space of eight hours, and their dead bodies shortly began to fall out. She was left completely bald, but her doctor promised her that hair implants should be able to repair the damage.
Alone, she went into the temple, and sat on the iron throne of Babril Hestek, the god which had failed. The god having failed - it had not, after all, destroyed the ship, despite its promise to do so - the transcosmic civilization of the Zafari Jahar had promptly forgotten it. Petra felt lost and diminished.
As for Evin Brahma, he was forgotten just as quickly as Petra Cap. But he wasn't fussed. He had made the biggest money imaginable by selling the rights to his original photos of Petra Cap coming forth from the temple with her head of snakes, and his one remaining problem was to spend it all.
"The god that failed succeeded," said Evin.
It wasn't the greatest joke in the world, but it had gotten to be his favorite.
This alien god story fictional story, "The Wrath of Babril Hestek," was first published when posted online by Hugh Cook on 2003 June 20 Friday. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
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