Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Long Sleepers

Copyright 2010, J.D. Ray

Baird sat quietly waiting while death itself settled into the chair across from him. A servant delivered a snifter of brandy, which Baird took gratefully. He rolled the amber liquid around in the globe, watching the light from the fireplace as it flared in the glass, stalling for a moment lest he appear nervous as he poured the much-needed nerve fortifier down his throat. As he drank, a grim smile appeared on the lips of his companion. A voice, heavy with an accent that seemed as ancient as the hills, did its best to sound soothing. “I assure you, Mr. Baird, you have nothing to fear from me.”

Baird peered back at his host. Slowly lowering the glass from his lips, he held it in his lap momentarily, then set it on the stand next to his chair and picked up his notepad. “Thank you, sir, for that reassurance. I apologize if I seem… uncomfortable.”

“It is to be expected. You might be surprised to hear that I feel a certain bit of trepidation myself with regard to this… interview. Not for my own safety, which is not in question. It is because I have not told our story to anyone from the outside world. Well, at least not for a very, very long time.”

Baird tried to smile, though he couldn’t be sure it came across as he intended. “I suppose I can understand, sir. At least in some way.” Fidgeting, he adjusted himself in the overstuffed wingback chair. The mohair upholstery chafed through the thin fabric of his shirt. Absentmindedly he thought about his sport coat, with its satin lining, but the room was warm, and he wouldn’t want to sweat. “Shall we get started? I suspect I will have questions, if you don’t mind.”

“Questions are also expected, Mr. Baird. I will endeavor to answer them to the best of my ability.” As if to steady his own nerves, he raised a glass of some pinkish liquid and took a deep drink. Seeing the question on Baird’s face, he said, “Grapefruit juice, ruby red, with a bit of calcium for my bones. At my age, a bit of supplement is required.”

“And just what is that age, might I ask?” Baird held his pen at the ready, as if he were some reporter about to get the latest scoop on a juicy bit of gossip.

“That, my good man, is a fact I am somewhat unsure of. The reasons for this will become clear in the telling of our story.”

Taking another drink of his juice, the man, if that’s what he could be called, settled himself into his own chair, crossing his legs and leaning slightly toward the fireplace. The scene looked like something out of an old movie. All that was missing was the chime of a grandfather clock and the hoot of an owl. One of them, Baird thought, ought to be smoking a pipe.

The man (maddeningly, Baird hadn’t been given his name, and was relegated to calling him ‘sir.’) took a deep breath, made a false start, let the breath out, thought for a few seconds, then started again. Baird noted that he seemed to breathe normally, and made a note to that effect in the corner of his Steno pad.

“The history of our people on Earth is shrouded in mystery and legend. As is the case with many legends, there are some things based in fact. Other things are purely fantastical; stories told around campfires of things that haunt the dark recesses of this world. But I suspect you would be hard challenged to divide correctly the things based in fact and those made of fantasy.

“You’ve been made aware, I’m certain, that we come from another world.” Indeed, that was one of the few pieces of information Baird had been given. As one of the top people in the field of exobiology, the shock to his entirely theoretical world of finding out that, not only was life on other planets confirmed, but that complex, intelligent, humanoid forms of that life were living here on Earth was exciting and devastating at the same time. “Our world was, and may still be for all I can say, one of peace in general terms. We had nations, in the way you do today, but only a handful of them, separated by general ideas in the way a society should be governed, not by enmity for one another. Travel and trade between nations was free and open, and we had not seen war for a very long time.

“With very little of our collective energy directed toward warfare, many problems that your world faces today were solved: medicine was well advanced, energy production had a near zero cost, and, as a result, resource distribution was such that basic needs were met for everyone. People could live in relative comfort with very little effort. Imagine, if you will, being able to subsist by working one day out of five, or to support a household by working three of five. Technological advances and a societal distaste for waste meant that drudgery was kept to a minimum. As such, advances grew exponentially, and before long, we were into space.”

Baird scribbled, noting things that felt important, though were outside his field. Later he would realize that others of differing fields had already gathered this information, and that his notes did little more than remind him of how backward the society he lived in really was.

The man continued. “Relative to humans, we are a very long-lived species. Under normal circumstances, someone one my world would expect to live for around four hundred Earth years, and it was not unheard of, though not common, for someone to live half again that long.” Baird, who had been furtively taking notes, stopped and looked up at this last statement. He considered what that might mean for humans, though it was hard to predict how the Earth might support the teeming hoards that would result from people living far beyond what they did now. He made a note to inquire about birth rates.

“We will discuss later the biologic similarities and differences between our races, and I’m certain that this is where most of your questions will lie. But now I will tell you that possibly the most significant difference between humans and our people is the ability of the ge’somlun, or the long sleeping. Deprived of oxygen, our bodies enter a hibernation state that can be maintained for several days, ranging to weeks, with no resources at all. With even the slightest fraction of oxygen in an atmosphere, we can sleep for years at a time.”

Baird stopped writing and absorbed this. There were fish on Earth that dehydrated entirely when the lake they lived in dried out, then reanimated when the next rainy season came. But years? He wondered how many, and what effect it might have on the body. As if to answer, “Sir” said, “We can remain in this state for several of your decades at a time, given an oxygen concentration of between one and two percent. Our bodies slowly deteriorate over that time as they essentially consume themselves to keep the core alive. The healthier the sleeper is when they enter ge’somlun, the longer they can survive. I, for instance, am no longer in my prime, and could last the sleep for no longer than about twenty years. But, during our trip here, we all slept for what amounted to nearly a century at a time, and I have done so more than once since arriving nearly a thousand years ago.”

Baird nearly shot out of his chair at this. A thousand years? On Earth? Centuries at a time in space? He had been counseled by those who sent him here to accept what he was told as truth, but how could it be? As he tried to piece a timeline together, the storyteller leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “Now you start to see why I say I’m unsure how old I am.” Baird nodded dumbly. “I was a young man, maybe fifty Earth years old and just hitting my stride, as you might say, in my career as a biologist when I was chosen to join the expedition.”

“Biologist, you say?” Baird was obviously shocked. He hadn’t even considered that this man, a member of a society sufficiently advanced to achieve interstellar space travel, might have a scientific background. In retrospect, it made perfect sense.

The man smiled genuinely. “Yes, Mr. Baird, a biologist like yourself, though primarily focused on the biology of our own world and not of others. I’m told I was selected for the journey over others more specifically qualified because of factors more subjective, though I cannot say for sure. But yes, I am, or at least was, a man of science. Though the years of sleep, I fear, have taken their toll, and I am not as sharp as I once was.” Baird nodded grimly at that, beginning to feel his own age wear at him, though he could not conceive of the trial of years that must have been endured by… why didn’t Baird know the man’s name? He made a note to press the question later.

“As I was saying,” the man continued. Baird had decided to table the question of whether this otherworldly creature could truly be called a man. That was a question for philosophers, not scientists. “I was young when I was chosen for the expedition. After some consideration, I decided it was an honor, and accepted. My matron was very proud. We departed within… well, I suppose about two and a half years by Earth reckoning, which by our society’s standards was amazingly fast. The science team, as it turns out, were the last to be chosen, and many had been on the project for a long time. But I digress.

“Most of our numbers, two hundred thirty four people, were put into hibernation before we departed our world. The flight crew, of course, was not. Most of us slept for, as I said, nearly a century of your time, awoke for long enough to recover the damage done to our bodies, then returned to sleep. By my reckoning, I was around seventy Earth years of age by the time I arrived here, and still a young man, though maybe not quite as young as I would have liked to be.

“At this juncture, I should tell you about our arrival in this solar system. When our astronomers detected your world, it was through methods much like those your scientists are discovering and putting to use today. They could tell that Earth was here, and that it could and did support life as we knew it, but details about the planet, as well as the rest of the solar system, were not known. As our vessel decelerated past the outer planets, we encountered the field of material you know as the asteroid belt. Severe damage was done to our craft, and many of our numbers were lost. Many of our nava… um… ‘sleeping vessels’ were damaged, and many were scattered among the asteroids, their occupants left to slowly die in the cold of space.

“The flight crew did their best to repair the damage, and they are remembered as heroes for their efforts. We arrived at Earth with only eighty-three survivors and a ship that could not maintain a stable orbit. Shortly after our arrival here, it burned up in the atmosphere.

“Upon arrival, we were shocked to find that life on Earth had developed in a startlingly similar fashion to our own world, including a bipedal, intelligent species that bore striking similarities to our own. We could survive, even thrive on Earth, and in time found that we could integrate ourselves somewhat with the natives.

“Were you to see me now without my vestments, Mr. Baird, you would immediately see that I am not a human. My limbs are of a different proportion to my torso than yours, my genitals are internal rather than external, much like your females, and my feet are shaped differently, though you as a scientist would see that the function they serve is exactly the same. The face that you see is the product of cosmetic surgery, though the primary change was to the nose and ears, which are the immediately obvious differences between our races. Our species’ external nasal pillow is very shallow, looking more like other species of Earth, and frankly lending to the legends I spoke of earlier. Two of our surviving number were physicians, thankfully, and they developed the cosmetic procedures that allowed us to interact with humans without inciting fear. For the last several centuries, children born to us have been given the procedure at an early age so they might grow up with it and interact with the human world for their entire lives.

“By now you are arriving at the conclusion, correctly I might say, that we are not the monsters that your legend has made us out to be. Unfortunately, I must tell you now about the dark aspects of our time on Earth that brought those legends about.

“Our species developed without the relatively large organ you call a stomach. What passes for a stomach in us is little more than a wide spot in our digestive tract, and serves little purpose. As such, we do not consume solid food, and live on an entirely liquid diet. Upon our arrival here, we were startled to see humans merrily munching away on anything and everything they could get their hands on, including grains. Eating a bowl of cooked grain the way many of you humans do each morning would kill one of us in very short order.”

Baird peered at his host, remembering the smile from a few minutes ago. “But you have teeth. If you don’t eat solid food…”

“Dental prosthetics. ‘Dentures,’ you might say, though mine are permanently implanted. I can show you drawings of the form our mouths are in at maturity at a later time. They are distinctly different from those of humans, but not without similarities. And again, our natural form creates a fear reaction in you humans, even those who have been counseled and cautioned ahead of time. Henceforth, some of us… yea, most of us, have chosen to alter ourselves such that we can exist in harmony with our ‘otherworldly’ brethren.” He sat up straight and put an exaggerated smile on his face. His teeth were perfect and straight, those of a salesman or politician. “You see, Mr. Baird, do my ‘pearly whites’ not look handsome? They’ve been replaced a number of times over the years, much to my pain and chagrin, but artificial dental material does not stand up to centuries of use, and does not regrow, either.”

He relaxed back in the chair and the smile faded from his face. “Mr. Baird, we have come to the juncture in our conversation where we must speak of what you refer to as ‘the elephant in the room.’ I implore you to listen to this portion of my tale with an open mind and as a scientist.

“I told you that we subsist entirely on a liquid diet. As you might have surmised, there are very few naturally occurring juices that are sufficiently protein rich to support the development of a relatively large, sentient being like myself. The situation is the same on our home world as here; fruits primarily produce juices rich in sugar.” He gestured offhandedly to the juice glass at his side. “Mammal’s milk is usually protein rich, but it is unlikely that evolution would create a being that subsists its entire life on the milk of other beasts, and it is impossible for a species to self-provide nourishment. And so, the logical conclusion you’ve arrived at is correct; a significant portion of our diet subsists of blood.” He paused to allow Baird absorb this. So, the stories were true, at least to a point. A cold shudder came over Baird, even though the room was warm from the fireplace, as he thought of a whole world of humanoids sucking the blood out of… what? Each other? Some lesser beings? There had to be a circle of life, even if it was a gruesome one.

“I can see your discomfort. Please, be at ease. The situation is likely not as dire as you imagine.

“On our world, which, by the way, has a name unpronounceable to you, we have livestock whose bodies are rich in blood. They are not sentient, and are much like your cattle, though they are omnivores. Each household keeps a number of these animals, and they are generally well treated, which is more than I can say for most livestock on Earth. When it is time for the household to feed, one of the animals is captured and has a portion of its blood drained into a vessel. The wound is tended to, and the animal is set on its way. It will not be used in this manner until well after it has had time to recover and become healthy again. The Mursi tribe of Africa live in a similar fashion, by the way, and they did not learn this from us.

“When we arrived on Earth, we survived for several years on the remaining supplies we brought from home. Our vessel’s orbit slowly decayed until it was destroyed in the atmosphere, but by that time I had discovered that encouraging growth of Earth-based enzymes in our guts would allow us to digest Earth-based blood. From there, it was simply a matter of selecting livestock for us to keep.

“I mentioned that the livestock we kept at home were omnivores. Early experiments in feeding on the blood of ruminants, which are so common here on Earth, were disastrous, at least from a culinary standpoint. The blood of your average bovine tastes to us essentially like the grass they feed on. If you’ve ever tasted field grass, Mr. Baird, you will understand when I say we could not subsist that way. Another solution, as it were, was required.

“Large omnivores on Earth are not common, and rarely domesticated. Suidae are the most common, though it seems that their temperament is only sufficient for keeping as livestock if they are on a restricted diet of primarily grains and grasses. If you feed a domestic pig an omnivore’s diet, it quickly grows tusks as well as a surly attitude insufficient to the practice of harvesting its blood without killing the beast. This is unfortunate, because they are rich in blood, and it is, frankly, quite delicious when the captured animal has been running wild and eating a diverse diet.”

Like a chess player, Baird’s mind raced to sort out all the logical ends to what the man was saying. It didn’t take him long to arrive at the horrifying conclusion that was approaching like an oncoming freight train. His jaw clenched and his mouth hardened into a fine line. After a moment’s consideration, he cleared his throat and said, “So, hu… ah… humans became your livestock?”

“Many of our number argued that we should move directly to keeping the unsophisticated, backward humans as we might livestock. Remember that we arrived here in the eleventh century and took up residence in Eastern Europe, primarily in what is now Romania. In hindsight, we could have selected a more accommodating place to live, but it reminded us much of home and we could not know of the troubles that were to come.

“A few of us, primarily lead by the two physicians, argued for a different methodology. We used our technology, which was obviously not yet in existence on Earth, to make ourselves rich with material wealth, primarily gold. I am not proud of it, but we advanced the warfare capabilities of a few small nations. They paid handsomely for the privilege. We used that gold to purchase the services of the townspeople from a small village in the mountains we inhabited. We employed the services of brokers who would anaesthetize willing subjects and allow us to drain them of a fraction of their blood. We were watchful, and did our best to assure that both the brokers and the people whose blood we were harvesting were being compensated. As you might imagine, the brokers were made wealthy on their trade, but the townsfolk were similarly become an income that could sustain them in a very comfortable fashion.

“The system worked well for the better part of two hundred years. The outside world thought that the townsfolk had been made wealthy by the sale of inventions made by a mysterious resident, but they generally took little notice. Alas, secrets cannot be held long, and ours eventually got out. The Christian church took notice, and, possibly seeking a way to further their war against Islam, started rumor mongering about monsters in the night that were doing horrible things in their castles in the dark reaches of the forest. Our position with our townsfolk changed, and even though they had grown fat on our gold, with what amounted to little effort or loss on their part, human attention span is short and they rebelled against us. Fearing starvation, we pressed back in a manner that I am not proud of.

“Our numbers had grown some in the two centuries we were on Earth. The flight crew and a few others had arrived at Earth advanced in age, having been awake for much more of the journey here than the rest of us. They passed on, mostly in the first century or so, but over that same period we bore a few children, and by the end of the twelfth century, our numbers were over a hundred.

“As I said, we feared starvation, and the faction of our people who had originally wanted to enslave the humans declared our trade experiment a failure. They became aggressive toward humanity, kidnapping people and keeping them as feedstock, many of them in a state near death that lasted a few short weeks before their bodies could not take the abuse any longer. They were replaced by new abductees, and the cycle continued. Occasionally, a few of our more brazen numbers would leave a body where it would be found, drained of blood and with its carotid artery torn asunder, naturally stoking the fires of fear in our neighbors.

“Those among us taking this path had hoped to strike fear in the humans. Their shortsightedness led them to believe that fear would lead to surrender, and that humans would be their cattle after all. But, backed into a proverbial corner, humans have a reserve of will that is significant in its strength. Banding together against a common enemy, humans trapped and slaughtered our people wherever they could, with no regard or understanding for those of us who argued on their behalf. We weren’t surprised, mind you. Still, if someone is going to drive a wooden stake through your heart, it should be for good reasons.”

Baird looked up. “Wooden stake?”

“As I said, separating fact and fiction is a trial. Yes, indeed, wooden stakes through the hearts of our people was seen as the only sure way to kill us. It’s not. However, poorly executed hangings resulted in a choking that would kill most humans and only induced ge’somlun in our people. Left hung by their necks for more than a day, then cut down and buried alive in shallow graves was a horrible punishment for those who endured it. When they would awake from their slumber, buried alive, terror gripped their hearts like an iron fist. With their only salvation a tiny pocket of air provided by the coarse cloth thrown over them before the hole was filled in, they would thrash and claw at the soil like trapped animals…” The man’s voice rose with the telling, obviously under strain. Baird looked at him, understanding that this was no third party tale he was listening to, but rather the recounting of a true-life nightmare survived by someone who had lived with the scars for nearly a thousand years. Baird now understood why this man was reticent to tell his story: the memories were too painful.

“So, yes,” the man said, continuing. “After seeing a few graves whose occupants had obviously dug their way out, stories of creatures who could not die spread like wildfire. The humans’ efforts were redoubled, and our dwindling numbers went into hiding, retreating to our strongholds and sleeping vessels. In one horrific incident, a human adventurer infiltrated one of our keeps and made his way to where a few of us slept. He pried open three of our… I’m sorry to keep using the same term, but our language is incomprehensible to your ears, and I can’t think of anything else to call the navabrrltkk.” Baird did his best to phonetically capture the string of sounds that came at the end of the sentence. Whatever he came up with didn’t at all fit.

“I suppose calling them ‘coffins’ gives a bad connotation,” offered Baird, “even though it unfortunately fits with the legends.”

“Well, it this case it would turn out to be true. As I was saying, an adventurer infiltrated one of our strongholds and made his way to our vault, killing several human staff along the way. He pried open three of our vessels and drove stakes through the hearts of the occupants, killing them while they slept. Before he could continue his grizzly work, surviving house staff intervened. They were unprepared to do battle with one as skilled as he at warcraft, but in the end, they survived and he escaped. Unfortunately, word spread of what he had done, and others tried similar approaches. We increased our security, but we could not stop them all. Eventually we retreated to our most remote castles deep in the mountains, fortified them with what technology we could muster, and did our best to sleep until the world changed.”

“About that technology,” Baird asked. “As a space-faring race, I imagine you would have technology far beyond that of thirteenth century Earth. Why couldn’t you better defend yourselves?”

The man gave a grim look, almost resigned. “A few factors were at play there. I mentioned that we had not known war on our home world for a very long time. As such, our weapon technology was not very advanced. In fact, your weapons today would far overpower anything that was known on my home world at the time we left. And I doubt they’ve advanced much in the intervening years. But yes, we knew technologies that could have put us in positions of great power if we had the resources we set out with. But with the wreck of our ship came the loss of those resources, as well as the loss of the minds that understood the technology or could develop it again. Among the survivors, a few had passing knowledge of this thing or that, garnered from family connections during their youth, but no one had direct experience with it. We did what we could with the resources we had.”

Baird nodded. “I understand what you mean. My father was a jeweler. I could describe for you how a wedding ring was created, and I could even make a very basic one myself if presented with the tools, but creating a kiln, crucible, and all the other necessary components from scratch would be beyond me.”

“Precisely. My father was a stonemason, and another male in my household a carpenter. They worked together to make repairs to homes or expand them as houses grew, and in my youth I worked with them sometimes. But my head was for science, and I was little interested in their work. Similarly, my matron was a woman of business. She ran the business that my father and… hmm… ‘uncle’ isn’t quite the right word, but let it suffice… that my father and uncle worked at. It’s what brought our household its income. But I didn’t want to learn that, either. It was a relief when I could go off to university. I believe it was the same for my house-sister who was somewhat older than I and preparing to graduate with what you would call an advanced degree.”

Baird wasn’t sure if he detected a disparaging note in the phrase “what you would call an advanced degree,” but decided to let it pass. Another thing had his attention, though. “What do you mean by ‘house-sister,’ if I may?”

“Ah, yes. My apologies. Our family structure is quite different than the predominant one in your society. The basic family unit is best called the household, and the head of the household is the matron. We are generally matriarchal, though politically both genders hold office. However, unlike your patriarchal society, property or wealth is passed from one’s mother. Knowing your father’s identity is far less important to us that it is to you, though it’s rare that males leave a household after siring a child, and promiscuity is not as rampant among our people as it is here. Lastly, we are polygamists. A matron might have two or three males in her household, and each of them may have a female that they are bonded with. The more people a household has, the more family there is, the better it is able to generate income and prosper. Practicalities keep household sizes to an average of about four adults and three or so children, but very large households of twenty or more adults and ten or more children are not uncommon. These are the wealthiest of families with the largest estates. In all cases, each household has one matron. In my family, my matron was my mother. There were three males and two other females in the household. My house-sister that I mentioned was the product of one of the males and the female he was bonded to. I also had a half-sister who was the product of the carpenter and my matron. We had six adults and three children in my family, somewhat larger than normal but not exactly large.”

“It all sounds very complicated.”

“As a human of Earth, you would naturally think so. To me, it was very normal.”

The interview went on for hours, with Baird asking more and more questions as his comfort level increased. His initial fear and revulsion disappeared as his scientific intellect took over. He thought of being able to travel to this far off world and spend the rest of his life cataloguing the flora and fauna found there. His children were grown and had lives of their own, and his marriage had come to an end years ago. Beyond a few friends, he told himself, few would miss his departure. Oh, but the opportunity.

But it could not be. For one thing, there was no ship to take him there, and for another, he would never survive the journey. He didn’t even know how to estimate how far it was to his storyteller’s home world or how long the journey would take even if a ship were available. But he knew of Einstein’s limits and had read Sagan’s works. He wasn’t going, and he doubted that any other human would, either. At least not in his lifetime.

The long flight home was punctuated with short naps and strange dreams of far away worlds and blood-sucking scientists. He spent the weekend sleeping little, glued to his computer, collating notes and researching related material. Monday morning came too soon, carrying with it an early meeting with those who sent him on his mission of discovery.

“Welcome back, Mr. Baird. I expect your trip was… informative?”

Baird began to laugh, then cut it short before it became maniacal. Maybe the second cup of coffee was a bad idea. “I would say informative, surprising, frightening… I could go on, but I’ll spare you.”

“I assure you, you are not the first to have such a reaction. Please believe me when I say, your safety was assured the entire time.” Something about the way the man said this sparked visions of snipers on nearby hills with crosshairs trained on the man he interviewed. Baird banished the visions with a slight shake of his head. Fantasy.

“Per your request, sir, I’ve drafted a report.” Handing over a thick manila envelope, he gave a look of regret. “I apologize that it’s not more thorough. Time was limited, and there is much yet to know. Lab samples would be helpful, as well as…”

Measuring the heft of the envelope, the man said, “Mr. Baird, I’m certain your report is better than we expected. Thank you.” Baird nodded silently as the man continued. “I’m sorry to rudely interrupt you, but I’m sure there will be time for a complete debrief later. In the meantime, I would like to discuss a career change with you. How would you feel about a job that has… ah… shall we say, a significant travel component associated with it?”


Blogger Paul said...

Aside from some very minor grammatical issues and a few stylistic elements (word choice, sentence structure, etc.) that I would change, I thought the story was very entertaining. You did a good job of building interest by slowly doling out new pieces of information. I also enjoyed how you touched on certain elements only to weave them back in with greater meaning further along with story.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Steve Perry said...

I believe I already weighed in on this one ...

8:30 PM  

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