The Sheathed Paw of the Lion

A short story for your mediation on this Good Friday.


I realize another century is supposed to pass before you wake from cold sleep, but, since it is my turn to be alive, I thought I should quickly summarized the events of the late Twenty Fifth Century for you, and for Rogers, Graham, Davis,  Taylor, and Arthur.

I should mention that, while we were coldsleeping, psychology has apparently become an exact science, and the method of rendering human nervous systems to match their environment, both physical and political, has been precisely defined. As it turns out, the human nervous system reacts most clearly and strongly to pain signals, especially when combined with psychological disturbances such as shame and humiliation, and so the Harmonic Scientists and doctors of infliction take special care, when applying negative rewards, to use method that to us might look awkward or even cruel. But it is all based on a very carefully determined theory. It is called the Harmonic Science, since it allows all elements of society to operate together in peace and joy, especially those born to be burdened with concern for the public weal, and other positions of great responsibility.

Rogers had the watch before me. You remember those events. The National Aerospace Administration had long since lost the capacity to launch rockets into space, for obvious reasons, but the Forbidden City allowed us to retain receiving dishes, radiotelescopes, and the like, since these did not disturb the harmony of the World Kingdom.

Perhaps the Forbidden City regretted that decision when certain Search-for-Extraterrestrial-Intelligence signals were answered with a simple code spelling out the digits of pi in base two, of the square root of two in base forty, and then a simple grid drawing a recognizable diagram of the Pythagorean theorem.

At first the signals were thought to originate in Epsilon Carinae, one of the four stars making up the asterism called the False Cross, so named because of its reputation for being mistaken for the Southern Cross and leading to navigation errors.

At the command of the Son of Heaven, Peking turned the mile-wide orbital array known as the Thousand-Eyed Bodhisattva toward the signal source.

This was against the cautious advice of the Harmonic Scientists. As they predicted the lack of observation produced a disharmony. There were riots among the ruins of the major cities in North America — it was a holiday from the omniscience of the Akashic Internal Intelligence Service, so what else did one expect? — but the array caught clear pictures of what the press immediately dubbed the Big Dumb Object.

The rioters, and anyone unlucky enough to be netted in municipal purification sweeps, we executed by sawing. One of our still-loyal descendants in the waking world died that way. The Harmonic doctors hung her by the feet and sawed through her body from the crotch down. This method allowed the blood to drain into her brain during most of the slow process, to keep her alive longer.  I never learned her name.  She looked like a fourteen year old, but it is hard to tell, since the people are shorter these days, due to malnutrition.

The Object was in a hyperbolic path, more distant than the orbit of the planet Eris.

If you are surprised I called Eris a planet, I should mention something Rogers left out of his centennial digest: the Son of Heaven objected to having only eight planets in the solar system when previous generations enjoyed more. It was thought to be an affront to his dignity, and therefore a potential cause of disharmony. The Forbidden City therefore commanded the College of Panphysical Sciences to discover more. I think only our own Dr Uriens objected: luckily, the amount of disharmony created by his words was within the venal range, and so the Harmonists merely had him pitchcapped.

Pitchcapping is not pretty. Uriens had his hair and ears cropped off with a razor, and a cap filled with hot pitch bound onto his head. The doctors had removed his hands at the wrist but left he feet, so he could run around energetically during, smashing his head into onlooker to try to get the cap off and end the agony. Then a rope was attached, and the other end flung to the cheering crowd, who pulled the cap off, taking lumps of flesh and skin with it, leaving Dr Uriens alive but disfigured for life. This was run on something called the World Amusement Network, which is wired into cloth and cups and windows and basically any transparent substance.

Uriens enthusiastically supported the new definition of what constituted a “planet”—not only were Pluto and Eris granted this status, but the Son of Heaven was pleased to learn that his solar system now officially contained forty-nine planets, including Ceres, Makemake, Haumea and three dozen other Kiuper belt objects. Harmony was restored.

The Big Dumb Object was a cube 1363 miles on a side. For size comparison, draw a line from the tip of Florida to the Great Lakes, and then west to Montana and south to Mexico City. That is the footprint the thing would cover if is landed, assuming it did not crack the continental plate in half.

It was covered with some sort of ablative foil that gave it a gold hue. The press immediately dubbed it ‘The Borg Cube’ from one of the few television shows from North America’s “pre-re-unification” days that the Net was allowed to carry. (Pre-Re-Unification is an idea from Twenty-Fifth Century history, which says that the Han are the ancestral people of the American Indians, not to mention Caucasians and Negroes, and that all conquests are therefore merely undoing the unfortunate side effects of prehistoric civil wars that divided mankind.)

I coldslept again, and woke up a decade and a half later. This is in AD 2493. The Cube was in orbit, between the Earth and Moon, and could be seen every night , rising in the east. Depending on the time of month, one or two faces was turned to the sun. When the Cube was “full” that is, in opposition, the gold light was considerably brighter than the morning star, and cast a strange yellow-red twilight across the landscape, almost bright enough to read by.  When it was in conjunction, of course, it was dark. With binoculars you could make out the ports appearing on four of the six faces: tiny round dots representing valves or airlocks large enough to swallow the Great Salt Lake.

Ten years was not long enough for the College of Panphysical Sciences to learn their language, but it was apparently enough for them to learn several of ours, maybe all of them.

The message itself was a trifle disturbing.  “We are here in response to your distress signal. May we begin?”

The message was repeating in a number of ways and languages over a number of months. NASA, with help from the Han military, constructed a transmitter powerful enough to reply. At that point, the astronomical scientists were sent to mountain retreats to aid in their meditative practice, and Harmonic Scientists took over.

The answer was cautious, diplomatic, inquisitive.  It was several messages, over several weeks, and the process was considerably slowed by the need to have each term mathematically defined. What was the distress signal of which they spoke? What did they wish to begin?

“You name our star Zeta Geminorum or al-Mekbuda , the Sheathed Paw of the Lion. An immense psychological disturbance or interruption, propagating at the speed of light, encountered our home system 1291 earth-years ago. We came as quickly as possible, given the limitations of lightspeed travel, and given the delay of 120 additional years caused by the opposition of one of your principalities. At considerable expense, we have brought the appropriate means and mechanisms to render aid. We encompass which should suffice to remove the wounded and unconscious, even when dispersed. Are you willing to request help? May we begin?”

The scientists asked cautiously what form this help would take.

“The form of the help includes interconnectivity with primary consciousness, and related physical needs, such as medical aid, fermented beverage, comestibles made from grain; water to wash, oil to anoint. All diseases can be cured and all wounded made whole. We have studied your physiognomy, and, except for the defects, can reproduce it precisely. Our order of behavior does not permit us to act upon you without your affirmation and consent, since otherwise the curative properties are null. Do you understand the extreme danger present?”

The scientists asked for the danger to be defined.

“You are conscious without being self-conscious, and hence are divided. Divided consciousness errs, ceases to cohere. You are not like other organisms on your world, who possess consciousness but not self-consciousness.  Neither are you self-conscious.  You neither know what self is, nor what is to be done with it. You begin by saying the thing which is not, and end by doing the act which is not, and making other to be not.”

The scientists asked again for clarification.

“The speech which is not is lying, defrauding, betraying, gossip, backbiting; acts which are not are sloth, inaction, indifference to the suffering of others, distraction, incoherence, diversion, self-amusement, abuse of intoxicants, abuse of the organs of reproduction, drunkenness, gluttony, sadism; pursuit of nonbeing is manslaughter, infanticide, fratricide, viricide, uxoricide, matricide, parricide, heriocide, regicide, mass-murder, mega-mass-murder, genocide, democide, deicide. This last act is sufficient to create the disturbance detected.”

The scientists wanted more information on this psychological disturbance. In the Third Decade of the Common Era, Terra possessed no ability to generate artificial power, or send an electromagnetic signal of any kind, much less one that would cross interstellar distances.  What interruption was meant?

“Luminous interruption. The disturbance issued from your planet but had severe additional properties or side effects, as all objects within the entanglement were influenced.  The disturbance was in your primary, which you call Sol, the Sun.  It would have been noticeable from the surface of your world to any who had eyes operating in your visual range. Any with eyes to see, could see.”

Considerable study was done by the scientists to decipher this message, and many hypothesize put forward, none of which were found convincing. After some struggle over the budget with the military, the Harmonic Scientists were able to send out another group of messages, asking for details, such as the exact the time when this took place.

“Let us define the moment when a ray of light from the primary is tangential t the surface of the earth at a given point the first hour.  At the sixth hour, the ray is normal or vertical to the surface. Your term for this is noontide, or noon. Your sun went dark from the sixth hour until the ninth hour. If you have no record of the event, then your condition is more deleterious than our most pessimistic estimates.”

The final question concerned the hundred years of delay mentioned in the first message. What opposition had the expedition encountered?

“The immense energy expended for launches of our magnitude cannot be hid, nor are we the only celestial intelligences to inhabit the constellations. The prince of the kingdom of the Four Persia Stars, named Regulus,  Antares, Aldebaran, and Fomalhaut, withstood us one and twenty years: but, lo, Michael, whose throne is in Alpha Canis Majoris named Sirius, who is one of the chief princes,  came to help us.”

This time, the Son of Heaven from the Forbidden City itself, with all his entourage, journeyed to the sending station, and typed in the message with his own hands with their long and delicate fingernails.

The message was in a special dialect only the Imperial Family is allowed to use: We now know from whom you have been sent. Please land with your highest ranking officer, with whatever he needs to save us from our condition, and he will be greeted in the fashion appropriate to maintain harmony on this, my world.

The Visitant from Zeta Geminorum made planetfall in a fashion so unexpected, I will not record it, since you will not believe me. Suffice it to say that he was found on the planet’s surface, living in a slum. He was not merely remarkably like a human being, but was identical in every way.

In his first public demonstration of the techniques of his civilization, he gathered the ashes and stray molecules of someone who had been cremated and buried at sea, reconstructed her atom by atom, and revived her. Her name was Tabitha. The reconstructed body showed signs of having no genetic flaws, neither prone to aging nor disease. She could, however, be killed by napalm, as we soon learned. She was quite lucky.

Scaphism is a method of execution where the victim is stripped naked and tied between two boats with his head, hands, and feet protruding. Honey and milk is forced down his throat with a funnel, inducing diarrhea, and his extremities are smeared with honey. The boats are set to float on a stagnant pond, thick with insect swarms. His feces accumulate within the container, attracting more insects, which sting, eat and breed within his exposed flesh. The victim is fed more milk and honey so that the septic shock, dehydration or starvation which eventually kill him do not happen too quickly.

The Visitant did not die without screaming. It was not a pretty sight.

I am writing you, Václav , because I think you can see what the logical result must be. I have taken steps to inter the Visitant’s body into one of our hidden caves, the ancestral cold sleep tomb the van Winkle family has held in trust for hundreds of years. The long wait of all those who sleep may be nearly at an end, but, strangely, no sign, no signal, has come from the immense golden city in the heavens. The golden city has yet in any visible way to act.

I confess at times to certain doubts. Maybe the city will never act. Maybe I should sleep, and let Arthur awake from his slumbers, and stand the long watch.

But at other times, the hope seems obvious.