Otherworld, part one

In the year 3989 of the common era, mankind was greeted by that which had been the quarry of space exploration for the past two thousand years: a response to the question of whether man was alone in the universe. Officials from the International Space Program suggested they likely came from an earth-like world in the Betelgeuse system, their planet being slightly smaller, but a gravitational force almost as strong as that on earth. Because of this, these beings were larger than the average human by a small measure. An adult male sheoli (as they referred to themselves) stood roughly eight feet tall, and had an appearance not unlike that of an Earth man.

Anatomically, they were often quite lanky, with long, spidery limbs; long necks, knobby five-fingered hands, and facial features that on Earth might be considered Asiatic. They had smooth skin; a range of complexions, similar to the many ethnic groups of the human race though the differences in skin coloration among the sheoli was more dramatic than on Earth. Some had skin that was black like charcoal, and others had skin that shone like snow in moonlight. The sheoli adapted to the intense gravitational pull of their homeworld, and so were a rather well-muscled, powerful race.

When the ship broke through the clouds over Kigali, the world went absolutely silent. Space administrations across the globe had, of course, detected the large intergalactic vessel, though all attempts to make pre-terrestrial contact with it went unanswered. The first to notice the ellipsoid craft were engineers stationed at the Thulian Radial Transmission Apparatus, located thirty kilometers from the Moon’s largest permanently inhabited colony, Selene. The ISA (International Space Administration) control center in Nairobi had been notified immediately by the personnel who had detected the ship, though no immediate course of action had been agreed upon.

After reaching a position of approximately six kilometers above Kigali, the ship hung still and silent. Leaders from all over the world gathered beneath it, and there was assembled an official, international welcome committee, waiting to greet the interstellar travelers. After a period of thirty-six hours, a small pod-like craft detached itself from the large vessel suspended in the air, and made its way down to the ground where the welcoming team waited, and the world looked on. It landed, and a group of nine beings emerged from inside the pod, each of them between seven-and-a-half and eight-and-a-half feet tall. They were greeted by the welcome crew, and, although spoken language was almost immediately abandoned as a form of communicating with these beings, it was relieving for the people of Earth to find that the visitors’ written language was a form of pictographs that, not unlike the hieroglyphs of ancient Earth civilizations, was not difficult for the people of Earth to decipher.

Over the next several hours, leading language and ancient manuscript experts acted as translators between the sheoli and Earth’s leaders. The sheoli displayed thoughts, ideas, and explanations on tablets of a strange, metallic material which could change instantaneously at the stroke of one of their spindly fingers to display a new idea, once the original idea had been conveyed. They explained who they were, where they had come from, and why:

They called their homeworld by the name Sheol (the word “sheoli”  meaning “of Sheol”), the sixth planet in orbit around a large red star over three hundred light years from Earth. This star, known on Earth as Betelgeuse, was called “hwan” by the sheoli people, a word which meant both “light” and “heat”. The word could be translated literally into English as meaning “vital” or “essence of life”.

The sheoli explained that they had monitored Earth’s technological and social advancement for thousands of years, and had grown fond of it, wishing to present themselves as a sort of “big brother” civilization. They offered to share with the people of Earth some of the secrets of the universe. The sheoli had been an advanced, space-faring people for the past ten thousand years, and had thus learned things about the reality of space-time that were simply beyond the comprehension of the human mind. They proclaimed their alliance with all the peoples of Earth and promised to aid them in the forward-movement of Earth as an intergalactic civilization, and that all the human population had to do to win the favor of the sheoli was to provide them with a group of six hundred Earth natives to accompany the sheoli back to their homeworld in orbit around Betelgeuse. These people had to be ethnically diverse, equally men and women, twenty years of age exactly, and of sound physical and mental health.

The International Confederation of States agreed that this group of six hundred people would be determined through a draft. The six hundred would be chosen by sifting through the Comprehensive Database of the People of Earth, to find the healthiest, most-fit candidates to fulfill the request of the sheoli. Over the course of one month, these people were selected for their objectively “perfect” physical and mental form, and given a year to tie up loose ends before their permanent departure from Earth. At the end of the year, they left their lives behind, allowed by the sheoli to carry only what they could wear on their persons and one small bag of personal effects.

The sheoli took the six hundred into the pods they had used to reach the earth’s surface, and returned to the vessel which had brought them into the atmosphere which has floors, walls, and ceilings that are all completely transparent to allow those inside to see outside the ship in any direction. The men and women are herded into several rooms with strange, organic structures that resemble canopy beds, and instructed to lay on them. The rooms are filled with a fog, and the six hundred men and women fall asleep. When they awake, they are able to see that the ship has begun entry into the atmosphere of another world. The vessel makes contact on a landing pad inside what is called “jenederyam” by the sheoli, which translates roughly to English as “cosmodrome”. They are shepherded outside by a group of sheoli who guide them into the concourse, and they are brought what seems to be a large auditorium with an arched ceiling hundreds of feet tall. It seems there are no seats, so everyone stands until egg-shaped objects form in the floor and push themselves upward, becoming separate from the floor. The six hundred are instructed to be seated. 

A dark-skinned sheoli woman steps onto a platform made of similar material to the seats which appeared out of the floor, and it floats, carrying her upward toward the ceiling so she looks down over all of them. She speaks: 

“I assume you all speak or at least understand some Arabic. It is the most commonly spoken tongue in your world, is it not?” Not one of the six hundred spoke out, yet they did indeed understand the words that poured out from her mouth in a strange accent that could only come from a speaker anatomically different from the six hundred earth men and women. She goes on to explain to them why they are there: the sheoli need them to help prevent the desolation of their planet. The sun grows too hot, and the sheoli have begun the process of terraforming a planet in a neighboring solar system. They require the presence of the earth men and women to participate in experimental population of the newly habitable planet, to ensure its safety for the sheoli.

…………………………………………………………………

Prosper awoke on the morning of his departure with his head strangely empty. He had said his goodbyes. His parents had been tearful on the night prior, but they were also excited. In their eyes, Prosper would be an ambassador to a new world. A hero. His girlfriend Abri hadn’t shared the feelings of his parents. She’d been every bit as tearful (if not more), but she failed to see the good in it. She was angry with him for not trying to escape his obligation, to run away with her and grow old with her. He’d valued her opinion, and wondered why indeed he had not tried to get out of the draft. Plenty of people he knew made efforts to dodge it, with many of these attempts having proven successful. Most of these efforts consisted of the use of narcotics, but some went as far as self-harm, stripping themselves of the “physically healthy” title. He had been congratulated by most of his friends and colleagues, hearing the name “Ambassador Prosper” more times than he could count. In his own mind, there was nothing to convince him that this was the role the sheoli would expect of him. He had seen them on his news feed, watched them converse through a broken creole of their own language and Anglish, and been certain of their benignity. There wasn’t anything about the interactions he’d seen to give him reason to think of them as unfriendly, but he still wondered why they had made the request they had.

It made sense to him that the sheoli wanted someone from Earth to accompany them back to their homeworld for diplomatic reasons, but six hundred? Why did they need so many? It was possible, he thought, that they needed laborers. But then, they were so much bigger and stronger than anyone on Earth. It would be a tough sell to get them to believe a human was capable of any physical feat that would amount to anything on Sheol. Did they want them as pets, perhaps? That seemed unlikely as well. He couldn’t think that they would have traveled over three hundred light years for some exotic gifts to their children.

Prosper was at a loss for the reason of his departure, and this was what made him nervous. Sure, he was ecstatic to be given the opportunity to visit another world: this had been his fantasy since early childhood. What ten-year-old boy had not dreamed of boarding a space ship and journeying to a distant star, meeting strange beings and experiencing a place fundamentally different from the Earth he knew as the extent of reality?

It mattered less and less as his mind cleared itself of the lucidity of sleep-thought. He realized that he’d passed up the opportunity to evade emigration to this new world, and he now had mere hours left on this planet which had been the home to the human race for the past hundred millennia or so. He felt as though he was leaving part of his human identity behind, a thought which tightened his throat and made his eyes sting. He buried it as he packed his bag with a few books, a photo of himself, aged three years, his parents holding him upside down, each of them grasping an ankle. three-year-old Propser’s face was contorted in hysterical laughter. He remembered that day well. It had been a day of wonder at Kigali City Park. His parents had brought a picnic, and he had delighted in the flock of peafowl that had spent the duration of their meal pecking up bits of food he’d tossed to them.

Prosper felt his throat tense again, and he threw his packed bag into the closet and walked out the door. It wouldn’t do him any good to dewll on things he couldn’t get back. Soon, this life would be behind him, and any item he brought with him would simply remind him of the fact that everyone he’d ever known would go on without him after he’d gone. His Abri would soon start dating other men. She’d likely get married, have children, and by the time Prosper arrived on Sheol, she might have even forgotten his name.
He arrived at the Welcome Center that had been built directly beneath the sheoli space vessel, thirteen minutes early by his watch. He was greeted after passing through the front doors by a woman in a well-fitted suit. She looked sharp in her expensive-looking Fiona Martell glasses.

“Prosper Kagame”, she stated, rather than asked as he approached the front desk.

“Yes”, he said rather feebly. In his mind, he’d sounded more confident when he imagined the morning in his sleep.

“You’ll be joining your group before boarding. Mr. Hizu will escort you to them”, she said without looking up at him even once. Prosper turned around to see a large man in a suit and sunglasses walking up behind him.

“Good day, Mr. Kagame”, he said in the same sort of emotionless monotone that the woman at the desk had used. Were they trying to mask something? A feeling, perhaps? Were they sad to see him go, or did they know something he did not, about the intentions of the sheoli and their odd request for six hundred humans to take back to their planet? It was unsettling. “If you’ll follow me please, sir. We haven’t much time”, he repeated. Prosper hadn’t heard him the first time, being deeply buried in his thoughts again.

“I’m sorry. Yes, of course. Lead the way”, he said in that feeble voice he couldn’t seem to shake. Was everyone as nervous as he was? He suspected he’d find out soon. The large man named Mr. Hizu guided him outside into a wide, open courtyard type area that Prosper assumed was a landing area for shuttles going back and forth from the monolithic ship that had been hanging in the sky above Kigali for the past year. It had almost become a part of the city’s skyline, more massive than anyo of the buildings on the ground, yet somehow never bathing the city in darkness. The craft was made of some foreign material that was not opaque, but allowed sunlight to pass through seemingly unaffected. It did not cast a shadow on the ground beneath it, and that, Prosper thought, was the strangest thing about it.

The rest of the six hundred were already there for the most part, only a few others came after him. He saw that they were sectioned off into groups by ethnic background: Caucasians off to his left near the north side of the courtyard, a hundred Asians or so next to them. He was told by Hizu to join his group, so he found the cluster of black Africans and joined up with them. He tried to look through them for someone he knew, but at first glance it seemed they were all strangers. They had, he supposed, been selected seemingly at random from a population that was in excess of twelve billion, and realized the immense improbability of bumping into an acquaintance. He felt stupid for thinking otherwise, and wished he could stop feeling so alone. He turned to the man beside him.

“I thought I would be early, but it looks like I’m one of the stragglers”, said Prosper.

“I guess we were more anxious than you”, said the man, quickly throwing a sideways grin at Prosper, so as not to seem rude. “Thaddeus”, he added, and held his hand out to Prosper. Prosper took it in a firm clasp, and introduced himself. He felt a bit better.

“What do you think of all this? I mean… ” Prosper struggled to find the right words.

“I didn’t try to get out, if that’s what you mean”, finished Thaddeus. “Sure, I’m a bit apprehensive. I don’t think there’s anyone here who isn’t. But, there probably won’t come another opportunity like this in our lifetime. Perhaps ever”, he said, gesturing up at the sheoli spaceship. “We’re going to see a new world. Can you believe that? Really think about it. That’s something people were saying wasn’t possible. Now, all of a sudden…” he shrugged and tossed out another one of those care-free grins that Prosper thought Thaddeus used often: he didn’t seem overly concerned with their current situation, and Prosper didn’t think he had done nearly as much emotionally charged reflection before showing up here with his small bag (which Prosper would later find to be filled with snacks and a bottle of whiskey).

Thaddeus stopped talking abruptly and turned to face the sight of a man pushing a podium mounted onto a repulsor-lift, which caused it to hover a few inches from the ground. He positioned it, adjusted it slightly, then went away. Sasha Ardu, president of the Central African Federated States stepped up to the podium. She spoke, her voice amplified for all to hear.

“Let me first thank you for your cooperation. I can’t tell you how much effort went into assembling the lot of you to stand here before me today, but let me assure you of one thing: you are the most perfect representation of Earth’s human population we could find. Take pride in that,” she said as her eyes swept over them like a proud parent.

She continued: “Not long ago, it was common knowledge that humankind would never be able to travel to another galaxy. For thousands of years, we have known of over a hundred earth-like worlds that could likely support human life, but the hard fact of the matter is that these worlds lie outside of our reach. The journey across the stars to just one of these planets would take millions of years: a period of time that we cannot even fathom. We have done our best to study these worlds from afar, but there is only so much one can ascertain from a distance so great. As many of you know, research of these planets came to a grinding halt in recent years. We learned all we could by monitoring the movement of the stars, the positioning and orbit of their planets and satellites, but we had to come to the sad realization that we could not determine whether or not these planets hosted intelligent life or not, and, with no way of reaching out to them, there was little else to be done. Funding was cut by international administration. The study of space and planets has been stagnant for the better part of a century”, she paused, still looking over them with her scrutinizing eyes.

“A year ago, everything changed”, she went on “A year ago, we met the sheoli, and since then they have taught us many things about the nature of our universe. We now know things that we never could have known without their wisdom, and they have promised to guide us through the stars on our path to previously unattainable knowledge. This is an alliance that I think we can all agree benefits every inhabitant of Earth equally, one that will influence civilization for millennia to come, and one that now rests upon each of you”, Sasha Ardu paused again, this time with a strange look on her face. Prosper detected some burden concealed within her, and, slowly, she spoke again:

“I do not know why our guests wish you to accompany them back to Sheol. Their intentions were not made known to us, I must be clear about that. However, you must see it as your sole responsibility to do as you are instructed. Please them, so they may please us. Bestow upon them your compliance so they may bestow upon us their universal wisdom, which will in turn better the Earth, and move us toward a global civilization. A unified society. Utopia. Do this, and you shall be remembered as the ones who moved Earth into the Galactic Age. You will be remembered as the greatest heroes this planet has ever known. Thank you, and farewell”, she finished, and stepped down from the podium. Prosper thought he was tears streaming down her face as she turned away, returning to the inside of the Welcome Center with an entourage of bodyguards and journalists in tow. The man who had led Prosper to where he now stood, Mr. Hizu, now stood behind the podium.

“You will now be handed over to the sheoli. A team of them will be here shortly to escort you up to their ship, which will transport you to their homeworld. Thank you once again, for your cooperation. I, along with the entirety of humankind, wish you a fair voyage. Godspeed.” He stepped away, and each of the six hundred people in the courtyard burst into fevered discussion; Prosper couldn’t determine whether it was excited or nervous. He felt both.

A formation of six pods left the ship far above, and after an approach that lasted several minutes, landed on the ground inside the courtyard, each in a spot designated with sheoli pictographs that guided the pilots to set the craft down. Doors appeared in the hulls of the pods, and three sheoli emerged from each one. They conversed with each other in their language which many Earth scholars had studied; none of whom had been able to become fluent. They were apparently taking attendance, checking their strange metal tablets to verify that each human present matched the profile of the person selected to travel to Sheol. After a brief period, it seemed that all was in order, and they began to usher their human wards onto the pods.

Prosper’s nerves replaced themselves with a cold, numb feeling as one of the sheoli pointed at him and waved him up to the entrance to the pod. As he walked up to the tall, powerful being from another world, he lost feeling in his legs, and he began to feel as though he were floating. His foot glanced off a rock; he felt himself crumple to the dust-covered ground in a heap of human jelly. He was a pile of limp flesh. He couldn’t get up. He felt cold, and, as the sheoli strode over to him he grew fearful.

The alien stood over him, looked down at him with its strange, almond-shaped eyes, and shouted something out to the others. The other two from his pod came over to discuss something, and, for one wild moment, Prosper thought he might be told to go home. This ray of hope, initially a mere thread of light, faded quickly as he was lifted to his feet as two sheoli grasped his arms tightly beneath his armpits. Fleetingly, the memory of his parents laughing and picking him up by his ankles flashed in his mind, gone again as he looked, up-close for the first time, at the face of the sheoli.

Vaguely human, different enough to shock him into further discomfort, the one who had waved him over had unnaturally smooth, white skin. He was tall. Taller than any man Prosper had seen before, and deep, gleaming black eyes that looked like portals to other worlds themselves. He looked down at Prosper with an expression that was unreadable, then, said to the others:

“Mehejjdet”. The sheoli behind Prosper to his left responded:

“Hessanguihm… ehnaadan eyhrro”. They spoke slowly, almost slurring their speech to the point of giving an outsider the impression of laziness. Their language seemed efficient, though, as one never heard a sheoli utter more than one or two words to another before waiting for a reply. They were obviously capable of conveying even complex ideas to one another with a simple word or two. Prosper imagined that it must be similar to the way they wrote: a kind of verbal image that acted as a kind of metaphor to convey an idea. It could be, he thought in a moment of clarity, that they have become such skilled interpreters of metaphors that the process of elimination was a simple part of their system of communication. One would deliver a short phrase; a haiku of sorts to another. The listener would internally process the metaphoric phrase, and, taking all aspects of the current scenario into consideration, decipher the meaning of the phrase. Over perhaps tens of thousands of years of this sort of spoken poetry, they would have become so gifted with insight that they would seem telepathic in the eyes of a human.

The first speaker gave something that looked like a nod of approval, and waved them into the pod. The two sheoli supported Prosper into the pod, then set him down in a kind of seat. It was extremely comfortable, and Prosper tried hard to clear his mind of the desperate, rapid stream of thought that burdened him presently.

The next events washed over him like a dream remembered: Thaddeus slid in a pseudo-casual manner into the strange cloud of a seat next to him, and, as smoothly as Prosper could have imagined, the pod lifted off into the air and began its gradual ascent to the wondrously large ship in the sky above. Prosper had not remembered being able to see into the pod from the outside, but from its interior he could see everything around it: the ground below, tens of thousands of spectators gathered outside the Welcome Center. He could see the skyline of Kigali surrounding the courtyard he’d just left, his home and the home of his family for hundreds of years. As the pod gained altitude, he could begin to see the outlying towns, the Rwandan countryside, and the serpentine shape of Lake Muhazi. He remembered the fishing trips with his father, filled with carefree laughter, all those years ago in another life. He felt hot tears well up in his eyes; they stung and he gave an uncontrollable shudder. He buried his face in his hands; let out a deep, desperate sob. He felt a hand grasp him tightly on the shoulder. When he looked up, he met the gaze of Thaddeus, who gave him a tight, but warm, bracing smile.

“We’re gonna be okay, mate”.

The passengers aboard the pod gave a synchronized lurch forward as the pod made contact with the surrealistically large ship that would take them to Sheol. The door through which they’d left behind the surface of their homeworld reappeared, this time into a spacious chamber, brightly lit, seemingly by its own sun. The sheoli who had shepherded them into the pod now got up from their seats to guide them all into the ship. Prosper got up at the behest of one of them, and he followed the line of passengers out into the vast open chamber of the ship’s interior. He then realized that the chamber was not lit by its own sun, but by the Earth’s sun. As the pod had been, the hull of the sheoli ship was completely transparent: the walls were completely visible and tangible, but did not inhibit one’s ability to see outside. He could see the gray of the streets and the mirrored shine of the glass skyscrapers from Kigali, so far beneath him now that he could hold his hand a foot in front of his face and block out the city’s sprawl in its entirely. He looked up into the deep blue of the Earth’s atmosphere, looking into the bright, fierce light of Sol for what he knew would be the last time.

Prosper returned his gaze to the Earth below, then looked up at the horizon: he could see Lake Victoria, a hundred miles from Kigali. He was overwhelmed by what he could see, and vertigo washed over him. He collapsed once more, this time onto the transparent floor of the sheoli spacecraft, and he fell into a foggy, troubled sleep.

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