Tristan Schaefer wasn’t sure if this was magic or just the drugs kicking in. Vixia’s single moon Tatis always seemed unusually large in the sky when it was full, especially compared to Earth’s, but now it was impossibly reflective, as if the forest were perfectly mirrored and inverted on its surface.
“Izola!” Where was she? His wife had been with him just a second ago, but she had vanished and so had their campsite.
The Ambia Country spiritual excursion was supposed to be the highlight of their tour of the colony planet. Only one person out of two who entered the park were allowed to inhale the Mist to seek out the Way, the conduit to the spirit realm. Izola was supposed to keep him rooted in the physical plane so he wouldn’t lose himself in the vision. She promised she would be with him every second, but it couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes since he first inhaled the psychedelic they’d purchased with their tickets at the park entrance . Where could she have gone?
He’d been staring at a flight of birds crossing the gray and black moon and hadn’t noticed the man approach. He was an Indigenous. No one knew what they called themselves, and the colonists had to call them something.
“Merhaba. I am Tristan.”
“Yes, I’ve been expecting you.” He was old, even for an Indigenous, about a meter and a half in height, which was tall for them, silver-gray skin the color of the sky, and absolutely no body hair.
“Are you real?”
“I’m as real as the forest, the moon, and the birds.”
“I can’t tell if they’re real either.” He chuckled, but laughter was something the Indigenous didn’t understand.
“That is why you’re here, Tristan. That is why you have sought me out.”
“I don’t even know who you are.” They kept their individual names hidden, just like the name of their people.
“Call me Tristan.”
“But that’s my name.”
“Are you sure? You said you couldn’t tell what is real and what isn’t.”
“I’m sure of who I am, Indig.” He hadn’t meant to call him by a racial slur but it was so hard to think.
“Why did you come to the world, Tristan?”
“You mean Ambia Country or Vixia.”
“Vixia is your name for the world, not ours.”
“To start a new life. My wife and I have been planning this since before we got married.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Depends on your point of view. It’s been five years subjective, but we were in Status for most of the trip traveling at relativistic speeds, so I guess it’s more like two-hundred.”
“For a man who’s having trouble thinking, you speak eloquently, Tristan.”
“Why does Tatis look so strange.”
“You think it’s a moon that circles the world, don’t you?”
“Not at all. It is the Great El, the Spirit beyond the world. It watches over us, takes care of us, shows us the truth of who we are and the truth of others.”
“You are moon worshipers? That wasn’t covered in catalog.”
“Your people understand only what they want to understand, Tristan.”
“Look, I paid a lot of money for this trip. When are we going to get started? It’s a long way through the forest.”
“It is true that you have a long way to go, but how far you travel and in what direction is up to you.”
“What kind of double talk is that?”
“Isn’t that what you expect from a drug-induced spiritual experience? Why are you really here on the world?”
“I told you, my wife and I have been planning this for a long time.”
“Why leave your own world?”
“Earth’s population is capped at two billion. It was once nine billion, but the biosphere couldn’t sustain that many people. Once interstellar travel was practical and human sustaining exoplanets were located, we started branching out.”
“Did you read that in a brochure? That’s why your people are here. Why are you here?”
“Besides the law? A chance to make a fresh start in a place where we can have a large family. Both Izola and I wanted lots of kids. Vixia’s an established world, so it’s got the technological infrastructure we’re used to, plus a relatively small human population.”
“You sound like an advertisement. Are you a colonist or a tourist?”
“I guess both. Why do you think I signed up for this excursion? It was a chance to experience Indigenous spirituality and culture.”
“This isn’t who we are, it’s what we show the tourists. It makes you feel better about moving in on the world without El’s permission.”
“You mean your moon god is angry at the colonists?”
“What do you think?”
Tristan (the one from Earth) looked back up at Tatis. He was gazing below the surface of a clear mountain lake and he could see forever. “It’s so beautiful.”
“So was your world once.”
“What are you talking about? With only two billion people and a biosustainable economy, Earth is a paradise.”
“It took a long time for that to change from what it was, isn’t that right, Tristan?”
“Yes. What are you getting at? We haven’t come to exploit Vixia. The human population is capped here at two billion as well, and the biosphere can easily support both of our people.”
“Can the world support your disrespect?”
Tatia looked more like ice than water now, and Tristan started to shiver. Then the snow began.
“I thought this was summer.”
“Remember, you said you can’t tell what is real.”
“What is real?”
“You are, your presence on the world is real, you, over a billion of your kind with more arriving with every colony ship.”
He was on his knees shivering. “Can you build a fire or something? I’m freezing.”
“I thought you didn’t believe this was real.”
“Look, just show me the way back to the lodge. I don’t know why Izola left me alone out here, but that’s probably where she went to.”
“You can’t hide here forever, Tristan. Stop pretending.”
“What are you talking about? Pretending what?”
“Where is your wife really?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sadly, that is not real. You do know. You just don’t want to.”
Tristan Schaefer woke up in his bed in the seedy hotel room he’d rented last week and a wave of nausea seized his gut. “Oh hell.” He didn’t make it to the toilet in time and yellow bile churned up his throat and dripped out his lips onto the floor.
Then he remembered she was dead.
The mortality rate for Status technology was 0.24 percent, which is pretty good, but the statistic has to come from somewhere, which means every so often someone actually dies in transit. What was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime became Izola’s funeral shroud, and Vixia was Tristan’s dead-end destination.
After cleaning up the floor, he changed clothes and went outside. The Indig village was a study of misery. Earth desperately needed colony worlds to offload its burgeoning population, and healthy financial incentives were offered to any family group willing to relocate.
Unfortunately, although the sins of the past were well-known, that didn’t stop the human race from repeating them. The Indigs made good laborers and had no defense against the advanced weaponry the colony ships’ security forces brought with them.
“Have you had enough of this, Tristan?” He was standing on the porch outside the hotel looking at the dusty main street. The old man insisted on using his name, but he also supplied him with the Mist.
“For now, anyway.”
“You should honor her memory and not bury it with her.”
“She was cremated, actually.”
“Just like you burn your soul and your people burn ours.”
“I told you, I’m only one man. I don’t know how to change the Corporation’s policy or stop the exploitation.”
“It’s like drug addiction, Tristan. The first step is to admit you have a problem. The rest will follow.”
“Okay, I have a problem. Now what?”
“We have breakfast. You look like you could use something to eat. Then, I’ll introduce you around. If you’re going to help my people, you might as well get to know us first.”
When I saw the image, the first thing I thought of was a drug-induced hallucinatory experience and then a spiritual experience. I number of seemingly random elements popped up, such as colonizing other worlds and humanity encountering different sentient species. The rest followed.
We like to think that we’ve learned from the “sins of the past,” but given a fresh start at exploring a new world already supporting an intelligent, sentient species, would we treat them with respect, or exploit the heck out of them? I guess some of that might depend on the circumstances, but it also is dependent on our moral courage.
Oh, “merhaba” is how you say “hello” in Turkish. I picked it at random from a list. As far as the “moon god” is concerned, “El” is one of the names for the Jewish and Christian God. No, they don’t worship the moon. That’s just a metaphor.