[short story, by Sha’Tara]
Sharmat Madi was tiny, just under two-third the size of the average Belagan female. In her very young times she had often been troubled by her diminutive size, but her greater family never seemed to pay any attention to her size, including her in all events as if she were normal. In her young life there came the usual: Application times, Teaching times and finally, the Choosing. Counting in earth years, Sharmat Madi was a precocious young girl of barely eighty years at her First Choosing ceremony. She had graduated a full half-times ahead of her peers but in her society that would never be cause for either pride or jealousy. You achieved what you could, when you could, all from a sincere commitment to life. Life is sacred to every Belagan, as it is to every Human in the galaxy.
The Choosing simply means that, based on your skills and your desires, you choose a first life’s purpose for yourself. If the Consensus approves your choice, and it rarely intervenes, that is who you are for the next approximately two hundred years (earth time) after which comes the Assessment, and the Second Choosing. At the Second Choosing, a Belagan (inhabitant of Belaga) would not only choose a new purpose, but have the opportunity to choose a different gender as well. But I’ve said enough, indeed, more than necessary on this subject for the purpose of this anecdote.
When Sharmat, smiling in her sparkling floor-length rainbow coloured gown, her waist-length black hair neatly braided and coiled on her head, stepped up to the podium to make her Choosing, an Intervener stepped up to her and held its hand up – a sign that stopped the proceedings. Sharmat stopped, confused and just a bit afraid. The Intervener, an android of ancient tenure, spoke gently to her and said, “Be not afraid young Sharmat. Though it is your inalienable right to make a Choosing this day, the Consensus has discussed your case and wants to offer you a particular choice no one else on Belaga can make at this time. It offers you training as an Infiltrator, to eventually be sent to alien proto-human worlds to study their ways and report back. Your size, which is no surprise to the Consensus since you were genetically modified in your mother’s womb to be as you now are, makes you perfect for the needs of the scientific arm of the Consensus in learning the ways of smaller stature humanoids.
They want you to become a Scientist to be trained in Belaga’s most esoteric arts. I have here a contract which you may touch for clarification, and mind-sign if you choose to accept. Your first act of acceptance will require your allegiance for a period of two and a half times, after which, as the contract states should you decide not to continue, you will be processed, mind-wiped of memories of your training; your body rendered of normal size. You will then be regressed to this point, when you will make a free First Choosing. This is our offer. It can only be made once, and you must accept or reject in the moment.
Sharmat didn’t think of herself as bold, but she was highly inquisitive and loved riddles, considering tough questions and tackling complex, unsolved problems. She immediately saw the great opportunities this training would give her mind. She touched the contract and focusing, signed without any reservation. Then heaving a huge sigh she turned to her gathered greater family, raised her right arm as a sign of acceptance and completion and smiled. The telepathic approval, especially from her younger siblings, was loud, rousing. She felt nothing but pure elation at having her stature thus vindicated and thanked her people for having treated her as normal all those past times.
Sharmat went through a brutal time of training. To drive home the full idea of what would be expected of her, they gave her a world to study and to mimic its residents. Predictably as you’ve guessed, it was earth. There are few people on that particular world who even think of the possibility that among them reside alien “infiltrators” who in all appearance resemble normal Earthians. It is not too difficult for alien observers, teachers, data-gatherers to infiltrate societies such as those of earth. First, a general lack of observational abilities, then much diversity of race, beliefs, political awareness and education and a Babel of languages. Much interaction is utterly chaotic and add to the mix the fact that Earthians have yet to open up their sense of telepathy which fully developed humans naturally possess and normally use to communicate with one-another. Also, Earthians lack empathy so they have no discernment: they judge shallowly based on appearances or falsifiable data; are easily swayed by propaganda and react emotionally to almost any sort of pressure or challenge.
It wasn’t as if Sharmat would be entering a truly dangerous world, not at least in the sense of being discovered as an alien. No, her problems lay in the fact that her skin was dark and she was a woman. In other words, her danger lay in the fact that she appeared totally normal. These were very real problems but that is exactly why she had been chosen. Her Trainers had the contract to develop processes to change certain programmed responses among primitives. Earth as they well knew, had two major unresolved social problems which tens of thousands of earth years and guided evolutionary civilizing had not made a dent in: racism and misogyny. Basically, Sharmat was sent to earth as a kind of guinea pig; to gather specific data that her body would record based on how she was treated, both as a dark-pigmented individual, and as a woman.
It did not take long for the data to flood her neurons. With the credentials she had brought, she applied for a teaching post in a predominantly conservatively-leaning Muslim country. While the national government was technically a liberal democracy, much of the real power resided in local governments, mosques, bureaucracies and traditions.
Sharmat’s people had done their work impeccably. Her credentials, from family background, place of birth and nationality as well as religious affiliation and education were solid. Her qualifications led her to apply at a small college in a city of two hundred thousand people. While the position was offered to all qualified applicants, she was denied on various, and constantly changing, points which she legally contested. Eventually, after legal battles lasting two years and which led all the way to the Supreme Court of the country, she won her position and became a tenured professor of history.
She had the job, but her problems were far from over. In fact, they were only beginning. Wherever she went seeking accommodation, she was refused as soon as she gave her name and nature of employment. Her public court battles and worse, her vindication, had demonstrated the level of bigotry extant among the ruling elites of the town, and the country in general. Fortunately for Sharmat, her position paid well and she was able to secure accommodations throughout various tourist hotels, moving around from one to another as it was discovered who she was and unceremoniously evicted from one hotel after another.
Finally Sharmat’s lawyer came to her help. She found her a suitable room in a home whose owners believed in the cause of women’s emancipation from old traditions and who had supported her legal struggles. The couple who owned the house were both professional journalists and had no children, by choice, since their work meant spending much time travelling away from home. Sharmat was given keys to the house and her rent consisted of making certain all was well in the house when the owners were gone. An ideal arrangement which gave Sharmat a permanent abode. When she commuted to her campus she wore the traditional garb of local working women, only changing when she got on campus. She’d hoped that she would avoid detection if she was still being followed as she had been during her court appearances when she had been subjected to much verbal abuse, harassment and even death threats. On occasions she had even been refused transportation and been forcibly thrown off public buses.
During these events as you may have guessed Sharmat was in constant telepathic communication with a pair of observers and recorders aboard a cloaked shuttle craft that orbited above the city. Her experiences were duly noted and sent on to her home world. “I feel so alone at times,” she would say to her friends, “I feel like quitting. It’s a terrible experience to live like this, yet millions of women of dark pigmentation must endure this day after day, and have for thousands of years. I don’t know how they can put up with it in such a hopeless situation. It feels as if nothing, absolutely nothing, can change the mindset here; as if they enjoy causing trouble and pain to each other for no reason that I can fathom. When I bring up this subject in my classes, I can feel the fear and the hate rising, as if even mentioning this exists goes against their programming.
“Main problem: they don’t want to know, and they don’t want to change [emphasize].
“In one of my classes, there are two women, two sisters, who are eager to engage the topic of oppression of women in their society. One of the women only has one eye. The other carries a white scar across her scalp. Both sisters were attacked by a village mob when it was found out they had been approved for college education in the city and refused arranged marriages. They would have been killed after being beaten if their father and three brothers hadn’t come to their rescue. To illustrate further, when the police finally came to the scene of the trouble, they sent everybody home and took the sisters into custody for disturbing the peace. They had to secure legal aid to avoid a six month prison sentence.”
“This is a terrible place,” she said some weeks later, “I feel I’m in serious physical danger. I’ve been followed to the house on two occasions now, although I try to take different routes as often as possible. I’ve thought about getting one of their small vehicles to move about but that feels even more exposed. If I were attacked on a road I’d be alone and there would be no one to help me, and no witnesses as to what happened. My lawyer suggested I arm myself but I hesitate on that. I was trained in self-defense but my empathy would constrain my ability to use either a gun, or a knife. I can only be sure I can use violence if I use my body, not weapons. I am a professor, what am I doing, thinking of killing people? What is this world doing to me? I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. Please advise: can I end this and return home?”
“We need more information. We advise you take all necessary precautions, within reason and control your fears. We need you to remain at your post for at least the end of your earth year of teaching. Here is the address of a Teacher who will give you additional training in self-defense. Please contact her today at your earliest convenience. Her fees are covered.”
“Well, that’s that,” she thought, “as if more skills in self-defense are going to be of any help in a mob attack.” Sometimes she wondered about the wisdom of the Consensus. Maybe they’re getting too old; maybe we need a whole new system to oversee Belaga. Fascinating thought, that. I’ll challenge the Consensus on this after I’ve returned.
A bomb went off in a market not far from campus. Everybody heard the noise; tremors from the blast were felt on campus and everyone pretended nothing happened. Sirens were heard, then nothing. Sharmat went to investigate the area at the end of her last class. She saw dark red blotches on the street. Several makeshift shelters that had housed vending tables had been shredded and blown against buildings. Hundreds of people were slowly moving about. She heard heart-rending shrieks and deep sobs. Bodies were still being carried off and the main point of impact was encircled by yellow police tape. Through a break in the crowd of onlookers she saw a gaping hole in a building, a gaping black hole. She felt raw fear, just looking into that hole.
“My studies of earth religions told me that both current major religions, Islam and Christianity, were, in principle, religions of peace. I also learned that Islam in particular holds women in high estate. But principle doesn’t carry much weight here. In practical terms, both religions are radically fundamentalist; both claim exclusive access to divine forgiveness and grace. Anything else is worship of evil, of a Devil. To a Muslim, a non-Muslim is a blasphemer. To a Christian, a non-Christian is an unsaved pagan whose destiny is eternal damnation in hell. Such beliefs can only lead to madness and repetitive cycles of violence against individuals. Since the divinities purportedly reigning over these religions are males, it stands to “reason” that males must maintain hegemony within these power groupings, hence they must constantly reinforce male dominance through oppression of the female; through the practice of misogyny, officially or non-officially. When you inject these sicknesses into the political and economic fields it is easy to see how women are automatically marginalized.”
That afternoon Sharmat took a taxi to a park only a short distance from her house. She felt heavy and tired and did not want the driver to know where she lived. She entered a public park and followed a pathway along the bank of a small stream. The air was cleaner here; birds sang and water fowl swam lazily in the stream, bobbing for food along its bottom. Trees with translucent yellow leaves bowed over the stream, adding a sense of peace to it. White water lilies bloomed in a small pool. She found a bench to sit on and began to dream of home. Gradually she let the warm air, nature sounds and the distant hum of traffic lull her to sleep.
Voices woke her up and she noticed the sun was dipping behind the trees. She stood up, brushed her sari and picking up her bag (she dared not carry a case in public) she headed up the slope to the lane that passed her house. The voices, male, followed her but she paid scant attention. She wanted to get home, have a bath and just sleep. There would be no long period of study this night; just a glass of wine, some bread and cheese and sleep. She would sleep and dream. She always dreamed.
The house with its white paint stood shimmering against the late afternoon sun hitting directly on it. Brown fake shutters outlined each window. It was a pretty house, by earth standards, certainly by that town’s standards. Its neighbours were far enough away to give the house the impression of self-importance; of standing alone in wide open spaces. It was a good house and Sharmat liked living there. She unlocked the door, walked in then turned and locked it again. Home, she thought, even if on an alien world with so much visceral, irrational energy.
She was half-way up the stairs to her own room when she heard the first crash, then smelled smoke. “It’s happening! I’m under attack. Please advise!” Her query was received by the shuttle even as she turned to survey the situation. Several more crashes occurred and the downstairs was quickly filling up with eye-stinging and choking black smoke. Flames were climbing up drapes or wherever the Molotov cocktails landed against anything flammable. Unable to reach any ground floor exits, Sharmat dropped her bag and ran up the stairs to the very top of the house. She found the roof exit and climbed up and through the “clothes line” door and unto the roof. Smoke was coming out the windows now and she saw at least a dozen men moving around the house, looking in windows, lobbing more home-made incendiary bombs.
A couple of men saw her on the roof and yelled curses at her. “We’ve got you now, whore. We’ll burn you! If you jump, we’ll kill you right here.” She was shocked to see that among the men were a couple of her students and at least three of the men wore local police uniforms.
“Please advise: what should I do?” Her query was meant to elicit immediate answers. “We’re coming down now, so please remain open to us. We need exact rendez-vous point. ETA, nine earth minutes. Can you hold that long?” “I think so, yes, but the fire is climbing up and I can already feel the heat rising. There is no protection here and if I jump you won’t be able to rescue me. I recommend maximum haste, please!”
It seemed an eternity to Sharmat, watching the smoke and listening to the crackling of the fire eating the inside of the house. How long would the structure hold the roof before it caved into the inferno? Was the house held by masonry or wood? Then she thought of her research, all neatly coded in memory cells in her room. “I have to retrieve my research – if I’m not on the roof when you arrive, I’ll be inside if I can get in.” She ran back down the first short flight of stairs and encountered an unbearable wall of heat. Too late, she knew she’d never get out again if she went lower. She ran back up and closed to roof access door to slow the flames down.
Just as she thought it would be all over, she felt the familiar tremor of a small ship spinning down and the air shimmered. A figure appeared, extended an arm and she followed. The ship silently lifted away into space. In her mind, Sharmat looked back at the scene, watched as the house collapsed and the flames rushed freely into the sky. Only then did the fire trucks show up. She knew then for a fact that intent to burn her and destroy the house was not the work of a mob, but orchestrated with full authority and cooperation of college, police and local council. She knew also that the bomb in the market that afternoon was a false flag event meant to draw attention away from her own destruction. “Earth,” she thought, “what a sad, stupid, hopeless place.”
When Sharmat came before the Consensus, she was enjoined to give her overall personal impression of earth. She said, unhesitatingly, “You have my official comments and records from the shuttle computer. But I must say this of myself, based on my own feelings. Earth is a lost cause; a waste of talent and energy for us to be involved with. Rescind the contract, it’s a no-win situation. Turn the problem over to Galactic Defense Consensus and quarantine the world. Do not, ever, allow any of them to get out of their solar system. Not ever. There is a resident evil on that world that we of Belaga, and all other human worlds who share our consciousness, can never even begin to understand. All beings on the planet, to some greater or lesser extent, are infected with that evil presence.
It’s not something you can overcome with empathy; with simple compassion or “goodness.” Earth’s evil is a living thing, a mind imbued with death; as it were, an ancient creature of ultimate darkness that chose that world to reside within. The very heart of the planet is evil personified. I have touched it and it almost pulled me in. I do not ever want to feel any horror like that again.”