The Ben Hur of SF: Eetoo, a shepherd from an obscure planet, was the one prophesied to seek the truth from the birthplace of humanity. He has help from fellow humans as well as non humans. Some species would rather see humanity extinct, and for good reason. The ancient Nephteshi Empire showed how evil humanity can be. The paradox keeps Eetoo searching for answers, taking him to first century Earth
Robby gives an overview of the book:
Nights are dark as there's no moon on Klodi-Famta -- the shepherd boy sits under a tree on the edge of a small grove surrounded by grass plains, a days journey from any human dwelling. His sheep, one by one, go off to sleep. His young eyes scan the sky. He muses...
This is the third time I've seen a light moving about in the sky.
The first time, Uncle Zhue Paw told me it was only a shooting star. I thought it went too slow for that, but I figured maybe he was right and it was my mind playing tricks on me. Then I saw it again a week ago -- definitely too slow.
Now I'm positive it wasn't. Shooting stars don't stop and go back the way they came. But they'd probably say I was lying. They already say that knowing how to read the ancient writing makes my head too cloudy.
Oh well, it's not bothering the sheep anyway. And they're probably right. Lights in the sky don't do anything to people anyway, especially this far from the village, so telling them would only make more trouble for me.
I might tell Venerable Too Dha, though. He's different from the others. He takes me seriously, probably because he can read, and knows it isn't bad for you. Uncle Zhue Paw would only scold me for being so dreamy from too much reading.
Anyway, I'd better get to sleep. It'll be a long walk back to the village tomorrow. The sheep have settled down anyway.
There's that light again, and now it's coming from that direction. Wouldn't it be something if that were a ship -- like what our fathers arrived on?
* * *
Heptosh scanned the surface once more, this time at an altitude from which he could make out individual features. The all-around viewer, aided by the infra-red sensor, showed him the nocturnal landscape. The grassland, the few clumps of forest here and there, looked dryer than Heptosh's home planet, but well suited to keeping sheep. His activity shouldn't raise any undue alarm from the inhabitants. They'd mistake him for a shooting star.
At least those on this side of the mountain divide wouldn't pay him any heed. They were mostly primitive tribesmen. Here and there, he could pick out shepherds minding their sheep, or a caravan camped out for the night. These were harmless, but it wouldn't be good to interrupt their peaceful existence by suddenly appearing to them out of the sky.
It was those on the other side that worried him. They were a more advanced civilisation -- or, at least they used to be.
If they were as they used to be, they'd present no problem. The Klodi and the Toki human populations had enjoyed many many happy interactions.
Then, they reported some sort of struggle. The Klodi had sent out a warning not to enter their solar system until they had got their problem sorted out. They also said something about seven transport shiploads of refugees. They didn't say exactly what the trouble was, but that the refugees would explain it. So the sector council issued a restriction, and waited. Then they went silent. No refugees ever appeared. That all happened twelve years ago, as humans still counted time.
Now, the restriction had expired -- still, the silence. Heptosh had come on a scouting mission.
So far, he determined, the Famtizhi half of the planet was safe. Civilisation carried on as it always had. Heptosh had spend the last several weeks making observations of life on the ground -- nothing to worry about here.
The worrisome bit was, what lay on the other side of the divide? He had detected no satellite surveillance, no reconnaissance ships -- the Klodi hadn't been in the habit of maintaining such a close watch, but who was in control now?
Whoever it was, at least hadn't begun to guard the airspace. Perhaps that was good.
But perhaps it meant bionics. Bionics would follow the habits of their human hosts, and therefore maintain the same level of surveillance.
At least there were no signs of bionics on this side of the divide. He would cross over and examine the ground on the Klodi side -- carefully.
A mountainous isthmus separated the Famtizhi land mass from the Klodi continent. Nestled in a valley in that isthmus, was the city of Klodi, where he would find the space port. The mountains were quite impassable, except for a tunnel through a mountain from the Famtizhi area into the city, which was only approachable from the rest of Klodiland via the subterranean portion of the city. The same mountain range lined the North coast of the Famtizhi land mass, surrounded the city, and then went along the South coast of Klodiland. Therefore, access by sea was also all but impossible.
Heptosh would fly at a low level across Famtizhi territory towards the mountain range and sort of creep over in stealth mode below the range of their scanners.
The line of cliffs topping the mountain range loomed ahead of him, running in a straight line as far as his eyes could see. A millennia of erosion had rendered them more natural looking, otherwise, the straightness of the formation was the hallmark of its human design. Everything on these artificial planets, the mountain ranges, the coastlines, even the caves under the ground, were done in straight lines.
His ship hovered in a cleft that had been eroded between to giant stones forming the mountain range, providing him a vantage point. From there, he looked.
* * *
A fence encloses the mouth of the deep canyon. Inside, there is grass, a few rocks, and a winding stream. The sound of a waterfall echoes from deep inside. The shepherd boy leads his sheep within, replaces the bar across the opening, and retires to the abandoned shelters and market stalls that stand without. Tired from the morning's walk, he sits and takes out the last of his bread.
They say Fa-tzi-zhi, used to trade here with the Klodi. It must have been exciting with so many people about selling things. I would have been two years old when they stopped coming, so I don't remember any of that.
The sheep will be safe here until I come back with more food. I won't be gone very long. I never am. Ever since Ni Gwah got sucked down the whirlpool, Venerable Too Dha is the only close friend I have.
I wonder if it was the lights last night that got me thinking? I had that dream again.
The same dream just seems to keep coming back. I'm with someone in a dark cave, holding a light. We find these golden plates that were buried in the wall. The first time I dreamed it was when Paw and Maw were still alive, and Venerable Too Dha hadn't started teaching me to read yet. I think I was six years old. After that I started reading the writings, and I read where it says there are golden tablets hidden somewhere that will complete our knowledge, and it will be someone's job to fetch them. Later, I had the dream again, when I knew it was about those golden tablets. After I told Venerable Too Dha the dream, he got all quiet. He still mentions it sometimes. I'm sure he doesn't take it seriously,
Maybe I'll visit Venerable Too Dha tonight, and read the tablets again. I've read them so many times already, I wish there were more tablets to read -- maybe the golden ones.
* * *
Heptosh wasn't sure who introduced Bionic Replication to his native planet of Nefzed. He was only old enough at the time to know it was the in-thing for the rich and leisurely. Several renowned playwrights, minstrels and storytellers had taken an implant. So had a few senators' wives and other setters of the latest fashions.
They placed it under the skin either in the forehead or in the wrist. It was a chip containing microscopic bionic self-reproducing cells, programmed to replace their neighbouring cells until the whole limb, and eventually, one's whole body became bionic. When the process was complete, there was the bionic humanoid, perfect in every way, with super strength, super intelligence (so they said), absorbing all its energy from sunlight, thus not needing organic food to keep it alive. In fact, with proper maintenance, it would go on living forever.
For all the advantages that were publicised, there appeared a sinister downside.
Heptosh's father, Dr. Nashtep, a university professor, was one of the first to have major doubts regarding the process. Heptosh, accompanying his father as a pupil, remembered the discussions they had. One of his friends, a doctor, while closely observing the human psyche during the last stages of the transformation, noted what he thought were indicators of the death of the human personality that originally animated the body. Others of their friends, including other professors, doctors, art and literary critics, had also noticed disturbing changes in the personality before and after. They became convinced that the human soul did not survived a complete bionic transformation. The bionic humanoid was no more than an artificial intelligence storing the memory that used to belong to the soul.
What was left was a good representation of a human personality, enough to fool many. Playwrights and storytellers continued producing stories, sometimes more furiously than ever. However, as time went by, and the demand grew for new types of plots or new literary themes, only non-bionic human artists were able to adapt. Bionics couldn't keep up with new trends.
Only certain ones noticed this. The masses only continued following the works of their favourites as long as they were popular. The fact that they were bionic only seemed to enhance their image. They never wondered, as the critics did, why they went from liking an old artist to a newly bionic one. If anything, society put that much more pressure on the more creative to accept a bionic implant. Refusal, in some cases, put artists on a black list.
Those who had undergone a complete transformation, the Total Bionics, insisted that everything was fine. They voiced strong opinions that they were the better for the transformation, and did their utmost to influence yet more people to become host to a bionic cell. As their numbers grow, the dissenting voices were becoming more and more marginalised. The Total Bionics continued to gain political clout, and before long, there was discussion about making a bionic implant mandatory for all citizens of Nefzed.
Because of the increasingly frequent food shortages, the idea of a body that didn't require food, gained all the more appeal. The working classes and the unemployed masses rallied for the legislation, which would mean they would get their implant for free. Farmers weren't as enthusiastic -- it would mean less demand for farm products -- but even they began to accept it as inevitable.
Dr. Nashtep and his circle of professionals formed the core of the dissenting party. They spoke out as loudly as they could, but there were backlashes. Mr. Takanen, a social commentator who had become a close friend, made a final impassioned plea that was heard planet-wide. Then he was soundly discredited, caricatured as a crackpot, and banished from the media. Heptosh, himself, vividly remembered the taunts by former playmates, the ostracism, the betrayals by ones he loved; and at the same time, the fear for the future -- his own and of humanity. Would he finally be forced to take an implant? Would his soul die at such a young age? Would this mean the extinction of the human race?
At first, it looked as though all the dissidents could do now was to ponder this question and wait for it to happen, or perhaps go into hiding. A limited number were exploring other avenues.
One of these included space travel. At first, that sounded like a pipe dream. Even though most of the population was aware that space travel existed, it wasn't an option that most thought likely. They knew that humanity wasn't birthed on Nefzed. Humans had to come from somewhere, and this presupposed space travel.
Dr. Nashtep was an expert in history. He believed it was at least as important as the other sciences -- without knowledge of history, human technology can go badly wrong. Thus, he taught Heptosh. He knew his history, so he knew that space travel was a reality, only to be rediscovered.
Once in Nefzed's history, a major portion of the population had to be shifted to a new planet. That was a long time ago, in the days of the ancient Nephteshi Interstellar Empire. Then, they had the capacity to build mini planets out of black holes. But that technology disappeared with the collapse of the great empire. Their only legacy: hundreds of artificial planets scattered throughout the galaxy, all populated to capacity. No one was building new planets any more.
But perhaps an empty planet wasn't necessary -- there weren't really that many dissidents. Where there any friendly planets out there that could take just a few more? They began to look at the options. Dr. Nashtep's brother-in-law Nagasha, an engineer, spearheaded in this operation.
They had to be discreet, as some of the powers-that-be were opposed to anyone seeking to leave. However, some of them were able to obtain the information that was available.
Another of their number, Mr. Vashkanen, had been a bureaucrat in the planetary government, and had opted to take retirement before his refusal to take an implant had become an issue. Though bureaucrats and academics had always been at odds, it was his concern about bionic replication that brought him into their circle. Having once been high up in the government, he knew things that historians, like Dr. Nashtep, didn't. One of these was the fact that since the collapse of the Nephteshi empire, interplanetary travel throughout the galaxy was now regulated by the sector councils -- councils representing species other than human.
The council for their part of the galaxy, the Ziern Sector, was primarily composed of Groki, a species did everything in their power to discourage human space travel. They had an extensive knowledge of history, and some had even lived long enough to personally remember the Nephteshi empire -- that it had been a thorn in the side of all non-human species. The more they learned of the Ziern sector council, the more it became obvious that the Groki were supportive of mandatory bionic implants for humans. Other planets in the sector were in the same position as they.
This had never been a concern for most Nefzedis, as no one but government people had ever though it necessary to do any space travel. The government, knowing the perils, had always suppressed any ideas that would lead to people venturing to try it. Mr. Vashkanen knew all about that, and in his career days, was party to it.
But this was a new day, with new dangers. Now, with Mr. Vashkanen's help, Nagasha's people were able to find some unused ships powered by logical relocators, the records of which had long faded from the inventory books of the planet's bureaucrats. These kinds of ships could simply relocate somewhere outside of the sector without being detected. They also gained access to a galactic map, which showed other sectors of the galaxy. Nagasha with a crew of four went off in search of a friendly planet. Though they travelled hundreds of light years, they kept in touch via twin particle communicators.
Tok, though administrated by non-humans, offered the best prospect. The governors of that planet were a non-Groki species that tended to show sympathy toward humans. There was already a human community living there quite happily, an Akkadi speaking tribe. The governors, when they heard of the Nefzedi plight, extended them an invitation to relocate a portion of their human population there. Other planets in that sector were also found, with their help, and they sent giant ships to help with the move.
The exodus went on discreetly and took the bionic population by surprise. All non-bionic humans who wished to move, gathered in a predetermined location. They communicated their coordinates to the Toki ships that were waiting in the upper atmosphere. They landed in stealth mode, brought them all on board and sped them across the galaxy to their new home.
That was a long time ago, when Heptosh was young. Most of the elders, including his father, Dr. Nashtep, his Uncle Nagasha and others were dead. Only Mr. Takanen was left of that group, having lived to an extraordinarily old age. Heptosh, himself, wasn't a young man any more, though he remembered all of this as though it were yesterday.
Now, the original home planet of the Nefzedi was wholly inhabited by Total Bionics. No humans were left. Nefzedi humans were all living in the Noofrishi sector of the Galaxy. Their Toki hosts allowed them to administer their own affairs and they had relative freedom of travel within the sector in which they lived.
Now, perched in the cleft of the cliff overlooking Klodi City, he wondered. Did the same fate befall Klodi-land?
* * *
Simple dwellings the same colour as the yellow brown earth from which they're made. Further on, yellow brown paths, lined by more yellow brown huts, slope up the side of the mountain range, also yellow brown, except where interrupted by patches of green. Nearer by, small children run, their naked skin matching the yellow brown earth, both through dirtiness and natural colour. Their elders finish their chores, chat and enjoy the evening. As for the smells...
I can smell stew cooking behind Tee Maw's house. I hope someone has enough food left from their family meal for me. Uncle Zhue Paw usually has some but he always makes me wait until everyone else has eaten. Venerable Too Dha usually eats by himself, so he might have something.
Oh, no! Here comes that brat, Nyu.
He shouts, 'Hoi! Eetoo!'
'Aren't you supposed to be studying?' I say.
'Hah! I'm of age already! I can do whatever I want!'
'Of age! You're not thirteen yet!'
'Of course I am!' he snaps back.
'I'm thirteen,' I emphasise to get it into his thick head. 'I've just had my manhood ceremony two months ago. You're at least a year younger than me!'
'Count the cycles around the sun! I'm thirteen!'
'Yeah! Thirteen cycles around this star!'
'What other stars do you expect to go around!' He says it as though I were the stupid one!
'Didn't they teach you or what? Our fathers came from a different place: different star, different planet!'
'Hah! I think we've always been on this one!'
He's so obstinate! 'And you expect to be the next Keeper of the Writings?' I ask. 'You haven't even read them!'
'It sure won't be you! You're just an orphan boy!'
'At least I'm keeping up my family reputation of being a sheep owning family. What are you doing?'
'My Paw's got the biggest flock, and he has the respect of the whole village.'
He's got a point. I'd better not say anything stupid. 'Well, Ni Gwah should have been it. He was better than both you and your Paw!'
'Hah! The gods obviously didn't think so!'
He's off in the other direction, muttering something extremely disrespectful about Ni Gwah.
That's another thing. The writings, which he thinks he's going to keep say we must worship only one god. He still talks about the gods like some of the spirit doctors do.
A lot of people have got fires going. Mo Paw, the traditional wrestling instructor is still at work making clay bricks. I think he's going to build an extension to his house. I hope he leaves enough room for his wrestling gym. Ni Gwah used to be good at that too -- always beat me in wrestling.
There's Wee Ta, still working away on her weaving loom.
I'll need a new tunic soon. I hope this one won't start showing my nakedness before shearing season. Now that I'm a man, no one gives me any slack. I have to come up with raw wool before anyone will make me a tunic. I might have to start going naked on days I'm far enough from the village, so my tunic won't wear out so fast.
Cousin Zhue is so shameless, he does that even when he's near the village, in plain sight of everyone. He also eats most of the food at home so there'll probably not be enough for a decent meal for me. Uncle Zhue Paw never restrains him like he does me.
Venerable Too Dha's all right though. He treats me like a family member, even better than Uncle Zhue Paw. I think I'll go straight to his house.
There's Doo Bweh, the baker. He sees me coming. I know exactly what he'll say:
'Remember! You owe me wool!' -- yep.
'I'll remember,' I say on cue.
'Good. Then come by in the morning for another dozen.' He's got the routine down. I don't even have to put in an order.
I pass by a few more houses and there's Venerable Too Dha, sitting on a bench outside his door.
'Good day, Eetoo,' he says.
'Good day to you, Venerable Too Dha.'
'Come, sit down and rest. How are the sheep?'
'They are well. I left them in the canyon behind the old market.'
'You won't leave them there many days, I hope.'
'No. I just came back for more bread.'
'You still have credit with Doo Bweh, the baker, I trust.'
'Yes. I'll owe him three bags of wool, come shearing season.'
'You have grown to be a responsible young man, Eetoo. Your father would be proud of you.'
'You flatter me, Venerable Too Dha.'
We sit quietly for a while. He seems to be thinking about something.
I think too, but about things Nyu just said.
'Nyu seems to think he's going to be chosen to be the keeper of the writings when you die.'
'Yes,' he says, 'That seems to be the will of the village. But I'm afraid I won't live long enough to teach him at the rate he's learning.'
'He only knows the pictographs, and even then he says them in Fa-tzi-zhi instead of the holy language.'
'Hah! I remember you and Ni Gwah; I caught you two spelling out Fa-tzi-zhi words using the Nephteshi phonetic letters.'
'Yeah! You almost gave us a hiding!'
'At least it showed you had mastered the language.' Has he got softer in his old age? ' Ni Gwah was very good at it.'
'Yeah,' I agree. 'Ni Gwah should have been the next keeper of the writings.'
'I tried to persuade the council at the last meeting, to make you the keeper -- that you were ready even now -- but Nyu Paw seems to wield influence, and he wants his son to be. Perhaps, unless I live to be very old, you can teach him what he needs.'
'He's such a brat, he'll never listen to me.'
'Perhaps he'll grow wiser with age...' He's back to thinking again. '...and, maybe it's better this way.'
'I've been thinking a lot about that dream you had. I've had dreams of my own.'
What does that have to do with it?
'You have a more important job,' he says. 'I've been wanting to tell you, I haven't known how, and I fear time may be short.'
'What, Venerable?' He looks healthy enough.
'Do you remember what is written in the fifth tablet?'
'About the seven laws?' I return.
'About how Venerable Noka passed on his legacy to his three sons.'
'Yes. He gave his eldest son the golden tablets, but to his second son, he wrote it down on tablets of stone, and to his youngest, he wrote it on animal hide. What we have are copies of the tablets of stone. The original stone tablets were neglected by the Nephteshi guardians, so Imhotep, the prophet-ruler, obtained them and added them to the great library at Memphis.'
'Do you remember what else?' he prods.
'Yes. Some day, one from among the descendent of the second son must go to read the golden tablets belonging to the eldest son so that our knowledge of the Way will be complete.'
'I believe the time is near when the descendent of the second son must make the journey to find the golden tablets. You are the one who must go. I am very sure of that.'
I can hardly talk. I whisper, 'Me?'
'Make your heart strong, Eetoo. I would not say it if I didn't believe it were so. I've thought so for a long time now.'
'At first, I dismissed it as an idle thought,' he explains. 'I tried to forget it, but with time, it only began coming back stronger and stronger. Now, I must tell you.'
I can't think of what to say.
'Rest here tonight. Read the fifth tablet one more time. You must tune your mind to the truth. I feel as though your journey may begin soon. Perhaps even tomorrow when you leave here.'
'But, where must I go to find the golden tablets?' I ask.
'That, I don't know. There is much that I don't understand. That is why I have delayed telling you, but tell you, I must. I've been troubled about it in my sleep for a year now -- visions in the night. All I know is, the tablets are not on this planet. They are near the birthplace of humanity. Our people haven't travelled in the ships for hundreds of years. They haven't been seen since before you were born.'
'I saw a ship last night -- or it was a light in the sky. I know it wasn't a shooting star. And then I had the dream again.'
'There you are, then,' he sounds more sure than ever. 'The hand of the most high is already at work. You are the one.'
We have a meal of bread with a stew that Ae Maw brought by.
I read the tablet.
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