Thoughts on Life and Death from the Tarkaha
a short story by Noel K Hannan
art by Derek Gray
"Tell me more about this death, Earthman."
They walked and talked in the cemetery on the cliff, the Earthman called Connor and the Tarkaha who had no name, and who had assumed the standard acceptable physical form recommended when associating with these fragile beings of blood and bone: large eyes, smooth hairless bodies, asexual genitals, pale grey skin tone. They resembled so much the Greys of contemporary UFO mythology that countless abduction and government conspiracy stories were vindicated until it was pointed out that the Tarkaha could assume any form they wished, and chose one which would be pleasing and acceptable to the human eye.
"Death is a great burden to a man," said Connor, who had once been a priest, a man of faith, but had seen so little in his life to make him believe that there was a higher benevolent power, and so much to suggest quite the opposite, that he had renounced his office. Somehow, the brand-new position of Alien Liaison Officer to the United Nations Extraterrestrial Affairs Committee seemed made for him, a born-again pragmatist.
"Knowing only oblivion is waiting at the end of sixty-seventy-eighty years if you're lucky," he continued, "or waiting around the corner, ready to strike you down in the shape of a runaway car, a murdering madman or a - heh - Act of God. It is the curse of mankind that we are the only creatures who are aware of our own mortality."
"Our studies inform us to the contrary," said the Tarkaha. "Elephants guide their dying to graveyards older than mankind itself, whales shepherd their sick to the safety of inshore bays."
"Ah, but our belief is that animals have no souls, that they cannot comprehend a life beyond the demise of the physical form."
"Death - Acts of God - souls," mused the Tarkaha, rubbing its smooth chin with long delicate fingers, an expression of thoughtful contemplation it knew was visually pleasing and comforting to its human companion, even though the thought processes it was mimicking were being carried out by a virtual brain the size of a planet, that existed in a reality that humanity was only just beginning to understand. "Let us walk and talk more. We have much to learn."
They walked and talked some more.
"Death is a very difficult concept for the Tarkaha to grasp," said the alien, pausing by a weathered stone angel standing sentinel over an ancient mossy tomb. It ran its fingers over the angel's implacable, finely chiselled visage, worn smooth by sea air. "For the Tarkaha there is no death, no ultimate annihilation. The Tarkaha is energy - energy cannot be created or destroyed, you are familiar with the theory?"
Connor tilted his head and smiled. "Of course. It is the basis of the physical universe."
"Immortality is a heavier burden than knowledge of a finite lifespan," the Tarkaha continued. "The Tarkaha are, as far as we know, the only immortal race in the Universe, and as such we have an obligation to be its eternal guardians. Humans approach their obligation within the boundaries of their own mortality, and for the most part think no further than the end of their own lives, or perhaps that of their offspring."
"You are, of course, quite correct," said Connor. "We think as individuals, with an individual's petty concerns and grievances, and an individual's greed."
"The cult of the individual would have meant the destruction of the human race had the Tarkaha not presented humankind with the means of interstellar travel," said the Tarkaha.
"Yes. We would have been too busy killing each other, we may have never explored another world, and eventually the sun would have boiled away. We are very grateful, you know."
The Tarkaha smiled. "Interstellar travel is the least of our gifts. If we had not repaired your ozone layer and rebalanced the chemical constitutions of your atmosphere and oceans, you would never have survived long enough to watch your sun boil and vanish."
Connor rubbed unconsciously at his bare arms. He was wearing a thin short-sleeved shirt and a tie, knot loosened at the neck. It still felt strange to be outside in direct sunlight dressed like this. A few years before, prior to the dramatic, scifi movie arrival of the Tarkaha, he would not have been able to stand on this exposed clifftop without a protection suit, a polarised sun visor and a heatshield canopy. They did indeed have much for which to thank the Tarkaha.
"Yet the Tarkaha are individual too," said the alien. "Individual and communal at the same time. While we can join together in a collective mind more powerful than anything you can comprehend, we can also exist as wholly individual entities, billions of physical light years from the Core Mind, in absolute solitude for aeons. We do this, sometimes, on missions to spread enlightenment and knowledge to progress wayward civilisations. We are, on occasion, called gods by cultures such as your own. Occasionally, we are misrepresented and our well-intentioned actions become counter-productive. We may be immortal, but we are not infallible." A strange smile crossed the Tarkaha's features. "The Tarkaha has visited Earth before, you know."
"I know," said Connor, smiling. It had been a bad few years for Christianity, Islam, Judaism and every other major religion (although Buddhism was bearing up remarkably well under the alien onslaught on humanity's main crutches). Even when the stark proof of the fictionalised Good Books was offered, many chose to stay shaken (if a little stirred) believers in the old ways. The mass suicides had been particularly spectacular, and fascinating to the death-obsessed Tarkaha.
"So, it is unusual to find that humankind is the closest philosophical relation to the Tarkaha in the known Universe," said the Tarkaha. "The evolution of your species to the higher plane, the shedding of the physical self, was well underway before we made contact, with your developments in silicon-based intelligences and the investigations into the conversion of brain patterns into digital code. But you would never have survived to see those projects reach fruition."
Connor was becoming a little rankled. He was under strict instructions not to anger members of the alien delegation, but even the due deference with which he was treating his guest did not take the edge off a certain unpleasant fact. The Tarkaha were so damn smug.
"I'm not about to defend humanity in the face of such damning evidence for our ultimate destruction at our own hands," said Connor tactfully. The Tarkaha mirrored his wry expression with disconcerting accuracy. "But as you say we are the Tarkaha's closest philosophical relative, so we must have something to offer the Universe. Take our reproduction, for example. Man is born out of physical love." He thought about what he had just said. "Usually, at least."
"Yet your apparent miracles are treated so blithely. Men are born with no apparent purpose, into squalor and poverty and societies bulging with bodies that cannot be fed. You feel it is your indisputable right to procreate with no interference from others, even those who may take ultimate responsibility, yet you have so little regard for the lives that you so carelessly create. Do you ever ask yourselves, what will be the purpose of the life we are about to create?"
"Rarely," said Connor. "Often, those lives are not even allowed to reach fruition, and are instead terminated in the womb."
The Tarkaha shook his head sadly. "In our society, such abuses of life would be unimaginable. The conception of life, a new life, is a very serious decision. The origination of a new individual within the Tarkaha requires the consent and active participation of many other individuals. The process lessens us all, weakens our individual power - remember that we are energy and cannot be created or destroyed - and it is a decision that is not taken lightly. A new Tarkaha is born once every millennium, or so. It is not unusual for those involved to debate the matter with the Core Mind for centuries."
"You society seems so perfect," said Connor, watching the surface of the sea below them churn and a dark amphibious shape break the water. A dolphin - no, bigger than that, perhaps a small whale. "Protected, venerated procreation to a higher purpose, then peaceful immortality, benevolent supremacy over the Universe. Have you ever known conflict? War?"
"War," the Tarkaha repeated, and the word sounded like it had discovered a bad taste in its mouth. "Yes, further back in time than any but the Core Mind can remember. When the Tarkaha were breathers and bleeders, man-forms like humankind. Beings who move in a frictionless, unfettered trans-space environment have no appetite for conflict. Conflict is for physical creatures who resort to kinetic solutions to the problems that beset them. War is a flesh and blood thing. War is a man thing."
They watched in silence from their lofty vantage point as marine mammals frolicked beneath them. A school of dolphins, grey flanks shining in the evening sun, were mobbing what Connor had thought was a small whale, sliding along its length and gently body slamming in oddly sexual movements. On closer inspection, the big creature looked like a whale, but was nothing of the sort. Its fins were too small, its skin too pale, its eyes too big.
"The Tarkaha take many forms," said the alien, nodding down at the creature, who ejected a plume of steam from its blowhole in greeting, "and commune with many forms on your planet. Many forms that you do not credit with comparable levels of intelligence."
Their discussion was interrupted by the drone of a squadron of fighter-bombers passing overhead. The human and the alien were momentarily shadowed by the delta-winged aircraft, made ponderous by the unusually large missiles secured to their bellies, like pregnant birds of prey. The squadron headed out to sea and over the horizon.
"War," commented the Tarkaha dryly, "that man thing."
A detonation cleared the sky. Pure light flooded from east to west, as if a star had fallen to Earth. A fiery cloud blossomed and mushroomed to the heavens. The Tarkaha froze, an odd expression fixed on its face, as information assaulted its senses. Connor examined his fingernails.
"Our official delegation," the Tarkaha said, incredulous. "You have.... destroyed them? You have destroyed Tarkaha? How can this be?"
"It wasn't easy," said Connor. "The best scientific and military minds on the planet - present company notwithstanding - have been working on the problem for years. How do you destroy that which cannot be destroyed? It was as much a philosophical question as a physical one. But we do have a talent for improvisation. It was a difficult decision, please believe that. But you can't just jaunt around the Universe pushing lesser lifeforms around. We do that man thing so well, you'll have to admit."
He watched the frozen creature as it abandoned all semblance of its puppet form. The illusion of physical presence peeled and wavered and a glowing sphere with a counter-rotating centre, like some form of elaborate executive desk toy, emerged from the shallow grey chest cavity, hovering and oscillating a few centimetres from Connor's face.
"The dolphins it is, then," the Tarkaha said, a little sadly, projecting its voice straight into Connor's brain, then took off as if startled. The glowing sphere circled the bay several times until it was joined by a second one, torn from the body of the whale-thing. They coalesced into a single shining star, and imploded.
Connor straightened his tie and walked back through the cemetery to his car, through the city of the human dead with its mossy tombs and guardians of stone.
The action would probably mean war, of course, but they were prepared for that. That man thing, as the Tarkaha had pointed out, that they did so well.
The Tarkaha, Connor thought, were just so damn smug.
Story © Noel K Hannan 1998; artwork © Derek Gray 1998.
This story is reprinted with the longer 'Magic Box' in a booklet, illustrated by Derek Gray and BJ Wilson, available from ANKH for £1.50.
The story also appears
in Noel's collection, Shenanigans (Pendragon
Press, 2000; price £6.99; orders from PO Box 12, Maesteg,
Mid Glamorgan, South Wales, CF34 0XG, UK) .
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