My science-fiction novel Forbidden Sanctuary is a first-contact thriller in which one of the aliens who have landed here learns about Christianity from an interpreter who happens to be a devout Catholic. He becomes convinced that it is Earth’s counterpart to the persecuted faith that he secretly follows on his home planet. This is a very high concept, and the book is well worth the $2.99 it’s gonna cost you!
You can read the first chapter here. In this excerpt we see the alien–Tenon–escape from his ship, trying to find sanctuary in the Catholic church he knows is nearby.
In the first instant he was half inclined to turn back. This world was dark, and confusing, and bitter cold. How could he hope to find refuge in it? But of course he had come too far to turn back. He shut the door behind him, and started carefully down the long staircase to the ground.
They had guards too, of course, but they too were looking the other way, more interested in keeping Earthpeople away from the ship than Numoi away from Earth. He crouched low to the stairs as he descended, and prayed that the helmeted creatures at the bottom would not turn around.
They didn’t. Five steps from the bottom Tenon leaped over the railing and landed silently beside the stairs. He looked around. There were no other guards nearby that he could see. He moved to his right until he was well outside the guards’ line of sight, and then he walked slowly away from the ship.
The area around it was deserted. Who could be outside in this cold? It was very well lit, however, and he felt conspicuous. He picked up his pace, and soon he was in the shadows of a building. He could hear the murmur of voices inside. It was probably warm in there; he longed to join the voices. But would they protect him? No, he needed a sign: something to show him that the vomurd was continuing. He walked on.
And before very long he reached a fence, long and high and fiercely metallic. He could see a guard to his left, but once again the man was facing away from the Ship. Well then, he must climb the fence.
It was difficult for his hands to get a grip, and at the top were twisted strands of wire that tore at his flesh; but it was all right, he should be able to put up with pain. When he reached the ground on the other side he stopped to look back through the fence at the large pyramid that was his past, and then he trudged off along the road he found at his feet.
Around him were dark, looming hills, and tall, hard, bare-looking plants. Over everything was a layer of crusted snow. He had never actually seen snow before, but there was plenty of it in the land of the Stani, and Argal had spoken of it more than once. White grains of ice, as far as you could see. He shivered, and looked up at the alien sky. The stars were sharp and clear, their strange patterns almost as unsettling as the snow. Was one of them their star? He was unclear on such matters. Did anyone really know? It didn’t matter now.
By the fence he had seen a few of those fast-moving mechanical vehicles other crew members had talked about in tones of wonder, but none were on this road. Perhaps they were not used at night. Perhaps no one was allowed out after dark. There was so much he didn’t know—including how much farther he had to walk before he would find what he was looking for. So far there was nothing—no sign of a village, a farmhouse, a light. He could be going entirely in the wrong direction—a town just out of sight behind him, none for a day’s travel ahead of him. They would find his frozen body in the snow, by the road, and they would say: a fit punishment for a Chitlanian, to die in a land like the Stani’s.
If he was not used to the cold, at least he was used to the walking. He had had enough forced marches to keep his legs in shape, even after the inactivity of the Voyage: rushing to the border to subdue some recalcitrant tribe, providing an escort for some minor ambassador, scouring the hillside for heretics…
He recalled that painstaking search, knowing only that they were looking for enemies of the state, going from cave to cave, sword at the ready, determined to root out the traitors.
And he was the one who found them; scrambling up a small slope at dusk, weary and frustrated, he had entered the low cave and shined his torch, and there they were. About twenty of them, white-robed, gentle-eyed, sitting, waiting. His sword came out, and then he was calling for assistance, and one of the white-robes had said: “Calm yourself, soldier. You have nothing to fear from us.” And they came with him peacefully, praying all the while to Someone he had not yet heard of.
He had received a promotion for his daring single-handed capture of the heretics. The promotion had made him eligible for the Voyage. But that meant nothing to him compared with the image in his memory of those faces as they went to their deaths, faces transfigured by an emotion he had never felt, but longed to feel. Soon after that he was scouring the hills, alone, looking for someone who trusted him enough to bring him to Argal.
His hands were numb. He clapped them against his side to bring the feeling back. He was having difficulty focusing his eyes. He had to squint continually to keep them working. His ears roared with pain. His legs wanted to stop, but stopping, he now realized, meant death.
And besides, there were signs now of life: lights in the hills, a dwelling, then, after a while, another. He squinted at each dwelling as he passed it. Not what he was looking for. Not yet.
Millions, he kept telling himself. There are millions.
One of those vehicles suddenly appeared, its lights like some incredible animal eyes piercing the darkness. He stopped, transfixed, as it roared past him, its occupant faceless behind the glare of the lights. He took a deep breath, and continued.
He had been a soldier all his life, and yet he had never known fear. Occasionally there would be danger, but the Numoi were always in control, and besides, to die for Numos (so he had believed) was the greatest possible glory of your life.
Now he would gladly die for Chitlan, but still he was afraid, because he was alone in the dark on a strange world, and he did not know what hazards awaited him around the corner, over the next rise, and he did not want to die senselessly, by walking on the wrong side of the road, or touching an object that was not supposed to be touched, or making a sound where silence was required.
He did not know whether the water in his eyes was caused by the cold, or by something else.
He did not want to think of the past anymore, but he couldn’t help it, to keep his thoughts in this world was to invite despair; and if he lost the will to keep his legs moving then everything would have been in vain.
He thought of Argal, who had walked the length of Numos, and all the outlands as well, risking his life with every step he took. But he had a mission, and he never complained. He thrived on it, really; how he would have enjoyed the challenge of this situation.
Tenon pictured Argal sitting in a hearth chamber, his dirty peasant robes gathered around him, his face creased and scarred with the ravages of his life. And the eyes! Eyes that held knowledge and truth, that had pierced deeper into the mysteries of all-that-is than any living being. Eyes, Tenon thought, with a shiver, that he would never look into again.
He recalled the first time: they had led Tenon to him blindfolded, at night, wary of a pure-blooded soldier with an impeccable record. He kept waiting for the feel of a knife against his throat, but these people were different (he kept reminding himself); that was why he had put himself in their hands.
When the blindfold came off he found himself in the stone-floored hearth chamber of a peasant farmhouse. In the dim firelight he saw a couple of young rustics regarding him suspiciously and, beyond, the foreigner he had struggled so long to meet, the foreigner who had a price of five thousand goldpieces on his head.
“Come and sit, soldier,” Argal had said in a low, friendly voice. “Perhaps we can learn from each other.”
But what could he teach Argal? He knew only what the Numian schools had taught him, and that, it turned out, was less than nothing in Argal’s eyes.
For some reason Argal spoke little of Chitlan that first night. Perhaps he wanted to tear down Tenon’s old religion before building a new one; perhaps it was just where his thoughts were when Tenon arrived. At any rate, he began by speaking of the Ancients.
“It is fascinating to me how little even educated Numoi know about these Ancients. It’s nothing more than myth and pious double-talk—which, you know, is precisely what the Ancients wanted. Did you know, for example, that there were exiles from Numos at the time the Ancients were putting together the hasali you are now a part of?”
Tenon, of course, had not known that.
“Some of them reached the land of the Stani. They wrote about what they understood—and feared—but they were foreigners and, I’m afraid, they were at best ignored, at worst mistreated. Their writings lay unread—until I came upon them. I was just a young scholar back then, and I had not even heard of Chitlan. So the Stani leaders threw open their archives to me, not knowing what they possessed.”
“What was it?” Tenon asked, intrigued and half afraid.
“Well,” Argal replied, “here is my interpretation of it. I believe it to be true. You see, the Ancients were practical, clear-sighted, and, according to their lights, benevolent people who above all were interested in answering one question: how do you set up a lasting, peaceful civilization? You will not find this question discussed in the Chronicles of the Ancients, or any of the other writings that have been preserved by the priestesses, because all mention of it had to be suppressed as part of the answer.”
“And what was their answer?”
“Oh, there were many parts to it, like the structure of the government and the size of the nation. But the centerpiece was this: to create a religion. And the centerpiece of the religion was the Ship.”
“Isn’t the Ship proof of the truth of your religion? No, it is only proof of the genius of the Ancients. I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but I do know there is nothing miraculous about it—nothing to compare, for example, with a resurrection from the dead. But we will come to that another night.
“You see, they wanted it to appear miraculous. So they destroyed all documents concerning the theory of timeless travel and the construction of the Ship. They cloaked their work in mystical terminology, and taught their successors how to copy what they had done, but not how to understand it. Instead of using what they had learned to add to the material well-being of their nation, they used it to transform its spirit.
“They gave Numos a central symbol, a ceaseless quest that would provide a focus for all the work and thoughts of its people. They were lucky, I think, in a couple of points. Enough of the Ships returned from the black void that they have not come to symbolize utter futility. And the crews never have discovered other intelligent life—because that would end the quest, and with it the value of the symbol.”
(Tenon-by-the-hearth had circled his hand slowly in understanding, finally getting used to this strange perspective on his world, starting the slow transformation that would lead him far from his mindless orthodoxy. Tenon-in-the-cold-alien-air, product of the transformation, thought: the Voyages are too important to Numos, though. The Council will simply redefine the goal, and the Voyages will continue, more meaningless than ever. But that has nothing to do with me anymore. Tenon shivered, and tried to walk faster.)
Argal’s eyes had gleamed in the firelight, pleased at Tenon’s understanding. “Do you see?” he exclaimed. “It is an artificial religion, designed to provide stability and meaning to a civilization. As such it has been successful and, in some ways, I grant, admirable. But it is not the truth. A civilization, it seems, can be based on a lie, but now we know the truth, and the truth will destroy this civilization like a rock shattering a hollow, decayed fossil.”
Tenon noticed one of the young peasants writing down Argal’s words, and he started to realize that this was the beginning of something immense, that he was hearing words that would be remembered in a thousand generations the way the acts of the Ancients were remembered in his. But still there were doubts. “If a lie is so powerful,” he asked, “how will the truth destroy it?”
“Its time has come,” Argal responded. “The lie is not what it once was. The crews still go off every twenty cycles to meet their fate, but there is confusion and fear beneath their brave façades. The priestesses still carry out the prescribed rituals, but there is boredom behind their gestures. The Council still rules, but the people feel free to grumble at their edicts. The entire planet is ready to listen, ready to believe. And that is precisely why Chitlan chose this moment to appear in our midst. We will be victorious, and there is not a power in the Universe that can stop us.”
And how often had Tenon heard those words spoken—by different hearths, to other new believers? Yet they never failed to thrill him. Often he lacked Argal’s utter certainty in the final triumph, but he never lacked faith in him, or in Chitlan.
A cold wind cut through him, as he realized again that Argal was gone. He was on his own; he had left those hearths behind forever.
There were dwellings all around him now, but no sign of what he was looking for. Pray, he must pray. His legs must continue to move, he must fight off the tears….
And eventually he saw it—sharply etched against the planet’s bright half-moon, just as he had imagined it. Angela’s words echoed in his mind: they put Him to death on a cross. And she herself had worn a tiny gold cross around her neck. Symbol of her faith.
O, lucky people, who could display their symbols so openly! He rushed over the banks of snow to the building with the cross, joy and anticipation warming his frigid body. Across the walk, up the short flight of stairs…
And the door was locked. Tenon stared at it in disbelief. That could not be. Then he reasoned: not everyone on the planet was a follower of Jesus. Perhaps there were still people who wanted to harm them. Of course they would lock their place of worship in that case. But certainly their chief priest or priestess would be inside—asleep, most likely, but eager to help a believer in trouble.
He pounded on the door. No one came. He pounded again. His hands, already cut and raw from the wire of the fence, ached with the effort, but the door remained locked. Finally he gave up and started to walk around the building, looking for other entrances. They were all locked. There were windows, of course. He could break a window and get inside. But that would be desecration. That would not be allowed.
He came around to the front again and sat on the steps, exhausted and fearful. Perhaps someone would open it up in the morning. But how long would it be until morning? He could not survive much longer without shelter. How much worse a death that would be—frozen on the very steps of their temple, his goal reached but meaningless.
That could not happen. He struggled to think things through. It was clear that he had to get indoors. There were plenty of dwellings. Most of them were probably occupied. What he needed was one occupied by a follower of Jesus. But how would he know?
He would have to take a chance. Which one?
The one nearest the temple, obviously. Would someone who was not a follower of Jesus want to live next to one of His temples?
Tenon got up and walked across a short pathway to the nearest dwelling. It was in darkness, like the temple. He stood in front of the door for a long time, summoning his courage. It has to be done, he told himself. There was no other way. He knocked.
And knocked. And after an eternity a light appeared behind the door. He saw the shadow of a person through the small, curtained glass panes and heard a brief, gruff sentence. There was nothing he could say, so he knocked some more.
Finally the door opened a crack—still locked with a chain—and a face appeared.
They looked at each other through the crack, and Tenon dimly realized that the man was as frightened as he was.
With his trembling hands Tenon tried to form a cross. “Jesus,” he whispered, hoping it sounded right on his alien tongue. “Jesus.”
The man kept looking at him, and the chain remained in place, and suddenly Tenon could take no more, and the tears came streaming out of his eyes. “Jesus,” he moaned as he felt his legs giving way, and then he heard the chain move, and the door swung open, and he fell forward into warmth and light.