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art by Ron Sanders

The Alien Tithe

Eric Brown began writing while living in Australia and sold his first short story to Interzone in 1986. He has won the British Science Fiction Award twice for his short stories, has published over fifty books, and his work has been translated into sixteen languages. His forthcoming books include the SF novel Jani and the Greater Game, the collection Strange Visitors, and the crime novel Murder at the Chase. He writes a regular science fiction review column for the Guardian newspaper and lives near Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland. His website can be found at: ericbrown.co.uk.
On the day allotted to me, I left Starship City with my sons and daughters and trekked through the mountains to the high dome of the aliens.
On the first night we camped beneath the massed stars of the galactic core. We built a fire and ate roast vegetables grown on our own land. Nightbirds boomed from a nearby grove of luminescent trees. After the meal we lay back and took in the beauty of the view. Fifty kilometers away, spanning a pass between two towering peaks, the aliens' dome reflected the starlight like a mounted gem.
We set off at sunrise and took the path that climbed the ravine, soon leaving the forest in our wake. In three days we would arrive at the dome, and be received.
Harry: "I'm excited!"
Olivia: "Me too."
Paul: "A new life awaits us!"
Emma: "I'll miss our... our old life." Emma, the quiet, thoughtful one; Emma the compassionate.
On the third day we reached the first pass. This was where my children would look back for the last time and see the plain where they had grown up, and the Starship that had given them life.
We paused as one and stared down the mountainside. The silver length of the Starship, broken-backed, sprawled across the plain where thirty years ago it had crash-landed. Around it, radiating on roads like spokes, was the city which was my home.
Harry: "Goodbye Starship City."
Olivia: "Goodbye old life."
Paul: "Hello new life!"
Emma: "I'll miss you, Starship City."
We turned and climbed, and five minutes later I looked over my shoulder. A jutting outcrop of rock hid the city from view.
That night, as we sat cross-legged around the campfire, I told my children the Landfall Story.
"It should have been an easy landing," I said, "but there was a problem with the ship's smartcore. A communication glitch between the 'core and the orbital system. We came down too fast. It was a miracle we landed in one piece--or rather in two pieces."
My children stared at me with wide eyes. Harry: "And what then?"
"Mum and me, we came round from suspension to find the ship burning. We and others put out the fire, assessed the damage, counted the dead. Out of five thousand colonists, over two thousand had perished. Also, many of us were injured, badly injured. And the ship's medical chamber was destroyed...."
Olivia: "And then the aliens came...."
Paul: "And helped us."
Emma, "And asked for something in return."
I was silent for a time, staring up at the pulsing stars of the core.
"They healed our wounded, nursed the sick. Without the aliens--"
Harry: "Many colonists would have died."
Olivia: "The colony would have failed."
Paul: "We would not be here."
Emma: "But the aliens came to our rescue and demanded... tithe."
The coals glowed. I stared around at the bright faces of my children. "They demanded compensation for helping us, and stated the price for allowing us to remain on their planet. We had, after all, come here uninvited."
The fire dwindled and we slept.
We were one day away from the dome.
Its crystal beauty dominated the mountain landscape ahead, scintillating in Antares' ruddy light. The dome's surface was opaque, its interior mysteries hidden from sight. We climbed above the tree line and the temperature dropped. We donned protective clothing, and that evening built a bigger fire and sat closer to its dancing flames.
Harry: "Tell us about Earth again."
Olivia: "Why did humankind leave?"
Paul: "What did you and Mum do on Earth?"
Emma: "And were you happier there, or here?"
I leaned forward, towards the warmth of the fire. "Earth was... exhausted," I said. "Depleted. We had ruined it, taken everything, given back nothing. We had to leave in order to... grow, to learn... to survive." I smiled at each of my children in turn. "Your mother and I were ecologists back on Earth--farmers, just as we are now. And..." I looked at Emma. "And we are happier here," I said.
We slowed as we approached the pass, and the alien dome that straddled its span. Only now, a kilometer from its great curving opalescent wall, did we apprehend its true dimensions. It must have been five kilometers across, and at least two high. At ground level, a dozen arched portals gave access to its enigmatic interior.
We walked slowly, like pilgrims, towards our destination.
We paused before the portal, which reared to the height of ten men above us. At our approach, its surface de-opaqued and we beheld a bare, white atrium within.
Seconds later a being emerged: humanoid but perilously thin, almost insect-like. It regarded me, and then my children, with vast faceted eyes.
"Come," it said, gesturing inside with a stick-thin arm.
I hugged Harry and Olivia and Paul. "Goodbye," I said. They were bright-eyed, eager to experience the next stage of their young lives.
I hugged Emma to me and she whispered, "Why, Daddy? What do they want with us?"
I stared into her eyes and told her the truth. "I don't know, honey. I don't know."
She smiled at me one last time, turned and joined the others as they followed the alien through the portal. At its threshold they turned and waved, and I lifted a hand in return.
Then the entrance opaqued and my children were lost to sight.
Frozen, I turned and made the long trek home.
When I came to the first pass I looked down at the city sprawling beneath me, at the thousand homesteads and the colonists working the land.
Each family with five children, each family harboring its own weight of gratitude and sadness.
Maria was waiting for me when I returned, Maria who this time had been unable to bring herself to accompany us. She had remained on the farm, harvesting the crops with the help of our biological daughter.
I watched them as they worked side by side, and tears came to my eyes.
The following day Maria and I made the journey to the starship and donated our gift of genetic material to the Processor, the artificial womb to be used--the mission planners had said, all those years ago--in case of emergencies.
The official told us that in six months our children, two girls and two boys, would come to term, and we could take delivery of them.
And ten years after that I would make the pilgrimage to the alien dome to discharge our obligation.
Then the official asked if we would care to register our children's names.
We thought a while, and then spoke.
"Harry," I said.
"Olivia," Maria said.
"Paul."
"Emma."
That night I stood at the door of my daughter's bedroom and stared at her as she slept, and considered what Emma had asked me. "And were you happier there, or here?"
I closed the door quietly and made my way to bed.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 6th, 2014

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