From the author: The usual warning for me: This story contains sex and religion in ways that might not be considered nice by everybody. It appeared in the first issue of Future Orbits, edited by Tom Vander Neut. There's a nice entry about the magazine on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
I was the first to be retrieved and reassembled by the Venatici. The first missionary to visit their world; the first human, period.
At least, I thought I was.
Where were the others? I waited for them a long time.
The Venatici had never sent us images of themselves. We had no idea what our assemblers would look like. I got used to hosts who looked like chitinous giraffes with spinnerets and highly articulated upper-body limbs. I must have looked equally strange to them, bilateral symmetry, ginger-colored hair, freckles, and all.
I named my guide Peter. He showed me around the Venatici outpost.
They hadn’t reassembled me—or any of the others—on their home planet; they were playing it safe. After a time he reassembled some of my belongings: some clothes, my vestments, sacramental bread and wine, chalices, the Revised Charismatic Bible. I said Mass every day. Mostly it was for myself, but Peter listened with polite interest.
Perhaps he sensed my own surprising indifference to the faith I supposedly came to spread. It was difficult to keep the faith without others of my own kind.
Perhaps I’d lost it.
Either that, or I’d lost something in transit. I needed to know. When the Venatici brought back my companions, I would talk to them, find out what went wrong.
“Why retrieve only me?” I often asked Peter.
“A necessary precaution,” Peter always replied.
“Why me, though? A hundred of us came on the beam.”
“We picked you at random,” Peter told me.
“We come in peace,” I always reassured him.
“We need to be sure.”
And, one night: “We now believe we can allow you to visit our homeworld.
Meanwhile, let’s continue our discussion. I’m not at all certain I understand your concept of the Trinity.”
I did my best to explain, but even to my own ears, I lacked conviction. I had lost my sense of mission. I needed to see and touch others of my own kind. I needed to be reminded why I came here, I thought.
My original self back on Earth probably had no doubts. If he was still alive, he still believed. If dead, he went to his rest safe in the knowledge that his duplicate was carrying out his mission.
I envied him that certainty. I wanted it back.
“When will you reassemble my companions?” It was the devout thing to ask. Reproduction was the Church’s first order of business. The New Vatican Revival demanded that its priests multiply.
“When the time is right,” was Peter’s only answer.
“Soon, I hope. I miss my companions, and the woman I love.”
I’d meant my wife, dutifully enough.
Peter saw through that.
I helped them plant and raise their ship. It seemed the least I could do. Eleven Venatici participated, representing all ages and all three sexes. Their two-meter-long shovels had three handles each. We dug twenty-three holes, each a meter deep in the hard desert floor.
Then we planted the seedlings, hard knots of fiber like misshapen coconuts. According to Peter, they grew all over this system; the early explorers had planted them the way the British navy spread the tall pine all over the South Seas. The Brits never knew when they’d need a mast for their sails, and the Venatici never knew when they might need a ship.
We covered the seedlings with dirt. My hosts watered them from their bodies. So I joined them. When in Rome, when anatomically possible.
The ship grew almost overnight. Fibers sprouted from the soil and intertwined themselves into a roughly cylindrical object. Peter told me the seeds were written to grow vessels with the requisite number of chambers and portals. This was a cruiser. A strong vegetable smell filled the air, like fresh-cut grass. Peter contributed his own cells to this ship.
Its flesh was similar to that of Peter’s house, which I saw him create every dusk from his own spinnerets, and reeled back into his own body every morning. We spent the cold desert nights together under his tent, learning each other’s language and discussing theology.
On the walls of his self-made home, Peter could project and recreate scenes and impressions from his past history. He showed me his conception, his hatching, his larvahood. He never forgot anything and could call up any memory at any time.
He knew who he was. I envied him.
They loaded the ship while I slept. We lifted like a balloon. I don’t know what made the ship go. Peter tried to explain, but I lacked the science or the language. '
I watched the surface fall away. The Venatici city was hard to see from ground level, it blended so perfectly with its environment. Peter told me the Venatici had occupied this planet for centuries. Yet they had left almost no trace of their presence.
“You’ve never traveled beyond your own system?”
“No,” he replied. “There is no place else to go, nobody else to build the transceivers.”
“You could visit us.”
“Are we all there is? Our system and yours?”
“James, I need to tell you something. Soon we’ll make a rendezvous. There are people I want you to meet.”
“You’ve asked why we retrieved you first.”
“Many times,” I said. “Did you think we came as invaders?”
“When we intercepted your signal, we read all about you. We feared there had been some mistake, some error in transmission. We feared we could not reassemble you properly. We decided to begin with just one. We picked you because your case seemed the most straightforward.”
“We tried several times before we got it right,” said Peter. “But there were errors.”
“What kind of errors?” What had they done? Reassembled me as some twisted, crippled mass? How many times had it taken them to get me right?
“I wasn’t the first reassembly,” I said. “Somebody else was—another me. You hid the truth from me.”
“For which we apologize,” said Peter. “I can tell you now that you are the twenty-third version of yourself, of Father James Mendez.”
Twenty-three of me. Twenty-three trials and errors. Or were they the fair copies, and I the error? How would the Venatici know? How would I?
“What happened to the others?” I asked.
“We’ve learned from our mistakes. We’ve retrieved them.”
“I want to meet them.”
“I knew you would.”
A door irised open. Behind it stood a tall woman. Her eyes were brown and faunlike, her hair an auburn cloud. Her robes of office managed somehow to emphasize rather than conceal her full figure. I caught mingled scents: musk, sandalwood, incense.
I knew her at once. I remembered her, at least. I used to meet with her at the Vatican every Wednesday, after her formal audience. She would serve tea and ask me the latest about the state of the faith in the Americas, in her home city of New York. Occasionally she would make shockingly irreverent jokes, about the Fourth Vatican Council or her own latest encyclical on artificial life. Sometimes I thought her glances were flirtatious, but I’d always told myself not to flatter myself. The rest of us were expected to reproduce; she had to stay celibate, to carry on the tradition. She was off limits.
And here she was. I knelt and kissed her ring.
“Your Holiness,” I said.
“Rise,” she bid me, and we stood face to face.
So far, so good. I tried to suppress new feelings that were wrong, proscribed by law, morality, and common sense.
“James,” she said. “It’s good to see you.”
She threw her arms around me, held me close, and pressed her lips to mine. I participated vigorously, and knew I had always wanted this.
“Your Holiness,” I murmured, coming to my senses.
“Dolores,” she insisted. “Come with me.”
She led me through another iris door. It closed behind us. She removed her robes and bid me to do the same. Her flesh was pink and inviting beneath the dim luminescent globes of the ship. Her skin was warm, warmer than I remembered a woman’s skin being. Was she feverish, was my memory faulty, or had she too been edited to display a slightly higher body temperature?
I soon found I didn’t care. This ship-chamber held no furniture as such, but the floor made a more than serviceable bed. Our hands and lips explored each other and my reservations fell away one by one. She offered herself like a sacrament. Two bodies, one flesh, and the scent of incense were all the universe held, all it needed to hold.
Peter slipped through the iris unannounced. I realized I was naked; I wrapped my robes around my waist. Dolores slept beside me.
“You had no right,” I whispered to Peter. “You changed us.”
“Did we? We assume error occurred during your transmission,” Peter said. “Distortion. Interference.”
“You didn’t retrieve what we sent you?”
“Perhaps you were damaged before you set out,” Peter suggested.
I was outraged. “How would you know? How would you know what was normal for us, and what was illness?”
“We read that in you, too.”
“You looked into my unconscious,” I said.
“If we understand the term correctly, yes,” replied Peter. “We believed we read your true selves buried beneath the ... distortion.”
“Distortion! My training, my socialization, my faith—everything I was, you thought was as error to correct?”
Dolores rolled over, stretched, and sat up.
“James,” she said, yawning, “be grateful. I know I am.”
“But you’re the spiritual leader of billions! God’s representative in the temporal universe!”
“Was,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “I never volunteered for this mission. I’m version twenty-seven. I’m glad I’m not her. I like me the way I am.”
“You met your original self? Where’s mine?”
“This way,” said Peter. I got dressed and followed him.
My hosts carried a retrieval device aboard their ship. I wondered how many such devices they had, how many times they could be used, how many copies of the mission they could make and remake.
The Venatici poked and prodded the device. Soon they materialized another me. It’s unsettling to look at yourself outside a mirror or photo. He had my freckles, my ginger hair, my round face. I hoped I did not have his petulant expression.
“This was the original transmission,” Peter said.
“Leave us alone,” the original transmission of me demanded. He looked haunted, disoriented. I couldn’t blame him. Already I was anxious to get back to Dolores. But I had to talk to him.
“Yes, Peter,” I said. “Please, leave us alone.” Peter left.
“Listen,” my original said to me quietly when the door puckered shut behind Peter. “This mission has gone very wrong. We’re in serious trouble. We’ve got to get them to retrieve the rest of us. The real ones, not fakes like you—and like me, for all I know.”
“They have a right to be cautious. And it seems to me they made an honest mistake.”
“They can’t keep making copies of us, either. It’s wrong; it’s sacrilege. Which of us is real?”
I was surprised at his vehemence. I shrugged. “It looks to me like we both are.”
“Which of us has the soul, James? Each individual is unique. Only one of us can have the soul of Father James Mendez.”
“Wait till you talk to the Venatici,” I said. “They have some interesting ideas on the subject. They think there’s only one soul, one in the entire universe, but it travels back and forth through time and is simultaneously present in all living things.”
“Savages,” he replied. “Highly advanced, technologically developed savages, but heathens nevertheless. We’ve got to convert them, and the ones we can’t convert, well...”
“How do you propose to do that?”
He smiled. “They don’t have weapons, have you noticed? We encoded for transmission everything we need, from bows and arrows to fusion grenades. We need to get our hands on them, take this ship, and find a base. Eventually we could be running this system.”
“That seems unlikely.”
“It won’t happen overnight. It’ll be a long and bloody struggle.”
“Is that what we came for?”
“And not just that. Sooner or later, we’ll have to start reproducing. Multiply. Subdue this second Earth. In the name of God, and in the name of Her Holiness Dolores II, yes!”
“You want that?” Did I? Had I? It seemed long ago and far away.
“What I want isn’t important,” he said. “Our faith demands it.”
“I can’t allow that,” I said.
“You can’t? You can’t? You dare to tell me that you can’t?”
He snapped then. He tore his pectoral cross from the string that held it around his neck. He lunged at me and before I knew what was happening he hit me on the left temple, my right cheek, and the bridge of my nose, which he broke. We rolled about on the floor. He wrapped his fingers about my throat. When I pried them off, he tried to gouge my eyes out. The little bastard fought dirty.
Suddenly he was gone. I sat up, surprised.
“Back to storage with him,” said Dolores, who helped me up. “Had enough? I know I did.”
Not me, though. I refused to accept that grotesquerie as my true self.
Peter ran the program as many times as it took. Some versions of me were more violent, even psychotic. They accused me of demonic possession. I was beset by devils; the alien monsters had brainwashed me.
A few versions of me lapsed into catatonic indifference; they were unable to accept the culture shock of being reconstituted on an alien world.
Most, though, took a middle course. One almost saw eye-to-eye with newly edited me.
This one was more open-minded than most. He even took a reasonably liberal interpretation of Scripture. He saw virtues and strengths in the Venatici civilization where other copies felt my hosts were creatures of Satan. He even admitted he could see the attraction of my relationship with Dolores, and he wondered why she was not yet pregnant.
I used him as my confessor. The frequency of intercourse, my lack of remorse for doing it out of wedlock, my admission that I was at first motivated by lust and nothing but lust. He gave me penance, which I performed half-heartedly. A few Hail Marys are no proof against the power and charisma of a woman like Dolores. No wonder she’d been such a popular Pope.
The Venatici ship orbited their homeworld for as long as it took. The last time I talked with one of my copies I finally gave up trying to convert them.
He asked me, “Do you remember why you volunteered for this mission in the first place? I do.”
“Do you remember what saints are?”
“Well, you always wanted to be one.”
“Yes,” my copy replied. “But you knew you’d never perform a miracle, never heal the sick, never raise the dead. Most saints founded missions and did the Church’s gruntwork. They were just bureaucrats. Sainthood was a way of honoring them. That was what you wanted. If you couldn’t get sainthood by the high road, you’d take the low.”
Wrong. Sainthood did not excite me, not now.
What brought me here was love. It was Dolores. The Venatici showed me that. For years I had masked my passion for Her Holiness with piety and duty. But now, every time I hold her in my arms, I know the real reason I’m here, why I took the risk.
“I still feel guilty sometimes,” I confessed to Peter, who after all turned out to be an excellent listener.
“We were not able to fix that,” he said. “It was too closely intertwined with what you essentially are.”
I didn’t mind it. I learned to enjoy it. And I stopped needing my copies.
For a while, at least.
The Venatici brought back the rest of us. We were all cured. My wife, Mother Karen Alameda, paired off with Brother Lin-Dze. They made a nice couple.
The Venatici agreed to let us procreate. They removed the contraceptives they’d laced into our diet. They were no longer afraid of us alien monsters overrunning their planet. Our hosts trusted us to treat our freedom responsibly. I didn’t think they had anything to fear.
“We are making a new place for humans,” said Peter one day. They prepared a worldlet close to their sun for human habitation.
“You’re exiling us?” I asked, surprised.
“Not you,” he said. “Your others. Your originals.”
“I thought you were going to keep them in storage.”
“We were. But now we need them.”
The Venatici had just found a second set of neighbors, Peter told me. They lived in the Hyades Cluster. They took the Venatici’s invitation and transmitted representatives.
Peter showed me their corpses. Nasty things.
“They arrived in this condition?”
“They forced us to kill them,” Peter replied.
“You couldn’t cure them?” I asked. “You did a job on me.”
“They are violent beyond repair.”
“Surely you’re safe. You don’t have to receive them.”
“We’ve picked up stray communications emissions from them,” Peter replied. “We believe they have learned to build interstellar ships. They may come and attack us—and attack your home world as well.”
Old James, I said to my old selves, we may need you after all. Dolores and I have received permission to bear a child or two. Perhaps you can teach them to kill; I can only teach them to do so with love.
We need you. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy the next phase of your existence, that you’ll be able to carry out the program you came for.
May your God forgive you, and me, and the Venatici, and the new contactees.
All of us. God forgive us all.
This story originally appeared in Future Orbits, 2001.