Lydia watched Ahad play the guitar. He leaned against a boulder, eyes shut, his face positioned to catch the last warm rays of the setting sun. His long, slender fingers caressed the strings, producing a slow, haunting melody. The music almost made his company tolerable.
She was only there because Grandmother had asked her to study this stranger, to get close, to discover what the crew of his starship was up to. Ahad seemed to be so at peace. Despite his unusual clothes and exotic facial features, he wasn’t so different from the local boys. Was he really to blame for his people’s sins? If one never knew the Lord’s law, was it a sin for them to break it? Then again, the star travelers had learned about the True Path in the weeks since they arrived, and they hadn’t changed their ways.
She knew that it was the Devil, seeking yet another way to sow doubt in her heart.
Lydia stared at the implant on Ahad’s left temple, only partially covered by his dark hair. The Devil would claim him in the afterlife for that alone. Against her better judgment, she was fascinated by it. When she shifted for a better look, Ahad opened his eyes at the sound of her moving. He smiled at her.
“That tune is very old, from back when everyone lived on the same planet,” said Ahad. “Did you like it?”
Was he intentionally reminding her of her own people’s past sins, of the time when they, too, used technology and crossed the stars to come to this world? She let the comment slide. “I liked it very much. It’s impressive, how many melodies you have memorized.”
Ahad chuckled. “Memorized? That would be a lot of work.” He pointed at his temple. “I can access the note sheets for every piece of music ever written, through the Link.”
This time Lydia frowned, and cast her eyes downward. In a small way, she wanted to believe that Ahad’s only sin was that of ignorance. But she knew that it was the Devil, seeking yet another way to sow doubt in her heart.
“I’m sorry,” Ahad said when he saw her expression. “I know the Link is a sensitive subject for your people. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Let me make it up to you? I’ll play you a tune that my father taught me. I remember that one without the Link, honest.”
Father. Lydia looked at the sun, which was halfway behind the mountains by then.
“I’m sorry,” she called out as she scrambled to her feet. “I’m very late. Tomorrow?”
She dashed toward the village.
“Tomorrow, then,” Ahad called after her.
Lydia burst into the house, panting from the mile-long run, her heart pounding and trying to jump out of her chest. The rest of the family was already there, her parents and brother seated around the table, all of them glaring at her as she stumbled inside. Despite her best efforts, she was late to the evening prayer. Again.
How long did she make them wait? Surely it couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen minutes. “I’m sorry,” she stammered.
Mother frowned. “You were with that space boy again, weren’t you?”
Lydia nodded, and felt her face turning red.
“The two of you shouldn’t spend so much time alone,” Mother said. “It’s inappropriate.”
“Mother!” Lydia struggled to control her breathing. “It’s nothing like that. All we do is play music together.”
“He’s an abomination.” Ian, her older brother, slammed his palm against the polished wood of the table. “His people fly through space, puncturing the flesh of God. He has machine parts grafted into his body. And you can’t possibly pretend that you don’t notice the way he looks at you.”
“Stop.” Father spoke softly, secure in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be interrupted or contradicted. “Raised voices and accusations have no room at the prayer table.” He looked at Ian, and quoted scripture. “Anger is one of the tools the Devil uses, as he roams the world, seeking whom he may devour.”
Ian nodded. He took deep breaths to try and calm himself as his father commanded.
“The visitors from another world are strayed from the True Path, much like the ancestors,” said Father. “In their folly they have denied themselves paradise. We must take care not to become tainted by their sins.”
They were to abandon technology, which was the Devil’s invention, and to live in harmony with the land.
Father turned to Lydia. “I fear that in your zeal to spy on the space travelers you’ve become too close with this young man. You are not to spend time with him anymore.”
“Yes, Father.” Lydia’s voice trembled a little.
“Tomorrow you will go to the caves and visit with Grandmother,” said Father.
Lydia nodded. Father was wise, and he was tempering the harshness of his decree. Spending time with the ancestors was considered a penance, almost a punishment, but a hike to the caves was better than working the fields, and besides, she liked Grandmother. She was almost certain Father and Mother liked her too, even if no one would admit it out loud.
“Join us, so that we may begin,” said Father.
Lydia took her seat at the table. Her family linked hands and began the evening prayer.
In the morning, Lydia set off to visit Grandmother.
Using a wax candle to light the way, she traversed deep into the caves, to where the ancestors were hidden, until she reached the thick steel doors. She entered the combination on the keypad while muttering a prayer, asking the Lord to forgive this small sin. Then she was inside the bunker, cave walls covered by ceramic panels, which emitted a dim artificial glow, lighting the corridor. She blew out the candle and headed forward.
As soon as Lydia walked into the meeting room, a holographic image of a woman in her sixties appeared. She wore outlandish clothing and rimmed glasses. Her hair was cut short and dyed bright red, with strands of purple mixed in. She flashed a kindly smile. “Hey, kiddo.”
“Hi, Grandmother,” said Lydia.
This woman wasn’t her real grandmother, of course. She was a distant relative, many generations removed.
Centuries ago, Lydia’s ancestors arrived on this world from another planet, just like Ahad’s people have done recently. The ancestors came for the precious metals that were plentiful in the mountains. But less than a year later the fledgling colony became afflicted by a terrible sickness. People and livestock began dying. Despite all of their science and technology, the settlers found no cure. The entire colony would be wiped out within weeks.
They were trapped there still, their souls having escaped hell, but unable to ever reach paradise.
It was then that the Lord appeared in a vision to Julian Li, one of the leaders of the colony. The plague was a punishment, and the Lord instructed him to teach the settlers the True Path. They were to abandon technology, which was the Devil’s invention, and to live in harmony with the land. Those who repented would be spared, Julian said—the believers would survive this plague.
Julian’s followers destroyed the spaceship. It was both a gesture of their obedience of the Lord’s decree and a way to ensure that this sickness would not spread to other humans across the stars. But not everyone heeded the Lord’s warning. A few people, fearful for their lives and lacking faith, found another solution. They couldn’t save their bodies from the plague, so they transferred their minds into a computer instead.
They were trapped there still, their souls having escaped hell, but unable to ever reach paradise. The computer was their purgatory. All they could do was project images of themselves within the confines of their bunker deep within the caves.
But even computers wouldn’t last forever. Machines needed repair and maintenance. Julian Li decreed that it was the responsibility of the faithful to help their strayed brethren. A small sin in order to help the unfortunate souls trapped in the metal box. A sin, Julian said, canceled out by the selflessness of the act.
And so it was for centuries. Although Lydia’s people didn’t understand the technology involved, they performed the physical tasks to keep the computer running, as instructed by one of the disembodied ancestors.
Everyone in Lydia’s community made an occasional trip to the caves, to speak to whichever one of the ancestors was their distant relation. Although the woman who manifested herself now wasn’t Lydia’s immediate family, she might as well have been. She appeared to Lydia and her parents and grandparents before her, acting as a sounding board, helping with relationship problems and other small bits of advice. Lydia grew up around Grandmother, always there to offer guidance, unchanging, with that glint in her eyes, as though she was laughing at a private joke she was remembering from earlier.
Lydia told Grandmother about the reason for her visit.
“I get where your dad’s coming from, kiddo,” said Grandmother. “It won’t be long until the strangers’ ship leaves. He doesn’t want you to be heartbroken when they do, and neither do I.”
“I don’t love him, Grandmother. I’m just doing what you asked.”
“Don’t love him, eh?” Grandmother raised her eyebrow. “At your age, do you truly know the difference?”
“I am seventeen already, not a child! We can’t all be a thousand years old, like you.”
“Ha! I will have you know I’m not a day older than 687. But enough about me. Tell me about this boy. Has he revealed anything we didn’t already know?”
“Not really. He mostly talks about music and other harmless things.” Lydia tilted her head. “Grandma, why don’t you want to meet them? Why did you ask us to keep your existence a secret from the newcomers?”
“We can’t know what’s in their hearts, kiddo. What if they decide to destroy us, or take us away? Your people wouldn’t be able to stop them. No, it’s best that they never even know we’re here.”
They talked for a long time. Grandmother was always such a good listener, and she knew exactly when to ask a prodding question and when to just let Lydia speak. Finally, Lydia broached the subject that had been nagging her for days.
“Why does everyone dislike the newcomers so much? Sure, they’ve strayed from the Path, but so have the ancestors, and we’re taught to love and honor you despite this. I’ve been watching carefully; the visitors haven’t done anything wrong, haven’t disrupted our way of life.”
Grandmother stroked her chin, the little smile never quite leaving her face.
“You ask a difficult question,” she said. “I guess the short answer is, we’re family. We look out for each other, and love each other not because of our differences, but despite them. These new people are strangers, and now that they are here, more could follow. The best course of action is to show them nothing of value, to flaunt a hostile attitude in order to drive the message home that they aren’t wanted. With any luck, they will muddle about a little longer, then deem this planet not worth their time and attention, and move on.”
As Lydia was getting ready to leave, Grandmother said, “Obey your father and keep away from that boy, but keep an eye on the newcomers still. Tell me if you learn anything new.”
Lydia promised that she would.
Lydia avoided Ahad, just like Father said. She stayed away from their usual meeting place, and he couldn’t come to the village—the elders made it clear that the visitors weren’t welcome, and the ship’s captain ordered her crew to heed their wishes.
Lydia and several other young women were picking berries when she saw Ahad at the edge of the field, trying to wave her over. When she ignored him, Ahad ran to her across the field, almost trampling several of the carefully cultivated bushes. Reluctantly, she walked toward him, leaving her friends behind.
“Are you all right?” asked Ahad. “I’ve been waiting at our tree every day for the last two weeks, but you never came.”
“I’m not permitted to talk to you anymore,” she said. “You should leave, before both of us get in trouble.”
Ahad chewed his lip as he processed the news. “That’s why I came to see you,” he said. “We’re leaving.”
Grandmother was right. The Devil had failed to tempt anyone to sin by bringing this spaceship, and it was finally going away. “Safe journey,” she said, and turned to leave.
“Wait,” said Ahad. “Come with me?”
“What? Are you insane?”
“I spoke to the Captain and she said she would allow it, if you wanted to come with me. There are so many amazing things to see and do out there, Lydia. So much more than this … prehistoric existence of yours. You aren’t like the others; you’re smart, inquisitive … You’d love it out there.” Ahad shuffled from foot to foot. “Besides, I can’t stand the thought of not seeing you for almost a year.”
Lydia’s eyes narrowed. “What happens in a year?”
“A much bigger expedition is going to come back. They found a huge mother lode of precious minerals in the mountains. Must’ve been why your people settled here in the first place. If you want, we can both return on that ship.”
Her mind raced. The visitors would be coming back, in greater numbers. They would be digging in the mountains, not far from where the caves were.
Grandmother would know what to do.
“I have to go,” she stammered.
She ran toward the caves. Ahad called after her, tried to say something else, but she couldn’t hear him.
I was afraid this might happen,” said Grandmother. “I suppose it was too much to hope that they wouldn’t find the ores. After all, we found them easily enough, back in my day.”
“I fear it will only be a matter of time until they discover your caves after they return,” said Lydia.
“It’s sweet of you to be concerned for us, kiddo,” said Grandmother. “But the danger is far worse than that. There is a long and shameful history of something called ‘colonialism’ dating all the way back to when humans all lived on the same planet.”
Lydia pondered the unfamiliar word. “What does that mean?”
For the first time ever, Grandmother looked somber, the ever-present smirk gone from her lips. “It means things never work out well for the natives when the more technologically advanced settlers decide to move in. They will assimilate you at best, or eradicate you at worst. If this spaceship is allowed to return to its home world, that could be the end of the people of the True Path.”
Lydia shivered at the prospect. “There must be something we can do!”
“There is,” said Grandmother after a brief moment of hesitation, “but I don’t know if I can ask this of you.”
Lydia caressed the egg-shaped device the size of a child’s fist. Its smooth metal surface felt strange and unnatural to her fingers. She could hardly believe that something this small was powerful enough to destroy a spaceship. It was a wicked weapon from the pre-Path days. Lydia had followed Grandmother’s instructions to find it stored in one of the rooms of the bunker.
When Grandmother asked her to sneak a bomb onboard, Lydia was horrified. How could she, a devout woman, commit the terrible sin of murder? Multiple murders—Grandmother explained that the device would become activated when it sensed the ship’s acceleration and destroy it minutes after it lifted off, setting off an explosion that would turn the vessel into a giant fireball.
It was for the good of the community, Grandmother said. Five lives would be lost in order to save her family, her friends, and her village. It was just like using technology to help maintain the ancestors’ computer—a sin canceled out by the righteous intention.
And then there was the matter of the sickness. Grandmother said that the visitors were going to unknowingly carry it back to their home world. While Lydia and others had descended from people who survived the plague, the visitors shared no such immunity. Deaths of the five of them could save countless thousands on their world from becoming infected.
Lydia was repulsed at the thought of a machine being grafted into her body.
Still, she wasn’t entirely certain that she would be able to do this, when the time came.
She hid the egg bomb deep in her pocket and walked toward the ship.
Once there, she asked for Ahad, and he was promptly summoned. He beamed at her, delighted at her decision to join him. Whatever his sins, his feelings for her were obviously genuine. It made Lydia feel even more guilty over what she was about to do.
“Come, I will introduce you to the captain,” said Ahad, “and then I must get back to work. There is so much to do before we leave tomorrow.”
Lydia nodded. This gave her enough time to plant the bomb and get out.
The captain was a tall, middle-aged woman named Jean. She shook Lydia’s hand firmly, and something in her assured manner reminded Lydia of Grandmother.
“Glad to have you join us, Lydia,” she said. “Ahad has talked everyone’s ears off about you.” The Captain waved over one of her men. “The doc will have you outfitted with the Link.”
Lydia was repulsed at the thought of a machine being grafted into her body. “I don’t want a Link,” she said meekly. “Thank you.”
“Nonsense,” said the captain. “Everything on the ship is controlled via the Link. You won’t even be able to unlock your cabin door without it.” The captain placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she added. “It’s a quick procedure, and practically painless. You’ll thank us afterward.”
The doctor ushered her into a small room and instructed her to lie down on a cot. Lydia felt trapped in this unnatural metal vessel, her senses protesting against the unfamiliar scents, sounds and sights that were overwhelming her. She must find a way to stall, to avoid the procedure, and then to plant her bomb and escape the ship. But if what the Captain said was true and even the doors around here wouldn’t open without the infernal device, what hope did she have of succeeding without it?
Violating her body with the implant would mean she could never hope to enter paradise. Then again, she was about to commit mass murder. The Devil would have her, either way. She was ready to sacrifice herself for the good of her people.
Lydia climbed onto the cot and allowed the doctor to stab a very thin needle into her arm.
Lydia woke up to a whisper of a thousand voices inside her head.
Without opening her eyes, she reached for her temple and felt the metal abomination that protruded above her ear. She was just like one of the visitors now. She wondered how long she’d been asleep, whether the ship was still on the ground or if it was too late and she was hurtling through space, far away from home.
A louder voice emerged from the cacophony in her head, informing her that it was just after four o’clock past midnight. The ship would be lifting off in the morning.
She shivered. The Devil had found its way into her mind. Could the others hear her thoughts, learn of her intention through the Link? It assured her that they could not, and she had no choice but to believe it. She prayed that once she got off the ship, the voices would cease.
She stumbled off the cot, checked her pocket, and breathed a sigh of relief. The bomb was still there. No one on the ship thought to search the simple, backwater native. She explored the room, opening compartments until she found a perfect hiding place for the bomb. She slid it under some medical supplies and carefully closed the drawer. No one should discover it in time. She hesitated. Was she really willing to end five lives? On an impulse, she asked the Link about colonialism.
The Link showed her many things, but among them were images of slave ships sailing toward a newly discovered continent and of smallpox-ridden blankets being offered to the unsuspecting natives. It showed her images of various alien races, subjugated and abused by the human colonists. The strong came and took what they wanted, without regard for the lives of the less advanced peoples who happened to be in their way. Lydia couldn’t let her own community share that fate.
She willed the cabin door open. She feared that she might be trapped without knowing how to operate the Link, but apparently just thinking her command was enough. The door slid open silently, releasing her into the corridor. She wondered how to get off the ship, and the Link showed her. She tiptoed through the ship, slumbering but never silent, the strange sounds of its engines melding with the Link’s whispers inside her head.
The crew was asleep. No one challenged her as she slipped away into the night.
The Devil tempted her constantly through the Link.
How could she resist? Whatever question she thought of, the gadget delivered the answer right into her mind. The Link taught her how to shut off the whispers—the multitude of modes which were operating all at once. It also taught her how to enter privacy mode—shutting off all communication from other Links and concealing her location. All she had to do now was hide and wait for liftoff.
Once Lydia was reasonably certain that the visitors couldn’t track her through the Link, she headed for the caves. She thought of going home, but wasn’t yet prepared to face the opprobrium from her community.
She’d given up her place in paradise in order to save them all, but she knew that she would also be giving up so much more. Her friends would abandon her. She wouldn’t get married. Her family would tolerate her presence, but only just.
Lydia felt sorry for herself, then felt ashamed, because while her future might not be a pleasant one, she would get to have a future, unlike the five strangers she’d condemned to death with her actions.
As she welcomed the dawn, the Devil continued to tempt her. She could save them still. All it would take was activating the Link and reaching out to Ahad or to Captain Jean, and convincing them to delay the launch. Lydia wrapped her jacket closer around herself in the pre-morning cold, and fought the temptation.
When the spaceship roared to life and launched to the heavens, when she heard a great boom moments later, and dozens of falling red comets could be seen in the sky despite fledgling daylight, it was almost a relief.
Lydia headed into the caves. There was a supply of candles stored near the entrance, but she discovered that with the Link she didn’t need them. The gadget was able to see in the dark and project the image of her surroundings into her mind as though she were strolling through the sunlit valley in midday.
A live network detected, whispered the Link once Lydia entered the ancestors’ bunker. Do you wish to absorb its data?
A live network? It must’ve meant the computer that housed the ancients. What sort of secrets did they keep, throughout the centuries? Lydia couldn’t resist the temptation. She allowed the Link to proceed, and a nearly infinite stream of information flowed into her mind.
She stopped, stunned. She leaned against the wall, then slid down onto the ground and sobbed while hugging herself. She remained there for a very long time, trying to process the ways in which her world had changed, desperately struggling to come to terms with her new reality. And after the initial shock had somewhat faded, after her tears dried up and her hands stopped shaking, all that was left was rage.
She stormed into the room that housed the holographic projector. When Grandmother’s smiling avatar appeared, she stared it square in the eye.
“How could you?” Lydia shouted. “How could you do this to us?”
Grandmother frowned. “Do what, kiddo?”
“Lie to us. Manipulate us into being little more than servants to your precious computer. Screw up countless generations of real people, so your digital shadows can continue their pointless existence inside a tin box!”
Grandmother stared at her, mouth agape. “How? …”
“I know everything now,” said Lydia. “You invented the True Path to manipulate the colonists into quietly waiting for death while a handful of you made arrangements to upload your mind patterns when you became infected. But that wasn’t enough for you. You preyed on the survivors, forcing a rigid lifestyle that would keep the colony stagnant and ignorant, and would keep the people nearby so they could perform the maintenance tasks on your orders.”
“We kept your society stable, safe, and coherent,” said Grandmother. “You don’t know war or serious crime.”
“We also don’t know science, or medicine. You’ve kept that away from us. My real grandmother might still be alive if she had access to the kind of treatments your people knew of six hundred years ago. How many more might have lived longer, happier lives?”
“You’ve known me your entire life, Lydia,” Grandmother said earnestly. “Do you truly think me a monster?”
Lydia paced the small room as she spoke. “The Devil roams the world seeking whom he may devour. He always tempts, subverts, and whispers lies into people’s ears to achieve his purpose, but on his own he’s powerless to do anything.” She advanced on the hologram until she was face to face with Grandmother. “You are that Devil. You have wormed your way into our hearts, manipulating us through deceit and a made-up faith. The True Path teaches us to exorcise the Devil from our hearts and minds. Who knew it would be as easy as flipping the off switch?”
“You can’t mean that!” Grandmother said. “If you turn off the machine, all of us will die. Is that what you really want?”
Her image flickered and changed to a kindly old man. Then a plump woman in her late forties. It changed again and again.
“There are twelve of us inside the computer,” said Grandmother’s voice. “We’ve known each member of your community since birth; we’re grandparents to every family, loved by our distant grandchildren. Would you truly do this to us, and to them? We may have lost our bodies to the plague, but our minds remain. We wish to live, to survive, as much as anyone else. All we’ve ever done was out of necessity, trying to find a way to go on.”
Grandmother’s image returned and she continued to speak. “Do you truly think your community would ever forgive you? And could you go on with twelve more deaths on your conscience?”
“No,” said Lydia. “But the Devil has taught me that it’s all right to commit a sin, so long as it’s for the greater good.”
She snapped the holographic projector off its perch in the corner of the room and smashed it against the ground. Grandmother’s image and voice disappeared. Then she walked out of the meeting room and into the chamber that housed the computer itself.
Grandmother was wrong if she thought that Lydia didn’t have it in her to turn off the computer. But death wasn’t the worst fate she could imagine for the ancestors. Lydia used her Link to help her deactivate all the cameras and sensors in the bunker, one by one.
The ancestors would continue to exist until their computer would break down on its own. But they could no longer poison the people’s minds, or even learn of anything happening inside the bunker. All they had left for the rest of their digital lives was each other.
Hungry and miserable, Lydia sat alone in the room next to the computer. At some point, she would have to go back home.
They would see her Link, and they would find the holographic projector smashed on the ground of the bunker and the ancestors gone, and they would draw conclusions. Even with all the information in the world available to her through the Link, she didn’t know what they would do to her after that. But she’d saved her people twice in one day, even if none of them would ever know it, and the knowledge of that would have to be enough to get through whatever came next.
Lydia began a long trek back to the village.
Alex Shvartsman is a writer, editor, translator, and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 80 of his short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2015 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Fiction.