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Where The Monster Lurks

by Malik Mufti

The Vizier sat in the front row of worshippers, along with the other dignitaries, as the High Hierophant droned toward the end of his sermon on fidelity: fidelity to the Twin Goddesses who poured their beneficence down to all in equal measure, to their representative the Emperor, to the officials high and low who enforce his laws, to the collective good of his subjects.

Eyes half closed, the Vizier had tuned out most of the service, stroking groomed whiskers as his mind flitted from one vexation to another. First, that cur Suf-An four seats to the right with his endless scheming at the imperial court. Then, the ongoing decline in revenues despite his latest tax levies, and the mediocre performance of the expeditionary force he had sent to crush the fanatics in the outlands. Finally, above all, his private passion, the manuscript that had stymied him for so long – his exposition on the conundrum of the One and the Many propounded by the ancient philosopher Hak-El. Now, however, alerted belatedly by a familiar and hitherto reliable instinct, the Vizier’s attention dove back down into the temple. 

The High Hierophant, who was no fool, had been treading a fine line between acknowledging the congregation’s concerns – about official corruption for example – and affirming the Emperor’s Goddesses-given mandate to rule. But there was no mistaking the increasingly desultory, even resentful, tone of the responses to his benedictions from the rabble crowded row upon row to the Vizier’s rear. Was it the crushing taxes? The arbitrary conscription? He turned to the aide behind him.

No, they were complaining about the government’s failure to do something about a supposed monster that had been terrorizing the capital in recent days. It was said to emerge from the great river Idigna which divided the city in two, seizing solitary pedestrians who were never heard from again. The Vizier recognized the panic that slithered and surged like a sinister current through the assembled mass. This was not good.

#

Deaf to the urban clamor around him, blind to the captivating reflections of the two holy moons in the Idigna’s waters, the Vizier contemplated the urgency of his situation as he walked across the Bridge of Triumphs, the most magnificent of the river’s many crossings, and made his way up to the affluent part of town where he lived. It was his habit to dispense with carriage and attendants when needing to plot his major moves.

Just days after the disquieting temple service, he had been summoned to an imperial audience. Entering the Grand Hall, he had noted at once the uncharacteristic absence of music and raucous laughter, and how the young Emperor’s boon companions – Suf-An of course at their head – mimicked his grim visage. The Vizier had come prepared to account for the recent financial and military setbacks, but instead the Emperor demanded to know why nothing had been done to allay the populace’s panic about the river monster. He had ten days to deal with it.

The Vizier had been unable to resist glancing at Suf-An. There it was: the hint of a smile, the embryo of a sneer. But also something else, softer and more elusive, as if Suf-An saw a secret he himself could not. He had forced himself to focus on the trap that now lay before him. His failure to capture the nonexistent monster would provide the pretext for his ouster. He would be accused of negligence and corruption, put to torture until he revealed the various hiding places of the fortune he had accumulated, and then cast out as a scapegoat for the envy and rage of the mob.

But now, scaling the Idigna’s eastern embankment under the crepuscular moonslight, the repellent sights, sounds, and smells of the capital’s teeming western half receding behind him, the Vizier was no longer concerned. That very morning he had received the latest dispatch from the governor of Kharba, the southern port where the Idigna flowed into the great sea. Kharba had been the pinnacle of the technological efflorescence overseen by the previous emperor – a fully submersible city built right on the shoreline in defiance of the land-swallowing tides generated by the twin moons. Most of the dispatch was routine – riots suppressed, imposts levied – but, in an attempt to inject a diverting note, the governor also recounted how after a particularly massive ebb tide, the remains of a large sea creature had been found on the beach. It appeared to be a giant specimen of the sort of squid fishermen occasionally capture in their nets, but putrefaction and bloating had rendered it unrecognizable. The Vizier wrote back at once, ordering the carcass to be shipped up the Idigna in strict secrecy.

On, then, to the reason he had chosen to walk alone. He had made a breakthrough in understanding how Hak-El resolved the dilemma of participation, which lay at the core of his theory of being: how the world’s diverse multiplicity could nevertheless be generated by one eternally unchanging, entirely separate truth. It was right there, more or less, in his second and fifth hypotheses. Positing a relationship between the One and the Many, which allowed participation to take place without compromising the integrity of the former hinged on the realization that Hak-El’s definition of the One was equivocal. This insight would be his claim to true greatness as a philosopher. This would show his mentor, who back at the academy had tried to steer him toward more mundane problems better suited, she apparently thought, to his limited abilities.

The Vizier reached his mansion and hurried up the stairs past the laughter emanating from the family quarters. He would wash up and change into finer garments before heading for his private study on the top floor, eager to begin outlining the final revisions to his manuscript.

#

It was some days past the Emperor’s deadline when the Vizier headed for the temple downtown, once again forgoing his carriage despite the now full-dark. He had dealt with his various distractions. The Kharba squid’s disfigured cadaver had been paraded through streets to popular acclaim, pacifying the rabble, solidifying his position at court, and redirecting the Emperor’s expropriatory attention to his rival. Once the imperial torturers were done with him, Suf-An would be released, stripped of his fortune and – lest he be tempted to join the growing rebel ranks – of his eyes as well.

As he crossed the Bridge of Triumphs onto the pathway which hugged the western bank of the river for a while before veering into city center, therefore, the Vizier concentrated on his real problem: his resolution of the Hak-El dilemma had proven illusory. There was no getting around it – the missing term of the decisive syllogism in the fifth hypothesis was untenable. How had he overlooked that? Could it really be that Hak-El’s entire treatise on the One and the Many was an obscure and elaborate joke? What did it mean?

Just then, however, the ripples and splashes behind him that had for some seconds registered only on his subconscious reached a volume that brought him crashing down to earth. He spun around, eyes wide open. There was nothing there. It must have been a fish leaping for some prey. Smiling at his own folly, the Vizier resumed his descent into the seething heart of the city.

~

Bio:

Malik Mufti is a professor of political science at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts, USA. His writings focus on Near Eastern politics and political philosophy.

Philosophy Note:

This story is inspired by an anecdote the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun recounts in his Kitab al-Ibar about an ostensible river monster that terrorized the people of Baghdad one year. It provides the framework for an exploration of the ancient philosophical question of unity and multiplicity, and of the vital importance of participation between the one and the many.

Hollow Pursuits: Is Star Trek Truly A Universe With No Gods Or Creeds?

by Mina

Earlier this year (21 August 2021), Yanis Varoufakis published an article about politics and international relations, discussing Star Trek’s (ST) Prime Directive, i.e. that those with superior technology must not interfere in cultures/communities which are still technologically behind: “the invader’s motives, good or bad, matter not one iota”. Varoufakis finds this liberal anti-imperialist doctrine particularly fascinating because it was part of the original Star Trek (TOS) in the 1960s and could be interpreted as a criticism of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. He calls this a clear political philosophy and a critique of US foreign policy that is still relevant today. It is a good point, but I do not want to delve further into political philosophy and ST here; rather, I would like to examine whether ST lends itself to a similar analysis with regard to religious and moral philosophy.

ST’s creator Gene Roddenberry was an atheist and “secular humanist” (i.e. espousing a philosophy that emphasises the importance of reason and people, rather than religion or God, for human fulfilment), who imagined a future without religious doctrine and conflict. To quote long-time ST producer Brannon Braga on Roddenberry’s wish to cast off “superstition and religion”:

“This was an important part of Roddenberry’s mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry’s future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.”

As an interesting aside, the word “God” was banned, even as an expletive, in Discovery (one of ST’s most recent reincarnations). So, is ST a universe devoid of religious and moral philosophy (which I prefer to “superstition and religion”)?

To begin with, ST is full of encounters with god-like beings, such as Q. Q is most definitely not a god, but he does remind us of the Ancient Greek and Roman gods in his capriciousness and callous disregard for individuals. Even his affection for Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG) reminds us of Roman and Greek mythology, with bored gods playing with their favourite mortal toys (like Q plays with the crew of the Enterprise in his first appearance in Encounter at Farpoint). Since each episode is created by humans, we should not be surprised that the writers and producers draw their inspiration from human history, mythology, and religious and moral philosophy. A nice detail is that even semi-gods like Q show character development. Q in particular appears in several episodes in STNG and Voyager (VOY) and gains depth over these episodes.

To my mind, the Klingons also fall into this category of drawing from human history: they are a war-like race that seem like a cross between certain aspects of the Vikings and Japanese samurai. The Klingon philosophy is based on being a warrior as a way of life, attaining a glorious death, semi-religious rituals (e.g. the Klingon death rite), weapons as semi-mystical objects (e.g. the bat’leth, a double-sided scimitar), Kahless (a messianic figure in Klingon lore), Sto-vo-kor (the Klingon afterlife) and Gre’thor (a Klingon Hades). The most interesting thing in Discovery is the Klingons wishing to remain themselves, with their own language and culture, and not to be absorbed into a Federation that would literally “emasculate” them. Although female Klingons are presented as fierce warriors too, they do seem to be reduced to the status of Klingons-with-breasts, i.e. there is no real attempt made to differentiate between the Klingon sexes in ST.

In his article on opuszine, Jason Morehead gives examples of TOS episodes where human religions are at the very least respected. In TOS: Balance of Terror, Captain Kirk officiates a wedding in a universal “chapel” on the Enterprise at the beginning of the episode. The chapel appears again at the end of the episode as a place for grief. In STNG, the chapel seems to have been replaced by the holodeck where the crew can recreate any place or ritual they wish, e.g. the Klingon Rite of Ascension is STNG: The Icarus Factor. In TOS: Bread and Circuses, Uhura corrects the crew’s erroneous interpretation of the “sun” worship in the local culture, reminding them of the worship of the “son of God” in Earth’s not-so-distant history. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are forced to acknowledge the power in history of a religion based on love and brotherhood, where great sacrifices are possible.

Morehead finds it fascinating that even in TOS, religious matters do occasionally creep in:

“…it seems odd to strive to be so faithful to the letter of Gene Roddenberry’s ethos when even he was frequently incapable of doing so. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s weird to be so focused on this particular aspect of Roddenberry’s vision (his atheism), particularly when those series that he was most involved in - The Original Series and The Next Generation  - weren’t afraid to include such content. (If nothing else, religious and faith matters can make for great drama.)”

Brannon Braga has also been quoted as saying:

“…there was no consideration in giving humans, talking about God, or talking about those types of things. We wanted to avoid it to be quite frank. But we did very often explore theology through alien characters. Which frankly is much more interesting anyway. Whether it was the Bajorans and their religion or the Borg and their religion. They had the religion of perfection. That, I think, was more interesting. We want to keep Star Trek secular. The human facet of Star Trek secular.”

This brings us nicely to The Borg as seen in STNG and VOY, and the Bajorans and their “Prophets” in Deep Space Nine (DS9). The Borg with their extreme collectivism and hive mind could be seen as a sublimated form of communism: there is no “I”, only “we”. Yet even this collective has a “queen” presented very much as an individual, comparable to a female Stalin or dictator. Characters like Seven of Nine in VOY are shown as needing to recover from the complete brainwashing that comes with such a totalitarian philosophy. The Borg have a form of immortality (each drone’s memories and experiences live on in the collective consciousness) and they strive for a perfect (technological and transhumanist) “ideal”, both of which are aspects of most world religions.

The Bajoran faith and mysticism is built around their Prophets, regardless of the fact that Starfleet science considers them “wormhole aliens” (DS9: Emissary). Ben Sisko asks his son Jake to respect the Bajoran belief in their Prophets as gods in DS9: In the Hands of the Prophets. For Ben Sisko, your own beliefs do not mean that you can disregard and disrespect the beliefs of others; “it is a matter of interpretation”. The Prophets are one of the central plot arcs in DS9. I could not summarise it better than here on Ex Astris Scientia:

“The general tendency is that the Bajoran faith grows on Ben Sisko, that the Prophets are gradually becoming more god-like and that ultimately Ben even becomes one of them. The Prophets’ god-like nature becomes particularly clear in the episodes where they determine the destinies of the Bajoran people and of Sisko, respectively…”

This reminds me of Old Testament prophets in the Christian Bible, and Sisko’s journey has Buddhist undertones for does he not become a sort of Buddha in the eyes of the Bajorans?

This brings us to the Vulcans and a bridge into humanism, where each individual has agency and can contribute to the future of the human race. Whereas ancient Vulcans seem to have practised a polytheistic faith (STNG: Gambit), modern Vulcans have enshrined logic and science above all else, based on a philosophy developed by Surak, where logic must rule over all emotions and science has an answer for everything. Is this not a large part of secular humanism? Humanism in my view simply replaces gods with humanity. Behind STNG’s utopian universe in particular is the belief that humanity can move beyond its primitive origins, reach for the stars and achieve wondrous things. This comes uncomfortably close to deifying ourselves, creating an “Übermensch” or, at the very least, an unforgiving meritocracy. This is why one of my favourite episodes is STNG: Hollow Pursuits.

Hollow Pursuits is for me a critique of an unbridled humanism. The character of Barclay begins as a perceived failure in STNG: he is shy, nervous, a terrible communicator and physically unprepossessing; he has OCD tendencies and seems bright but unstable. Barclay does not fit in and even Picard trips up and uses the crew’s nickname for Barclay (Broccoli). Barclay hides on the holodeck where he has developed programmes to boost his lack of self-confidence, leading to a holodeck addiction. It is the only episode that shows the crushing weight of the meritocracy that comes with Roddenberry’s espousal of humanism. It also shows how the crew must take some responsibility for the state Barclay is in (highlighted by Guinan in one scene) and for understanding and supporting him. With the right support, Barclays is able to prove that he too has a valuable place in the ST universe. This episode is also humorous and shows that audiences held the fumbling Barclay in great affection because he went on to appear in other episodes where it is precisely his idiosyncrasies that help him save the day. This offers a little balance in an otherwise painfully perfect social order.

I would argue that all of the ST universe contains spirituality in some form – for what else is a search into the mysteries of the universe and the nature of man? I would also argue that this spirituality has a place in even a mostly atheist or agnostic future (and that humanism itself is a moral philosophy, even if it is not a religious one). As the authors (Jörg Hillebrand et al) of Ex Astris Scientia (EAS) state:

“Roddenberry condemned religion because it suppressed people in his view, which is definitely true for some eras of human history. But he did not look at the other side of the medal that, quite contrary to his statement that religion is making people dull, it has enriched Earth’s cultures and even science in the course of the centuries. What would our world be without its magnificent cathedrals and temples, without music and literature inspired by religion, without scientific interest that has its roots in the desire to be closer to god(s)?“

They go on to say:

“There are certainly fundamentalists who do not respect other views than their own. However, like political fanaticism this is just an outgrowth of human nature, not of the idea of religion. It would be unfair and ultimately counter-productive to ignore the ways of life of the majority of humanity in an effort to depict ST as a desirable future for them. In order to achieve Roddenberry’s utopia some day, we could ponder about abolishing everything that might be subject to misuse or what might restrict our freedom. But then we could question the existence of just about every technological, cultural, political or social custom, law or institution, anything that makes up our lives. With a firm stance that it would be better to take away faith from people, ST, in its few worst instalments, is just as narrow-minded and arrogant as the religious zeal it strives to condemn. On these occasions ST acts against its own principles.”

However, I would not couch my conclusions quite as negatively as EAS because ST has involved many different “cooks” and they did not “spoil the broth”. In fact, the ST canon in all its guises repeatedly asks questions and draws many different conclusions about philosophy, religion, mysticism, faith, rituals, false gods, humanism and the human race’s general search for meaning. If this universe sometimes contradicts itself (or its creator), that is a happily accurate rendition of our own universe, where we are faced with many questions, conflicting views and no easy answers.

Coda: Some claim that ST itself has turned into a religion or cult, with its conventions, fan clubs, forums, fan fic, a founding prophet (Roddenberry), a set of (humanist) beliefs or principles, scripture in the form of well-loved and much-quoted episodes, debates about what is “canon” and what is derivative, collectibles as pseudo-sacred objects, a vision of a utopia to be striven for, etc. However, I think I would agree with Mark Strauss’ conclusion that this is a bridge too far. Fandom or even a sub-culture do not a religion make.

~

Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

Apocrita

by Cooper Shrivastava

The day the last drone of the old generation dies becomes the Feast of the Renewed Eye, and the whole hive comes alive in dance and drumming. They pour from the ziggurat, every last bee tumbling claw over eyecluster, burning their feet on the sun-soaked sand outside. Today is the day the adult generation comes of age, and the youths are assigned houses and castes. Today is the day they drink the honeypus from the back of the Prophet-Queen. Today is the day they see the vision of the afterlife and are rewarded with knowledge of which of the six combs—two of world, two of heaven, two of underworld—will be their eternal home.

Today is Ruzig’s last day as a costumer. After the ritual, he and the other costumer bees of the older generation will become drones, and chosen members of the youngest generation will step into their shoes. Ruzig has never flown under the hot sun to search for pollen and nectar; his life’s work has been the hummingbird costumes arrayed before them, the symbol of Sygyzmur, god of his House. He has been a costumer since he ascended the southernmost side of the ziggurat and joined the House of Red Orb, leaving behind Aurzosh, Oddi, Uhar, his childhood friends.

Ruzig looks at the other costumer of the House of Red Orb, Agba. Together they tie off a costume, while the warrior wearing it sips nectar from Agba’s open mandibles. They move to the next warrior, chitin becoming feathers, exoskeleton becoming endoskeleton, compound eyes becoming simple lenses, mouthparts adapted for chewing and sucking becoming a beak with the tongue torn out, as the warrior becomes an avatar of Sygyzmur, the god of diplomacy, sisterhood, and the six cardinal directions.

Agba goes to the front of the swarm of the House of Red Orb, and Ruzig loses sight of him. He is still tying off a great golden hummingbird skin, which has taken on an almost punishing lustre under the sun’s rays.

To the left of Ruzig, the House of Map begins their dance, their warriors outfitted in the skins of beetles, the avatar of zTriibigzz. The rattle of wings both living and dead shakes each of the tiny hairs that grow on Ruzig’s body until he
can’t feel or hear anything but the House of Map. Ruzig feels as if the ground, the ziggurat, the whole world is vibrating. It has begun.

The bees of the House of Red Orb begin to crawl towards the ziggurat but the holy form is missing one hummingbird: the last costume is still clutched in Ruzig’s front claws, as the warrior meant to wear it has disappeared on ahead
rather than risk missing her one chance to taste honeypus.

Ruzig swivels around in alarm. These rituals are his holy responsibility, and he cannot expose the colony to the disfavor of Sygyzmur by failing to complete the set.

At the base of the structure the bees spin and then smack the ground, and the drumming intensifies. The Prophet-Queen has emerged from the top of the ziggurat and Ruzig is stricken with awe. He has loved her from afar, as all bees do, for his whole life, and the momentousness of this occasion suddenly strikes him, overpowering his fear of being left behind and his worry for the dance and the costumes and sacred geometry, and even overpowering his fear of what vision he will see of his afterlife.

She is gigantic, and the six pimples on Her back are swollen and ripe for bursting. Her antennae are large and pendulous. Her thorax is scarred from the fight with Her sister-Queen when She seized the hive. Her spermathica is full from Her recent mating flight. Soon there will be larvae. She flaps Her wings and the bees vibrate in ecstasy, roll on the ground, wave their antennae, share nectar mouth to mouth with one another.

The pace of the drumming accelerates further, and the bees of the younger generation start to push forward, converging on the ziggurat. Ruzig is left at the outskirts of the staging area trapped by the oncoming flood of younger bees, but unable to move without abandoning the heavy costume of the hummingbird god.

He pulls it along the ground behind him, frantic, allowing the sunset orange and lemon peel yellow feathers to drag on the ground, as the younger bees come racing up behind him. His heart breaks to think each house will reach the top of
the ziggurat with six sets of six dancers except for Red Orb.

The fastest of the younger bees has reached Ruzig, and steps on the wing of the hummingbird costume as he races by. He gets behind the costume and pushes with all his might, but he is no warrior bee, and it merely flops over. The young ones are upon him; Ruzig can’t protect the costume from their furry mass.

But then he sees a single body turning around, a warrior from the House of Orchid. The warrior leaves his swarm and takes to the air, managing for several long seconds to look away from the Prophet-Queen, and to come zipping low over the heads of the assembly to where Ruzig is huddled near his trampled costume.

Aurzosh is immediately recognizable even after all this time; his bony mid-tibial spurs, his slender hind basitarsus, his corbicula clean of flower pollen for the occasion. He nudges Ruzig with his forelegs, but the air is too saturated with odor plumes and pheromones and vibrations for them to communicate.

Aurzosh nudges Ruzig again, grabbing the costume in his mandibles. Ruzig is stunned. He is seeing two wondrous sights today: the Prophet-Queen, and member of the House of Orchid who is willing to take on the costume of the Red
Orb, willing to take it on for Ruzig’s sake.

They heave the costume over Aurzosh’s head and let off prayers of odor plumes from their tarsal glands. They are almost, but not quite, close enough to smell each other. Ruzig vomits nectar from their comb’s collective stomach into
Aurzosh’s mouth, and he can’t imagine it tastes good, he is a poor honey-alchemist, but Aurzosh swallows it and trundles through the crowd of young bees, with Ruzig in his wake.

Aurzosh doggedly pushes bodies out of the way. He will not take flight, for he, like Ruzig, will not destroy the sacred symmetries. Ruzig grabs the tattered tail of the hummingbird costume in his mandibles and lets himself be pulled forward, until his feet hit the waxy steps.

They are getting close, and Ruzig’s tiny heart pounds as he thinks they might make it after all. Aurzosh is climbing faster now, overtop the other bees so his legs land on furry bodies rather than the tacky wax of the ziggurat. He can see the great white pustules on the Prophet-Queen’s back; he is closer to Her than he ever has been before!

Ruzig’s eyes are fixed on the Queen, and that is why he doesn’t notice as fast as the other bees do. Bees take to the air from the sides of the ziggurat, disrupting the sacred geometries. For a moment he is consumed with rage at their
heresy, but then a shadow falls over him and Aurzosh, who have finally reached the middle tier, just steps below their Queen.

The shadow forms the shape of a paw, but with five long fingers and no claws. The warrior caste is fully in the air; even Aurzosh has shed his costume as they attack the intruder, but to no avail. It picks up the Queen in its monstrous grip
and pinches Her holy body upside down over a giant tub.

Ruzig watches on in horror as the pimples express. Six bursts of pus gush from her back, and into the monster’s collection tub, their prophetic power dissipating. The warriors are attacking frantically, and the workers and drones join
them, but it is too late. The Queen is tossed to the ground by the five fingered monster, Her holy body rolling through the dust.

The bees of the six houses swarm and sting, but the monster casually bats them away. Ruzig is in shock. Twelve warrior bees bear the body of the Queen back underground to the safety of the hive. She waves Her limbs in distress, the six burst pustules on Her back still oozing liquid. They are honorable bees and do not try to taste it.

The monster has retreated, taking their future with it in the tub. Ruzig stands on the ziggurat alone. All around him the hive is flying and mourning and moaning; the monster is gone and there is no one left to sting.

He does not know what he will become, only that he will no longer be a costumer. He does not know what he will face in the afterlife. He looks up into the red sun, so hot it burns his eyes, and searches in vain for the face of Sygyzmur.

~

Bio:

Cooper Shrivastava is a writer based in New York City. She was a member of the 2019 Clarion Writers Workshop, and her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Heavy Feather Review and Tor.com. She is currently working on her first novel.