Monday, May 3, 2010

Riverrun

-i-

Capt. Christopher LaHaye was exploring a solar system on the far side of Alpha Centuri when the wormhole he came through collapsed, leaving him stranded on the wrong side of the galaxy. There was one barely habitable planet in the solar system.

On its surface, the planet was largely one unending desert, enfolding the globe in a blanket of searing sand. But it also had a few huge lakes below sea level. Evaporation from the relentless sun precipitated snowfall in the mountainous polar regions. And from there, subterranean rivers gouged out deep and narrow ravines.

Although a few hardy shrubs formed a ribbon around the lakes, most life on the desertuous planet took refuge in the ravines. Chris would soon run out of food and water on his space ship, so he landed on the edge of a ravine to explore the world below.

-ii-

The steep walls were carpeted with bushes and vines, which gave him something to grab on to as he lowered himself into the ravine. Within a few yards of the surface, he found himself on terrace, with flowerbeds hugging the sides of the ravine. The terrace continued in either direction.

Peering warily over the terrace, he could see another terrace, and yet another—in a staircase of flowerbeds. As he looked across the ravine, he saw the same thing on the other side—like a double staircase. He also saw a rope bridge between the opposing terraces.

Perhaps “flowerbed” wasn’t the right word. Apparently, these were vegetable gardens. As they descended, the terraces faded into obscurity.

Far below was the invisible, but audible roar of a swift-moving river. At this time of day you could hear it, but you couldn’t see it.

The ravine was teaming with life. None of it was quite like anything on earth, but it was similar. Snake-like creatures, birdlike creatures, ape-like creatures, and so on.

Suddenly he also heard someone let out a shriek.

-iii-

When he spun around he saw a little boy running away from him. He considered climbing back up and out of the ravine, but before he had time to decide one way or the other, he was surrounded by a number of young humanoid males with menacing spears.

There were some tense moments when he couldn’t tell if they were going to kill him or not. Apparently, the tribe had traditional enemies, and was at the ready to defend itself against any and all intruders. On the other hand, he didn’t look like an ordinary stranger. Curiosity tempered ferocity.

While they deliberated, an older man approached. I’ll call him a “man” since this was a humanoid species, and it was easy to tell the sexes apart. Apparently he was the chieftain. He studied Chris intently, then spoke to the warriors in some incomprehensible tongue. They gestured that he was to follow them into the village.

The village occupied part of the upper terrace—on either side of the ravine—in a slender column of row houses. The chieftain sat him down and proceeded to interrogate him. Of course, Chris didn’t know a word of their language, so the chieftain found the exercise frustrating and aggravating. The chieftain then sent for a man who appeared to be their witch doctor or shaman.

Chris decided that the shaman would be a good person to impress with a display of uncanny force. Chris had his laser pistol with him. So he shot a bird from a tree.

Everyone began to chatter in great agitation. The shaman was overawed, and bowed to the ground.

Not only were they stunned by his ability to kill at a distance, but as he later learned, the bird he killed was one of their gods. The fact that he had such power over a god made him some sort of god.

Since he didn’t know their language, he must be a god of another tribe. So why had he come to here?

-iv-

Over the next few months, Chris began to master their language. He learned much from them, and they learned much from him.

They called themselves the Burrone people. And the Burronese were not the only tribe in the ravine. Upstream were the Borro, and downstream were the Gola. There were other tribes further upstream and downstream as well. But there wasn’t much communication between the various tribes, because it was so difficult to traverse the ravine. Overland travel was almost impossible due to the dense, intractable vegetation. Tribes maintained a few trails around their villages for farming, hunting, fishing, and trapping—but nothing continuous. Indeed, the natural barriers cut down on tribal warfare.

It as impossible to take a canoe upstream, against the current. It was treacherous to take a canoe downstream, and even if you could ride out the rapids—that was a one-way trip. There were legends about tribesman who had taken a canoe all the way down the river to the end of the world.

There were other ravines with other tribes, but the desert was impassable. Raiding parties would sometimes travel along the surface of the ravine, but it was too hot to go very far by day, and too cold to go very far by night.

Because the ravine had such a narrow opening, the days were short. Indeed, as Chris was soon to observe, much of Burronese culture was adapted to the limited sunshine. Life in the shady ravine created a stark contrast between sunlight and daylight, for the sun was directly overhead for just a fraction of the day.

That was playtime for the Burronese. They would work all morning and afternoon, but take a break when the sun was visible. They would also go up to the surface to ritually greet the sun at dawn, and ritually bid it farewell at dusk. Their astronomical knowledge was limited by the fact that they could see so little of the sky.

Even though they were pretty primitive in many respects, they had a fairly sophisticated hydraulic system. They built a watermill, powered by the river. Water was pumped through bamboo-type piping to irrigate crops and supply the villagers with water for washing, cooking, drinking, and bathing.

-v-

Christ found it both fascinating and lonely to live among them. Although his space ship was till operable, he could never reach home with the wormhole gone.

But, for him, the Burronese also posed a theological conundrum. They were clearly a fallen race, as were the other planetary tribes, but they had no story of redemption. They were religious, in their own, retrograde way.

They worshipped certain animals. There was a leopard-like creature that was their war-god. They also had their share of bird-gods and snake-gods. They worshipped the forces of nature, like fire.

They believed that when you die, you take a canoe ride down the river to the end of the world. They dimly understood that the river emptied into a lake, which—in their religion—was a vast oasis.

But what were they here for? Why did God make them?

Chris had originally planned to be a pastor. But he was torn between his love of theology, and his love of science. A seminary dropout, the prospect of space exploration proved to be irresistible.

Now he felt a little guilty about his failure to share the gospel. But what could he say? They were aliens. They had no Gospel. No Savior. No incarnation.

His history wasn’t their history. They couldn’t be evangelized, for they were literally inhuman. What had happened in his world never occurred in theirs.

Did they exist as an object lesson in depravity? Reprobation without election to illustrate the gratuity of grace? Was darkness their portion?

Or did their redemption lie in the future? Was he an instrument of providence?

Perhaps he would be like an Old Testament prophet. His New Testament would be their Old Testament. Types and shadows prefiguring their redemption to come.

Is that why God sent him to this God-forsaken planet? A dislocated astronaut with a prophetic vocation?

He could die on this planet, keeping what he knew to himself. Marry a native girl. Father kids. Or he could try to make a difference.

-vi-

So Chris told them his own story. The story of his world. The story of his Redeemer.

Chris also decided to take the chieftain and the shaman on a ride in his spaceship. He showed them their planet. Showed them the polar ice-capped mountains. Showed them their ravine, as well as the other ravines. Showed them the enormous lakes—surrounded by oceans of sand.

At first, the chieftain and the shaman were excited to see the lakes. For them, this was like going to heaven without having to die. They insisted that he land by one of the lakes.

But when they disembarked, it wasn’t an oasis all. It was more like a furnace. They didn’t see their ancestors waiting to greet them, in a grand family reunion. All they saw was some brown shrubbery encircling a dead sea—a steaming, boiling body of water.

The shaman was crestfallen. After they returned to the ravine, the shaman hurled himself down from the upper terrace.

Chris had a final card to play. When the Burronese came up to the surface to celebrate their sunset ritual, he showed them all his spaceship. Then he got inside, and flew back into space. Surely they would believe him now. He came to them like a falling star. And he departed in a flaming chariot—like an angel returning heaven.

Surely the Burronese would tell the story to their children, and their children’s children. And share it with the neighboring peoples of Borro and Gola. And surely they would wait for another to come from above.

Hours passed as he orbited the forbidding planet. As his oxygen ran thin, he wondered if he’d done the right thing. Was it all in vain? To die in space on a suicide mission of his own contrivance? He had been presumptuous?

Perhaps they were a race of reprobates. Maybe it was a fool’s errand. As the Burronese slept, he began to fade from consciousness.

-vii-

Years later, as the Burronese were once again celebrating the sunset, they saw a meteoric light descending from the skies. Was it the Angel Gabriel, with an urgent message for a Burronese maiden—or a burning spaceship, reentering the atmosphere after its orbit decayed?