Ultimate Sacrifice
Iain N. Banks
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Very few people were surprised when the Gammans landed. A huge row had been raging in the Western world about suppression of unexplained UFO reports. After six months of denials, politician had become an even dirtier word than usual and not a few people suspected that the world had, indeed, been taken over by little green men, who were trying to conceal their presence.
   The arrival of the Gammans came as a great relief to most parties. Governments were able to put them on television and say: Look, here they are. No covering up. The rest of the population had real, genuine UFOs and UFOnauts to stare at. For the paranoid, the landing was proof that the aliens had been on Earth for years, and that showing themselves now was just a cheap trick.
   An impossible number of people lay claim to having tagged the name Gammans to the aliens. It was taken, inevitably, from a television series showing on both sides of the Atlantic. To the Americans, who were watching their second series, the Gammans were old friends. Great Britain had only just discovered them. Thus it required no great effort of imagination on the part of the English-speaking press to call the visitors Gammans.
   Much to the delight of science fiction fans the world over, the alien visitors stepped out of a saucer-shaped craft. To the utter ecstasy of the world's cosmics, they chose to do so on the day of the summer solstice, and at Stonehenge.
   Once the initial contact shock had faded and people were able to look at the visitors, to find out what an alien really looked like behind the impenetrable wall of different, there was deep disappointment in store.
   The Gammans looked exactly like us to European and North American commentators; which meant that they had a human distribution of limbs, eyes, ears, noses and mouths. Their skin was the collection of mottled shades of pink of the northern white man. Each of the males had a full head of hair, which became a beard without change of texture or pigmentation.
   Both sexes either cut their hair short, or grew a one-inch fur. There were no unusual colours. Of the party of ten, two had blackest fur/hair, four were various tints of blonde, three were richer shades of brown and one female was positively mousey.
   Naturally enough, the Gammans spoke neither English nor any other Earthly tongue.
   They had not spent many cycles of rotation of your planet listening to radio and television transmissions in order to decode our languages. They could not communicate from the moment they set foot on our ball of dirt. In fact, they said that they had spent all of three hours in orbit, dodging satellites and other space junk while looking for an interesting landing site.
   Their lack of language cramped politicians to the point of anguish. When the British prime minister attempted to deliver a political harangue of welcome, he suffered the ultimate humiliation of a vanishing audience. The Gammans had just spotted a dog; a strange life-form of infinitely more interest than one of the natives half-shouting incomprehensible noises, which were often accompanied by vaguely obscene gestures.
   When two of Gammans had devoted half a day to learning sufficient English for their purposes, it became clear that they were true Philistines. The general public rejoiced at their lack of interest in any part of the art world that smelled of deliberate cult obscurity.
   Representation and humour of the banana-skin-slide variety appealed slightly to the visitors, but nothing else. Music, high and low, was a total mystery to them. Most things modern by Earth standards left them icily cold. Although they travelled extensively, the Gammans tended to turn their well-shaped noses up at the show-pieces that the government officials normally inflict on Very Important Visitors. They were interested only in remnants from the ancient world and spectacular natural phenomena.
   After visiting practically every castle in Europe, the Gammans decided that it might be worth their while to have a look at the rest of the planet. As they required tourist guides, but refused to allow earthpersons into their spacecraft, the British government lent the visitors a Concorde. The Gammans were rather dismayed to learn that the world's fastest passenger aircraft could reach only twice the speed of sound, but they accepted the offer; thus triggering hurried legislation by governments that had banned the aircraft on noise and pollution grounds.
   The Gammans looked just like scuba divers in their shiny, one-piece suits. Shut off from the world by skin-tight gloves and semi-flexible, bubble-helmets, they seemed able to leave their spacecraft for long periods without discomfort. In all their time on Earth, not one of them showed a need for food or drink, or a desire to eliminate waste products. They were perfect, inexhaustible, rubber-necking, very choosy tourists.
   Then it happened. People who had seen the films Alternative Three and Capricorn One, which dealt with the cover up of a Mars landing and a bogus landing respectively, decided that the aliens were a hoax. Although almost universally scorned, such stories did have a certain persuasive façade of truth. The so-called aliens did look a bit too human to be true.
   Inevitably, a Californian gun-freak resolved the matter in the traditional fashion. The Gammans had just visited a redwood grove. They were on their way back to the airport at San Francisco and their Concorde when the eternal nightmare of the Secret Service became fact; some nut case took a shot at them.
   A crowd of spectators had spilled onto the road, forcing the motorcade to a halt. Suddenly, there was a bright blue flash from the helmet of one of the females; a non-English speaker, who had chosen to remain nameless.
   The female picked up a curious piece of flattened metal and showed it to one of her companions. Two more Gammans had been hit by flying lead before one of the English speakers asked a guard what the pieces of metal were.
   Guns zipped out of shoulder holsters. A human wall formed round the Gammans. A fourth helmet flashed blue as the visitors were forced to the floor of their car. The Gammans realized slowly that some damn native was firing metal pellets at them with evil intent.
   One of their number produced a featureless metal tube from a pocket. He pushed a gap in the security screen and aimed the tube at a fifth floor hotel room. The window and a large section of the wall turned red and vanished. It was just like an optical effect in a science fiction film, except that this was real. Something inside the room glowed redly for an instant, then it disappeared too.
   That put the matter beyond question. With such technology at their disposal, the Gammans could not possibly be an Earthly hoax. Although they refused to discuss the secrets of their defence systems and their weapons, science correspondents spewed forth a torrent of articles on force fields and energy weapons.
   After visiting various Indian sites in South America, the Gammans zoomed across the sea to China, and then returned to England via Far, Middle and Near Easts. Countries such as Australia and Japan, the USSR, most of Africa and other territories ignored by the unearthly tourists seethed with impotent rage, but dared say nothing for fear of attracting mocking sympathy from others more fortunate.
   As the French ambassador to the United Nations was heard to remark to a Soviet colleague, there was very little that the slighted nations could do other than kidnap the aliens and inflict a guided tour by force. The Soviet ambassador's reply is not on record.
   Exchange of information between humans and Gammans tended to be somewhat one-sided at first. Once it had been established that the aliens were not interested in Earth's cultural achievements, there seemed little prospect of trade. Thanks to what the Americans termed a Primitive To Superior Culture Contact Situation Inferiority Complex, it was assumed that no terrestrial technological achievement could be of the remotest interest to the visitors.
   It is impossible to say who was the more surprised when the Gammans discovered body scanners. The idea of being able to use X-rays, microwaves and ultrasonics to examine the interior of the human body, without having to resort to slicing it open, seemed to appeal to the alien visitors.
   A delighted Secretary of State for Health quickly arranged a tour of a London teaching hospital to demonstrate a range of such devices. Gamman watchers interpreted their facial expressions during the tour as signalling pleasure. Some saw a deeper emotion. But the different arrangement of Gamman facial muscles made expression-reading very difficult.
   The British Government suddenly found itself in the position of being able to trade with the Gammans. Realizing that whatever the aliens offered would be spied out and otherwise stolen by friends and enemies alike, the prime minister announced that any information received would be used for the good of all humanity. To his disgust, most people dismissed his self-satisfied announcement as no more than a piece of cheap political baloney.
   Not wishing to receive an unexpected visit from a fleet of conquering Earth vessels, the Gammans declined politely to divulge the secret of their star drive and their weapons. Their hosts were disappointed, but not unduly so. The two sides agreed, after two days of more or less continuous negotiations, to swap the secrets of the Gamman personal defence screen for a broad selection of body-scanning devices and a small mountain of technical literature on their use.
   Having seen all that they wished of Earth, the visitors left almost as soon as the last crate had been loaded aboard their flying saucer. The politicians tried to turn their departure into a junket involving interminable speeches on Earth's contribution to Gamman medical science. Their intended victims foiled them by lifting their vessel while the government, Her Majesty's opposition and international politicians were in transit between London and Salisbury Plain.
   Safely in orbit, the Gammans marched their exploration modules into their storage pods and inspected their spoils with eager observation apparatus. The machines looked even more impressive than when seen through the remote equipment and the visual apparatus of the exploration modules.
   Technicians had assembled the equipment, and it was ready for testing, by the time the scout vessel reached the mother ship on the far side of the Moon. A receiving hatch closed, sealing a huge gash in the side of a globe-shaped vessel. The boarding tunnel oozed out to link up with the nested scout ship. Almost before the orange link established indicator had glowed to life, the Most High of the Highest was hurrying to join the lesser beings in the scout ship.
   The Most High of the Highest exchanged a bare minimum of salutations before commanding a demonstration of a body scanner. Thirty-one humans had allowed larcenous stirrings to over-come their fear of the unknown, and had crept through a very loose security cordon to liberate something, anything, from the alien spacecraft.
   The first captive produced was female. It began to emit painfully loud aerial vibrations as soon as it saw the assembled Presence. Then it collapsed with an idiot grin on its face. The Most High inspected the creature briefly, and failed to produce a reaction by stirring it with a walking appendage. The Most High declared it Unfit.
   Two servitors dragged the creature away. If it passed an edibility test, it would be consigned to the lower orders' protein vats. If not, it would be dumped into the recycling system.
   A second captive human was brought to the Presence unrevived. This one was a male. The scanning began. After a time interval of about one Earth hour, it was pronounced Unfit. Several imperfections had been detected. True, they were not gross deviations from the ideal human anatomy, as specified in the Terran reference works, but the Most High required a perfect specimen for this special occasion.
   By the end of the shipwatch, over half of the captives had been examined and rejected. The Most High of the Highest was beginning to indicate impatience and veiled irritation at the poor quality of the harvest.
   An air of nervousness, coupled with an urgent desire to please, hung over the Presence as prisoner number 18 was floated from its storage compartment and strapped to the main scanner's examination table. The servitors gathered round the controls and began their work with an efficiency born of practice.
   Depression began to lift as the examination proceeded to the final stages. Cautious pleasure signals were exchanged between individuals, and the collective aura of the Presence took on a glow of hope.
   Just before the end of the last scan, the pulsed vibration of a communicator edged into the Presence. A senior servitor announced that although humans were inedible, they were a source of many valuable organic chemicals, and that experiments designed to culture various organs were proceeding satisfactorily. Within moments of this heartening announcement, the senior examining servitor moved away from the scanner controls, making no attempt to conceal tired elation. The human female was Fit.
   Beaming congratulations, the Most High of the Highest withdrew to make preparations. The pleasant duty of announcing that the ceremony would take place at the end of the current watch fell to The Second Most High.
   The entire crew of forty-five individuals assembled in the Hall of the Presence at the appointed time. An air of reverend anticipation cloaked the gathering. All but the Most High of the Highest moved rapidly to appointed positions in the Configuration of Regeneration, observation apparatus enraptured by the perfect human female enclosed in the delicately carved rock crystal cylinder before them.
   With lingering slowness, the Most High of the Highest took up the focal position at the heart of the Presence. Grasping appendages raised a bejewelled controller into the air. Delicate pressure on one of the controls brought the human to full consciousness. Before it could do more than open its eyes, brilliant golden flame surged through the cylinder, consuming it in a microsecond.
   A shudder of gratification convulsed the Presence. Then forty-five sets of observation apparatus turned to gaze on the heart of the Configuration.
   "We have rendered our race an incalculable service," communicated the Most High of the Highest. Agreement surged through the Presence. "We are gathered at the dawn of a new age. The terrible danger of consuming the life force of an imperfect animal is past. With the devices obtained at so little cost from the disgusting barbarians of Earth, we shall be able to select only perfect animals to renew our life force. Our race stands at the threshold of a new golden age. We shall be honoured for all time."
   The Presence surged to a tide of well-being. Feeling restored, and eager to return to their home world, the Gammans offered ritual thanks to the Most High of the Highest. Then the servitors, those forming the outer circles of the Configuration, moved away unobtrusively to their stations. Their betters were still wallowing in self-congratulation when their giant globe lifted from a lunar plain to begin its homeward journey. ■

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to top of pageCreated for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B.
The original story Iain N. Banks, 1977. This version Iain N. Banks, 2005