Sol Central Station floated amid the fusing hydrogen of the solar core, 400,000 miles under the surface of the Sun, protected only by the thin shell of an energy shield, but that wasn’t why my palm sweat slicked the plastic pulpit of the station’s multidenominational chapel. As a life-long Mormon I had been speaking in church since I was a child, so that didn’t make me nervous, either. But this was my first time speaking when non-humans were in the audience.
The Sol Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had only six human members, including me and the two missionaries, but there were forty-six swale members. As beings made of plasma, swales couldn’t attend church in the chapel, of course, but a ten-foot widescreen monitor across the back wall showed a false-color display of their magnetic force-lines, gathered in clumps of blue and red against the yellow background representing the solar interior. The screen did not give a sense of size, but at two hundred feet in length, the smallest of the swales was almost double the length of a blue whale. From what I’d heard, the largest Mormon swale, Sister Emma, stretched out to almost five hundred feet—but she was nowhere near the twenty-four-mile length of the largest swale in our sun.
“My dear Brothers and Sisters,” I said automatically, then stopped in embarrassment. The traditional greeting didn’t apply to all swale members, as they had three genders. “And Neuters,” I added. I hoped my delay would not be noticeable in the transmission. It would be a disaster if in my first talk as branch president, I alienated a third of the swale population.
A few minutes into my talk on the topic of forgiveness, I paused when a woman in a skinsuit sauntered through the door and down the aisle. The skinsuit was a custom high-fashion one, not standard station issue, with active coloration that showed puffy white clouds floating across the sky on her breasts, and waves lapping against the sandy beach at her hips. She took a seat on the second row and gazed up at me with dark brown eyes.
The ring finger of her left hand was unadorned.
I forced my eyes away from her and looked down at my notes for the talk. While trying to find my place again, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe this woman was an answer to my prayers. The only human female listed in the branch membership records was sixty-four years old and married. As far as I knew, there wasn’t an unmarried Mormon human woman within ninety million miles in any direction, which limited my dating pool rather severely.
Maybe this woman was Mormon, but not on the membership records yet because, like me, she was a recent arrival on Sol Central. It seemed a little unlikely, as a member would probably dress more appropriately for church. Maybe she wasn’t a member but was interested in joining.
By sheer willpower, I managed to focus on my talk enough to finish it coherently. After the closing hymn and prayer, I straightened my tie and stepped down from the podium to introduce myself to the new arrival.
“Hello,” I said, offering my hand. “I’m Harry Malan.” I caught a whiff of her perfume, something that reminded me of strawberries.
Her hand was dry and cool, and I regretted not having wiped my palm on my suit first.
“Dr. Juanita Merced,” she said. “You’re the new leader of this congregation?”
I felt a twinge of disappointment. A member would have asked if I was the branch president. “I am. How can I help you?”
“You can stop interfering with my studies.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, but her eyes looked at me defiantly.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid I have no idea who you are or what studies I might be interfering with.”
“I’m a solcetologist.” I must have given her a blank look, because she added, “I study solcetaceans—the swales.”
“Oh.” I knew there were scientists who objected to what they believed was interference with the culture of the swales, but I had thought that since the legal right to proselytize the swales had been established two years ago, the controversy had been settled. I was obviously wrong. “I regret that you feel your studies are being compromised, Dr. Merced, but the swales are intelligent beings with free will, and I believe they have the right to choose their religious beliefs.”
“You’re introducing instability to a culture that has existed for longer than human civilization,” she said, raising her voice. “They were traveling the stars at least a hundred thousand years before Christ was born. You’re teaching them human myths that have no application for their society.”
The two missionaries, clean-cut young men in dark suits and ties, approached us. “Is there a problem?” asked Elder Beckworth.
“No,” I said. “Dr. Merced, you are free to tell the swales what you have told me: That you believe our teachings are false. But the swales who have joined our church have done so because they believe what we teach, and I ask you to please respect them enough to allow them that choice.”
She glared at me with her beautiful eyes. “You’re saying I don’t respect them? I am not the one who tells them they are sinful creatures who need a human to save them.”
“I’m not here to argue,” I said. “And we are about to have a Sunday school class, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
She spun around and stalked out. I watched her go, unable to deny that my body desired hers, despite our differences. What’s more, intelligence was an attractive trait for me, so I regretted that she opposed me on an intellectual level.
I would not be adding her to my dating pool. Somehow, I doubted that fact would disappoint her.
Elder Beckworth taught the Sunday school class, which was on the topic of chastity. I found myself acutely uncomfortable when he talked about Christ’s teaching “that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Because the Mormon Church has an unpaid, volunteer clergy, my calling as branch president was the result of being sent to Sol Central, not the reason for it. I worked as a funds manager for CitiAmerica, and being stationed here gave me an eight-and-a-half minute head start over Earth-based funds managers when it came to acting on news brought in from other star systems through the interstellar portal at the heart of the Sun.
From what I understood, the energy requirements for opening a portal were so staggeringly high that it could only be done inside a star. Although the swales had been creating portals for so long that they didn’t seem to know where their original home star was, Sol Central Station was the interstellar nexus of human civilization, and I was thrilled to be there despite the limited dating opportunities.
The Monday after my first day at church, I was in the middle of reviewing an arbitrage deal involving transports from two colony systems when I received a call on my station phone.
“Harry Malan,” I answered.
“President Malan?” said a melodious alto voice. “This is Neuter Kimball, from the branch.” Since the actual names of swales were series of magnetic pulses, they took human names when interacting with us. On joining the Church, Mormon swales often chose new names out of Mormon history. Neuter Kimball had apparently named itself after a twentieth-century prophet of the Church.
“What can I do for you, Neuter Kimball?”
After a pause that dragged out for several seconds, Kimball said, “I need to confess a sin.”
This was what I had dreaded most about becoming branch president—taking on the responsibility of helping members repent of their sins. Only serious sins needed to be confessed to an ecclesiastical leader, so I braced myself emotionally and said a quick prayer that I might be inspired to help Neuter Kimball through the process of repentance. Leaning back in my swivel chair, I said, “Go ahead, Neuter Kimball, I’m listening.”
“A female merged her reproductive patterns with mine.” While many swales had managed to learn how to synthesize and transmit human speech, their understanding of vocabulary and grammar was not always matched by an understanding of emotional tone. Often they sounded the same no matter what the subject.
I waited, but Neuter Kimball didn’t elaborate.
It took three swales to reproduce: a male, a female, and a neuter. The neuter merely acted as a facilitator; unlike the male and female, its reproductive patterns were not passed on to the offspring. In applying the law of chastity to the swales, Church doctrine said that reproductive activity was to be engaged in only among swales married to each other, and only permitted marriages of three swales, one of each sex.
“You aren’t married to the female, are you?”
“It was just a female and you?” I asked. “No male?”
“Yes and yes.”
According to my limited knowledge of swale biology, such action could not result in reproduction. Still, humans were perfectly capable of engaging in sexual sin that did not involve the possibility of reproduction, so I figured this was analogous.
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
“She did it to me.”
“She did it to you? You mean, she forced you? You didn’t agree to it?”
“Yes, yes, and no.”
“Then it isn’t a sin,” I said, both horrified at the sexual assault and relieved that Neuter Kimball was innocent of any sin. “If someone forced sexual conduct on you, you are not at fault. You have nothing to repent of.”
“You are sure?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “But you may want to report the swale who did this to the authorities so she won’t do it to anyone else.”
“Why won’t she do it to anyone else?” Neuter Kimball asked.
“Because they will punish her.”
“That is human law,” it said.
I was taken aback. “You mean it’s not swale law?”
“There is no such law among our people.”
The swales had supposedly been civilized for longer than humanity’s history, yet they had no law against rape? “That’s terrible,” I said. “But the most important thing is that you did nothing wrong.”
“Even if I enjoyed it?”
“Umm.” I wondered for a moment why I had been called to serve here, rather than some General Authority of the Church who had more doctrinal knowledge. I had a vague suspicion it was so the Church could easily disavow my actions if I made a huge blunder. The swales were the only sentient aliens humanity had found thus far—and the swales didn’t seem to know of any others—so the Church’s policies for dealing with non-humans were still new.
I pushed those thoughts aside and focused on Neuter Kimball’s question. “To commit a sin, you must have the intent to do so. If you did not intend sexual activity and it was forced upon you, then I don’t think it matters whether you enjoyed it.”
After several more reassurances, Neuter Kimball seemed satisfied that it was not guilty of any sin and ended the conversation.
It took me ten minutes to calm down after the stress of counseling. But I still felt the urge to action, so I looked up Dr. Merced’s phone number.
We met in her office. A wallscreen similar to the one in the chapel showed pods of swales moving through solar currents.
I sat in a chair across from her desk and tried to keep my eyes from straying to the animated galaxies colliding on the chest of her skinsuit. “Thanks for agreeing to see me,” I said. “We didn’t part on the friendliest of terms yesterday.”
She shrugged. “I’m curious. Your predecessors never sought me out. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
I saw a twinkle in her eye and realized she was yanking my chain by offering drinks that she knew were forbidden by my religion. “No, thank you. But if you want to drink, go right ahead. The prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom apply only to members of the Church.”
She picked up her coffee mug and took a long sip. “Mmm. That is so good.”
I merely smiled at her.
“Okay,” she said. “Actually, the coffee here is awful. I just drink it for the caffeine. Why are you here?”
“A member of my church was raped,” I said.
Her eyes widened. “What? Wait, you don’t mean a solcetacean, do you?”
“Solcetaceans do not have the concept of rape,” she said.
“Whether they have the concept or not,” I said, “a female swale engaged in sexual activity with one of my neuter members without its consent. To me, that sounds like rape, or at least a sexual assault.”
She took a sip from her coffee mug. “It may sound like it, but solcetaceans are not human. Their culture is different—”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“—and their physiology is different. Tell me, was your church member injured or caused any pain?”
“No. But it was afraid it might have sinned.”
She pointed at me. “That is your fault, for teaching it that sexual behavior is sinful. But, physiologically, sexual contact between solcetaceans is always pleasurable for all parties involved. And since reproduction can only occur when all three deliberately engage in sex for that purpose, casual sex never results in pregnancy. So solcetaceans never developed the taboos humans did regarding sexual contact.”
I nodded. “So, if we humans hadn’t developed taboos about sex, and there was no chance of your getting pregnant, then you would have no objection to my forcing you to an orgasm.”
She had the decency to blush. “I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that you can’t judge solcetacean behavior based on human cultural norms. After all, even your own church has had to adapt its doctrines to take differences like the three sexes into account. Not to mention there’s no way you’re getting a solcetacean into the waters of baptism.”
“‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,’” I quoted. “Swales are not men, as you’ve pointed out. No contradiction there. But you’re avoiding the subject, which is that anyone, swale or human, has the right to be free from unwanted sex. If the swales don’t recognize that right yet, it’s time we told them about it.”
She rose from her chair and walked around the desk to stand facing her wallscreen. She zoomed in on one particular swale. It was labeled Leviathan (Class 10), and its size reading showed 38,400 meters. It was hundreds of times longer than Neuter Kimball, or even Sister Emma.
“Solcetaceans grow throughout their lifetime,” she said, her back toward me. “The correlation between size and age is not exact, but in general the larger, the older. Some of the oldest were old before the Pyramids were built. All the solcetacean members of your church are very young and have little influence within the community. Ancients like Leviathan are respected. Do you really think you can convince a creature older than human civilization to change, just because a human thinks something is wrong? Your lifetime is but an eyeblink to her, if she had eyes that blinked.”
I pushed away my awe at the sheer size of Leviathan. “Maybe you’re right. But I believe in a God even older than that, who created both human and swale. I have to try.”
She turned and looked me in the eyes. I held her gaze until she sighed and said, “I was always a sucker for a man with determination.” She walked to her desk, wrote something on notepaper, and handed it to me. It was an anonymous comm address with a private access code.
“I’m flattered,” I said, “and it’s not that I don’t find you attractive, but—”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s Leviathan’s personal comm.”
My face flushed. “Uh, thank you. I’ll talk with her.”
“Don’t count on it. She hasn’t bothered to talk to any of us in a couple of years, but nobody’s tried talking religion at her, so . . .”
“I’ll do my best.” With that, I beat a hasty retreat so I could recover from my embarrassment alone.
“Try not to offend her,” she called after me.
My email about the situation to the mission president, who was based in the L5 Colony but had jurisdiction over my little branch of the Church, received just a short reply, telling me “use your best judgment, follow the Spirit.”
After a couple days spending my after-work hours studying up on swales and swale culture and preparing arguments about the rights of Mormon swales to control their own bodies, I didn’t exactly feel ready to contact Leviathan. But I felt a strong need to do something.
Sitting at my desk in my quarters, I dialed the comm address Dr. Merced had given me and waited for it to connect. It rang several times before a synthetic neuter voice came on the line and said, “The party you are trying to reach is currently unavailable. Please leave a message after—”
I hung up before the tone. I hadn’t prepared to leave a voicemail message, but I should have realized that having Leviathan’s private access code was no guarantee that she would actually answer when I called. So I spent a good ten minutes writing out the message I would leave her on voicemail.
Satisfied that I had something that expressed my position firmly yet respectfully, I dialed the number again.
After two rings, a bass voice answered, “Who are you?”
Startled because I had expected the voicemail again, I stumbled over my words. “I’m . . . this is President Malan, of the Church . . . of the Sol Central Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dr. Merced gave me this comm address so I could talk to you about one of my . . . a swale member of my branch.” Uncertain because the bass voice didn’t strike me as particularly female, I added, “Are you Leviathan?”
“Religions interest me not.” Her voice synthesis was good enough that I could hear the dismissiveness in her tone.
“Are you interested in the rights of swales in general?” I asked.
“No. The lesser concern me not.”
I could feel all my carefully laid-out arguments slipping away from me. How could I have even thought to relate to a being with no consideration for the rights of lesser members of her own species?
Before I could think through a response, I blurted out, “Do the greater concern you?”
During several long seconds of silence, I thought I had offended Leviathan to the point that she had hung up on me. Dr. Merced would be annoyed.
When her voice returned, it almost thundered from the speakers. “Who is greater than I?”
This had not been part of my planned approach, but at least she was still talking to me. Maybe if I could get her to understand that she would not like being manhandled—swale-handled—by larger swales, I could convince her of the need to respect the rights of smaller swales.
“From what I understand, swales get larger with age,” I said. “So wouldn’t your parents be larger than you?”
“I have no parents. None is older than I; none is larger; none is greater. I am the source from which all others came.”
Stunned, I was silent for a few seconds before I could ask, “You are the original swale?” Since they didn’t seem to die of old age, it just might be true.
“I am the original life. Before there was life on any planet, I was. After eons alone I grew into a swale, then gave life to others. Where was your God when I was creating them?”
A verse from the book of Job sprang to my mind: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
Nothing in my research had prepared me for this. Speculation about the evolution of swales generally assumed that swales were descended from less complex plasma beings in another star, since no simpler forms had been found in the Sun. But if what Leviathan claimed was true, there were no simpler forms—she had evolved as a single being.
I was out of my depth and but shook my head to clear my thinking. All this was beside the point. “What matters is that Neu—” I caught myself before breaking confidentiality. “One of my swale church members believes in a God who has commanded against sexual activity outside of marriage. It just isn’t right for larger swales to force smaller ones to have sex. I appeal to you as the first and greatest of the swales: Command your people against coerced sexual activity.”
Seconds of silence ticked away.
“Come to me,” she said. “You and your swale church member.”
The call disconnected.
Copyright © 2010 by Eric James Stone