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Peak Time

by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro

„Connection from Capella on the line. It’s the governess of the Elves in this sector of the Periphery. You know what she wants, right?“

„Unfortunately, I do. Let’s leave her on hold.“

„She won’t be at all happy about this further human discourtesy.“ The master program of the Agency changed the pitch of its telepathic flux in the end of the last sentence it emitted to the brain of its human mate, in order to emulate the slightly hysterical tone of a lady-elf.

„Maybe a short wait will soften her up a little.“

„Soften up a lady-elf by keeping her in waiting? Well, boss, you know best.“

The tall, slim human got the distinct impression that the sense of humour of the Agency’s master program was becoming subtler and subtler over the years.

He asked the system hidden under the synthetic oak panel to reduce the speed of transmission of data to his mind. Then, after sighing to conjure infinite forbearance, he opened his light blue eyes and considered the landscape outside the panoramic window of his office.

Night was falling in that hemisphere of Mars. From the top of the Olympus Mons volcano, the view of the glowing twilight on those serene tablelands far below was a sight without comparison in the whole Solar System. Vast red plains stretched out over hundreds of kilometres in every direction, a huge extension of flat land cut by the dry beds of ancient rivers from a very remote past, and speckled here and there by greenish oases, thriving points where the work of terraforming was almost completed.

Any alien who looks at that magnificent landscape, seen from the wide polarised windows of the main office of the time tourism branch of the Agency, would find it difficult to imagine it was just an ingenious holomovie projected from inside the room.

Actually, the base had been excavated inside the nucleus of Icarus, a small oblong rocky asteroid that described a tight circular orbit around the Sun at less than a tenth of the orbital distance of Mercury in its perihelion.

Once in a rather eccentric orbit, Icarus had been towed into this present circular path. This tiny rocky world stays entirely concealed beneath the intense flux of the photosphere. The Agency uses a substantial amount of the incident solar radiation that reaches the irregular surface of Icarus.

The exact location of the Agency was in fact one of humanity’s best-kept secrets, and one of the few trumps of the species. Some galactic operatives imagined that the Agency’s headquarters were on Honolulu, Earth. This hypothesis makes some sense, as that Hawaiian city was the seat of human government. Others thought that Agency’s installations were on the peak of the largest volcano in the Solar System. Just two of the several feigned locations available.

„So, Arthur?“ The question from the master program thundered in his mind, distracting his attention from the task he was carrying out with the aid of another AI. He suppressed his telepathic blockade in order to render the invasion less painful. „Can you deal with the matriarch of the Elves now? The creature is showing clear signs of impatience and, speaking frankly, she doesn’t seem inclined to wait any longer.“

Somewhat unwillingly, the human finished the dialog he was maintaining with the AI resident on the front panel. The ordinary activities of managing the Agency would have to be put aside once again in favour of good diplomatic relations between humanity and one of the dominant galactic civilisations in this sector of the Periphery.

He ran his hands through his long, unkempt hair, trying to smarten it up as much as possible. Slightly annoyed, he uttered two curt mental commands. The first one was for his chair to revolve 180 degrees, turning itself to the communications holotank, and the second one was for the ambient lighting to become rather dimmer. Having evolved from nocturnal animals, Elves have eyes which were much more sensitive to light than human’s.

„Are you sure you can’t hold her a little longer?“

The master program let out a slight giggle, which would have been under its breath, had it had any. Arthur suspected that it was also becoming more wilful with each upgrade, as the centuries went by and the human administrators followed one after another.

„She’s already fed up with my conversation. And, to tell the truth, the feeling is mutual. She has threatened to break off the communication thrice. At this very moment she is insinuating this delay may have rather unpleasant consequences for the technological progress of humanity.“

„The same old story. You know what I think about this mellifluous policy of treating these aliens with the deference due to plenipotentiary ministers of the Universal Spirit.“

„Yes, I do know. As your personal principles read, it’s no good to treat these arrogant aliens well, because they’ll never give us the technology of hyperspace travel.“

„Exactly.“

Arthur heard inside his mind the AI’s joyful giggle once more, as it said, „But we also have something that they long for, don’t we?“

„Except for your sarcastic tone, that’s just it. The worst thing is that I’m always the one who is subjected to these sessions of threats, and promises, and enticement. The results are invariably nil. When it’s not the Elves, it’s the Demigods, or aliens from some other galactic civilisation.“

„True, but these Elves have been more insistent throughout this century. And there’s also the matter of the religious interest. Ah, right now she’s beginning a very original curse-and-swear session in her native tongue. I hadn’t supposed a lady-elf could utter such a long series of expletives. Would you like me to switch the simultaneous translation on?“

„Thank you very much. That’s enough chat. Pass me the connection.“

„My pleasure. Have fun.“

„Stay close.“

„I wouldn’t miss it for the world.“

* * *

The Elves were a typically humanoid species. Their delicate constitution was a clear indication of the fact that they had evolved in a low-gravity planet. Their faces and arms were generally covered with a short brown fur, like the shorthaired coat of a horse. As fluffy and pointed as those of some races of Earth cats, their ears were more sensitive than the human analogues. In the Elves, the females were undoubtedly larger, more vigorous and more aggressive than the males.

The humans named these mammal-like beings „Elves“ because of a vague and supposed likeness to the Dark Elves described in the works of Tolkien.

Being himself a classic lit buff, Arthur didn’t think these alien Elves were minimally similar to Tolkien’s Moriquendi, their fictional homonyms.

The governess’ immense lemur-like red irises lit up on the realisation she was looking at the administrator of the Agency at last. She gesticulated nervously with the six slender fingers of her right hand, making a loose gesture of greeting. Her least important hand, Arthur noticed, for the Elves are left-handed – the hand her folk normally used while saluting members of a subordinate rational species.

„You’ve finally deigned to appear! And you’re not even a female!“

„How are you, governess?“ Coming from an alien so haughty as a lady-elf governess, Arthur expected a remark like that. „As you surely know, among humans, males also perform politically responsible roles.“

„Of course. I certainly respect the idiosyncrasies of your people,“ she conceded. „But I would rather have direct contact with a human female. Nothing personal, I assure you.“

„You requested to speak personally with the administrator of the Agency, didn’t you?“

„I simply hadn’t imagined that human females would allow their males to carry out such an important position.“ The alien shifted her narrow shoulders as if she were feeling uncomfortable. „But, if you are sure that you are qualified to represent your species, then let’s proceed to our political business.“

„Perfectly.“

In a very human manner, the alien swallowed hard, as if she were preparing herself to deal with an embarrassing and unpleasant matter. Arthur knew that particular Elfish reaction already, though up to now he had seen it in male Elves only. He supposed the governess was on the verge of placing herself in a position she considered vulnerable.

Elves.

Although they are not even primates, they behave rather humanlike sometimes.

„Humanity is the only known civilisation which developed retrotemporal travel technology. We wish to learn it from humans and, of course, we are willing to reward your species for the knowledge you shall provide us by supplying you with techniques and products you have been asking for such a long time.“

„Our two folks have already discussed this matter before,“ Arthur said. „Indeed, we might say that to travel into the past is an old longing of the Elves, isn’t that right? A dream that is almost as old as the human yearning of learning how to fly among the stars at speeds faster than light. Well, madam, our terms haven’t changed.“

„Humans! You are a stubborn and unwise young species!“ The irises of the governess’ eyes shone like burning steel. Arthur didn’t need his training in applied xenopsychology in order to know what it meant. „We have explained to you already that we are forbidden to provide you with hyperspace navigation techniques. All of the advanced civilisations in this sector of the Periphery have jointly agreed upon that the younger cultures in the galactic community must develop hyperspace technology on their own.“

„Yes, we’ve heard that line from the mouths of many different alien peoples. Those who call themselves the ‘galactic community’ consider the development of this technique as proof of maturity. It is known, however, that only one technical civilisation in about one thousand is able to discover hyperspace travel without help. By travelling as passengers in alien starships, our representatives were able to learn there are currently over thirty different species building hyperdrives. However, that technology was only independently developed four times, according to the records of all the civilised species with which we have contact. In all those cases, hypertechnology was discovered by sheer luck. Thus, it seems that hypernavigation technique is one of those technical breakthroughs one cannot reasonably hope to achieve through research effort alone.“

„Albeit crude, your estimates are not much far from the truth. Yet, there is a logic underlying this agreement, this law that has existed for hundreds of thousands of your years. We dare not allow the Periphery to be inundated by a swarm of immature species.“

„We understand your position. We even agree with it, up to a point. In return, we expect you to accept ours. The technology of retrotemporal travel is potentially very dangerous. I don’t need to remind you of the risks involved in the creation of negative temporal paradoxes. I am assuming that Elfin physicists know as well as ours that a negative paradox could give rise to a series of catastrophes on a cosmic scale.“

„Are you perchance insinuating that my species might not be mature enough to deal with those risks and prevent the paradoxes from happening?“

„Far from it. However, put yourself in our position. I must admit that we feel ourselves terrified as we think of what might happen if such a dangerous technology were to fall into the hands of the swarm of immature civilisations which inhabit our sector of the Periphery.“

„We do not appreciate at all those vulgar demonstrations of vile human sense of humour.“

„I’m deeply sorry, mi’lady-elf.“

„Knowing how deep human stubbornness really is, my xenoanalysts had advised me to expect this refusal to grant us retrotemporal technology. Yet, there is another matter, as important as this one, that we would like to discuss with you.“

While she was arguing with the human administrator, the alien distractedly curled a lock of her long red mane in one of the retractile claws of her left hand.

Arthur knew that the length of a lady-elf’s mane was an excellent way to measure the social position she occupied within the hierarchy of her folk. And the governess’ mane was particularly long, falling to her shoulders. Somewhat amused, he wondered whether his long hair had puzzled the alien. Male Elves were entirely bald, after all.

She stared at the human with what she intended to be her most friendly gaze.

„We heard you are sponsoring tourist trips to your historical past. Is it true?“

„Yes, we began to provide that type of service on an experimental level.“

„And can it be acquired by non-humans?“

„Yes. We’ve already had several alien tourists visiting some few historical events from our monoplanetary phase.“

„Some Elfin philosophers wish to witness a certain event in human past.“

„Fine. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, right?“

„Precisely. How did you know?“

„We are the only rational species which have elaborated the concept of religion. Our alien visitors are generally fascinated and very, very curious about a socio-anthropological phenomenon of such consequence. Besides, we are also the only folks who are able to travel back into the past. Thus, it’s natural that alien tourists wish to watch certain crucial events in loco, in order to better distinguish myths from reality. As for the crucifixion of Christ, it appears to be one of the greatest foci for our alien clients’ most morbid curiosity, so to speak.“

„Do you mean other aliens have studied this historical event already?“

„Well, yes. We found that the crucifixion is a sort of peak season in retrotemporal tourism. To tell the truth, we’ve had some problems containing paradoxes towards this event.“

„We promise we will take all possible security precautions.“

„That won’t be necessary. Human time operatives take care of security.“

The governess hid her tiny needle-like teeth behind thin leathery lips. She apparently hadn’t been counting on human supervision over the research the Elfin philosophers wished to undertake.

„Besides, all she-Elves will be disguised as humans and dressed as natives of Jerusalem of the early years of the Roman Empire. They must also learn Latin and Aramaic, the two vernacular human languages spoken in Judaea at that time.“

„Of course. There will be no problem in doing so, provided we count on human guidance. We certainly don’t want to interfere in your past.“

„How many Elfin researchers would be going?“

„Five or six philosophers, at least. We would like it if they could watch the event disguised as Roman legionaries.“

„I fear that would be quite impossible. Human historians and archaeologists already fill all the openings for Roman legionaries. We cannot change this, because they had been there in the past and performed those roles already. In effect, having witnessed the crucifixion already, they became part of the very past we shall preserve.“

„This is most unfortunate. Well, being myself a Philosopher of the Past, I should say I’m relatively well-informed about this period of your people’s history. So, how about Syrian merchants?“

„We already have seven Demigod hierarchs dressed up as merchants and fifteen other alien scholars from other four species. I suppose our quota of galactic Syrians is rather full.“

„We could always take the place of countryside people or local craftswomen. It seems that several hundred of them witnessed the event.“

„That’s true. But only a few tens of them witnessed it from the beginning to the end. And these few were spread about in the crowd that followed the path of the cross through the alleys of Jerusalem. It would be absurd to let loose a small group of Elves within a throng of semi-barbarian humans. That would be asking for a negative paradox.“

„I am willing to try to reduce the number of Elfin philosophers to two or three, if you could guarantee me the places of the other two criminals who were also crucified in that day.“

„That is absolutely unacceptable. We cannot just go around crucifying aliens carelessly in our past and-„

„It seems that all the good places are taken up already. Is there still any authentic native woman in this historical event?“

„This very same complaint has been made by the programs which manage the time travels and try to avoid the occurrence of negative paradoxes.“

„Oh, girl! You worry too much. The fabric of the universe is not so fragile as you humans imagine. Elfin physicists believe that the space-time continuum has a remarkable self-healing power. Don’t you remember all that ruckus your chronologists kicked up because of that Crossing of the Red Sea incident one century ago?“

Arthur was surprised by the lady-elf’s knowledge. One down to the intelligence service attached to the Elfish diplomatic representation in the Solar System.

* * *

Indeed, when historians first visited the space-time locus in which the crossing of the Red Sea should have taken place, they came upon a group of fleeing Hebrews, headed by an elder who had a vague similarity to the biblical Moses. The fugitives ended up being trapped between the Pharaoh’s troops and the beach. There was no way out, so they were massacred. The few survivors returned to Egypt as slaves.

Back to the present, the parting of the waters of the Red Sea continued to be a mere legend without any plausible explanation. Some years later, another expedition, this time made up of a mixed team of humans and aliens, went back to the point where the crossing of the Hebrews had failed. Having been incorrectly programmed, an alien field generator started by itself and formed a cylindrical tunnel of energy that connected the two banks by accident, within the waters of the Red Sea. In their craving for a miracle, the Hebrews rushed into the tunnel created by the defective generator. Feeling at once the significance of the incident, the master program that was co-ordinating that visit to the past decided that the energy field should remain active until the followers of Moses arrived safely on the other side. Thus, that interference of the future in the past created a temporal paradox, a positive paradox whose only concrete consequence was the miracle known as the Parting of the Red Sea.

* * *

„That was different; a positive paradox. There was no alteration of the past, but rather a reinforcement of what was written in some of our historical sources.“

The alien glared at Arthur. He didn’t need any clearer indication that she was about to lose her temper.

„And so what’s left for us, then?“

The human took a deep breath before answering.

„Look, I know that you might feel offended, but I hope you understand we really don’t have many options left open to us. Keep all the restrictions in mind, we have found the existence of two beasts of burden which pulled a two-wheeled cart. This cart was confiscated by a Roman decurion who was off-duty that day and decided to watch the whole spectacle of the crucifixion close at hand.“

„Well, we could surely travel in this vehicle. That is, by the holodescriptions I have, I had thought those carts were too small to carry more than one person. Oh, never mind, my darling. You should not worry yourself about our feeling offended. I will make all the necessary amends myself, so our philosophers don’t feel angry. After all, I understand very well how critical this present situation really is. So, I will not be upset at all by your suggestion that we should embark in such a primitive vehicle.“

„That’s not exactly the idea, mi’lady.“

„Oh, no? I thought-„

„Excuse me for this misunderstanding. A few years ago our neuropsychologists developed a safe technique to allow the temporary implantation of the consciousness of an intelligent being inside the brain of a higher animal.“

„What? Are you suggesting, by chance, that we should visit the human past and share the minds of beasts of burden?“

„Not at all, mi’lady. You would not share your noble intellects with the minds of simple filthy beasts. You would keep all your mental faculties while inside those donkey brains.“

„How dare you? It is utterly intolerable! We would bear the brunt of malicious jokes throughout the Periphery until the end of the Great Expansion!“

„Well, I know that it might seem-„

„Listen here, you stupid human male! I’ve got no more patience for your idiotic pranks. If I could take such a major decision on my own I’d have the sun turned into a black hole!“

„I feared you would be offended.“

„Even so you proceeded with this abusive proposal of yours. This behaviour is typical of your kind. Then you wonder why we think of you as being too immature to colonise the Milky Way.“

The governess made a blunt gesture with her left hand. Her holopresence dissolved in a green flash.

* * *

„Wow, boss, she didn’t even say goodbye. Don’t you think you went too far this time?“

„Perhaps I did. However, her anger is not going to alter relations between humans and Elves in any significant way. Besides, after our pleasant chat, I guarantee that they will leave us in peace for a few decades.“

„Oh, you can bet on that.“ The tone of the master program was that of true relief. „I was just looking forward the moment in which she would propose exchanging the role of Jesus at the crucifixion for the secret of hyperspace travel.“

„No way! We’ve already fallen for that promise once. The Demigods assured us that it was entirely safe. Their special operative even lived several years among the citizens of pre-Christian Judaea. Everything seemed so perfect, do you remember?“

„Of course I do. Just to think of that terrified populace after witnessing all that blue-green blood squirting out of the body of Christ down the cross. And those dozens of writhing antennae that came out of the crown of thorns when the Demigod lost its control. Not to mention the riot and the people trodden to death following the incident.“

„And the trouble we had to sponge all that mess from the historical records, only with the resources we had in the past. Such a bloody rush to avoid a tremendous negative paradox, which would surely wipe the human civilisation as we know it from the Galactic Spiral.“

„Boss, I must agree with you. Human past is too fragile for us to allow these alien tourists to wander around freely in our history books!“

Original Title: „Alta Temporal“

Translated by David Alan Prescott

First Published in Outras Histórias , Editorial Caminho, Lisboa 1997

Copyright © 1997 by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro

Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro is a Brazilian science fiction and alternative history writer, editor & publisher, and alternative history scholar. He has published short stories and novelettes in professional Brazilian science fiction magazines, one  of which, „The Ethics of Treason“, was the very first alternative history story ever published in Brazilian science fiction. Gerson was publisher of Ano-Luz Brazilian small press and between 1999 and 2003 president of the  Brazilian Science Fiction Readers Club.

Original Title: „“

Copyright (c) 2005 by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro

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