Once in a while I muster the courage to look up at the thin slice of night sky that is visible over the cliff. For a few moments I let myself imagine that extraterrestrial life is, after all, just what its naive name suggests: something that exists out there, at a safe distance from Earth, and belongs squarely in the realm of biology. Then comes the familiar surge of terror; I snap out of my delusion and crash back onto the hard surface of reality. From here I can only envy those who still don’t know the truth. I, too, used to be one of the blissful ignorants—until that dark day when the director summoned me to his office and gave me the task to go undercover as a novice in the Order of the Depths.
At first I thought he was joking. The Order was the antithesis to everything we stood for. We were trailblazing scientists at the most prestigious institute of space exploration in the country; they were a semi-criminal cult that worshipped the past, hated the present, and wanted the future dead. People like us couldn’t possibly want to have anything to do with people like them.
But the director was serious. In its most recent propaganda the Order was claiming to have made contact with a hostile life form, which it called the gravest threat ever faced by humanity. It wasn’t the first time they had talked like that, but this case was different. Instead of their usual bluster, now they sounded downright frightened. There were other troubling signs that something real was going on, and we had to look into the matter. I, as the youngest member of our department, was the natural choice for this thankless job. But according to the director, what had really sealed my fate was the fact that I, unlike the rest of my immediate colleagues, was bald—and therefore didn’t need to lose any precious hair to become one of those skinhead monks. This part had to be a joke, but he said it with a straight face and just stared at me, carefully studying my reaction. And I, taking my cue from his blank expression, didn’t even dare to smile.
The monastery I was sent to from the Order’s recruitment center was located near the edge of a desert, in a region of rocky hills that were ebbing and yellowing on their way down to the featureless flatness of the sands. When I arrived there I could only see a fraction of the sprawling compound, which extended up to the ridgelines and spilled over into the surrounding valleys. There were no walls and no gates; the trail simply ended abruptly at the massive front door of one of the buildings. Such a conspicuous disregard for security, so unusual in these times of wholesale social erosion, was the clearest warning to any would-be intruder that the locals were not ones to feel fear but to inspire it in others. I tried knocking on the door, but the metal was so dense that my puny fist hit it without making a sound. I sat down on the ground and waited. The yard was deserted. There was no sign of the urgency I had expected from an organization that was, by its own words, mobilizing for an epic struggle. It took more than an hour for someone to appear and let me in.
What I saw on the other side of the door looked nothing like the interior of a building. It was a web of cold, damp catacombs carved into natural rock and lit with dim lanterns. Monks were moving about slowly, gracefully, as if the walking itself was their purpose rather than any definite place they needed to go to. Their manner of carrying themselves stood in stark contrast to their physiques: large frames, coarse faces, shiny scalps with scars and bulging veins. None of them stopped to ask who I was. When I had had enough of moving in circles I finally addressed one of them and introduced myself as a novice. Without saying a word he led me to a vacant chamber, pointed at the floor, and left me alone. I let my backpack slide down from my shoulder and looked around me. The walls were covered with ornate inscriptions. I couldn’t recognize the script and assumed it to be meaningless, just another pseudo-mystical prop for impressing newcomers.
Then the monk came back and told me to follow him; the overseer who headed the monastery wanted to see me. The walk there was an unbroken movement upward, far longer than seemed physically possible within the height of the building. Finally we reached a cavernous hall in which monks were sitting on the floor here and there, all busy doing some kind of manual labor whose nature eluded me in the weak lighting. Then I noticed another figure standing apart from them. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and squinted hard to make sure I wasn’t misperceiving the details because of the distance.
“How come there’s a woman in a monastery?” I whispered in the monk’s ear. “Isn’t this place supposed to be only for men?”
“Of course, only men,” he said. “But she is how we test who deserves to be called a man.”
He warned me not to look at her directly, not right now, or else I wouldn’t stand a chance. Before I could ask what he meant he grabbed me by the hand and dragged me all the way to the woman. I kept my eyes fixed on the floor, and could only see her bare feet and the ends of her very long hair dangling in front of me while she talked. That also prevented her from seeing my expression of astonishment when she said she was none other than the overseer.
In the evening she came into my chamber, like she had promised earlier. I was expecting her around that time, and was already sitting in the corner with my face turned to the wall so that I wouldn’t catch a glimpse of her by mistake. I could hear the bed creaking behind me as she sat down on it. She asked me if I had anything special I wanted to talk about, and I said I didn’t. So she simply started asking me about mundane things such as my work and hobbies. The lantern cast her moving shadow on the wall above me, and even that was too vivid for comfort.
She frequently interrupted the conversation to remind me of the objective: I must not let myself fall for her. I was allowed to look away only as a crutch to ease me into the challenge and help me build some sort of resistance. Sooner or later I would have to see her face, and at that moment we would know what I was really made of. Yes, normally it was too much to ask of a young man like me, but these were not normal times, and the Order could not afford to be anything less than ruthless in its requirements. Only the rarest few had what it took to fight the enemy we were up against.
Mercifully, she didn’t stay overnight—although that too, she said, would come if necessary. After she left I made the mistake of switching off the lantern and lying down in my bed straight away. Her scent was still drifting there, and I could also feel the spot that had sunk under her weight. A heat wave suddenly flashed through me, and I nearly lost my nerve and gave up on the whole mission. Then I began rationalizing: these pathetic games should be beneath me, and I have more important things to do. Perhaps it was time to leave this place and go back to my actual work. But then I remembered the monks and changed my mind. If such thugs could control themselves so well around this woman in their midst, surely I could too.
My daily routine was entirely in the overseer’s hands. She came every morning and took me for a walk around the catacombs, chatting with me along the way. She walked behind me, not only to keep herself out of sight but also to enable me to witness up close how the monks reacted whenever they saw her coming. As far as I could tell they really were unmoved by her, and the more I saw of their coolness, the more I admired them for it. I could appreciate the difficulty of maintaining this attitude, now that more pressure was brought to bear on me: the overseer was beginning to let her attractiveness seep into our interactions and showed me more of her body. It all made me painfully aware that I was, indeed, a novice at this strange martial art of dodging female charms. I desperately wanted to become a better fighter, to be more like the others, but I didn’t know how.
It was purely as a distraction from this pain that I reluctantly decided, one night, to bring up the issue that was the secret reason for my being there. I casually asked the overseer—who was now sitting so close behind me that her warmth radiated on my body—if she could tell me anything about the life form that the Order had discovered, and perhaps explain what made it so dangerous.
“I won’t tell you a thing about the enemy,” she said. “You have not yet proved that you are worthy of our trust. But I can let you see for yourself what the enemy has done to men who were too weak to pass the test.”
The following day, at twilight, we left the building for the first time. The overseer, shrouded in an opaque garment without any noticeable openings to see or breathe through, took me to the remotest part of the monastery grounds. It was a deep gorge that cut its way between two almost vertical cliffs. The cliff on one side was dotted with uniform square holes. When we descended into the gorge I could see that the holes were all covered with thick metal bars. Faces soon appeared behind the bars, faintly lit in the afterglow that filtered in from the sky above the opposite cliff. The prisoners followed us with piercing eyes as we stepped onto the dry riverbed that ran down the middle of the gorge. The overseer asked me to look away from her and keep my attention on the holes. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but the men reacted to it like sharks to a bleeding swimmer. The whole surface of the cliff erupted into deafening howls that ricocheted all around me with nauseating reverberations. Hundreds of hands reached out from the cells with fingers angrily clutching at thin air. Then the overseer said we should leave before things got out of control. We left the riverbed and began the ordeal of climbing out of the gorge through the incessant frenzy. Later, back in the chamber, I asked her what had happened to those people. Her terse reply was: “The enemy happened.”
When I woke up in the morning I was overwhelmed by the feeling that time was running out fast. In panic I stormed out of the chamber and looked for someone to talk to. As soon as I ran into a monk I grabbed his arm and pleaded with him to teach me how to pass the test. How had he done it? There was obviously some method that could bring me success if I applied myself to it with enough determination.
The monk laughed. No, he said, there is no method. That’s exactly the fallacy that has ruined every aspirant to holiness: the obsession with finding an invariable formula for liberating anyone, anywhere, from the tyranny of the senses. The history of human spirituality is nothing but a gigantic heap of such failed attempts to standardize and mass-produce a unique, one-off personal experience—but that heap has given the Order a steady peak to stand on and see the truth that couldn’t be discerned from a lower position: the universe was impregnable to humans in the plural, but sometimes, unexpectedly, it yielded to a human in the singular.
“What I want to say,” he concluded, “is that I don’t know how I did it, because I didn’t do it—I simply was it. I happened to be the thing the Order needs so badly. And I hope you are that too, because it’s certainly not something you can turn into.”
His words plunged me into a gloomy resignation. I spent the rest of the day propelled by inertia alone, mechanically doing my best around the overseer without giving any thought to the outcome. When a pair of monks appeared late at night to escort me to the overseer’s hall, I was mostly happy that the test was about to end one way or another.
The ceremony was simple enough. I stood in front of the overseer, looking at her feet like I had done on our first encounter. She was flanked by the same two monks, and after a long silence, one of them told me to raise my eyes slowly. I looked up and gasped when her face came into view. She was the woman I had always dreamed of, straight out of my deepest desires and fantasies. Or, at least, that was the involuntary thought that seized me at that moment of defeat. The overseer smiled, and the monks, who were watching me intently, immediately relaxed their postures. We all knew it was over, and I didn’t bother resisting when a few other monks held me from behind and started coiling heavy chains around my body.
With great haste they carted me off to the gorge. Now I was one of those faces behind the bars, with nine cellmates who were sleeping at the time I was thrown inside, a sleep so tight that neither the monks’ blazing torches nor the slamming of the door behind my back did anything to disturb it.
In the morning, when enough light entered the cell and the prisoners began waking up, I could see that most of them looked quite similar to the monks, with the same type of physical features. Also similar was the fact that they deliberately ignored me. The only one who acknowledged my presence was much younger than the rest. He got up toward noon—unlike in the monastery, here there was nobody to enforce discipline—and was happy to see the latest addition to the group. He offered me some food and asked me about my background, only to interrupt my story before I could finish the first sentence.
“Who cares what we used to be, right?” he said and waved his hand. “It all went down the drain when the alien possessed us.”
“I don’t recall being possessed by any alien,” I said with an amused frown.
“You have a really bad memory if you can’t remember something that happened last night.”
“What do you mean, last night? Did it come while I was sleeping?”
“No, no. It came when you looked at her. When you fell in love. The same way it came to all of us.”
It clearly had something to do with that mysterious life form; but he spoke so chaotically that I had trouble understanding what he was driving at. Had our feelings for the overseer been induced by an alien? Was it some kind of mind control? I was beginning to feel immensely relieved that this might be the case. There was nothing unusual about such mental powers, and we knew of at least two dozen extraterrestrial races that regularly used them as a weapon. It was a scary but well-documented danger against which humanity had developed effective countermeasures. Hardly the existential threat that the Order had made it out to be.
The prisoner gave me a look full of pity and said I couldn’t have been more off the mark. It’s not that the hostile life form caused us to feel something; the life form is the feeling itself. What a man feels when he sees a beautiful woman, that sudden attraction celebrated by myriads of poets and singers since the dawn of time, is actually a subtle being whose mode of existence defies every single conception we have of the natural world. This devil, this horror of horrors, is not merely entrenched within its victims: it constitutes a large part of their ordinary, so-called healthy psyche. Indeed, most of us wouldn’t recognize ourselves as human without this contamination of the soul. The monks are the lucky ones who don’t have the vulnerability that allows the enemy to invade in the first place, and it is their moral duty to save humanity from those who do have it. To find any hope of destroying the enemy they must first purge us, its unwitting allies.
This gorge, which I first saw at twilight, is where I now spend the twilight of my life. My cellmates are fairly recent arrivals, but information travels fast in the gorge and they have had enough time to learn what awaits us in the near future. The monks will keep us here until our emotions subside somewhat; it’s far too dangerous to let us out while the enemy is at its most intense stage of activity. As soon as we become more tame they will march us off into the desert and abandon us to the elements. There, under the scorching sun, we will perhaps dream of the overseer one last time—before thirst and hunger finally deprive the enemy of our complicity and bring the world a step closer to everlasting peace.
Dan Bornstein is a language specialist in Japanese and a writer of speculative fiction, poetry, and essays. His work in English has appeared, among other places, in Daily Science Fiction, Star*Line, and the anthology book Lay Buddhism and Spirituality. His personal website is danbornstein.com.
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