"Slippery bastards, aren't you? " he inquired, and the alien chuckled. "So let me put it this way, and no dodging, or I'll know you have something to hide. You're pretty much like us, right? You have the same gadgets, but you can travel in space because you don't croak after a hundred years like we do; whatever, you do pretty much the same kinds of things we do. And yet-yet--"
"There's always an 'and yet, '" the alien sighed.
"And yet. You come all the way out here, which ain't exactly Main Street, Milky Way, and all you do is build these churches all over the place and sit around and jaw with whoever the hell comes in. Makes no sense, sir, none at all. "
The alien oozed gently store-music.ru toward him. "Can you keep a secret? "
"My old lady thought she was the only woman I ever slept with in my life. Some secrets I can keep. "
"Then here is one to keep. We come, Mr. Crane, to worship. "
"Worship who? "
"Worship, among others, you. "
Willard laughed long and loud, but the alien looked (as only aliens can) terribly earnest and sincere.
"Listen, you mean to tell me that you worship people? "
"Oh, yes. It is the dream of everyone who dares to dream on my home planet to come here and meet a human being or two and then live on the memory forever. "
And suddenly it wasn't funny to Willard anymore. He looked around-- human art in prominent display, the whole format, the choice of churches. "You aren't joking. "
"No, Mr. Crane. We've wandered the galaxy for several million years, all told, meeting new races and renewing acquaintance with old. Evolution is a tedious old highway-- carbon-based life always leads to certain patterns and certain forms, despite the fact that we seem hideously different to you--"
"Not too bad, Mister, a little ugly, but not too bad--"
"All the-- people like us that you've seen-- well, we don't come from the same planet, though it has been assumed so by your scientists. Actually, we come from thousands of planets. Separate, independent evolution, leading inexorably to us. Absolutely, or nearly absolutely, uniform throughout the galaxy. We are the natural endproduct of evolution. "
"So we're the oddballs. "
"You might say so. Because somewhere along the line, Mr. Crane, deep in your past, your planet's evolution went astray from the normal. It created something utterly new. "
"We all have sex, Mr. Crane. Without it, how in the world could the race improve? No, what was new on your planet, Mr. Crane, was death. "
The word was not an easy one for Willard to hear. His wife had, after all, meant a great deal to him. And he meant even more to himself. Death already loomed in dizzy spells and shortened breath and weariness that refused to turn into sleep.
"We don't die, Mr. Crane. We reproduce by splitting off whole sections of ourselves with identical DNA-- you know about DNA? "
"I went to college. "
"And with us, of course, as with all other life in the universe, intelligence is carried on the DNA, not in the brain. One of the byproducts of death, the brain is. We don't have it. We split, and the individual, complete with all memories, lives on in the children, who are made up of the actual flesh of my flesh, you see? I will never die. "
"Well, bully for you, " Willard said, feeling strangely cheated, and wondering why he hadn't guessed.
"And so we came here and found people whose life had a finish; who began as unformed creatures without memory and, after an incredibly brief span, died. "
"And for that you worship us? I might as well go worshiping bugs that die a few minutes after they're born. "
The alien chuckled, and Willard resented it.
"Is that why you come here? To gloat? "
"What else would we worship, Mr. Crane? While we don't discount the possibility of invisible gods, we really never have invented any. We never died, so why dream of immortality? Here we found a people who knew how to worship, and for the first time we found awakened in us a desire to do homage to superior beings. "
And Willard noticed his heartbeat, realized that it would stop while the alien had no heart, had nothing that would ever end. "Superior, hell. "
"We, " said the alien, "remember everything, from the first stirrings of intellect to the present. When we are 'born, ' so to speak, we have no need of teachers. We have never learned to write-- merely to exchange RNA. We have never learned to create beauty to outlast our lives because nothing outlasts our lives. We live to see all our works crumble. Here, Mr. Crane, we have found a race that builds for the sheer joy of building, that creates beauty, that writes books, that invents the lives of never-known people to delight others who know they are being lied to, a race that devises immortal gods to worship and celebrates its own mortality with immense pomp and glory. Death is the foundation of all that is great about humanity, Mr. Crane. "
"Like hell it is, " said Willard. "I'm about to die, and there's nothing great about it. "
"You don't really believe that, Mr. Crane, " the alien said. "None of you do. Your lives are built around death, glorifying it. Postponing it as long as possible, to be sure, but glorifying it. In the earliest literature, the death of the hero is the moment of greatest climax. The most potent myth. "
"Those poems weren't written by old men with flabby bodies and hearts that only beat when they feel like it. "
"Nonsense. Everything you do smacks of death. Your poems have beginnings and endings, and structures that limit the work. Your paintings have edges, marking off where the beauty begins and ends. Your sculptures isolate a moment in time. Your music starts and finishes. All that you do is mortal-- it is all born. It all dies. And yet you struggle against mortality and have overcome it, building up tremendous stores of shared knowledge through your finite books and your finite words. You put frames on everything. "
"Mass insanity, then. But it explains nothing about why you worship. You must come here to mock us. "
"Not to mock you. To envy you. "