"Then die. I assume that your protoplasm or whatever is vulnerable. "
"You don't understand. A human being can die-- after he has reproduced-- and all that he knew and all that he has will live on after him. But if I die, I cannot reproduce. My knowledge dies with me. An awesome responsibility. We cannot assume it. I am all the paintings and writings and songs of a million generations. To die would be the death of a civilization. You have cast yourselves free of life and achieved greatness.
"And that's why you come here. "
"If ever there were gods. If ever there was power in the universe. You are those gods. You have that power. "
"We have no power. "
"Mr. Crane, you are beautiful. "
And the old man shook his head, stood with difficulty, and doddered out of the temple and walked away slowly among the graves.
"You tell them the truth, " said the alien to no one in particular (to future generations of himself who would need the memory of the words having been spoken), "and it only makes it worse. "
It was only seven months later, and the weather was no longer spring, but now blustered with the icy wind of late autumn. The trees in the cemetery were no longer colorful; they were stripped of all but the last few brown leaves. And into the cemetery walked Willard Crane again, his arms half enclosed by the metal crutches that gave him, in his old age, four points of balance instead of the precarious two that had served him for more than ninety years. A few snowflakes were drifting lazily down, except when the wind snatched them and spun them in crazy dances that had neither rhythm nor direction.
Willard laboriously climbed the steps of the temple.
Inside, an alien was waiting.
"I'm Willard Crane, " the old man said.
"And I'm an alien. You spoke to me-- or my parent, however you wish to phrase it-- several months ago. "
"We knew you'd come back. "
"Did you? I vowed I never would. "
"But we know you. You are well known to us all, Mr. Crane. There are billions of gods on Earth for us to worship, but you are the noblest of them all. "
"Because only you have thought to do us the kindest gift. Only you are willing to let us watch your death. "
And a tear leaped from the old man's eye as he blinked heavily.
"Is that why I came? "
"Isn't it? "
"I thought I came to damn your souls to hell, that's why I came, you bastards, coming to taunt me in the final hours of my life. "
"You came to us. "
"I wanted to show you how ugly death is. "
"Please. Do. "
And, seemingly eager to oblige them, Willard's heart stopped and he, in brief agony, slumped to the floor in the temple.
The aliens all slithered in, all gathered around closely, watching him rattle for breath.
"I will not die! " he savagely whispered, each breath an agony, his face fierce with the heroism of struggle.
And then his body shuddered and he was still.
The aliens knelt there for hours in silent worship as the body became cold. And then, at last, because they had learned this from their gods-- that words must be said to be remembered-- one of them spoke:
"Beautiful, " he said tenderly. "Oh Lord my God, " he said worshipfully.
And they were gnawed within by the grief of knowing that this greatest gift of all gifts was forever out of their reach.
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