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Four thousand, two hundred and 17 steps from his house to the river.

Zarah knew - he had counted them many times. He knew exactly how to make those steps come out even while chanting the hymn, up the long, gradual slope, ignoring the calls of his camels who, rising early, would soon be looking for food and water. His deep-blue turban wound with exactly fourteen twists of the cloth, his robe folded in the manner prescribed by the seers.

He would reach the river exactly at dawn.

When he entered the water, the rising sun would strike his purified body. He hoped, he prayed, that this would be the day he had spent his thirty years of life preparing for.

He hoped, he prayed, that on this day Enlightenment would come.

'Ouch!' Jake Vohman jerked irritably at the helmet, readjusting the headset. 'Do I have to wear all this gear? The poor guy will run screaming down the hill. I am a walking cliche.' He rolled his eyes as he lurched around the ship's control room, arms stretched out in parody of some forgotten scifi horror. 'Take. Me. To. Your. Leader,' he intoned.

Technical Chief Uri Ma'az slapped Vohman on the rear with a cleaning rag, and spun the tall, blond man around. 'Hold still,' he sighed, tugging at the helmet until it came off. He took the device to the bench to adjust the padding, calling over his shoulder, 'We have been through all that. This,' He held up the helmet, 'is the only way you can talk to him. We have to use mind-to-mind transmission. And he has to be in the water for it to work.'

Shaking shaggy locks, Vohman collapsed into a swivel chair, which he proceeded to destructively test. 'I know the drill. I show up, do my We-Come-in-Peace routine, and give him the message, using the Universal Translator over there.' He grinned toothily, knowing what was coming.

Ma'az rounded on him in exasperation. 'How many times do I gotta tell you? There is no such meshugenah thing as a universal translator, goyische kop. You can't translate ideas from one language to another when the other guy don't have words for what you've got to say...' He rubbed his chin as he studied the state-of-the-art device, and then nodded as he found the precise words. 'It's a DIT machine, is what it is. Direct Information Transfer, mind to mind.'

He turned to Vohman, who was already getting into the rest of his gear - antigravity belt over a white Fleet-issue jumpsuit, packet of mints in the pocket in case the early-morning air hit his sinuses the wrong way. (It wouldn't do to have a coughing fit in the middle of a Pronouncement.) The short, stocky Ma'az pointed a finger at Vohman, at six-foot-four an imposing specimen, one they hoped would meet the expectations of a worshipper of the Divine and Perfect.

'Remember. Keep your mind clear and on-task. Any and every little stray thought - say, what's for dinner in the mess tonight, what that girl on Reda thinks of you, whatever - will get magnified.' He ran his hands through wiry hair. 'Etymologies are treacherous. Sound associations leak through. If you don't want 'em starting a frog cult, don't think about Rana, get it?'

Vohman patted his tech chief on the shoulder, then gave it a squeeze. 'Don't worry. I'll keep it simple. Just let them know, we're on their side, what we want them to do.' His blue eyes twinkled. 'My thoughts will be pyoo-ah, free from concupiscence...' He reached for the helmet.

Ma'az strapped him into his harness for the journey planetside, wondering privately where this amoretz got his vocabulary from. 'And don't forget - they need to know that the guy from SOSHIA will contact them. To trust him.'

Vohman rolled his eyes one more time as he pulled on his helmet, talking into it to test the mike. 'Okay, yeah. In a few thousand years, somebody from the Special Office for Spatial Harmonics and Intertemporal Affairs will be along. Tell him Uri sent you.' He held up a confirmatory thumb to match Uri's as he stepped into the landing craft.

Vohman floated above the water, his hands held out wide, both in what he hoped was a sign of harmlessness and to keep his equipment out of the water. It was necessary for his contactee to be partially immersed - the liquid aided the transmission of thought waves - but it would not be a good idea to get Uri's components wet.

The dark little man below him didn't seem fazed by all the gear. He stretched out his hands in imitation of the gesture, grinning from ear to ear as he stood in the flowing river, the rising sun glinting off the water droplets in his curly beard. Vohman cleared his throat, cursed himself for a fool, then cleared his mind before turning on the transmitter.

'Er, hello, Friend. I come in peace.' Wider grin from local, obviously having the time of his life. Encouraged, Jake went on. 'I bring a message from...' Oh, smeg, who should he say he was from? What would Uri say? He gulped, fearing a cerebral faux pas, but the little man just nodded eagerly.

'Oh, yes, Blessed One, I love you, too, and like you I worship the Creator. May I ask your name, please?'

Blink. Oh, well, no harm in that. Now for the message. Jake went on to reassure the contactee that they were not in the religion business. Nobody wanted sacrifice, especially not of people or animals. Desperately not thinking of a frog at this point.

'We're just like you, really, only we have this trick with time. Don't worry about it, but we want you folks to get the full experience when you finally join us. Which means learning good citizenship. You'd help us a lot if you'd pass that message on, because we can only come back in a hop, skip, and a jump, you see. Hyperspace is kind of, don't worry about it...but there's something we need you to do for a sign to the rest of the team, that we've talked to you...'

He was losing the signal, he could tell in spite of the man's continued smiling and nodding, as the sun rose higher, attenuating the frequency. He had better be fast.

'Towards the target date, somebody from SOSHIA will contact you. Trust him, pass it along, please...' Lamely, 'Tell him, er, Uri Ma'az said hi.' Leaning over - a tricky manoeuvre, Vohman touched his contactee briefly on the neck with the device he held in his palm, hoping this gesture would be interpreted as a benediction, as apparently it was.

Vohman waved goodbye, and wished the other fellow luck as he turned off the transmitter and activated his cloaking device so that he could get to his shuttle without being seen.

'I hope we get better at this, ' he thought as he pulled off his helmet and strapped himself into the pilot's seat. 'I hope that guy doesn't get in too much trouble. Oh, well - we'll find out next hyperjump, now, won't we?'

Lt Vohman of the Confederation Space/Time Corps punched in the coordinates that would take him home aboard the CSS Merkavah. As he sat back, letting the autopilot do its job, he wiped nervous sweat from his face and studied the vial in his hand.

Ha, got you in the resurrection databank, my friend, you're a, won't you be surprised?

Thus spoke Zarathusht, Zarah-of-the-Camels, to his followers:

'Ahura Mazda has spoken: We are starseed, we are his children.

'Abandon the old religion. Offer no sacrifice to stock and stone. Worship in the heart. Worship by right thought and action alone.

'This have I heard from Ahura Mazda's servant, Vohu Mana, which means Good Thought:

'At the end of days, we will join him in the wonderful new world. Only right action will prepare us to live fully in that world.

'Do justice, love mercy, heed the words of Vohu Mana.

'At the end of time, one will come, the Soshiant. He is from Ahura Mazda. He will reorder things so that we may leave this world behind and go to the next.

'Here is our sign...'

Zarathustra met with quite a lot of opposition to his teachings. He won only 22 converts in his lifetime. Approximately three and a half millennia later his followers still numbered only 200,000 on a planet of billions.

These followers kept faith, however, tried to live good lives, and did what their founder had asked in the name of his friend Vohu Mana:

To light a fire in a dark place.

A figure, praying peacefully in a darkened room.

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