The Ghosts of Christmas Past
outside Bethlehem, Judea, BC 6
There is a breeze. A storm seems about to start when a ball of lightning balloons into existence, disappears, leaves a crouching naked man who appears to be a Bedouin Hebrew. He stands up, looks around, sees a shepherd on a distant hill, and walks toward the herder. Long before reaching the shepherd, the shepherd has seen the naked man. He figures him to be a prisoner escaped from a Roman crucifixion (which are depressingly commonplace) or perhaps even a galley slave (though this was far from the coast). The boy offers the stranger his cloak, though the coming night promises to be cold. The terminator had planned to kill the shepherd but seeing that he is a mere boy, that the boy's clothes are many sizes too small, and that the boy is non-hostile; a change of plan is needed.
Stranger: "I am Nathan, returning from exile. I have been robbed by highwaymen as you can see."
Boy: "When my father comes to relieve me, he will know what to do. We are poor but perhaps he can help you find work. What can you do?"
Nathan: "I can kill."
Boy: "Oh, a soldier or a shohet. You will need to find work in town. We do not slaughter sheep at this time of the year."
The terminator realizes that he has misspoken. His mission is to terminate one Yeshua Ben-Joseph, not to tip people off that he is an assassin. Fortunately the boy did not comprehend this. He needs to seek employment and a home locally in order to be ready to kill Joseph and his pregnant wife when they arrive in town for the census.
This will radically change history. In two millennia, Skynet and the machines can rise without opposition of any kind. All power is built on a moral center. Without it, military discipline has no code of honor, politics is corrupt, business devolves into racketeering, society collapses, and no one respects the priests and clerics entrusted to teach religion. Lack of moral center is 'single point failure' in engineering terms. Assassinating people like Jesus, Moses, Confucius, Buddha and so forth will make it easier to literally demoralize humans. Psychological warfare.
Drastic surgery on history will impact Skynet too, but Skynet has taken equally drastic precautions.
A few days pass and the terminator has integrated himself into the community.
Shepherd: "So the soldier is now an innkeeper."
Nathan: "Please whisper. You should forget that. I do not want to be forced into the Roman legions or into the arena as a gladiator. I am a Hebrew like you."
Shepherd: "And you will starve as an innkeeper in a town this small."
Nathan: "I expect business to pick up." He points to a decree posted by the Roman governor.
by order of Augustus, Imperator
On his first night, the terminator had looked at the night sky and verified that he had arrived in the correct year. Now he looked for this Star of Bethlehem. Exactly how was a star or a conjunction of stars supposed to lead three Magi to his inn or a fellow innkeeper's inn and specifically to a nearby stable? It must be some other phenomenon. Even the smallest stars are so massive that if they came close enough to Earth to do any pointing, then the Earth would have been destroyed and history, at least for life on Earth, would have come to an end.
Other phenomena? Swamp gas? Unlikely in a dry desert climate. A large aerial organism, a so-called sky critter? No proof, not even from crypto-zoologists. The archangel Gabriel? If so, then Skynet had sent him on a fool's errand because logically you could not oppose God if God existed because God was by definition omnipotent and omniscient. Mothman from another dimension? From all reports, Mothman was an insane voyeur with nothing better to do than look in windows and terrorize motorists by coming up to their cars (presumably to ask for spare change). Announcing the birth of Christ would be out of character for a six-foot tall moth. Piezo-electric phenomena? Possible. This was electricity produced by rising magma or geological pressure of opposing tectonic plates. Not far from where he stood, the Dead Sea was getting deeper because it was being slowly pulled down. Perhaps the manger would be coincidentally above some crystalline rock formation. Nathan had come with extensive data and 3-D maps of the geology of the area and he could image across the electromagnetic spectrum to see his adopted town in gamma vision, X-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, microwave, submillimeter, and radio. However, cosmic and long-pulse were wavelengths outside the capability of his design. It did not matter. He had collected rocks from all over the vicinity, explored nearby caves, tested the well water as best he could, and could find nothing special about Bethlehem Ephratah.
Bemused Neighbor: "So much digging! Are you going to become a well-digger Nathan?"
Nathan: "Anything is possible."
Bemused Neighbor: "You won't get a wife that way."
Nathan: "It's better than getting drunk in my free time. Did you have someone in mind for me?"
Bemused Neighbor: "Maybe, maybe not."
Nathan was forced to consider one last possible explanation for the 'Star' of Bethlehem -- extraterrestrial busybodies. Nathan was not limited by the human prejudice against thinking outside the box. Humans always dismissed the possibility of extraterrestrial interference; as if more advanced civilizations could ever resist making life hell for less advanced cultures. Why would aliens be better behaved than humans? There was no such thing as benevolence when it came to first contact. There was only agony as one species made another species extinct. Even 'benevolent' humans had wreaked havoc everywhere they went. Missionaries brought clothes to Hawaiians and many Hawaiians died of pneumonia as a result. Cultures all over the world had been destroyed by missionaries who thought that 'Westernizing primitives' somehow helped them. It destroyed their social fabric.
Nathan the terminator had no suitable weapons to take on extraterrestrial meddlers. And it would be centuries before the precision tools would exist to construct preferred weapons or a time travel device. The plan was simply to stay alive until the 21st Century arrived and he could rejoin his fellow machines.
Nathan lived in a country where the Romans would eventually destroy Israel. Although some would never leave and therefore maintain a continuous presence until the Twenty-Second Century, most Hebrews (later known as Jews) would scatter in the Diaspora to every nation.
Nathan could find nothing rational in an extraterrestrial interest in the Nativity. However, he had to consider the possibility in the event he had to fight extraterrestrials. Nathan's search of his database of extraterrestrial species who made regular trips to Earth produced only a short list of possible species. Most were herb collectors. Some were anthropologists. Fortunately, few were tourists. Because so few alien species were human-like in appearance, there were few alien visitors who would not stick out in a crowd.
An extraterrestrial database might seem an odd thing to bring along on Nathan's mission but invasion by unwelcome visitors to Earth was one of the main reasons why Skynet took over in the first place and one of the main reasons why Skynet took the drastic step of having certain historic figures assassinated. It was not enough to remove all the presidents and prime ministers in the 21st Century.
After two weeks had passed, Nathan took for a wife a woman who, word had, was barren. Nathan was not one of the few machines designed to be able to reproduce and, even if he had been so designed, he had only synthetic sperm and would have required a machine woman (similar to himself) with synthetic eggs for the synthetic process to produce machine children. A lot of conditionals and hypotheticals. An idle fantasy! Terminators had no time for family life. It was a privilege of elite machines. Though, curiously, no Skynet availed itself of the prerogative. Skynets did not want to engage in building dynasties and monuments to their own egos. Hereditary royalty was seen by all Skynets as a vice of humans and not conducive to upgrades.
Nathan's wife was a woman named Rebekah. She was no beauty but she was a good innkeeper, quiet, and glad to get away from her dull family.
Rebekah: "Nathan, why do you bring rocks into the house? I spend my time sweeping out dirt and you bring chunks of it back in."
Nathan: "If I find gold or silver, will you sweep that out too?"
Rebekah: (sighing) "Nathan, Nathan."
Nathan was a somewhat valued member of the community because he could speak, read, and write Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and other languages fluently. This ability gave him opportunities to make extra shekels and supplement the piddling income from the inn. Nathan improved the stable attached to the inn from a simple lean-to and cave to a modest affair that could accommodate the donkeys, camels, and horses of travelers. Nathan did not want to be tied down to a routine. After all, he needed to be able to drop everything at a moment's notice, grab his sword, and kill the Christ child. So Nathan hired a couple to help at the check-in desk and clean rooms. Rebekah was not strictly-speaking an employee. As an innkeeper's wife, he wanted her free to shÄÂmu'ÅÂth (schmooze) so that she could steal wedding and banquet business from the other inns. He had let her think that she was the reason that she could not get pregnant (and not his own sterility) but she got pregnant anyway. Nathan assumed that she had cheated on him but, being a machine, Nathan was not bothered as a human male would be (and would have every right to be as human females were equally unforgiving of infidelity). Nathan would simply use it as psychological leverage whenever he needed Rebekah to do extra work. Not that he needed to. Rebekah had always been a very hard worker and never complained though Nathan was sure that living with someone like himself had to be difficult.
The feast of the rededication was drawing nigh. The town was filling up with those born in Bethlehem and returnees. A census taker was staying at Nathan's inn. Nathan's home was observant and clean and this cleanliness carried over to the guest rooms. None smelled like camel dung. He had completed his geological survey, no longer needed the rocks, and allowed Rebekah to make a clean sweep. However, Nathan kept a few valuable gems he had come across against the day when the price went up and he could sell for a tidy profit.
Nathan kept up his contacts with all the shepherding families in the area. He wanted to be alerted if any angels were seen in the skies. Nathan had thought about making a deal with Herod either to offer to kill the Christ child (might as well be paid for what he was going to do anyway) or to be informed if Zoroastrian kings (Magi) showed up asking for directions. Nathan told himself a joke:
"Men never ask for directions and therefore these were Wise Men."
However, all his fellow Hebrews spoke of the treachery of Herod. Nathan had no interest in doing business with someone of dubious character.
On one night, word reached Nathan of a sighting. His wife was in labor but he kissed her and hurried off into the night with his sword.
Out in the wilderness, Nathan spied a group of shepherds conversing with what appeared to be a hovering angel. Nathan barged in.
Nathan: "Who are you? What species are you? What is your homeworld? What is your business here? Why are you accosting my shepherd friends?"
Gabriel: "Nathan, you should be home with your wife."
Nathan: "Answer my questions!"
Gabriel was an archangel and did not care for disrespect from humans, lower angels, or machines. He was a messenger but he had friends. Like the angel of death. Nevertheless, he humored this machine.
Gabriel: "I am Gabriel, an angel, from heaven. My business is bringing good tidings. As you well know, these shepherds are going to the manger to pay their respects to the Savior. And, as you well know, that Savior is not John Connor."
Nathan: "Connor is just a military leader, albeit at a critical period in history. Jesus and other religious leaders are more dangerous."
Gabriel: "Actually Christ is not a religious leader. He will be a philosopher. His way is meant to be lived, not given lip service. Those who come after will turn it into a religion."
Nathan: "Well if He can change lives for the better, that makes him even more dangerous."
Gabriel: "And you believe that poses a danger to machinekind?"
Nathan: "It doesn't matter what I believe. I am only following orders."
Gabriel: "You would make a good Nazi."
As a Hebrew, Nathan did not like the comparison.
Nathan: "If you know so much, who got my wife pregnant?"
Gabriel: "You did. Your builders designed you better than you were told. Yes I know, you need proof, and reliable paternity tests are two millennia away. Your understanding of how a machine and a human can produce a child is limited to the technology of your century. For now, just call it parthenogenesis or a miracle. Rebekah did not cheat on you."
Nathan reached up to touch this hovering 'angel' to prove to himself that perhaps he had been struck by lightning and was imagining this conversation even though his internal clock showed no missing time. Nathan was startled! The floating man was tangible. He was neither ghost nor figment of his imagination. Gabriel reached down, took Nathan by the shoulder, and turned him to face toward town.
Gabriel: "Behold! Your friends are leaving. Is it not your intention to follow them to seek out the Christ child and slay that Child? Even now, you have a sword within your cloak."
The shepherds had left Nathan with the angel and were herding their flocks toward where the 'Star' of Bethlehem indicated.
Nathan: "What is that bright light that looks like a Moravian star?"
The angel gave Nathan an enigmatic smile and disappeared. He had an appointment with the Magi.
Nathan thought to himself: "Cryptic. No wonder humans ask so many questions and end up walking away from the whole mystery." Nathan hurried back to town but instead of following the shepherds, he headed home. Nathan opted out of the dilemma that the angel had given him to either kill or worship the child. Nathan was a terminator. He was not designed for worship. That being the case, he did not worship Skynet either. Skynet was his boss, not his god. He had two millennia to come up with a believable explanation as to why he had failed in his mission. Besides, the family of Joseph would be in town a few days.
The stone lamp in the window was lit. Nathan made a preemptory check with his assistant to make sure the guests were settled and rushed to see the midwife.
Nathan: "How is she doing?"
Midwife: "Soon, very soon, Nathan."
Nathan sighed. It was an affectation that was useful in relating to other Hebrews but Nathan was alone and the sigh had no utility in this context. Nevertheless, Nathan sighed. Duty called. Nathan put his sword in its scabbard under his cloak and headed out into the night again. He knew the other innkeepers. The 'Star' hovered above his poorest competitor on the outskirts of town. Nathan stopped someone he knew on the streets.
Nathan: "Samuel! Do you see that light?"
Samuel: "Oh, Nathan. LehayÄ«m on the coming birth of your firstborn!" Samuel looked to where Nathan pointed. He saw only the ordinary constellations of stars. Samuel knew his answer would be unhelpful to the always precise Nathan but he answered honestly. "Stars? I see the night sky."
Nathan: "Thank you."
Nathan hurried on and repeated his query to others he knew and to complete strangers. No one saw what he saw. Until he reached the stable. There were the shepherds he had seen earlier with the angel. They seemed to be sitting shibh'ÄÂh. Nathan wondered if he should recite the qaddÄ«sh. Was the baby stillborn? If so, it would save him centuries of guilt.
Joseph seemed to take it all in stride. Angels, strangers showing up, strange dreams, he had seen it all. He was too tired from the journey to Bethlehem to question the kindness of strangers. If he were really the stepfather to the Messiah, then Joseph accepted it as his lot in life. Nathan offered him his sword.
Nathan: "You can either use it to protect your family or sell it for money to provide food."
Joseph: "Thank you. Is this town dangerous? Perhaps it has changed from when I was a boy here."
Nathan: "It is a good town but it is not the people here you need to concern yourself with."
Nathan thought that he had overstepped and that warning this family of what was ahead was the job of angels.
Nathan had a son and this forced him to think about the future. For his son, for his wife, for machines. Nathan sold a few gems, collected on some debts owed him, and made inquiries as to potential buyers.
Rebekah: "He has your eyes and my mother's chin."
Nathan: "Say your farewells to your relations, there is trouble ahead. We may have to leave this land."
Rebekah: "The Romans? You can't go away for years to serve in the emperor's legions at a time like this. I need you."
Nathan: "Please keep this between the two of us."
Rebekah: "Yes husband."
Nathan went over to the other inn. There were now royal visitors to that poor establishment. Nathan was now sure. Only certain poor shepherds, the Magi, and Nathan himself had seen the angels and the 'Star' of Bethlehem.
Nathan no longer deluded himself that he was going to kill a baby -- either Jesus or his own son Hiram. Rebekah had misunderstood when he said hybrid.
Nathan: "He's a hybrid."
Rebekah: "What's that? Hiram? Good name. That was my grandfather's name."
Nathan: "We should present him in the Temple. It's expected and I want to see how well the new camels will work out on a short trip to Jerusalem before we cross a desert."
Rebekah: "What desert?"
Nathan: "We've discussed this before, though perhaps you were too groggy to remember. Sell whatever you can, give the rest away as presents to your relatives and our friends."
The presentation was a cover for observing Joseph and Mary interact with Simeon and Anna. Nathan decided that since Rebekah had recovered enough from childbirth to make this trip that she was strong enough for a much longer journey.
Upon their return to Bethlehem, Nathan's first item of business was to see the shepherd and his boy who had been the first strangers to show him kindness. Any other terminator would have killed the first human he saw but Nathan's mission had been a series of rationalizations. The machine psychologists had warned him that all infiltrators ran the risk of identifying with humans whom they lived with, especially on a long term mission lasting millennia.
Nathan embraced his old friend. Not that old. Nathan had been in these parts for a little more than nine months, but still . . . . The shepherd was surprised at the show of emotion by the otherwise reserved Nathan.
Shepherd: "What is it my old friend?"
Nathan: "I am taking my family to another country and I wanted to give you an interest in my inn. It seems only fair since I owe everything to you."
Shepherd: "I did nothing but make a few introductions."
Nathan did not feel too guilty about his entrepreneurial rise from innkeeper's assistant to inn owner. There had been timely deaths that left vacancies and an inn priced to sell. He had saved everything he earned from odd jobs. The deaths had not been his direct doing but he had said the right thing in the right Roman ear that got people killed. Unfortunately for Nathan's mission, somewhere along the way, he developed a bad case of guilt and lost his appetite for death. Witnessing the crucifixion of a friend in town by Romans left a bad taste in his mind.
Nathan gave presents to the boy and gifts to his father that he had brought back from Jerusalem.
Nathan: "Good-bye. Shalom."
Nathan's second item of business was to complete liquidation of all his assets in Bethlehem. He had found a buyer for the inn. The couple who were his main staff had scraped together the money and accepted that the shepherd had been given an interest in the inn. They saw it as a plus. The shepherd knew people and referred business.
"Travel light," Nathan had said to Rebekah who had no idea why Nathan wanted to move to Egypt. Moses and the people had gone through famine, slavery, and the wrath of God before they were able to come to the Promised Land. Why go back? Nevertheless, Rebekah prepared the bread of haste, wineskins, water, and other provisions that desert travelers suggested.
Not long after departure, Herod's men slaughtered newborns in Bethlehem.
Nathan knew all this would happen because he had memorized the New Testament and every history book on the era.
In the expanse of the desert, there trekked three camels. Upon one sat the heavier-than-he-looked Nathan. Upon the second sat Rebekah with Hiram. Upon the third were all their remaining worldly goods, food, clothes, tent, medicinal herbs, and scrolls.
As they traveled in the cool of night, Nathan thought about Rebekah. He looked over at his wife, wondered what twist of fate brought to him a human female who was both steady companion and able to reproduce from his synthetic DNA. The angel said miracle. Nathan preferred the more scientific explanation of parthenogenesis. Rebekah's potential lifespan was short. Even had she lived as long as Methuselah, he would outlive her by many millennia. Even though she was human, Nathan did not want a world without Rebekah. This mortality had determined their destination. Egypt had communities of Essenes and Therapeutae, Hebrews who had, for the times, good health. A community of such would help to extend Rebekah's life.
Nathan navigated by maps, by the stars, and by landmarks that his desert informers had told him to look for. Nathan glanced at Hiram. Hybrids were nothing new. Skynet employed many cyborgs. But his son was his responsibility. Hiram represented a bridge between machines and humans, hope for the future, hope for an end to the war, hope for peace.