"We're getting further with their language, sir."
I stared through the reinforced glass into the small living quarters below. The security detail stood unobtrusively in the corners of the observation room and the only other person with me was the lead linguist on the Mirl'kya culture project.
"Have they revealed their purpose yet?"
"Sort of. We... we have an accurate translation of what they call themselves, sir. It's something like herdsmen. Shepherds, sir."
"And we're their sheep." It was not a question.
"As far as we can gather... yes."
The creature below me shifted on its cot, its face coming out of the shadows for a moment. I caught a glimpse of jaundiced skin, narrow eyes, no nose. A crop of thick, black feelers sprouted from its head. The Mirl'kya were almost bipedal, though they walked on all fours when it suited them. They kicked up a terrible racial war after they left. People were edgy and frightened - they wanted something to fight, but the Mirl'kya were gone - gone with billions of souls. The first killing was probably an accident: an Asian man startled someone on a shadowy street at twilight and paid with his life. The other killings were most definitively not accidents. Everyone was carrying guns. Everyone was on a hair trigger. We could very well destroy ourselves before the Mirl'kya return for a second culling. There were PR teams dispatched in most English-speaking centres and we had a good grip on the recovering media... for now. We're all human was the mantra we settled on... obvious but effective. Nothing could soothe tensions like a good old us versus them rallying call. I needed to remember to get some exaggerated drawings made to emphasize the difference between the aliens and -
I pulled myself away from my thoughts and returned to immediate matters. There were so many matters to attend to these days. "I thought it was predators that culled the weak and the sick from the herd, not the shepherds?"
"Yes, on Earth. We've gathered that it's a cultural difference between -"
"Do they eat us, then?"
"We're not... sure. They feed on something, something that only sentient beings have. That's why this one -" he waved a hand at the creature below "- is dying. The bio researchers have had some success feeding it certain animals: gorillas, chimps, dolphins... but it won't last much longer until... but that's out of the question."
I sighed. Yes, it was out of the question for now. But there were many powerful people whose only interest was in getting information from the Mirl'kya, at all costs. Yet more matters.
Weeks later I was on an evening bus heading to my apartment complex. I stared blankly at the empty, barren buildings as they flicked by - abandoned homes and closed shops, already crumbling under the burden of riots, raids and weather. I briefly contemplated visiting my old house but quickly pushed that thought aside. Seeing the empty bedrooms without any toys or mess would be... I cleared my throat and coughed to regain composure. A man nearby chuckled.
"You know, there once was a time I would have worried about catching a bug from you..." he said half to me and half to his female companion, "But the Mirl'kya have taken that fear away from us."
The way he said Mirl'kya with such... adoration chilled me to the bone. I looked more closely at the people nearby and became disturbed at how they solemnly nodded, listening carefully. They were all dressed in their Sunday best - the men in suits and the women in modest dresses. It drew faint memories of young men in ties standing hopefully at our door, of a spacious church where the women all had long hair. A... no, it couldn't be. That would be... revolting.
"The Mirl'kya," I let the disgust seep into my voice, "did more damage than good. The end of wiping out a few contagious diseases does not justify the means of killing... of stealing the lives of so many."
A woman stiffened as if offended. "The Mirl'kya are our shepherds. We may not understand their actions, but we can know they are for the greater good."
Those words put a deep frown on my face... how many atrocities have been committed for the so-called "greater good"? I was chilled and disturbed. And angry. How had none of my teams caught this attitude and stamped it out? This was exactly the reason I those teams were out in the field. We can't have groups of people seeding dissent in these very fragile times. We needed the full support of the populace if we were going to be able to defend ourselves should the -
"The Lord is my shepherd," someone quoted, interrupting my thoughts. Another responded, "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters."
Reverence, in those words. Those blasphemous words. Fuck.
"We need to move out of the cities, you know. Disease travels faster in cities. And there's room for isolation, now."
Now. There's room for isolation now. If they were encouraging people to leave the cities, they'd be moving them out of the influence of the state... and into the hands of this.. this...
"One touched me," the first man said, and the others peered at him jealously. He eagerly sought after my eyes. "It spoke in my mind. It said they were messengers and guardians. That we did not have to fear for our future."
"Angels," breathed his companion, "They're angels sent to cull the evils from the world."
This was too much. I had thought the racial tension was bad enough, but if we had to contend with a budding cult too... this was going to get nasty. A religious experience - that's what most of the people who had physical contact with the aliens described. Was this how they domesticated a herd? With religion?
"They're not fucking angels," I spat without thinking, "They're aliens that eat people. They kept us alive for breeding stock. They're going to come again, and we're going to destroy them so they can never do this again... to us or to any other species."
Shocked, blank stares bore down on me in the heavy silence that followed. Finally, the first man spoke softly: "Perhaps on their return, the Mirl'kya will take those weak of faith along with those that are weak of flesh."
I stormed out of the bus at the next stop, then dashed across the street. Ten minutes later I was on a bus heading back into the city center. I wouldn't be going home tonight. I probably wouldn't be going home this week.
There were far too many matters to attend to.