Years ago, when Tom was just a boy, he had stayed out longer than usual, up in the valley, further from town than the farm. He was making his way home and it was already very dark. He could barely see the old road, the one people had used before the new tarmac street from town through the valley on the other side of the river. He had gone here before often, he knew the way. But the darkness ... he wasn't afraid of the dark, not really. But a darkness like this, you could get lost if you strayed from the road even a few steps. And the road was narrow and in disuse. He wasn't all that afraid, but he did not like it at all.
And then the heavy clouds had drifted and revealed the full moon overhead. For eyes used to almost total darkness, it was as if the night suddenly became day. The road was clear, each tree along it cast in sudden brightness. It was a moment he would not forget as long as he lived ...
And yet he had not thought about it for a long time. Not until now.
The slender blond boy came in and stood beside the teacher. Then, of all things to do, he bowed deeply to the class, looking down. "Pleased to meet you! My name is Benjamin Starborn, but friends call me Ben. I hope we can be friends."
That's what he said, but his voice was like a song, like a melody played on silver bells. It wasn't like any voice Tom had ever heard before. And now, looking at the boy, he realizes that no, Benjamin Starborn is not a mere human. He is that, and more. Despite the humble posture, he radiates the quiet dignity of a prince who knows that he must inherit the world. Even looking down, he seems to shine ... not literally, not really, but ... the whole room is so much brighter than before he came in. It is if a simple beauty is reflected from the very walls. Not just the boy. The blackboard, the desks, even the teacher and the other students seem to shine with a newfound beauty. It is as if Tom's eyes have been half closed and suddenly he has opened them. Everything suddenly seems more ... real. More colorful, vivid. Things are here, now.
And nothing is more here or now than the blond new student. Beside him, the walls themselves could be mist and he would walk through them if they barred his way. The world shifts, in one sudden movement it rights itself upright after having lain down for a thousand years. It snaps to rightness, and is centered around this one boy. The waves of the distant oceans, the strong winds on which clouds ride, the forests and mountains with their roots, they exist to serve this one boy. If he would call them, they would do his bidding. Finally, he has come.
With a sudden lurch, Tom's heart begins to beat again, and he draws a long breath. What was that? And yet, although he is back, aware of himself again, he can still sense it. Now finally he realizes what the big deal is. It is not about being a pretty boy. It is something much deeper. Whatever it is.
"Welcome to our class, Starborn. If you would, could you take that seat, beside Tom here. Ah, on the second row. Tom?"
Tom blinks. Then he realizes that he is supposed to make this easier. He lifts his hand, waves and reaches out to indicate the free desk beside him. And the angel boy looks and notices, and then looks at him for a moment. Their eyes meet.
Sometimes eyes can speak. Rather than just looking, they can convey a feeling or add a nuance to something said, or they can seal a shared secret between two who have seen the same thing. Tom has always taken this for granted. But he has never before seen it like this. These eyes express such a deep gratitude for the small unnecessary favor, as if he had performed some heroic feat or great sacrifice instead of just showing the boy his desk. But then ...
The Starborn's eyes widen in surprise or recognition. As if he had seen something familiar but unexpected. And Tom can't look away, he is drawn into it, even though he does not know what it is. For a long dizzying heartbeat it lasts, and then suddenly the other bows again, more slightly, and walks to take his seat. Silence falls again.
Stranden may be an idealist, but he is not an idiot. He knows that any normal class now would be forgotten before it was over. So instead ...
"Today we will start with an overview on the history of the Starborn and the Visitors. Betel... Ben, please correct me if I make any mistakes.
"For thousands of years, there have been legends about angels. These are not just from Judaism and its descendant religions either: The Japanese have their Tenshi, and India has the Gandharvas, the Heavenly Singers. The details vary, but they are always described as beautiful and awe-inspiring, powerful in a magic way. We don't know if these were actually Visitors. Even though they were all considered a force for good, the legends tend to describe them in religious terms, as messengers and servants of gods. But the gods people believed in back then were themselves rather limited by our standards. Certainly the Visitors did not call themselves angels or refer to any of these older stories in any way.
"Time passed, and legend faded to myth. Meanwhile, the Age of Science was upon us. Great inventions were made, such as railroads, cars and airplanes. But rather than using all this for the good of all mankind, the most powerful European countries enslaved the whole world, and then started to prepare to fight each other for world supremacy. For each passing years, more and more dangerous weaponry was piled up, alliances were made and plans were laid, plans of war, mass murder and treachery. Nobody wanted to show any weakness, and so we came closer and closer to the brink of total war.
"Nobody can tell what kind of history we would have had from then on. Perhaps the war would have continued until humanity, or at least civilization, was wiped from the face of the Earth. Luckily we will never know. Because in 1914 the Visitors suddenly appeared.
"They were not an army. By most accounts, there were 17 of them, but the truth is that we do not really know. They never appeared all in one place. The most that were ever seen together were five, as they witnessed the signing of the Eternal Peace Treaty. More often than not they would travel alone. And they did not travel by plane or by boat: They simply disappeared in one place and appeared in another. To this day, nobody knows how they did that. As far as I know, even the Starborn cannot do that. Is that right, Ben?"
"It is. My mother believes it may come with age. She is only 89, after all."
"Uhm, that is right. The Visitors claimed to be centuries old, even though they only looked to be in their 20es. We don't even know whether they are mortal in our sense of the word. They never talked about it. In fact, they never talked much at all, although they seemed able to learn any language easily. Mostly they would just walk through the cities, and wherever they went, miracles happened around them.
"The power of the Visitors, and now the Starborn, is still a mystery to science. It seems to influence probability, so that extremely unlikely events happen much more frequently. These are overwhelmingly good events: The blind begin to see, the sick becomes well, wounds heal and cancer disappears. People overcome bad habits and recover from mental afflictions. Occasionally when a Visitor passed by, even the newly dead would return to life. The Visitors did not do this, it just happened in their presence. I am not sure if they even knew about each miracle. Ben?"
"My mother says that she can sometimes feel a movement in the Heritage, when something big happens. But she cannot for instance put her hands on a sick child and heal it. Either it happens or it doesn't. It doesn't help to hang out in the same place for a long time, either. It is better to just move through and come back another time."
"Do these things happen to you too?"
"Mom... my mother says that the Heritage is stronger when all three of us are together. But I don't know any more than that. This is the first time I am alone with lots of people, really."
"Oh, that's right. So, boys and girls, be sure to tell us if a miracle happens! Although you seem all quite healthy right now...
"I said the events were overwhelmingly good. Some bad things happened as well, but these happened only to a small group of people. There were a few who hated the Visitors, either because they came in the way of their own plans to profit from war and misery, or because they considered them a blasphemy. Some people made plans to kill a Visitor if they got the chance. This was not easy since you never knew where they would appear next, but eventually one would appear in a city where an enemy waited. They never got to shoot at them, though. Just like unlikely things happened for good, other unlikely things happened to these people. Their carriage broke down, their rifle jammed, they fell and broke a leg. None of them even came close to harming a Visitor.
"For almost a year the Visitors traveled all over the world, spreading hope and love and talking to selected people, teaching them to connect to the invisible force of goodness that surrounds us all. They never told people to convert to a new religion or to let go of an old. This is why we don't think they were angels in any traditional meaning of the word. They were not messengers of any one god, but simply set an example of how to connect to the forces of good. They also claimed to be human, except that on their world everybody was born with an inclination to connect to the invisible force of goodness. Clearly it is more than just wanting to do it ... they also have some kind of talent for channeling this force. But that they were human was proved only a few months after they departed in 1915. Then was born a girl who was half Visitor. She grew up to become Anita 'Antares' Starborn, a living reminder of the heritage of the Visitors.
"We believe that her father did not leave her behind out of ignorance or callousness. The Visitors must have known that she would have a safe and happy childhood with her mother and grandparents. And they must have known that she would continue their work in the world. Also, as long as the Starborn are among us, the legend of the Visitors will not decay to myth and from there on to become religion. The Visitors never wanted to found a new religion, they wanted to make this world a better place for everybody.
"Even though the world did not yet know about the Starborn, there were many who wanted to continue the work of the Visitors by living good lives, connecting to the invisible force of goodness, and act with fairness and mercy in trade and politics. The stockpiles of weapons were quietly scrapped, for there were new governments chosen by the people who did not want to wage war. And even had they tried, people would have refused to take up arms against their fellow men. Instead it became common to settle in the countries of former enemies, or other countries as people started to no longer care who had been whose enemy. This is why we speak English here in Norway, for instance. With so many people from many different nations moving to this wide open space, it was no longer practical to cling to the old languages. Instead people started to speak the one language that was understood by most people. So even though we may have some weird dialect forms, we all speak English now.
"But spiritual progress does not come easily to our world, it seems. Although many wanted to connect to the invisible force of goodness, it is hard for most of us and takes a long time even to get a short way. And most people are not very patient. So they never truly connected to any mystical force, but just made it into a ritual of prayer and meditation, and then tried to live good lives by the standards they already had, much like people going to church. And a generation passed, with children growing up who had never seen the Visitors or felt the strange power that surrounded them. New schools of thought took hold, which claimed that since we are after all a different breed of human, we should not try to walk the path of the Visitors but find our own way. In the early 1940es, some even tried to revive nationalism.
"It was then that Anita Starborn stepped forward. Traveling from city to city, she would visit hospitals and the poor districts. And where she went, miracles would happen. Not as great or as many as with the Visitors, but miracles even so. Soon mayors all over the world begged her to come visit their city, and even promised to pay her handsomely. She accepted to have her expenses paid, but little more than that. There were enough of those who needed the money, she said, in their own cities.
"As the years passed, her fame grew, and so did her power. Young people realized that the Visitors had not after all been a legend like the rest, and it changed their lives. A few of these people became the Starborn's personal friends. And one of them, a British hermit living in northern India, eventually became her husband. From that union, a boy was born 17 years ago. He was named Benjamin, although the papers soon started to call him by the star-name Betelgeuse. The rest, as they say, is history. Or, in this case, the rest is future."
At this point the whole class, or at least most of it, spontaneously applauds and cheers. Even Stranden seems taken aback by this. It is not likely such a thing has ever happened before in this classroom. But then again, unlikely things are supposed to happen around a Starborn, right?