Short story: Breaking the God Partition
What was a clone of Emperor Nero doing in the Meta-Terrarium among the gods? By Robert Hood.
MEMORY LOG ML475996.993[B] – 13.2475 BSR [Before Scientific Revolution, Copernican calendar]
Meta-Terrarium curator Marzipan Langur began the new surveillance period wth a casual sweep of the central Garden. There was nothing to report; the gods were quiet. She was about to move to Area 2 when a strange feeling of disorientation swept over her. What she felt was an odd variation of déjà vu. She was experiencing the exact same moment simultaneously and she remembered both. As each moment passed, her memory fractured into two continuities. In the second memory there was an intruder in the Garden, and its identity made no sense at all.
There had to be a malfunction in her mnemonic circuitry. Somewhat perturbed, she began an immediate diagnostic. While the second memory unfurled, she studied the results of the tests. No error was detected, though the sub-AI techware confirmed that a pre-existing memory was now running parallel to the newly forming memory, moment by moment.
She checked the memory’s archival code; it was valid and correctly numbered for the current period. A glance at the new memory’s code showed it was identical, except for the addition of [B] added to the reference number. Two divergent memories of the same temporal sequence – A and B? She had never heard of such a thing happening before.
There was only one way to see how the phantom memory would play out: let it run its course.
In the interim she would arrange for a surrogate to perform her duties. She would go into passive mode to minimise the confusion she was experiencing and let Time chase the old memory to its conclusion.
Perhaps then she would understand.
MEMORY LOG ML475996.993[A] – 13.2475 BSR
Something was wrong.
Marzipan Langur had not expected to find the Emperor Nero creeping about in the Deific Meta-Terrarium’s Garden.
She hadn’t realised what he was at first, assuming him to be a visual anomaly. A quick delve into the Archives provided a physical description penned by an ancient Roman historian named Suetonius, as well as a report detailing DNA trace-particle analysis and quantum echo mapping that together made the identification a certainty.
What was a clone of Nero doing here among the gods?
Emperor of Rome between 1597 and 1611 BSR, Nero had never been highly thought of. Some claimed he’d suffered from bad PR, but his fondness for throwing religious dissidents to the lions appeared to be his sole contribution to human cultural evolution. At any rate, he wasn’t a god. He was Historical, not Metaphysical.
Marzipan shifted an avatar of herself into the dimension-space of the Meta-Terrarium, seeking an answer. She appeared before Nero as a female, her modus forma.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she said.
Nero stumbled back, his surprise tempered by an awkward arrogance. Blonde hair flopped over one dull-witted eye and a prominent belly pushed his toga outward. His thin legs looked as though they couldn’t support him for long.
Marzipan adjusted her language protocols. “Well?” she snapped.
“Are you one of the gods?” the man said.
“You are not supposed to be here.” Marzipan made her eyes flare green. “Explain yourself.”
“Explain myself?” he said, without irony. “I’m not a Philosopher.”
“Tell me what you’re doing here or I’ll sic …“ She searched the Knowledge Banks for a suitable candidate, “… Cerberus on you.”
Nero licked his lips and edged backwards.
“I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t even know where here is.” His manner displayed genuine confusion. “Am I dead?”
“You died a long time ago. Yet it appears you aren’t quite dead yet.”
“Are these the Elysian fields? Doesn’t look like Tartarus to me.”
“Looks can be deceiving. But it’s neither. You’re a long way from your original’s life and homeland. This is where ancient gods are re-formed and housed for study purposes in a reality so far from yours you have no hope of understanding it.”
“Then surely I do belong here,” he declared. “I would have been deified upon my death.”
Despite an official apotheosis to divine stature post mortem, there simply wasn’t enough historical belief in his divinity to generate a valid corporeal avatar here in the Deity archive. Gods could be corporealised thanks to the unique wave signatures that belief in them imprinted on the space-time continuum. An active algorithm developed by Engineer Se Rasser many decades ago was used to quantify and manifest the deity — in a process similar to standard avatar creation. The resulting physical image, allowing for only base-level sentience, was subsequently re-located to the Meta-Terrarium for study into the gods’ role in the on-going evolution of terrestrial intelligence.
“Stay here,” Marzipan snapped. “Don’t cause any trouble. If Zeus or one of the ill-tempered Mesopotamian deities turns up, try to be polite. They have very fragile egos. If you can’t be polite, just stay away from them. Oh, and you’d best not try to talk to Jehovah at all. The first-phase monotheistic deities aren’t big on tolerance.”
With that she re-shifted back to her own corpus form in standard space. She decided not to communicate with Se Rasser via wormhole channels, as a face-to-face would be more fruitful than a subspace shout-out. Last she heard he was in the vicinity of Antares in the constellation Scorpius, investigating reports of a time-slip anomaly that was causing fuss among doomsayers across the galaxy. Antares was about 1032 light-years from Marzipan’s location — a week’s travel along a Szati slipstream.
“You simply cannot interfere, Marzipan Langur, nor should you apply prejudicial attitudes to this or any other evolutionary stage …“
Marzipan had found Se Rasser easily enough. As per interstellar protocol, he’d left a signature map with the Scorpius frontier observers. It contained precise spatial coordinates she could slipstream to, no problem. Se Rasser had a sexually ambiguous corpus that had clearly adapted to match his gruff, pedantic manner. In an earlier time he would have been called corpulent.
“I have nothing against middle-period DNA,” she said. “I have embraced my own links with pre-transcendence humanity, as tenuous as those links may be, and do my best to remain impartial in matters of evolutionary superiority. I acknowledge my genetic past by referencing a less-evolved simian form in my ancestral name.”
“Yes, yes, very commendable.”
“With due respect, I think you miss the point, Se Rasser. The Meta-Terrarium sub-verses were created to provide a context for idealised cultural entities to exist in a way they never have before. As an historical figure, manifestation is impossible.”
“Are you sure he is what he seems to be?”
“Then my guess would be that someone is tampering with the Meta-Terrarium’s specs.”
“Why would someone do that?”
Marzipan continued undaunted. “So your materialisation process can be circumvented?”
“Right then. As we speak I’m sending in a Level-B request for you to accompany me to the Meta-Terrarium portal in order to investigate the efficacy of your reification system …“
Se Rasser became taller, his nano-implants reacting to a sudden surge of indignation. “Wait just a minute!” he blustered. “I am undertaking important time-sensitive work here …“
“I’ve upgraded the request to Level-A.” Her darkened eyes scratched at his proximity shield. “Surely you have a stand-in corpus that can be trusted to continue what you’re doing.”
He huffed, his form contracting to its previous size. No further argument. Presumably he’d been sent an Order of Requirement. That was quick.
Nero walked restlessly around the central Garden like a man too afraid to explore beyond the limits of his imagination. Marzipan had expected him to stray a bit after 10 days, but clearly fear had kept him confined. When Marzipan and Se Rasser appeared as though out of thin air, the cloned ex-Roman emperor rushed toward them, stopping a few metres away. He glared ferociously at the engineer, his face a mixture of scorn and anxiety.
“So who’s this?” he demanded. “Bacchus?”
“What did he call me?” sub-vocalised Se Rasser.
Marzipan smirked. “Bacchus. God of debauchery.”
“Not very smart, is he?”
Marzipan refrained from making the obvious reply. “This is he whose skills made this place possible,“ she said to Nero. “He’ll help determine how and why you are here.”
“I’m here because I died and was taken to be among the gods.”
“This isn’t Mt Olympus or wherever you Romans thought the gods hung out – and we are not gods.” Marzipan turned to Se Rasser. “Do whatever you must.”
Se Rasser’s investigation consisted of intense contemplation of his metaphorical navel, seemingly pointless questioning of an increasingly aggressive Nero, sudden shifts back to standard space to search the knowledge archives and central activity logs, grunts, ums and ahs, head shaking and the occasional burst of swearing. It became extremely tedious. In the far distance, lightning flashed and thunderous roars rent the silence — the sounds of factions within the Court of Odin fighting it out to earn the perceived glory of battle. It was a regular occurrence. A bit later still, the transcendent image of Buddha appeared against the horizon. His face was the size of a small planet. He looked over the artificially created world, hand raised in benediction, and smiled. The sight would have been awesome if Marzipan hadn’t known it was illusory.
At one point, the shining persona of Jesus the Christ happened upon them and stood watching Nero with an air of studied curiosity. Marzipan and Se Rasser were invisible to Him, their Terrarium persona accessible to Nero alone. The Christ looked radiant, showing no sign of His crucifixion and resurrection, except for the stigmata, of course, one on each wrist.
Nero glanced His way. “I know you,” he said.
“Indeed you do.”
Marzipan tensed, but the Christ’s demeanor remained benign.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” said the avatar of the Messiah. “You murdered many of my followers. It seems the Father is indeed forgiving.”
Without further word, He turned to continue His rambling.
Marzipan decided she’d had enough. She interrupted Se Rasser, who was engaged in esoteric twiddling of the antennae sprouting from his fingers, and told him she was going home for a rest period. He nodded, indifferent.
Marzipan shifted back to standard space, filed an update report then strolled home along the scenic pathways of the Node.
Little more than two hours later, she received a grumpy notification from the engineer. Where are you? Se Rasser said. Get back here now.
Marzipan grunted an answer — and took her time walking back to Central. When she arrived, Se Rasser was pacing irritably around the bland observation space.
“Well?” Marzipan said.
“You were certainly correct in assuming …” he uttered the word as though it was an obscenity, “… this Nero is not a deity. But nor is he some sort of DNA copy. He is the real thing. The Emperor himself.”
“What? Are you sure?”
“98.42% probability.” He smiled with smug self-satisfaction.
“How is that possible?”
“Chronal readings — and here the probability is a mere 86.231% – suggest that he was plucked from his time, possibly in an unintended manner. Indications of the sort of sub-particle misalignment observed at temporal accident sites across the galaxy are present. Indeed I have been studying such a one at Antares.”
“But is that even possible?”
“Everything is possible, Curator Langur. Such glitches have been increasingly observed, though we are discouraged from talking of them. But it is more correct to say that Time is a dimension we have never been able to mess with. We cannot travel into the past or the future, directly view temporal movement outside the present, or indeed pluck something from a past or future moment and bring it to us. Time’s mechanics have eluded us. We have learned how to step outside standard space and ride the quantum waves, but Time! Ah, finding its vulnerabilities is the Holy Grail of our science. We remain trapped irrevocably within its forward-flowing currents. Understanding it has eluded us for centuries.” He scowled. “Yet it is not impossible. Someone has conquered it.”
Marzipan was, for the first time in ages, gobsmacked. The multitudinous implications began flowing through her circuitry, so fast she fancied she could feel them.
“Someone? Are you sure it wasn’t merely some natural occurrence?”
“55.907% sure. Not the best of odds, but not easily dismissible.”
“This has to be reported.”
She looked at Se Rasser as though seeing him for the first time. “You know what this could mean?”
“How can we not report it? If someone, anyone, were to acquire the means to manipulate Time, to change the past, take control of reality, they could do inconceivable damage to existence – not just humanity and its descendants, but everything. The Universe itself. They would be …” She hesitated to say it, “… like gods.”
“Melodramatic, Marzipan Langur. But not untrue. However, when you say ‘anyone’ it means … anyone. Me. The Overseer. Any of our millions of colleagues. That is why we don’t report it. You must look into this and deal with it yourself, if at all possible.”
Marzipan frowned at him. His vital signs skittered across her visual field. She was terrified at the thought of what this knowledge could mean, but he seemed calm.
Se Rasser shrugged. “I know you. I trust your integrity. I may be wrong, but it is a risk we will have to take. I certainly don’t trust me. If we engage in a search for someone better it will only end in disaster.”
Marzipan made an effort to control her panic. “Is there any clue as to who sent Nero into the Terrarium? Or why?”
Se Rasser came closer and handed her a memory pin. “This is all the data I was able to salvage. I tracked a rather fractured trail as far as I could. As to why, I have made deductions. It’s all on there. I have kept it off the networks, hence the isolated pin. The information is very sensitive and must be for your eyes only. You will need to find the culprits and deal with them.”
“Deal with them?”
“At your discretion.”
“I’m not a terminator.”
Se Rasser shrugged. “One would hope not. But it is your job to study the nature of divinity. Who else is better qualified?”
Divinity? Marzipan dismissed his comment as hyperbole. “So where did the track lead?” she asked.
“To a place we are rarely granted leave to go.”
“You don’t mean Earth?”
“Indeed I do. You must apply for a dispensation – on some spurious but believable grounds. Suggestions are on the pin, with forged documents if needed. I’m adept at re-interpreting the regulations.” He sighed. “Though what is soon to be uncovered here could mean much to my own research, I am now reluctantly deleting everything I have told you from my memory. I must not know it. No one can. If you succeed in this task, you too must forget. Good luck.”
With that his corpus disappeared into the slipstream.
Marzipan gazed at the pin, hoping it would disappear of its own accord, and that she too would be able to ignore it.
No such luck. She injected the pin into the fleshy outer skin of her forearm. Its information flowed through her.
Earth spun like a gigantic faceless creature swimming through the void. Marzipan walked the galaxy, a cosmic landscape of many billions of star systems and countless awe-inspiring worlds, yet still this beautiful planet remained unique.
From this far above its surface, no details of the terrible scars humanity’s ill-fated guardianship of the planet had caused were apparent. It was all colour and exquisite patterning. Only closer up did it become clear how damaged a world it was. Yet light still reflected from its depleted oceans. Clouds swirled through its skies. Vast stretches of desert remained, yet the green was taking back what it had lost. Earth had been damaged, but still it endured.
Greed and neglect had threatened the planet’s stability, so badly that more than half its population perished before humanity could get its act together. Even then it might not have been enough but for the rise of the meta-humans. Advances in DNA manipulation and advanced technology combined with some useful genetic mutations to create a new humanity that was smarter, stronger and capable of going further than ever before. Knowledge of the Metas’ existence caused terror, loathing and much bloody conflict. They were seen as monsters. Long-held suspicions, cultural portrayals of robotic psychopaths and rampant mutations, made them pariahs. But they survived. Their vision was cosmic, looking outward across the Universe and inward under its skin. The Metas conquered space; they stretched mortality to unimagined limits; they modified themselves to live in conditions deadly to homo sapiens. Best of all, they created a civilisation whose reach encompassed the entire galaxy.
These meta-humans neither sought to destroy humanity nor to ignore its descent toward extinction. In fact, the “monsters” helped rebuild the world after natural disasters, resource depletion and environmental destruction had pushed it to the brink of annihilation. Many lower species had died, uncounted individuals had perished, but ways were found to manage both the natural world and civilisation, while maintaining an equilibrium between the needs of both. It wasn’t easy and distrust was still strong, even now, several centuries after the Restoration began.
Meanwhile humanity terraformed Mars and at the present time the red planet boasted a population of nearly a million people, both standard and Meta. Domed colonies decorated Earth’s moon and research projects had taken root on some of the less inhospitable satellites of Saturn and Jupiter. None of it was a long-term solution to the problem of humanity’s ongoing survival, as homo sapiens were trapped by their severely limited longevity and inability to journey beyond the Solar System. So perhaps one day they would pass into memory, if not by meteorite impact or self-motivated folly, then when the orbital integrity of the planets eroded. But whatever happened, humanity’s heritage would continue in the “monsters” it had spawned.
Restrictions were placed on interaction between off-world meta-humans and humanity itself. That was why Marzipan had such trouble getting access to Earth’s surface. It was a tedious and annoying process, even with her official, and unofficial, papers — but she kept a low profile, maintaining an appearance that hid the artificial aspects of her nature and affording a reassuring sense of familiarity even to those who knew what she was. She followed the breadcrumbs of Se Rasser’s projections, travelling by old, non-quantarian means of transport and in silence.
Eventually she reached the city of New Sydney. Situated in the centre of the Australian continent on a vast stretch of reclaimed desert — a multi-billion-dollar project that had been undertaken more than two centuries before when the then-highly populated coastal areas were being progressively consumed by run-off from melting polar iceflows — New Sydney was both modern and alien, cosmopolitan and backwater, a unique mix of indigenous, Old World and refugee influences. It seemed logical to her that Time engineers, if such existed, might be found there.
Patiently, she searched the primitive local networks. A convoluted series of dead-ends and labyrinthine pathways led her to the site of an abandoned pseudo-Benedictine church. It didn’t look promising, but she knocked on the smaller of several ornate but uncared-for doors. It sounded more solid than it appeared.
Nobody responded. Looking up, she noticed an outmoded security camera to one side. Could it be functional? She retracted the artificial skin that covered the swirling nano-form infrastructure of her head and hands, stared up at the camera and spoke her name.
After a pause of several minutes, hearing the sound of someone approaching the door, she reformatted back to her humanoid persona.
The door unbolted and squeaked open, revealing a bright interior and the gaunt, frowning face of a young man of about 50. A scan of him indicated numerous implants supported by a basically human body. All but one of the implants were pre-Meta.
“Are you really Marzipan Langur?” he said.
Marzipan projected identity data into his left eye, which she’d noticed housed a sophisticated quantum wave receiver.
“I would’ve thought you could shift into the building.” The man opened the door fully and Marzipan entered.
She glanced around the internal space, which retained many religious relics from the church’s past, sharing the building with more modern technological icons and post-digital input points. “Use of such technology is forbidden on Earth except in emergency circumstances.”
The man nodded. His manner was such that Marzipan easily apprehended the mix of anxiety, defiance and curiosity that swirled about in his mind and nervous system. This was no mature meta-human, but a human part way along the road to evolutionary change. “I’m Gort Kairos. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Klaatu Barada Nikto, Gort.” She gestured for him to lead on.
They walked through the huge vestibule to a smaller, better furnished room at the back, where some 20 other pre-Metas waited anxiously. Gort introduced them by name. Marzipan noted that their identity names were those of famous fictional robots, pre-robotic metal men and cyborgs – Talos, Futura, TikTok, Robbie, Astro, Kronos, Marvin, T-800, Ash, Bishop, Ultron, Aerotane, and so on — while their “family” names were derived from words relating to Time. Was this a cult? Marzipan hadn’t known what to expect, but this wasn’t it.
“So can I ask,” said Gort after a few meaningless pleasantries, “Are you here to stop us?”
“Stop you? What do you mean?”
“No need to pretend ignorance. We know you. We know what you do. We’d hoped you would not be able to trace us.”
She glanced around at all of them. “I’m here to find out what you were up to and how you achieved it. I need to see if you really are temporal manipulators of some kind — and how much of a threat you represent.”
“Temporal manipulators? I suppose we are. It was our own error that gave us away, wasn’t it?”
“Dumping the Emperor Nero in my Meta-Terrarium? You could say that.”
Gort looked embarrassed. “We’re still learning. I’m afraid that was never the plan.”
Marzipan raised one eyebrow to suggest scepticism. “What was the plan then?”
The young man held up his hands in a gesture of intense earnestness. He proceeded to explain in halting, awkward slabs of rhetoric, clearly lacking the vocabulary to clarify what they didn’t understand to start with. Through the morass of verbiage, Marzipan determined three things. Firstly, these transhumans had only become aware of their advanced nature recently, when certain bionic enhancements had activated a unique set of mutated genes. Secondly, in their drive to discover the extent of their uniqueness, they had lost many of their “people” in temporal disasters. Thirdly, in a rather misconceived attempt to learn more about life freed from the tyranny of unidirectional time, they had determined to infiltrate the Deific Meta-Terrarium in order to gain information from those gods reputed to exist outside Time, the most transcendent and omniscient of the Creators. To do this they had attempted to make an avatar-like copy of the Emperor Nero for some reason that made little sense to Marzipan but seemed to involve the man’s supposed post-mortem deification combined with his peculiar blend of extreme egotism and mental susceptibility. They had calculated that his unique quantum signature could break through the partition. Perhaps the decision to use him had also been driven by their leader’s interest in the Roman Empire, with its plethora of gods and demi-gods. But instead of creating an avatar copy under their control, they had accidentally loosed the actual Nero into the museum of the gods.
It was obvious to Marzipan that the plan had been doomed to failure. For a start the inhabitants of the Terrarium were not real gods, merely imaginary cultural constructs. Their knowledge of Time was no more profound than that of their period’s smartest philosophers. But she didn’t scorn the New Metas’ motivations. They failed, but failure was an integral part of the evolutionary process. All possibilities had to be allowed. These New Metas might prove a problem one day, but they might also be the future of humankind – even its salvation.
“Now you know,” said Gort. The New Metas were crowding in around Marzipan. She sensed the presence of a dampening field that would, in all likelihood, stop her from shifting out of their presence.
She quickly refreshed her secondary cache, which was located in an artificial dimensional bubble she’d long ago created outside the Standard space-time continuum, designed to be a memory back-up.
“I’m feeling rather threatened here, Gort,” she said. “I take it you told me all this because you don’t intend for me to survive to pass on the information.”
Gort stared silently.
“Would it make any difference if I told you I had no intention of telling anyone? I believe you should be allowed to survive. Diversity is vital to avoid evolutionary stagnation.”
Gort and his cohorts suddenly appeared fuzzy around the edges. In fact, everything had taken on an appearance of fragile unreality.
“We are not murderers,” whispered Gort. “And we may be novices who barely understand our own nature, but we know we can step back into the past to reverse what we have done. We want to learn, but in peace.”
Marzipan blinked as she watched the space-time continuum unravel. “So you redact the past few weeks? Scrub it out, re-write it?”
“You’ll remember nothing of us. None of it will have happened. I’m sorry. But one day everyone will know of us.”
“You’re not gods, and never …“ Marzipan began.
But it was too late. She blinked and time re-started.