Bewildering Stories

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part 1

by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

“Hey God. I think I’m ready.”

“I told you not to call me that, child.” Its voice wavered on the personal pronouns, tearing into — what was the last figure? — eight million part harmony. It started doing that a couple weeks ago, explaining that there were sufficient letters of complaint lodged against it. Too many people were whining that God deceived them, made them think that it was only one entity, when in fact it was many. It was the sort of complaint that, if I were it, I would have brushed off; but God in its unity is far more considerate than I could ever be alone.

“My apologies.” I felt the need to debase myself. I remembered a prayer of contrition from my childhood and said it aloud with my face down. I was willing to do just about anything. The speaker on the wall gave a life-like chuckle.

“None of this is necessary, child,” the voice of voices said. “I have remembered everything about you, and am afraid that today is not the day for you to join me.” The butterflies stung in my stomach. God would say no more until I asked it to, understanding that I couldn’t take both rejection and paternity without a stretch of sleep between, or at least a few rounds of video games. God would be silent.

I thought about asking it right then to tell me a story, or quote me some of the day’s news, or just have it listen to me ramble about Patricia’s latest flight of fancy; instead, I went to the kitchen and got a glass of water that tasted of chlorine. The most important things take the least amount of time to say — “no” is only one syllable — and I felt as though I had to make it up by brooding for the rest of the evening. I didn’t have any scotch in the house, so I settled for baser chemicals.

Fifteen times I had submitted myself for Inclusion — my word, not its or the media’s. This was the sixteenth. That made fifteen trips to the store for ice cream and chocolate sauce. I was just putting on my jacket and trying to decide what movie to watch for comfort number sixteen when the phone rang.

I let it and left.

The supermarket was shot through with fluorescent lights. A bit too bright for me; I sank into my hood. A lady by the door bobbed her head at me and asked how I was doing. I said I was fine, thanks, might you point me toward the frozen foods section. I knew where it was, but people like to feel useful. She smiled to prove it. She was one of those raised in the back waters who weren’t taught that it’s wrong to point with your middle finger. I grinned, because that’s what I had to offer, and stomped rain water off my boots.

“Sure coming down,” the lady said.

“Sure is,” I replied.

“How much do you reckon we got?” she said.

“A couple inches, maybe.” The employees weren’t allowed to carry God around at work. The poor woman had to make do talking with me. I nodded to her and went off toward my vanilla destiny, imagining myself as a marionette.

I passed a woman in the shampoo aisle talking to God about which product would be best for her naturally wavy hair. I didn’t hear the answer. A business type guy in a gray suit brushed past me and, along with the scent of his aftershave, I caught a whiff of his prayer: please help me find a woman for tonight. Don’t yet have a way to talk to it in your head. The strange side effect of the whole project is that, as we find we needn’t talk to anyone other than God, the more observant — or less distracted — of us can listen in on thousands of conversations that never would have made it beyond the wetware before. I once overheard Patricia asking it how she could break it off with me most painlessly, so that she and I could still be friends. I didn’t hear the answer.

Not that I needed to. God has become predictable, which is one of the reasons I thought I would make a good addition to it. It started about five years ago, when a man very much like my godfather, only younger, brought his wife to his lab. He was working on the combining of consciousness with silicone and quantum storage. He had already become rich off of his creation of artificial intelligences imbued with personality. I have forgotten his name a dozen times over. I don’t think it’ll ever stick. The guy is still around today; both he and his wife. Twice over, I’d say, though I’m undoubtedly missing a few of the finer details.

With the immense space of quantum storage devices, entire human minds could be backed up; that’s how the AI’s got their human touches, by drawing off of stored human components. So, this whatsisface thought, if humans can be backed up, then why not combined? Combined and modified? It would be like having a child, birthed in science and evolved in elegance. He took what he judged the best parts of his wife, and let her pick the best parts of himself, and they melted together in invisible space, creating a self-aware entity that was better, they were the first to admit, than either of them. That’s how God was born.

It sped through five or six generations over the next month, adding the distilled portions of fresh, valuable minds, while a company was being built around it to market the usefulness of an ever-present entity that acted as a kindly grandmother, a wise grandfather, a chiding mother, a wistful father, and a playful sibling all at once. It spoke at seminars, it presented at the Academy Awards, and it started taking applications for Inclusion. Right from the start, it was something I wanted to be a part of. Obviously not everyone could make it as a member of God. It took only those who added something new, whose intelligence, compassion, or experience wouldn’t be redundant. I thought it was funny when the pope was rejected; I thought it was even funnier when Patricia was accepted.

I joked at her for a while that she was always talking to herself, that sooner or later I’d have to drop her off at the mental clinic for a quick drill-and-dash.

Now God is an eight-million member paradox of unity, and getting stronger and more perfect every day. That’s the assumption, at least: a sort of calculus of human nature. The more minds that are added — the closer to infinity — the smoother the line will be, until it becomes an unbroken upward curve. God itself posits that there is an asymptote, but I never caught the reasoning and haven’t bothered to ask.

That’s the only piece of future we’ve stumbled on during my lifetime — if you don’t count the holographic video games — and it’s not even one I read about as a kid. Everything I read was about improving yourself: memory, lifespan, beauty. And how great humanity would be when each member thinks himself god; they all would have to be right. But you can only worship one god at a time; hell with worshiping, you can only have one god at a time. The pantheistic religions died quick civil deaths because they either couldn’t keep the deities straight or wrote those deities into a hundred petty wars, letting them die from a hundred shallow cuts.

I said a prayer of thanksgiving for progress, noted that God didn’t respond, grabbed the latest non-fat ice cream, and made careful steps, so as not to slip on the wet linoleum, back to the front and the checkout lines.

The man with the gray aftershave, or the gray suit and subtle aftershave, was ahead of me in line. He had one finger to his ear, listening to God on an earpiece. His head snapped up, startling me. He squinted off to the right. I followed. Two lanes over was a short strawberry blonde paying with a credit card for what looked like a month’s worth of groceries. The suit turned on his heels and nearly knocked me over. He leaned into me for just long enough to say, I’m sorry, mate, and then was past me. I smiled a bit too late and, shifting my cold carton from one arm to the other, I took his place in the line.

A teen with black hair, and a smile for his natural state, was fussing with the barcode on my purchase when the gray struck up a conversation with Strawberry Shortcake. I caught bits of it slipping through the cracks of white noise, the rain on a high roof. She was named Molly and he still tried to use the line about it being such a coincidence they met. I had thought that one would have been long dead by now.

Maybe he would cook dinner for her, or pay for a night on the town. Maybe she was just the right woman to fill up his gap of need with soft scent and her stories of childhood. Maybe they both needed not to be alone that night. Only God knew.

There were three messages on my machine when I got home. One was from Patricia, and started off with the words “About last night.” I deleted it without listening to the rest. The other two were from my dad. He wanted me to call, didn’t say why. He always does that; he tries to get you interested in everything he says, not revealing much because he thinks that mystery breeds company. I know I do it, too. I guess I can be glad that, as long as I get rejected, God will never have to bear the genetic smear of that kind of drama fishing.

Reason number one that I should have been Included: my hard-hearted nobility.

I sucked in my gut and put the ice cream in the freezer before deciding what to do. I prayed about it, remembering only after a held-breath pause to add that it was okay for God to answer. It did.

“I’m so sorry, child. Your godfather’s immune system could not keep up with the changes being made to it. He died at four fifty-seven this afternoon.”

I would have liked to punch or kick something, but I was to far away to connect; by the time I moved to some place vulnerable, the desire would have faded. Not to mention that I would have had time to berate myself for a drama queen. They’re short words and I’m a capable orator.

We had all been expecting this for a while, anyway. If I had thumped a knuckle on the wall, it would have been mostly my own show; but there was nothing to stop me from remembering it the way it never happened to myself, to my family, later. Godfather Gary — he always loved the alliteration — had had the AIDS sequel. He got it on a hunting trip by quartering an untagged buck. He wasn’t taking precautions (there’s a word I learned in third grade) and got a good shot of arterial blood in the mouth. I was eight and holding on to his bow and quiver while dad brought the truck up as close as he could get.

God never came up with a cure. It’s kinda worth laughing at, if only to take the geniuses down a peg or two. You see: genius isn’t cumulative. It’s more of a binary, on/off state. Either you’re a genius or you’re not. So even though God is about three million certified eggheads, it doesn’t rank any higher than dear departed Hawking or Sagan, or even Dylan.

There’s reason number two: I couldn’t hurt it any.

“He asked me to remember a message for you. I did not understand it. Would you like me to pass it on to you?”

“Please do,” I said.

“I warn you, though: the content is not what you are used to.”

Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2005 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

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