The Long View: Ecumenical Twilight

This is one of John's most haunting stories. When I think of Empire this is what I think of.



I The Barrens

Father Beed had often questioned the wisdom of the referendum that made the Filadelfia Republic a confessional state fifty years ago. Lately, though, he had a more specific reason to regret the decision. He wished that not all school children in the district were required to report for confession every month. He no longer minded the ones who just came for the attendance ticket. (They could not actually be compelled to receive the sacrament, of course: that was in the Constitution.) Far worse were the teenagers who got into the confessional and started to tell ghost stories. Especially since now he believed them.

"Just what was the nature of these acts?" he asked the girl on the other side of the screen.

"Father, it is too disgusting to tell you."

"You don't have to embarrass yourself, my child. Were they urging you to perform impure acts?"

"No, nothing like that Father. Well, not if by `impure' you means sex. That's not what it's about."

"So what is it about?"

"Father, I'm sorry, I just can't say. Please don't make me. I promise I did not do it, anyway. Honest."

Father Beed sighed.

"Okay, let's put it this way. Do you know that what they asked you to do was a sin? Was it unreasonably dangerous, for instance?"

"That's just it, Father. By itself, it was not bad at all, except that it was...."

"Disgusting?"

"Yes, Father, but that was not what frightened me. It was part of something else that was wrong. There was something wrong with the people who talked to us."

"These are the people who said they live in the Pine Barrens?"

"Yes, Father."

"Who are they?"

"They call themselves the Living Ones, Father Beed. They said that soon they will free us, free the whole world, from God and the Emperor. They said that we would know everything after we did it. They said we would be able to fly. Father, they said we would live forever."

"But you did not do what they asked?"

"No Father, I ran away. But I met some of my friends the next night, and they said they did it."

"And what else did they say?"

"They said it was true."

Father Beed resisted the temptation to whistle. He was just a local priest in the Parish of St. John Newman, an underpopulated place that was being slowly reclaimed by pine woods. His divinity degree, like the rest of higher education, was based on an aspect (the Anthropic Corollaries, to be precise) of the Grand Unification Theory. In principle, the GUT covered everything, from insect embryology to the Hypostatic Union, but he felt far from competent to handle this situation. He wished that this girl's story were no more than it sounded like. A faddish threat to public health might interest the provincial Health Department. Even what sounded like a sectarian attempt to organize sedition and apostasy among the young would probably not even attract a polite visit from the Ecumenical Security Ministry. The government was too secure to be spooked by a few kids playing in the woods. Unfortunately, he knew that it should be.

"Look, my child, I know I could talk to you for hours on end about the need to choose your friends wisely, but I am sure we both have things to do. So, here is your penance. I want you to ask your friends, the ones who have not yet done this thing you are talking about, to talk to me or another priest about it. Can you do that?"

"I can try, Father Beed. They may not come. They are beyond school age now, and none of them go to university, so they are not required."

"It is enough if you try. Now make a good act of contrition."

So she did. Father Beed gave her absolution, along with a ticket dated "Saturday: 24 September: AD 2270" to give to her school's Prefect of Discipline. Though he hoped otherwise, he suspected that the next time the girl came, she would not tell ghost stories. She would speak as if she were describing someone else. And she would almost certainly avoid coming in the day.

Thankfully, she was the last penitent. He told his chapel, built over a hundred years before in the Romanesque style favored by the Anglican Rite of the Universal Church, to close itself up. As he walked home, the early autumn sunset turned the ancient trees of the town square to gold.

The Township of Jenkins was carefully and tastefully maintained, thanks largely to generous preservation grants. The Pine Barrens region had never been densely populated, even during the American Centuries when it lay in the southern half of the State of New Jersey. However, the Filadelfia Republic was not willing to allow the area to revert entirely to wilderness, especially since so much of it had already been lost to the slowly rising Atlantic. So Jenkins, with a year-round population of 800, nevertheless boasted an under-used commuter rail system and an elaborately redundant communications grid. The town also had an unusually generous supply of remarkably ugly public statuary, commissioned from the family business of an enterprising provincial Secretary of Culture just a generation ago. Father Beed was a history buff, however, and by far his favorite monument was the War Memorial on the square. He usually arranged his walk home to pass by it. Today, since he needed a little time to think, he gave the stones a few minutes of his full attention.

The monument had no statues, just some stone benches and a group of steles. Over time, they had accreted like stalagmites around the rim of the rectangular granite plaza set in the grass. The original stele was just four hundred years old that autumn, a weathered column with an archaic inscription and the illegible names of a dozen dead from the American Civil War. (A discrete panel, reproducing the names and the inscription in modern spelling, had been helpfully set into a granite flagstone by the Preservation Commission.) Though erected in 1870, a plaque to the Revolutionary era had been set up at the same time, as an afterthought.

Except for the The Second World War, which had three slabs all to itself, a similar pattern repeated throughout the ensemble. Minor wars received notice only many years later, when larger wars produced casualty levels that tripped some obscure critical threshold and prompted the erection of a new stele. The Vietnam stone, erected in the 1980s and quite small, reached back thirty years to Korea. The memorial to the Third World War of 2020-2022 similarly appended nearly two generations of smaller conflicts. (That stele was unusual in listing a few local civilian dead and a significant number of female service members.)

The monument to the Armageddon War of 2075-2080 had, of course, long since been removed. Father Beed knew that it had been as large as all the others combined, and that it did not memorialize anything as sentimental as casualties. Certainly any monument built to celebrate the founding conflict of the terrible City of Man would have suffered no mention of lesser wars. The wonder was that all the older stones had not been cleared away during the Eighth Day, as the City called the time of its regime; that was what happened to so many other memorials to local patriotism all over the world. Father Beed was a little skeptical of the trend among historians these last hundred years to identify the City's first and only President as the full incarnation of the Beast of the Book of Revelation. Even so, he felt a familiar chill down his spine as he looked at the grooves that marred the flagstones where the Image had stood.

The dead of the last four-fifths of the 21st century did not get their due until its last year, in the Liberation Monument of 2100 that marked the foundation of the Ecumenical Empire. There were no later war memorials, since there had been no later wars but minor police actions. The region had apparently never felt sufficient connection to the Ecumenical Guard to erect a monument to it, though there was, predictably, one to the Space Corps. Father Beed had sometimes envied the past a little, when the conflict between good and evil could be expressed in something as simple as combat. Now he wondered whether the world might soon know that kind of clarity again.   

II Cold War

The war between Europa and Callisto had lasted almost 4 billion years. Of the Galilean moons, Callisto was the fourth most distant from Jupiter and Europa the second. Their deep, dark Oceans had always nurtured the bulk of the organic matter in the solar system. Evolution on these relatively small bodies was powered by tidal stresses arising from their orbits around their enormous primary. This allowed for a steadier, if slower, growth in biological sophistication than had been possible in the ferocious sun-driven ecologies of the inner solar system. The biospheres of Earth or Mars or Venus were accident-prone, since they needed to mediate the climatic interaction of the land and the sea and the atmosphere. In two of these cases, the effort resulted in irreversible catastrophes of ice and fire early in the solar system's history. On Callisto and Europa, however, there was just the Ocean. Stability required only that life so influence the thermal budget of these worlds as to keep them just warm enough to allow a thin, protecting film of ice to form on the surface.

Survival, however, required that one biosphere destroy the other. Callisto and Europa were different worlds, with different histories, but they were not quite isolated. Their low escape velocities ensured that even modest meteoric impacts would splatter a significant amount of oceanic ice across the Jovian system. On a few occasions, even multicellular life-forms made the journey from one world and established themselves in the other. The constant in the evolution of both bodies, however, was the repeated invasions of microorganisms that each inflicted on the other every few hundred thousand years.

The earliest exchanges were the most catastrophic. New strains of infection more than once brought the native life of Callisto or Europa close to extinction, only to be beaten back when the indigenous biology found a way to circumvent the alien's advantages. Gradually, though, each biosphere became accustomed to the major biochemical themes in the evolution of the other. Each then modified its own evolution to take advantage of its most recent experience of infection, thus preparing a more sophisticated counterstroke for when its own biological material traveled to the other body. The escalating feedback eventually brought a kind of stability: the contenders grew too resilient to be seriously damaged even by the most sophisticated biochemical innovation. The effect of each new exchange was felt, of course, but the damage it did was usually subtle. A reasonable observer might have concluded that this struggle was actually a kind of symbiosis, a relationship destined to last as long as the Jovian system.

A reasonable observer would have been wrong. Europa finally destroyed Callisto. There was nothing altogether novel about the last infection: it expanded only incrementally on the major strategy of the last 500 million years of the conflict. This was the "translation" of the host-organism's genetic code to that of the invader, rather than any immediate gross changes in the information being translated. The effect was rarely to kill the host. In fact, it usually imparted a peculiar new vitality. It did, however, thoroughly disrupt the way that infected organisms reacted to each other, since its point of reference was the maintenance of the metabolic integrity of the individual, rather than the ecology in which it lived. In effect, it turned its hosts into counterfeits.

Though both Callisto and Europa had been evolving these mechanisms, Europa was the first to break some invisible barrier in the speed of infection. Soon after the last eruption of Europan matter arrived, Callisto was overwhelmed before it could develop countermeasures. In a matter of a few centuries, the Callistan biosphere collapsed and 60% of its Ocean froze. The residual biota was a Europan biochemical colony, "dressed" in caricatures of the extinct native life.

An so it seemed that Europa would be left in peace. In effect, its history was over. Its biosphere luxuriated in the dark, salty bliss of perfect isolation. Paradise lasted only a dozen million years, however. Then, once again, alien life intruded below the sheltering ice. This time, though, the invaders were multicellular entities whose evolution had been grossly anatomical. The biochemistry of these entities was so crude that a dozen Jovian years passed before the sophisticated life of Europa found a way to counterattack.

III The Kabbalah Klub

The things I do for civilization, Andros thought glumly to himself as he negotiated with the Living gatekeeper at some negligibly small hour of the morning. He did not at all mind being in Prague, though these days it was little more than a historical theme park. The fact is, there were no more than a dozen cities left on Earth worth visiting. He found this something of a mystery. The population of the planet had been gradually falling since the late 21st century, but there were still just over a billion people in it. That was as many as in the 19th century, when by most accounts the world was a various and fascinating place. Not so today, at least to his way of thinking..

When the monster megalopolises of the 20th and 21st centuries evaporated, all they left was great tracts of shabby ruins, quickly buried under scrub and forest. A school geography text from 1900 would give a tourist of the late 23rd century a better idea of where to visit than would a world guidebook from 2000 or 2100, except that all the destinations would be blander and more homogenous. Prague was little more than a small town now, but it still belonged on the short list of uncanny cities that included Buenos Aires and Victoria. Andros might actually have asked for this assignment, had it not been given him because of his special expertise. He might have asked, even had he known it might involve ingesting an unknown substance in a place like the Kabbalah Klub.

There was no set career path that led to his position as Field Agent for Occult Practices in the Ecumenical Health Ministry. He had become interested in the Black Arts, as he liked to call them, when he began to dabble in alchemy at college. It was a respectable hobby. One of the quirks of the GUT was that, while it declared almost all propositions about the world to be either certainly true or certainly false, it also created a class of propositions whose truth value was logically undecidable. The question of low-energy transmutation of elements, properly stated, happened to fall into that class. In his reading on the subject, one thing led to another, and soon he was a minor expert on topics like comparative demonology. The topic of incubi came up, how he was not sure how, when he interviewed for a job with the Ecumenical Civil Service after graduation, and one thing led to another again.

Since the world government assumed its final form in the early 22nd century, there had always been a few operatives like Andros. Both the Chinese and the Western components of world civilization had persistent "magickal" undergrounds, indeed undergrounds that persisted in staying underground even when their activities were entirely legal. Or, as under Ecumenical law, mostly legal. One point these traditions had in common was the use of consciousness-altering substances that could be lethal under certain circumstances.

With some hesitation, the Empire had decided early in its history to regulate rather than criminalize the recreational use of drugs, though of course the Subsidiary States could criminalize the possession of drugs within their own borders if they so chose. (Tolerance was made easier by the development of synaptic blockers, which made any addiction curable with a single injection.) Still, a necessary function for the central government of a planet that was only an hour across by commercial suborbital transport was to ensure that its subjects were not wantonly poisoning themselves. Therefore, new substances had to be tested and registered. If they were not, people like Andros were sent to find out the reason why. One of the paradoxes of his job, he often reflected, was that the Magick Underground, whose members prided themselves on fidelity to Traditions of various degrees of bogusness, nevertheless showed such ingenuity in finding new ways to make themselves sick.

Places like the Kabbalah Klub seemed to be the inevitable underside of what made cities like this interesting. Typically of such places, it was literally underground, two full stories in this case, with atrocious lighting and an atmosphere that reminded you of just how old the sewers in this neighborhood were. The place was packed, subdued but not silent, as if the pale and furtive patrons had been discretely planning to seize and eat the next customer to walk in. The decor of the Klub was 20th-Century Dank. The first half of that century was the most celebrated period in occult circles, where it was regarded by most as the high noon of Magickal power and knowledge. (The only important competition was offered by the cult of the First President and his era.) The rough brick walls were covered with huge posters of the maguses of the period, of Jung and Yeats and Gardiner and the rest. There were retouched photos of Hitler addressing torch-lit rallies that stretched to the horizon under a dome of brilliant stars. (The constellations were not identifiable, Andros noted).

The lack of pictures of Aleister Crowley actually emphasized his centrality, since in their stead were blown-up panels displaying texts from "The Book of the Law." The texts were in the original Traditional Orthography, the standard English spelling from 1750 to 2050. One of the few certain effects of the Underground on the larger world had been to brand this quaint but unlearnable system in the public mind as the the devil's own writing. The only contemporary pictures that Andros noted were a few of Prince Friedrich, the Emperor's only grandson, who would, probably, be elected by the Senate to replace his grandfather when old Josef died. Andros was obscurely disturbed by the following the Prince had among people like the denizens of the Kabbalah Klub, but that was not a problem for the Health Ministry. The problem he did have was intractable enough.

"No, Mr. Andros," the Living One said, "it will not be possible for you to take some of the Water with you before you have been initiated." Andros thought she had probably been very pretty when she was alive. Dark hair, black clothes, not nearly as desiccated as your average 25-year-old with these interests. He had been three months tracking down the new sect of the Living, rumors of which had spread like wildfire through occult circles. It was consciously modeled on the Gnostic initiation cults of the first few centuries AD. People were free to worship Mithras in the privacy of their own cellars, of course. His attention was drawn only when he began to run across references to an initiatory Elixir, or whatever it was, that had immediate magical effects. It was some clue to the nature of the group that, in all the time he had been trying to gain the trust of its members, no one had ever suggested that money change hands. He was dealing with a group of enthusiasts, not crooks. This was not necessarily encouraging.

"But I have told you, Miss Segur, that I am a student of comparative religions, not a seeker after enlightenment for myself. The Ocean of the Living has accepted my request to study the Elixir under those terms." (This acceptance did not altogether surprise Andros: comparative religion was looked on with much greater suspicion than alchemy in this age of the Second Religiousness, so it recommended him to the people in places like the Kabbalah Klub. All he had needed to conceal was his status as an Ecumenical agent.) "I fear that my objectivity will be ruined if I undergo a full initiation. Besides, if I simply went through the motions to obtain the Water, would that not be disrespectful of the Ocean? Surely it would be better if I attended simply as an observer, at least for now?"

"The Ocean agreed that you might take part in a ceremony, not attend a party. The Water must be received person-to-person, through an anointing. Otherwise it does no good. You have come so far. Surely you do not wish to break the protocol now?"

That, of course, was exactly what Andros wanted to do. He would be much happier if he could just walk out of here with a vial of the Water he had been tracking all around the world. Then he could have it safely analyzed. As things stood, though, it looked as if he would actually have to swallow-inject-inhale the damn stuff and then have his blood analyzed. He knew that prophylactic measures, and the fact the state of his metabolism was being continually transmitted to the nearest emergency unit, made it very unlikely he would come to any harm. Besides, the substance was probably harmless. Probably.

Andros managed not to sigh. Experience taught him that there really was no way to avoid this. The occult was 99% games and wishful thinking. If you wanted to penetrate the Underground that played by the rules of the Other World, then you had to play, too.

"Miss Segur," he said with what he hoped sounded like good grace, "you are perfectly correct. I ask only to join the Ocean of the Living on its own terms."

At that she smiled (a little perfunctorily, he thought, considering the amount of dissimulation he had just put into that submission) and rose from the little table where they had been sitting. "In that case, Mr. Andros, please follow me. The Ocean will receive you gladly."

Andros had not known whether the cult's ritual center was on-site, but he was not surprised when the young woman led him to a door lost in the shadows at the back of the Klub. Andros briefly wondered how many other sects of ultimate wisdom rented rooms in the adjoining subcellars: places like the Kabbalah Klub sometimes were as lucrative as exclusive shopping malls. Soon after he walked through the door, however, he stopped wondering about microeconomics, because the investigation began to take one strange turn after another.

He did not, as he expected, progress from a world of dank kitsch to quarters outfitted to fit some very peculiar vision of paradise. As these things went, the antechamber was something of a disappointment. There were no Hindu idols or Aztec busts. What there was looked like the scrub-room for an operating theater. Actually, it might have been a historical recreation of a theater for minor surgery itself, considering the display of scalpels and other instruments.

"We will pause here for two reasons, Mr. Andros. The first is that I have still to share the Water of the Living today. The other is so that you can see this miracle, and so understand something of the bliss of the Living. Thus, you will be better prepared to encounter the Ocean."

She directed him to go behind a screen and shower in an adjoining cubicle. Then he put on the white robe of a postulant (a common piece of secret-society costuming) and slippers that had been provided for him. When he emerged from behind the screen, he found that she was standing with her naked back to him in front of one of the instrument tables. She was not desiccated at all, he saw. Her body also revealed a bit of useful history, a tattoo of the Space Corps Medical Service on her left shoulder. The phrase, "the things I do for civilization," returned to him, in another key.

All idle thoughts collapsed in shock when he moved around to the other side of the table. She had done something to herself that he had heard of only as an admonitory instruction given to Guard recruits who might be desperate enough to attempt suicide to escape boot camp. She was committing suicide the right way. Using one of the scalpels, she had slit the major artery in her left arm from elbow to wrist, thus causing so much bleeding that death must soon follow. She was holding her arm carefully, so that most of the blood collected in a liter-sized basin. The basin was almost full.

Andros was about to leap over the table to improvise a tourniquet when she checked him with a glance. "I told you, Mr. Andros, the Elixir must be shared once a day. The Living give as well as take. Watch."

Too surprised by the steady tone of her voice to move, he stayed where he was. In a few seconds, she flexed her left arm closed and turned away from the basin. At the same time, she used a towel in her right hand to clean up the numerous spots that had fallen on her body and on the floor. Then she extended her left arm again and cleaned the blood off that. The lethal incision was gone. All that was left was a furrow, with no scar tissue, that filled itself in even as Andros watched.

"The Living of the Ocean are immortal, Mr. Andros," she said. "Please wait a moment while I dress."

When she emerged from behind her own screen, he was yet again surprised, this time by the fact she was dressed in the neat black silk suit in which she had entered. She picked up the basin, which held so much of her blood that she ought to have been at least unconscious and probably in shock. "This is for you," she said.

A appalling surmise arouse in Andros's mind. "This is the Water, isn't it!" he gasped. "You expect me to drink this!"

For the first time in their acquaintance, Miss Segur went through the motions of looking amused. "This is indeed the Water, Mr. Andros, but I do not expect you to drink it. What I ask you to do is carry it for me: getting spilled blood out of silk is the very devil."

Andros did as he was asked, cringing a little as he felt how warm the aluminum sides of the basin were. She led him across the scrub-room (which, at second thought, was probably just a re-outfitted kitchen) and out through a door on the opposite side. This led to a dark though utilitarian corridor. Many secret societies would have made a great fuss about preparing an initiatory passage like this, but the Ocean seemed to have other priorities. Andros noticed the hall had a stainless-steel floor, marred by only a few drops of freshly spilled blood. (Andros contributed a few of his own to these: Miss Segur had a perfectly pragmatic reason not to carry her own donation.) It was only when they reached the large room at the other end of the corridor that he again encountered some of the other-worldly atmosphere he had expected here.

The room was as dimly lit as the Kabbalah Klub, though not so crowded, and perfectly silent. Most of the people were wearing street clothes. Some wore robes like his, but colored red. The walls were covered with images of bulls and what seemed to be the sun, though the disk was dark. The chief feature of the room was the great rectangle of black in the center. Someone took the basin from Andros's hands and emptied its contents into it. That was when Andros realized that the rectangle was full of some dark liquid, maybe 30 centimeters deep. Then a dozen of the silent people took hold of Andros and stripped him of his robe and slippers. They did not react to his desperate inquiries. They heaved him into the rectangle.

In those shallow inches, the whole Ocean was fully present. Andros flew through a world which a sense as crude as sight could never represent. Andros knew that this world was vast, vaster by orders of magnitude than the film of near vacuum that had produced his own blinkered kind. On every hand was glory beyond any music, and billions of years of wisdom for which knowledge and action were one. In contrast, mere thought was an impotent play of ghosts in his tiny skull. Andros knew that his movement through the Ocean was not purposeless, and that the purpose was not his. In rapid steps, he ceased to fight the Ocean, and experienced bliss in its embrace. Then he ceased to experience bliss and became the bliss. Then Andros the living man ceased to be anything at all. 

IV Strategies

The Anthropic Corollaries of the GUT predicted that the basic chemistry of life must be identical wherever it appeared in the universe, just as they stipulated that consciousness cannot interact with the universe without an essentially human nervous system and a personal history. However, though the range of emergent properties that might arise in any given biosphere was quite limited, the histories of how these properties were selected could nevertheless make certain aspects of life from different worlds fundamentally alien. Thus, for instance, the Ocean simply could not interact with airborne microorganisms. There was no significant atmosphere on Europa, only the Ocean itself, and every biological system was predicated on the condition that mineral nutrients and a stable temperature environment would always be available. Life that did not assume these things was so different from that of the Ocean as to be invisible. There were other aspects of terrestrial biology, such as the development of organisms with rigid bodies and nervous systems, that were not wholly absent from the Ocean, but which on Earth had developed to such a rococo degree that the transformations the Ocean effected were often suboptimal. The rule was that major, unfamiliar systems would not be closed down, but they were usually isolated from the new imperatives that the reformed organism acquired as the result of its transformation.

Fortunately, however, the central organizing feature of the higher multicellular terrestrial organisms was perfectly familiar to the Ocean. Biological evolution, like technological progress, was fundamentally conservative. The whole point of the crude mechanical complexity of a vertebrate body was to keep sea water flowing in its veins as it moved about in an otherwise lethal environment. Indeed, the salinity of human blood was roughly that of the seas in which life had evolved, just as the high body temperatures favored by all animals that could control their own metabolisms were fossils of an ancient climate. The Ocean had no difficulty annexing the primitive seas that flowed through the bodies of organisms from Earth. Once that was achieved, the flesh quickly became that of the new dispensation.

V The New Man

They exchanged some small talk when he returned to the scrub-kitchen, not because there was anything in particular to communicate, but because that was what these bodies did. The Kabbalah Klub was much as before, though the dark was less of a distraction now that other senses were available. Illumination, in fact, was on the whole to be avoided. The Ocean was dark, and the life that grew from it had no experience of the light of the sun. That, however, would not be a problem for another few hours. The word-processing features of the brain of the agent from the Ecumenical Health Ministry was already composing a report as it returned to the surface. The personality it emulated was as well adapted to its environment as an insect-lure on a carnivorous plant.   

VI Sydney

Brother Diplodicus charged down the breezeway like the Wrath of God on which he had intended to lecture that morning. Although the University of Sydney was a confessional university, like most institutions of higher learning of the late 23rd century, nevertheless many of its students evinced a deplorable lack of interest in those elements of the GUT that treated of the divine sciences. That was why the Missionary Monks of St. Liebowitz, as part of the agreement under which they became the Chapter of the city’s great cathedral after the end of its first incarnation as an opera house, took it upon themselves to teach the theology requirement at the University’s more recalcitrant technical schools. Among these was invariably numbered the School of Mechanical Engineering. There it was that Brother Diplodicus, as a special act of penance, volunteered to teach systematic theology.

He knew that boys would be boys (women had their own college within the University) and that they were not at the point in their lives when the relevance of his subject would necessarily be apparent. The course was not graded, and the requirements for a pass were not onerous. He did not expect 100% attendance at his lectures. Actually, since the lectures were scheduled for 8:00 am, he did not always expect 50% attendance. What he did expect was that at least some would show up, preferably sober. The behavior of the students had declined throughout the month, but the sight of an empty lecture hall this morning was the last straw.

Pounding down a final ramp onto the quad on the north face of the School’s small dormitory building, he began by exhorting the blank glass face of the wall. That brought no response. He could not see so much as a shade flicked back to allow the groggy miscreants within to see the show. In fact, there was no movement about the building of any description. My God, he thought, they must all be seriously hung over from something or other. Enough of this, then. He ripped open the main door and repeated the same imprecations at even higher volume, this time to the small atrium around which the students’ cells were arranged. Still nothing. Brother Diplodicus was actually close to tears. He loved his subject and he was normally very good at teaching it. Hostility and laziness he could deal with, but being boycotted was new. It hurt. The least they could do was stagger out of their doors and tell him to shut up and go away.

Then Brother Diplodicus, who for all his bluster was not a cruel man, did a terrible thing. He pulled the fire alarm.

So as to ensure that the evacuees had to at least step into the open air before they realized what was going on, he left the atrium and retreated to the far side of the quad. He intended his silhouette against the morning sun as a dramatic touch.

It was not long before the students began to emerge from the doors. At first, they looked like any group of scruffy undergraduates rousted out of bed at an odd hour. Then Brother Diplodicus began to get an inkling that something was terribly wrong. They were not just scruffy, they were filthy. And they were not wearing underwear or pajamas, but everyday clothes that were caked with some filthy substances. The truly frightening thing was their skin, where it was visible. It was not just white, it was fish-belly white. Brother Diplodicus make the sign of the cross when he realized this was just as true of the African students as of the rest.

The students had fled the building because their reflexes were still in good condition. Indeed, their automatic responses were almost all that their nervous systems could produce reliably these days. The problem was that their higher levels of cognition were too erratically integrated with their motor areas to make them stop before they were halfway across the quad. By that time, the dormitory’s housekeeping system had sealed the building until the fire department arrived. This meant that, even when they were able to turn around, they could not get back into the shade of the atrium. The ones on top of the pile caught fire in the strong morning sunlight. Several of the ones underneath survived to be carefully taken away by people in biological-hazard encounter suits.

They took Brother Diplodicus, too, just to be on the safe side.

VII The End of History and the Last Bureaucrats

Several things that people first began to notice about Manhattan in the first half of the 20th century continued to be true in the last half of the 23rd.

One such thing was that, when a city-scape acquires a certain degree of monumental building, architecture becomes invisible. From sidewalk level, a skyscraper is just a storefront. If a whole neighborhood consists of skyscrapers, then, at least for the purposes of the city’s pedestrians, the neighborhood consists of one-story shops. However, skyscrapers had never been built primarily for the purposes of local pedestrians. This became more and more true of New York City’s central island as Manhattan changed from an American city to a global metropolis during the 21st century.

Under the Empire, New York became one of the five world capitals: “Xijing” or “West Capital.” (The name was often abbreviated in English-language texts with the Chinese characters, though they were almost universally pronounced “New York.”) The dynamic of building in the city, therefore, came to be almost wholly governed by the needs of world bureaucracies that had long ago learned the sad truth of the adage, “You can’t fax a handshake.” The process tended to plow under even some of Manhattan’s quite ancient residential districts. It was made tolerable only by the fact that New York City as a whole shrank back to its late 19th-century population of about a million, and indeed back to its late 19th-century municipal boundaries. The “outer boroughs” that had been annexed in those years were largely abandoned, becoming swampy nature preserves. (Part of the reason for the abandonment was that even the Ecumenical government was willing to spend the money for protective sea-walls against rising ocean levels only for Manhattan itself.) In the late 23rd century, Manhattanites looking out over the fen and forest that again surrounded their island still found the view a refreshing window on unspoiled nature, and not as the portent of a fate that could someday overtake their enclave, too.

Something else that had long been true of Manhattan was that any organization with the perfect headquarters was almost certainly moribund. This principle was first recognized by the great sage, Northcote Parkinson. It was most perfectly demonstrated in the 20th century by institutions like the UN, entombed at birth in International Style sarcophagouses. However, the principle also holds for all classes of organizations. Innovative technology tends to be commercialized first in dim, overcrowded workshops that take building safety codes in a metaphorical sense. The offices of publishers that bring out exciting new authors are cramped nests of disassembled manuscripts and the remains of the last month’s worth of on-the-job lunches. Effective public bureaucracies are perpetually housed in temporary quarters that are designed for something else and that are never, ever, conveniently located.

The Manhattan headquarters of the Ecumenical Security Ministry was perfect to a degree that would be described by the term “cerulean” had it been a blue sky. The structure was in fact almost that color. Located right above the most elaborate mass transportation hub on Earth, the 90-story ESM building was outfitted with the acme of the human race’s achievements in communications technology and data archiving. The building itself was forged as a single unit from composite materials in the Gothic Synthesis style that had characterized public architecture since the 22nd century. It was nearly indestructible. A fair-sized nuclear weapon might have knocked it over, but would not have destroyed it. Neither would such a disaster have destroyed the ESM as an institution. Only about half of the Ministry’s nominal headquarters employees usually put in an appearance on an average working day. Many of the rest would not have noticed an explosion in any case.

This degree of insouciance was not an option for the small circle of senior bureaucrats on the 85th floor, who were listening to the Vice Minister Strecchia read the report in her huge and impeccably functional office:

“....Agent ANDROS continued speaking about golf to Agent DELAGATO, even after swallowing approximately 50g of Agent DELGATO’s upper arm. At no point did Agent ANDROS express any hostility toward the victim, or acknowledge the fact that he just committed an act of cannibalism in the cafeteria of EHM [Ecumenical Health Ministry] London. When interrogated later (under restraints), Agent ANDROS was genuinely confused by the reaction to his behavior. At first, he apologized for violating what he supposed was a “no-meat” rule in a vegetarian-only dining hall. Possible physiological explanations for this distressing incident are contained in Appendix...”

She broke off there, taking pity at the sight of the half-dozen department heads, who were visibly regretting having eaten some of the tasty little sandwiches she invariably had made when a meeting ran into lunch hour. Not that such a thing happened very often. Whenever any organization was necessary, but rarely experienced a situation outside established routine, all its operations naturally fell into the hands of imperturbable mid-level bureaucrats. These middle-aged women and rather elderly men were usually genuine experts in their fields, but they owed their advancement to never getting excited. Problems, they knew from long experience, could be counted on to die of old age in their in-boxes.

Almost all of the 27 major Ministries and 6 independent Services of the Ecumenical Empire had come to function on this basis, and usually well enough. In a way, it was a great victory for the principles of the Empire, which had been created not by conquest, but by exhaustion. The events of the 20th and 21st centuries had caused the peoples of Earth to sicken of public affairs on every level. Mankind was well pleased to let such things be managed by unobtrusive care-taker institutions. The only flaw in this arrangement was that, on those rare occasions when unprecedented situations did arise, they fell under the purview of administrators with no demonstrated aptitude for initiative. In this case, one of the greatest threats ever experienced by the human race was in the hands of a Ministry whose primary practical function for the previous century had been tracking down stolen cars.

“And it wasn’t till we got the criminal referral from EHM that we knew any of this was happening?” asked Bob from the Subversion Department.

“Well, we had the reports,” the Vice Minister said, a little defensively. “We just had not gotten around to linking them altogether.”

The hardcopy stack of incidents from the past month did in fact make a diverse pile. There were two other acts of cannibalism, a growing number of disappearances every nightfall, reports from local clergy about the increasing correlation of impiety and photosensitivity among the young. The participants in the meeting would have been inclined to dismiss the odd incidents of the period as statistical coincidences, had it not been for the spontaneous combustions. They had tried to hand those back to EHM, but without success.

“The really decisive report was written by Andros himself,” Deputy Vice Minister Felix chimed in. “We thought we should take a look at what he had been up to in the weeks before the incident in London.”

“And what was that?” asked Carl from Terrorism.

“His job, more or less. We now know from investigating the site of his last undercover assignment pretty much what happened to him. A lot of the details are even in the report he filed. At first, in fact, we thought the only screwy thing was the ‘no action’ recommendation. Now we know better.”

“I find the conclusion hard to swallow, even now” said Bob, who had stayed late for the first time in 30 years last night to check the analysis himself.

“It is true. Agent Andros is no longer a human being, psychologically or biologically. For that matter, we don’t even think he is conscious. You can tell from his use of language after that night at the Kabbalah Klub. His grammar and syntax did not change, and the vocabulary is his. The difference is.....”

“Well?” asked Bob.

“There’s nobody home,” the Vice Minister explained. “He flunks the Turing Test. His report on the Kabbalah Klub might almost have been written by an Angel,” she said, referring to the “infinite depth” class of artificial intelligence machines with which the science of cybernetics concluded in the middle 21st-century. “He can say ‘I,’ of course, but there is no ideation behind it. What is left of his mind is just a language machine. Certainly it has little role in controlling his primal instincts: that’s why he nonchalantly took a bite out of a fellow agent.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Carl interrupted. “Psychology is very interesting, but surely the reality of the situation is a xenobiological crisis? Every long molecule in that man’s body was re-jiggered, as well as in the bodies of people taken in the other incidents. We think we know what did it: it’s a ‘factor,’ an extremely simple kind of organism of the sort found in the Callistan and Europan oceans. If the factor continues to spread, that is the end of civilization. Probably also the end of the terrestrial biosphere, for that matter.”

“Is it quite certain that this ‘factor’ is not artificial?” Bob interrupted back.

“No, that is not certain, but then it is not certain how this stuff works, either. But what would an artificial origin suggest? A terrorist underground? Doomsday fanatics? Keeping track of fringe politics is supposed to be your department, Bob. How long since there was a threat from people like that?”

Bob shrugged rather than reply. The answer was that, though many groups sought to evade or manipulate the imperial government for their own ends, the fact was that the Ecumenical Empire had had no organized enemies within living memory. Civilization without it had become literally unthinkable. Bob’s department actually spent most of its time investigating illegal lotteries and chain letters.

“Could someone tell me again just why the Security Ministry is handling this at all?” asked Mary-Jo from the Office of Administration & Budget. “If this is a biological threat, then why is Health not handling it? If it is a case of xenological contamination, then why not Space? If there is a danger of public panic, then why not the Guard? What does this ’factor’ have to do with Security?” She had had the budget for the next year nearly ready to submit. She was almost as horrified at the prospect of having to include a huge contingency request for this situation as she had been by the cannibalism.

“It has to do with Security,” the Vice Minister explained, “because groups of people, or former people, are acting to spread the factor. Apparently, they are doing it worldwide.”

“If the factor can be spread only by a blood bath, like that business at Prague, then we do not have to worry about it spreading all that fast,” Bob suggested hopefully.

“It does not take a blood bath,” Carl said. “We think the explanation is that the cult of the Living at Prague were already interested in blood baths. They became infected later. The original group had been reviving the cult of Mithras, according to Andros’s notes. That would involve a ritual bath of just that type, though with bull’s blood rather than human. The factor is absolutely opportunistic, it seems. It does not give its victims new ideas or fundamentally new behaviors. It just uses whatever behaviors they already have to propagate itself.”

“So what is the common factor?” the Deputy Vice Minister asked.

“Blood, apparently. Intravenous and oral contact are most efficient, though it can also be transmitted through the skin, if there is enough exposure. Those are actually fairly restricted means of transmission. It cannot be spread by casual contact. And, of course, the infected are restricted in their movements during the day, which makes them easier to spot. Without these limitations, I don’t know how we could have hoped to stop this thing.”

“I don’t quite see how we can hope to control it now,” Mary-Jo said. “It’s not like we’re running a real police force here. We have lots of jurisdiction and not a lot of effective personnel. We are not funded for anything beyond ordinary holding facilities, much less quarantine centers, if that is what any of you are thinking about.” Turning to the Vice Minister, she asked, “Have you informed the Minister?”

Under normal circumstances, such a query would have been meant ironically. Today, it was uncomfortably pointed. Senator Reddy was not a lazy or corrupt man, but the portfolio he held for the Security Ministry was simply a sinecure for him. (He was also the Ecumenical Fisheries Minister, even though the country he represented, the Kingdom of Rajasthan, was entirely landlocked.) The Vice Minister took the question seriously.

“A full synopsis of our research has been sent to the Minister’s office in the Southern Capital [the Chinese characters for which were usually pronounced “Johannesberg”], where he is preparing for next year’s session of the Senate. I am informed that the Minister is seeking an interview with the Speaker on the matter. We are instructed to proceed at our own discretion until we receive further guidance.”

“Well, at least we are covered,” Mary-Jo suggested brightly. Under normal circumstances, such a remark would have been meant sarcastically. That was also how it was meant now.

“Wendy,” the Deputy Vice Minister asked his boss, “have you considered approaching the Imperial Chancellery?”

She grimaced. Under the Constitution, the office of the Emperor was almost omnipotent, on the condition that it do nothing. During normal times, which had prevailed almost without interruption for the past 170 years, the effective head of state was the Speaker of the Senate. Nevertheless, past Emperors had seen to it that their chancellery kept executive control of certain resources that could be vital in the current crisis. The Space Corps had oversight of all human presence beyond geosynchronous orbit of Earth. The total population in question was no more than 200,000, most of them in isolated sectarian colonies on Mars and Earth’s Moon, but the jurisdiction did include the scientific bases on Europa and Callisto. The Ecumenical Guard was a paramilitary of modest size, but it was based on Earth and it did have some police powers. One problem with attempting to coordinate a plan with these Services directly was that it would smack of attempting to circumvent, not just the Minister, but the Senate itself. Another problem was that old Emperor Josef (he started being called “Old Emperor Josef” a quarter century ago) hated the Ministries in New York and every bureaucrat in them. He was quite capable of rejecting a request as soon as he saw the letterhead, assuming it ever got to his desk.

“I have considered contacting the Chancellery, and I have considered it again,” she answered. “Do you have an idea for a safe way to do it?”

“The trick, I think, would be to bring the matter to the Emperor’s attention in such a way that he thinks about us last.”

VIII Europa

Some technical problems had never been solved by terrestrial engineering, even though the GUT suggested that a solution was possible. One of these was the ideal of the instantaneous transmission of information. In the 21st century, theoreticians had suggested that the apparent ban imposed by Special Relativity on this effect was actually an artifact of misdefinition. That, however, was among the last major theoretical insights of Western science before it turned its attention to the long-delayed labor of synthesis, and the existing stock of theory was insufficient to support a technical breakthrough. That was why it still took an hour, an average, to send a transmission to the neighborhood of Jupiter, and the same amount of time for the answer to return. So, with one thing and another, it required the better part of a morning for the Space Corps Command Center at Diego Garcia to determine that none of the 500 human beings at the two bases on Europa was accessible to the communications network. When they reviewed the records of recent transmissions, they discovered that they had in fact been talking to only machines for the last two weeks.

The bases themselves were in exemplary condition. Very little of them was on the surface. The availability of all that ice had allowed the early explorers to solve the micrometeorite problem by sinking the component modules into a few meters of melted water and letting it refreeze. Their most important exits were not to the surface, but to the Ocean below. There, in the warm water provided by nearby volcanic vents, were locks for small submarines and for scuba divers. The diving had originally been for the purely scientific exploration of the nearby sea floor, in the shallow parts of the Ocean where the bases were located. At first this activity had been conducted under tight restrictions, with careful attention to the possibility of xenobiological contamination. When the humans realized just how benign the Ocean was, however, all but ordinary safety restrictions were relaxed, and diving became the chief pastime of the personnel. Thus the humans and the Ocean got to know each other.

Most of the personnel continued in their human roles long after their conversion. That was how several of them happened to return to the inner solar system as part of an ordinary duty rotation. For those who remained on Europa, however, the pretense of humanity became harder and harder to maintain. The lure of the Ocean was too strong. At no point was there any conscious intent of dissimulation before the declining number of remaining humans: the Living were not conscious of anything. At some point in their internal evolution, the Living simply broke character. After the last few humans were disposed of in incidents rather like that in the EHM cafeteria, the base was deserted.

There was no need of scuba gear, since there was no longer any need to maintain the grotesque fiction of mammalian life. They breathed the water as long as the bodies felt the need to continue the drill, and then they forgot about it. A few minutes after entering the Ocean, the nervous systems of all 497 personnel (the uneaten remains of the other three were neatly packed in kitchen freezers) had permanently shut down. The bodies did not decay, but began to blossom into their true forms. The rigid structures of the organisms exploded into clouds of single cells, with only the teeth and skeletons falling into the abyss. In each of these cells, all the resources of terrestrial history were available for assimilation into the wisdom of the Ocean. As in the long conflict with Callisto, Europan life began to take a new turn in order to meet the new enemy.

IX Chungjing

Of all the world capitals, only Center Capital was truly beautiful. The Chinese characters spelled "Chungjing," and they were always pronounced that way, because the city was new and not merely renamed. The city fit gracefully into a former forest preserve on the Big Island in the Hawaiian chain. (The early Empire had been a bit cavalier about such things, since most of the world's organized naturalists had been executed during the Eighth Day.) With a population of only about 40,000, it was really a sort of campus that reminded most visitors of Oxford.

A better analogy was Vatican City. Center Capital was essentially a ceremonial center. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, the city managed not to be overwhelmed. Its chief purpose was to support the unhurried routine of the Imperial Chancellery and the Court. Most Emperors had the sense to realize that their absence from the public view enhanced their prestige on the few occasions when they intervened in government, so they were usually in quiet residence. Security after the 22nd century was relaxed enough that lucky visitors sometimes got to shake the Emperor's hand. Those who attempted to discuss public policy with him, however, were led politely away by hovering aides.

There were no tourists in the palace complex the morning after the Senator from the Comensality of New South Wales spoke with Josef. The staff, except for the guards, were told to take the day off. The old man stood behind the rattan blinds of a balcony window with a little group of advisors, overlooking the brightly sunlit court that fronted Prince Friedrich's quarters. He had often feared that his line would end with him: his grandson's behavior had always been such that Josef had prepared a codicil to his will, commending one of his nephews to the Senate instead of his direct heir. The prince was a brilliant boy, and then a charming young man, but Josef's blood ran cold at the thought of a diabolist on the throne of all mankind, even if the throne was largely a prop. The document had been in his desk for ten years, but he could never bring himself to have it witnessed. Then, just last night, the Senator had shown him the terrible reports from Sydney and Filadelfia and other places around the world. Worst of all, he had seen the foggy shots, carelessly undated by the ESM, of Friedrich entering the Kabbalah Klub. The Emperor now dreaded that having the codicil witnessed might never be necessary.

Friedrich's fine operatic voice was audible, shouting unoperatic things, long before he appeared on the court between two very large Treasury Ministry guards. (The explanation for why the Treasury Ministry was responsible for imperial security was lost in the mists of legislative history.) As usual, he had been up late, doing God-knows-what, and the guards frog-marched him into the sunlight wearing just a bathrobe. Rather as happened to Agent Andros, Prince Friedrich found himself suddenly stripped of his robe, though in his case he was still wearing boxer shorts. The guards stood back. Nothing happened. Friedrich recovered himself a little and started to yell at them some more.

"He is not catching fire, Your Majesty," the Chamberlain observed evenly.

"That is all to the good, I suppose," the Emperor said, turning away from the window. "Still, we do have a real crisis on our hands, the worst of my time. Arrange a conference hookup within the hour with the Commandant of the Space Corps and the Chief of Staff of the Ecumenical Guard."

"Will there be anything else, Your Majesty?"

"Yes. Please find out who the Vice Minister for Security in New York is. We don't have time to deal with that idiot fishmonger in the Senate." 

X The New Memorial

A year later, Father Beed was again reading the new stele at the memorial in the town square:

"In memory of friends and family, who made the sacrifice to leave our beloved Earth in order to protect us all from a terrible plague, we the people of Jenkins Township dedicate..."

There followed a brief list of the names of the exiles to Europa. Since he never knew the name of the girl who had come to him last September 24, he was not sure whether she was on the list. He thought not.

Most of the local people believed that the emigration had been voluntary, and for all he knew they were right. None of the infected had tried to run when the roundup started. As far as he knew, none of them had actually objected when they were told what was going to happen to them. As for the uninfected, all they knew for sure was that some of their younger neighbors had developed a fatal sensitivity to sunlight. They had welcomed the Guard unit and the agents from the Ecumenical Security Ministry.

Fr. Beed had not. They had bluntly asked him for a list of those whom he believed to be infected. He refused, pointing out that such an assessment touched on the seal of the confessional. They argued that the seal did not apply to non-human penitents. He replied that putting someone on a list of possible non-humans would still infringe on the confidentiality of humans, because he would sometimes be wrong. They growled some threats at him, but finally satisfied themselves with his record of the attendance tickets he had given out. In the Filadelfia Republic, after all, they were public records.

On the surface, life was no different this year from last. The weather was a little warmer and a little wetter, but that trend had begun even before the Empire. The world was still effortlessly prosperous and unshakably peaceful. The people's respect for their public officials had actually been strengthened (particularly for Prince Friedrich, who had played such a conspicuous role in the emigration program). Still, the whole world was now tinged with that sense of the uncanny that Agent Andros had so savored. Something really new and strange had happened for the first time in generations. Moreover, well-informed people understood just how serious the crisis could have been. The sense of the possible was beginning to expand, but it was expanding into the dark.

These days, Father Beed meditated more and more on two of the Anthropic Corollaries. Both fell into the category of certain statements about the world. One was that mankind, as the image of God in the created world, could not be destroyed by accident. The other was that every strong thing, no matter how firmly established, is ultimately ephemeral. He knew there was no formal contradiction between these statements, but he also recognized that the tension between them was not always latent.    

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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