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                                                                               ACT OF GOD

                                                                                      by

                                                                              Jack McDevitt

 

     I'm sorry about showing up on such short notice, Phil. I'd planned to go straight to the hotel when the flight got in. But I needed to talk to somebody.

     Thanks, yes, I will take one. Straight, if you don't mind.

     You already know Abe's dead. And no, it wasn't the quake. Not really. Look, I know how this sounds, but if you want the truth, I think God killed him.

     Do I look hysterical? Well, maybe a little bit. But I've been through a lot. And I know I didn't say anything about it earlier but that's because I signed a secrecy agreement. Don't tell anybody. That's what it said, and I've worked out there for two years and until this moment never mentioned to a soul what we were doing.

     And yes, I really think God took him off. I know exactly how that sounds, but nothing else explains the facts. The thing that scares me is that I'm not sure it's over. I might be on the hit list too. I mean, I never thought of what we did as being sacrilegious. I've never been that religious to start with. Didn't used to be. I am now.

     Did you ever meet Abe? No? I thought I'd introduced you at a party a few years ago. Well, it doesn't matter.

     Yes, I know you must have been worried when you heard about the quake, and I'm sorry, I should have called. I was just too rattled. It happened during the night. He lived there, at the laboratory. Had a house in town but he actually stayed most nights at the lab. Had a wing set up for himself on the eastern side. When it happened it took the whole place down. Woke me up, woke everybody up, I guess. I was about two miles away. But it was just a bump in the night. I didn't even realize it was an earthquake until the police called. Then I went right out to the lab. Phil, it was as if the hill had opened up and just swallowed everything. They found Abe's body in the morning.

     What was the sacrilege? It's not funny, Phil. I'll try to explain it to you but your physics isn't very good so I'm not sure where to start.

     You know the appointment to work with Abe was the opportunity of a lifetime. A guarantee for the future. My ship had come in.

     But when I first got out there it looked like a small operation. Not the sort of thing I'd expected to see. There were only three of us, me, Abe, and Mac Cardwell, an electrical engineer. Mac died in an airplane crash about a week before the quake. He had a pilot's license, and he was flying alone. No one else was involved. Just him. FAA said it looked as if lightning had hit the plane.

     All right, smile if you want to. But Cardwell built the system that made it all possible. And I know I'm getting ahead of things here so let me see if I can explain it. Abe was a cosmologist. He had a spedial interest in the big bang. Special interest in how to generate a big bang.

     I'd known that before I went out there. You know how it can be done, right? Actually make a big bang? No, I'm not kidding. Look, it's not really that hard. Theoretically. All you have to do is pack a few kilograms of ordinary matter into a sufficiently small space, really small, considerably smaller than an atomic nucleus. Then, when you release the pressure that constrains it, the thing explodes.

     No, I don't mean a nuke. I mean a big bang. A real one. The thing expands into a new universe. Anyhow, what I'm trying to tell you is that he did it. He made it happen. More than that, he did it thirty years ago. And no, I know you didn't hear an explosion. Phil, I'm serious.

     Look, when it happens, the blast expands into a different set of dimensions, so it has no effect whatever on the people next door. But it did happen.

     And nobody knew about it. He kept it quiet.

     I know you can't pack much matter into a space the size of a nucleus. You don't have to. The initial package is only a kind of cosmic seed. It contains the trigger and a set of instructions. Once it erupts, the process feeds off itself. It creates whatever it needs. The forces begin to operate, and the physical constants take hold. Time begins. Its time.

     I'd wondered right from the beginning what he was doing in Crestview, Colorado, but he told me he went out there because it was remote, and that made it a reasonably safe place to work. People weren't going to be popping in, asking questions. When I got there, he sat me down and invited me to sign an agreement, stipulating that I'd say nothing whatever, without his express permission, about what he called the start-up project. He'd known me pretty well and I suddenly realized why I'd gotten the appointment over several hundred people who were better qualified. He could trust me to keep my mouth shut.

     At first I thought the lab was involved in defense work of one kind or another. Like Northgate. But this place didn't have the security guards and the triple fences and the dogs. He introduced me to Mac, who was a little guy with a beard that desperately needed a barber, and to Sylvia Michaels. Sylvia was a tall, stately woman, dark hair, dark eyes, a hell of a package, I'm sure, when she was younger. She was the project's angel.

     I should add that Sylvia's also dead. Ran her pickup into a tree two days after the quake. Cops thought she was overcome with grief and wasn't paying attention to what she was doing. Single vehicle accident. Like Mac, she was alone.

     Is that an angel like in show business? Yes. Exactly. Her family owned a group of Rocky Mountain resorts. She was enthusiastic about Abe's ideas, so she financed the operation. She provided the cash, Mac designed the equipment, and Abe did the miracles. Well, maybe an unfortunate choice of words there.

     Why didn't he apply for government funding? Phil, the government doesn't like stem cells, clones, and particle accelerators. You think they're going to underwrite a big bang?

     Yes, I'm serious. How many times do I have to tell you that?     Why didn't I say something? Get it stopped? Phil, you're not listening. It was a going concern long before I got there.

     And yes, what comes out of it is a real universe. Just like this one. He kept it in the building. More or less. It's hard to explain. It extended out through that separate set of dimensions I told you about. There are more than three. It doesn't matter whether you can visualize them or not. They're there. Listen, maybe I should go.

     Well, okay. No, I'm not upset. I just need you to hear me out. I'm sorry, I don't know how to explain it any better than this. Phil, we could see it. Mac had built a device that allowed us to observe and even, within limitations, to guide events. They called it the cylinder and you could look in and see star clouds and galaxies and jets of light, everything spinning and drifting, supernovas blinking on and off like Christmas lights. Some of the galaxies had a glare like a furnace at their centers. It was incredible.

     I know it's hard to believe. Take my word for it. And I don't know when he planned to announce it. Whenever I asked him, he always said when the time is right. He was afraid that, if anyone found out, he'd be shut down.

     I'm sorry to hear you say that. There was never any danger to anybody. It was something you could do in your garage and the neighbors would never notice. Well, you could do it if you had Mac working alongside you.

     Phil, I wish you could have seen it. The cosm --his term, not mine-- was already eight billion years old, relative. What was happening was that time was passing a lot faster in the cosm than it was in Crestview. As I say, it had been up and running for thirty years by then.

     You looked into that machine and saw all that and it humbled you. You know what I mean? Sure, it was Abe who figured out how to make it happen, but the magic was in the process. How was it possible that we live in a place where you could pack up a few grams of earth and come away with a living universe?

     And it was living. We zeroed in on some of the worlds. They were green. And there were animals. But nothing that seemed intelligent. Lots of predators, though. Predators you wouldn't believe, Phil. It was why he'd brought me in. What were the conditions necessary to permit the development of intelligent life? Nobody had ever put the question in quite those terms before, and I wasn't sure I knew the answer.

     No, we couldn't see any of this stuff in real time. We had to take pictures and then slow everything down by a factor of about a zillion. But it worked. We could see what was going on.

     We picked out about sixty worlds, all overrun with carnivores, some of them that would have gobbled down a T-rex as an appetizer. Abe had a technique that allowed him to reach in and influence events. Not physically, by which I mean that he couldn't stick a hand in there, but we had some electromagnetic capabilities. I won't try to explain it because I'm not clear on it myself. Even Abe didn't entirely understand it. It's funny, when I look back now I suspect Mac was the real genius.

     The task was to find a species with potential and get rid of the local carnivores to give it a chance.

     On some of the worlds, we triggered major volcanic eruptions. Threw a lot of muck into the atmosphere and changed the climate. Twice we used undersea earthquakes to send massive waves across the plains where predators were especially numerous. Elsewhere we rained comets down on them. We went back and looked at the results within a few hours after we'd finished, our time. In most cases we'd gotten rid of the targets, and the selected species were doing nicely, thank you very much. Within two days of the experiment we had our first settlements.

     I should add that none of the occupants looked even remotely human.

     If I'd had my way, we would have left it at that. I suggested to Abe that it was time to announce what he had. Report the results. Show it to the world. But he was averse. "Make it public?" He scowled. "Jerry," he said, "there's a world full of busybodies out there. There'll be protests, there'll be cries for an investigation, there'll be people with signs. Accusing me of playing God. I'll spend the rest of my life trying to reassure the idiots that there's no moral dimension to what we're doing."

     I thought about that for a while and asked him if he was sure there wasn't a moral dimension somewhere.

     He smiled at me. It was that same grin you got from him when you'd overlooked some obvious detail and he was trying to be magnanimous while simultaneously showing you what a halfwit you are. "Jerry," he said, "what have we done other than to provide life for thousands of generations of intelligent creatures? If anything. we should be commended."

                                                                                          #             

     Eons passed. Tens of thousands of subjective years, and the settlements went nowhere. We knew they were fighting; we could see the results. Burned out villages, heaps of corpses. Nothing as organized as a war, of course. Just local massacres. But no sign of a city. Not anywhere.

     Maybe they weren't as bright as we thought. Local conflicts don't stop the rise of civilization. In fact there's reason to think they're a necessary factor. Anyhow, it was about this time that Mac's plane went down. Abe was hit pretty hard. But he insisted on charging ahead. I asked whether we should replace him, but he said he didn't think it would be necessary. For the time being, we had all the capability we needed.

     "We have to intervene," he said.

     I asked how?

     "Language," he said. "We have to solve the language problem."

     I asked what he was talking about.

     "We need to be able to communicate with them."

     The capability already existed to leave a message. No, Phil, we didn't have the means to show up physically and conduct a conversation. But we could deposit something for them to find. If we could master the languages.

     "What do you intend to do?" I asked.

     He was standing by a window gazing down at Crestview, with its single large street, its lone traffic light, Max's gas station at the edge of town, the Roosevelt School, made from red brick and probably built about 1920. "Tell me, Jerry," he said, "Why can none of these creatures make a city?"

     I had no idea.

     One of the species had developed a written language. Of sorts. But that was as far as they'd gotten. We'd thought that would be a key, but even after the next few thousand local years, nothing had happened.

     "I'll tell you what I think," Abe said. "They haven't acquired the appropriate domestic habits. They need an ethical code. Spouses who are willing to sacrifice for each other. A sense of responsibility to offspring. And to their community."

     "And how would you propose to introduce those ideas, Abe?" I should have known what was coming.

     "We have a fairly decent model to work with," he said. "Let's give them the Commandments."

     I don't know if I mentioned it, but he was moderately eccentric. No, that's not quite true. It would be closer to the mark to say that, for a world-class physicist, he was unusual in that he had a wide range of interests. Women were around the lab all the time, although none was ever told what we were working on. As far as I knew. He enjoyed parties, played in the local bridge tournaments. The women loved him. Don't know why. He wasn't exactly good-looking. But he was forever trying to sneak someone out in the morning as I was pulling in.

     He was friendly, easy-going, a sports fan. You ever know a physicist who gave a damn about the Red Sox? He'd sit there and drink beer and watch games off the dish. When he first mentioned the Commandments, I thought he was joking.

     "Not at all," he said. And, after a moment's consideration: "I think we can keep them pretty much as they are."

     "Abe," I said, "what are we talking about? You're not trying to set yourself up as a god?" The question was only half-serious because I thought he might be on to something. He looked past me into some indefinable distance.

     "At this stage of their development," he said, "they need something to hold them together. A god would do nicely. Yes, I think we should do precisely that." He smiled at me. "Excellent idea, Jerry." He produced a copy of the King James, flipped pages, made some noises under his breath, and looked up with a quizzical expression. "Maybe we should update them a bit."

     "How do you mean?"

     "'Thou shalt not hold any person to be a slave.'"

     I had never thought about that. "Actually, that's not bad," I said.

     "'Thou shalt not fail to respect the environment, and its creatures, and its limitations.'"

     "Good." It occurred to me that Abe was off to a rousing start. "Maybe, 'Thou shalt not overeat.'"

     He frowned, ignoring my contribution, and shook his head. "Maybe that last one, the environment, is a bit much for primitives. Better leave it out." He pursed his lips and looked again at the leather-bound Bible. "I don't see anything in the original version we'll want to toss out. So let's stop with eleven."

     "Okay."

     "The Eleven Commandments."

     "Okay," I said. "Let's try it."

     "For Mac," he said. "We'll do it for Mac."

                                                                                                #             

     The worlds had all been numbered. He had a system in which the number designated location, age, salient characteristics. But you don't care about that. He decided, though, that the world we had chosen for our experiment should have a name. He decided on Utopia. Well, I thought, not yet. It had mountain ranges and broad seas and deep forests. But it also had lots of savages. Smart savages, but savages nonetheless.

     We already had samples of one of the languages. That first night he showed them to me, slowed down of course. It was a musical language, rhythmic, with a lot of vowels and, what do you call them, diphthongs. Reminded me of a Hawaiian chant. But he needed a linguistic genius to make it intelligible.

     He called a few people, told them he was conducting an experiment, trying to determine how much data was necessary to break in and translate the text of a previously unknown language. Hinted it had something to do with SETI. The people on the other end were all skeptical of the value of such a project, and he pretended to squirm a bit but he was offering lots of cash and a bonus for the correct solution. So everybody had a big laugh but they came on board.

     The winner was a woman at the University of Montreal. Kris Edward. Kris came up with a solution in five days. I'd have thought it was impossible. A day later she'd translated the Commandments for him into the new language. Ten minutes after he'd received her transmission, we were driving over to Caswell Monuments in the next town to get the results chiseled onto two stone tablets. Five on one, six on the other. They looked good. I'll give him that. They had dignity. Authority and majesty.

     We couldn't actually transport the tablets, the Commandments, physically to Utopia. But we could relay their image, and their substance, and reproduce them out of whatever available granite there might be. Abe's intention was to put them on a mountaintop, and then use some directed lightning to draw one of the shamans up to find them. It all had to be programed into the system, because as I said the real-time action would be much too quick for anyone to follow. I didn't think it would work. But Abe was full of confidence that we were on track at last.

     We had a flat on the way back with the tablets. The spare was flat too. Maybe we should have taken that as a sign. Anyhow, by the time we'd arranged to get picked up, and got the tire changed, and had dinner, it had gotten fairly late. Abe was trying to be casual, but he was anxious to start. No, Jerry, we are not going to wait until morning. Let's get this parade on the road. So we set the tablets in the scanner and sent the transmission out. It was 9:46 p.m. on the twelfth. The cylinder flashed amber lamps, and then green, signaling success. It had worked. The package had arrived at its destination. Moments later we got more blinkers, confirming that the storm had blown up to draw the shaman into the mountain.

     We looked for results a few minutes later. It would have been time, on the other side, to build the pyramids, conquer the Mediterranean, fight off the Vandals, get through the Dark Ages, and move well into the Renaissance. If it had worked, we could expect to see glittering cities and ships and maybe even 747's. What we saw, however, were only the same dead-end settlements.

     We resolved to try again in the morning. Maybe Moses had missed the tablets. Maybe he'd not been feeling well. Maybe the whole idea was crazy.

     That was the night the quake hit.

                                                                                                #             

     That's stable ground up in that part of the world. It was the first earthquake in Crestview's recorded history. Moreover, it didn't hit anything else. Not Charlie's Bar & Greill, which is at the bittom of the hill on the state road. Not any part of the Adams Ranch, which occupies the area on the north, not any part of the town, which is less than a half mile away. But it completely destroyed the lab.

     What's that? Did it destroy the cosm? No, the cosm was safely disconnected from the state of Colorado. Nothing could touch it, except through the cylinder. It's still out there somewhere. On its own.

     But the whole thing scares me. I mean, Mac was already dead. And two days later Sylvia drove into a tree at about sixty.

     That's okay, you can smile about it, but I'm not sleeping very well. What's that? Why would God pick on us? I don't know. Maybe he didn't like the idea of someone doing minor league creations. Maybe he resented our monkeying around with the Commandments.

     Why do you think he didn't say anything to Moses about slavery? What, you've never thought about it? I wonder if maybe, at the beginning, civilization needs slaves to get started. Maybe you can't just jump off the mark with representative democracy. Maybe we were screwing things up, condemning sentient beings to thousands of years of unnecessary savagery. I don't know.

     But that's my story. Maybe it's all coincidence. The quake, the plane crash, Sylvia. I suppose stranger things have happened. But it's scary, you know what I mean?

     Yeah, I know you think I'm exaggerating. I know the God you believe in doesn't track people down and kill them. But maybe the God you believe in isn't there. Maybe the God who's actually running things is just a guy in a laboratory in another reality. Somebody who's a bit less congenial than Abe. And who has better equipment.

     Who knows?

     The scotch is good, by the way. Thanks. And listen, Phil, there's a storm blowing up out there. I don't like to impose, but I wonder if I could maybe stay the night? 

 

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Originally published in Microcosms, edited by Gregory Benford, DAW Books, copyright 2004 Gregory Benford and Tekno Books. Re-edited 7/31/17.