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On The Vastness Of Space And The Paucity Of Inhabited Worlds

by David Barber

St Augustine, a disciple of St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the years around 380AD, sat at the feet of that eminent Father alongside the unknown author of the Codex Alexandria. We may surmise this from the following facts.

As Augustine tells in Book IV of the Confessions, “When he [Ambrose] was reading, his eyes ran over the page and though his heart perceived the sense, his lips were silent.” The sight of a man reading for himself and not for others hints at books becoming their own justification. The Alexandria codex is fragmentary, but bears a dedication praising the learned Ambrose, and it too mentions this silent readership, tacita lectoris.

We know that a complete copy of the work, subsequently titled On The Vastness Of Space And The Paucity Of Inhabited Worlds, was made for the library of the Bishop of Antioch in the opening years of the fifth century, since it is described in the catalogue of books demanded by Theodosius II.

That new Emperor at Constantinople, already forced to accept the division of the Roman empire into East and West and unwilling to risk the fragile unity of the Church, cast suspicious eyes upon the See of Antioch, where the heresy of Arianism had only latterly been extinguished.

The copyist describes the work as containing the most perfect proof of the existence of God, and a lemma which insisted that the divine law, or necessitas, by which God made our world the laws of physics, as we might say – must allow the plurality of worlds, since to argue otherwise imposes limitations upon God.

In addition, crowded into the margin in another hand is the observation: concludes the absence of other inhabited worlds – which must follow if the proof is true.

About the nature of this vanished proof we can only speculate. It should not surprise us that merely human arguments about the existence of God do not resist scrutiny. The lesser may not contain the greater. Yet tellingly, no proof before has demanded that humankind be unique. Perhaps some ideas are fathered only once.

In the centuries since Ambrose, Augustine and the author of the lost Codex, we have indeed found a plurality of worlds, and our servants, the silicon descendants of our own minds, have visited some of them. 

And though we have listened carefully, it seems we are alone. As far as we can tell – and these days that is very far indeed – except for the miracle of ourselves, the universe is silent. Science has determined these facts but does not offer an explanation. It may be that others see no need to read aloud; or perhaps it is an infinite theatre with a solitary actor and no audience. In the sonorous Latin of that unknown hand, the most perfect proof of the existence of God demands there be a multitude of worlds, but perhaps the God who was proved to exist had no choice but to leave them vacant. Regretfully, it may be true that the worlds of creation echo to no voices but our own.



David Barber lives in the UK. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, New Myths and Asimov’s. (He framed the cheque.) His ambition is to write.

Visitations From God Leave Us As Confused As Ever

by Nicholas Sheppard

Tales of divine visits to Earth have been around since Gilgamesh was a boy, but the recent upsurge in alleged visitations would be remarkable even by the standards of Homer. First we had the tale of Joseph Salamander, who says that God spoke to him from a burning bush while hiking near Sydney, Australia. Then we had Bartholomew Erephus claiming that God had spoken to him from a cloud later the same week, followed by Erina Holsworthy’s claim that God had entered one of her children’s dolls. A torrent of other claims may be found on social media.

Many of the videos that you’ll find are surely hoaxes; it’s not hard to set a bush on fire and insert a suitably resonant voiceover. Other claimants may be the victims of mental illnesses or drug use. But even the more credible witnesses leave a lot of questions as to what really happened.

Mr. Salamander says that God asked him to work towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting biodiversity; but who until now has heard of God needing to prove His environmental credentials? Mr. Erephus says that God instructed him to gather a harem of fertile young women so as to go forth and multiply, as it were; but though Mr. Erephus insists that God is concerned about low fertility rates contributing to the ageing of the population in developed countries, others (including Mr. Erephus’ wife) have seen this claim as rather self-serving. Others have pointed out that God’s instructions to Mr. Salamander and Mr. Erephus seem at cross-purposes. Ms. Holsworthy says that her doll alerted her to the plight of persons displaced by war and famine across the world, but it is not clear what she is to do about this from her middle-class home in Charleston, West Virginia. Others have said that God warned them of the evils of alcohol or other drugs, or appointed them to stand up for the rights of particular ethnic groups or socioeconomic strata, or asked them to establish societies based on principles laid down by philosophers ranging from Plato to Marx.

Numerous explanations have been advanced for both the apparent frequency of these visitations as well as the bewildering array of advice that God is supposed to have given. Maybe the end really is nigh, some say, and God is making a last-ditch bid for the moral improvement of humanity. Some have explained the inconsistent nature of the instructions as individualised advice intended only for the ears of those visited; others have suggested that there might be several gods vying for our attention. For those less inclined to accept divine explanations, there’s the suggestion that a team of hoaxers is creating ‘deepfakes’ on a scale never before seen, or that we might be under assault from alien ‘influencers’ attempting to extend their audience to Earth. Or maybe the whole thing is just mass hysteria brought on by too much social media.

Rene Jacquillard, a professor of history at the Université de Montréal and noted sceptic, has suggested that the only way to resolve the mess would be to ‘catch God at it’. He has accordingly proposed a series of traps through which gods, hoaxers and/or aliens might be gotten hold of and made to perform under laboratory conditions. Sara al-Zubair, a professor of comparative religion at the University of Damascus, has proposed that the new sayings of God be collected into a kind of Extra Testament from which religious scholars around the world can distil a text suited to the needs of anyone seeking spiritual guidance. In the meantime, citizen-prophets can also contribute their experiences to on-line site Wiki-Testament. Critics point out that compiling the sayings of God into a book (or, presumably, web site) has been far from an unqualified success in bringing agreement to previous generations of religious thinkers. Perhaps there’s nothing to do but embrace the diversity and richness of God’s will. If God wants to tell Mr. Salamander to protect the environment while telling Mr. Erephus to populate it, so be it, He’s not telling anyone to do anything that many of us wouldn’t do anyway. What would be really surprising, after all these thousands of years? God calling a meeting to set out His plan in plain common-sense terms that everyone can agree on.



N P Sheppard is an academic and software engineer based in Wollongong, Australia. He has published academic research in information security, short fiction in AntipodeanSF, and non-fiction in Aurealis and Cockatrice.

So Be It

Allocation Day had arrived. Like everyone else, Amen put on his threadbare robes. He ate his meagre food, and, like everyone else, he had some free time to finalise his preparations. Amen went over the rules again:

  1. You have one reset button
  2. You have three lives
  3. Direct contact is not possible

Simple rules, but he knew from his lessons how important they were if one of the class was going to make a breakthrough.
When everyone was ready, they filed into the pod arena where the grid matrix map of the universe hung suspended before them. Once all twenty-seven of them had taken their standing positions, the doors were sealed shut behind them.
A tiny orange identification cube glowed off-centre. This little cube was their first sight of their new worlds. The suspended matrix of the universe map zoomed in on the small orange cube, expanding it to a massive scale, revealing thousands of galaxies within the area. The cube was segregated further into twenty-seven pieces stacked three wide, three long and three high. With deliberation, this cube broke into pieces so that one piece hovered over each member of the class. They all closed their eyes, finally ready for this day that had been so long in preparation. Amen felt himself being lifted. He rose higher and higher. He kept his eyes closed for as long as possible.
When he opened them a vast panorama lay before him, rugged, rough, devoid of life. This was his palette. He closed his eyes again and thought of all the lessons learnt from those who had gone before him. The future lay with him and the twenty-six others surrounding him, and if they didn’t succeed, there were no longer another twenty-seven waiting to graduate and take their places. Resources were running low and time was running out. If one of them didn’t deliver, there were no more graduating classes left to try, and no more energy to fund the limited chances permitted by the rules.
Amen wanted to start small, tiny in fact. The materials he had been given appeared plentiful, but if there was one thing he had learned, it was not to do what had been done before. Size mattered, but maybe not the way most had assumed. So, with a tiny sprinkle, he crafted a small strand of DNA; nothing fancy, only four nucleobases, not the eight, or twenty-five or even the sixty-four that had been tried before.
In the swirling waters where he mixed this spell, he brought the elements of weather in, and with thunder and lightning that raged over this part of his planet, he brought the spark to life. It was such a tiny spark, and so basic, that it was able to replicate with ease. He was pleased. He wondered if any of his classmates were having similar success. There had been so many losses before them but Amen had given this a lot of thought. It felt right to start small and he was appreciative of the tools he had to hand. He appreciated his soupy, gassy, solid world.
At the end of the first session their orange sections withdrew. Amen looked around, dazed with the fatigue of concentration. Two of his classmates were gone. As interchangeable as they all were, he recognised that Fable and Racon were no longer there. Impatient Racon, thought Amen, and noted the impromptu lesson. Despite being all the same, despite being subject to the same lessons, their uniqueness lay in how they chose to use their minds. It was inevitable that those with the weaker thought disciplines would fail.
When it was time to return to work, Amen nodded farewell. The classmates had compared notes, some more than others. Amen preferred to keep his progress to himself. Their only limitations were their own imaginations. It was their only point of diversity. Their weak and dying bodies were not going to last much longer here, no matter how many versions of themselves they replicated in their increasingly depleted environment. Only their minds could set them free, and Amen wanted to succeed.
Amen returned to looking over his world. His lifeforms were progressing well. He zoomed out and critiqued the location. The nearest star provided energy. The sister planets in this solar system were quite diverse, some were gaseous, others icy rocks. He noted the orbital rotations, he noted the gravitational pulls. He zoomed back in again so that he could do more work. He took a sample of the simple structures, soupy in their mix, and used the flow of currents to separate them to another area of the planet. Over and over he replicated this. He was doing something no-one else had done before, and at each of their enforced breaks he said nothing. His classmates might laugh, they might scoff, they might be curious and want to see. For Amen though, none of this mattered. He simply didn’t tell them because he wanted to hold onto his creative energy, couldn’t afford to let it dissipate. What he was doing was unprecedented, and exhausting.
Some of his lifeforms started to take on a momentum of development on their own. Amen watched how some of the simple structures grouped together to become more complex. He encouraged some of these to emerge from the safety of their salty fluid into the thin atmosphere and solid ground. His world passed through thousands of its years, while Amen watched, waited and prodded once in a while. Each time he took a break, fewer and fewer of his classmates remained. Xay was still there. Za was still there. Epik was still there. None of them spoke much. There was a lot at stake.
Then Amen made a mistake. He’d seen it before, when studying the other worlds. Maybe he’d let it subconsciously influence him. He’d gotten off track and in a moment of insecurity his own world had become full of assorted giants. He understood their allure, the tough outer skin, the ability to change sex by the temperature of their eggs, their general fierceness. He knew from the lessons that others had used creatures like this many times, but mostly as their starting positions. In his world it risked being the ending position too, just like many others. This method, this outcome, had left a series of worlds stuck in limbo, unable to progress. So he invoked Rule Number One. He hit the reset button. The eruption of the volcano spread the cloud of ash across the planet. It was heartbreaking to see his work go to waste. Years passed as he waited for the dust to clear.
But then he realised what had happened. As the atmosphere normalised and cleared, it revealed the beauty and adaptability of his original line of thinking. Yes, the dinosaurs were gone. His reset had cleared them, but there were thousands of beings remaining: small, furry, rooted, feathery. His indulgences, playthings he’d created on the side to pass the time were still there, growing, developing. Even some of the smaller reptiles remained. Small is beautiful, he thought to himself. Given the infinite grandness of the universe it was a hard lesson to learn, yet so simple.
He was glad to see Za and Epik on his next break. He knew they were solid and reliable. But he didn’t share his own discovery, his own success, not yet. Instead, he listened. Amen thought that Za had it tough. In addition to being separated by millions of light years, they had all been allocated different environments to handle. Za’s gassy nebula provided a challenge of form. From listening to Za, Amen deduced that he was going to do away with form altogether and was playing with the energy of light. It was risky, but maybe that was where the edges of success were going to be found. The reptiles, and the mono-species approach, both separately and in combination had failed to be replicable or sustainable, no matter who had tried it in the past. Epik on the other hand was in the depths of a black hole, where everything was about matter, but he too appeared to be making steady progress. Light and dark. With such thoughts Amen headed back to the familiarity of his planet.
Amen’s challenge was size. The area he had to work with was tiny in comparison to his colleagues, the risks immense within the context of the vastness of the universe. But he kept on going. By now he had amassed thousands upon thousands of creatures. Some had six legs, some had tens of legs, some had none. Some breathed with gills, some with lungs, some through their skin, some not at all. Some walked, some were rooted to where they grew. Some used sunlight for food, some devoured the others, some didn’t even eat. No-one, ever, out of any of his classmates or those who had gone before, had put so many different life-forms, of such variety, in such a small space. The results were astounding. As he had hoped, in the fight for supremacy and survival, the emerging species had been redirected from a quasi-dominant reptile and was now based on his own form. Maybe it was vain to put these physically weak designs into such a variable environment, but he was intrigued to watch them mature and grow.
Then it began to go wrong. This species, these men, became lazy and greedy. They started to fight amongst themselves and stopped appreciating the goodness of what Amen had provided to them. Amen watched them, this intelligent species, this self-destructive species start to self-devour. It was time to use Rule Number Two; one of his lives. He had to in order to get around Rule Number Three; direct contact is not possible. Close contact, he thought, and leaned into his world and whispered to those who listened.
“No. No. No. No… aaahhhhh,” One life heard the whisper on the breeze, saw the clouds building. Amen amassed them slowly, giving as much warning as possible. Down on the planet, under the guidance of this one life, those with enough intuition, influence and altruism to understand and execute the message prepared accordingly. The floods lasted for months. The planet reshaped and when the waters resided the world was almost fresh and new, ready for another step change.
However, as Amen’s work became more and more advanced, so his own situation got worse. There were now only three of them left of the original twenty-seven, Za, Epik and Amen. Xay, feeling the pressure, and despite a robust start had panicked and his world had exploded, wiping everything out.
Amen’s only remaining contact was with his two colleagues, who were focused on the forces of light and fire, dark and comfort. They were a welcome respite from oversight of his own delicate planet, Earth, where he had achieved diversity and mastered replication. It had even survived his reset button. However, in its abundance, there were tensions building again, and his goal of sustainability was still out of reach. The flood had a been intended as a warning, but it was not enough, and he was now going to have to watch this play out from the sidelines unless he used another of his lives.
This time he created a son and sent him to earth. It was as close as he could get to direct contact. It was as close as he could get to giving them the messages they needed to know to live in harmony. For without that, they would never be able to work together, and without that Amen’s grand plan seemed doomed. If they could not work together, they would never be able to launch themselves away from their tiny speck and achieve mastery of the universe.
While, through his son, he had managed to avoid direct contact, he was pleased to see that collective awareness on the planet had started to build. With relief, Amen found his second and long-awaited source of energy. The stronger their belief and prayers, the stronger he became. He was also gratified to see that many of the dominant groups had finally come together, but for every evocation of love, there were just as many powerful emergences of negative, destructive forces. It was just like watching Za and Epik each struggling separately with their delicate balancing acts. Using radiance and gravity, they were also in their own ways on the verge of joy, replication and sustainability, the Holy Grail.
At their next break, Amen finally spoke. “Direct contact is not possible and we only have the lessons left behind by others. The only remaining direct contact we can ever have is with each other.”
Za and Epik looked at each other.
“You’ve been the silent one, not us,” said Epik.
“But maybe that’s the missing link,” said Amen. “I’ve been watching my lot, and I had hoped for more by now. The intelligence that they are demonstrating is the very same thing that leads them towards self-destruction the moment they become comfortable. If I had a second reset button I’d invoke it. Instead I only have one life left.”
Za shook his head, scattering sparks of light around him. “All of my lives have been used. I wish I had one more. My reset was used early on. But I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.”
Epik nodded with heavy despondency. “I’m all out too. I’m on the countdown to see what happens next.”
But Za and Amen could see that Epik was getting stronger more quickly than both of them.
“Maybe we should stop competing then. Maybe the three of us should start working together. It’s what I expect from my planet. If I expect it of them in order to become sustainable, then shouldn’t we do the same?” said Amen.
“But no class of graduates has ever worked together before. It’s always been a competition,” said Za.
“All the more reason to try it,” said Amen.
“Doing again what has been done before has not worked so far,” said Epik.
“What about the rules?” said Za.
“Stuff the rules. This is no time to search for more rules! Let’s just do it,” said Epik.
By then it was time to get back to work. They were forced to separate, but each went away thinking. ­­­Yet more years passed. Amen grew a lot stronger from the energy of faith. Then it started to wane. His planet started to decline. The in-fighting was becoming more frequent as their resources depleted. They’d made some token efforts to spread their wings, but had got not much further than their orbiting satellite. Unmanned they had reached some minor distance further with their evolving technology. Amen, sensing the end, did what he could to spur them along. Their progression became more rapid, major steps that used to take hundreds of years were achieved in decades, years, months and soon the pace of change could be measured in days. During this time Za and Epik also grew. The three of them had lasted longer than anyone who had gone before. Collectively they were now sharing everything that they knew. Not just on what they had done, but also on where they were going.
Za had the glow, Epik had the gravity, and so, sometimes, Amen wondered what he brought to their group, especially as he was now starting to weaken. He talked about diversity, adaptability, and keeping it small. Za and Epik understood. He talked about the thousands of species he had created. He talked about imagination and straying from form. Both Za and Epik understood this all too well.
He spoke at length about love on his planet and the energy and attraction it created. At this soliloquy, both Za and Epik stopped still.  Their break was nearly up. They were going to have to return to their worlds very soon. There was not much time left. Amen was fading.
“Your third life,” said Za.
“You haven’t used it yet,” said Epik.
“Use it to connect us,” said Za. “I have the power of light.”
“I have the force of attraction,” said Epik.
“I have the love,” said Amen.
“I am the Love,” he realised. Their break was up. It was Judgement Day.