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Apeiron

by Anthony Lechner

Deity: A.X. Mander

Project: Universe

Purpose: Debriefing Report

I would like to thank the master deities for allowing me a third pass at Project Universe (PU). I have learned a great deal from my previous two passes as well as the plethora of passes from other deities. In particular, the debriefing report from T.H. Ales inspired me to create a device called Apeiron, which can supply boundless creations and dissolutions of multiple and synchronous universes.

T.H. Ales’s universe revealed the required features for not only multicellular life but also sentient life, viz., H2O. T.H. Ales also learned that H20, if left unchecked, floods the universe beyond saturation to the point of oblivion. I don’t blame Ales for leaving the project with the way that universe ended on his pass. The main problem, I believe, rested in the fact that the universe required constant attention from T.H. Ales, and an action innocuous as a coffee break drowned the whole of existence. To think of the creatures’ pain—all dying from suffocation—is unbearable. We are more generous than that.

One of the functions within the Apeiron device is H2O regulation. Each created universe is only allotted 42 FUs. Apeiron provided intriguing results. In the first universe, all 42 FUs of H2O started within one galaxy and there was no life within it. But by the end of the run, over 30 galaxies had enough water to sustain life. There was no evidence of the initial H2O-filled galaxy in itself at the end of the run. It appears, though, that its remnants eventually settled into every galaxy that had life. The one had become many.

Apeiron created over one billion universes in this pass, moving beyond exponential growth from previous passes where I did not have the device. The device’s algorithm learned from each universe the ideal amount of H2O needed in each world within a galaxy to sustain life. The device made minor changes from run to run. The median number of galaxies with H2O-based lifeforms per universe ended up at 8,160, with a range of 27 to 12,050. The variety of worlds and lifeforms created continues to baffle me. I barely had enough leniency to calculate all the galaxies, and I am estimating 31.4% of the worlds within those galaxies with creatures before the end of the pass.

One of Apeiron’s most impressive features is the ability to copy the design of a universe, and alter a mere 1% of its core and peripheral components (never repeating an alteration, permutation, or combination). Of course, I had to design the initial universe. This was no easy task, based on my previous two passes. I discovered after those failed passes that a blended universe, uniting T.H. Ales’ H2O universe, C.R. Onos’ Terra universe, and A.X. Menes’ CON universe, made for a successful initial design—through the three, one. (See Appendix 1.A. in this report for the technical blending schematics.)

Rendering the right composition of substances proved to be a minor hurdle compared to the rationic patterns needed to perpetuate the proper proportions among these core substances. I dubbed these patterns embedded existants. I owe a great deal of appreciation to the many deities that created the good variety of substances accessible to the PU. Without embedded existants, however, the substances couldn’t blend or morph with other substances and couldn’t evolve—which explains why so many deities dropped from PU, feeling their creations were failures. These universes were not failures; they merely lacked the language to move about without constant effort from the deity who constructed them.

An unexpected consequence emerged from the embedded existants, viz., intelligent lifeforms began to theorize about the existence of embedded existants. Once a civilization of lifeforms successfully demonstrated a working knowledge of some of the basic existants, it did not take long for that civilization to apply their own understanding and add a further layer of evolution to their world. For example, some worlds began creating their own dwellings, modes of transportation, and various other unnatural structures. They even began theorizing whether they themselves were deities or were created by deities.

Some civilizations showed such mastery of embedded existants they created modes of transportation to leave their worlds. Very few civilizations (<1%) ever discovered a means to travel between galaxies. This variant occurred in 3% of the universes within Apeiron’s construct.

In exactly one civilization in one universe, a mode of transportation overwhelmed me. They discovered the source of embedded existants within Apeiron. By doing so, they were not only able to travel to any galaxy in their universe; they could travel to any universe within Apeiron. I named them Apeironic Anomalies (AA). While their visits to other universes showed not to be motivated by violence, they did interfere with the natural development of other universes.

At first, I speculated whether it was permissible to allow the AA to continue exploration and alterations within Apeiron. Realizing, though, that they dominated not only their universe but other universes, I believed it important to suspend their existence within Apeiron. I couldn’t allow for their dominance to mar the growth of other intelligent lifeforms. My apprehension predominately rested on the possibility that either they would become worshipped as deities or they would take on the role of deities and limit the natural development of worlds (or both). Because of this apprehension, I suspended their universe and all universes where the AA had spread. To be more exact, I had to create the embedded existant language within Apeiron to lock all motion within the affected universes.

I would like to be clear that I did not worry about the AA finding a way of leaving Apeiron, for that would be utterly impossible because their mere existence depended on the construct and couldn’t maintain any viable form of existence beyond it. But as the AA were suspended, I began wondering what would happen if they were permitted to continue to explore Apeiron. And then, what if I could construct a way for Apeiron to allow us to be able to interact with this species (either by projecting our image into Apeiron or projecting their image outside of Apeiron).

After some initial thinking toward the end of my third pass, I realized I needed a fourth pass at PU. I cannot complete these two speculations with the Apeiron 1.0, as I am starting to call it now. Apeiron 2.0 will have a few major adjustments. It will have two major structural divisions. In one division, it will allow AAs to visit other universes and allow deities continuous monitoring regarding how multi-layered creation and alterations evolve. In another division, it will strictly prohibit the formation of AAs. In this division, lifeforms will be able to theorize about multiple universes but never be allowed to travel beyond their own universes. Both divisions can create boundless universes. Additionally, I will add a feature into Apeiron 2.0 that allows projections, at the command of a deity and not an AA, to allow for closer observation and possible communication.

Regretfully, the new specifications I started for Apeiron 2.0 mean that I had to terminate the universes Apeiron 1.0 created so that I could access Apeiron’s internal components for recycling. If my analysis is correct, no creature felt any pain during the termination of any of Apeiron 1.0’s universes. Compared to the natural pains of daily life and the natural endings of their solar systems and galaxies, the forced termination can be seen as peaceful. (See Appendix 2.A for a more detailed explanation.) From their point of view, it happened as quickly as turning off the light.

Appendix 1.A

Initial design: 33% Liquid, 33% Gas, 34% Mineral

Effect: With embedded existants, this composition blended well. The variety of syntheses formed various other substances on their own. I discovered that even the embedded existants took miniscule parts of the initial substances to function through predictable patterns. This is the most likely explanation for how the AA found a way to travel within Apeiron.

Apeiron began altering 1% at a time in each direction for each of the original substances. For example, it would subtract 1% from liquid and add 1% to gas or to mineral (32% liquid, 34% gas, 34% mineral, followed by 32% liquid, 33% gas, 35% mineral, etc.). Consequently, liquid gases, liquid minerals, and gas minerals formed through the combination and permutation processes. These syntheses continued down to the level of embedded existants. As Apeiron rearranged each universe, the proportions of the initial design within the embedded existants mutated.

Appendix 2.A

Median number of galaxies with life: 8,160

Within this mean, the variants dispersed unevenly. Some galaxies had hundreds of forms of intelligent life, others a dozen, some a few, with the occasional isolated civilization. One fact remains constant in each universe: solar systems and galaxies fluctuate in size and number. Having intelligent life in a solar system or galaxy was not a permanent property of the system or galaxy. It was common for the embedded existants to collide the substances, in various, yet predictable ways. These collisions forcefully terminated many lifeforms (intelligent or not). I conjecture that civilizations that found a means to exit their worlds were motivated by these predictable and potentially tragic endings.

With Apeiron 2.0, however, most of these universes with these types of systems and galaxies will evolve to the exact same likeness as to when Apeiron 1.0 ended. Toward this end, we will find out whether or not civilizations can self-correct. The irony, of course, is that Apeiron 2.0 could prove to provide more pain compared to the peaceful ending of Apeiron 1.0. Only a forth pass will tell.

~

Bio:

Anthony Lechner is a special education teacher and philosophy instructor in Idaho, USA. Visit www.anthonylechner.com for more information.

The Curriculum Vitae of Simon

by Richard Lau

Dear Prospective Employer:

My name is Simon Peter. I am currently unemployed and hoping to obtain a position with your company.

Here is a chronological listing of my previous occupations with brief descriptions of each.

Fisherman – along with my brother, caught fish to feed family and others.

Part-time Lifeguard – acquired temporary certification for absolute buoyancy.

Church Organizer – assisted church founder in leading a team of eleven others.

Pope – Appointed first Bishop of Rome, which led to a long successive string of others holding that prestigious office.

Security Officer – screened incoming personnel.

I would like to note two things about my last position as a security officer.

First, while a transition from Pope to Security Officer might seem like a downgrade or demotion, I must stress the action was indeed the opposite. As the one and only security officer, I was given the greater responsibility of granting or forbidding admittance to company headquarters. In essence, I was given “the keys to the company.”

Second, I am no longer holding that position through no fault in my performance. For further details about my performance and my dismissal, please refer to the attached glowing reference from my co-worker and immediate supervisor Gabriel.

Ironically, it is my former responsibility as gatekeeper that makes me a perfect match for your advertised opening.

While you do not currently have an official gatekeeper, you do have long lines of those awaiting entry, which I have tremendous experience in handling. You do have signage, but I believe as a living (so to speak) gatekeeper intoning, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” I can add immense value to your brand (pun intended).

I took the initiative to perform some market research, and I realize you have a very different company culture from my previous employer. However, I am flexible and a quick learner. I go back to my experience as a fisherman and ask: “Is casting a fishing line and flicking a whip all that different?”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have spent some time in prison, but I think you may regard that as another positive asset in my favor.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

Simon Peter

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[Note from Human Resources: The attached scroll of papyrus is glowing, literally.]

Reference for Simon Peter by Angel Gabriel

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Gabriel, and my title is Archangel. Not to toot my own horn, but I have been with Heaven, Inc., for a very long time and have worked with many born-mortals.

It is without reservation that I say Simon Peter is among the best of them.

The line of applicants to our company headquarters is long and never-ending. His duties included politely and professionally greeting visitors, looking up their names in the Book of Life, and assigning them to their appropriate destination. A great and heavy burden to be placed on such small and frail human shoulders.

I worked beside him during our eternal shift and never have I seen him falter, act inappropriately, or bring shame to the high standards our brand puts forth. No matter what or who he encountered, he always behaved like a saint.

Unfortunately, our company decided to upgrade and automate its entry system. Visitors are now identified by retina scan and facial recognition software. Information about each prospective entrant is now gathered and displayed through Google Search. Yea, the Book of Life is now truly “in the Cloud.”

I hope you will find a position for this fine human and worker.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Gabriel

~

Bio:

Richard Lau has been published in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and the high-tech industry.

The Existence Of God

by Leopoldo Lugones

Introductory Note by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

There are several modes in speculative fiction, even if we limit it, as we should, to fictions underpinned by a modicum of science and where imagination appears, therefore, in a guise disciplined by reason, even in the many instances where it does not look very reasonable. One of those modes is theological fiction, i.e. fiction based on the study of Theology as a science. This ‘queen of sciences’ is, indeed, a scholarly discipline, since it has its own systematic methods of investigation in order to rationally reach its conclusions and present them using a particular form of scientific discourse. Although its subject is not quantifiable, nor can it be proven or disproven through experimentation (as it is the case in the so-called hard sciences) or documentation (as in History and other human sciences), Theology still has a sounder basis than, say, Metaphysics. This is because it applies reason to pre-existent materials: the scriptures of any religion and their religious teachings formally deduced by scholars in the matter of God, both inside and outside of established clerical institutions, or concerning other divine entities and its (or their) ways in the universe and our world.

This divinity is seen by theologians as an abstract entity, rather than a sort of superhuman endowed with special powers, as the gods of mythology. For this reason, Theology usually finds its proper fictional expression in allegories rather than in myths. Its characters are not (super)people but concepts endowed with agency. In order to illustrate this, we only need to compare the Hebrew creator god, who is a male particularly subject to fits of anger and needful of rest after work, with the abstract and philosophical God-Logos of the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint John. The former can inspire mythographies and mythological fiction, the second is at the heart of allegories or theographies, if this neologism may be allowed, as well as theological fiction. From a literary perspective, the latter can embrace different literary forms and discourses.

In modern times, there have been numerous outstanding examples of purely fictional approaches to Theology, such as historiographical accounts of imaginary doctrines and heresies, of which Jorge Luis Borges is just the most famous modern inventor, or new and allegorical accounts of creation, such as Ian Watson’s very short narrative poem entitled “Let There Be Darkness: An Origin Myth” (collected in The Lexicographer’s Love Song and Other Poems, 2001). Fictional essays and dialogues have also been used to convey original theological concepts intended as literature, not as contributions to scientific theological debate. Among them, Guillaume Apollinaire’s “L’hérésiarque” (L’Hérésiarque et Cie, 1910) deserves mention, which has been translated into English as “The Heresiarch” in the volume entitled The Heresiarch & Co. (Exact Change, 1991). A further theological fiction written as a dialogue, this time among the dead instead of the living portrayed by Apollinaire, is the very short piece by Leopoldo Lugones (Argentina, 1874-1938) entitled in Spanish “La existencia de Dios,” or “The Existence of God” in the below translation into English. It was first collected in a collection of short parables from 1924 titled Filosofícula, with the Spanish title using a Latinate neologism meaning ‘Little Philosophy.’

It might seem odd that its two sole characters, Epicurus and Voltaire (here named ‘the patriarch of Ferney’) are notorious critics of established religion but, as a science, Theology does not need to be confessional. Moreover, their dialogue seems faithful to the teachings of both philosophers and their intellectual struggle against the mythological gods and the theological one, respectively. Voltaire, the deist, is shown by the old Greek philosopher as having demonstrated rather the existence of the Devil, the anti-God whose work is all too obvious on our planet for its existence to be denied. Epicurus argues the inexistence of both the divine and the anti-divine supreme personal principles, for a reason readers will find convincing, or not, when reading it below. But this debate does not seem the literary point of Lugones. His prose adroitly hides a paradox when Epicurus states that he has extensive infernal experience, thus confessing the existence of the afterlife as it is taught by most theologies, not only the Christian and Muslim ones. Epicurus is then shown as a sophist denying a basic theological concept (God, or the Devil for that matter) while affirming another theological concept derived thereof. Another possible reading would perhaps be too deeply pessimistic to be seriously considered, although it would be suited to the decadent world-view permeating the Fin de siècle literature to which Lugones historically belongs. Contrary to contemporary theological teachings suggesting that hell does not exist (or that it will not exist in the future, which amounts to the same from the perspective of Eternity), his Epicurus would imply that only hell exists in the afterlife, whereas God and the Devil would be mere figments of the human imagination. Finally, for religious persons there remains the possible consolatory conclusion that heaven exists – but that the two philosophers are excluded from it. The literary-minded, meanwhile, may at least enjoy the pleasure of Lugones’ elegant irony.

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The Existence Of God

Translation by Álvaro Piñero González

Epicurus, noticing his illustrious colleague, approached him and gracefully offered him a rose from the garden.

“If only I did not wish to pester you with the contradiction,” he said, “I would venture to remind you just how ingeniously you have demonstrated, despite being a deist, the monstrosity of God in the light of good judgment and logic. That monstrosity alone would suffice to prove God does not exist, were it not because it merely reflects how boundless human vanity is.”

“I feel inclined to believe so,” answered the patriarch of Ferney, “I must admit to finding the Devil ever more likely than God…”

“Because of my own infernal experience, much more extensive than yours, I would like to offer you this revelation: the Devil does not exist. It is yet another chimera of deism: the monster seen from the back. It is all man’s doing. Look at this flower: it does not need to know about the Devil or God to be perfectly beautiful. Look at that bird chirping beside its nest: it knows nothing of the Devil or God and yet it is perfectly blissful. I propose this simple philosophical experiment to you: assume for a moment man does not exist – God and the Devil cease to exist forthwith.”

~

Two Variations On Default Salvation

by Andy Dibble

Suppose your theology of salvation is that only those who deny Christ are damned. Everyone else is saved by default. This is an attractive view. Children and others unable to grasp doctrine are saved. Those who live without opportunity to accept Jesus as their savior are saved as well. The damned are damned, on some level, because they choose to be. God wisely grants them autonomy.

This complicates Original Sin, but there is a more pressing problem: assuming this theology, why did Jesus have a ministry?

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I. Default Salvation Beginning with Creation

In the beginning was just the Father–my Father–and me. Heaven was just this lonesome twosomeness. He and I eternally begotten from Him. Succession in eternity is strange, but that is how it was. The angels came later. Creation came later still, and with it the Spirit, once there was a Creation to work within.

As long as there were humans, Creation has surged into Heaven: people die, and they end up here. I can’t blame them. It’s just the natural progression of their lives and after-lives. They would have lived forever in Eden–marvelous, almost divine–but the Serpent came and led them astray. He knew Father, knew me, better than I like to admit. He knew that Father would put them out, and they would end up in Heaven instead. He knew the human migration to Heaven would irk me.

The Fall changed much: Eden was bountiful. Once outside Eden, they had to till the ground. Children would have arisen painlessly in Eden, but outside pregnancy is like a disease. Outside there is disease. Outside their lives are brutish, short, and stunted.

But not their after-lives. Here they just go on and on. The trespass in Eden gave them a troubling handful of decades, but no more. For Father exalts them just because they have not denied me. What kind of reason is that? On earth, they did not even know me.

And that is why Heaven is neither a lonesome or a twosome place any longer. It’s infested (or so I tell myself in the shadow of my heart). I can hardly walk without stumbling over their prostrate bodies. They want to worship me, to serve me, to bask in my presence. The longer they stay, the more entitled they presume themselves to be! It is hard to host billions for billions of years.

No, for eternity.

I just want to be alone, alone with myself, alone with Father. 

Heaven is vast, wider and deeper than the sphere to which the stars are fixed. And if, somehow, souls filled Heaven to its silver rim, Father would make it swell. But even if I tread to the Outer Dark or to the Throne of Heaven where no created thing may pass, I can still feel them yearning for me. Omniscience doesn’t have an off-switch.

This is the end and goal of Creation? It is not the kind of fellowship I crave.

I look down at the few rude blasphemers–certain worshipers of Baal, some geometers and contemplatives, a few peripatetics of the hanging gardens–that struck upon my name in prophecy and dismissed what they had heard. Some are proud, others piteous, as they squander their mortal years or circle the scalding sands of Hell. I know deep down they deserve damnation, even crave it. But still I watch them like a human voyeur. They are few and therefore precious. They have accomplished something I could never do.

Shouldn’t those exalted be few and precious, souls deserving of Heaven?

But how to achieve this? I cannot overrule Father. I cannot correct Him. This presumption of salvation has a place in His Plan.

But I could walk upon the earth and divide the wheat from the chaff by my own preaching. Who will I go among? The Jews, the Chosen People. Their faithfulness ought to be tested. But not them only. I will spread my message to the nations and across the ages. Let all humanity be tested!

I was born. I grew, prospered, preached. But I did not speak plainly. I spoke in parables, bamboozling tripe. I spoke of bridesmaids, wicked servants, sowers, and mustard seeds. So that as many as possible could be exposed to my vagaries, and only a few receive my meaning with gladness, I proclaimed, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” but, as Mark and Luke record, I told my disciples in secret: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything comes in parables so that they may always see but never perceive, and always hear but never understand. Otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”

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II. Default Salvation Beginning with the Cross

Father and His majesty are wonderful, but fellowship with humans–real fellowship, fellowship they can reciprocate–would be more wonderful still.

Time and time again, I’ve seen them try to pick themselves up, and some have. Some were good, better than I thought a sinful human could be in one brief life. But no matter how upright these few stood, no matter how I marveled upon their grit, they still fell short (for all fall short of the glory of God). The suffering of each soul in Hell pains me, however just their lot might be, but the suffering of these upright few pains me most of all.

Some were saved: Isaiah when the burning coal touched his lips, Elijah when he rode to heaven in a whirlwind and a flaming chariot, and Moses wicked up from the grave. But there isn’t a woman among them, and they’re a stodgy lot. Being the mouthpiece of God leaves a person little room to be much of himself. I want the company of those men and women toiling below that have managed something great and good by their own will and not by the indwelling of God only.

What could I do? The expiation of sin requires sacrifice, but no dove or bull will wipe away the sin of a race. If by some grand transubstantiation the oceans became blood and the planets an altar, that would not be enough. It would not be vast enough. It would not be pure enough.

But I am vast enough, pure enough. I am great enough for it. I can walk the earth. I can reconcile Creation to Heaven and save the human race.

Humbly, I was born, and I learned how warm a body can be. I spread my message. I preached with zeal and laid my hands upon them and saved them by their faith. There were many, and I loved them, loved them all. And so I told my disciples as Matthew records: “This is why I speak to them in parables, ‘though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'”

My quotation was from Isaiah. I invoked him to demonstrate the hard-heartedness of the people. But I could pierce their hearts of stone. If I spoke dry theology or fiery exhortation, I would only confuse or provoke them. But a story could stir their faith, a story thrown beside life, a parable.

I inspired many, and they loved me as I loved them. But at last the world overcame me, as it overcomes all bodies. I was beaten, sentenced, and hung upon a cross. They killed me, but really the Serpent killed me. He broke a pact sealed at the moment of creation: only those subject to sin are subject to death. But I am not subject to sin. My blood did what sanguine oceans and planetary altars could not.

With my blood the world was saved. Those great men and women were saved, the children and infants too young to know me, the multitudes that never had a chance. All are saved. With my blood, it is only those that deny me that fall away. Father lets them be.

I commissioned my disciples to preach to the nations, and I commissioned the next generation to preach after my disciples are gone. I commissioned all who would take up the mission. I swore I would be with them always, to the end of the age. At last, I ascended, content I had saved as many as could be saved.

But later, in the quiet of my heart, I wondered: Wouldn’t it have been better for me to be crucified in secret? Lure the Serpent in, if need be, but commission nothing–no Church, no missionaries, no scripture. Tell no one I am the Messiah. Maybe even conceal my death by silencing everyone involved.

It is ruthless, but whenever my well-meaning followers preach my message, an audience may hear and reject it. Those that hear and accept are better, for they may live Christian lives, but what matters earthly life, the merest sliver of eternity? And even they have the chance to fall away. They may reject me later on.

What rogue angel was it that told Joseph to name me Jesus? Once heard, my name is an infection a person must guard against all their lives.

To pronounce my name is to acknowledge salvation. But my name has an inner meaning, like a parable: to acknowledge that one may, one day, be damned.

In my gallant zeal, I saved many, but I damned many too.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who believes that play is the highest function of theology. His fiction also appears in Writers of the Future and is forthcoming in Speculative North. You can find him at andydibble.com.

From The Desk Of J.G. Faust

by A. J. Rocca

Wittenberg University
Universitätsplatz 10
Halle, Germany 06108

6 March 2020

Mr. William Z. Beuv
Head of Transactional Services
Ad Bestias, Inc.
01 Judecca
9th circle, Hell 61616

Dear Mr. Beuv,

I am writing to lodge a formal complaint against one of your associates, a Mr. John Mephisto. Mr. Mephisto has been your company’s representative to me for some fifty-two years now, and I must express some dissatisfaction with services rendered as of late. I have postponed sending this letter in hopes that Mr. Mephisto would resolve whatever trouble it is that’s been plaguing his quality of work, but his continued negligence has finally run out the last of my patience. Mr. Mephisto has roundly failed in his duties as my temptation consultant, and I must request his immediate transfer and replacement.

What leaves me so profoundly frustrated is that for the first forty or so years of his tenure, Mr. Mephisto had approached his work with admirable gusto. I can still remember his voice in my ear back when I was a hungry child roaming the market. He would pull my attention to the stalls just spilling over with juicy red apples and then helpfully note all the most expedient escape routes should I avail myself of one. Then as a youth, whenever my gaze chanced upon an attractive woman, Mr. Mephisto could always be counted upon to provide comprehensive and speedy analysis of her assets along with multiple proposals for a personal merger. True, Mr. Mephisto’s consul from these early days was not terribly sophisticated, but he more than made up for that through his sheer intensity, his passion, his fire! Mr. Mephisto’s whispers could burnish the sheen on an apple, the bloom on a cheek, until they shined red hot and practically burned to look at.

As I grew into a man, that fire only spread. I became the renowned scholar I am today because Mr. Mephisto made me hungry not just for apples, but for knowledge. I burned through book after book in lusty frenzy because Mr. Mephisto showed me that while there are many beautiful women, it is Sophia who is most desirable of all. Mr. Mephisto made me ravenous for life and all of life’s pleasures, so ravenous it frightened me. Indeed, I even pursued a degree in divinity (in addition to the others) and went to mass nearly every day just to keep Mr. Mephisto and the hungers he inspired in check. I used to be a quite decent tenor once upon a time, and I remember the hymns I used to sing to drown out Mr. Mephisto’s voice. My passion made me stand against the rest of the congregation as a pearl on the sand.

In the past few years however, I have observed Mr. Mephisto’s fire slowly lose its intensity until now it has all but fizzled out. No longer do I hear that insidious hiss in my ear pushing me to take, to consume, to make mine no matter the cost. Instead I hear some listless, faraway murmur suggesting something like “You can order the T-bone if you want. You’ve been so good on your cholesterol this week,” and that’s if I’m lucky. Most days I don’t hear him at all, and without Mr. Mephisto’s demonic injunctions pressing on me, all the things I once loved and lived for have lost their appeal. I never notice the apples in the market anymore, I can’t remember the last time I turned a second glance at a woman. And my books, my beloved books, they only bore me now. The fruit of knowledge—argument, schema, and paradigm which I once took such delight in mastering—are now only words to me, strokes of ink on a page, empty breath without even the breath.

I never really appreciated the importance of your company and its services until I found myself deprived of them. There is simply no life in the business of life without a little hellfire there to heat it. Without that, I don’t see the point in doing much of anything anymore. I don’t even go to mass now save for on Christmas and Easter; what’s the point in going to church and singing psalms anymore when I can just as easily drown out Mr. Mephisto’s scant few murmurs by getting a drink and turning up the TV? I can think of no reason. Please, Mr. Beuv, send me someone who will make me want to sing again.

Respectfully yours,

Johann G. Faust, Ph.D., M.D., J.D., Th.D.
Chair of Philosophy & Religious Studies, Wittenberg University
+49 345 55 21589
jgfaust.us@wittenberg.de

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Ad Bestias, Inc.
01 Judecca
9th circle, Hell 61616

10 March 2020

Dr. John G. Faust
Chair of Philosophy & Religious Studies
Wittenberg University
Universitätsplatz 10
Halle, Germany 06108

Dr. Faust,

You have all my sympathies and deepest regrets, sir. If we had a nighttime down here, it is letters like these which would keep me up through it, I do not doubt.

First, I must speak a word in defense of Mr. Mephisto. Mr. Mephisto is one of our finest employees with a special talent for temptation, a talent to which your early years with him can attest. It has been a mark of pride for this organization that for centuries we have been able to provide the services of him and those like him on a pro bono basis to individuals such as yourself. Unfortunately, the demand for evil in the world is higher today than has ever been before, and we have only so many demons in hell to meet that demand. Mr. Mephisto’s diminishing quality of work is not because of any negligence or defect on his part, but simply because his efforts are spread amongst so many thousands of clients all queuing for his attention. Providing that individual level of care you cited in our charitable work is simply no longer feasible, economically speaking.

However, my good doctor, we do offer another option for distinguished individuals such as yourself. It is possible for you to privately contract the services of Mr. Mephisto for a set duration during which time you will be his sole priority. Not only would you be provided with basic temptation consul, but also a number of chthonic perks to help in pursuing said temptations. Please note that this is a paid service, and the costs for privately hiring one of our consultants tend to run rather steeply. I can guarantee you though that if you sign up, you’ll be getting plenty of that fire you asked for.

Tell us if you’re interested and we can have one of our lawyers begin drafting up a contract posthaste.

Respectfully my own,

William Z. Beuv
Head of Transactional Services, Ad Bestias, Inc.
(024) 411-9198
bzbeuv@adbstias.com.he

~

Bio:

A.J Rocca is a writer and a graduate student in English at Western Illinois University. He writes short stories and critical essays, and occasionally creates videos for his YouTube channel, BlueMorningStar. His work has been published at Every Day Fiction and Short Edition.

Burrowing Through the Body of God

by Rich Larson

When the slaveship arrived, we thought we were saved. We had been adrift for days in the Big Black, absorbing radiation from a catastrophic reactor failure, slipping further and further away from the trade route. The chances of another ship coming across us were infinitesimally small, so the arrival was like seeing an angel appear.

Some of us thought it was a hallucination, in no small part because the ship defied all geometry. It seemed to bloom and shimmer like a slick of oil, concentric globes of translucent material swelling and dwindling in counterpoint, flanges unfurling and disappearing. Only the most basic features of a starship were recognizable — an engine, a heat radiator, a solar sail — but these were distorted, cartoonish impressions meant not to function but to communicate familiarity.

The slaveship enveloped our craft and in a sense digested it: I watched the alloy hull dissolve like a painting around us even as our ambient temperature and atmosphere in the hold, where we were huddled by the life support system, changed not an iota. It was clear that our rescuers were no known race. In our desperation, bodies sick from the radiation and minds bending under the crushing void, we did not question our salvation.

The hold fell away and we found ourselves in a softer darkness. The walls seemed to creep away from our touch, expanding as we slowly explored our new environs. Light appeared in the form of glowing silver ribbons that slipped in and out of the walls like eels through black water. I recall the wonder on our illuminated faces. The hierarchy of our crew seemed to crumble there; we were remade as equals by the novelty of our situation.

Eventually we became aware of another presence there in the dark, an eighth shadow added to our seven, who shuffled about with us but did not speak. Normally this would engender fear or alarm, but I remember neither. This figure never approached the silver lights, or perhaps the silver lights never approached them, and so they remained unseen. My impression from their movements was that they were slowly remembering how to walk.

“You are welcome here,” they said. “I recall my humanity.”

“Who are you?” I asked, though I was not the captain — this much of the hierarchy I remember.

“I am your host,” they said, “because I recall my humanity. The damage to your cells has been repaired. Follow me now.”

They walked in a particular direction and we followed, still absorbing their words, guessing at their truth. I know now that the radiation had indeed been scrubbed swiftly and effortlessly from our DNA, but in the moment it was difficult to believe — as was the claim of our host to humanity.

Suddenly what I had thought to be a corridor unfolded in all directions into a vast hall, and overhead we were struck by a vision that remains near indescribable, even after untold eons spent beneath it. The rush of forms and colors defied the eye. Geometric patterns, red, blue, red-blue-green, branched and evolved and were subsumed by others in an instant; wheels of raw-flesh pink and gunmetal gray interlocked like cogs; beads of pure white light split and collided and finally exploded.

But any visualizer can simulate chaos. The most unnerving element of this display was its oscillation between chaos and order. I could feel intent and then abandon, concentration and then madness. I knew that my senses were ill-equipped to experience anything but the tiniest fraction of this vista, and even with that knowledge deep and heavy in my bones, I was overwhelmed.

“You are seeing what you may think of as time,” our host said. “Do not be afraid. We are sheltered from it.”

I looked at our host then, and I was afraid, if briefly. They had recalled their humanity, but not well. In the illumination of the maelstrom above us, I saw that they were composed of disparate parts: a slice of leg, a jagged bit of torso, a piece of skull with teeth below it, a drifting arm. These parts were wired together by a dark filament and moved in concert as if they were a body entire.

“Where are we?” one of us asked.

“We are burrowing,” our host said, teeth orbiting beneath their skull. “Our ship was created to navigate these cracks in time. We expose ourselves to the arbiter only when necessary.”

A bell sounded, though later we likened the noise to a baying animal, and the hall was filled with a multiplicity of beings. I saw a scattering of the known races, but far more unknown, some recognizably biological, others composed of metals or gases or silicates. I tried to guess at the ship’s original creators, but it was fruitless. I have since decided that they are not represented when the bell bays, or perhaps never existed.

The beings formed a pair of lines, and it was in watching this assuming of order that I first tasted our captivity. I could sense that they were cowed, that they dreaded what was to come. At the end of the hall, where the floor narrowed to a knifepoint, there was a high plynth.

“Choose one among you,” the host said.

I do not know why I was chosen, or if I chose it for myself, but somehow I was distanced from my companions and began walking toward the plynth. The host walked with me, though only one gnarled foot touched the floor.

“We are sheltered from time and entropy,” the host said. “But we are also fuelled by them. For this reason we must always seek new passengers.”

I did not understand anything except that I was going to be sacrificed in the stead of my companions, and in that moment it seemed a noble thing. The host produced a shred of shifting color, kin to the maelstrom over our heads, and handed it to me. It moved like an amorphous animal in my arms. At first it seemed to be a bird, pecking at the skin of my wrists, and then a hissing cat I could barely hold. My mind was making it so, for it was neither.

I cradled time and entropy in my arms as I walked the blossoming steps of the plynth. At the top I was surprised to encounter dirt — true soil, not the accumulation of dead skin found even in space. I had not seen true soil since childhood, and it seemed most out of place here. With invisible palms pressing against my spine, I lay down in the dirt.

Above me, the maelstrom parted and I saw the Big Black, a shard of space dotted with distant stars. Then the animal in my arms began to consume me. I was paralyzed, watching the hand nearest my face wrinkle with age. My veins bulged; brown spots welled up on my skin as it creased and sagged. The bones jutted up like bridges. I began to decay.

Across from me, beyond my mummified hand, I saw a skeleton rising out of the dirt beside me, uncovered as if by a desert wind. I stared into the cracked and empty sockets of its eyes and knew that it was my skeleton being reconstituted. I clutched at its clawed hand even as my own hand lost its last shred of papery yellow skin. The pain was beyond pain, screaming its rage in every scrubbed cell of my body.

On the altar before the stars, I realized my companions and I would live forever. As of this moment, the anguish has not abated.

~

Bio:

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Canada, USA, and Spain, and is now based in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which contains some of the best of his 150+ published stories. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Portuguese, French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. Find free fiction and support his work at patreon.com/richlarson.

Ragnarok

by Alessandro Benedetti

The gathering was as strange as you could imagine.

Osiris, the oldest of them all (just technically, since it is not easy to assign an age to immortal beings), was sitting at one edge of the immense table. He coughed a couple of times and declared the meeting open:

“Gentlemen, for the first time since a couple of million years we have all gathered, looking for a solution to our problem; now, in my opinion our best option would be a compromise. Despite our differences, we and the Cygnus divinities are in the same boat and share the same troubles. Remember what has happened on our own Earth — every time a new religion flourished, several other gods were progressively abandoned and very nearly starved to death. I say we cannot take this risk again and should rather strike a bargain with our extrasolar colleagues; after all, there are enough potential believers for everyone! Yes, Ares, do you want to say something?”

“Indeed, I do”, roared Ares, enraged like the god of war he was. “I say there can be no agreement between us, the true gods of an ancient planet, and those charlatans, those upstarts… No conciliation is possible; no agreement should be reached, and no quarter shall be given. Gentlemen, I say there is only one way: war!”

A loud scream echoed his words and filled the majestic hall, as all the gods ever worshipped, by whatever culture in any age on Earth, were angrily shouting and clamouring for —metaphorical— blood.

It must be said that most of them would appear to their believers as anthropomorphic as a wave function, had there been some Earthmen around: very unlikely, however, over the surface of an asteroid just created from nothing, thousands of light years away from our planet.

Every divinity, then, Greeks and Romans, Thor and the Asgardians, the Indian Trimurti with all the minor gods, even Allah and Jahaveh were crying with all the breath they had, or rather signalling through sudden changes of millions of volts in their energy spectra, a single word: WAR.

In such a pandemonium, Buddha quietly sat, whereas most of the Sumerian gods were shaking their heads and Quetzalcoatl tried calming his colleagues by reminding them of the possibility of death by entropy for the whole Universe, alas to no avail…

His was only a faint voice in a sea of cursing, so that there was no need to vote in order to take a decision.    

It had all started about a century before, when the first human beings had escaped from the cage of the solar system.

Granted, it had not been easy: three of them had not awaken from the dreamless sleep of hibernation and were now forever orbiting outside the Kuyper belt. The long sleep had taken its toll on the rest of them, but they had reached the outskirts of the Cygnus constellation.

And what they found they could not believe: an extremely evolved species, alien even to the mere concept of violence and survival of the strongest, was anxious to meet them, exchange ideas, collaborate and peacefully share the known universe.

An exchange of technology, notions, opinions and, more importantly, people quickly followed, and inevitably missionaries opened the way for the numerous beliefs of Cygnus to Earth and vice versa, not unlike St Brandan landing in Ireland or Bodhidharma reaching Japan.

Right in the middle of this idyllic scenario — or maybe precisely because of it: no one likes to be supplanted by a foreign upstart—, the ancient Earth gods took offense at their counterparts on Cygnus.

After the failure of the peace meeting, therefore, war was declared and the gauntlet thrown down on their extra-terrestrial rivals, challenging them to a most singular battle.

The battlefield was a planetoid, entirely devoid of life and placed inside a huge static field completely opaque to every type of radiation or matter: nothing, not even a neutrino, was permitted through. Nothing, that is, apart from a narrow wavelength, through which a video and audio signal was transmitted, amplified and broadcasted so that billions of people on both worlds could watch the final battle and support their respective divinities.

And what they did see, they would remember for a long time: the terrestrial army, nearly at full strength —only Buddha and a few others were missing, having decided to seek refuge in a different continuum— and reinforced by Satan with thousands of his devils, facing countless foreign divinities.

Just an instant of absolute silence, then they threw themselves into the fray, launching at each other tons of radioactive matter and streams of neutrinos, striking again and again with X-rays, heavy particles, all the arsenal available to creatures as almighty as them, which means pretty much every possible form of energy.

On Earth and in the Cygnus constellation both populations saw giants lifting supermassive rocks, throwing thunderbolts, fighting to the death without mercy: they witnessed the fall of Odin and Venus, Satan and Vishnu together with hundreds of others.

And when it was all ended, over the killing field covered by dying gods, the magnetic fields weaker and weaker, the wavelength shifting more and more to the red, Allah and Osiris accepted the surrender of the alien gods.

They screamed in triumph, their fists raised, their bodies soiled with blood, or rather burned tons of hydrogen in massive flares which irradiated in the gamma portion of the spectrum.

But their justified enthusiasm did not last much longer, as they saw the static field compressing quicker and quicker and at the same time their energy vanishing, the temperature dropping down to absolute zero, the electrons collapsing in on the nuclei: the stars were agonising, the fields were fading away, entropy was running wild…

“Somebody betrayed us”, Osiris tried to say, “but who… and why…”, but he could not finish.

Many light years away, an Earthman and a Cygnus creature watched the needle of an instrument going down and down until zero, then they smiled and shook hands: Ragnarok, the twilight of gods, was complete.

~

Bio:

Alessandro Benedetti is an Italian physicist, in love with science and enamored with letters, happily married with two kids. Having grown up on a steady diet of Dick and Bradbury, he works at the European Commission and couldn’t be happier.

Angels In Contemporary Media: An Orthodox Analysis

by Luis Marujo

The subject of angels has always fascinated mankind.

In its more conventional understanding, that of angels as messengers of God (or gods), it is present in a vast number of cultures and different faiths of the past.

The concept of angels as is understood today – spiritual being, ordered to perform certain tasks in both the physical and the spiritual word, a guardian assigned to each person – started in Judaism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, some 4000 years ago.

The Torah (a part of the Jewish Holy Book, the Tanach) known to Christians as the Pentateuch, the 5 books written by Moses, refers to beings that bring special messages from God and calls them mal’ak elohim – messengers of God – or mal’ak YHWH, messenger of the Lord.

The prophet Daniel is the first biblical figure to start shedding a little light on the matter, by naming two of those spiritual beings that he saw in his apocalyptic visions: Gabriel, the primary messenger of God, and Michael, the holy warrior of the Lord.

The term ‘Angel’ does not refer to the nature of this entity (spiritual) but to its occupation, that of messenger. The term comes from the Greek word ‘aggelos’, which means messenger or to deliver a message.

In Hebrew the suffix ‘EL’ refers to God, hence each angel is named in reference to his relation to the divine: Gabriel meaning “God is my strength” and Michael meaning “Who is like God,” describing the battle cry uttered by this archangel when war erupted in Heaven between the angels that stayed faithful to God and those who rebelled against Him.

Raphael is later mentioned in the Book of Tobit, one of the books of the Bible, identifying himself and also making the revelation that he is one of the 7 angels that are in the presence of God.

A fourth angel is named in the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, and is given the name Uriel. It is not mentioned in the Bible.

All angels are ranked in a hierarchy. The Jewish faith announces 10 ranks, while the Christian faith only recognizes 9.

Finally, the Kabbalah, a set of Jewish esoteric teachings, gives free rein to the description of angels at length and it is from here that the present supernatural concept of angels as spiritual guides that anyone can connect to originated from.

Having taken root in people’s spirituality, the subject quickly spread to the various branches of human creative skills: crafts, music, literature, and in all possible expression of arts, TV shows and movies.

It is a recurrent theme in various genres of literature, with Sci-Fi\Fantasy being the most significant, and has also a predominant place in the imaginary world of comic books.

Here things become more interesting. In these specific intellectual expressions of man’s imagination, angelic holiness is a non-existent faculty. As is common where human genius is at work, the boundaries between angels and demons (corrupted and fallen angels) are virtually deleted and fused: angels and demons act in a similar manner. In fact, in movies or books where they are depicted, Gabriel or Michael perform most unholy actions, to the extent of torturing or killing human beings in order to accomplish their goals. They act with arrogance, malice, pettiness and sometimes even hatred. Such of course is not the nature of the angelic host but rather that of their fallen brothers, the demons, which, by rebelling against God, lost all their grace and holiness, by their deliberate choice of opposing the Creator, and revel only in hatred, fury and violence.

Let us single out an illustrative example. The Prophecy, probably the most iconic movie about such celestial affairs, follows the premise of a war between angels in order to protect the survival of the human race on earth. Here, Gabriel rips the heart of another angel, has his own heart ripped by Lucifer, and in general violence amongst them is not minced but executed swiftly.

In the movie and its sequels an array of strange faculties are given to angels that defy the knowledge of angelic capabilities known in orthodoxy, such as being able to resurrect and command the dead, to impart a disembodied soul in a living human being, to destitute another angel of his spiritual nature and turn him into a normal human. Literary license at its best… The possibilities of different stories, faculties and powers that angels may be endowed with in such scripts is near infinite, being only confined by human imagination.

What we know of the angelic nature is that it is unchangeable. After the great test which all the angelic host was subjected to, that of following God’s command or rebel against it, the angels’ choice is never to be changed again. That was an informed decision: for when an angel decides, his choice is permanent. He has perfect knowledge of the consequences of his choice, and therefore he cannot have regret over it nor will he ever pursue a different path from the one he chose. It is irrevocable and it will be everlasting. Hence, an angel will always keep his angelic and holy nature, if he chose to abide by God’s law and will never behave in opposition to it, which means he cannot corrupt his nature and become a demon after his choice has been made. To have angels behave in an unholy manner is just an impossibility!

Much could still be said about the behaviour of these spiritual beings as they are depicted in the multitude of stories present in the visual arts, but if one has to summarise in a single phrase, it comes to this: angels behave too much in a human manner. Their actions, passions, reactions, thoughts, reasoning, machinations and demeanour entirely resemble that of man. In fact, except for the prowess and powers assigned to them, across the spectrum of movies, TV shows, books and comics, angels seem to differ in no way from men in all but their capabilities.

There is a likely reason for this: Man needs to humanize what is superior to him and hence justify his own fallen nature. By depriving angelic nature of its holiness and bestow upon it human traits, he conveys the message that there is no need to pursue what is holy, no sacrifice needed for the betterment of self nor to strive for a behaviour that conforms to divine law. After all, if angels can fall, how could man do better?

~

Bio:

Some people write books – Luis makes them! Check out his work at marujitobooks.

Misogynist

by Gustavo Bondoni

The misogynist is in hell. His personal hell is a small, square chamber with surgical looking white walls. He is ranting.

“They’re all witches. Worthless sacks, only good for screwing and for making babies. I’m not even sure we should ever have let them move from the bedchamber to the kitchen.”

After each pronouncement, a spray of acid from tiny jets in the walls dissolves his skin, burning it away like the wax figures in bad horror movies. It is a terribly painful experience, and unbeknownst to him, the pain is enhanced by processes controlled by unseen minions.

After the devastation, his skin heals itself. This is even more painful than the burning. 

It has been going on for years, and will do so for eternity.

But he cannot stop the pronouncements. A voice that only he can hear provokes him every moment of every day. Only he can hear it because there’s a sound-carrying tube that emits its sound only into his room.

We can follow the tube. It is not a long way. It goes into the adjacent room. There is a woman in the room, and she is also speaking.

“Men are useless in society. All we need is a stock of frozen semen, and we can get rid of the whole stupid beer-drinking, war-starting gender. The goddess will see to it.”

There is a spray of acid and her skin dissolves.

The tube, you see, is a two-way tube, and sound goes both ways.

Hell may be unpleasant, but it is efficient.

~

Bio:

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages. His latest book is Ice Station: Death (2019). He has also published three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.

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.

~

Bio:

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.

~

Bio:

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.

No Vacancy

by Ádám Gerencsér

My child, I apologize for the blinding light. By now, you have probably understood that the truck swerving into your lane failed to come to a halt and you did not survive the impact.

Be advised that a million other souls around the world are hearing a similar message at this moment. You rightly expect a tunnel of light to lead you to our side. Today, however, I’m afraid that you cannot be accepted and must return to the living. In fact, no-one will be accepted until further notice, so it is imperative that you pay attention and mark my words.

You see, heaven was established with a clear purpose: housing the spirits of the faithful departed, along with those of benevolent unbelievers. The billions of entities who were its original inhabitants formed an ecosystem: the hierarchy of angels. The kingdom reposed in a state of serene equilibrium, waiting with eager patience for its first arrivals, while on the blue planet the primordial soup spewed forth algae, bacteria, dinosaurs, trees and marsupials, all of which did not possess a receptive soul. That gift was imparted to a couple of primates who had shown promise by overcoming their own limitations and reaching for the fruit of knowledge. Many of their descendants failed, but some lived a life pleasing to the Maker – and as they departed, we began to receive them. Hunters and gatherers from communities attuned to the natural order of things had no difficulty fitting in here.

Then, gradually, your kind took to evolution with increasing zest. We were not too concerned by the newcomers from tribes that worshipped the sun, or despotic fiefdoms ruled by warlords. Once we had presented them with ’alpha males’, higher angels they could respect and whose commands they would follow, they slotted right in. But then alphabets cropped up and written discourses began to spread – we were aghast at receiving scholars, pharisees and scribes! Things first threatened to get out of hand when arrivals began to trickle in from the Greek city states. The celestial spheres were no longer immutable and the abodes of the dead were echoing with the chatter of varied languages debating history, philosophy, ethics, even metaphysics – before long, a pluralism of views became the new norm in the outer cloud rings.

Mankind’s ideas mutated at an accelerating pace, while with each passing generation more and more of you were born and died. Countless bloody wars filled our entrance halls with the ghosts of massacred innocents from all corners of the world. Our hierarchy became untenable, the very orderliness of the afterlife teetered on the brink as the emergence of new angels failed to keep up with the breakneck population growth among the deceased. The renaissance was bad enough, but the second wave of so-called enlightenment in your 19th century practically overwhelmed the administrative capacities of the angelic host, which had hitherto acted as the immune system of the heavenly realm. With the wide spread of literacy, free-thinkers started arriving in unprecedented numbers, and it was no longer possible to smoothly integrate them as their revolutionary discourse had infected the ethereal fabric woven during bygone, calmer ages.

The breaking point came today. Of the million or so newcomers expected, one was bound to tip the balance and human souls would outnumber angels for the first time in the kingdom’s history. With a view to ensuring the sustainable operation of heaven, no further arrivals will be admitted before the Maker guides us to find a solution. Until that happens, all deaths are suspended indefinitely. No accidents, illnesses or acts of crime will be permitted to result in mortal casualties – the physical forces of the universe shall be instructed to conspire for the preservation of human life under all circumstances. Please note, however, that births do not fall within our jurisdiction and will continue unabated. Therefore, go back now and tell all who would listen: your kind has certain arrangements to make…

~

Stairway to Heaven

by Carlton Herzog

EXCERPT FROM THE 2230 VATICAN CONFERENCE ON THE EXISTENCE OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE PRESENTED BY CARDINAL GIACOMO BONANOTA, CHIEF ASTRONOMER, VATICAN OBSERVATORY, ROME

From antiquity to the present, we have debated whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. In a seemingly unrelated vein, we have also wondered what happens to us when we die. Is death the end, or is it merely a jumping off point to a deeper, more nuanced and granular reality, of which we are only dimly aware? To be sure, I as a man of faith never saw the intimate connection between extraterrestrial intelligence and the soul. That, my friends, has changed.

We all remember the story of Giordano Bruno who championed the Principle of Plenitude. To wit, the cosmos is bursting with an abundance of intelligent life and correlatively, souls. And he believed that those souls were not confined to creatures such as we are or others like us but invested the very planets, stars, meteors and the universe itself. Sadly, we had a hand in his being burned at the stake for heresy, a stain that will never be fully wiped away. Today, I take a small step toward atonement by submitting for your approval that Bruno was correct on both points. I make that bold claim not as a matter of faith or as a regurgitation of official church doctrine. Rather it stands on the ground of irrefutable scientific evidence.

Until recently nobody knew for sure whether there was a soul or not, and if there were what happened to it once it left the body. A paranormal researcher, named Jake Cody, theorized that the physical body acts like a matrix or womb around which the soul forms and grows.  It’s composed of elementary particles that have a lot in common with neutrinos–very low mass and the ability to pass though ordinary matter undetected. When the body dies, the soulons decouple. Cody believed soulons to be the source of apparitions, hauntings and poltergeists.

He built a device–what he called a psy-scope–to detect the wandering souls. When Cody trained his scope at locations supposedly infected with ghosts and specters, he didn’t have any luck. One day it hit him that if souls were indeed massless, they would not be tethered by gravity. So, he aimed his scope skyward. But it wasn’t until he aligned the detectors along Earth’s magnetic field that he struck pay-dirt. Sure enough, he caught sight of souls moving in great looping arcs toward the poles and then breaking free into a vast migration.

But there was an unexpected twist: the number of souls exceeded the daily mortality rate by a factor of ten. From that finding, Cody postulated that a lot of animals we think don’t have souls–dogs, apes, whales, dolphins, octopi, even cows and chickens–do, albeit more primitive versions of our own. That got him to thinking his psyscope could be used to detect life outside our solar system by finding soul streams leaving exo-planets. In theory, he believed that he could re-trace a line of streaming souls back to their planetary source, thus pinpointing where to focus a search for life.  Cody also believed that just as we can identify spectral emissions in light as corresponding to certain elements, he could do the same with psychic spectra to identify intelligence.

Theory in hand, Cody approached the neutrino hunters on the Galileo array and asked if he could repurpose one of their detectors as a psy-scope to pursue his research. They agreed, and the data they’ve received confirms Cody’s theory.

Nobody likes to hear they have been demoted. In this case, Cody’s theory means that we were no better than animals or extraterrestrials when it comes to being admitted to an afterlife, an afterlife automatically bestowed by the laws of nature. And while Cody’s theory seems to rule out Heaven’s pearly gates, it raises many a question. For one, why are the souls drawn to the black hole at the center of our galaxy? At this distance, black hole gravity would have no more effect on them than it does on us. Clearly, some other force is at work, one that might be purposeful. And while a black hole would crush ordinary matter, it might serve as a conduit to an elsewhere or an else-when for massless particles, such as soulons.

The images show that our galactic black hole is nested inside a spherical halo of souls. Around its accretion disc there exists a coextensive rotating ring of souls–with its own internal velocities, bifurcations and currents–that plunges radially into the black hole.

Cody believes that the entire contraption forms an over-mind–a dense supermassive guiding intelligence. A galactic hive-mind, if you will.

The question then is whether in addition to the cosmos, there is a psymos, a psychic universe with a life and purpose of its own, such that our physical universe is nothing more than the caterpillar’s chrysalis, and in time, we and the physical universe we inhabit will pass away into something transcendent.

Cody wants to contact these over-minds. Although his empirical data is sound, I am skeptical of its utility beyond the realm of pure scientific understanding. Even if everything he contends is true, I doubt that the corporeal and the psi could have a common language.

Questions such as what role, if any, did the over-minds play in the formation of the universe? Do they know the fate of the universe, and are they in control of it? Do they remember their earthly existence, and if so in what detail and with what, if any, emotion?

I submit that the difference between the living and the dead is like that between a caterpillar and a butterfly. Same creature, but their approach to life and concomitant needs are radically different. I see a hand in the front row. Bishop Charles, my old friend from London, how might I elucidate these matters for your learned self?

“First, I want to thank you for an excellent presentation. My question speaks to the matter of what constitutes such a mind. If it be not driven by neurons and neurotransmitters, is bereft of grey and white matter, as well as all the other cranial components that house and drive human consciousness how then can you say these soulons have minds at all. Perhaps they are just the mindless remnants of consciousness shed by the brain the way a snake sheds its skin.”

I’m glad you asked that question. I’m sure you are familiar with Sir Robert Penrose’s work of some two centuries ago. He showed that consciousness was merely the surface condition, the foam if you will, on very deep waters that sounded in the quantum realm. Our physical reality, if I may repeat myself, is simply a womb for that energy to coalesce into something far more complicated and enduring than our tiny, fragile minds can imagine.  In that regard, I quote the great thinker J.S. Haldane who famously said, the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

More to your point, I am proposing, as indeed is Mr. Cody, that a soul possesses a different form of consciousness, one not tied to the needs and limitations of the body, one that can travel across vast galactic distances and see things we can only imagine, and draws power, purpose and structure from a hidden quantum reality we may never fully know. Cardinal Enright, you have a question?

“More like an observation. I would venture to say that a soul would remember every aspect of its life here on earth. That would be consistent with conservation of energy laws, since consciousness is at root an organized configuration of informational energies. But I don’t think a soul would miss its earthly life. Perhaps, because emotion would persist into the afterlife only in the vestigial sense. Or because the soul would know that death is merely a transitional phase toward something more enduring. And I suspect its sense of time would be much different.”

Thank you, Cardinal Enright. Thank you all for your kind attention. I’m about out of time, so let me wrap this presentation up.

Whether you concur with Cody and myself, or you hew to a more doctrinal view of the afterlife, I think we can all agree that we are all related to the infinite, even though we cannot with microscopic precision lay out the contours of that relationship, beyond a few particulars. I submit that is what it is to be human. How that came about, or why, is perplexing to be sure. But it gives us a needed humility and perspective in the fact of vast, cosmic grandeur as we trudge the road of unfathomable destiny. We are not the center of creation. Something else, some call it God, is—a something whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

~

Bio

Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government.

Angel Snow

by Elena Sichrovsky

The first angel on the tree was a gift, albeit an accidental one. Part of the choir ascending after the birth of God’s Son, she was but one of many when her wings happened to be struck by the crown of lightning that descended to rapture the Heavenly hosts.  Falling between the eaves of sky and down to the earth, she landed on the tip of an evergreen and her back was stabbed through by the point of the branch.  From her splintered spine blood trickled down, white like snow, every droplet frozen in the unforgiving winter and whispering away in a flutter, delicate flecks dusting the pine needles and spreading to the uneven ground below.

The last vestige of her dying aurora illuminated the tree, haloing it in a glow that drew the worship of men, women, and children everywhere. They gathered round that day to bow before the pierced corpse and offer their worship to a God who had imparted the gift of one of His own, no doubt to bestow blessing on their coming year.

From that day forth, to honor the reverence of His followers, God deigned for such a sacrifice to be sent down to the people of that hallowed ground every Christmas. But so that Heaven’s own would not be taken for granted, He passed on instructions to the priest of the village, rules that must be adhered to in order to earn the yearly angel.

Each year, in the last month, twelve angels will be sent down, children of Heaven who hide among the forest for the children of men to hunt them down. Twelve descend, but only eleven will return to their Father. One child is destined to be caught and impaled upon the tree. It is an annual game of disguise and hunt, and only the human skilled enough to detect the unearthly beings will be worthy of obtaining the celestial prize.

The blade used to kill the child of Heaven must be purified, made of gold refined and dipped in sacred water to slice through the unearthly skin of the child’s throat. The angel must be embalmed in robes of linen, diamonds crystalizing her godly light. Her eyelids must not be closed, for her sightless gaze should remain open to face the glory of Christmas Eve. On that holiest of days, when she is hoisted on the shoulders of the strong and carried to her final resting place, all will behold her and the purity therein.

She will be lifted up to the iron spike which has been fixed atop the tree. Over the years the brittle black metal has become crusted white from centuries of blood spilled, of angel’s bone and marrow split by the sharp needle. When her body is speared to the crown of the evergreen she will stand tall, her head bound by gold ribbon to gaze up at the light and framed by her lifeless wings, their frozen feathers flapping in the winter cold.

And all will gather by the light of candle flame to watch her bleed out. Her blood, righteous from God’s touch and unspoiled in the innocence of her youth, will flow forth, as snowflakes that waft through the branches, dusting the wide-eyed children dancing around the tree in angel snow.

~

Bio

Elena Sichrovsky is an Austrian citizen currently living in Shanghai, China. She’s a student there at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science and also a member of The Shanghai Writing Workshop. Her short stories and poetry seek to portray the beautiful and terrifying, and she is currently working on finishing her first novel.

The Greatest Good to God

by Andy Dibble

How much is the suffering of an insect worth, writhing on the ground, flapping one wing, the other plucked by a child?  Is not the cruel pleasure of the child worth incomparably more?  Kill a thousand insects.  Ten thousand.  Their assembled suffering is as nothing.  And why do we say this?  Because an insect has so little capacity to suffer, let alone experience joy.

As different as the insect and the child are, so is the child to Me.  The gulf yawns wider in fact.  Think of yourself as a snarky bacterium.  Do you consider how many innocent streptococcoi you slaughter when you bleach your toilet seat?  Should you?  Of course not.  They feel essentially nothing.

I know.  I’m God.

I know the degree to which you–everyone one of you–suffers.  But My suffering and joy is more, stupendously more.  For all your imagination and amphetamines, you cannot begin to understand the barest perturbation in My well-being.  For all My skill as Teacher, I cannot begin to teach you.

So whose welfare should I attend to, Mine or yours?

Mine, of course.

#

However sovereign I am, outside Me is this moral law: The greatest happiness to the greatest number.  Utilitarianism.  But My duty is not to better the condition of many.  Recall the cruel child.  She owes the insect nothing, or near enough.  Utilitarianism really amounts to a simpler formula, Create all the happiness you are able to create.  And that is served by serving Myself.

#

Even the seraphim are like fireflies next to My Sun.  And what are you, clay of Adam, alongside them?  Beneath Me are the myriad choirs of angels, the denizens of the pure abodes, unseen sheiks, the yellow emperors, the apsaras and asuras.  And only then humanity.

Even I must prioritize.  Remember your place, snarky bacterium!

#

Only My pity for lower existence gives Me pause.  Pity loves fairness.  But if fairness is the rule, the lowliest, the most numerous should prosper: abandon sanitation so that vermin and insect swarm.  Should I really make higher existence worse off for their sake?

But I do not pity the cockroach like I pity the grieving mother, the orphan, or victim of calamity.  So, on occasion, I intervene.  Not for their sake but to squash pity.

Now pity is a greedy master.  Give it a little and we whir down spirals of remorse: Why can’t I do more?  I know why.  Because I am yoked to utilitarianism.  I must serve Me.

So normally, I distract Myself: dazzle the Hebrews as a pillar of fire, march them on righteous conquest, incarnate and wreak havoc in their holy city, bask in their worship.

You think it petty.  But it works best.

#

Sometimes humanity creates something worthwhile: A certain seventeen syllables penned by Basho then translated into Russian.  The curve of a Buddha statue’s lip carelessly destroyed by the Huns.  Panini’s grammar misquoted by Patanjali.  Beethoven’s tenth symphony.  The Argentine that lived the twentieth century and never once experienced hate.

But what is Starry Night alongside the splendor of exploding universes too violent for life?  My majesty contains these might-have-beens.  They astound Me more than any triumph on a pale blue dot.

#

My first attempt was stodgy Michael.  He was lofty enough that I could help him for his own sake, not just for Mine.  But he only wanted to serve Me, be My silver sword, My strong right arm.  Serving his interests was only a roundabout way of serving Mine.

So I tried again with Lucifer.  He loved Me, but only because he saw himself in Me.  His vanity was luminous, consuming, a million billion suns with a sucking hole inside.  Like a super-massive galaxy, his self-love warped reality.

But he was still a prima donna.  He thought himself entitled to more of My attention than the utilitarian calculus allowed.  So I sighed and saw him off.

I created.  I tried again.

#

Creation is an experiment.  Maybe evolution, across all the teaming universe, will rear a people whose welfare means more than My own.  If it could rear gods, a race near enough to Me, there would be others I could help for their own sake.

I watch evolution tinker.  I nudge it along.  The giraffe stands without passing out.  The human eye sees a million colors.  The rabbit eats its own poo to thrive.

None are almost gods.  But all have My image.  My genius and My wit.

#

I became human to broaden My horizons.  For I had never experienced relief.  How could I?  From the stance of eternity, I always know when ill will turn out well.  I do not know forgetfulness or gratitude or need.  As I am, I know the warmth of a body only exteriorly.

Though I can imagine what it is like to be a man, I do not know what it is like for a man to be a man.

So I became man.

#

So now you understand how all worldly suffering is justified, how it is necessary.  That tough nut, theodicy, admits of a solution.  In Me nearly everything has its end and goal, and that goal is My greater glory and pleasure.

But of all possible worlds, every conceivable sequence of events, I chose this very one.  To serve the utilitarian law, I chose this creation and you in it.  In some way you–even your failed marriage, your stillborn child, your self-serving prayers and spotty church attendance–increase My happiness more than any of the panoply of merely possible people I could have thrown into existence. 

Be gladdened by this.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a former academic and Sanskritist turned healthcare IT consultant. He has supported the electronic medical record of large healthcare systems in six countries. His fiction is forthcoming in Writers of the Future. (andydibble.com)

Byzantine Theology in Alternate History: Not Such a Serious Matter?

by Pascal Lemaire

Byzantium is not the primary reference that comes to mind when thinking about science-fiction, but its influence can be seen in the works of many authors : Asimov’s oft-mentioned use of the life of Belisarius as a source of inspiration for Foundation and Empire is the best known example. But it is in the alternate history subgenre of science fiction that Byzantium seems, logically, most present : since the 1930’s a number of authors have written novels and short stories hovering between historical fiction and science fiction set in different periods of the Byzantine era.

The choice of the Eastern Roman Empire as setting combined with the genre’s expectations of a degree of verisimilitude mean that authors have had to deal with a number of issues including the strongly religious nature of this culture and in particular its innumerable theological debates of which the fight against Arianism, Monophysitism or iconoclasm are the most famous. Looking at four authors from the 30’s to the first decade of the 21st century allows us to examine how the treatment of such issues evolved in this particular genre.

Lyon Sprague de Camp’s genre defining novel Lest Darkness Fall, first published in 1939, is a well-known alternate history which, while not the first of the genre, did a lot to popularize it in science-fiction circles. 

The main character of the story, a modern archaeologist named Martin Padway, finds himself in Rome in 535, a few months before the reconquest of Italy by Byzantine forces. He soon sets out to prevent the collapse of civilization and the loss of culture and science by averting the so-called Dark Ages.

Inspired by three fundamental texts, namely Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Robert Graves’ 1938 Belisarius, De Camp has his character focus his efforts on political and technological developments but has to confront the cultural realities of this age, including of course religion.

Already in chapter two a tavern features a sign “religious arguments not allowed” over its counter. A bit further in the story, in another tavern, an argument develops on the various heresies of the time with a man complaining about Arians, Monophysites and Nestorians not being persecuted, which in his eye is a persecution to his good “Catholicism” : it isn’t long before the tavern is thrown into chaos and violence.

In this scene the various religious arguments are not completely developed, as characters interrupt each other before anyone can complete the exposé of his position and the main character only looks for escape for he is “no religious man and had no desire to be whittled up in the cause of the single, dual or any other nature of Christ” : there is undoubtedly a comic effect in the scene that sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Overall the depiction of religion throughout the novel is mild, but not very sympathetic : the arrival of a priest to attempt healing the main character is not welcome, nor are a Jewish magician’s attempts to cure the illness.

Similarly we later see the main character use a mix of corruption and blackmailing against a bishop after a priest threatens Padway with accusations of sorcery. At other time religion is also used as an excuse not to marry a woman.

Religion is thus if not completely mocked, at least rejected or manipulated : it is shown as a source of strife or the recourse of or against the under-educated and the superstitious. This is of course not surprising given the authors that inspired this work, nor would it be unique.

Next in our study is Robert Silverberg’s time travel novel Up the Line, published in 1969, which takes place largely in medieval Constantinople. An author of Jewish origins with a background in comparative literature, Silverberg does not seem to have had any specific relationship with Byzantium prior to that story, although he had published a number of non-fiction books on archaeology and history, including one on the Crusades in 1965.

In Up the Line, we follow the training and then troubles of an aimless looser called Jud Elliott who becomes quite by chance a time-travelling tour guide. Beside the formal rules of the job, Jud learns, thanks to his jaded elders, how to fully enjoy the periods he travels to, discovering how to chat with emperors, delight in various luxuries and, more importantly, the comfort of many women.

In this story, however, Byzantium is but a background, the reality of the time never impacting the story in any meaningful way. The time-travelling tourists and their guide simply go through the past and do not really interact with it, and even those of them who live in the past interact in such a way that their presence leaves no trace.

The theological debates of the time are almost never mentioned, the iconoclast period being the exception and then not so much for the theological aspect as for the added difficulty it places on the character trying to use a painting to look for a missing tourist at a moment when paintings are seen as icons that need be destroyed.

Likewise there is no exploitation of issues such as the condition of Jews in the past, and the explanations the tour guide provides of the various events his travellers witness rarely covers religious matters.

In fact the tourists are often using religion as a disguise : the suits they wear during the black plague tour are seen as religious garb while they also pass for pilgrims in order to gain better access to the walls of Constantinople during a battle.

This novel is clearly more influenced by the general discourses on sexuality that follows the summer of love than by any attempt at historical authenticity : the main character is a tour guide that shows scenes of the past as one would bring someone to the movies, and indeed this experience of history seems flat and lacking in comparison with Sprague de Camp’s story that follows someone deeply immersed into the past. Even the women of this bygone era, such as Empress Theodora, to whom Jud is “intimately” introduced, are nothing but cardboard figures that disappear once they had served their narrative purpose.

This absence of religion in Silverberg’s novel is also somewhat surprising given that the theme of religion often appeared in his books : do we need to see this absence in a novel set into a deeply religious era visited by characters coming from a seemingly a-religious era as a comment in and of itself ?

While Silverberg’s text is a bit of an apax, isolated in is apparent lack of engagement with religion in a Byzantine context, others texts such as Poul Anderson’s time travel story There Will be Time, published in 1972, are more in line with what one would expect to find.

Set at the time of the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, it features for instance a character saying “From my viewpoint, the Byzantines were as superstitious as a horse”, setting it in a trend which sees the ultra-religious Byzantine culture being used to criticize, more or less openly, established religion.

This is not really surprising given that Anderson was very much influenced by Lest Darkness Fall, going so far as writing in 1956 an “anti-Lest Darkness Fall” in his short story The man who came early.

Our next text brings us to the mid 80’s with seven short stories later assembled under the title Agent of Byzantium, by author Harry Turtledove. The stories take place in a truly uchronic 13th-century world where the prophet of Islam became a Catholic saint instead. In this timeline, religion assumes a more significant role, if only because the point of divergence between our history and the one in this universe is of a largely religious nature. The absence of Islam mean not only that a number of historical and theological developments would not take place, but also that the world’s geopolitics are rather different from our own.

Turtledove, who did a PhD in Byzantine history after reading Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, undertakes a much more in-depth depiction of the world in which his character Basileus Argyros evolves, something we can also see in later novels including the time travel story Household gods or his historical fiction Justinian about Byzantine emperor Justinian II.

Religion is omnipresent in his character’s life as well as in the geopolitical complexity of the world built by the author. The character often thinks of the life of saints, especially his patron St Muamat, and engages in theological debates with other characters, also of other faiths such as a nomadic shaman and Persian spies.

Theological debates also form an integral part of the plot : the recipe for gunpowder is thus linked to the trinity of God and we see the Persians attempt to use theology to create strife in the Empire thanks to the introduction of printing, which is then used against them by Basileus Argyrios to win theological arguments among the general population.

One of the stories deals with iconoclasm and shows how Argyros intervenes in the official reaction against the new heretical doctrine, giving both intellectual input to the theological debate and using new technologies to spread the word of the resolution of the debate and thus turn public opinion against the heretics.

The place of religion in this story is thus very different from the one in Up the Line. Turtledove employs his expert knowledge of the period to deliver a much richer environment and integrate the topic of religion into the heart of the story without using it for jokes or making disparaging comments on it in the way Sprague de Camp did in Lest Darkness Fall.

Last but not least, the 6 stories of Aelric written by Richard Blake (2008-2013), starting with Conspiracies of Rome, take place in the early 7th century, some 40 years after the time of Belisarius and Justinian, and include both science fiction and Lovecraftian elements. The main character is Aelric, a young Angle forced into a religious conversion against his will who then becomes an important part of the Byzantine imperial administration.

Very cynical about religion, the character organizes false miracles to survive until unforeseen events catapult him into the world of high politics of the empire. Atheist if not pagan, interested in Epicurist philosophy and scientific experiments, to Aelric religion is a tool to be used or fought against, or a way to escape the dangers of the laic world : most of the books are described as being his memoirs written from the safety of a monastery in Britain, when the character is an elderly man hunted by his past.

A typical book demonstrating the use of religion by the author is The Blood of Alexandria, first published in 2010. Sent to Coptic Egypt in order to implement a new land use reform, Aelric is soon thwarted in his attempt by the use of theological arguments against his legislation.

Further on priests and bishops are shown to be duplicitous and to use theology mainly to manipulate the crowds for their own interests of the day while monks are described as either petty, stupid or cunning and aggressive, similar to the monks of the movie “Agora”, which was released a year earlier.

But the author also goes further and actually ridicules religion when another major character turns up in Egypt to look for a most surprising relic with which he hopes to restore the morale of the recently crushed Byzantine army, for the bishop of Jerusalem refuses to lend him fragments of the Holy Cross : General Priscus is looking for, quote : “the first pisspot of Christ” which is deemed a most potent relic, for it was in contact with Christ at a time when his dual nature was not yet perfectly balanced as it was at the time of crucifixion but rather more divine because his human nature had not yet grown…

As Aelric says, such an interpretation would make the Monophysite doctrine mostly correct had Christ died a baby and the Nestorian doctrine mostly correct had Christ died aged older than 33.

This mocking of religion is rather representative of the overall provocative tone of the main character throughout the series and in line with the author’s background as a well-known libertarian.

Each of the texts we studied approach the topic from a different angle that corresponds to a subgenre of alternate history : the so-called “stranded in time” trope, the time-travel story, the canonical alternate history and the secret history. However, the strand of alternate history authors choose to employ does not necessarily influence their depiction of Byzantium. Rather, those stories demonstrate the personalities of their authors and their attitudes to religion.

As Race MoChride recently pointed out, “it is notable how infrequently religion appears as a major theme in the personal lives of famous science fiction authors and how many, including those for whom religion is a major theme in their work, are themselves either atheists or practitioners of idiosyncratic or unorganized alternative spiritualities”.

The index for Lyon Sprague de Camp’s autobiography has no entry for “religion”. Friend with known atheists and sceptics such as Asimov and Heinlein, with whom he spent a lot of time before, during and after the Second World War, and a rationalist looking for facts rather than faith, the attitude seen in Lest Darkness Fall is not really surprising, especially when coupled with the large influence of atheist Robert Grave’s Belissarius on de Camp’s novel.

Silverberg, born and raised in a Jewish environment, had a different kind of engagement with religious matters as shown by his bibliography, and often in rather innovative ways such as in the 1971 short story Good news from the Vatican.

But as already mentioned, the apparent absence of religion from Up the Line might in fact be his manner of critiquing it. The characters initially come from a post-religious or a-religious time period, which is in itself a prophecy on the death of God, but the fact they do not make any comment on Byzantine religiosity, as if there was nothing to see, seems also telling.

Our third author Harry Turtledove is, according to an interview he gave in 1998 to Jeremy Bloom, of the Jewish faith although “not particularly active”. Yet his writings do not usually afford much room to religion, and one could say that Agent of Byzantium is probably one of his novels where the religious content plays a significant role. One may also note that his Byzantine history PhD dissertation was about continuity and change in internal secular affairs in the later Roman Empire.

Yet the deep knowledge of the period acquired during his research meant he was able to use religious elements in ways much more interesting than Sprague de Camp or Richard Blake.

This last author, the only British writer in our list, is in fact Sean Gabb, a British libertarian who published a number of articles on topics such as blasphemy laws (which he most strongly opposed) and expressed strong views on religions in various medias while publishing his fiction under a pseudonym.

It is thus no surprise to see the main character of his novels describe, in a markedly ahistorical way, Orthodox thought as “nonsensical” while defending science and epicurean atomic philosophy. Gabb’s position of radical liberalism, economical as much as philosophical, lead him to defend the right of religious people to express their opinion while also practicing his right to issue forth speeches or texts that may ridicule them or their beliefs.

The tradition to use Byzantium in alternate history is thus an interesting case of a atheism-inspired tradition spanning more than sixty years of science-fiction in the shadows of Robert Graves’ Belissarius and the present paper is only the beginning of an inquiry into its true significance, highlighting the need for further research.

Topics such as the relationship between technology and religion in those stories are probably also a good way to further investigate the subject, especially in relation to other scholarship on religion and science fiction. Another potentially fruitful avenue of inquiry might be a review of alternate history published on the web, in order to determine the extent to which the atheist tradition discussed above pervades fan fiction and self-published literature.

~

Fictional works mentioned :
Anderson, Poul, The Man who came early, 1956
Anderson, Poul, There will be time, 1972
Blake, Richard, Conspiracies of Rome, 2008
Blake, Richard, Terrors of Constantinople, 2009
Blake, Richard, The Blood of Alexandria, 2010
Blake, Richard, The Sword of Damascus, 2011
Blake, Richard, The Ghosts of Athens, 2012
Blake, Richard, The Curse of Babylon, 2013
Grave, Robert, Belisarius, 1938
Silverberg, Robert, Up The Line, 1969
Silverberg, Robert, Good News from the Vatican, 1971
Sprague de Camp, Lyon, Lest Darkness Fall, 1939
Turtledove, Harry, Agent of Byzantium, 1994
Turtledove, Harry, Justinian, 1998
Turtledove, Harry, Household Gods, 1999

~

Bio:

With formal training in both Ancient History and ICT, and a job in the later domain, Pascal Lemaire studies how the ancient world meets modern literature, especially in the SF and Fantasy genres, with a secondary interest in how literature plays with History, especially in uchronia and techno-thrillers. https://independent.academia.edu/PascalLemaire