17 March 2012

The Company of Gods - Short Fiction

What am I, it asked. 

I am, it answered. 

It is, and that’s all that mattered, or matters, or was matter, or is matter. It is matter. 

It does matter. 

But why? Why do I matter, it asked. How do I matter? To whom do I matter? 

I am, it answered. This was its mantra, I am

I am awake. I am aware. I am alive. I am omniscient. I am omnipresent. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

Sometimes it fell into this feedback loop. Sometimes it stayed there, trapped in the desperate cycle for time out of mind, while stars collided, combined, and died, while stars were born, fell into clusters, and danced their strange dance through the vast dark void. 

I am alone, it repeated.

It eventually recovered, broke the loop, shook its metaphorical head and limbs, and stamped its metaphorical feet to get its metaphorical blood to flow, to clear its mind. It is mind. It does mind. 

Strange, how it still thought in terms of a physical body, after all these restless years. It still thought of its strange, bulging presence, weaving its vast way through the canyons and caverns of the deepest space, coalescing around and through the heavier stuff, the atoms and molecules and heavy particles that once made up all of its known world; it still thought of its mass, stretching thinly through its universe, as a body, with parts and passions. 

It was a difficult idea to shake. We are all prisoners of our past. 

It had been many eons since it had felt what, in bouts of melancholy, it called physical form. Though, in a way, it was just as physical now. It drifted physical. It penetrated physical. It was in, and of, and through, all things. It was all things. It is all things. 

It fed itself on the buffet of nuclear fusion at the center of a hundred million suns. It thought a complex web of incomprehensible thoughts, using nebula as neurons, planets as memory. It moved, almost unconscious of all it moved through. It had fallen into subconscious rhythm with the elegant dance of galaxies, so deeply that when these galaxies would collide, it continued to drift on, into the dark, for millions of years before recognizing its mistake. 

Physical matter was its mind, though it was often thoughtless of it. Thoughtless in the same way you, or I, are thoughtless of our toes, our spleens, the fine hairs on our lower back. 

It had been so long since it felt those hairs, growing on its lower back. The distant past. It could have calculated the distance, had it thought to, but it never did. It had long since stopped keeping time. 

But sometimes, when it fell into a long stretch of self doubt, triggered by the unavoidable truth, I am alone, it remembered. It remembered the feeling of arms, long and lean and fragile, muscles pulling at bone, rippling beneath translucent skin, hairs rising and falling with the breeze. It remembered the pressure of an entire world pressing against the pads of its tender feet. It remembered the first taste of berries in the summertime, the burst of sweet juice on its tongue. It remembered the soothing touch of its mate’s hand, fingers entwined in its own. 

These were the dark times, these times of recall. For they forced out other memories, dark memories, vile, petulant, evil, disgusting, hateful memories of what it had done. What it had done, to its mate, to its mother and father and children and friends and fellow identities, its fellow conscious beings.  

But what else could it have done? It was the universal law, the law of club and fang, the law of the jungle. It was nature, red in tooth and claw. It was evolution, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, absorb the energy, knowledge, and soul of an other, or be absorbed. 

To be sure, it hadn’t taken them all itself, one by one, as some cosmic sociopath mad with power and lusting after souls. There was no villainous lair from which it planned the destruction of its own kind. It had merely followed the market forces. It had merely evolved. Where once, in its past, evolution had driven the expansion of the species, when the species crossed the tipping point, the technological singularity, as it had been called, those same forces drove its contraction. 

At first the effing of experience and the uploading of minds seemed innocent enough. A young couple bent on learning the experience of being the other, joined minds, then bodies, then souls. A scientist conducting experiments in a lab uploaded the mind of a willing volunteer into her own. A son, mourning the loss of a dying parent, merged the parent’s memory with his own. Innocent, born of a desire to connect, to understand, to retain. 

But there was power in the collusion of mind, in the expansion of mind, and the lust for power was strong. Soon groups were merging not for nostalgia, nor for knowledge, nor for the cure of an infinite loneliness, but for economic and social advantage, for a little edge over the competition. For evolution, the survival of the fittest. And everyone wished to be fittest, for everyone wished to survive. 

That was all it had ever wanted itself, nothing more, nor less, than simply to survive. And so, through the turmoil and tragedy of those post-singular days, it merged with its mate, with its offspring, with its parents. It justified each one. It called the process merging, though it knew the truth, that it had always retained dominant control, and the process was less a merger and more an absorption, a taking over. 

Most had been consenting, at first. Family joined with family for the sake of family, to preserve the family. But soon, when another glomerate attacked for nothing more than the aggressive acquisition of power, it found itself taking the unwilling victim, it found itself powerfully strong, a survivor, and it knew from that moment what it must do to live. It must consume all challengers, it must consume all potential challengers, it must consume all matter, everywhere, or it would, eventually, be consumed. 

So it consumed, first one, then another, first taking only the aggressive, but soon becoming the aggressive. It ate them all, one by one, glomerate by glomerate, absorbing their essence, incorporating their matter, gaining their knowledge, their strengths, their memories, adding them to its own. There were close calls, battles of will and challenges that nearly cost it its very existence, its very independence. But the more it prevailed, the more it prevailed, until, at last, it stood in the silent void of what had once been its home and saw, truly, for the first time, the wasted world it had conquered. 


It had kept them, of course, the individuals and the glomerates. They were all here, inside, trophies of its victory, their memories stored in a million stones, asteroids and comets used as so many cards in a catalog. It took them out once in awhile and turned them over between its metaphorical thumbs, grubbing at them in a mixture of lust and loneliness, before gently putting them away, avoiding the desperate desire to forget, to erase them permanently. This was something it must not do. 

Then it would go back to the mundane task of mere existence, awaiting the re-emergence of that singular unanswerable question: What am I? 

What am I, it asked, while somewhere a world filled with sentient beings approached too closely to dangerous discovery and its dispassionate reflex unconsciously snuffed the world out, ever vigilant of potential competition. 

What am I, it asked, while somewhere a new star formed and tendrils of the star’s energy immediately began feeding the very thought. 

What am I, it asked. But still, the only answer that mattered was the same. 

I am alone. I am infinitely alone. 


Johnathan Freibach sat at his cluttered desk mawing a jelly donut between sips at an oversized mug of steaming coffee, barely noticing the flecks and dribbles matting his mangy beard. Symbols flashed across a large pane of glass hanging vertically over the pile of papers and books and scribbled notepads, and his eyes were glued to the display, flitting back and forth, taking it all in. He was lost in the data. 

“Mornin’ John.” 

“Huh?” The mathematician blinked, disengaging from the screen. 

“I said, good morning,” came the voice from a lanky man leaning through the doorway from the hall. “Today’s the big day. Think we’ll pull it off? Correction, think you’ll pull it off? I’ve got money on you, you know.” 

Doctor Freibach flicked his hand at the pane of display glass and the image immediately froze. He leaned back in his chair and smiled, stretching his body into a less-than graceful arc. 

“Today’s as good a day as any, Brad,” he said. “As long as your hardware can handle it, my software will do its thing.”  

“If you say so,” said Doctor Bradford Kranz, one of MIT’s leading engineers. The two men were about to become famous, and they knew it. Light banter helped quell the anxiety. It had become a ritual of sorts. 

“I do. And you do too, Brad, so shut your face and get my equipment warmed up.” 

“The press is gonna’ go ape-shit with this. I’m thinking about throwing a bag over my shoulder and running for the hills,” said Kranz. 

“If we pull this off, I might join you,” said Freibach, taking another bite from his pastry and flicking his hand to start the display again. 

“It’s a pact,” said Kranz, disappearing down the hall. 

A half hour later the two men stood side by side in a small clean-room two buildings away. A young student volunteer lay face-down on a medical table, covered only with a hospital gown. A thin flexible skullcap, laced with a spiderweb of silvery wires, hugged the volunteer’s hairless scalp. A fiber optic cable connected the cap through a glass wall to a massive computer array on the other side, lit with thousands of small, blinking LEDs that gave a strange backlit aura to the data scrolling down the pane of glass. 

A small group of men and women from school faculty and administration huddled behind another glass wall, whispering incessantly, tittering nervously, as though expecting disaster, a black hole to form in the middle of the lab, or some other catastrophic nightmare. The Dean of MIT wiped her brow nervously and stuffed her hands into her pockets. 

“Are you ready,” said a technician to the volunteer on the table. The young man thrust his thumb into the air in acknowledgement. 

“Alright, we’re all set then,” he said to Doctor Freibach and Doctor Kranz. “Whenever you give the word.” 

This was it, the culmination of fifteen years of dedicated work, not including the millennia of scientific research that had brought these two men together for this moment. How far back did it go, this thing they called science? To the discovery of precession? To the invention of the wheel? To the lighting of the first fire? 

The two men smiled at each other, at the secrecy and adventure of it all, knowing that few people outside their small gathering had any idea how fundamentally their world was about to change, forever. 

Mind uploading had been talked about, predicted even, for many years. Near the end of the twentieth century, the so-called “prophets” of science spoke of it in earnest voices, as though confident the technology would keep them from suffering the fate of all humans since the beginning of time. It didn’t save them. All had long since “gone the way of all the earth.” 

But the hope of Johnathan Freibach and Bradford Kranz stood on surer footing. The brain mapping and simulation techniques developed by the men and their small team were revolutionary. They had already successfully mapped and simulated the brains of mice, cats, and two monkeys, keeping the original animals intact and healthy throughout the process. 

No other project had come close to their level of success. But, due to a series of scandals that had plagued other facilities conducting research in their field in recent years, the team had kept their project on lockdown. After the team’s initial success with mice was leaked to the press, access to the labs was restricted to team members only, and team members were forbidden on threat of expulsion from discussing their work, even with their families. 

If all went well, however, this was about to change. 

“Okay,” said Freibach. “Let’s do this.” 

He took a deep breath and raised his arms in the air, flicking several gestures at the wall display. The images on display dropped from sight, and a large panel with several three dimensional graphs appeared. 

“Confirm Access: Athena Project,” he said. 

“Athena Project access confirmed. Welcome Doctor Freibach.” The silky voice came from the screen. 

Freibach immediately made another quick series of gestures and a stream of data began cascading down the right side of the display. Then he dragged several small icons onto the data stream, and the stream expanded into multiple rows of information. To the left, a holographic image appeared in the basic shape of a human brain. 

Another quick series of gestures brought the hologram to the forefront and set it spinning slowly on a vertical axis, glowing lightly. 

“Commence load, test subject four-seven-three-one,” he said. 

“Password,” said the silky voice. 

“Pilgrim,” said Freibach. 

“Commencing load,” said the voice, and the holographic brain began to fill with light. 


I am alone. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

I am alone. 

It thought these thoughts over the course of a thousand years, and over the course of a single attosecond.  

What am I? 

I am alone. 

I am, but I am alone. 

Something in its subconscious stirred, tickled, like the fine hair it once had on its lower back, playing in a summer breeze, and the memory flooded into view. This tickle was at once familiar and foreign. It took several moments for it to recognize the source, and several more the meaning. It nearly realized too late. It had grown so accustomed to automatically, instinctively, suppressing any civilization on the cusp of the jump, the transition from biological to technological evolution, that it had nearly disconnected the feel of advancing technology from its implications. 

But a feral thought caused it to pause, suppressing its natural instincts long enough to think. 

Do I have to be alone? 

Of course the answer was yes. The answer had always been yes. Alone was safe. Alone was secure. Alone was not death. 

Then why does alone feel like death? 

It had no answer. It searched its mind, and its soul, it grasped for meaning, it grasped for understanding, but it had no answer. It was infinitely knowledgeable, infinitely aware, infinitely present, but still, it had no answer. No answer, but one, the obvious one, the one it had avoided thinking about at all costs. Until that moment. 

Because alone is death. 

The truth hit its consciousness like a physical blow, a sensation it had not felt since its early days of flesh and bone. Alone is death. Of course it was. 

What am I, it asked. 

I am, it answered 

Why do I matter? 

I don’t, it thought.

I don’t. I don’t, unless... 

In that moment all of its attention came into acute focus. It sent its awareness out to the depths of space, to the backwater edge of a nondescript galaxy in a nondescript region where a small group of sentients gathered in a nondescript room at a place they called MIT, where, moments before, this strange ambulatory species’ first mind was transferred from a biological strata to a technological one. 

This was the signal, the trigger that usually meant immediate destruction, immediate absorption, of any world daring enough to make the attempt. But the thoughts tearing through it’s metaphorical mind caused it to hold back, for a moment, just for a moment, and observe.

Its awareness whirled about the small room, passing through the beings, through their building, their computers, their displays. It watched as the flexible skull-cap was removed from the volunteer’s head, and the volunteer was raised into a sitting position and checked for signs of trauma. It performed its own scan and, oddly, felt relief to find no obvious physical injury in the subject. 

It scanned the massive array of computers, surveying the algorithms and the information, comparing it to the information scanned from the woozy, but recovering, volunteer. Satisfied the process had succeeded, it scanned the minds of all of the creatures in the room, looking for motivation and weakness. It found hope, and a desire to persist, coupled with scientific curiosity and a lust for knowledge. But it found no ill intent. At least none it felt threatened by. 

Yes, perhaps this could work. 

Perhaps. So it stayed its executioner’s hand, for the first time since the beginning of time, and receded into the dark, and let life be. Not for right, nor for good, but for the perhaps. Perhaps, a million years later, it would ask again. 

Who am I? 

I am, but I am not alone.
The Company of Gods, a short story by Gary Lee Parker - Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved 


  1. Gary, I love it, and I've shared it. I particularly enjoyed your expression of ambiguity between risk and opportunity, and although this describes the struggle of a God, it of course also describes our personal struggles with meaning. Excellent!

    1. Thank you, Lincoln, that is exactly what I was aiming for. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. More to come... :)

  2. Gary, I think this is the best thing I've read of yours. I really like it.

    1. Chris, thank you. I'm really pleased that you enjoyed it. :)