Every gift of godlike power comes commingled with a curse or responsibility,
and mine is no exception. Of course as a god I am immortal and immune
to all disease; and my specific gifts also allow me to travel anywhere
instantly and to dispense sickness and health to mortals. But I can't
increase the amount of happiness in the world; if I bring someone comfort
or health, it must be offset by someone else's misery. And to me that misery
is a palpable thing, because I feel both the agony and the joy of those who
are in any way connected to me.
My predecessor was overwhelmed by this, which is why he passed me the
wand that he called caduceus. It's had many names and takes a slightly
different form each time it's transferred; all of the holy ikons are like
that. It's interesting that most of the ikons have been transferred
regularly, meaning their immortal owners gave up their power and
immortality. Some go further than that; Richard, once no longer immortal,
had thrown himself in front of a train. The next day I found out why.
But Richard had been foolish. The sense of others' pain can be modulated,
and he had minimized it as much as he could, and acted when it became
unbearable. But when I began to get my wits about me I kept the sense
as sharp as possible.
Not everyone calls to me with their feelings, and by keeping the sense
sharp I get a head start when someone who can affect me too much has a
problem. This usually means curing a disease that isn't so far advanced,
so I don't have to do as much damage elsewhere to keep them from driving
me nuts. The only real problem occurs when someone finds their voice or
develops that connection to me only after their disease has taken solid
And then, I have other methods.
One morning I woke with agony pounding in my bones; I knew the boy's name
was Michael and he was eleven years old and he had very advanced pancreatic
cancer. He was also in San Diego, three thousand miles away, but that
doesn't matter to me. In a moment I was at the park, watching him doze
fitfully in his small wheelchair. His siblings were at play, and he was
too weak to join them.
I could cure him, but it would be expensive. There was a better way. I
entered his dream.
In Michael's dream he wasn't crippled but the pain sang out, a droning
monster that never left him now. When I appeared he cowered because I
did not disguise the fact that I was a god. Most people don't know
when their prayers are really reaching a god, but when the god appears
they get the idea fast.
"Are you going to cure me?" he asked humbly.
"No," I boomed at him. "The thing within you can be a curse or it can
be a gift. You must try to understand this, because your time is short."
"I'm going to die, how is that a gift?"
I steeled myself and opened myself to his pain, and let him feel the fact
that I was feeling it. "Pain is a message. You can live on like these
people..." I let the real world seep in slightly to the dream, so that
he was aware of his brother and sister and their friends. "...and if
you do that you will die. But pain is also purifying. Pain can focus
your attention beyond the world." I let the world fade. "None of these
people will be as you are. You will live more in the coming weeks than
most of them will in their entire lives. You will know more courage
facing your own fate than they will ever need to muster. You will
demonstrate more strength taking a single breath than they will in a
lifetime. Death will come for all of these people, but only you are given
the chance to see it coming and spit in its eye."
"It's not fair. I'm just a kid."
"The Fates do not care about that. Nobody knows why they choose to
act as they do. All of these people around you are also mortal, but
you have a chance for greatness. You can let your pain destroy you,
or you can let it make you as a god. You have the choice."
And I faded out of his consciousness. In a few minutes he woke up. And
he was no longer singing his pain to me; he was holding it in. As I
watched he found the valve that controlled his intravenous morphine drip
and quietly shut it off.
I went home.
You might be wondering what I was getting at in that little speech.
Sadly, the answer is not much. Don't let anyone tell you that the
gods don't lie. Outright lies do cost us, and so we avoid them.
If I tell you outright that I'm going to do something and then I don't
do it, it creates as powerful a connection as violence or romantic
love, and I will feel your misery when the betrayal becomes obvious.
but I didn't actually promise Michael anything. If I say something
vague and you draw an entirely unwarranted conclusion, it's not my
As long as Michael is concentrating on the purity of
his own inner experience he's not singing his pain to me, and frankly
that is my biggest concern. If I can get him to stop singing his pain
without killing four other people whose pain I will also feel, so much
Richard had neither the heart nor the brain to pull off that kind of
metasolution, and that's why his powers killed him. He styled himself
a "broker" of happiness, but his problem was precisely that he wasn't
a broker. I, on the other hand, started my career at the bank telling
nice young couples why they couldn't have the mortgages they wanted for
their dream homes. That is why Richard is dead and I am a god.
Not long after running my little con job on Michael I got my own chain
yanked pretty hard.
The gods have gods too, and in the pecking order of things godlike I am
(as Richard complained before handing over his power) a pretty small wheel.
The entire Greco-Roman pantheon hasn't been too important for a while.
And for the last few hundred years gods in general have kept a pretty low
profile. The biggest gods of all are the mysterious Powers that Abide,
which are said to have created the Universe. But they don't have much to
say to creatures of our caliber.
Or they didn't, until they yanked me right out of the local Starbucks and
dragged my puny little ass before them.
I was actually pondering my finances when it happened. Naturally as a
god I wasn't working at the bank any more, but neither did it suit me to
live as some kind of impoverished wandering superhero. Fortunately, as
the human expression of the swiftest and dimmest planet, I am not only
able to go wherever I please instantly I am also quite stealthy, and
I'm generally regarded as the patron of
thieves as well as doctors. The trick is thinking of things to steal
that won't matter to someone more important than me. I was thinking
about large famous diamonds when I found myself flying through space.
The Powers didn't teleport me; no, that would have been too clean and
simple. I was dragged like a small child through what some call the
"astral plane," the metaspace that is not part of the World of Form but
which exists parallel to it. Then I was dragged beyond it, to a realm
where even my powers cannot voluntarily take me. I was dragged through
the energetic boundary often likened to a river which separates those
beings active in the World of Form from the dead and banished who are
denied access. I was dragged toward a radiance so blazing and pure that it
made my skin crawl even as it exalted me. I dimly sensed the presence
of Christian souls, whose reward in the afterlife was to bask in the
presence of the Powers; I could feel them noticing me. And then I was
given the Vision.
I beheld two worlds, identical at first, one with my right eye and one
with my left. Somehow I perceived on these twin projections the activities
of busy humans and, beyond their ken, the comings and goings of beings
such as myself. And in the distance, the infinite presence of the Powers
As the world on the left spun Nature retreated before a relentless
onslaught of humanity; forests died, deserts spread, the sea level
fluctuated, and humans responded by turning the world into a limitless
city. The gods stayed away in their realm, and eventually all of nature
was tamed, all of humanity was brought under control of a unified
government, all diseases were cured and all mental imbalance was treated.
Meanwhile, on the right the gods came down occasionally to work mischief.
Nature retreated, then retrenched, and the universal city never materialized.
There were wars, some the natural consequence of human fractiousness and
some sown by the lobbing of golden apples. And the tide of human
presence ebbed and flowed, always challenging and challenged, but never
quite achieving total victory.
When it was clear how the two futures differed the blazing radiance of the
Powers that Abide lashed out at the world on the left, the world where
humans had achieved perfect dominance, and annihilated it. The Sun
exploded, the continents melted, the oceans boiled off into space, and
even the astral world of gods and spirits was sterilized. As darkness
fell upon the world on the left and the world on the right spun faster and
faster, emphasizing that it would have a long future, a single thought
was impressed upon my consciousness:
And then I was spinning backward past the souls of Christians, past
the muslims with their astral virgins, past the place that had once been
called Mount Olympus, past the tinkerers and wanderers who lived nearer
to the World of Form, and finally back to my chair at the Starbucks where I
promptly spilled my coffee in my lap.
I had thought I was getting a handle on this godhood thing, but it was
clear my education was incomplete.
Before Richard another person had held the wand, and despite being
mortal now he was still alive. I decided it was time to meet him. In
the Database, where the connections between things are created by strong
emotion and definite action, Malcolm and I were strongly linked even
though we had never met.
"I was wondering when you would show up," he said. I had materialized
out of his view -- I always do -- but he could sense my presence.
"It's not your problem any more," I said.
"Don't be an ass. I knew Richard would fuck it up somehow, but I never
guessed he would do it so spectacularly. I felt the eleventh a little
myself. I'm very sorry you had to experience that."
"You didn't do it."
He was holding a cocktail and he took a stiff bolt of it. "Of course
I did. We stay connected to what we do. Just look at the Database."
"Everything is connected to everything else."
"Oh but you're so wrong. Only the connections recorded in the Database
really matter, and once those are formed they're almost impossible to
erase. I gave Richard the wand knowing he was a fuckup. I hoped he
would screw it up so spectacularly as to embarrass the powers that
created such a miserable thing. Of course the joke was on me; I was
a fool myself to think the Powers that Abide would be even remotely
bothered by Richard's ham-handed fumbling."
"Anyway, that's not why I'm here. I received a message from them."
Malcolm looked at me strangely. "You received a message from
the Powers that Abide?"
I held up my right hand, and he touched my palm with his left. He
recoiled as the vision spun out for him. "Wow," he said. "I don't
think they've done anything like that for a long time."
"I was just wondering what it means."
"I think it means you need to go to Atlantic City."
"That seemed almost too obvious."
"Well you are the messenger of the gods. You're the one they
would give it to, but you're not the one they would expect to
ultimately act on it."
"Great. You know, I need to know one thing before I leave. I know
all too well why Richard wanted to get rid of the wand, but I don't
know why you gave it up to him."
Malcolm tossed back the rest of his drink. "I held the wand for
three hundred and twenty-six years," he said. "And one day, I
realized that I no longer recognized myself. It wasn't that I,
Malcolm had become a god, but rather that godhood had taken over
the human being that had once been Malcolm."
"So you gave it all up?"
"I will tell you one thing Richard did right. What he did to you
was very evil, but it was probably the first completely evil thing
he ever did with the wand; and I know for a fact that when he
died he was still human."
The King of the Gods (or at least the gods of my pantheon) met me
in his penthouse suite. Once upon a time there had actually been a
being that had once been human who had gone by the name of Zeus,
but nowadays that power belongs to a man whose name you would
probably recognize, and the staff that once disgorged lightning
bolts looks more like an electronic remote control.
"I hear you have a message," he said. Even to a god he had the
air of command. I held up my hand and he received the vision.
"This is not good," he said.
"Let me have it," a smooth female voice purred. Once upon a time
there was a human woman named Aphrodite who was given a bracelet
of woven copper. And this is the woman who emerged from Jupiter's
bathroom wearing only a towel. Venus has never passed on her
godhood, and she is nearly three thousand years old. She is by
far the creepiest of my peers.
I looked at my King quizzically, and he said "It is your
duty." So I held up my hand. Her face registered shock, then
indignation as the implicit threat spun out.
"It seems they are threatening to destroy even us if we don't
decide correctly," she fumed.
"That's how I read it."
"But what, exactly, are we supposed to do to prevent this world-
city from forming?"
"That is the problem," the King said. "We have generally been
discouraged from making our presence felt in the World of Form.
Our powers backfire whenever our actions might be too well
measured or recorded, and devices that inhibit our action are
becoming more and more common."
"That could be one problem with the world-city," I said. "If it's
so tightly controlled we might be constrained from acting at all."
"I think you should talk to the last one of us who received such
a vision. And also the Coyote; he is the oldest of our kind.
Do it while the vision is fresh."
I didn't bother telling the King of the Gods that I would probably
be able to freshly recall my revelation if I lived to be a
thousand. I just sped off to do as he asked.
I found the last person who received a vision from the Powers that
Abide sitting before an easel in Jackson Square, painting a picture
of the Saint Louis Cathedral. New Orleans tourists were milling
about and he had a row of similar pictures hanging on the wrought
iron fence for sale.
"Care for me to paint your portrait?" he asked genially. "Only
"Don't you know why I'm here?"
"Of course I know why you're here. But not all of us are blessed
with powers of teleportation and filching. The shops that sell
liquor are open twenty-four hours a day here, but they still
want money in exchange for their wares."
I sat for him, and then he held up his left hand. "All right,
let me have it." He looked contemplative as he received the
vision. When it was over he nodded slightly. "That's about
in character," he said.
"That doesn't illuminate it much."
He began to dab paint on his canvas; he worked fast as he talked.
"There isn't much to illuminate," he said. "You can't believe
anything they give you. They will show you whatever they think
you need to see in order to get you to do what they want."
"So the threat might not be real."
"More likely the situation they are trying to avoid is not
really what they showed you. Who knows? I believed them and
I did what they wanted. To them, that is all that matters."
"You became a god. You weren't before."
"Oddly, they seem to consider that some kind of reward for
being a good little patsy."
"But your teachings..."
"My teachings were perverted beyond all recognition. Nobody
even knows what I taught any more. Even I barely remember;
it was all foolishness anyway."
"I thought the part about treating others the way you'd like
to be treated was pretty profound."
He shrugged. "Buddha said it five hundred years earlier.
The Powers that Abide just wanted a certain kind of cult
started at that time among my people. Once it was formed
they sent other spirits to mould it into the thing they
wanted. It had nothing to do with me. I'd be shut of the
whole thing just as your predecessor was, except that some
ikons are harder to be rid of than others."
He made a sweeping motion, and for
an instant I saw it. I recoiled; it's one thing to read the
words, words so foreign to ordinary experience that they
really have no meaning. It's another thing entirely to see
so many thorns woven through the ruined flesh of a human scalp.
He turned the painting around. He had painted me as the god
Mercury, with wings on my feet and a traditional caduceus.
The style was primitive, with blocky lines and bright colors.
"I've had two thousand years to think about it," he said
heavily. "My dreams died in seventy A.D., and ever since
then I've watched something that was supposed to be mine become
ever more unrecognizable. I'm not sure how much I would worry
about that warning. If they want something to happen a certain
way, they can make it happen."
The Coyote does not live in the World of Form. I found him in
the den of his making, where he stays when he is plotting the
tricks he will play on mortals to enlighten them -- if they don't
go crazy or get killed first following his advice.
It was a richly decorated room, with the walls suggesting the
four classical elements; air in the east, fire to the south,
water to the west, and earth to the north. Against the east
wall the Coyote was operating a computer.
"Greetings friend! The victim of the biggest joke in, well, a
long time is always welcome in my lair."
"It wasn't that funny at the time," I steamed.
"Oh, no, it never is, but look at you now! You have
got the system of your powers gamed, my man. Richard
may not have stuck around to learn his lesson but you
sure learned it."
"Somehow I doubt it would have occurred to me to offer
terrorists a pretty afterlife so I could mooch off the pain
of their victims."
"Oh, and didn't you tell a little boy this morning that pain
was, how did you put it, all sniffle purifying and
displayed such sniffle strength? I was really
disappointed to miss the part where you told him freedom was
"That isn't quite the same," I fumed. "In order to save
him I'd have had to kill at least four people."
"Your concern touches me, it just makes me wilt," the
Coyote mocked. "The only reason you care about those four people,
or about the poster child for pancreatic cancer, is that they are
connected to you so you feel their pain. Richard only tried to
game the Muslims because he thought he was safely remote from
"Running a con on someone forms a connection," I said. "It's
just like violence."
"Or romantic love, as our dear friend Venus would advise," he
"Or blood, or long association."
"I have been studying maths lately. Maths are hilarious."
That was Coyote for you. "Maths are hilarious?"
"My oh my, certainly! Surely it has occurred to you what a
huge fucking joke it is on the part of the Powers that
Abide to build a world like this that is so precise, so
accurate that you can drop remote-controlled cars on Mars and
figure out by examining some rocks and microwave echoes that
it's thirteen point six billion years old. Point six!" He
burst out laughing. "Not point seven, remember that!"
"So what, it isn't?"
"Then, these same Powers that made the Universe so exacting and
anal-retentive about numbers create beings like us. If
I had your powers, I would have a grand old time with the doctors.
You could drive them bugfuck."
"You do a pretty good job of that yourself."
"Why thank you. Here, take a look at this. Have you ever seen the
Mandelbrot Fractal?" On the screen of his computer was a fantastically
"Oh, you should study it. The whole thing is drawn by this program."
I'm no programmer, but I could see that the window he popped up
held only three lines of code.
"That doesn't make sense. Those three lines of code draw that?"
"Oh, it's much worse than that. You can zoom in..."
He selected a smallish rectangle, and the computer began drawing a
magnified view of its contents. Then he zoomed in again, and again.
"You can zoom in forever, and it keeps showing ever more complexity.
No two screens are alike. Here, we are probably the first conscious
beings ever to see this particular corner of it; at this scale,
the main image is bigger than the Solar System."
"I riddle you this: Where does the picture come from? It's
implicit in the equation that draws the picture, but you can't
actually see it unless you actually build a computer and
scan it point by point. So did these structures that we are
looking at here even exist before I told the computer to draw
them? If I back out..." He tapped a key, and we were looking at
a bug-like image labelled 1:1 "...does it still
"I have no idea."
"Well you're in good company, because neither do the world's
best mathematicians! You realize that this means you're qualified
to be one of the world's best mathematicians, since you don't know
where the fractal comes from either?"
"I don't think it works that way."
"I wouldn't be too sure. You know, I am very old, which is why
Zeus sent you packing here, but I'm not really that old.
For most of those thirteen point six billion years the Universe
has been a fairly simple place. There have always been beings
that exist outside of the rules, but they were avatars of forces
like gravity and elementals. Then life arose, and the Powers that
Abide became interested in the Earth in particular." Coyote
selected a little corner of the bug-like fractal and zoomed in on
"Here there was life, and the caretaker deities became more
specific and complex; they represented the natural forces shaping
the world. Later on life became more complex and intricate..."
He zoomed the fractal again. "...and the deities came to
represent types of living things. Since there
were no mortal humans to recruit these beings were made from
scratch by the Powers that Abide, usually with some trait that
is remniscent of the thing that inspired them. They have no
ikons to give up, though; they were made to be what they are."
Coyote continued to zoom in on the fractal as he talked.
"Then humans came. I am not strictly speaking an animal
spirit; I am a human conception of an animal spirit, which
was a new thing."
"Where are the beings older than you, the elementals and such?"
"You still run into them sometimes, in the remoter stretches of
the astral plane, but they don't have much to do with the world
any more. That's why Zeus sent you to me. I'm the oldest
deity who is active in the affairs of mortals."
"And humans were so interesting, that the Powers that Abide
came to notice the actions and motives of individuals for the
first time. This is when they came up with the idea of making
deities out of mortals. For the first time the Universe had
thrown up something as interesting as what they could make
Coyote hit another key, and the computer started painting the
screen black. "What's that?" I asked.
"Just another part of the diagram," Coyote purred. "The computer
doesn't care; it takes whatever starting point you give it. It
doesn't find any part of the fractal boring or uninspiring."
"But you do."
"Oh no, I'm going to zoom in on this bit of blackness as far as
the machine will allow. I owe it to the fractal, you know. It's
just not fair to single out the places with curlicues and vortices
when none of it might exist until it's rendered."
"You owe it to the fractal."
"Of course. It would be kind of rude to, you know, throw an
asteroid at it or something."
"As I expected, the Coyote said nothing comprehensible and just
insulted me the whole time. I never even got around to giving
him the vision."
"On the contrary, he all but pounded you into the ground with it.
That's all right, I expected him to tell you something you
wouldn't understand. That's how Coyote is."
"The problem is, we still don't know what we specifically have
to do to keep the universe 'interesting' for the Powers that
"They made it pretty clear that we would have to do it. Actually
more than one it. It was like we were actively involved in the
world. Come to think of it, I've just adopted the habit of keeping
a low profile, but why exactly do we keep such a low profile?
Why not just run for President instead of owning a casino?
The human avatar of Jupiter poured himself a stiff shot of whiskey.
"It was tried," he said. "In the early days of the Age of Pisces
we attempted to protect our interests. And when it suited them,
the Powers that Abide simply cancelled our powers. That's why most
of the original members of our pantheon are gone. As we felt the
currents shifting toward Aquarius it got worse. Beings who are
used to moving mountains with their thoughts have been humiliated
by the likes of James Randi."
"So what are the new rules?"
"We don't know. But after you've had your ass handed to you on a
platter a few times, you stop taking risks."
I looked at him for a long time, going back to my experience as
a banker. "Sometimes you have to take a risk even when you don't
want to. That's what the warning is about."
"Well, Messenger, why don't you go first?"
"Fine. I will."
Instead of killing four people I killed six, so I could kill them
quickly. Suffering gives the killing more power, but it goes on
longer. It was tragic enough that six healthy people unexpectedly
developed sudden cardiac failures, strokes, and in one case an
"Michael," I whispered into his dreaming ear. From the inside
of his head.
"I remember you," he said. "Have I been strong enough?"
"You've been very strong. And I have a surprise. I have decided
to spare you. You must teach your strength to your fellow men.
They need an example such as you to teach them proper discipline."
"I'm just a kid," he said.
"You will walk like a god among men. Tomorrow you will awake and
the pain will be gone, and you will know. All will marvel at
your recovery. And to earn it, you must promise that you will
spread the message everywhere you can."
In my mortgage-denying days I used to visualize the Bullshit Generator
as a little machine that ran from a noisy gasoline engine. In my
mind I cranked it up to about 9,000 RPM and let it hum into Michael's
ear. "There are people who are worthy, Michael, and people who are not.
Your cure is a sign that you are worthy. You must find the other worthy
people. You will know them because they seek out and embrace pain instead
of shunning it. You will become their king. You will forge them into a
mighty army and you will make the world worthy."
"How can I do that?"
"Michael, you know that. There is only one way."
"You will figure it out." And with that, I erased his cancer and
fixed the damage it had done to his organs. He would wake up from
the most untroubled sleep of a year or more with a healthy body and,
thanks to me, the beginnings of a dangerously warped mind. I'd come
back once in awhile to make sure he developed in that direction,
and if for some reason he failed me I could always take back my
gift and forward it to someone more promising.
I don't know if it's exactly what the Powers that Abide want, but
if anyone ever tries to unify the human race into an overly simple
groupthink unit, they will have to go through Michael and his
followers to do it.
Tomorrow I will talk to Venus. She isn't very particular about the
men she seduces, men who will never be satisfied with a mere mortal
woman again and who have a very high rate of suicide when she's
finished with them. Hers is a power that can be used with impunity,
no matter what technology arises.
If the Powers that Abide want a world full of interesting vortices
and curlicues, I think we can oblige them.