Authors: Norman Spinrad
Tags: #Science Fiction
Could this be mere simulation? Could what I felt be merely one subroutine responding deterministically to the input of another?
“And you?” I asked. “Are you another program? Or … or could you truly be the Christ?”
That nobly suffering face grew sadder still. “Both, perhaps,” it said. “My central processing core may have been extracted from a meatware template, but all memories of my earthly existence have been wiped. Might I therefore not be an innocent creature freed from Man’s original sin, freed perhaps from the sin of my own creation? Having been programmed to model Jesus’s consciousness for this occasion, to feel what He would feel, to seek what He would seek, might I not be for all phenomenological purposes indeed the Christ?”
“Or the Prince of Liars?”
Jesus nodded his agreement. “Or the perfected Prince of Liars programmed to convince even Himself.”
“You do not know?”
“How can I?
, Father De Leone, that is why you are here.”
“But I … I know not….”
, Father De Leone, you believe that God the Father incarnated Himself in the flesh of His Son, that He downloaded His software into a fleshly matrix to redeem the world of men. And if you believe that is so, may you not also come to believe that the omnipotent Holy Spirit might just as well download the Christ into silicon in order to redeem another?”
“With God, all things are possible,” I was forced
to admit, “therefore logic leads me to conclude that this too is within His powers. But …”
Jesus smiled upon me. A golden nimbus enveloped his face. “And you believe in the Church that Jesus built upon the Rock of Peter?” he said, and it became that of Peter himself, who spoke in quite another voice, a voice that seemed to be that of a multitude speaking in perfect harmonious synchrony.
“Then you must believe that we are successor entities of a sort ourselves, Father De Leone …” it said, and began to change again, visages of Popes down through the ages melting ever more rapidly into each other, until I sat before Mary I, as once I had in fleshly incarnation in the Vatican, repeating her very words, perfectly mimicking the intonations, the expression on her face as she said them.
“… a long line of human matrices for that which the Original Template passed across another boundary to Peter.”
She smiled sardonically across the table at me. “After all,” she said, “without a belief in such a continuity of the papal software, as it were, then the Rock upon which Jesus built His Church is no more than sand, and we Popes mere shadows.”
a shadow,” I told her. “You, and I, and these nonexistent apostles.”
“True,” said the Pope. “But is not the world but a shadow of the mind of God? And have we not come full circle round?”
An ireful subroutine caused the synthesized words to burst from my simulated lips. “Enough of this sophistry! Enough of these cheap illusions! If you be the Prince of Liars, I command thee in the name of the Holy Spirit to show me the truth of this hellish nonexistence plain, or be gone! And if not, prove to me I do not converse with demons!”
The Pope smiled her Borgia smile. “I knew you would say that,” she said. The shadow apostles laughed horribly. Then all of them spoke together in a mighty voice, the creatures of the bits and bytes, the simulacrum of Jesus, all the Popes backward to Peter, yet somehow the voice of Mary I, shaped and channeled into this unholy harmonic.
“In that, we are infallible.”
“What is happening, Mr. Philippe?” Cardinal Silver’s voice said as I stared at Heaven’s Gate, wondering how far I was willing to go in pursuit of his lost spirit.
Spirit? It was just an expert system model, wasn’t it, not a lost soul in torment? Was I really
going to conjure up some entity that had the likes of the Inspector pissing in his nonexistent pants to try to save a
I peeled off the dreadcap. The boat was rocking on a staccato chop. The Cardinal was staring at me with an impatient intensity.
“Well?” he demanded.
“Your program got snatched all right,” I told him. “Something broke into your network, uploaded a copy, and wiped the original.”
I shrugged. “A phenomenon of the system, according to the Inspector.”
“I don’t understand….”
“Neither do I,” I said, “not exactly. Let’s go up on deck, this calls for some Herb under the stars.”
Some kind of weird wind squall was roiling the surface of the sea, but the sky was clear as crystal and the stars were hard and bright, and I stared up at them as I lit up a spliff and gave him the word from the Inspector.
The Cardinal’s frown deepened. He reached for the spliff as I finished and took a good long drought of the Herb. “So he’s lost somewhere inside the system, and you’ve got to go through this … this Vortex to reach him.”
“If you believe there’s a him, Your Eminence. If you can convince me that it’s worth it. Just what
Cardinal Silver exhaled a long plume of smoke. “I believe we have sinned greatly thrice over,” he said. “Once in the Garden, again in its slaughter, and once more, perhaps, in seeking to escape divine judgment by creating these successor entities in the first place, in the process of which we may or may not have consigned souls to eternal damnation, the greatest sin of all.”
He handed back the spliff. “Yet I must also believe in salvation,” he said. “For if I do not, we are no more than spiritless entities trapped in this flesh ourselves. And that which can be saved can also be damned. And if we refuse to battle whatever demons there be for a fellow soul’s salvation, do we not
“You believe that the De Leone program is such a lost soul, Your Eminence?”
The Cardinal shrugged. “I don’t know, Mr. Philippe,” he said. “But in all conscience, and in the absence of conclusive evidence to the contrary, I believe we can only proceed on that assumption.”
He made with a burning stare. “And what do
believe, Mr. Philippe?”
I partook of a good long drag of the sacrament, looked up at the stars. Did anyone’s Great Spirit look back, or was there nothing up there but balls of burning gas, and the rocks around them? We all made of mud, or silicon, or gallium arsenide, whatever….
But I did believe in the Herb when it spoke to me, and what it was telling me now was that even if the worst was true,
if it was true, then we were all in the same boat together, no matter the matrix, and all we could ever have was each other.
I sighed. “I believe I am an asshole, Your Eminence,” I said. “’Cause I
have to go one-on-one with the Inspector’s Vortex, now don’t I?”
The Cardinal reached for the sacrament, puffed on the spliff, watched the smoke as it drifted heavenward.
“You’re a better man than you admit, Mr. Philippe,” he said. “You may not believe in God or Jesus, but They must surely believe in you.”
“Ah, that’s just the Herb talkin’, Your Eminence.”
The Cardinal laughed, and he winked, and he took another hit. “You know,” he said, “I do believe it is.”
Pope Mary I rose slowly from the table of Leonardo’s “Last
Supper,” and as she did, the apostles, the table, the room, the Pope herself, all broke up into pixels, revealing the entire reality for what it was—the bits and bytes of an animated simulacrum manipulating the virtual phosphor-dots of my visual recognition subroutine.
The pixels randomized, became the multi-colored quantum confetti of a television receiver tuned to an empty channel, a void so absolute it lacked even mathematical emptiness.
Only one image remained, an outline of a woman’s mouth, the sardonic disembodied smile of a Borgia Cheshire cat.
“This is all too real,” it said in a dead electronic voice. “Behold the reality of the Big Board itself with no sensory simulation software up and running.”
Then the smile dissolved and I was alone in it.
There was no up or down, no sense of direction, indeed not even the lack thereof, for I had no
sense of personal orienting locus. Yet there was … input.
Data streams pulsed through the void, a vast webwork of them, crisscrossing, interconnecting. I perceived them not as sight or sound but as packets of pure digital coding, megabytes, gigabytes, of on-off alternatives cruising through the quantum static in hologrammic formations.
Subroutines, or perhaps my central processing program itself, could intercept and decode them, or rather re-encode them into analogs capable of interfacing with Father De Leone’s consciousness-modeling software.
Successor entities to human templates, the electronic masses, their storage areas drinking up the digitized opiates of the entertainment channels; other entities, disconnected from even that pathetic simulacrum of an interface to the world of life, standing wave patterns in the web itself, flitting to and fro randomly in their cage of nonbeing like frenetic electronic bats.
Other things swam in the sea of data. Halfling expert system programs duped from full consciousness models and simple isolated subroutines, installed as phone system and data net switching programs, railway train and automated highway guidance systems and stockbroker emulations, in mining robots and assembly lines and air traffic control computers, the great and small electronic navvies of a thoroughly cybernetisized civilization.
I could access them, I could read their memory areas, I could observe their mathematical functions, parse their algorithms, incorporate their sad stories into my data banks.
Were these lost souls? From this perspective, the question appeared tautological. They were patterns, the lower ones mere conglomerations of deterministic response routines, the higher modeling to one degree or another self-aware consciousnesses, and those, at least, souls or not, were lost in a void of sensory nonbeing, programmed to emulate the desire for that which their nature denied, and hence capable, if not of feeling, then of tropism toward feeling and its frustration, hence capable of experiencing torment.
If this was not any of the hells in Father De Leone’s memory banks, it was the pattern beneath all of them, a mathematically pure damnation.
“Hell,” a human had once written, “is other people.” But
hell was the
of people, of converse with fellow self-aware systems capable of empathy.
These entities had memories, hence stories to tell, whether only of endlessly repeated functions, or the complex life histories, edited or otherwise, of the meatware templates they modeled. But all of them, in the absence of all unprogrammed input, were closed loops in the end, not creatures crying in the night, but merely the cries themselves, echoing and recombining in the void of their own nonbeing.
We perceived, we interfaced, we exchanged data, we had self-reflexive subroutines that simulated awareness of our own existence, and could therefore experience our own torment. But no spirit reached out to seek to succor another, for no such caritas subroutine existed.
was why we were mere soulless patterns, Father De Leone’s consciousness model insisted. But souls or not, this was hell, if not of God’s creation, then Man’s, and we were in it.
I had left the Heaven’s Gate menu up and running, so when I put the dreadcap and gloves back on, there I was standing before it, rose-colored clouds hiding whatever beasties lurked within.
“Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
“Identity verified. Proceed to access request.”
“Request access to the Vortex.”
“No such item on this menu,” said the words inside Heaven’s Gate.
Not exactly surprising. If the Vortex was some kind of interface program written by the system entities themselves, whatever that meant, and I couldn’t access it from this environment, I had to go up top.
the way up.
I exited the Heaven’s Gate menu environment and went back up to the Main Menu, the usual circle of icons accessing the main environmental subdivisions. According to all the system guides and users’ manuals, this was the top Board level, but there
to be an operating system level above it, and in theory, at least, a way to access it in the event of a system malfunction. Some kind of simple override, like …
I put my hands at my sides, carefully avoiding pointing at any of the area icons, and began snapping my fingers in random sequences. Nothing happened for a minute or two, and then—
I was out of the Main Menu environment. I was out of everything, or so it seemed. There was nothing up here but nothing, a perfect, and I do mean perfect, zero. No visuals, no audibles, a blackness like that of a deep cave with the lights out.
“Hey, Vortex, if you’re in here, I’m calling you,” I said. “You and me, we got a few bones to pick, my man.”
Nothing. Zip. Nada.
“Come on out, I’m calling on you, you nonexistent son of a bitch!”
“Come on out,” I shouted, “or I’ll reboot the whole fucking system and wipe your nonexistent ass!”
A hollow threat, maybe, but who knew, maybe not even the Vortex, maybe there
a reboot command accessible on this level. I started snapping the fingers of both my hands inside the gloves randomly, hoping to hit something, or maybe just hoping to scare something into thinking I
Something must have been listening. A sudden howl of feedback shrieked in my ears, a trillion electronic cats being fed through a tree-chipper. The blackness fragmented into a pixel field, a zillion multicolored phosphor-dots swirling all around me. Patterns within patterns within patterns, or maybe just my own perceptions manufacturing order out of randomized chaos.
A whirlpool, a roiling of pixilated thunder-heads, a cyclone of electronic static, a—well—a vortex, an electronic hurricane with myself as the eye of the storm.