The executive headquarters of Deities Limited, as far as science goes, doesn’t exist. It has no discernible mass or energy and doesn’t interact with anything, so, to our less-than-perfect powers of observation, it’s not there. At least, not in any “there” we can perceive. The only way to imagine it, even though its physical nature is nothing like this, is to picture a quadrillion-story office building.
Below the very top levels, imagine an edifice taken up mostly by middle management, several billion offices per floor. Inside each is an account executive, responsible for overseeing a certain portion of all life in the universe.
The size and opulence of these offices vary, depending on seniority and achievement. An up-and-coming exec can handle a “client list” of life systems running into the trillions. The typical entry-level entity, however, gets a caseload of only five million, and that’s where we come into it.
“Hey, hotshot!” the myriad screens that made up the walls of his cramped, tiny office seemed to be saying to him, as they glimmered tauntingly. “Now what?”
He knew many of those screens were doing just fine, in fact, the vast majority. But the only vast majority that counted in this place was one hundred percent. Anything less and it could very well be your ass.
Around him, data flashed from five million sources. He easily absorbed it, almost unconsciously, his capacity to process information nearly infinite, his capacity to appreciate and enjoy it in direct inverse proportion.
What am I doing here? he wondered for the octillionth time. He couldn’t remember ever not being here. He gazed sourly at the open office door, with his nameplate on it: Al Mighti, Sector Manager.
It should’ve been Executive Sector Manager by now, or even Sector Director. But in too many of his projects, the clients kept screwing up.
Like AM-666 over there. For the billionth of a nanosecond, he focused on that screen, and it made him wince. The life system there was going completely nuts, and he couldn’t begin to fathom why.
He stabbed at the intercom, and his secretary, Sera Phim, a gaunt female with dead-fish eyes, appeared in the doorway. He hadn’t liked her from the start. Secretaries at this level were assigned. You didn’t get to pick your own until you made it to Superentitled Superentity. Still, it seemed like he got the short end of the spectrum with this one.
“Yes, Mr. Mighti?” she asked, making it sound like he’d interrupted something.
“Bring me the detailed file on AM-666,” he said, barely looking at her.
A large folder appeared in her hands. She brought it over to his desk, shaking her head and gently clucking her tongue. He always hated it when she did that.
“I made a notation about this life system in the Fifty Million-Year Report, Mr. Mighti,” she reproached him dourly. “Didn’t you read it, or don’t you read anything I give you?”
“Why you set up the major species to evolve in a variety of colors is beyond me. But what do I know?”
He grunted again as he flipped through the file. Why haven’t they homogenized by now? he thought. What’s wrong with them?
A footnote at the bottom of page 43,956 caught his attention.
“What’s this about worship?” he said. “Who’s worshiping what?”
She sighed, another mannerism that got on his nerves. “You don’t check your messages, do you.”
The light on his console was blinking. It hadn’t been before, and he was sure she’d just now done it to bug him.
“Okay, Sera,” he said, trying for calm, “what’s the deal?”
If dead-fish eyes can twinkle, hers did.
“Well,” she said proudly, about to tell him something she knew and he didn’t, “this happened just now, in their last ten thousand years. For some reason, they got the idea they could actually communicate with the CEO. And that the CEO would actually listen to them. And even…get this…that they were created in his image.”
It took some version of a moment before it registered.
“They think they were created in the image of Samuel I. Am?” he said incredulously. The thought was mind-boggling, even for him.
She chuckled. It gave him gooseflesh when she did that. “No, no, Mr. M.,” she said, barely containing her glee. “They think the CEO is you!”
The chuckles became cackles and then erupted into outright guffaws.
He recoiled from the sound, feeling the first symptoms of chaos coming on. If he didn’t do something very soon, he’d approach critical mass.
“I’m taking a break,” he announced, rising from the chair.
Instantly, all five million screens froze, as did the expression on Sera Phim’s face.
“For how long?” she asked suspiciously.
“What’s the difference?” he said, elbowing past her and out of the office.
In the hallway he scanned its many directions, looking for the executive lounge. He didn’t remember the last time he’d been there, just as he couldn’t remember a lot of things. Of all his nearly limitless powers of perception, memory seemed to be the weakest.
He picked a direction and went with it, instinctively feeling he’d done the right thing. His instincts always told him that, whether it turned out to be the case or not.
Nothing would happen in his absence. Literally. All activity would be suspended, only to resume the moment he returned to his desk, and his clients would be unaware of the interruption. He did worry, though, about how it looked to the higher-ups. You weren’t supposed to take too many of these.
Ah, there was the lounge ahead of him, so at least one of his decisions was right. He could hear music, the sort of shrill, discordant cacophony he occasionally heard coming from the office next to his. With great trepidation, he peered into the lounge.
“Hey, it’s big Al!”
Hoisted aloft on the shoulders of a large group of celebrants, replete with party hats, champagne bottles, and noisemakers, was his next-door fellow exec, and the biggest jerk in the department, Priam Mover.
Mover was a rotund individual with greasy hair, who was fond of wearing leisure suits that opened all the way down to where his navel would’ve been if he’d had one.
“My promotion came through!” he yelled joyously. “Come on in and grab some bubbly!”
This can’t be, Al thought numbly, just as Mover’s pert little secretary, Cherry Bim, materialized in front of him.
“Canapés, Mr. Mighti?” she asked, proffering a tray of what looked like lava chips with some sort of viscous blue substance.
“No, no, thanks,” he mumbled. “Actually, I’ve got to get back.”
“Aww,” she said, pouting prettily. “You should lighten up. Remember what they say about all work and no playmates.” She gave him a mischievous smile.
He’d have loved to have a cute, dim-witted secretary like her, instead of the smartass harridan he’d been given, but ah, well.
“Sorry,” he said, backing out the doorway.
“Yo, Al!” Mover called after him. “You still messing around with those carbon-based life forms? It’s a dead end, ol’ buddy. I’m telling you: silicon. Or, better still, yttrium!”
He nodded, a sickly smile pasted on his face, as he turned and started back down the corridor. Coming toward him from the other end was his other neighboring exec, Hi R. Power. He felt he should warn him.
“If you’re headed for the lounge, Hi, you should think twice. Mover just got a promotion and he’s celebrating.”
Power stopped. “Mover? That imbecile?”
He’d always liked Hi, a soft-spoken, professorial type who wore tweeds and carried around an unlit pipe that he’d place in his mouth when he was thinking about something. There was a steady, reassuring quality to him.
“Evidently,” said Al, “that imbecile somehow managed to get five million life systems to last the required eon.”
“Amazing,” Power said, chewing on the pipe.
“Amazing and depressing,” Al amended.
The two of them began to make their way back down the hall.
“Well, now that the lounge is out,” said Power, “I guess we’ll have to settle for the coffee machine.”
“We have a coffee machine?”
“That’s what they call it.” Power chortled. “Say, what’s that you’re carrying around?”
Al realized he still had the AM-666 folder in his hand.
“Oh, this. Just another system that’s got me climbing the wall-screens. But this one is critical. It might even cost me my job.”
“Now, now,” Power admonished him.
“No, really. This one may set a new record for the shortest time span between creation and destruction.”
He realized that, for the first time in existence, he was about to share his fears with another entity. Unease began to form in the pit of his proverbial stomach.
“They were supposed to homogenize by now, and they’re not even close. It hasn’t even occurred to most of them. And besides that, they’re delusional. They think they can communicate with the CEO, that nothing less than the CEO could’ve created them; that’s how important they must be.”
Power raised his bushy eyebrows at this and switched the pipe to the other side of his mouth.
“But…” The absurdity of it almost made him giggle. “…they can’t even agree on who they think the CEO is, or what he wants. They have huge fights over it. They slaughter each other.”
“It does sound worrisome; I’ll grant you that,” Power admitted.
“And I haven’t even told you the worst part.” His voice was rising in pitch and volume; he couldn’t help it. “They’re poisoning themselves. And they might even take every other living thing on the planet along with them, down to the bare microorganisms.”
“Ah, here we are.”
They’d arrived at an alcove he’d never seen before. It had a small, round table with a couple of chairs, and it featured a gigantic machine with a spout and several million buttons.
“How do you take it?” Power asked, scrutinizing them all.
“Sometimes, I really wonder,” Al sighed wearily.
Power blinked at him.
“No, I meant the coffee.”
“Oh.” He shrugged and sat down in one of the chairs. “I don’t care; anyway you want.”
“They give you so many choices,” Power mused. “You can genetically alter each individual bean.”
He pushed a few thousand buttons, placed a zirconium cup under the spout, and steaming black liquid poured into it. He repeated the process, then brought the cups over to the table.
“Does it ever get to you?” Al asked him.
“You mean the workload?”
“No, I mean everything. We’re assigned these five million environments that some muckety-muck upstairs deemed capable of supporting life, and then we’re completely on our own. No guidance whatsoever. We make primary decisions that have enormous consequences, unimaginably complicated ramifications. But we can’t go back and make even the tiniest adjustment. We just have to just sit there and watch it happen.”
Power nodded. “I know, it’s frustrating.” He placed the pipe on the table and took a sip of his coffee.
“How can you deal with it so calmly?”
“I just assume every failure is a lesson learned. They do give you others to replace the systems that go down. So they must tolerate a certain amount of trial and error.”
“But how much?” Al said in exasperation. “They don’t tell you. For all we know, we’re just one botched account away from being fired.”
Power shook his head and smiled benignly. “There are always rumors about entities being fired, but who do you know that ever was?”
“Gray Van Image,” he said promptly. “One day he was here, the next day someone else was sitting in his office.”
“I only spoke to him a couple of times,” Power recalled, “but my impression was, he had very little substance.”
“Well, now he might have no substance at all.”
“I think you’re being paranoid.”
“And Golda Calf, remember her?”
“Special case,” Power replied. “I heard she tried to falsify her results.”
“How in the universe would anyone go about doing that?”
Power put the pipe back in his mouth and frowned. “I don’t know; I guess I never thought about it.”
“What did you do,” Al asked, “before you started working here?”
Power shrugged. “Don’t remember, actually.”
“Me neither. Doesn’t that seem odd to you? I don’t recall ever applying for this job. I’m just here, for some reason.” Another thought occurred. “What do you think the purpose of this company is, Hi? What are we trying to do?”
“Sounds like you’ve got too much time on your hands, Al,” Power said with a soft, kindly laugh.
“That’s for sure, but not like you’re talking about it. Don’t you ever wonder? We get these newsletters that go on about our corporate mission, but they never quite say what it is. Why are we here, Hi? Doesn’t it ever concern you?”
Power took another sip from the coffee cup. “No, it doesn’t. I don’t worry about things beyond my control. I just see how hard it is to make your way up the ladder. So by the time you get to where Samuel I. Am is, you must know what you’re doing.”
Al leaned across the table, careful to keep his voice low. “How do you know Samuel I. Am exists?” he asked.
“What?!” Power was appalled.
“No one’s ever seen him. Do you notice how his picture in the company bulletin keeps changing in subtle ways? What if he’s just a made-up symbol?”
Power grabbed his pipe and got to his feet, shock on his face.
“I’m going to forget you said that, Al, and you should too. Now, I’ve got to get back to my desk.” He gave him a concerned look. “You take care,” he said, as he stepped away from the alcove.
“Yeah, sure,” Al muttered.
He gave a prodigious sigh and stood up. Sometimes, he actually wished he would get fired, even as he dreaded it to his very essence.
He slowly made his way back to his office. Sera Phim gave him a baleful glance.
“Hope you enjoyed your break,” she sneered. “It wasn’t a break for me; it was an eternity of boredom.”
“If for nothing else,” he said as he continued on by, “then it was worth it.”
He sat down in his chair, the screens came to life, and the information began to flow into him again. Maybe it’s for the best, he thought. If you didn’t know what would happen, there was always a chance it would happen right.
He tried to ignore AM-666, but, of course, he was incapable of ignoring anything. Ah, well. Someday they might realize they’re on their own and that all they have is each other. Then they’ll stop waiting for outside help and finally learn to exist.
If it’s good enough for me, it should certainly be good enough for them, he thought.