Who Is Like God?
"First, why don't we introduce John?"
Cari said that. This was her study, presented as a nineteenth-century English library with books, steps, ladders, globes, and a huge conference table in the middle.
"Of course." Michelle tapped on her tablet and pointed to John. "John's cross-training with us for a while from Prehistory. John?"
"Hi." John smiled, but only a little.
"Home Office sent us a cross-trainer? There really are miracles."
Michelle frowned. "Matthew."
"Ministry of Tact, Matthew!"
"John, welcome to CME," Michelle said as she tapped again on the tablet. "Tell us a little about Prehistory."
It was a blur. Home Office made the decision so quickly John barely had time to think about why. When Home Office said, 'start cross-training with Creative Memory Enhancement,' you reported to Michelle, who was gentle and possibly more than a little bit crazy, and whose room looked like a sanitised prison cell, who stared at you and didn't interrupt you while you were talking, even if you were talking complete bollocks. Like now.
"Prehistory is interesting, because we can tweak human social evolution and culture experimentally, on a number of levels at the same time," John said. "We can observe two similar tribes, for example, with an identical religion where one evolves into a tyrannical dictatorship and the other a peaceful collective. Harder to do that once societies start coalescing. I'm interested in learning more about individuals within history, so I can compare them to individuals in prehistory."
"Interesting. We're glad to have you aboard, John." Michelle tapped again on the tablet. "Some notes from Home Office for you all, and then let's hear about Joshua's experience cross-training with them. Listen carefully, Sid; you're next."
The fellow who must have been Sid swallowed. "I thought it was Meg's turn."
Michelle shook her head and pointed to Meg, who presented as heavily pregnant.
"Special hold, Sid; it's you. You report tomorrow."
"Home Office are working on shaping space travel in the twenty-second century; they want us to dip in and do what we can to promote it. Similarly, tweaks are being made to the rise of nationalism in the eighteenth. If you're so inclined, look into those mindsets in France and America. Also, there's major work being done on the Chinese Autocracy, twenty-first century. Check with Home Office before you add anything to that period, please." She tapped again. "And that's all the Home Office notes. As always, check for parentheticals on files before you make any changes; when you're looking at individuals as closely as we do, it's easy to make Attila the Hun into John Lennon." Michelle checked items off the visible list on her tablet. "Right, Joshua. Welcome back. How was Home Office?"
Joshua presented as a skinny kid barely old enough to be in the workforce. "It wasn't too bad. All that world-determining stuff makes me nervous, though. Politics. Guys talking about the fates of countries and races of people the way we talk about giving a child his first taste of a cinnamon sweet."
Cari chuckled. "Wait 'til they rotate you to Climate," she said. "That'll really blow your mind."
"How many cases were you working on?" Michelle made more taps with her forefinger on the tablet.
"Only two, but that was enough. They called it small stuff. I'm glad it wasn't big stuff."
"They never assign CMEs to big stuff," Michelle said. "It's a blessing. What were you working on?"
"Viking invasion of Ireland, ninth century, founding of Dublin. Indian removal in the United States, nineteenth." Joshua shook his head. "The Vikings were horrors, but I'd rather be assigned to work on that one for eternity than look at the Trail of Tears again."
"You're not the first one to say that." Michelle turned the tablet toward the rest of the group so they could seem some images from the Trail of Tears. "It's hard to look at." She turned the tablet back to herself and tapped in for a detail. "Mary Ghost, ten years old, walking through East Tennessee, 1838, April 10th. She tripped over a rock and cut her foot, poor girl."
Joshua looked down at the table. "Are there houses nearby?"
Michelle tapped again. "Yes, just outside Chattanooga. Lots of people could have been about. Mary is travelling with her family and five other families, on their way to join a larger caravan."
"Can I have that one? I think I know what might happen that day."
Michelle smiled. "You said you never wanted to look at the Trail of Tears again."
"I don't. But I like Mary. She seems like a good kid."
"And that's why they put you in CME and not Home Office. I'll send you a link -- Mary Ghost, 10 April 1838. Let me know how it turns out."
Joshua's tablet pinged. "Thanks." He smiled. "Maybe I'll look into more of them."
"Don't immerse yourself, but it might not be a bad idea."
John took notes on individual reports. Cari had spent the last month concentrating on enhancing teenage experiences of education in the former US Confederate states from 1945 through 2001. She hoped positive experience of education would help fuel the backlash against the millennialism that shaped history in that region in the twenty-first century. Michelle chided her against being too political but praised her motivation anyway. Meg spoke about her work rewarding military personnel who showed kindness to Titanian refugees in the twenty-sixth century. Sid admitted he'd been looking for ways to keep famous actresses from killing themselves.
"Just as well you're heading for Home Office tomorrow," Michelle said. "You need to get toughened up. Try re-reading the CME guidelines for how much you can change a person's life with a single small incident." She put the tablet down on the table. "I think that's all for today. Sid, don't forget even though you're in Home Office, you can contact me; I'm still your line manager. John, we need to settle you in to your new quarters. Cari, your study is distracting."
Everyone laughed. Sid leaned toward John. "It's not a meeting until Michelle has said that Cari's study is distracting."
John laughed, too.
John coloured his walls brown and added red and yellow ochre images of spotted horses and deer, simulating cave paintings. He trained his viewing window on Pech Merle; he found watching the painters work therapeutic.
Once John had his surroundings to his liking, he sent a brief message to Sarah, his line manager in Prehistory. "Settled in. CME is weird. Very hands-off for a hands-on division. Should get first assignments soon."
"Just get yourself comfortable," was her near-instantaneous reply. "Do your best work for Michelle; she's not as crazy as she looks."
"Will do." John signed off the Prehistory network and tested his login credentials for CME. He had two assignments from Michelle: study recorded history in brief, and consider life in Assyria, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia. Michelle suggested that as his current expertise was in prehistory, John would be most comfortable working in the so-called cradle of civilisation for now. He couldn't disagree, but with the whole of civilisation open to him in the CME database, it was hard to suppress his curiosity. As he scanned the CiviWiki, browsing and dipping into timelines and pulling up details as he went, John copied details into a notes file. Eventually he'd move the whole thing to a table screen and use the tablet only for quick research and reading. Because CME tweaked individual memories, the amount of data available was staggering.
Shin Yee, born 2008, San Francisco. Upper middle class, Japanese descent, college educated, systems architect for a small computer consulting firm that served some larger computer consulting firms. One younger sister, one younger brother. Both parents lived to old age, divorce event when Shin was in her twenties. Saddened by the death of her dog when she was a child, no debilitating trauma. Lives alone in a two-bedroom ranch-style home. Lonely.
John flicked from overview to detail. August, 2037. Shin had no personal email that day. No phone calls. At twenty-nine, her life might as well be over. She checks to see if her pay has been received into her bank account, then goes shopping online for clothes she'll never wear.
Depressing. What if she decided to give some of her money to charity or something? Maybe she could do volunteer work in the city. How could a single act change this sad woman's life?
John flicked away and searched randomly for another CME person of interest. The database was huge; the world's population over the course of history meant there was always someone new to discover. Maybe Michelle knew them all; he'd have to ask her about that sometime.
Baker, Kelly. Born 1964, New York City. Lower Middle Class. Anglo-Saxon background. College educated. Dilettante. Afraid of spiders. Three older brothers. Both parents lived to old age, no divorce event. Works in a law office. Underemployed. Unmarried. Attends live music concerts and fancies drummers. Lives with two housemates and a cat.
Detail, June, 1984. Kelly Baker was having a bad day. She'd hooked up with a musician the night before and found herself in the middle of a band fight the following morning. She'd hastily collected her clothes and fled the scene, only to find she'd left her house keys at the musician's apartment.
Interesting. John pressed 'engage' and found himself experiencing the walk toward what Damon called his bit of the East Village but which Kelly's mother would have firmly classed Lower East Side. "Just don't go there," she'd have said. Well, Kelly went there. Kelly went everywhere--and now she'd have to go back, humiliating as it might be, because both housemates had daytime jobs and she needed to get into the apartment.
The immersion was intense.
It's hot. And these clothes are uncomfortable. I wish I was home right now.
"Kelly, Kelly; that's why you're taking the walk of shame right now, so you can get home."
John noted: Kelly talks to herself. She answers her thoughts. Interesting.
"Kelly needs to be locked up," Kelly said. She checked her watch. Just past 11:00; surely Damon would still be there. "If I'm lucky, he'll remember who I am."
John scouted ahead of Kelly on the street. There must be something nearby. Not much activity here on a Friday morning, even though it was summer. Maybe nobody was up yet. Oh, but here was a playground, kids and mothers and an ice cream van. And several children grouped around a cardboard box with a sign that read, "Adorable Kittens! Free To Good Home!"
John smiled. Surely Kelly would notice those kittens.
The whole thing took about twenty minutes, convincing Kelly to take a kitten and present it to Damon in trade for her house keys. Damon told her she was cute and hoped he'd see her around. Kelly giggled all the way back to the bus stop.
John's tablet pinged.
"John, could I see you for a moment?"
He'd barely typed "Yes, of course," when the bell rang. "Come in, Michelle."
"We're going to have to fix that one," Michelle said. She sat down on one of the rock-shaped cushions. "You spoke to her."
"'Kelly needs to be locked up?' Who do you suppose she was replying to, John?" Michelle sighed. "I know you're used to making observations; that's why I want you to concentrate on early civilisations. There, if you make an offhand comment, your subject is superstitious and used to blaming things on a multiplicity of gods. But Kelly's a worrier; you don't want to set up a pattern of her thinking she needs psychological help."
John crossed his arms. "Doesn't she? I read the overview."
"Maybe, but it's not your job to sort that out. And is Kelly the sort of person who would give a cat to a stranger? Kelly loves cats, adores them."
"Oh." John looked at the overview again. "What should I have done?"
"Not touched her," Michelle said. "But since you have, we need to think about how to put it right. You'll have to re-enact the event, and this time you'll take care not to insert your own thoughts where Kelly might hear them. I'd also like you to rethink the kitten."
"I'll stay here with you if you like? I can observe without intruding."
"Sure," John said. He brought up the detail again and pressed 'engage'.
Kelly walked toward what Damon called his bit of the East Village but which her mother would have firmly classed Lower East Side. "Just don't go there," she'd have said. Well, Kelly went there. Kelly went everywhere--and now she'd have to go back, humiliating as it might be, because both housemates had daytime jobs and she needed to get into the apartment.
It's hot. And these clothes are uncomfortable. I wish I was home right now.
"Kelly, Kelly; that's why you're taking the walk of shame right now, so you can get home."
She checked her watch. Just past 11:00; surely Damon would still be there. "If I'm lucky, he'll remember who I am."
Kelly didn't stop to play with the kittens. She didn't get Damon an ice cream cone. She just walked toward Damon's apartment, feeling her steps grow heavier as she went.
"Oh, hey." Damon answered the door eventually. "You OK, babe? Need bus fare or something?"
"Left my house keys," Kelly said. "You like ice cream?"
"Nope. Milk makes me shit," Damon said. "Come on in and look for them."
Kelly headed into the bedroom and grabbed the keys off Damon's dresser where she'd left them the night before. Damon and his bandmates argued in hushed voices in another room.
"Found 'em!" Kelly called through on her way out.
"Great, babe! See you around!"
Kelly closed the door without another word to Damon. She stopped to play with the kittens on the way back to the bus stop; that cheered her up a little bit.
John tapped out of Kelly Baker. "OK, that was depressing."
"It wasn't a good time to give Kelly a good memory," Michelle said. "She did get to play with the kittens, though. If she remembers anything about this experience, it'll be a snapshot of kittens in the park. She might not remember why she was in that part of town, and she probably won't even remember Damon's name."
"How many times can we erase and re-enact?"
"It varies. Kelly was drunk when she went home with Damon, so she'd expect some fuzzy memories and incongruent thoughts after the fact. We probably could have done that over seven or eight times. Children are sometimes harder than adults. Creative people are sometimes harder than linear thinkers. A person whose mind latches on to the 'what-if' of it all can pose more of a problem. The usual rule is three. If you feel you've made a mistake and any more changes seem necessary, get in touch with me."
"So I should head over to Mesopotamia or something and stop looking at the people who just pop up on the POI list?"
"Not necessarily. Just try not to insert memories or experiences there. Feel free to observe as much as you like. We should start seeing people from the periods Home Office wants us to concentrate on coming along any day now; those might be interesting for you as well."
"OK." John considered how many times he could dip into people on the POI list without getting in trouble; Michelle seemed to keep her team members close.
"Don't worry; you'll be fine." Michelle rose and headed for the door.
"Thanks." John managed a smile.
Nura, born 646, Babylon, Merchant Class. Sassanid background. Illiterate. Three older brothers, two younger brothers. Both parents lived to old age, no divorce event. Given in marriage to Rakim ibn Shai, second son of regional administrator, in 659; third wife. Little trauma after Muslim conquest of Persia. Five children, three girls and two boys. Eventually cast aside by husband for not bearing enough sons. Lived to old age with her children.
Detail, September 658. Nura walks from the river to her family's house. She is hot. She knows her brothers will give her in marriage soon; unrest is building in Babylon and Ahriman will rule the city if every person does not work together to build peace with the Muslims.
Today, I am purified. Today, my fate will be revealed. Nura sprinkled river water over her face and head.
John searched the lush path leading from the river. There, just there, a little coin purse, dropped by someone very wealthy. Look, girl. Look.
Nura glanced into the tall plants beside the river; a wisp of dyed linen caught her eye. It was a lady's coin purse, decorated with rich embroidery and closed with a bright drawstring. Nura crept into the rushes to retrieve the purse. She hardly dared touch it, let alone open it, but a single coin fell out, onto her foot. Without pausing to think, she tucked it between the ball of her foot and her sandal. It might be a bad thing. It might be stealing.
As Nura rose with the purse in her hand, administrator Shai came around the corner with his distraught second wife and her oldest son. "Sayid, Sayid!" Nura held out the purse. "Is this what you are looking for?"
The wife rushed forward and took the purse from Nura's hand. She babbled her thanks and touched Nura's hair.
"It would seem so," said Shai. "Rakim, look on this girl. See how eager she is to give back what she has found."
Nura flushed and looked down at the path. The single coin seemed to burn beneath her foot. It rubbed into the ball of her foot all the way back home, where she snuck away to see to the blister. Later, she took a kitchen knife and cut a notch into the sole of her shoe, where she hid the gold coin away. When the blister healed, she smiled wherever she went, because she walked on gold.
John saved the video as a shared file. That must be how it was done. One success, one mistake. Not bad for the first afternoon.
"Get some sleep, John. Log off." Michelle's message brought him out of Nura's lovely knowledge that she walked on gold. "Good work. You can present that at our next meeting."
"Good rest," John sent back to Michelle.
Before sleep, he decided on a quick check-in with Sarah and logged back in to Prehistory. Quickly, he recounted the afternoon's events; Sarah would see the messages when she logged back in.
Hang on; how had he managed to be concurrently connected to both CME and Prehistory? Oh, too compelling. "Pech Merle," he entered. "Prehistory."
The search took several seconds.
Hunter Long-Arm, Pech Merle, 20,018 BP. Hundreds of nearly-identical records appeared.
More records appeared. Priest. Ana. Shaman. Kahuna. Cunningman. Recordkeepers appeared unsure what to call them, the painters.
He picked one at random. Priest Yellow Hand. Born 21,098 BP, Pech Merle. Wise man. No recorded mother or father; distinction is unimportant to Gravettians.
Summer solstice, 21,067 BP. Sun for long hours though it brings no warmth. Reindeer are passing. The chief and children beg for bison and horses, and Yellow Hand promises they will have them soon.
Lit by fire, the interior cave smelled of ash and animal remains, though the pot in his hand was full of red ochre.
"A spirit is upon me," said Yellow Hand, "and I will bring you bison."
John remembered Yellow Hand's sisters and brothers, many dead, some now hunters and bearers and priests in their own way. John knew the way to arch Yellow Hand's arm to draw the sweeping back of a bison, next to last year's spotted horses. He called the bison as he had called the horses, as he had called the reindeer, as he would call the mammoth, drawing them irresistibly to their own images on the great wall.
"I see them all," Yellow Hand said. "I see all the magic drawings." John was certain this cave, and the next, would one day be filled with magical drawings, so that his people would never hunger. Yellow Hand was certain, too.
Michelle used her pass to enter John's room. Cari followed her, carrying a tray.
"Ooh, he's gone," Cari said.
John stared at the tablet. Only his eyes blinking suggested that he was alive at all.
"Just put it on the table."
Cari set the tray down. It contained a generous protein allowance, carbs, fibre, laid out for easy consumption.
"Pour him some water, too. He won't be thinking when he comes back."
"Should we disengage him?"
"No. He'll come back when he's hungry. Yellow Hand's meals won't provide his body with any nourishment."
Cari sat down on one of John's chairs. Michelle sat beside her. "So what's the real story on this?"
"Overactive engagement with Prehistory," Michelle said.
"So we're doing corrective duty?"
"Not at all. But he's not really a cross-trainer."
Cari arched a brow.
"He's a transfer." Michelle stretched out her legs onto a footstool. "Bring me the extra blanket from his cupboard, please?"
"You're going to stay until he wakes up?"
"That's right. Prehistory immersives sometimes hurt themselves. He's a talented CME. We don't want to lose him."
Cari brought the white blanket. "Why don't we just use his bed?"
"Don't want to get too comfortable. And it's brown."
Cari chuckled. "Is the room too busy for you, angel?"
"That's right," Michelle said.
"You really are kind," Cari said. "Pillow?"
"Shoulder's fine, thanks. And that's what they say about me. I'm kind."