Cover Art

Gods and Men


Rachel Johnson

What if we're all just simulations in a game played by entities far larger and more powerful than we could ever imagine? What if we were just one planet out of a million, consoles in which creators can build and play and destroy---all with some lines of code, and the invaluable help of the refresh button.

Gods and Men

The world came together slowly, methodically, a piece here, a piece there, tweak this and that, nudge a little over there, snip and trim the edges, and polish it all up---it couldn't be done in a day you know. These things take time.

Sure, some of the older hands could do it all in one go, all flash and sparkle, showing off for one another, who could build fastest, who could beat the others out to the finish. But too often their speed failed them---shoddy craftsmanship, and everything would fall apart at the first flood or earthquake or AoG.

She was good with AoGs. Most of the others, they would just write up a simple randomizer, have it pull from a set list of cataclysms---rain or fire, lightning shrike, famine and locusts, nothing too creative for these sorts, of course, and they'd just key the randomizer to throw down any old AoG into the world every two hundred years or so, or whenever a sim blasphemed, speak the right words in the right language in the right terminal at the wrong time and next thing you know this whole continent was crawling with frogs. So predictable, but the sims didn't like it, regardless. You could slap down any old Act of God, down on them and they'd run for the hills, without so much as a thought for the art of it all. Still, that was no reason not to put a little thought into it. Take pride in your work, that's what she always said.

She returned her attention to the console in front of her. It was all coming together nicely. Probably she'd have it done by week's end and could ship it off to management for approval.

Management---now there as a bunch that appreciated good, solid work. Quality over quantity, that was what they were looking for. If you could give them both so much the better, but if they had to be choosy it'd be quality every time. They got enough grief from clients already, without having to add halfhearted attempts to the mix.

The continental plates were all coming together nicely, but they could use a little curtailing down near the bottom or they'd get too unwieldy. She punched a few numbers into the bottom panel and then pressed the big blue button near the top.

The screen refreshed, now with a trimmed continental plate in the southern hemisphere. Good, good. It was always tempting to really let the plates spread out, give yourself lots of room to work with, a lot of real good clay to play with and mould, but you had to find a balance to these things.

She zoomed in to the southern oceans, where a nice coral reef was forming. Reefs were a really tricky business, so delicate and so temperamental. The salinity had to be just right, the water temperature, the whole ecosystem down to a perfect, beautiful harmony. Otherwise, everything would crumble to dust and all her hard work would be swept away with high tide.

Speaking of the tides, they were getting pretty strong around the little reef that was forming. Frowning, biting her lip, she wheeled around the ocean a little bit with the joystick on the side of her console, glowering at the screen and tweaking a few dials on the monitor.


The tides calmed themselves slightly, and she zoomed back out. She'd have to check on the reef again later, make sure everything was really coming together as it should, but for now it looked promising.

What else? The vegetation was the next step, now that the continents and the oceans seemed to be coming into place. Of course the continents would start out all as one huge shelf, but the bed of fissures and plates below them would slowly shift and groan over time and spread the shelves apart into distinct continents. It was an idea she had picked up watching a genuine, organic planet forming, way back. A verdant little orb, lots of good strong ocean water, a bit of an issue lately with melting glaciers and an eroding ozone layer, but a compelling solo dominant species that she found to be utterly inspiring. A real promise, there. Their anatomy, their physiology, their distinct cultures and the way they all harmonized. They had a bit of a taste for blood, was the issue, and not just the blood of the subordinate species, the blood of their own kin. It happened sometimes, of course, in the organic planets, but they tried to curtail all of that i the code. It was inelegant, and sloppy. And it made clients uneasy. But the design of these creatures, it haunted her. She had models in her home workshop, trying to get the limbs and the organs just right, while tweaking the brain. Something had to change, but the principle was there. The fundamental design, it was a good one.

Right, vegetation. That was always fun. Relaxing. There was something almost meditative about putting down vegetation, like trimming a bonsai tree but on a massive scale. Well, massive speaking relatively, of course. She cracked her knuckles and rolled up her sleeves, the universal sign of getting down to work. A few of the other craftsmen glanced over, possibly amused by her dramatic display. But what was the good of being a god if you didn't get to be a tad dramatic now and then?

 Settling back in her chair, she pulled a few reference books down from the shelf in her cubicle. Flora guides, moss and lichen, patterns on leaves and whole books on tree rings. It was important to get the details right, the smallest details, down to the cells, but especially anything macroscopic. The creatures that would grow to populate the earth might not be the smartest, but every now and then you got a handful that really looked at the world around them, that picked up the rocks and looked under them, cut down the trees and actually looked at their rings before throwing them into the fire, picked up leaves and flowers and pressed them between the pages of the books and, somewhat more morbidly, captured insects and pinned them to corkboards, labeled and categorized, with a magnifying glass close at hand. A curious mind could be dangerous, but it was also a captive audience. Build like every mind was the boy that burned anthills just to see what happened; then, build better anthills.

That was why stars were important. The curious, they would always look up. They would count the stars, see the patterns, build telescopes and if they were diligent and studied hard, rockets. You had to make good stars, you had to really sell the thing.

But stars came later, much later. They were finishing touches. Vegetation would need to last, hold up, grow and spread and flourish, hold nutrients and adapt to their environment. Aside from the animals themselves the flora was the hardest to get right. It had a mind of its own, always wanted to change.

She spread down a thick layer of grass along the western continent but quickly, way too quickly, it began to dry up. Too much grass, too thick a layer over too much space, and not enough water by a long shot. She scaled back the reach of the grass and thinned it out.


The greener spread out again and this time it stayed green. She sped up the timeline a few hundred years and was pleased to see the grass just as green as it had been, and thickening itself and spreading on its own, slower this time so that the demand for water could be met.

The next few days were busy, fuelled by stimulants and excitement, the way the final throws of a project always got to her. She slept very little, and when she did her dreams were filled of those strange little creatures from that verdant planet she had seen all those years ago. The way their bodies moved, the way their throats and brains had so carefully adapted to their unique communication, the way they had grown and thrived and looked to the stars…

They looked up at the stars and they saw something, something that drove them forward, something that kept them searching and building and striving ever forward. If half the workers in her office were as industrious as those odd creatures, there was no telling what they could all get done.

The week was quickly drawing to a close and management was beginning to poke their heads around, sniffing for a new project that could be their centerpiece for awhile, when the thrill of the last masterpiece wore off. She could always tell when she was building something special, something that would outshine everything else, and that was precisely what this was. Special. There was only one catch. She'd started out populating the planet with fauna, but when she sped up the timeline a thousand years, five thousand, a hundred thousand, eons into the future, some had died, some had evolved, some had moved to greener pastures and some had grown and adapted, but none had thrived in quite the way she was hoping. So far, there was no dominant species. It wasn't necessary precisely, but it heled capture the attention, inspire the mind. Clients liked a dominant species, a prize catch they could brag about, something that really set them apart.

She thought for awhile. She could always take one of the apex predators and play around with them a little, modify their physiology, the structure of their brains, move them to a more hospitable climate, force things around a little.

In her mind, a flash of limbs.

In her mind, a bipedal form.

In her mind, city skylines, rockets, eyes gazing towards the sky.

She pulled up the editor and grabbed a few more books from the shelves. A few quick sketches gave her a model to work with and it went into the editor while she drew up organs and muscles and fiddled around with the opposable thumbs and the bipedal joints.

It took her the whole day and well into the night but finally she had a working prototype. She imported it into the project and put the timeline on fastplay. By morning they should be far enough along that she could see how they were adapting, if they were showing any promise. For now, she'd have to sleep and wait and dream dreams of thriving civilizations spreading like grass across the continents of her own devising.

Sleep didn't come easily and when it did it came with a busy mind humming with odd images. The dawn broke all too early and as soon as morning light hit she was up and out the door. She got into the office before anybody else and flicked on her monitor.

No, that couldn't be right. There had to be a glitch.


Nothing changed. Refresh. Still the same, no glitch.

The creatures had established dominance, as she'd hoped. But the whole world had gone to hell around their glistening cities. The oceans swirled angrily, rising with a rapidity that sent a ball of hot lead straight into her stomach. The grasslands were browning and the species count, both flora and fauna, had plummeted, literally overnight. She watched the timeline play out for a bit and the ball of lead grew. The count continued to plummet at an unprecedented rate. The thick, beautiful plate of ice shelves and glaciers she had built in the north melted down and disappeared before her eyes. And as she watched the curious creatures she'd build straight out of her dreams and the verdant planet marched out to battlefields on the once-green landscape and slaughtered each other with weapons fiendishly clever and inhuman in their making.

As she watched the world around her, the world she had spent her weeks and nights and all her energy on, crumbled.

Hurriedly she pulled up the editing panel and punched in some numbers, played around with some dials on the screen, her fingers dashing all across the keyboard, cutting entire lines out of the code.

Her finger hovered over the button. She watched the screen for a few seconds longer, then, closing her eyes, pressed the button.

The cities disappeared, all the creatures, the grasslands grew again and the glaciers rebuilt themselves. The timeline spread back, hundreds of thousands of years, and the world righted itself.

The screen returned to the state it had been yesterday, before she had sent her little treasures onto the earth. She watched awhile longer, then pulled up the editor. She found the file she had built yesterday. Bracing herself, she deleted it.

She stared blankly at the screen again and, sighing, began to build once more.


Some more tweaks.


It wasn't pretty, but it'd have to do.



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