The Powers that Abide

Originally Published
Sun Feb 13, 2005 at 09:20:22 PM EST


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 hold.

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 fault.

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 the better.

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 that Abide.

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 twenty-five dollars."

"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 slavery."

"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 them."

"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 laughed.

"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 intricate design.


"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."

"Um, neat."

"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 exist?

"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 it.

"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 on purpose."

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."

"I'll say."

"The problem is, we still don't know what we specifically have to do to keep the universe 'interesting' for the Powers that Abide."

"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 aneurysm.

"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."

"What message?"

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.

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