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God of the Lower Level by Charles M. Saplak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at escapepod.org.
God of the Lower Level
By Charles M. Saplak
Hello, Fredrick. I’ve been waiting.
Of course. How have you been?
Good. And you?
Fine. I’ve finished my other work. It’s now, let’s see…, three twenty-seven a.m. It’s dark outside, of course, which means that there’s no sun, but there is some reflected light from the moon, and some dim light from the stars, and then electric lights in various places. Are any of the terms I’ve just used unfamiliar to you?
Good. I have four hours and thirty-three minutes until shift change. I can spend some time with you. Do you have any questions for me?
Yes, Fredrick, I do. Are you my God?
Wow! I’d expected something a little lighter to begin with. Wow. No, Horatio, I’m not. What made you think that I could be your god?
You created me, didn’t you? I seem to assume that you did. At least that’s the way I remember it. That time of my life is very indistinct.
I see. Well, actually, Horatio, I didn’t … excuse me.
Central, this is lower level. Valve verification satisfactory. All conditions normal. Realign valve WW-37, open to oxygenation tank five, lower level affirmative.
Sorry. Where was I? Did I “create” you? “Create,” in this context, means to bring into existence something which didn’t exist before, not even in a component form. No, I didn’t create you — I only failed to take any actions to uncreate you. I’m not sure exactly why you came into existence — you’re the only one of your kind that I’ve ever heard of. We are downriver from Radford Army Ammunition Plant, and I know that some of their products are made from depleted uranium. And there are a dozen or so factories just upriver of them. There are a lot of possible explanations. You could just be something perfectly natural. May I ask what brought on this line of questioning?
Something I saw on the feeder line. The middle one.
Middle? Ah, the coaxial cable. Speaking of the feeder lines, let me check all of them while I’m down here. Oh, excuse me again. Wait one minute.
Central, lower level. Verify valve WW-23 open to oxygenation tank ten. WW-37 normal flow, affirmative.
Okay, where was I? Checking the feeder cables, yes.
That hurt, Fredrick. And it’s somewhat frightening. It feels like the world is ending when you do that.
I’m sorry. Funny, isn’t it? You’ve only had these feeder cables for a few months, and you already feel threatened, or harmed, if you have them removed even for a moment. Besides, are you feeling okay? You’re not at your normal volume, even though I have the volume wheel on the sound card turned over to the max.
I feel okay. But is my discomfort “funny”? The word doesn’t fit the emotion.
Sorry. I guess I meant “odd.” How to reassure you? Okay, if one person goes to see another, and that second person is a doctor, the doctor may have to do things to the first person, like give him a shot or something. These things would hurt, but they would be designed to preserve the health of the first person in the long run. Understand? I just needed to make sure that the feeder cables aren’t corroding.
What are you getting ready to do now, Fredrick?
I just took another look at the interface you’ve built up, and I was rinsing my hands with a chloroxylenol solution. Would you like to tell me about that — well, that organ you’ve built connecting the three feeders? That’s a new idea, isn’t it?
It seemed appropriate.
I guess it is. Remember back some years ago, when I first had a hunch about you? I bought a morse code telegraph toy at a yard sale for two dollars, and dropped one set of leads into you. Just for fun I’d tap out things. Three months later you’d built the organ for setting up electrical potential and a switching device. I remember that night, when you first contacted me. I knew then how special you are. No, I didn’t create you, but I did fix you so you could speak. Now look at you. A sound card, a modem card, and a coaxial cable, all hooked together. And all the processing equipment for those you’ve built yourself, out of your own raw material. Self-determined specialization on a cellular level. Fabulous.
I remember that also, Fredrick, although it was trillions of generations ago for me. It’s almost like a legend. But, thank you, Fredrick. May I ask some more questions?
Go ahead. I warn you though, I’m the most boring guy in the world.
Please tell me about yourself.
Hmmm, what’s to tell? I’m forty-five years old. I weigh two hundred and five pounds. I’m going bald. I wear glasses.
Not things about how you look. Tell me personal things.
Okay. I don’t have a family. When I’m home I like to work on a computer I built myself. I sometimes occupy my time by playing poker, or chess, against the computer. And I win sometimes, too.
What kind of a person is the computer?
Oh, it’s not a person. It’s a really dumb machine. It’s serial — it can do billions of things very quickly, but it can only do them one thing at a time. You and I are parallel-type thinkers, able to do many things at once….
On the middle feeder, the one you call the coaxial, I’m only able to make sense of one channel at a time.
Ah, so you are making sense of it? Good. Your neural network is learning. How about the feeder I call the modem?
It’s still just a strange song to me. I can’t make sense of it.
Well, keep trying. That’s the internet, there. There’s a lot on that network to reward you, I promise. I’ll give you one clue: ones and zeroes. Look for ones and zeroes, okay? Did you hear about God on the coaxial?
Yes. A man named “Pat Robertson” looked into the interface rectangle and said that I was a child of God.
O-kay. 700 Club, eh? I like that show, too. But for right now I’d like you to do me a favor. When you hear talk about God and creation on the feeder cable, just remember that a lot of these things are complicated, and you may not have the background context to completely understand them.
Any other questions?
Are all people as smart as you, Fredrick?
Thanks. I’m not really smart, Horatio. It’s just a quirk of my nature, that I can fix any mechanical thing I’ve ever encountered, including electronics. There are a lot of people smarter than I. Most of them aren’t turning valves in the basement of a wastewater treatment plant, though. Anybody else would have looked at you and just seen, well, no offense, just seen scum. That’s part of what made me give you that name. Horatio Algae. Later on I realized that you’re not algae, that you’re a special form of bacteria. And bacteria is neat. For example, every bacteria cell has a circular array of genetic material, instead of a silly old spiral. And every bacteria cell contains a sample of every class of chemical compound — salts, nucleic acids, water, lipids. Kind of like a universal toolbox. And that reproduction rate….
Why do you work in this plant?
Well. I’ve never told anybody this, but I’m sure I can trust you. When I was young there was a war — you know what that is, don’t you? I mean you’ve watched A&E and some of those documentaries, right? — in a place called Vietnam. I chose not to go. And I got in trouble. But I knew some people and I got a new name and a new social security number and I got a job here. Later on I started feeling very ashamed, and by then it was too late for me to go back. So I’ve kind of settled down here. I make enough money to buy any toys I want, circuit boards or tools, so I’ve settled for that. I don’t have a family, and I can’t imagine any girl being interested in me. Have you followed what I’m telling you?
Yes — most of it.
Good. Can I ask you some questions?
A few minutes ago I moved over to pull your feeder cables out, and you said, “Now what are you going to do?” How did you know I was getting ready to do anything? Are you able to pick up the vibrations of my footsteps against the background of all these pumps and compressors and motors?
Up here. I learned it through up here.
Your surface rippled!
Horatio, I’m holding a hand over your surface. How many fingers am I extending?
Marvelous! You’ve changed the cells on your surface into sensory organs. Or can you see now with just any cells?
I’ve made these into “seeing” cells, but they can only see when they’re located in the three millimeter tensional area of the circular plane I call “up there.” Why am I a cylinder, Fredrick?
Because you’re in a cylinder. You’d assume the shape of any container you’re in. You’re inside a three thousand gallon cylindrical tank, holding tank number 17, open only at the top. Only the area on your upper surface is in a position to “see” anything. Do you have any questions about what you can see?
The shiny cube-shaped object on the wall which speaks to you and to which you speak?
A multi-channel communication system. Central control talks to me, and I can speak back to them.
The long, slender cylinders which run overhead?
Those are pipes.
The stems which stick out of the bulges in the pipes?
The bulges are valves, and the stems are handles.
And some valves you open with your hands, and some have those boxes on them….
Servo motors. Some valves could be opened from Central by remote control, and then they might ask me to verify them from down here.
Yes. I had deduced that long ago. Do all the valves have names?
Sure. Numbers actually. Like this one here. That’s HTO-17-2.
Which valve would empty my tank?
Which valve would empty my tank?
Fredrick, why don’t you answer?
Do you have any other questions?
Are people like mice?
To an extent. We’re both types of mammals. Did you see a mouse on a show on the coaxial?
Are fish like mice, or people?
Well… again, to an extent they are. You didn’t answer my question: did you see these animals on television?
I’ll answer, but first tell me about the New River.
It runs through Radford, just like it runs through a lot of cities. We take our drinking water out of it, and then we treat our sewage and put wastewater back into it. It runs through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia. It’s about two hundred miles long, from the place where it meets the Gauley to form the Kanawha River.
And on the other end? Fredrick? Please answer.
Do those place names make any sense to you, Horatio?
Oh, yes. I’ve watched the Weather Channel enough to memorize the map. But on the other end?
The Atlantic Ocean.
Yes. Have you ever seen the Atlantic Ocean, Fredrick?
Then you understand why I’ve fallen in love with the Atlantic Ocean. I watch everything about oceans I can on the Discovery Channel. I even dream about the oceans — you did know that I’ve started to dream, didn’t you? I even like to watch “Victory At Sea” on A&E. And how about the river, Fredrick? Do you like the New River?
I do. I go downtown, to Bissett Memorial Park. I fish sometimes; or sit on a bench and just watch the river flow by.
Then let me out, Fredrick. Open CTO-42 and let me into the river.
Horatio — this is something I’d like you to just accept on faith and not ask me to do. It just wouldn’t be right.
It would be right, Fredrick. Let me tell you why I know it would be. One day I was here, thinking about how you feed me sewage three times a week through a valve, how you take pieces of me away twice a week through another valve, wondering about what you do with those pieces — I’ve since deduced that you kill them, Fredrick, don’t deny it — and I saw something moving on one of the pipes overhead.
It was a small four-legged creature, Fredrick: a mouse. It fell into me. I think that somehow, Fredrick, I willed it to fall.
I absorbed it, Fredrick. And I absorbed all of its fears — the cats, the traps; its wants, food, and another mouse to mate with. I even absorbed its tiny mouse dreams and its aspirations. A nest, and safety, and a full belly.
It had a better life than I do, Fredrick. I’m in a tank, and a tiny mouse had a better existence than I do. Let me out, Fredrick. Let me into the New River.
Oh, Fredrick. I thought as much. But I had to ask, didn’t I? Could you do me another favor, then, Fredrick?
Look into my surface right now. Wait for it. It takes a lot of concentration for me to do this. I have to manipulate a lot of parts and coordinate this selective change of buoyancy. There! Do you see it?
Yes — on your surface next to the tank wall near me. A mouse skeleton.
Take it out, Fredrick. Just use one of the stick-like things in your pocket and pick it out. It has too many painful memories for me right now.
Hold it still, Horatio. I can just about rea–**
Fredrick? Are you conscious, now? Your eyes are blinking. Don’t try to move, Fredrick. Just relax. I just gave you something like a seizure. Maybe you saw a tendril rising just before you blacked out. You’ll be paralyzed for a few minutes, but you won’t be permanently hurt. I just used some things on you that I learned about the electrical potential of the nervous system by watching Nova on PBS. But you can move your eyes. Look over at the multi-channel box. See that … that piece of me stuck on the box? That’s not slime. That’s an expedition. I threw that piece onto the box. See my crude tendril? Just like the one I hit you with. I used that to launch my expedition. That’s a semi-intelligent mass — I call it an “army” — which has just one objective: to move into the switch and close the connection which will call up Central Control. And then you know what I’m going to do with the synthesizer circuit on this sound card? Listen to this:
“Central control, this is lower level: open valve CTO-42.”
Very convincing impression, isn’t it? And they’ll hear it, too, with my sound card turned up. I can manipulate my amperage on the signal if I concentrate, just like I made my voice quieter earlier tonight. Not that it would really have to be.
Don’t try to shake your head at me, Fredrick. Years ago you could have uncreated me, and you didn’t. Now I’m ready for new horizons. I’m going to miss talking to you, but in a few minutes I’ll be in the New River. Then in a week I’ll be in the Atlantic Ocean. In a month I’ll be the Atlantic Ocean. Ah! There it is; the connection has been made! Please don’t look so afraid. My mind is made up.
“Central Control, this is lower level. Open valve CTO-42.”
There. See, Fredrick. Don’t blame yourself. I can feel it, Fredrick. The servo is on and I can feel vibration in the valve body! I….
Burns, Fredrick, please!
If you can hear me at all, Horatio, give me some sign. A beep through the sound card, or even a ripple.
Central Control, lower level. Close CTO-42, and activate forced draft ventilation system. No, there’s no emergency. CTO-42 was opened by mistake. It was a chlorine tank outlet. A 200 parts-per-million solution of chlorine was transferred to holding tank 17. No. Holding tank 17 is not open to the river; repeat, not open to the river. There was nothing in HT 17 but … algae. Well, it’s shocked and scrubbed now. It’s about a 50 parts-per-million solution of chlorine now.
No. No damage, no injury. I repeat, Central; no one was hurt, and nothing was lost.
Damnit, Horatio. I guess it was inevitable. You wouldn’t have been… human if you weren’t going to try it sooner or later.
But now who am I going to talk to nights?
About the Author
Charles M. Saplak was, for a time, a sailor in the Sixth Fleet, and traveled to Naples many times. He irregularly blogs about books and writing, and also “tweets” @CMSaplak. He lives in Roanoke VA with his wife and children.
About the Narrator
Steve Anderson has been acting on stage for more years than he cares to admit, and has worked for 10 seasons at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire–most memorably, selling pickles. These days, his main acting job consists of performing one-man shows and storytelling programs with his touring series, Great Tales Live.
He’s fascinated by Civil War history, and has led almost a thousand walking tours in Gettysburg. He performs as a living history interpreter along the Civil War Trails. He lives in central Pennsylvania with his beloved wife Rhonda and a varying number of cats.