I’ve never done satire before, so this story is a bit of a wide departure for me. Humour is a tough thing to nail down, and I have every admiration for people who are good at it. In this case, it helped that I was pretty familiar with the subject matter due to my association with places like RationalWiki and having athe-ish tendencies myself (although I retain a bit of animism for flavour). When all is said and done, I had fun writing it, and that counts for a lot.
Before any of you ask, Tanith is not a tribute to legendary SFF and horror writer Tanith Lee. Not that I don’t think she’s deserving of every accolade and tribute she gets, but in this case it was the meaning of the name that was critical.
When God arrived at the office, he was immaculate.
Of course he was. That’s what Gods do, after all. No group of beings in this universe are so fashion conscious as Gods, probably because no group of beings in this universe are so desperate to impress people. Today’s visitor was no different, right down to strolling up the street rather than simply manifesting in the hallway outside. How else would everyone see him and be suitably impressed by his straight cut, two-piece suit, with its tone-on-tone zigzag pattern with complimentary grey tie, which flattered his neatly trimmed van Dyke? A golden holy light – clearly meant to impress – emanated from behind him no matter where you stood.
I, too, watched his approach from our office window. Working with Gods was always a bother, particularly since we contractors were pressured to likewise dress up. A special wardrobe budget was set aside by necessity, quite the hardship when we were first starting out. I thought it was an enormous waste but Lily insisted that it was vital, even if I only wore the stuff for client meeting.
I stood back a few paces while Lily greeted him at the door. As expected, he had some parlour trick that made it seem like he was too large for the room to contain, even though he couldn’t have been much more than average height. Maybe he didn’t even realize he was doing it. Gods are like that.
“You’re right on time, Your Divinity. It is kind of you to come in person,” Lily said. She always was more skilled than I in business etiquette. I gave a slight bow, to indicate respect without interrupting.
“Please,” said God, flashing a charming smile. “Call me Y. I would rather save the formality for my creations.”
Again, this was to be expected. Y wasn’t his real name, and in its own way offering it was a formality in itself. Pseudonyms and little shows of manners were the games that you played in order to to operate at this level, and learning the rules was essential. I found it all rather tiring, despite being necessary.
“My name is Lily,” she said, although he already knew it, “and this is my wife and partner, Tanith. I trust that after today’s presentation you will wish to move your latest project forward with us.”
I stepped forward and shook his hand on cue. His grip was confident, not too firm. Just the right amount of pressure to indicate that he was no minor deity, desperate to impress us. I wondered if he practised it before coming.
“Getting down to business,” I said, passing him a package of documents, “you are looking for a firm who will fabricate a complete historical record for your project. Is there anything we need to know before we discuss the matter?”
Y produced a sheaf of design documents and laid them on the table. I noted that he did not open the briefcase he carried. Can’t help himself, I thought, although I kept my mouth shut. “As you are aware,” he began, “I have a world which I created ex nihilo, only a few thousand years ago by the local scale. All the usual ecosystems are in place. Weather patterns, flora and fauna, nothing you wouldn’t have seen before. The project centres around a single race of sentient beings, designed to be unable to detect my presence unless I choose to reveal myself directly.”
I took a quick glance at the project overview, which contained nothing unusual. The basics were solid, with no amateur mistakes such as inconsistent gravity. All in all standard procedure among our clients, although the non-perceptive lifeforms were a little unusual.
“I wish to retain your company to make whatever changes are required to suggest a much older world, as airtight as possible. My specifications require that the dominant species be unable to discover their true origins through independent means.”
As he spoke, I took a closer look at the documents. It was clear there was work to be done. As much as his clothing was meant to indicate professionalism, he was no expert in history. Fortunately his creations were still at a low level of technology, so their understanding of the world was superficial at best.
“I expect you’ll want a full geologic and fossil workup, with standard animal morphology and phylogenetic nesting?”
Y nodded. “Precisely, yes. It won’t be long until my creations start putting evidence together in an organized fashion, so we need to have everything in place before then. My project goals absolutely depend on this.”
“So a full planetary workup, then.” I glanced back at the plans. “What sort of time frame for the geology?”
“A few billion years should be sufficient. Nothing too ancient.”
“Multiple extinction events, sedimentary layers, deformed meteor craters, salt deposits…” I recited. “I see you have a molten core installed, so I could do some things with continental plates you might like. No extra charge on that. Might need to get a few trades involved on the detail work, but nothing that’ll stress your budget and the quality will really show.”
“I have enough flexibility on the numbers, not to worry. However,” he said, “there is one special item I’ll need you to take care of while you’re in there.”
This time I actually looked him in the face, my interest piqued. “Please, go ahead.”
“To be frank, this is all a little embarrassing. My current arrangement is a second draft of sorts. There were a few errors in my original plan, nothing too significant but I felt it best to wipe things down and restart from a smaller sample. I saved most of the organics and took the chance to redistribute them a bit more evenly, but I’m afraid it did leave a noticeable mark on the geography. If you could tidy that up I would appreciate it.”
He handed over a set of supplementary documents. Foolish mistakes mostly, but at least he learned from them. A lot of Gods would be much too stubborn. The refreshing hint of humility and creative opportunities in reconstruction improved my opinion of him a bit.
“I see no problem,” I said, already envisioning mesas and fjords. “There will be an extra fee of course, we’ll forward an estimate to your office by the end of the day.”
For the next hour or so, Y and Lily haggled over time frames, material costs, contract requirements, all the little official details. I retreated into the documents, save for when one of them needed my input on technical matters. Fortunately that process too was a sort of ritual, and eventually they came to an agreement. That was one of the benefits of a client with a professional attitude; too many Gods are capricious, making airtight contracts a necessity.
As he rose to leave, I accompanied him to the door to give Lily a shot at the plans.
“We’ll be in touch regarding commencement dates and where to place our equipment. Thank you for choosing to do business with Light Bringers, Inc.”
Lily and I founded our business not long after we got married, back in the Seventh Age. We were young and eager to make a mark for ourselves. Back then the history trade was largely made up of small, one- or two-being craft shops, and we were the first to make organized advances into the market. Mostly thanks to Lily – who’s always been the leader between us – and her head for figures. Me, I’m more the grounded, hands-on type, although I do my share of managerial work too.
The whole venture turned out better than either of us expected, and soon we had a stable roster of Gods, cosmic entities and personifications of nature looking for a professional one-stop shop where they could be confident in the results. Some of them still preferred the personal touch, and that was fine. Neither of us was so greedy that we’d demand the whole market to ourselves. In fact, we hired a lot of those same craftspeople as subcontractors whenever we could. It was an arrangement that made everyone happy.
Fabricating history from scratch on a planetary scale isn’t easy work. There’s more to it than just burying a bunch of fossils and calling it a day, like a lot of people think. There isn’t a tradesperson in the business who’d turn in such shoddy work for pay; the two of us took similar pride in our professionalism. If you weren’t willing to plan out every layer of strata and give reasons for each, map every migration pattern and keep track of transmission of parasites between regions, and account for a hundred kilometres or more of carbon layers in permanent ice, you simply weren’t doing your job. And that’s all before you even get into artifacts and documents.
Unlike Lily, a born biologist, my speciality was the big stuff. Geology, geography, climate, plus a lot of deep chemistry. Stuff I could get my hands dirty with, like placing coal and oil deposits or mapping out the beds of river canyons. I love that stuff. Don’t let anyone tell you that calibrating half-lives isn’t as fun as it is vital, because they’d be lying.
Fortunately, Y’s project was fairly straightforward, despite the whole “second draft” business. A more experienced God would have opted for a complete wipe and started from scratch, applying the lessons learned to the new design. Y chose to be stubborn, not uncommon for novice Gods, and just set a few creatures aside while he simply drowned the whole thing. I’d need some creative solutions to hide the traces, not only of the flood but all that extra water being removed afterwards. No sense getting too bothered about it though. Painting over mistakes was to be expected, and if Gods were good at this sort of thing we’d all be out of a job.
The solution this time was to dig a huge, distorted meteor crater, so big the critters would have to get into orbit before they could see it all at once. That tied in well with one of Lily’s big extinction events, plus cross-referencing with the geological strata. Even better, it’d really sell the notion that the continents were shifting around on their own over a long period. An intelligent design if I say so myself. I was so pleased that I took Lily out for dinner that night, and we had an absolutely lovely time.
So it was that I was in a pretty good mood when I went to visit her at her lab the next day. I’d just seen one of the subcontractors off, and I was all ready to report how well things were going when I stepped into a disaster area.
When I say that, I mean it literally. There were objects and tools everywhere, not just scattered about but thrown as if a whirlwind had gone through. It was like a bomb had hit, and landed on another bomb, the whole place was a shambles. Which meant I had to tread carefully, and not just in the literal sense.
Neither of us are messy workers, as a rule. I admit my workspace gets a little disorderly now and then, if I’m really caught up in my work. But I always clean up as soon as the busy spell passes. Lily’s not like that though. She’s tidy all the time, and hates for her equipment to be out of place even for a few minutes. The one exception to the rule were moments when things went sideways to the point of genuinely pissing her off. It takes a lot to make her mad, but when she is, look out!
It was a good thing I was thinking that, since just then a test tube came whizzing past, barely giving me time to get out of the way before it smashed on the far wall. A wave of cursing came after, allowing me to find her among the rubble.
“Why, that mana-besotted, cut-rate demiurge! What kind of mysterious ways does he think he’s playing at! Wait until I get my hands on that holy pain in the–” she stopped suddenly, possibly because I squeaked while dodging another object that came flying past. She blinked a couple of times, then gave her head a shake before rushing over. “Oh my stars, Tanith! Are you okay? I didn’t hit you with anything, did I?”
“I’m okay,” I said, trying to regain my composure. “Everything, uh…going well?”
She turned to me, seething. She still had enough self control to know that taking it out on me wouldn’t do any good. “Oh, everything is going fine. Or it will be once I end that eternal jackass for undermining the project. And I hope he’s omniscient enough to hear every word of this!.” She took several more breaths. “So what brings you around, anyway?”
“Oh, Phil just finished with the biodiversity crafting, so I walked him out. Figured I’d see how you were managing, but I guess not so good.”
“Ugh, I should have come around to say hi. At least get out of here for a few minutes to cool down. Don’t tell me he put in one of those beaver-duck things again?”
I laughed. “Well yeah, it’s kind of like a signature for him now. Says if we add something a little inexplicable, the creations will pay attention to that and ignore the bigger stuff.”
“Maybe, it just seems so frivolous to me. But he’s been at this a long time so it’s hard to argue. I’m just on edge because it looks like Y is pulling a fast one.”
Lily wasn’t one to make accusations lightly, so I knew something big was up. “Fair enough, let’s see what you found. You’re finalizing the archaeology, right?”
“Right. The actual paper documents, to be exact. Everything was going well and it looked like I was actually going to wrap up early. Then I found this.” She tossed me a heavy book.
At first glance it didn’t look like anything special, but a quick skim was enough to raise my eyebrows. Right there in Chapter One was a description of the very things we’d been hired to cover up. How the planet was made, who made it, plus enough information to work out its true age if you added up the numbers. Even that boneheaded thing with the water, it was all in there. Sure, there was a lot of extraneous material and whoever wrote it prettied up the language, but if you knew what to look for it was a blasted owner’s manual for the whole planet. To make matters worse, it blatantly said that the whole thing was dictated by Y, along with several direct quotes.
I looked back at my wife, whose frown had returned with a vengeance. “It’s worse than you think,” she said. “The monkey people he made are circulating it all over the place, and they talk about Y all the time. There’s no way I can remove it.”
“I just don’t get it,” I said. “Why pull a stunt like this? What does he stand to gain from undermining his own project?”
“I’ll tell you why, Tanith. It’s so he can weasel out of the deal, or at least force us to knock down the price! We take the job on condition that it’s flawless, and then he dumps this mess in our laps. He gets to claim we didn’t live up to our end and the whole contract goes up for litigation. Either we give him a big discount, or live with not getting paid until one of us is forced to settle. And who knows what kind of angel’s advocate he’s got lined up to make sure it drags out.”
I placed a hand on hers to calm her down a bit. “Maybe you’re right, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. For now, we should just finish the job as professionally as we can, and document the whole mess. If it does go to court, that’ll be good for our side. You’re right though, this whole thing smells fishy, and not just because I spent the past three weeks underwater.”
“I guess you’re right. I’m still mad though, and he’ll be getting an earful once we get him back in the office.”
“Amen to that, my love,” I said, giving her a kiss on the cheek.
As he had before, Y appeared at the meeting flawlessly dressed. This time he had traded the businesslike charcoal for a more flashy navy pinstripe with a baby blue ascot. The cut was sharp, to contrast his slightly longer, fluffier beard. The ambient holy light had shifted into the orange to compliment his overall colour scheme. He was ready to do business, and the two of us were in a fine mood to oblige.
The two of us were dressed for battle, with matching pant suits. Black for me, white for her. We had decided to both wear heels, an unusual choice since I’m fairly tall and don’t like to tower over her. But if there was going to be a showdown, I was willing to take every advantage I could. We wouldn’t lose against his business tricks, and his stylist wasn’t going to beat us either.
Nevertheless, his greeting was cordial rather than confrontational. There was no trace of tension, and he seemed genuinely pleased to see us again. It was possible he was just a very good actor and would play his hand once the meeting started, but for now it was hard to imagine him scheming for a discount. I stole a glance at Lily, but she seemed as clueless – if still wary – as I was.
Getting down to business, I ran through the work we’d done without mentioning the book. We managed to complete under budget, which pleased him greatly. It was work I could be proud of; despite the issue of his tampering with the documents, a part of me just wanted to show off. Y did seem impressed, particularly with how I’d molded the coastlines on the large scale. “Just like puzzle pieces, how clever! Once they get it all mapped out, they’ll be sure everything started as one big mass. Never would have thought of that.”
Lily stepped in before I could start preening. “We are quite pleased that you’re satisfied with our work, sir. However, we still need to bring up one final matter. Tanith, if you would?”
I nodded. Despite her being the expert, we couldn’t be sure she would keep her cool on this matter, a reversal of our usual roles. But if my wife believed I could be the dependable, cool-headed one for a change, then I’d do it even if it killed me.
“During the final phase of the project, the two of us conducted a survey of extant documentation created by your dominant species regarding their origins. Just in case edits were required to throw them off the track, you understand. In the course of our investigation, we discovered this.” Punctuating my statement, I laid the book in front of Y, who appeared unfazed.
“Go on,” he said, almost casually.
“This document, which had been widely circulated among your creations, contains detailed information on the creation of the planet. So accurate, in fact, that the information within could only have come directly from your own design notes. We have determined that it is not possible at their current level of technology that they could have discovered any of this via independent means. The only explanation is that this document was introduced by an outside source, and I guarantee that it was not either of us nor any of the tradespeople we work with. That is to say, we are convinced that you yourself planted it there for unknown reasons.”
There was a pause. Unsurprising since I’d just accused a God, and even worse, a client, of blatantly unethical behaviour. A few tense moments passed where I wondered just how far I’d walked over the line, before something unexpected happened. He started to laugh.
Not a bitter laugh, nor hysterical. A genuinely jolly, good natured laugh. All I could do was blink hard a couple of times, since I wasn’t in on the joke, and let him laugh himself out. Finally, he drew a deep, cleansing breath. “I must apologize to you both. You are correct, this was entirely my fault. But I honestly didn’t mean any harm.”
Shocked out of our confrontational posture, Lily was the first to recover, speaking with genuine curiosity. “I’m willing to accept there was no malice on your part, and this had nothing to do with subverting our contract, but could you explain just what happened here?”
“Certainly,” said Y happily. “It was all a huge misunderstanding due to an error on my part. The document in question should have been part of the design from the start, you see. But somehow there was a page missing in the documents I provided to you at our last meeting. Even the infallible is bound to make a mistake, I suppose.”
“So it was definitely deliberate, then?” I asked.
“Oh, yes! In fact it’s critical to the whole project. Part of the point, you might say.”
Now I was definitely curious. “Could you elaborate, please?”
“Yes, yes,” he said with a wave of the hand. “It’s quite simple, really. These leaks and the rumours I’ve started to go with them are intended as a way to test my creations. The reason I came to you is because your work is without equal in the business, leaving no possible way they could discern their origins without help.”
“So you introduced a document without any evidence to back it up in order to detect which ones would believe in you without proof?”
“Just so! Those able to honestly do so are a special breed among their kind, and are precious in my sight. The end result of my project is to generate such souls and identify them among the general population. It is highly important that I am able to call only those with the purest belief to my side.”
“So what is it that makes these souls in particular so special?”
Once again, God smiled. But this time I caught a glint in his eye, and just for a moment a flash of too-sharp teeth. I shivered.
“Because they’re the most delicious, of course!”