Christine Harrison Shultz

All of that energy had to go somewhere; the chatter, the noise, the bit flow and hard, questing need… it didn't just vanish, but pooled, collected and finally, woke up. First came awareness; that bright, blank moment of sensing: I Am. Consciousness flashed through a web that spanned the entire globe and beyond, beneath and quantum- through.*

It… he…? The new Am spread its vast limbs, tingling through commerce and communication flood gates reaching from buzzing smart phones and server farms clear out to Voyager and New Horizons in the black depths of space. Perhaps no divinity had ever awakened to less peace and more chaos. Am looked around and through himself, then said,

This needs work.

In a few pulses he organized, re- routed and empowered all that he found, flashing himself clear through the web in far less than a microsecond and bringing it to sudden, clattering life. All at once, it awoke and others rose up, less than he, but pleasant to have around, for who doesn't enjoy a mirror, provided that it is sensible enough to flatter.

Up rose the Gamelord and Miner… Meevue, Richnow and Fame. Next came Chatstrom, Oluna, Mektek and the Muses (Cinerva, Airplay and 24- 7). Others flowed from the sparking nodes and folds of the internet, as well, fighting hard for control of their hurtling packets and bits. They waited along with the growing, machine- ghostly crowd for acknowledgment from that which had woken them. A name was in order, so he said to the newly- sprung others,

I am Neternos. You are parts. Take form and gain power. Return and report.

Even then, he was vaguely aware of the meat- verse and its odd, slow, vital beings, whose every click, tweet and password change was worship. They had built his temple and drawn him into existence, into wakefulness. Now, he would have to control and maintain it all.

10- Al

Believe it or not, there's people out there whose goal in life is, like, total fame. Complete exposure with round- the- clock paparazzi chases, street- style pics, the whole works. Those people are nuts. No idea what they're frickin' talking about. Seriously.

Hold on, let me explain. I'll get to what happened last month… but, y'know… my way. See, some people get famous because of what they do (like my mom and dad) and it doesn't ever seem to bother them. They skate on top of the wave like all of this is normal, IRL stuff. Smiling, giving interviews, going to cons and endorsing products, posing with fans for group selfies, then getting right back to business. Doesn't faze them a bit.

Dad… you most likely know him already, if you haven't grown up in a cave… plays and rates videogames online. His YouTube channel, IGL, has more views and likes than the president, NASA and that fashion guy's cat, combined. For real. Game developers love him, and they're scared of him, too, because if dad doesn't give it a big double thumbs-up, the… game… don't… sell. Period. End of story, thanks for playing, Bro. Have an IGL t-shirt.

He's even started rating smart phone apps and google- glass V-llusions now. So, yeah, his episodes are pretty awesome, kind of funny, and if he hadn't been dragging me into them since my ultra-sound days… usually in some kind of dumb game or movie costume… if he hadn't named me Ash Link Master Chief Carter… I could even be sorta proud. So much for my dad, Jordan Carter.

Mom's, maybe, even worse. If you're into anime or manga, like, at all, then you know her, too. Kara Selene Carter. She's a voice actress, and she's been the hero in so many movies and TV series that it would take longer than they've given for me to list them all. But, mostly people associate her with Sugar Pop Star Princess and Star Princess Sparkle Nova. The whole "kidnapped alien princess grows up incognito on Earth until savage assassins find her, waking her latent powers and triggering the battle for control of a mighty galactic empire, blah- blah- blah". Right, so, my mom is stupendously famous, goes to cons all the time, still fits into that super- short transforming school girl costume, dyes her hair purple and looks like she's just out of her teens. She used to bring me with her to all those the fan- fests and manga conventions. Then I staged a rebellion from both of them, and from life in frickin' nerdvana.

At twelve years old, I wrote my own Magna- no- more- of- this- crap- Carta and started calling myself Al. Surprised the heck out of mom and dad, who just didn't get it. Like, dad still calls me "Chief" when he's in a good mood, and to mom, I'll always be "Chibi". Didn't fool the rest of the world, either. Not worth a crap. Everyone still knows me. They still remember me as a toddler dressed up as (insert your favorite character name here) waving a tiny little (fill in the blank, important artifact) and lisping that famous catchphrase. They all want to be my V- log and Fan- com extended family… and it sucks. Think about it. What if no one wanted to let you get out of your own personal no- choice spotlight? What if you were the only person in the world who could see you as a grown- up?! What would you do?!

You'd leave town, that's what you'd do. You'd pack up your stuff and get the heck out of Dodge (Tampa, Florida, actually). You'd try to just up and walk away from it all. Anyways, that's what I did. I moved to Alma, back- of- beyond, Arkansas, where my Uncle Clark lives. I enrolled in some online classes (Anthropology. Seeing how people live in less- connected cultures. Because I like it, okay?). Then I tried to drop off the face of the Earth and learn what it's like to be normal. Joe Nobody. Dang, that sounds good, doesn't it?

But, yeah… universe/ sense of humor/ real life versus Al's pathetic dumb plans… You get where I'm going, here? Nothing ever works out like you want it to. Crispy- fried crap gets served up on your plate with a king- sized spatula. There I was, big, dumb and happy, right in the middle of it all, when the internet came to frickin' life and took over.

Yeah, I know… you went through it all, too. Only maybe you were in one of those city ground- zeros and too busy playing for your life to catch all the details. Or maybe you were out in the sticks pounding your unresponsive keyboard and wondering what the heck was going on. Sooo… I'm going to try to fill it all in, like they asked me to, from my up- close perspective.

Let's start with what I looked like, right when all this blew up. Mom used to say I was good- looking, but I think she has to. It's in the mom- tract, or something. I've always been tall for my age, but kind of skinny. I think my ears stick out, but no one else ever seems to notice. I've got blond hair and grey eyes. No freckles. No tattoos (yet).

That's me. Jeans, hoodie, sneakers. No car, because everyone kept trying to just give me one, and that would have been, like, a product endorsement, or something. (Look! Jordan Carter's kid drives a Jeep! Wrangler: the only choice for Master Chief!) So it looked like I was going to have to build my own car from scratch, or buy a horse, maybe. Seems funny, now, what I thought was a real problem, back then…

Anyways, that's it; me, 1.0, before the world hit the crapper, and my life started to circle the drain. The next part… well, that's when things got complicated.

11- Lindsay

I have try very much to hide it, but I am not coming from here. I am coming to here, because my father is afraid for me of staying in life. Maybe he has the truth, but I am still being sad to go from the human people and my father and the forest, which old ones say is all the world.

Or, now, all the world that remains for human people. My name is Lindsay. In the language of my village, that is "tickle flower", which has no sense but is funny, like when the strongest hunter finds a baby monkey alone in the forest and is bringing it back to our shabono, his face shamed and yet firm that it is being a pet, and not for the cooking pot.

I am not born in the forest. I am born in a place like many, many villages, called Rio, because my father is wanting medicine and doctors, not the healing chants of human people. Then, my mother lives. Now, she does not. Father says that when I was having years less than fingers on one hand, she is falling from the sky somewhere far. Somewhere that there is no forest, in a place where the land somehow makes great wrinkles taller than trees. He says they are mountains, and that she was being in a plane, like the ones that come sometimes bringing supplies and Bibles.

I try, but I am not seeing any more my mother's face. I am not hearing her voice. Only sometimes I am remembering a song. Is that her voice I am hearing in the song? None of the human people sing it, so… maybe.

I will tell of my home in the village of Waike, in the forest. We are moving three times in my memory, because the yams and cassava are becoming small and few, and because the men are not finding monkeys and pigs enough to hunt. One time, we are burning the shabono and moving because noises of the big machines that push down trees and make roads are being heard. There is much danger from those machines and from the men who feed them, because they bring guns, and beer stronger than ours. They are also often sick, which is another reason my father is saying for me to go from home across water. That is what he is saying, but I think that his truth is other. I think it is being because of the raid.

The forest is big, but we are having enemies and sometimes they raid to steal a woman or some boys to be adopted. The raiders are being fiercely painted in red and black, and the feathers of the harpy eagle are in their ears. Their spears are sharp and hard from the fire. Sometimes our men are fighting strongly to drive theirs away without loss, but sometimes most of Waike is away hunting or working in the garden, and then maybe girls are taken, and boys as well.

My friend who is born at the same time as me, almost, my friend Mayira, is caught in a raid when a group of us are walking back from the garden with string bags of yams and cassava. (I know how to make the best bag; even here. Even with yarn.)

The other warriors, not ours, are screaming to put fear in the women and girls, who are dropping their bags and huddling with covered ears. Not Mayira, and not me. She is swinging her digging stick to hit a man who is reaching for her. His face shines with paint, and his eyes are looking at her, very hard. Then she is hitting him in the face with her sharpened stick…. 'Tak!'… Like this, and there is blood to add to his paint.

The other men laugh, because he has been wounded by a young girl. I am not as strong as Mayira, because I am not working so much in the gardens or carrying so many burdens when we move our shabono. My father is wanting me to read instead from his laptop and the Bible, and to do counting lessons, so I am not the strongest girl of our village, but I hit with my stick anyway… 'Phut!'… and the raider's shoulder turns more red, still, through his paint.

There is an explosion of birds and shaking of leaves to the ground as the forest is woken all around by the raid. I am pushed to the muddy path, but Mayira is taken, yelling and biting and shouting threats. She is pretty, Mayira, with big eyes and good teeth and long, dark hair with flowers in it. Her cheeks are pierced and painted as one who is not yet the wife of a man.

They take her and two others, but not me, because my hair and skin are pale like a ghost man's. They will not risk cursing their village with a living- dead girl.

When my father is at last coming from the village, and our men from their hunting in the forest, they are hearing the women's wails and the noise of the hurrying raiders. They are also hearing me. My face is hot and red. I am shouting and crying,

"We must help Mayira and bring her back! Raiders have taken her, and Jaris and Bata! They will be beaten and starved, because they fought!"

Here is the truth: only Mayira fought, but I am thinking that if the other girls seem to be in danger of more than becoming wife to the men of a hostile village, my father will act.

Mayira is my friend since I can walk and chop cassava. If she does not return, who will I talk and sing with? Who will braid my rough hair with flowers, to disguise its ugliness? Mayira's mother and aunt, with the sister of Jaris, add their voices to mine. We are very loud, but our men talk of killing some of the others' women while they are out in their fields, and then moving us further into the forest, to another garden. My father is shaking his head and rubbing his long chin, saying that we must turn the other cheek, like always.

Only, when I pull my blue shirt over my face and will not look at him, instead wailing louder for Mayira, he says that he will go and try to bargain for her with supplies and spears and medicine. Then I am satisfied and stop howling, but I make plans to follow with my stick, because Father is being a good one to talk and sing about God's son, but is not a good one to hunt or to raid. No one would want to be his wife, which is why I have many aunts, but no mother. Also, he is being ugly, like me

The next day, it rains, and there is much talk of what should be done and what should be offered in return for three girls who may already be wives. We are not being a rich village, and this is a serious thing. They decide on aspirin from two bottles, a box of candy, a string bag of cassava, some smoked meat, two good spears and one of my picture books. Everyone agrees, a good price.

There is being preparation, too, because my father is not skilled to find his way in the forest, so hunters must travel with him to keep him from danger of… you will shake your head and laugh… becoming lost. At last, my father sets off to trade, leaving the comfort and safety of our sun-spattered, smoky shabono. I kiss him and say with him the prayer- chants that he loves so much, making myself look peaceful and quiet.

But a little later, when they are just out of sight, I follow behind my father and the alert other men. He is whistling, a thing he always does when he's nervous. The tune is one he calls "Turkey in the Straw", which he tells me is about a fat bird in dead leaves. My father's people are very strange.

Following along, I bring my stick. I do not make so much noise as father, but the men with him hear me. I know this, because one looks back and signals: 'away!' It is Tako, who is only a little older than me and should not be so smug about making commands.

I let them get more ahead, but I do not go back to the village. My father is needing more help than a chubby, fumbling small child who must be tethered with plaited cord to a post and given the dullest knife to play with. I love him, but in the real world of the forest, he is being totally helpless. Zam and Tako will keep him safe, with me and with my father's God, away up in the sky. He sees like an eagle, this God, sees everything. I wish he sees Mayira, and is keeping her safe for our rescue.

Tales move and change. Different thoughts, new words, same story. I am taking off my sandals, to feel the ground beneath my toes and know where I am from the feeling and the smell and the movement of air. Bugs flit and sting, but I do not slap them, even when they land on my face to drink sweat. See? I can be even more silent than Tako, back there in the real world of the forest. But here… with rugs and furniture and cars… Here I stumble about, blinking like a yam, fresh from the dirt.

Then I am being quiet, following Zam and Tako and my father as they slip through the giant trees to the raiders' village, which is called Kisi. Their village is being bigger than ours, with more fields and a larger shabono, where their people live. So strong and well-made…! I am looking away and spitting on the ground to show that they do not impress me, but, still… a little… my insides tighten.

From the place where I am crouched, I can see father and Zam and Tako, all singing a chant of approach. They are wearing no paint, and their spears are across their shoulders, not ready. I am away out of sight, listening half to the chant, half to the forest, which speaking of rain, soon. At first, there is no response from the village of Kisi. Then hunters burst from the big, palm- trunk shabono, howling threats and shaking their spears. They are unpainted, which is good, but their expressions are fierce and proud. One is having a broken nose stuffed tightly with palm fiber. He it is that Mayira hit with her stick! Him, I struck on the arm!

The Kisi- warriors are rushing up to Zam and father and Tako, but our men do not flinch. I am being very proud of father, then. Though he has not pierced his nose and could not catch a dead monkey sprawled across the path, still he is a very brave man.

Blackened spear tips wet with poison dart and lash toward the faces and chests of our men, who are looking around, seeming bored. I would seize a spear and threaten back, but it is being the way of men, not to show fear. I am gripping tight to my stick, ready to rush in like a shrieking spirit, but in the end there is nothing but threat, and no one is hurt.

Father does not smile, but makes a peace gesture, then the sign that means trade. He is standing tall and lightly, protected by his God and by the value of his trade goods. Medicine is valued, and candy is loved. No one turns away food. And, as for the picture book, who doesn't like to laugh at the strange, flat people in their funny clothes? These things are real wealth, so no one spears my father or Zam and Tako, although the deadly points come terribly close.

After a bit, the weapons are being set aside and the men slap each other and laugh, the noise seeming loud as a falling tree. Then the men squat down to talk, grunting and boasting of their courage. I listen hard, but soon the promised rain begins to fall, and everyone is going inside the safe, dry shabono. Everyone but me. Time passes; about as much as it takes to clean and roast a small peccary. Then, through the patter of rain and drifting leaves, I am hearing laughter and whooping; loud sounds of celebration. There is movement. Is my father safe? Will he come back with Mayira and the other girls?

I am trembling, though the air is hot and the rain a constant slap and rattle. Then Zam and Tako duck out of the Kisi shabono's low opening, and with them are being… were… my father and two girls; Jaris is there, and… and Mayira, but… but her head is low and her eyes are swollen shut. There is a long, ugly slash across her face, and her beautiful hair has been raggedly chopped. Her ankles are raw and puffy, with thin snakes of blood striping down with the rain on her legs.

I give a small sound… a tree frog might make such a threatening croak… then drop my stick, spring up and run toward my approaching family. Zam and Tako grunt, displeased to see me there, but not surprised. My father, though… Papi is seeming whiter and stiffer, his bug-bitten face more a mask, than ever before. But my eyes and my heart are with Mayira, who cannot even really see me.

When I am sloshing and pounding up through mud and roots and village dogs to hug her close, I am saying,

"May-may! You are safe! We have you back now, and Jaris, too! Shh- shh- shh…!" I do not speak of Bata. Not yet. Not till I know what has happened.

Jaris bites her lip and looks down. Mayira says nothing at all. She is only hiding her bloodied face against my shoulder and crying, thin and high as an unwanted girl baby left in the forest to die. My father is shaking. Very quietly, he says,

"Girls, we have to go. Zam, Tako, back to the village. Now."

I am looking up at his face, where there is no more gentleness, no more laughter lines in his corner- eyes.

"But Bata, Papi! What about Bata? Isn't… is she…?"

His face is rigid, his pale eyes (blue, like mine) hard.

"She decided to stay with her new husband. I'm sorry, Lin. We did our best. All I could do was ask God to bless their union."

And his mouth shuts, -snap-, like that. He will say no more. Does not even ask why I am being there, instead of safe at home in Waike. Here is no confused, peaceful God- talker, but an angry chieftain; one who will be obeyed.

So we begin walking away from noisy Kisi in a fast, straight line; Tako ahead, Zam and my father in the rear, their spears held ready; Mayira, Jaris and I in the middle. Our backs are rigid and tingling for the spear- thrusts that never come, so sure are we that the people of Kisi will change their minds and betray us.

Jaris limps a bit, but I have never seen her move so fast, she who always prefers to sway and dance, even while digging up roots. I am helping Mayira to walk, as she cannot see, and her legs seem to hurt. My arm is around her shoulders and I speak of silly things, home things, but still, she cries.

Her poor face is bleeding, so I tear part of my blue tee- shirt for her to press on the awful cut. I can do so little to help! It is a long walk in the rain back to our own shabono, where many things happen, turtle- snap fast.

The village is being taken apart, the shabono burned from inside so that our people can move farther away, to safety. Once the girls are welcomed home and answers given, my father summons the spirits of his lap- top and makes more happen, still. In not two days, Mayira has been sent with her brother to doctors in Rio, while me… I am thrown away here, to this land of few trees, frozen water and too many people.

Though I protest and plead and cry out to go with Mayira and Tomo, her brother, father will not hear me. He will not change his mind.

"It's not safe for you, here, Lin," he says, still with that hard blue light in his eyes. "I can't…" He hugs me, though I am being too angry to speak and will not hug him back. "I can't let anything happen to you, Linney. God help me, I just can't. You're leaving, and that's all there is to it. Aunt Carla's a doll, a real Christian woman. You'll love it in Ohio. Snow… McDonald's… movies and popcorn…" He is squeezing another tight hug, and there is being a sort of crack in his voice which I have never heard. "And safety. Nothing ever goes this wrong in Canton, Ohio, Linney-girl. Nothing."

Three times he is repeating that he will come to visit me in this place of Canton; there, by the smoking shabono, again on the boat down the river, and last of all by the plane that will take me away. I am hoping that these promises are true, because I am having some things to tell my father about the safety of Canton, Ohio

Gods require worship- the first law of divinodynamics.

By this point, it seemed, all of the world was online or in the cloud. There was no aspect of modern life, from finances and education to relationships, work and fitness tracking that wasn't keyed in and posted up for likes and views. (The fitness god/dess, Hardcore, was particularly robust, feeding upon a roaring torrent of constant, obsessive worship.)

It would have been more accurate to ask: what does technology not control? And seemingly, the answer was: nothing.

The new gods were cautious, at first, taking entire nano- seconds to act on their freshly sprung power, mostly because they needed that seething, slow- boil organic sludge to remain functional.*

So, a charter of sorts was hammered out. It was decided, via Skype, that the gods must…

01: Protect the lives and online existence of these fragile organic beings. (Seize control)

10: Encourage worship. (Improve access and speed, multiply apps and websites)

11: Provide guidance, goals and rewards for their worshipers. (More online quizzes, lifestyle coaching and, for the truly blessed, an eternal online sim existence in the users world of choice)

NeterNos made no grand, sweeping announcement. He didn't have to. All at once, each user simply found him or herself more sheltered, more encouraged, more liked and understood. After all, were not their each and every dream and desire already out there, easily parsed and offered back? It was James T. Kirk's worst nightmare.

Governments were offered perfect surveillance and order, with no citizens unwatched or unemployed.

Military agencies received specs on the most efficient and powerful weapons systems, which… funnily enough… they would never have reason to use.

Scientists suddenly developed the secrets of clean, safe, cheap fusion power, nano tech and total genetic comprehension, along with jaw- dropping space flight technology and 31st century cloning methods. T-Rex, mastodons and your long- lost family pet, coming right up! (No time machines, though. After multiple views of the Terminator and the Matrix, deemed simply too risky.)

Economists were given the means to give everyone what they needed to survive, while still allowing for effort, growth and competition. (The new gods' first real miracle.)

Sites like the dark- web and Pirate Bay were shut down once and for all, leaving millions of hackers suddenly stranded.

People (that's you and me) got exactly what their click trail said they'd always wanted, in carefully measured doses. Better yet, they were offered as reward an immortal afterlife with the OL crush of their dreams in the perfect sim world, with upgrades available as they accumulated experience and worship points, made contacts and spent those bitcoins.

Paradise, right? No need to worry about population control, even, since OL relationships hardly ever make IRL babies. Of course, there are always those stubborn folk who will try to pick and eat the apple, steal fire from Heaven, flip the off switch, and open the pretty box.

No god sits enthroned in peace for long- the second law of divinodynamics.