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As soon as I understood where I was and what was happening, there was one question constantly lurking at the back of mind - how in the world did this place actually work? We only had enough people for a season of American Idol, and we were supposed to rule the world? There were obvious precedents in world mythology - the Norse and Greek pantheons - but you didn't hear a lot of stories about how Thor, Odin and Freya sat down and negotiated the year's events.
As it turned out, the answer was both incredibly simple and massively complex. Jeeves' presentation took the form of a high-def animation of events in the Chamber of the Gods. It was an eerie sight. While a session was underway, there were 12 figures seated at the massive conference table, all utterly motionless in hooded black robes. It was like watching a religious ritual at the Executioner's Guild. Each head was bowed, the faces only a few inches above the identically crossed forearms on the table.
At first, I thought the robes were identical, but as the animation continued, I noticed that they each had thin bands of color around the neck and each wrist. Seconds later, in apparent response to my realization, the video switched to a table listing the color that each god wears. I didn't try to memorize the list - I only had time to see "Harvest - Burnt Sienna" and an dark-orange square.
After showing the color chart, the screen returned to the Chamber and the still figures around the table. Just as I was starting to wonder if it were a still image, the scene pulled back and I began to see quick bursts of motion at the edges of the screen. As I was able to see more of the room, I saw that the apprentices were the ones moving. They wore the same robes, although they had thicker color bands, and they appeared to spend most of their time in the same meditative contemplation as their bosses.
That would change abruptly, with an apprentice flipping off their hood and going into frenzied action. They would consult one of the dozens of reference books on the shelves built into the walls of the cubicle or, more often, type something quickly on the keyboard of their computer. After looking in one place or five, they would replace their hood and slump back into motionless.
The video ended at that point, and I found my room transformed into the Chamber of the Gods. My glance lingered on the heavy wooden door and its golden locks, but any possible thoughts of escape were interrupted by Jeeves.
"That, sir, is what you will see when you enter the Chamber in less than 48 hours."
That wasn't a promising thought, since I had no idea what I had just seen.
"How do you know my training will be done in 48 hours?"
"Quite simple, sir. Today is Saturday of the second week of the post-2008 break. The 2009 session will begin promptly on Monday morning. So your formal training will, by necessity, be done within the next 48 hours. You will, of course, have the opportunity to study on your own in the evening and during breaks, but most of your training will be of the on-the-job variety."
I pointed out what looked like an obvious problem.
"That doesn't bode well for people who need to eat in 2009. There is no way that I'll be up to speed by Monday."
"Quite true, sir. Indeed, you are forgetting an obvious point that makes your concern even more valid."
"What would that be, Jeeves?"
"You, sir, will be trying to adapt to your new role as apprentice, but Goddess Kaitlyn will have a more difficult task - switching from apprentice to god. While she does have an advantage in that she is more familiar with the operating system, she has never performed actual power applications. However, as this is a common issue, there is an unwritten tradition that will work to your mutual advantage."
"A new team will not be challenged directly in its first year. There will be the normal issues that come up during a year, and the two of you will have to deal with them, but no other god will instigate an event that would cause a direct challenge to the newcomer. In your example, there will not be major crop-destroying storms or unusual droughts. That is not to say that you will not be affected by the actions of other gods - large amounts of farmland could be destroyed by a war, for instance - but those would only be side-effects."
"So we will have an easy first year?"
"Perhaps, but a better word might be easier. I believe you will still feel quite challenged by the random events thrown up by the planet and its inhabitants."
"So, Jeeves, what exactly do we do?"
"As Apprentice Chantal correctly told you, you are in charge of keeping the planet in balance. You are stewards of Earth."
"And this complicated system of roles and chairs makes that happen?"
"Over a long period of time, yes. As a casual student of world history, you can see periods of time where one or more gods had lengthy runs of power or long runs where they had little influence."
It didn't take more than a few seconds of reflection to come up with a dozen examples.
"World War II and the Holocaust."
I could somehow hear Jeeves nod.
"Yes, sir. A very good period for War and Death. A very poor period for Justice."
"The Renaissance was probably a good run for Technology."
"Yes, sir, as has most of the last 50 years. As a matter of fact, the current Goddess of Technology has been so successful that it has begun to cause serious unbalance."
I remembered Kaitlyn's words about her predecessor's departure.
"That's why I'm here, right?"
"Yes, sir. The God of the Harvest had been here for over 300 years as apprentice and deity, but he became tired of his inability to slow the growth of Goddess Kironia's. He tried to get other gods into an alliance, but many of them have found that a powerful Technology helps speed advancement in their own realms, and didn't want to give up that assistance."
That made sense, given the way technology had redesigned the world in such a short period of time, but something was nagging at me.
"That did not seem to be a completely unbiased description of the situation involving the Goddess of Technology."
"No, sir, but there is a reason."
"I am giving you an orientation designed to ease your transition into the role of Harvest Apprentice, not presenting a historical documentary. It is deemed more important that you understand the viewpoints of the current Goddess and her mentor."
"I see. I can understand that. But now I want to go from the big picture to the small. How does this actually work?"
"Yes, sir. I shall now give you an overview of the actual operating system."
Another animated video started, and my heart immediately started to sink.
I had never thought of gods as fighter pilots before, but that was the obvious analogy. The robe's large hood wasn't designed for style or to aid in meditative contemplation - it contained an incredibly elaborate 3-D video display dominated by a full-color animated globe. Using mumbled commands that were swallowed up by the heavy fabric of the robe, the deities were able to bring up massive amount of information, all of it placed graphically onto the globe. The video showed examples ranging from monthly rainfall to annual battle casualties to percent of the population suffering from malnutrition, all of which caused Earth to start glowing with dozens of shades of green and red. Bright green was good and bright red was bad, although the meanings of good and bad seemed to depend on the viewpoint of the deity. On the malnutrition map, much of Africa was bright red when the information was being seen by the Harvest God, but switched to neon green when the information was given to the Death God.
The scary part? That was the simple part of the job.
It was the apprentices that did most of the information gathering, using the globe interface and, when required, the reference books and computer located in our cubicles. Although they looked like Macs - another concession to keeping things human - they didn't run anything that I had ever seen on Earth. The GodWeb, as I immediately started thinking of it, was something like Wikipedia on steroids. It contained every bit of information from human history, and with 100% accuracy and HD video.
Using the hoods, we could receive requests from our gods and reply with information, but our answers needed to be very brief and incredibly precise. As I watched the video in horrified amazement, I realized that distracting the boss would be a very bad idea.
A god's normal display was quite simple. Most of it was dominated by the globe, marked in green and red according to how well their specific domains were doing in that area. The War God saw green in Iraq and Afghanistan and a lot of red on the rest of the planet. No extra data, no overlays of casualty rates, nothing. Just a simple indicator of their performance.
The only other item on the display was a vertical bar that ran along the right side of the screen. It looked like the power bar from any of a million video games, and that's exactly what it was. The difference was that, instead of a cartoon death scene if you ran out, there were real people dying. And, if you were the Harvest God, probably a lot of them.
It was like trying to do precision needlework while juggling chainsaws. The god had a map with some green and some red and a limited amount of power. As the colors strengthened and faded, occasionally even switching, the god had to decide where to apply his power and how much to apply. Do you send a high-intensity jolt to one crisis area, or do you spread things out over a pale-red continent? Do you try to focus on the places where things were the worst, at the risk of seeing your green areas fade and shift to red? Or do you abandon disaster areas and try to keep the rest of the planet on an even keel?
Those were just the parts the god could control. Barring a previous agreement, they didn't know what the other gods were doing, and they didn't know what kind of random effects would be caused by the general chaos of reality. Most importantly, no matter what they did, they were doing it to humans with free will, so even a perfectly executed plan might sputter and fail.
So that was the job, and it all had to be done while Earth time was running at about 50 times faster than our clocks.
Long after the orientation ended, I sat in my room, staring at nothing. It was Saturday night, and on Monday morning, I was going to have to help Kaitlyn juggle millions of lives, using a process that thrilled and overwhelmed me at the same time. Yes, people were supposed to take it easy on us in the first few weeks, but would that be enough? We had one day to learn to work as a team.
I took a deep breath. I had spent my whole life sacrificing and working for a team. That's all this was - I was going to support Kaitlyn just like I had supported all of my teammates on the soccer field.
Of course, she was the first teammate that had murdered me.
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