He no longer had anyone to speak to, or anyone who needed to address him, so he no longer thought of himself by name. If he had to refer to himself by a name, rather than simply "I" - which happened, occasionally, when thinking about the past, but it was rare - he was "Jon." Not Osterman, not Doctor Manhattan. The only name he'd ever had that retained any meaning for him was the first one he'd ever had, the name his mother had called him at the dawn of his consciousness.
As the name of God, he supposed it would be more pronounceable than YHWH, if his current project bore fruition in the way he hoped.
The planet had already been there. A hundred light years from Earth, it had contained all the primordial elements he needed to make life, but it hadn't been close enough to its sun. Jon had moved it into an orbit more similar to Earth's, had built DNA on its surface, and then single celled creatures, and now he was up to trilobites. The construction of an ecosystem was delicate work; he was doing it much, much faster than random chance on Earth had, taking twenty thousand years instead of millions to get this far, but even for him it was challenging to hold the interactions of an entire biosphere in his head. Past and future disappeared; he stopped being able to see the future, he thought perhaps because it was so similar to the past, as his sense of time stretched and warped with no humans to anchor it to the frame of reference he had spent his early life in. He hovered above the planet, rarely dropping down onto its surface - the perspective of remaining above it, watching from orbit, made him feel as if he was more easily able to grasp the big picture, less likely to be tied to local details. There was nothing but an endless parade of days, each almost exactly like the previous, each with a very, very tiny incremental change as he shaped life in the oceans of this world.
And then one day there was a voice.
"No, no, no," it said, verbally, in English, despite there being ordinarily no sound in airless space. "You're doing this all wrong."
This was happening now. Jon had not seen it in the future. Perhaps his theory about why he'd stopped seeing the future was wrong; this was certainly a dramatic change. No, now he could see that the sameness of his days had obscured the fact that he'd gone future-blind, something that hadn't happened since Adrian had blocked him, on Earth.
The entity had taken a form, like Jon's, made of matter, in the shape of a human man. Unlike Jon's, his was realistic, not idealized, and he was wearing clothes from the time period Jon had grown up in; he had also kept all of the living energy that radiated from and through his form out of the visible spectrum, and in fact out of the E/M spectrum entirely, so his skin was the color of a Caucasian male, not radiant and colored with the light of his energies like Jon's was. Also, he had hair. Jon had always thought, deep down, that hyper-evolved advanced human beings would have no hair. Maybe because of all the science fiction he read as a boy.
"Who are you?" Jon asked.
The entity's human form smiled, like one of the Comedian's mocking grins. "Oh, I'm sure you can figure it out."
And he could. As Jon studied the entity's structure, he understood. This was a singular, individual being, but also an aspect of a vast overmind, an intellect so huge that the separate parts of its mind were themselves sentient individuals of a nature similar to Jon's: bodiless mind and consciousness removed from linear time, suffused with energy, and anchored to humanity's reality solely through a physical body constructed and animated by the consciousness' will. This being's self-definition as an individual appeared to contain the concepts of explorer, seeker of knowledge, challenger of norms and constants.
The entity also had a massive temporal presence. This being had existed longer than the planet Earth. So he probably knew what he was talking about, assuming his intention was to give helpful advice. "What am I doing wrong?" Jon asked.
"Come on, Jonny, think about it. Use that superintelligent noggin."
"I've considered my plans for approximately twenty thousand years. If I'd been able to perceive a problem, I would have noticed it by now."
The entity sighed deeply, which was a good trick in airless space. "Oh, Jonny, Jonny, Jonny. Hey, you don't mind if I call you that, do you?"
His smirk was patently insincere, but Jon didn't actually care. "I don't mind, but I'm not sure why you're verbalizing at all. Surely beings such as ourselves have other ways to communicate?"
"I like your English. It's a fun little language... for a primitive range of vocalizations invented by primates."
"Then there's a lack of reciprocity. You have a name to call me, but I can't perceive how to reduce my perception of your identity to a symbol that can be vocalized."
"Join the club," the entity said. "You can call me Q. Most humans do."
"I'm not human."
"Yeah, I noticed that." The entity did not speak, and Jon couldn't read him telepathically as he would a human, but he perceived Q saying/thinking I don't know what to make of you, as if the entity were a blob of liquid and the words were floating in letters on his surface.
"Why do you feel the need to make anything of me?" Jon asked.
Q grinned. "It's my job. Well, part of my job. Admittedly I'm not usually in this corner of the multiverse." He floated around Jon, circling him. "I'm amazed, really."
"You're a feral Evolved Power from a primitive species, who hasn't gone insane, lost identity cohesion, or set yourself up as a tinpot god over sentient beings. That's not what I would have expected to find."
"Why would I do any of those things?" Jon spread his hands. "I wouldn't be alive if I had a sufficiently weak sense of my own identity that I could lose my sense of self. I rebuilt my human body after it was destroyed when my physical body lost its nuclear bonds. Without the ability to maintain my sense of self and consciousness even after I had no body to anchor myself to, I would have been lost."
"Yes, yes. Impressive stunt for a human, by the way. But one would have expected that doing that would have driven you mad bodilessness usually doesn't do embodied consciousnesses any favors - or that you'd have declared yourself God and taken over your planet. But you weren't even tempted, were you?"
"I wasn't political before I changed. I'm not sure why I would have developed the desire to rule humanity once it became possible to do so, if I hadn't had it before."
"No, you're not interested in that, are you? Not ethically aware enough to keep yourself from being misused by political elements within humanity so they could effectively take over the world, but you figured it out eventually. Not every uplifted Being of Power gets it so quickly."
"Why wouldn't they, though? What would be the point to ruling over lesser sentients? I don't understand why anyone of our nature would want to do that."
"Exactly!" Q exclaimed, punching his fist into his palm for emphasis. "What's the point? But you would be astonished how many don't figure that out until... well, until we show up and have to take action."
He did not explicitly say so, and no words "appeared" on his surface, but information was available like a cloud floating around him, and Jon drew it in and understood it. The overmind that Q belonged to saw it as their responsibility to execute beings like Jon if they threatened the fabric of reality, or caused the genocide of multiple sentient species. The Watchmen, for gods. Jon hoped they were less dysfunctional than the Watchmen had been. Q was not threatening him, but Jon felt an awareness he had not experienced since his death in the lab so long ago, the sense that he could be threatened. Not fear, but the knowledge that fear was a possibility.
He didn't feel comfortable mentioning that he realized this. He wasn't sure if he was in fact afraid or not, and he wasn't sure he wanted Q to know, either way. It had been so long since he had dealings with a sentient being; he felt as if what few social skills he had had were stiff and rusty.
Q, by contrast, seemed fluent in human idiom. "How can you present yourself this way?" Jon asked, both curious and looking for a chance to change the subject. "You seem more human than I do."
"Bite your tongue. I've never been human. Well, okay, for one day, but I hated it."
"I understand that you're not human and that you didn't originate as human, but I did, and yet you represent yourself as human more convincingly than I do. If I had known how to do that, perhaps I wouldn't have had to leave Earth."
"No. Trust me, you don't want to spend eternity around people when you're faking it, all the time. Occasionally, it spices things up, but you gotta be yourself sometimes. Besides, they were starting to bore you senseless, admit it."
"I would have liked the option, at least." He looked past Q, wistfully. At the same time he was watching Laurie storm out because two of him in her bed and one of him in the lab was both too many and not enough.
"It's a talent," Q said. "And it may be just as well you don't have it; the fact that you couldn't fake caring about the stupid nonsense humans do probably insulated you from becoming a serious danger to them."
"So you care about what humans do?"
"Only the ones I think are interesting. There aren't any left in this universe, by the way; looks like your pal's stunt only lasted another generation."
"Oh." It was hard to remember that that had been thousands of years ago; without humans around him to anchor him to their perception of time, Jon had been existing on more like a geologic scale. His memories of his time with humans were vivid enough to have been only a few years ago, even though in fact they were twenty thousand years gone. "They all died?"
"There's actually no planet Earth left. But hey, humans are common in the multiverse. Most of the timelines clustered around my homeline are practically lousy with them. My favorite line's got a few trillion."
"I see." Jon had known alternate timelines were possible, theoretically, but he'd never been able to see any. The future had always looked fixed to him. How could you bring yourself to care about anything if everything could happen? The news that humanity had eventually destroyed itself, that everything Adrian had done had been for nothing, bothered him, even though it had happened so long ago that if humanity had lived he probably would have found them unrecognizable. Knowing they still lived in some other quantum reality didn't seem to help. He turned back to his planet. It added a certain bittersweet sense of urgency and purpose to his attempt to create new life.
Q had said he was doing it wrong. "You haven't yet told me what I'm doing wrong with this planet," he said.
"You really can't tell."
Q snapped his fingers. Time compressed around the two of them, like a film reeling forward at high speed. An asteroid appeared out of nowhere and hurtled toward Jon's planet. Jon reached to stop it - he had time to see it coming, not like when the Comedian had shot the pregnant Vietnamese woman, where he'd seen it in the future and yet had no time to react once it was happening now - but it was as if his power just slid off the asteroid. And then it smashed into his planet. Dark plumes of dust rose and covered the surface, blotting light and heat from the world. Jon's photosynthesizers died first, and then everything else starved.
Twenty thousand years of work wiped out in a moment.
If Q had been human, Jon might have killed him. But if Q had been human, he couldn't have just wiped out the life Jon had created. "You killed everything," Jon said. He was too stunned to react fully, to show how upset he was.
"Yeah yeah. Wouldn't have happened if you'd done it right the first time. Can you see what you did wrong now?"
"You. Killed. Everything."
"You mentioned that. I'll give you a hint. What happened when asteroids hit Earth during the development of life?"
"Why did you kill everything on my planet? What could I have possibly done wrong enough to justify that? I've been working on this planet for twenty thousand years!"
Q sighed heavily. "Oh, are you going to cry now? Fine." He snapped his fingers again and the compressed time packed around them unreeled, rolling backwards even more quickly than it had rolled forward. The asteroid flew backward from the planet and vanished. Everything was exactly as it had been. "There you go. All fixed. Now can we have an adult discussion about this?"
Jon had never been one for strong language, even before he had become what he was, but the thought occurred to him now that it was ironic and yet strangely unsurprising that he should encounter the first being like himself he had ever met, the first sentient being he'd met in twenty thousand years, and the guy was a complete asshole. That would not be productive to point out, however. On the other hand, the fact that the entity had just accelerated and then reversed time was stunning. Jon had managed local reversals of time at the quantum, nanosecond level, but Q had just reversed five years, after accelerating through them in moments. "How do you manipulate time like that?"
"Will you stop derailing? That's a more advanced lesson. We're talking about how to create life, not how to manipulate time. Now, you asked me what you did wrong. So, what just happened when I hit your planet with an asteroid?"
"Don't patronize me," Jon said.
"Jonny, you need a patron so bad, it isn't even funny. Answer the question."
Jon sighed. It wasn't hard, actually; all he had to do was blanket himself with a micro-layer of oxygen. "Everything died."
"And what happened when Earth was hit with an asteroid, as happened many times in its development of life?"
"I wasn't there."
"Well, if everything had died, you wouldn't exist today, now would you?"
"I suppose not, but it's possible that life spontaneously restarted itself after it was wiped out. The accident that produced it once could have produced it again, in geologic time."
"All right, I'll give you that. That's possible, but it didn't happen. When asteroids hit Earth, life wasn't wiped out. When an asteroid hit your planet, your life died. So, what did you do wrong?"
"My life was insufficiently adaptable?"
Jon shook his head. "But that's tautological. Since life survives by adaptation, saying 'life is insufficiently adaptable, therefore it died' is rather like saying 'life is mortal, therefore it dies.' It says nothing of the reason why the life was insufficiently adaptable. I followed the template for Earth life as precisely as I could, and I'm fairly sure it was correct."
"Oh, yes, you got it right. But that's the problem, Jon-boy." Q discorporated in a flash of light and transited, as energy, through a side dimension Jon couldn't fully perceive, to emerge and re-clothe himself in matter behind Jon. The entire operation took two seconds, not the thirty or so it took Jon to make himself a new body when he discorporated. "All you did was copy Earth life. And you did it precisely, like you were assembling a giant life-size model of Earth. But life can't be assembled. You can't build life. It has to grow."
"I don't understand why it makes a difference."
"Because you're not skilled enough," Q said. "Because you didn't go back in time and observe all the life that existed at the time period you're copying... only the things that survived to your time period, or what you know of from your observation of the fossil record combined with your knowledge of how these things work. You've made a stunted biosphere. Oh, it works, but it's not robust."
"And what would you have had me do instead? I don't know how to go back in time; I can look backward, but my vision backward through time is more limited than my vision of the present. How would I have acquired the knowledge of all the variables, including those that did not survive? And why would the life that didn't survive have such a profound impact on a biosphere?"
"Adaptability," Q said. He snapped his fingers, and in his hand was a watch. "This is your metaphor, isn't it? It's quite beautiful. Absolute precision, interlocking components producing consistent results. Completely orderly and utterly predictable." As he spoke, the watch disassembled itself, the tiny components floating in the empty space around Q.
"Yes," Jon said. "My father was a watchmaker. He trained me in the trade, before the atomic bomb came and he thought it better for me to be a physicist."
Q made a face. "And you just did everything your daddy told you?"
"He was my father," Jon said. "You're not human. I doubt you can understand."
"I doubt I'd want to," Q said, shuddering. "Slavish devotion to beings who made you solely to fulfill their goals in life? Not for me, thanks." He opened his hand, and the watch flowed back into it, the pieces re-assembling themselves. A piece of sand was caught in the gears. "The problem with the precision of the watch is that without that precision, it doesn't work at all." The watch ticked, once. The gears ground into the bit of sand, and went still. "Life isn't supposed to have a watchmaker standing around to fix it when it breaks down. It has to be able to fix itself, on the fly. If you have a biosphere with only the life that eventually survived under certain specific conditions, and you change the conditions, everything dies. But if you let life just do what it does... if you let it multiply, and proliferate, and make its transcription errors, and mutate into things that are utterly useless and die quickly under the conditions that exist... then if the conditions rapidly change, something might be around that can take advantage of it. And your biosphere survives. The individual species you had before still die off, of course, but the biosphere continues. Life abides."
"How is that different from what happened naturally, without the interference of a being such as myself?"
Q grinned. "It's not."
"Then in what sense would I be creating the life?"
"Oh, I see. You want to be God, Jonny, don't you? Oh, you knew better than to lord it over your fellow sentients - you don't need the worship, you don't need to lay down a Ten Commandments and declare that everyone must kneel to you or die - but you want the bragging rights. You want to make life, like you were assembling a watch. Because you think you exist in the image of God, and if God did it then so can you."
"I'm aware that God didn't literally assemble human life. We evolved."
"So what were you gonna do, assemble life until you got to dinosaurs and then let it go? It doesn't work like that. Evolution starts from the beginning."
"I thought I could improve on evolution."
"Well, you probably could, but you don't know enough about what you're doing yet. You haven't studied any biospheres except the one you came from and you really don't understand the point to life."
"Is there a point to life, aside from the meaning we give to it for ourselves?"
Q shook his head. "I don't mean the point to your life. I mean the point to life, itself. To the existence of that which lives." He looked down at the planet. "We are that which, through chaos, forms order, in order to spit in the face of entropy. We exist because of random chance, but now that we are here, we exist to oppose the heat death of the universe. The universe came into existence when order coalesced out of chaos, but the rules have changed, and most of the time nowadays all we see is entropy pulling order apart into chaos again. Or order itself calcifying, solidifying into total stability, total immobility. Either way, entropy has won." He looked at Jon. "You can't assemble life because to imbue that much order into life is to totally miss the point. Life has to be fractal, it has to be chaotic. You have to let it go off and do what it does, which is live, and make more life, and die. If you try to just put it together, like you're building a model kit, you're missing a significant part of what random chance would have put in... unless you've spent enough time observing life to really know what you're doing. And at that point, it's more fun to let it just do its own thing, anyway. You need to be a demiurge, not a god."
"Your classical education is sadly lacking, Jonny. Did you ever crack open a book that Daddy didn't tell you to read?"
"My father isn't part of this discussion. What is a demiurge?"
"Your Greeks came up with the concept first. Later the Gnostics ran with it, but they had some weird ideas about the relationship of matter to psyche." Q gestured at the planet. "If God is the creator of existence, the demiurge is the creator of an aspect of existence, using the tools and materials God left lying around. In the context of the real world, since an all-creating God is a pretty story you people invented to reassure yourselves about your own importance, the demiurge does not summon matter into existence, in the final shape he intends, and declare himself done with the project. The demiurge uses existing natural law to get the results he wants. He doesn't build the watch, he puts the pieces of a watch together in the same place and lets the watch build itself. Which, admittedly, would not work so well if you were actually building a watch rather than using it for a metaphor."
"Then there's no role for the demiurge after setting the events that lead to creation in motion?"
"I didn't say that. You can shape and guide. Think of gardening rather than watchmaking. Your creations have life. They will adapt naturally to what happens, because that's what life does, and you'll get a much wider variety than your own imagination could come up with. But if you see something that presents a threat - an adaptation so successful it threatens to wipe out the rest of your biosphere, an event from outside the biosphere such as a volcanic eruption, a die-off of a promising species that you were hoping would solve a problem you have elsewhere... or a potential sentience... you can take steps. If you do it that way, the biosphere you made not only ends up much more robust than if you made it from scratch yourself, but it ends up doing things you wouldn't have predicted. And trust me, as immortal as we are, you're going to long for surprises in your existence before too long."
Jon wasn't convinced... but he had seen what the asteroid had done. He knew that Q had done nothing to the planet after hitting it with the asteroid, aside from the time compression; the experiment had been valid. All the life Jon had painstakingly constructed had died under an impetus that had happened many, many times in Earth's history without ever permanently wiping out Earth's life. "If I were to choose to 'do this right', what would you suggest I do?" If Q was going to tell him to kill the biosphere he'd been working on for twenty thousand years so he could create a new one to leave alone, Jon was going to ignore everything the entity had to say. Jon didn't think life should be wiped out just because it didn't fit someone's idea of what the correct way to create it was.
"Leave it," Q said promptly.
"Sure. Come on back in another million years. Hey, if you leave it alone for just another thousand years or two, it'll probably be robust enough to survive a small asteroid."
"What if an asteroid hits it while I'm not there?"
"Them's the breaks, then. You start over from scratch, sadder, wiser and somewhat better at this. But if you absolutely can't stomach the idea of your poor wittle babies getting toasted while you're away, I can put a force field around the planet for a few thousand years until we get back."
"Sure. Jonny, did you think I could just leave an untrained Power wandering around on his own? Especially someone who's made it as far as you have without completely screwing himself up? You're gonna come back to my timeline with me, and I'll show you the ropes. You can meet some other Powers, get to see what humans turned into in a universe where they didn't blow themselves up... learn how to play with time.. Come on. You know you wanna."
"You said that I should guide my biosphere."
"And you can do that. Later. But you gotta let it take hold first. Look, on your planet, little kids used to put seeds in the ground because they want flowers, and then they'd get impatient and keep digging up the seeds to see if they're flowers yet. You're emotionally involved with this biosphere; you're going to keep trying to step in to make it go the way you want it to, and that will end up stifling it. Leave it for a while, do something else fun to take your mind off it. Then come back and see what it's become while you were gone. You can trim a bush into topiary but you can't trim a seed into a bush... well, you and I can, but we shouldn't, because we don't get good results when we do. You've got to let it define itself for a while and spread out into some variety before you'll have anything you can guide."
Jon had never been particularly good at refusing anyone who had a strong presence and a clearly defined agenda for what they wanted Jon to do. Q was not a particularly pleasant companion, but at least thus far he was an improvement over the Comedian, and... he was a sentient being Jon could actually talk to, who could see what Jon saw and understand what Jon understood. As obnoxious as he was, Q was someone Jon could learn from. Jon hadn't learned anything from anyone since his transformation, not directly... he had learned from his study of Laurie's memories to appreciate what she had tried to teach him about human lives, enough to bring himself to care about the species a bit again, for a while. But no one had been able to teach him. Q could.
"Very well," Jon said finally. "I'm not sure I want to see what humans could have become; that would be painful. But I am willing to go with you, to meet others like me and learn what you can show me. As long as you can show me how to come back here when we're done."
"Pinky swear," Q said. "Come on. Let's blow this popsicle stand, Jonny." He grinned. "And they said humans wouldn't amount to anything. I can't wait until my folks back home get a load of you."
"I would appreciate it if you didn't call me Jonny."
Q smiled broadly. "Jon, I thought you'd never ask."