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In the 2010s I read this short story [in English] that I can't seem to find again. My vague impression was that it could have been written as early as the 1980s or '90s, but maybe it was more recent. I'm almost certain I read it online. And it may have been the first chapter of a longer work, but the ending made it a pretty complete-feeling standalone story.

The Setting: This is an alternate-history world where the Roman Empire accidentally stumbled upon some kind of electromagnetic effect that makes a person feel the presence of god in some way. (It may or may not have been a direct reference, but this reminded me of the purported "god helmet" effect.) A mention of the history of the tech implied that some local conjunction of magnetic rocks/something caused such biblical events as Moses with the burning bush, and after Roman investigation of the area they managed to turn it into a repeatable technology. In the present of the story, there are towers (like cell towers?) that emit the effect in a radius, so that everyone around feels the presence of god, and this constant "proof" of the divine reinforces the religion. (I don't think it was explicitly called/like Christianity in any way.) I also remember a (mag-lev?) train station where the protagonist scornfully observes a beggar/somebody laying about enjoying a tower's effect like a narcotic.

The Plot: We follow a Roman soldier-guy — a legionary, but maybe a higher-ranked officer — and he is very devout in their faith. (I have no idea about his/anyone's name.) He fights brutally and conquers more land/nonbelievers for the Empire, then either as a reward for his success or by his own volunteering or maybe as an accident of battle making it necessary, he is subjected to an experimental medical procedure that removes his ability to feel that "presence of god" effect that made him so devout before. I think he then does some soul searching and decides he will still believe in god even without proof, and redoubles his efforts and is even more brutal/effective in waging war. And the story ends with some kind of reveal that the scientists/leadership of the Empire who did the experimental procedure on him were trying to prove some kind of point, which the soldier's actions validated.

I'm amazed I remember this much detail… Too bad the title/author remains a total mystery!


The setting really stood out to me; especially the way faith is treated in this world where you can trigger the neurological feeling of a spiritual experience.

And the ending — it wasn't quite a "twist", but the protagonist's leaders/scientists did reveal something to him about his experiences being a successful experiment, but I'm not sure what. (That's why I'm asking this now!)

1 Answer 1

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Perhaps "A Word for Heathens" by Peter Watts in his 2013 collection "Beyond the Rift"?

Points that seem to match:

In the 2010s I read this short story [in English] that I can't seem to find again. My vague impression was that it could have been written as early as the 1980s or '90s, but maybe it was more recent. I'm almost certain I read it online. And it may have been the first chapter of a longer work, but the ending made it a pretty complete-feeling standalone story.

Match. Was reprinted in the collection in 2013 (and can be found online). However, it was originally published in 2004. It is a standalone story and was among the first stories in the collection.

The Setting: This is an alternate-history world where the Roman Empire accidentally stumbled upon some kind of electromagnetic effect that makes a person feel the presence of god in some way. (It may or may not have been a direct reference, but this reminded me of the purported "god helmet" effect.) A mention of the history of the tech implied that some local conjunction of magnetic rocks/something caused such biblical events as Moses with the burning bush, and after Roman investigation of the area they managed to turn it into a repeatable technology.

Match. "the Holy Grotto itself, where God showed Moses the Burning Bush, where He showed all of us the way of the Spirit. Imagine that Constantine never had his vision, that Eusebius never sent his expedition into Sinai. Imagine that the Grotto had never been rediscovered after Moses. No thousand-year legacy, no technological renaissance. Just another unprovable legend about a prophet hallucinating in the mountains, and ten commandments handed down with no tools to enforce them. We’d be no better than the heathens.”

In the present of the story, there are towers (like cell towers?) that emit the effect in a radius, so that everyone around feels the presence of god, and this constant "proof" of the divine reinforces the religion. (I don't think it was explicitly called/like Christianity in any way.)

Match.

I also remember a (mag-lev?) train station where the protagonist scornfully observes a beggar/somebody laying about enjoying a tower's effect like a narcotic.

Match. "I step onto the tram. The Spirit pushes the vehicle silently forward, tied miraculously to a ribbon of track it never touches. The platform slides past; the pariah and I lock eyes for a moment before distance disconnects us."

The Plot: We follow a Roman soldier-guy — a legionary, but maybe a higher-ranked officer — and he is very devout in their faith.

Match. The MC is a roman praetor.

(I have no idea about his/anyone's name.) He fights brutally and conquers more land/nonbelievers for the Empire, then either as a reward for his success or by his own volunteering or maybe as an accident of battle making it necessary, he is subjected to an experimental medical procedure that removes his ability to feel that "presence of god" effect that made him so devout before.

Match. There is even a reference to a "prayer cap" which you are thinking of as the god helmet. "Not all of us got it at first. When you’re a child, electromagnet is just another word for miracle. But they were patient, repeating the essentials in words simple enough for young minds, until we’d all grasped the essential point: we were but soft machines, and God was a malfunction. And then they put the prayer caps on our heads and opened us to the Spirit and we knew, beyond any doubting, that God was real. The experience transcended debate, transcended logic. There was no room for argument. We knew. Everything else was just words.

I think he then does some soul searching and decides he will still believe in god even without proof, and redoubles his efforts and is even more brutal/effective in waging war. And the story ends with some kind of reveal that the scientists/leadership of the Empire who did the experimental procedure on him were trying to prove some kind of point, which the soldier's actions validated.

Match. "Before today, the acts I committed in God’s name were pale, bloodless things. No longer. I will return to the Kingdom of Heaven. I will raise my sword-arm high and I will not lay it down until the last of the unbelievers has been slaughtered. I will build mountains of flesh in His name. Rivers will flow from the throats that I cut. I will not stop until I have earned my way back into His sight."

And the ending — it wasn't quite a "twist", but the protagonist's leaders/scientists did reveal something to him about his experiences being a successful experiment, but I'm not sure what. (That's why I'm asking this now!)

Match. "The bishop leans forward and loosens my straps. “I don’t think we need these any more.”They couldn’t hold me anyway. I could tear them like paper. I am the fist of God."

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  • That's the one, thank you!
    – Gregory T
    Oct 24, 2021 at 1:48
  • 1
    Glad to hear this was it.
    – beichst
    Oct 24, 2021 at 2:26
  • Great Q&A, both posts very detailed. Good on you, @GregoryT and beichst.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 24, 2021 at 5:37

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