The great and powerful Roman Empire. Everyone knows about it, everyone’s heard of it. Who’d of thought that a city built on seven hills would end up being a continent spanning empire? Perhaps the ultimate force of civilisation. To hold the whole thing together as long as they did you have to pretty spectacularly on the ball. Now your probably thinking that it all fell to bits for them some time in the late 5th century. But that isn’t strictly true. That was just the Western Roman empire finally cashing in its chips. Over in the East they did a bit of re-branding. They slapped the name “Byzantine” on everything and kept on rolling until the middle of the 15th century. So those Romans had an empire that was kicking about in one form or the other for about two thousand years, and you don’t hang around that long without learning a couple of tricks, or without a little bit of help…
Unit 3 is neatly bisected down its centre by its own ambiance. The light on one side has a peculiarly cold quality to it, it’s that shade of blue so pale as to be almost white. The sort of colour that makes you think of the river ice of some far distant mountain range. The light of the other is rich and warm, yet muted like a far off sun beyond a veil made of cloud. At first it appears empty and devoid of life, but the stillness ebbs away, motes of dust begin to stir in the air drawn in the wake of the disturbance. Slowly and methodically, a charcoal grey cat pads its way across the floor of Unit 3. It is bold and it is arrogant, but it is also listless and wanton. In essence, it is a cat.
The Romans were a real dab hand when it came to science. Sure you got the occasional snafu, like Galen making a real hash over the structure of the heart, but you also got some real wonders. Their viaducts, their walls, their roads, infrastructure out the wazoo; then there were the ballista and the scorpio, their metal working; they even invented a type of cement that would set underwater, underwater! But the thing about the Romans was that half of these things weren’t really theirs. The Romans found things, things that they liked and thought were useful and then they made them theirs. Stealing from the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Persians, taking every idea that wasn’t nailed down and co-opting it into their glorious hegemony. A bit like magpies I suppose.
One of the walls of Unit 3, the one bathed in the wan, bluish light, is covered in electronica. Hundreds of blinking, coloured lights, all lined up in neat little rows, and bordered by the snaking threads of data cables and the fat, ponderous coils of power conduits. The sound of data fills the air. The noise of whirring fans and clicking data heads that together weave a tapestry of sound that is present and audible, yet utterly indistinguishable from silence. The cat hops up onto a table, rubbing its side along the warm computer cases.
For all their science and engineering the Romans were pretty big on superstition and religion. They had a whole pantheon of gods most of which, much like their technology, they had copied, borrowed or outright stolen. The biggest and baddest of them was Jove; God of sky, thunder and state. There were other Gods though. Gods like Mercury, who asides from having a thing about putting wings on his shoes was god of all manner of stuff. He ruled over commerce and financial gain, lorded it over eloquence and poets, kept a watchful eye on travellers and boundaries, and was master of trickery, thieves and luck. But perhaps most famously of all, he was god of messages and by extension, information.
The eyes of the cat alight upon the radiant glare of a screen. A glass field of white upon which neat lines of black typed code fall like rain. The cat cocks its furred head. The code is mesmerising. Every single line dances with a hypnotic allure and then is gone.
Now the thing about Mercury is that he wasn’t always Mercury. Before the Romans came along and co-opted him into their growing pantheon he had quite happily swanned about the Hellenic parts of the world. Back them he had called himself Hermes. But he’d still had the same modus operandi and still waltzed about with those daft wings on his shoes. The move to being “Mercury” was merely a rebranding to fit a changing socio-political landscape. Eventually though Christianity turned up and Mercury and all his friends were no longer in the picture. At least that’s how it appeared. Because you can’t help but wonder, if a god can survive once by changing nothing more than his name and weasel his way into one of the most enduring empires of history, how long could he survive if he really put the effort in? If he really went to ground. If he dropped the whole “God” thing entirely and went back to basics, slipping his way into our minds and souls in a far subtler way. At the end of the day a god is merely a collection of memes and ideas that its worshippers and followers have attributed to it. If you take a long hard look at society today, you’ll notice that communication, messages and information are all stronger and more prevalent than they have ever been.
The cat remains enthralled by the screen, but enthralled to the extent of immobility, for cats are as the proverb suggests, curious animals. With an outreached paw the cat bats at the keyboard. Random strikes at random letters and random keys. There is seemingly no method to its strokes, it just want to see what happens.
Cats were never big in Rome, not like they were in Egypt. The Romans were more “dog people,” with the odd fish or bird thrown in here or there. To them, cats were menaces and pests. They were things which lurked in the background, haunting the streets and dark alleyways; unseen; unobserved.
Something changes in the code, slow at first, at a single lone point, then cascading outwards into the whole. The change seems intangible, unfathomable, but so very present. The scrolling lines twist and dance, picking up speed and becoming a swirling blur. They look almost alive…
So I ask you, “What if he’s still there?” What if Mercury still haunts our world, dancing along fibre-optics and surging through circuits. Still as illusive and intangible as he was as a God of the old empires. There is certainly no dearth of information in this day and age. What if he is the The ghost in the machine? The spark that seems to give our machines lives of their own.
Perhaps if we look hard enough we could find him.
And if we can’t find him? If there really isn’t a ghost in the machine, then perhaps someone will make one, and breath live once again into a long dead idea.