It wasn’t the most graceful of noises to ever come from Jeret’s mouth, but it was the best he could manage while his tongue slowly regained feeling. The paralysis fluid was finally losing its effect.
“Coooome onnn!” he slurred, rocking his body left-to-right. His momentum carried him past the tipping point and he rolled off of the pedestal he had been placed on.
“Oof!” he grunted as he landed face-first on the cold stone below. It was perfectly flat, without a single pore to break its surface. It almost seemed like metal.
Jeret grit his teeth and focused, exerting all of his energy to move his leg. Slowly it bent up at the knee. He strained his wrists, turning the palms against the ground. He tried to push himself up, but it was still like trying to lift a thousand pounds.
He paused here for a moment, swaying his limbs from side-to-side, trying to speed up their resurrection. He grimaced as a thousand pinpricks danced across his skin, but it was working. Slowly he rose up to a crawling position. He tried to push himself up even further, but quickly fell back onto his hands.
Crawling would have to do, then. Sluggishly he lifted one limb after another, turning on the spot until he faced towards the transport vessel. Of course he knew he would never be able to reach it in time, but still he had to give it a chase. It was the principle of the matter.
“You can’t leave me here!” he bellowed.
Already he could see the engines powering up for launch.
“You can’t take a man from his world! I will come back!”
The engines ignited, and rapidly ran through every color in the spectrum until they peaked at pure white. The whole vessel trembled for a second, then shot into the air like a bullet.
“I’ll find a way off! I will!”
At last he lifted himself to his feet, just in time to vainly shake his fist at the streak of light scorching across the night sky. And with that Jeret was exiled.
After a few more minutes of screaming and kicking, Jeret collapsed to his knees and dropped his face into his hands, tears streaming between his fingers.
“I never had a chance.”
That was certainly true. His first mark of “poor citizenship” had come years ago, when only a youth of fourteen years. This was quite significant, given that one was only eligible to receive demerits starting at the age of thirteen, and each citizen only had an allowance of 30 demerits to last them their whole life. If one managed to exhaust that pool, they would be deemed incapable of integrating with society, and exiled for life.
Though he was never any good at arithmetic, even at fourteen he had understood the implications fully. He would be banned before he was fifty. At first this realization had frightened him into going straight, which phase lasted for all of two weeks. Then he was in the back alleys, trying to burn chokum once more. He lost hope then, and resigned himself to the fact that he would be thrust out from society at some point, and that was all there was to it. Perhaps it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy for him, a condemnation that caught him only because he stopped trying to escape it. In either case, his prediction had now come true.
When at last Jeret lifted his eyes he numbly surveyed his empty world. All of it was that same, impossibly smooth stone. It neither rose in hills, nor fell in valleys. A single pedestal where the transport had just launched from provided the only variation in the horizon. It was there that he would find his cot, his toilet, and where his food supplies would be dropped by airship every month. That airship would be the closest he would ever come to another person.
The Communion had decided that it was too dangerous to populate an alien world with all of society’s outcasts together. Who knew what ingenious mischief such an accumulation of evil might achieve? And so the Communion had crafted thousands of tiny asteroids, each one fifty square miles in area, perfectly spherical, and home to a single, solitary criminal.
As Jeret looked across the lay of his prison he could already see the land dipping away to the horizon. Beyond that line were the dark points of the other asteroids, and beyond that the swirling blues and greens of Amoria, the giant planet that had once been his home. He still swam through its atmosphere, and was near enough to make out the lights of the cities below…but he would never again feel their warmth. It was cruelest condition of his sentence.
A random thought passed through Jeret’s mind. The gravity of his asteroid couldn’t extend out too far, could it? What if he were to build a very tall tower? Eventually the gravity would stop pulling down towards the asteroid, but instead off to the side, down towards Amoria, wouldn’t it? But what then? Fall for hours and be smashed into nothingness upon impact? Was that really so bad of a prospect anymore?
Not that any of this mattered, of course. It wasn’t as if a tower like that could be built by a score of men, let alone just one. Let alone just one without a single tool. Exiles weren’t supposed to build. Creation was a privilege, and exiles had no privileges.
As there was nothing else to do, Jeret walked to the pedestal. It was a flat dais, made of the same smooth rock as everything else. On it was his cot, his latrine, and his food box. That was it.
As there was nothing else to do, Jeret ate some of the food. It was bland and nourishing.
As there was nothing else to do, Jeret chose a direction and started walking. He figured he might as well see the other side of this asteroid, which would have a view of starry space. Of course, not being any good at arithmetic, Jeret did not realize that even a small, 50-miles-surface-area sphere is 12.5 miles to walk from one of its ends to the other. And so he did not reach the other end within an hour, nor within two.
He was about a half of the way to the other side, and the sky was already mostly composed of stars, with only a few remaining degrees of Amoria landscape still visible. Jeret wrongly assumed that he was already at the exact opposite pole of his asteroid, or at least very close to it. Therefore he concluded he might as well keep traveling forward to complete the circuit.
Another two hours slid by and he was now truly surrounded by stars, without a glimmer of Amoria in sight. He began to grow very afraid. He was hungry again, and had not thought to bring any of the food supplies with him. He did not understand why he was still seeing stars overhead, instead of the Amoria landscape. He concluded that he must be walking in circles, and it dawned on him that finding such a small thing as the pedestal within 50-square miles would be like looking for a needle in a haystack!
Miserable as a life alone on this rock seemed, he had not been ready to consider death, and certainly not in such a painful, drawn out way as starvation! Why had he ever strayed from the pedestal? He had walked away from it so nonchalantly, so unthinkingly. He had killed himself and he hadn’t even known it!
Jeret’s legs and hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He wobbled down to his knees. Was he still breathing? It didn’t feel like any air was coming in! He clutched his chest and started inhaling hard and fast. Above him the stars expanded for eternity: so infinite, so vast, so lifeless! Beneath him the ground ran in infinite circles: so cold, so uncaring, so unrelenting! He fell onto his side, legs kicking fitfully as he was swallowed by fear and despair.
All turned black.
Jeret did not remember falling asleep. Indeed he could hardly have believed he was capable of it in that moment, yet somehow he did so. He lay perfectly still, with nothing but the stars over his head forever. Through the hours, Amoria turned, and as it did so it dragged along his little satellite to the dawn. And so, when at last he woke, Jeret was squinting up at a cloudless, sunny day.
Of course it was cloudless. He was above all the clouds now.
Jeret knew he should still feel just as panicked as before, but somehow he had lost the energy for it in his sleep. He felt nothing but the coldness of the ground beneath him, the dull ache of his empty belly, and the hardness of the pipe in his hand.
The pipe in his hand?
Jeret twisted his palm upwards and furrowed his brow in confusion. It wasn’t really a pipe. It was a pure cylinder, seemingly made of the same stone he lay on, and just as featureless, save for the small grooves that were etched around its top and bottom. He must have grabbed it in the night. What was it? And why was it here in his prison? Perhaps just a stray piece of material knocked loose when the asteroid was fabricated? A workman’s tool accidentally left behind?
Jeret stood up to stretch his legs, still holding the cylinder firmly in his hands.As the cylinder rose with his body, one of its ends left a strange, yellow trail behind it in the air. It was very subtle, and extremely transparent.
“Oh,” Jeret said softly. He cautiously reached his hand into the trail and felt nothing. He leaned forward to sniff and he smelled nothing. It was like a miniature haze, an illusion, suspended in the air. Jeret began to slowly wave the cylinder all about. Everywhere it went, the trail was left behind.
He looked closer at the cylinder. There were no vents, no exhausts, nothing to suggest where the yellow haze emitted from.
He looked closer at the trail, but it was so subtle that he couldn’t really focus on it. His eyes kept slipping to whatever was behind it. At one moment he thought its edges were sharp and well-defined, another they seemed to blur out into gradual nothingness. Did he see shimmering sparks in it, or was that only the sun glinting off the rock floor below? Was it staying the same shade of yellow, or was it starting to turn a little green?
Perhaps what was strangest of all, was once he thought he saw something in the haze, such as it changing color to green, then he started seeing that effect all the more strongly. And when he thought no, it really must have just been his imagination, then it really did seem to alter back to the same shade of yellow as before.
As entranced as Jeret’s mind was in this new discovery, his body was anxious to remind him of its needs. A thunderous growl rippled from his stomach and he looked down, recalling how hungry he was after a night with no dinner. What he wouldn’t give for a deep dish of Rustic Stew right now.
No sooner did the thought enter his mind, than he thought he saw a bowl of stew out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head up and…there it was. Well, sort of. The haze had taken on a browner tint, and congealed together so that he could pick out individual pieces of potato and roast.
But it wasn’t perfect. Most of the haze still looked vague and unformed, and the whole thing was still just an image, flat and featureless. It didn’t have that delightful, smoky smell, or that bubbling, sloshing sound as the ladle dropped it by great globs into the bowl…
No sooner did those thoughts enter his mind then the sounds and scents truly began to emerge from the image. And the image didn’t seem so much like an image anymore. As he moved his head from side to side it seemed to have dimension, shape, and greater detail. He lifted his fingers to touch and there was something there! It didn’t feel like hot and thick broth, though. It didn’t have the soft texture of stewed vegetables, or the thick resistance of solid meat, or the…
And then it did! All at once Jeret’s fingers had pressed into hot stew, burning his hands with how real it was!
“Ah! Ah! Ah!” Jeret cried, shaking his hands until the fingers cooled down. Then he reached out, took the bowl in his hands, and lifted it out of the haze.
It was real. Totally real.
Even the wooden bowl and spoon were just like the ones he remembered from his favorite diner. It didn’t make sense that this could be here, but for the moment Jeret didn’t care. He blew over the surface of the bowl, willing the food to cool more quickly. When he did take his first bites it still scalded his tongue, but he didn’t care. It was delicious.
And it was real. Unbelievably really real. The flavors in his mouth, the texture of each bite, the lump of food flowing down his throat, the sense of filled contentedness in his belly.
By the time he emptied half the bowl, his hunger was satiated enough to start giving serious thought as to how this could be. He rejected the notion that this might be only a dream. A dream would have shifted into something else by now. No, somehow he really had made an authentic bowl of stew out of thin air.
Well, not quite thin air. Out of…haze?
Jeret lifted the stone cylinder until it was level with his eyes. What was this thing? Some toy that the Communion left for the convicts to play with? No, that couldn’t be. They were here to be punished, not to be entertained. And even outside of that, the technology of this thing was like nothing he had ever seen before. It didn’t seem possible that this cylinder should even exist, let alone be left in an exile’s prison.
A strange thought occurred to Jeret. He had woken up with this strange thing already in his hand. He had not see where exactly it had originated from. Could he have made it himself somehow? From his subconscious dreams? It would have seemed a ridiculous thought…if he hadn’t just made a bowl of stew…
Jeret shook his head. Really, did it even matter where it came from? What mattered was that he had it and he could use it. All he had to decide was what he was going to use it for next.
“Well,” Jeret said. “Why don’t I make myself something to get back to–to the base?” He had almost said “to get back to home,” but he refused to do that. It was not his home, it was the central point of his prison.
Jeret painted some more of the strange haze in the air, and started to imagine a Tramporter System. He pictured the wheels and platform, and the guideline pointing out in the proper direction. He even tried to imagined the Tramporter System Node back at the base, tethered to this first one.
The results were…disappointing. A couple of wheels materialized, and the general shape of a standing platform, but they all collapsed to the ground as separate pieces. He tried again, this time thinking of axles running through the wheels, keeping them connected to the body. And so they materialized, but still a bit wonky, and still without any power.
Well how exactly did a Tramporter’s power work? Jeret didn’t know. And it didn’t seem that this tool was going to figure it out for him. If he wanted to make something with it, he would have to understand that something in greater details.
Well maybe it didn’t have to be a Tramporter, then. At last he had a sort of cart now, even if it was misshapen. All he really needed now was something to pull it.
Jeret waved his tool around the end of the cart, imagining a metal ring bolted to the end, and from that ring a cable running out into the distance. Then, along that cable he started to imagine a pack of dogs tied by leashes. As they started to come into form they were frightful to say the least. Disproportionate body parts, matted fur, excessively shiny eyes, and making strange guttural noises constantly. Why was it so easy to think an idea, but so hard to actually picture it properly?
Jeret thought of them running off in the distance, and all at once they popped into existence and bounded off with the cart!
“Oh!” Jeret barely managed to fling himself onto the vehicle before it was whisked away. The whole thing suddenly jerked to the left, and he fell to all fours! Then the cart jerked as suddenly to the right and he gripped the bolted ring for dear life.
The ground was perfectly smooth, so there were no bumps in the ride, but the dogs did not know how to run together. Indeed they couldn’t, so unequal were their different limbs. One dog on the left was at a particular disadvantage, with two limbs too long and two limbs too short. It would alternate between bounding and limping, which transitions accounted for the sudden jerks in the cart.
When there was a moment of calmness, Jeret waved his tool over the floor of the cart, fashioning an iron handle attached to it. This he held firmly, gritting his teeth as yet one another erratic jerk swung him wildly, and then another.
Still, they were moving, and in what generally seemed to be the correct direction. Also they were moving far more quickly than Jeret would have been able to on his own. And so, strange and uncomfortable as the ride was, Jeret could not help but feel a great swell of pride. He had made a transportation device, a tool to solve his problem. Already his mind was overflowing with ideas for what to make once he got back to his base.
He would have a feast every night. All of his favorite foods forever available. He would make tools, and resources, and he would build whatever he wanted. He would make creatures, people, and a beautiful home to keep them in.
He could build that tower he had been thinking of! And a parachute to safely glide back down to Amoria. He’d be able to go home, to find his old friends to–to get exiled all over again? No, what did he want with Amoria anymore. They didn’t want him, so he didn’t want them. Not in the same way as before, anyway.
Maybe he could build an army instead. An entire arsenal of weapons and machines. He could turn this entire asteroid into a giant cannon and blast the Communion to bits! Then, and only then, he could come back down. Come to rule and reign, to squash anyone that dared to oppose him! To make them beg him for forgiveness. To close them up in their own tombs of exile forever.
A glint caught Jeret’s eye and he turned his head. It must be his base, though still far off in the distance. The dogs were not pointed towards it, though, they were veering about fifteen degrees too far to the left.
“Turn boys, turn!” Jeret commanded, but of course the dogs paid him no heed.
“This way!” he said, grabbing the cable and tugging it to the left. The dogs startled and leaped high into the air. The sled followed, and Jeret gripped his handle all the more tightly as his stomach fell beneath him! With a thunderous crash they all came back down to the ground. One of the wheels gave an ominous splintering sound, and started warbling side to side, making the entire vehicle hum in vibration.
Every bolt and plank started to strain, and Jeret didn’t know how long the vessel might last. He certainly hadn’t thought out this part out very well! Frantically he looked all about him, and found himself staring down at the ground, whizzing by him at five yards every second.
This would hurt.
Jeret flung himself to the side, bailing off of the cart and onto the ground. He hit it forcefully, and his head smacked onto the rock. Senses reeling, he went into a rapid roll, skin rubbing off for not being able to turn quickly enough. He bounced into the air, and the next impact hit on the side of his knee. It throbbed in pain as he made another three full revolutions and finally came to a stop on his belly.
Every inch of him ached, his arms were scraped and raw, and any movement sent spasms of pain through his knee.
“I could…have made…a brake” Jeret snarled into the stone. Then, wincing sharply, he pushed himself to his feet and started limping back towards base. “A simple strip of steel on a pin, so that it could be pressed against the wheel and slow everything down. I could have made a cushion to fall on! Or a knife to cut the dogs loose!”
As he walked he created a stick and some ropes, binding them onto his leg for a splint. After a few efforts, he successfully made some bandages coated in soothing ointment, and wrapped them around his arms.
He would get back to his base, and he would make the deepest, softest bed ever known. And he would lay on it for days and not move an inch. And he would have a cool, frosted glass filled with golden Taroyl Ale, and it would constantly refill itself anytime he took a sip. That was what he would do when he got back!
And then a thought occurred to him. Why did he really need to make it back to the base? He could make a bed right here. And food right here. And a hole and a toilet right here. Anywhere on this rock could be his base and he would never be lost without resources again.
And so he set to work. The bed wasn’t perfect, a little lumpy, and with a hideous pattern, but it was good enough. And the toilet was nothing more than a small seat on top of a deep chute, but it was good enough. And the Taroyl Ale didn’t taste quite right, it had been a very long time since he had had the delicacy, after all, and couldn’t perfectly recall the flavor. But it did dull his pain, and it did lull him to sleep, and he was content.
And so the would-be ruler reigned, day-by-day his limbs stinging less, but growing more stiff. Then, day-by-day, they became less stiff, but more itchy. And finally, day-by-day, they came back to their normal, healthy function.
Of course the greatest problem that faced him in all this was the boredom. And so it was on the second day of recovery that Jeret thought to create some gladiators.
It was no doubt because he was in a foul, painful mood that he wanted to see things fight. It would give him relief to see others suffer more than he. At first he started to fashion another dog, but when he got to the point of making it menacing he thought better of it and erased the whole thing. A dog was large enough to be a threat to him, which was not a problem that he needed right now!
Much better to make something small, something that would only be a threat to others of its own kind. What sort of creature would be good for that? He tried a few different kinds, but he had the same problem as before with them appearing like some sort of nightmare versions of the original design. He gave up on them before they were finished. Then the thought occurred to him: why try to make something that already existed? Perhaps it would be easy to invent something new. The fact was, Jeret’s memory was shifting and fleeting, but crafting something purely from imagination was far more consistent.
First he thought of the basic details: a small creature, small enough to fit in the palm of his hands. It was a dark gray color, with speckles of black all around. It had a tall, curved back, which was covered in tough plates. It would crawl around on four, tough little legs. He watched it slowly take shape in front of him, but he wasn’t finished yet.
Now he moved on to finer details. The legs were furry and soft, as well as the underbelly. It had black, beady little eyes, and a narrow slit for its mouth. And emanating from that mouth was its single tusk. This was a long thing, curving slightly upwards towards the end. It was a very vocal creature. Not with loud shrieks or whoops, but rather a skittering sort of chatter, with the occasional shout if in pain.
And then he started to think of how it moved and behaved, and as he did so, it started wriggling to life before him. It was a nervous little creature, one that liked to hide in holes. And it lived off of small insects, and posed absolutely no threat to any creature that was larger than it. It gave birth to litters of three or four live young every year. And, of course, it was extremely territorial. Males would claim certain regions, and if two were ever in the same domain, they would fight to the death!
The creature came more and more to life, and as it did Jeret slowly shifted from defining it to observing it. Eventually it was real enough that gravity took hold and it popped out of the haze and fell to the ground. Once there, it immediately bolted under his bed and lurked there in the shadows.
Jeret’s leg twinged slightly as he got out of bed himself and lay on the ground, watching the animal. It was bunching its legs up around its body, and projecting its thick shell towards him, muttering with its strange little clicks.
“I guess you’ll need a home,” Jeret said, then set to work crafting a simple wire grid. He drew it out in an enclosed circle, and added a few rocks in one corner for the creature to live in. Then he made himself a net on a pole, and slowly reached it under the bed towards the creature.
It stayed immobile for as long as it could, then suddenly skittered off to the side. Jeret had anticipated that, though, and caught it in one quick swoop. He swung the net over the enclosure, and dropped the pet into its new home. Immediately it scampered into a small hole in the rocks.
“Good,” he smiled, and then began working on a challenger. This one was a little lighter in color, so that he could tell it apart from the first. He also made it a little bigger, but also with a shorter tusk. Other than that, it had all the same basic criteria as the first.
This one he fashioned in the air above the enclosure, and as he added the final details it popped into reality, then fell into the midst of the first one’s home. No sooner did it touch the ground than the first gave a little squawk and charged out from its hovel. The second turned, and rushed to meet it.
Then, much to Jeret’s surprise, the first one flailed its legs wildly, trying to halt its momentum. It was afraid of the new one’s size, and was trying to get away. The second pounced instantly, gripping the other’s shell with its two front legs. The second rolled the first over, exposing its soft belly and legs frantically running in the air. The second buried its tusk into the other’s heart. One, two, three, four, murderous jabs. The legs of the first twitched horribly with each plunge and it gave out a series of spasmodic cries. Then, all at once, everything stopped.
Up above them Jeret was trembling and tearful. What had he done?!
Jeret reached down and scooped the poor, lifeless creature up.
“It–it sometimes plays dead,” he said in fear, imagining it starting to stir, “but then it pops back up after a moment.”
“Really the way these creatures fight is just a game. They wrestle, one wins, but then the other comes back. It always comes back!”
But no matter how he tried to picture it, the creature did not wake. Perhaps once an object came into full relief it could no longer be altered. Perhaps it was because he was actively breaking the rules he had already established for these creatures.
Jeret dropped the animal and picked up the cylinder. He frantically spun it through the air, drawing a haze around him. He pressed his fingers against his temples, trying to recall the exact pattern for how he had made the first creature. He started with the shell across its back. And then was it the legs? But even as he saw the first features beginning to form in front of him he stopped.
Somehow it felt wrong.
He might make another creature…but it would be something new. Even if he managed to make it look exactly like the first, it would not be the first.
Because he had killed it.
Jeret gave a shout and threw the cylinder as far as he could. It arced through the air and clattered on the smooth stone a hundred paces away.
“What are you getting so worked up about?” he scolded himself. “It’s pretend! You made that miserable thing.” He heard the words echo off the ground at his feet, totally hollow.
Because while a part of him wanted to argue that he hadn’t done anything wrong, in his heart he felt he had. In the end, wasn’t that all that mattered? No further explanation needed.
At that acceptance the dam within him broke, and tears flowed quickly down his cheeks. The right thing to do was obvious to him now. He picked up the dead creature and carried it with him as he walked off in the direction that he had thrown the cylinder. He came to it after a minute, then used it to create a rough pickax. He hoisted it and beat through the top layer of smooth stone. Beneath was a fine powder, and so he fashioned a small trowel to dig a little grave. The small creature went in there, and he buried it up.
The mound of gray dirt was unmissable in a sea of otherwise unchanging rock. It would catch his eye many times each day, a permanent reminder of what he had done.
“Demerit number one,” he sighed, then made his way back his camp.
He came to the cage with the still-surviving creature, and he stepped up to it, wondering what he ought to do with it. The thought occurred to him that he should destroy it. It was a killer after all, and forever that instinct would remain a part of its nature.
But punishing it for doing the things he had designed it to do seemed unfair. Yes, he regretted having made it, but it had been made still the same. Now it had a right to live.
But how could it? He had specifically dictated that it lived off of small insects, and there wasn’t a single one of those to be found on this asteroid. He had created something that was entirely unviable. It could not grow, it could not live, it could not propagate…it had absolutely no purpose. Of course, if he had no power, then he could leave it to starve and wash his hands of it. But he did have power. He had all the power.
He could make an ecosystem to support it. A little garden, complete with streams to drink from, dirt and plants to burrow in, and even a mate to perpetuate its species.
But would he also make insects for it to eat as well? Either he had to kill this creature, or he had to make a new life for it to kill. There was no getting around that.
Jeret grabbed the cylinder and started to draw out a haze.
“Six legs,” he said, “half as long as my finger, with two antenna on the end.”
It wasn’t the same as making a victim for sport. This was an insect with a purpose. If he was going to have a garden, it was going to have plants, and those were going to need to be pollinated.
“Two wings, and a long tongue for drinking nectar.”
This insect would have a life. It would cultivate the garden, and the garden would provide sustenance back to the small creature. And when that creature died, its decomposing body would be returned to the garden. It was balanced.
In fact, so long as he was worrying about balance…
“And it has a stinger on its end, which it uses to deter its predators. It is intelligent, and does whatever it can to overcome every threat. It injects a toxin. Usually it doesn’t manage to inject enough to kill off the predator…but it does have a chance to.”
No sooner did Jeret make this pronouncement than the creature popped into reality. That was the last element it had needed, a chance to defend itself. There would be life and death in Jeret’s little garden, but nothing would threaten the life of another without risking its own as well. It wouldn’t be a perfect world, but it would be a fair one.
He would make more of these insects, enough that the other creature would not be able to destroy them before they had reproduced themselves. And he would watch every day to help maintain the balance, to ensure that even if a species started to advance on or recede from another, that it would never totally overrun, nor be overrun.
“Firling is the name of the small creature,” he announced. “And Seclings are the insects.”
Slowly his asteroid slid into the night, but Jeret did not sleep. He had much more work to do.
First he made a plot of dirt. It was a fine, brown powder, one that felt more like sand than the soil he knew back home. He dictated that it sat in a level field, and extended deep beneath the asteroid’s a surface. He contained the whole thing inside a ring of large rocks, more than fifty yards in diameter. This would keep the sediment from sifting away, and would refresh it as erosion wore the large rocks down.
Next he worked on a source of water. For this he fashioned a great hole in the very center of the garden. He stipulated that it connected to a massive underground cavern. Then he imagined water filling up that cavern, the passage leading up from it, seeping out of the hole’s mouth, and saturating the dirt. He stated that the water had a weak magnetic quality in it, such that various drops were attracted to one another. A large body, such as was contained in the underground cavern, would pull all of the water through the soil and into itself. From there it would overflow into the soil above, where it would again be slowly sucked back to the cavern. And so the water redistributed itself, over and over in cycles.
Traces of the water would be liberated from this process by the plants, but when those plants died the moisture would be returned to the cycle. These plants included broad-leafed fronds that reached as high as him, and spread out over a massive surface area. In their shade more delicate, wispy tendrils grew in curls, tangling with one another into a springy carpet.
Next Jeret added a grove of trees. They shot straight up from the ground, but only to a height of eight feet. Once there they shifted all of their momentum outwards, splaying out a pinwheel of branches like the legs of an octopus. Rather than leaves, the tree grew knotted vines, whose roots bristled out from the very center of the tree’s nervous system. Those roots pierced out of the bark, and then sprawled out over the surface like long fingers.
Wherever the root of the vine emerged from the bark, a small stem sat, and upon those were the flowers: pure white creations, each with six round petals, and a deep, deep anther. In fact the anther ran clear through the stem, and clear through the vine’s root, and clear down the heart of the tree’s branch, and also it’s trunk, and then came out below as a single root in the earth. And thus the inside of each tree was a massive tangle of life cords.
Towards the base of each flower were the nodules of nectar, the source of life for the Secling insects he had fashioned. The Seclings would collect in large hives at the the top of the perimeter boulders, much too high for the Firlings to reach. But from time to time the Seclings would have to come down, both to have their daily meal and to lay their eggs, so the Firlings would patrol up and down the flowers, patiently waiting for their chance.
Jeret designed each element of the garden one at a time. He made a prototype of each species, and then repeated the process for the entire race. So first came all of the ferns, then all of the wispy tendrils, then all of the trees and vines and flowers, and last of all the rest of the Firlings and Seclings. He tried to balance their numbers out as best he could.
Jeret’s next few days were extremely busy. He spent all of his time walking about the garden, observing the ebb and flow of life within it, and modifying things for a better balance. At first the Firlings were not catching enough of the Seclings to survive. He tried to counter this by creating more of the Seclings, so that there would be more of them to catch. This didn’t quite work, though, because the insects became more bold with their greater numbers, which resulted in several Firlings being stung and killed.
So he started to design a new flower. He called it the Impli. This one perched itself upon the trees, and made itself to look like all the other white flowers that grew from the vines. But it was impostor, and indeed it lacked any roots to draw nutrients from the tree. Instead it waited for a Secling to confuse it for one of the authentic flowers, and when it tried to feed on its nectar its leaves closed around the insect and digested it. That digestion took a while, though, and the Firlings could open the Impli and take out the partially-digested Secling for themselves. There were relatively few of these flowers, but it meant that some of the Firlings could feed without being stung, and it provided just enough of a boost to keep them alive.
But then, of course, there would be the problem of Firlings taking all of the food source from the Impli. If the flowers could not digest the Secling, then they would die, and the Firlings would lose their free snack.
So Jeret added another parameter to the flowers before they were complete. It was alright for them to die quickly, because they would also propagate quickly. Partially digesting a Secling would be enough to let them spread seeds for the next generation. Then the Firling would take the sustenance and the Impli would die, but the seedlings quickly grew to continue the cycle.
The balance between these three: Firling, Secling, and Impli was tenuous to say the least. One day Jeret would increase the numbers of one, and the next day increase the numbers of the other, trying to find the perfect amount of give and take to keep them all sustained.
After a while, Jeret began to wonder if there was a better way. And so one day he created a parasite. He called it the Balan. It was so small that it was almost invisible, and it passed through three stages of life. It hatched inside of the Impli flower, and siphoned sustenance from it as a grub. Then, when a Secling was captured and the flower released its digestive juices, the acid transformed the Balan into its second stage: that of a small worm. This worm would wait for the arrival of a Firling snout, which it would latch onto and burrow within its body. It would stay there for a season, then press back to the surface, appearing something like a miniscule crab.
This was the adult version, and it would return to the flowers to lay new eggs. And so it could only survive by the continual existence of all three species. And in each of its three forms it could release a different type of pheromone. One for each of the three species it depended on, either to stimulate or repress their reproduction. It released one or the other, depending on how long it had taken for each next step of its transformation to take place.
This moderation finally allowed the garden to self-balance itself. Now Jeret was able to let things flow on their own without further intervention. Now he only used his time just to observe, and indeed he found his self-made creatures to be full of many fascinating secrets.
The Seclings, for example, learned to stop going out as individuals to drink the nectar from the flowers. Instead they would travel in groups of two and three, so as to better fight off the Firlings that attacked.
Eventually the Firlings caught on, and became pack hunters themselves, going out in pairs to break the Seclings defenses. This was a fascinating development, because the Firlings were still naturally territorial by nature, but they would set aside this part of their nature, if only during these cooperative hunts. They were adapting.
Jeret was deeply intrigued by this development, and made himself a journal to track the creatures’ progress. It soon became clear that while both the Firlings and Seclings could adapt, the insects were far quicker at it. When he had fashioned them, he had made them as prey, and so had felt obligated to imbue them with greater cunning to defend themselves. Never, though, had he mandated that such cunning had only be used in defense.
And this explained the adaptation that Jeret saw them taking next. At first it was so subtle a change that he didn’t catch on to it. It seemed mere chance that from time-to-time a single Secling would be out, wandering the flowers on its own, a perfect victim for a pack of Firlings. Surely enough, the pack would come, attack, and devour their prey. Then, as they departed, they would suddenly hiss and recoil in pain. Only then Jeret would notice three or four Seclings that had burrowed, stingers up, in the vines around their solitary comrade. Those assassins quickly wriggled away, leaving the pack of Firlings to die.
After this same drama had played out multiple times in a week, Jeret knew it was an intentional behavior. He started watching for how these ambushes were prepared, and noticed that one Secling would land near to a flower first, and then stick its rear legs up into the air and rub them in a rhythmic humming.
That humming would attract any passing Seclings who would land by their partner, and attempt to burrow into the vines. If the burrower found three or four other Seclings already laying in wait, it would continue on its way.
There were quite a few points of this behavior that Jeret found shocking. For one, it seemed to suggest that the Seclings were able to collaborate with one another beyond a basic pack mentality. They were adapting their behavior in the moment, assuming separate roles according to need, and were prioritizing the colony over self. How else could he explain an individual Secling offering itself up as bait so that the Firling population could be more quickly diminished?
Perhaps the most shocking thing of all, though, was that it worked. It took some time for the new strategy to have a noticeable effect, but after a while the number of Firlings began to dwindle. If things continued unchecked, they would go extinct. The Firlings seemed to be aware of their decline, and they became more desperate in their hunting. Each attack on the Seclings was quick and ferocious. They still traveled in packs as they hunted, but would often fight with one another for the greater portion of any meal. As such, even when there wasn’t any Secling trap, they might still kill off one or two of their own number by themselves.
Of course the Balan parasite strove to bring these trends in check. It released its pheromones, both increasing the rate of Firling reproduction, and restricting that of the Seclings. It began to reach extremes, such that only one in a hundred male Seclings was capable of fertilizing eggs anymore.
But the Seclings were inadvertently taking steps to resolve that issue, too. They had been getting wise to their other predator as well: the Impli flowers, and they started developing tactics to eradicate that nemesis as well.
Thus far they had not learned how to tell the Impli flower from the ones actually grown by the tree…until the Impli closed up around one of their kind. And so, whenever a Secling passed by a flower wrapped around a corpse of their comrade, they would fly down to the base of that flower and sting it repeatedly.
Jeret had never put a limit on the range of effect in a Secling’s toxin, and it appeared that the Impli flowers were not immune to it. After being stung, one of them would wither and die within an hour.
At first Jeret saw no problem in this. He had anticipated the Impli having a short lifespan, due to the Firlings stealing their food source, and had dictated that they would spread their seeds very quickly after ingesting their meal. The Secling toxin was relative fast-acting, but still not fast enough to prevent most Impli flowers from spreading their seeds and securing the next generation.
The real trouble was that the larva Balans were losing their host before they could transfer to the Firlings. They were dying before they could progress to their final state and lay their eggs. And as their numbers dwindled, there were far fewer of the moderating pheromones being released in the air.
It took some time for the Secling onslaught to have any perceptible effect, but all at once their reproduction rates boomed back to normal, Firling numbers stopped replenishing so quickly, and the Balan parasite was all but extinct! Before long the Seclings would be the last remaining fauna in the garden.
“Well, perhaps that’s all there is to it,” Jeret said in exasperation. “Tried to setup a balance, it seemed to work for a bit, but in the end survival has to be earned, doesn’t it? The Firlings had a good run, and no one can say I didn’t try to keep them going.”
But of course, he still had that sense that he had set the Firlings up for failure from the very beginning. He had created the species without any sustenance, had then given them sustenance, but then made that sustenance cunning and lethal. The Firlings had never stood a chance!
“If I intervened again…what would I even do?” he wondered. “Add yet another species? And try to keep that balanced as well as all these others?”
He shook his head hopelessly. Course correcting was such a hard thing to do. Alterations didn’t take full effect until long after they were implemented. And so to curb an immediate threat required a powerful deterrent, which deterrent would then carry long term consequences, and likely tip the balance again.
Unless he could make a change that was limited in its nature. What if he could create a one-time effect? Something that struck in a moment, corrected the balance, and then went away.
An exodus. The Seclings were simply too lethal. So long as they remained with the Firlings and the Impli, either they or the other two would have to be destroyed, and each of those prospects was unacceptable.
So they could not remain with the Firlings and the Impli. If there was a divide, then the Seclings could live off of the trees’ flowers without being molested. They would preserve the garden, and be preserved by it. There would be no predator behavior whatsoever.
Meanwhile the Impli would receive a new pollinator, and the Firlings another food source. The simplest solution would be a slight variation on the Seclings, one that wasn’t so ruthless and didn’t have any toxins.
Jeret thought through the proposal a few times. He could see no way for it to backfire…but he had felt that way before. Still, he might as well go through with it. In the worst case, the species would still prove unsustainable, and he would be back in the same situation as he was right now.
And so he started to prepare a second garden alongside of the first. It was identical to the first in its flora: the broadleafs, the tendrils, the trees and the flowers. It also had a high perimeter of containing rocks, and as the Seclings were the only species that could fly, they alone had access to the new area. It did not take them long to explore it, and it quickly became a regular stop along their circuit. They did not, however, entirely abandon the first garden area. Apparently competition-free sustenance was not compelling enough to give up half of their available resources.
No matter. Jeret fashioned a fungus that he placed along the rock-tops in the old garden area. They didn’t like sharing their space with any other creatures, and put out a repulsive scent to drive them away. Gradually the Seclings retreated onto the uninfected quarries of the new garden area.
During this time, Jeret began introducing his new variation on the Seclings to the first garden. He called them Thirlings. Thirlings were almost identical to the Seclings, though he omitted their intelligent and aggressive nature. He ended up deciding that they should still have their stingers, to defend themselves, but he reduced the potency of these. They could momentarily paralyze a Firling and allow the Thirling to escape, but they were not lethal any more.
The tree flowers were still pollinated by the Thirlings, and the Impli flowers were still able to trick and consume them as well. Jeret specified that the Thirlings were closely enough related to the Seclings to be affected by the same pheromones, and so the Balan parasite continued to moderate the ebb and flow of the populations.
And once again there was balance.
Jeret divided his time between each of the two gardens, and each seemed to progress well. The Seclings thrived without any predators, and so the trees and flowers that they pollinated did as well. It seemed to be an entirely mutual arrangement, and Jeret wished that he had been able to set things up this way from the very beginning.
Meanwhile the Firlings flourished as well, in fact to a shocking degree. Jeret had expected them to revert back to solitary hunters once the threat against them was removed. But they didn’t. They retained the new techniques that they had had to employ against the Seclings, and proceeded to hunt the Thirlings with just as much ferocity, gorging themselves on the far more timid quarry. Jeret observed them eating to the point of vomiting, and then continuing with their meals. They had been traumatized by living off of a species that was more dangerous than themselves, and the terror of those necessary walks with death were not so easily set aside.
Of course the Balans had to release pheromones to drastically suppress the reproduction rates of the Firling population, while strongly boosting those of the Thirlings. Rather than improve things, though, it only made them worse. Now there were Thirlings all over the place, and the insatiable Firlings became even more mad! They spent their every waking moment in the hunt. The females joined in as well, given that they weren’t spending any time raising young. The hunting packs were entirely dysfunctional. They would still patrol in groups of three of four, but the whole way they snarled and scrabbled and outright killed one another.
Meanwhile, over in the second garden, things had taken a turn for the worse as well. Without anything to threaten or moderate the Secling population, it had exploded ridiculously, and done so far more quickly than that of the trees and flowers. Soon their numbers outstripped the sustenance that was available, and their one colony fractured into vaguely defined factions emerged, each vying against the others for control.
The Seclings had been instructed to preserve themselves at all costs, and now they perceived their own kind as a threat. They were ruthless, slaughtering themselves off by the thousand. Of course this did provide its own form of regulation, but at such a terribly violent cost. It got so that Jeret could not walk through their garden without his every step crunching upon the carpet of dried insect corpses.
And they did not stay within their bounds either. Though they were repulsed by the fungus on the rocks, they managed to push through to the other side from time-to-time. These rogue groups did not come here to live, though, they came only to satiate their desire to destroy all hostiles. They murdered their cousin-Thirlings in droves, but more especially they sought out and killed Firling packs. Sometimes the Firlings prevailed, but most times they did not.
The animals had learned to kill for killing’s sake. Kill out of fear, out of competition, even just for sport. And this led to perhaps the most troubling development of them all. It took place one day, while Jeret was walking through the gardens, racking his mind for a solution. A hundred options occurred to him, but he had lost all confidence in himself. Every plan he implemented backfired, things only became worse because of his involvement.
Indeed, he wondered whether it wasn’t finally time to leave things to their natural course. Would it not be simpler to just let the species work out their own ruin now? Yes, it was simpler, but even after all the frustration and failure …that choice still pained him. He had felt such a delight as he invented each creature. He knew the beauty that was in them, the delightful little nuances, the reasons that they deserved to live.
But all that beauty was tarnished by this predisposition to violence. It was a black mark that spread like a cancer. But it was only in them because they had been made of him, and it felt wrong to punish them for his own mistakes.
Suddenly all his thoughts were interrupted as a sudden pain shot through his hand. It was a localized heat, which then pulsated down his veins, making his entire arm twitch involuntarily. Looking down he saw a Secling drawing its stinger out of him.
“What? I didn’t do anything to you,” he said softly.
Then another sting, this one on his right thigh.
“Stop it!” he cried.
A third Secling landed on his back and stabbed him. Now Jeret could hear the buzzing growing louder, the din of an approaching swarm.
He breathed quickly and his eyes narrowed. He looked down at the offenders with deep bitterness.
It was the last demerit.
“Ungrateful beasts!” Jeret snarled as he swung his arms, sending the little attackers buzzing for safety. “I’m sorry it’s not a perfect world, but I gave you everything that I could. I tried over and over!” He picked up a rock and threw it at the nearing cloud. The Seclings easily swerved to avoid it, but it gave them pause. They hovered in the air, waiting for more numbers.
Jeret took the opportunity to reach down to his waist, where a self-made belt held the cylinder. He waved it, throwing haze all about him in the air.
“A dome,” he said. “Transparent, but thick and strong.” A vague bubble start to form all around him. “It’s made of glass, and has minute holes to let air in, but they are all much to small for any creature to pass through.”
The dome popped into existence just as the Seclings rushed forward in their attack. They bounced harmlessly off the glass-like surface, entirely unable to penetrate its protection. Jeret stared at them darkly.
“But why?” he asked them. “I’m not a Firling, I’m not an Impli. I did make them, but you don’t know that, so why would you attack me?”
Even as he said it he knew the answer was not based on reason or logic. It was just in their nature. He might as well ask why he had picked fights with strangers back home on Amoria.
Jeret shook his head, trying to dismiss the thoughts. That was then, but this was now. And now he had every justification for the destruction that he was about to cause. Waiting for these species to destroy each other naturally was no longer an option. Who knew what sort of trouble they might get up to if they were left alive together? Things would have to be expedited.
What would he use? A flood? A fire? Bolts of lightning? Drop a mountain on them? A cloud of poison? Creation was miserable and hard, destruction was just so much easier.
Jeret grabbed the cylinder, readying it for use. He would dig a tunnel out of here first, get beyond the gardens and up on a tower. There he would be out of reach, but could still see everything. And then he’d kill these miserable convicts.
Jeret’s hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He fell onto his side, head cradled in his arms. Maybe…maybe he did know why he got into so many fights back home. And maybe he knew why the Seclings behaved this way as well. They had been hit so many times, that now they were in a perpetual fear of where the next strike was going to come from. No creature could be trusted, and it was better to destroy than be destroyed. Something about Jeret had always been afraid, and he had always fought. Fought against his neighbors, against the community, and even against himself.
“My poor little children,” he wept. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you better. I tried. I wanted you to have a chance. If someone else had made you, you might have been happy. It’s not your fault.”
Jeret lifted his head, and touched his hand to the dome, pressing it against the point where the Seclings clustered most densely. They were still trying to break through to him.
“I’m sorry that I made you… when I was always just going to kill you in the end. Hopeless. It was hopeless. You were always doomed. And now I’m going to kill you, and whatever I make to do it, then it’s going to kill me, too.”
The words came out without a thought, and even as he spoke them he was surprised at their sound. But somehow he knew they were true. Everything he tried to do here, it escalated. Every violence always came back round in the end. He didn’t know how, but if he destroyed his creations, he would destroy himself, too.
But maybe that was the right thing to do.
For the first time Jeret felt that he deserved to be here on this forsaken piece of rock. He really was unfit for society, wasn’t he? Given utmost power, and all he could do with it was destroy.
Jeret looked down to the cylinder. He would die violently, that much was certain. But did he have to die fighting anymore? Maybe there was still a chance for peace inside at the end.
His hands worked quickly, as if afraid that if he paused to think about it he would lose his nerve. He raised the cylinder and traced some haze against the dome.
“A very hot rock, cupped against the glass. A piece of burning metal, held in a steel cradle, melting through the dome.”
The Seclings started to lift off of the dome surface as it became too hot to bear. Even Jeret could feel the heat growing from where he sat.
“And the glass is melting, opening a wide hole to the outside.”
A glob of molten glass dripped down to the ground. No sooner had it cleared than the swarm of Seclings funneled in, making straight for Jeret. He closed his eyes, accepting the end. He felt their insect-feet perching on him, felt the small shift in their bodies as they lifted their stingers high, felt the sharp pinpricks score up and down his body.
The toxin flowed into him and he felt numb all over, as if fat cotton was being pumped through his veins instead of blood. His thoughts went fuzzy, and he was vaguely aware of falling backwards, though he did not feel the impact of his head against the ground.
The sounds all about him were fuzzy, too. The buzzing of wings sounded distant and echoing, not unlike the sound of the surf crashing on a beach. Even his thoughts were slowing down. It was as if he watched the ideas and sensations flow by like a river, and the water was receding until he could see each thought individually and clearly. And then he didn’t see the stream at all, he was alone on the shore of nothing. He was only aware of his awareness. And then that awareness lapsed, and came back, and lapsed again. And then he had only a vague notion of himself. And then the vague notion was gone, and it was just himself. And then…
And then, inexplicably, there was something. Not nothing, as he had expected, but an actual something.
Slowly awareness was coming back. Jeret couldn’t move, couldn’t open his eyes, but his mind was moving again. Slowly sensation was coming back as well, and his body felt…normal. There wasn’t any toxin in him. Or if there was, then it wasn’t toxin any more.
Jeret blinked and he was laying on his back, looking up at his garden. There was a pleasant buzz of Secling passing overhead. He sat up and a wave of them took off from his body. As they passed by his eyes he noticed that their stingers were falling from their abdomens. Somehow he knew it was because they didn’t need them anymore. Because all of their toxin had dried up.
There was a sudden rustle at Jeret’s side, and he looked down to see three Firlings wrestling on the ground. It was play. They were not trying to harm one another. They were not trying to hunt the Seclings flying all about.
They had changed. Even though they had been fully defined before, somehow they had changed.
And then came the strangest sensation of them all. A rumbling directly beneath Jeret, and the whir of machinery. Jeret squinted at the garden paradise around him, and had the distinct sensation that something was hiding behind it. Not only behind the garden, but behind the entire asteroid that was his home. Behind his entire consciousness, as if it was only a screen, and another world was underneath.
“And he’s coming out of simulation now.”
The garden wavered. Something was behind. If Jeret could just see beyond what his eyes told him he saw…he could almost discern it now. He felt his body regaining its sensations again. And not the pretend sensations this time, the real ones.
All at once Jeret opened his eyes and the garden was gone. He was in a dark room, with a ring of dull, orange lights around the perimeter which were slowly turning brighter. He was laid back on a half-reclined chair, facing a man pressing buttons on a control panel. Every now and then the man glanced up, to see how well Jeret was coming out of his hallucination.
There was a sudden stripe of white light across the still-mostly-dark room, a door had just opened off to the side. Jeret turned, and against the blinding brightness he could see the silhouette of a rotund man, balding on top, but with a tangle of stray hairs bursting from the sides.
“Mister Jeret!” the man boomed jovially. “How are you feeling?”
Jeret’s brow furrowed in confusion. He had seen these men before, but his mind was still trying to remember where. Oh that’s right, it was the men who had administered the sedative immediately before his exile, the last people he had seen on Amoria. What was so confusing, though, was that his mind seemed to be of two ideas whether the time on the asteroid was real…or only a dream. Perhaps he had never left this room?
“Looks like you’re still coming to,” the man concluded when Jeret did not answer. The perimeter lights were now bright enough that Jeret could see the two men clearly enough to make out their details. Somehow, the more he saw them, the more his mind was pulled towards reality.
“I was…dreaming?” Jeret suggested.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“There was no asteroid?”
The man smiled.
“A–a simulation. And you put the cylinder there on purpose?”
“Jeret, I’d love to stay and chat, but really I’m just here to ask you one thing. Do you think you are ready to rejoin society now?”
“What? But I’ve been exiled?”
“Yes, yes. So you were told. But that was when you insisted on being a threat to everyone around you. So let me ask you again, are you a threat anymore?”
“No I–I rather think I don’t want to hurt anyone at all anymore.”
“That’s what our records show as well. Congratulations, man, you’ve been rehabilitated.”
The man extended his hand. Jeret winced slightly as he pushed himself off of the chair and to his feet. His muscles were still tingling from lack of use. He felt awkward taking his first, fumbling steps, but the man in the doorway smiled patiently and waited. Slowly feeling returned, and Jeret reached out and took the man’s hand.
“Let’s get you back home now.”
And together the two of them walked out of the room.