It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“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.

 

So here we are at the end of our story. I mentioned on Monday that this story had two possible endings. The first option–the tragic and violent end–was more in line with Jeret’s initial trajectory. He came as an unrepentant and bitter man, and the natural culmination of that character would be an act of self-destruction.

But then he would not have developed as a character, which was something I very much wanted for him to do. And so I wrote about him learning to care for other life, and to take responsibility for his actions. By exploring the power of creation, he slowly lost his need for destruction.

Hopefully this transformation was communicated effectively enough that the new ending felt earned. It would not have made sense for him to have had that conclusion from the outset at the story, but I think he deserved it by the end. Similarly, had he still received the somber ending after his transformation, I think it would have felt off.

Of course this also brings us to the end of an entire series. It has been a very long one, extending all the way back through It’s Tough to Be a God, The Toymaker, The Last Duty, and Shade. The first entry was clear back on October 3rd!

As I stated earlier, my intention with this series was to wrestle with all sides of responsibility and duty, particularly related to the guiding of wayward children. Jeret was himself a wayward child, completely devoid of any sense of responsibility. His family cast him out (seemingly at least), but gave him an opportunity to be a father in his exile. As we just discussed, the weight of that power had a redemptive effect on him. Yes, power can corrupt, but I also sincerely believe that it can refine us as well. None of us can improve if we cannot choose, and none can choose where they do not have at least some power.

In either case, I feel I have had my fill of these themes, at least for a while. Come back on Monday when we’ll go somewhere new!

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part One

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“Huuuaanngg!”

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.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I talked about themes of power, responsibility, and duty. I mentioned that I wanted to write a story where I explored if power could have a purifying effect on someone. I thought it would be interesting to approach that topic by first establishing a man who has no power.

Jeret is an extremely miserable soul. He opens this story in a pathetic state, devoid of any privileges whatsoever. He still has his life, but absolutely nothing to do with it. He is, essentially, already dead; his body just hasn’t caught up to that fact.

My hope is that this groundwork was sufficiently humbling, so that his obtaining a bowl of stew already feels like a momentous victory. But of course, this is only the beginning. Jeret’s state of complete powerlessness at the beginning will be matched to a state of complete power by the end.

One of the most fundamental concepts of storytelling is this notion of establishing an initial state of the hero, which state should be markedly different from their state at the end. The closer these states can be to polar opposites, the greater the journey that lies between and the richer the story that can fill that gap.

I’ll explore this concept in greater detail with my next blog post on Monday. After that, we’ll get back to Jeret, and see how he transitions from one extreme to the other.