It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Four

shallow focus photo of gray and orange insect
Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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.

Part Five

 

On Monday I discussed the idea of a main character creating their own nemesis. I spoke about how this can be used for a poetic hubris, where the fatally-flawed protagonist impales themselves on their own sword. I also said that it could be used in a redemption arc, where the hero sidesteps the destruction by proving that they have overcome the flaw that set it in motion.

In the past few sections we have seen Jeret work to create a peaceful utopia, his own Garden of Eden. But doing so is impossible, because he is not a perfect god. He is a flawed mortal, and his flaws bleed into his work. He seeks to evolve and adapt them into something better, but it is their violence which advances most quickly of all. The more he tries to fight it, the more his own nature looms right in front of him.

Now we are going to come to the decision point. For the first time the violence is coming all the way back to him. He has been stung by his creations, threatened by his own hand. This makes him angry, and will compel him towards violence. At this point there are really only two ways that the story can end. On the one hand, he could give in to his old nature and attempts to squash his subjects. Of course, they are merely an extension of himself, and so by trying to destroy them he will doom himself in the process. On the other hand, he could overcome his anger, forgive the offending creatures, and at last discovers true inner peace. Of course, they are merely an extension of himself, and so by cleansing himself of violence they will become peaceful themselves in the process.

I am certainly leaning towards one of those endings over the other, but I will have to write it and see if it feels authentic. In either case, we will see the culmination of the story next Thursday. Before that, though, I’d like to examine this situation a little more closely. We have two possible endings, and each seems a fitting closure to all that has come before. On Monday let’s consider how such dual-path stories exist, and what some of the defining characteristics of them are.

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Three

close up environment flora ground
Photo by David Alberto Carmona Coto on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two

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.”

Nothing happened.

“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.

Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I talked about how Jeret did something intended to offend the audience: inventing two creatures for the sole purpose of them fighting to the death. I also discussed how he regretted this action, and would now have the opportunity to grow past this ignorant foolishness.

We see the first hints of that character development in how he cares for the surviving Firling. Building a complex ecosystem for it is a very long and arduous process, but he has made the life, and so he is responsible for preserving it.

This ties back to my initial intention for writing this story. As I explained before, my wish was to explore responsibility, including responsibility for past mistakes. Jeret invented violence in this world, and it is too late to close that Pandora’s Box. The garden he has created is therefore full of violence, but it is balanced out with birth and life. It is a flawed world, but still one where a creature can fill a purpose and propagate itself.

Jeret has taken some important steps in being accountable for his actions, but I wish to push him still further. Things are going to start to unravel in the garden, and it is going to be his old mistakes that come back to haunt him. And this time, the danger that arises is going to be enough to threaten him directly! The idea of the hero inadvertently creating his own nemesis is not a new idea at all. I’d like to explore this concept in greater detail, and why it captures our attention so effectively. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then next week we’ll see the rise of Jeret’s demons.