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.

The Toymaker: Part Six

white and brown concrete building
Photo by Jack Gittoes on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

A sudden chill ran through the drummer and he spun around on the spot, just in time to see a stream of metal sheaves flowing through the center of the doorway and straight into him. He didn’t even hear the impact as he was flung him across the room and slammed into the wall. Still the shafts kept pressing forward, skewering through his chest and pinning him to the spot. The metal blades that weren’t pinning him began to spin and slide, morphing into an erratic form, somewhat like a metal hand, walking on its fingers.

Wincing through the pain the drummer gripped his hammer tightly and swung it in a wide arc. Or at least he tried to. He barely got it more than an inch before one of those metal fingers snapped out, bursting the hammer into a thousand pieces. The blades piercing the drummer’s chest drove in deeper. A humming sound came from inside the metal demon, and now the skewers began to push out in each direction, straining against the drummer’s core, trying to burst his whole body apart.

“What do you–? Why–?” the drummer’s voice came out strained and weak. He was vaguely aware of another of these strange demons bursting into the room and charging down the squealing teddy bear.

The drummer’s eyes fluttered rapidly, his vision floated in and out of focus. “I’m the maker,” he mouthed. Cracks were widening in his chest, snapping up his body, splitting across his lips. “I made every toy.” His body made a loud popping noise and the metal blades sprung partway open. The drummer’s few remaining fibers began to twist and divide. “I made the hands that made you,” the two separate halves of his mouth motioned. “I am you.”

There was a tremendous snap and the drummer’s body burst apart, his entire torso exploding into a cloud of splinters. All thoughts ceased within his mind, and what chunks of body still remained collapsed lifelessly to the floor.

And yet. With that snapping of his body, all of his silent words suddenly reverberated off the walls like a great, rushing wind. It pounded through the space and quaked through the core of the scowlie. Though it had not been fashioned with any ears, it heard it all, and the fingers it walked upon flailed about wildly. A spasmodic shriek emanated from its rubbing sheaves, and the blades started folding and turning, reassembling, fusing together in fervent heat. The edges became less sharp, the pallor less cold, the features less random. The whole being glowed bright yellow, lost entirely from view as it shone like a mortal star!

Sparks rained off of the fusing metal, and as they showered downwards they landed on the boots of a new, metal drummer. It was not merely similar to the wooden version that had just been destroyed, it was the exact image, fresh as the day the drummer had first created. Even his original coloring had somehow been baked into the steel. Though this new version stood in this room, still there also lay the broken and lifeless version of the drummer on the floor. The one that was crafted of cheap wood, stained black by soot, and cracked by heat. The one that still held the handle of the hammer in its glove.

The second scowlie, which had finished with the bear, turned and shrieked at the metal drummer, trying to discern if this was another target or not. The drummer turned and faced it back, unflinching.

“I am you, too,” he said confidently, then raised his baton and brought it down on the drum. It’s metal top resonated much more brightly than when it had been made of wood, and a spasm rippled through the scowlie. It gave one more shriek, then dashed out of the room.

The drummer nodded approvingly, then exited the room himself. He walked back to the hole that had once been a window. He ignored the ladder-bridge, and instead leaped out, falling the full four stories to the ground. He landed gingerly on his boots, then marched off down the street, heading in the direction that the knight had led the guards down.

It did not take him long to find them, the clatter of metal and wood soon echoed to him from a side-alley. There, at its end, he found the knight laughing in combat with the guards. He was outnumbered 20-to-1, but he was a well-made figure, cast from solid pewter. The guard’s thin blades were simply too weak to do more than scratch his armor, and so he danced about, systematically cleaving their spears in two.

“Charge him!” the Guard-Sergeant shouted. “Your weapons are useless, grab him with your arms!”

His weapon isn’t useless!” one of the guards returned, not wanting to put his own, wooden neck anywhere near the knight’s sword.

“Cowards!” the Sergeant charged forward himself. The knight spun quickly and put a well-placed kick in the assailant’s chest, knocking him back to the ground.

“Haven’t we done enough of this?” the knight chortled.

“The scowlies will get you!” the Sergeant spat, slinking away while rubbing his chest.

Immediately the knight’s jovial nature turned dark. “What’s that?!” he demanded.

“Knight, don’t worry,” the drummer said, rushing to his side.

“I leave you toys alive and you’ll send scowlies after me next, is that about right?!” the knight continued after the Sergeant, pointing his sword at the toy’s chest.

“Knight, the scowlies aren’t a problem.”

“No drummer, you haven’t seen them. They absolutely are a problem. I know you won’t like this, but we have to break these toys now.”

“I have seen them. In fact, I am one of them.”

If the knight’s helm could have opened his jaw would have been agape. Instead he just cocked his head in a strange away, unable to fathom why the drummer would even say something like that. Even the guards cowering against the back wall stared to the drummer in bewilderment.

“You don’t know what you’re saying–” the knight began slowly.

Before he could continue the drummer closed his eyes, then his face split and his metal sheaves began to unfold, twisting and re-forming back into the shape of a scowlie.

“A trap!” the knight cried, driving his sword into the heart of the creature. The scowlie grabbed the sword lazily, and yanked it out of the knight’s grip. Then it shuffled again, reforming back into the drummer, holding the sword aloft in his hand.

“No, knight. It’s still me.”

The knight made a strange, flustered noise, and flailed his arms like he was in danger of losing his balance. “But–but all this time?”

“No, just now. When the scowlie killed my old body up in the Administration Building.”

“A scowlie…killed you…?”

“Killed the body. But I was in the scowlie, just as much as I was in that old body. Just as much as I’m in you. Just as much as I’m in them,” he nodded his head towards the still-cowering guards.

“You mean–wait, just what are you trying to say?…Surely not…the Maker?”

The drummer cocked his head in amusement. “Didn’t you say that the Maker put part of himself into each toy?”

“Did I? I think that’s what they say, yes.”

“I liked that part. So I decided that that was who I was. So I don’t think it’s just me who is the Maker. So are you, if you to decide to be. So is everyone. And if everyone decides to be the Maker, and brings their part together, we’ll finally be able to make him again.”

The knight didn’t respond. He took a few shaky steps over to the guards he had just been fighting, and sat down among them. All the toys stared at the drummer in a silent stupor.

“I thought you’d be happy,” the drummer frowned.

“I–I’m overwhelmed,” the knight’s voice was hollow.

“Why?”

“Because it…it…well it breaks everything I thought I knew.”

“So? Isn’t this better?”

“Yes, I suppose…if…”

“If what?”

“If it’s true.”

“So you don’t believe me?” the drummer sounded hurt.

“I don’t know. Really I’m not saying that. Just that it’s–overwhelming. You figured all of this out while you were up with the bear, did you?”

“Yes.”

“See, it doesn’t come that easily for the rest of us.”

“It wasn’t so easy. I had to die to figure it out.”

“Oh,” the knight said stupidly, really not sure how to properly respond to that. “Little drummer, please don’t be offended. But it’s really going to take some time before I even know what I think about what you’re saying.”

“Oh…okay, I guess. We can talk about something else if you’d like.”

“Um, sure. Uh, did you find out where the dancer was?”

“No, I didn’t,” the drummer’s face looked troubled, then almost instantly brightened. “But I’ve just thought of a way to find her.”

“I’m sure you have. Why don’t we go find her, and maybe–maybe that’ll give me some time to just think about everything you’ve said along the way?”

“Alright.”

“What about us?” one of the guard’s piped up.

“What about you?” the knight returned. “You’re free to go if you’ve had enough.”

“Or free to come with us if you want more,” the drummer added enthusiastically.

The Sergeant frowned at that, rose to his feet, and ducked down the alley with his head bowed. One-by-one the other guards followed until only two remained. Each of them looked to one another, and then back to the drummer.

“We’d rather come with you. Come and see–whatever it is you’re doing. Looking for a dancer, you said?”

“Yes,” the drummer nodded. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, but she and I came up with a dance, and when I played the music for it we always knew just how to move together.”

“So…?”

“So follow me.” And with that the drummer whisked out his baton and brought it back down on his drum. Rump-a-dum-a-dum-a-dum! And as he struck out his old, familiar tune, his legs snapped to attention and whisked him down the alley. His rhythm reverberated loudly off the walls, and the knight and two guards fell into step behind him.

They marched out into the street, then made a turn and were off on their way. One street, then another, then another. The whole area was still reeling from the attack on the Administration Building, but whatever toys recognized the drummer and the knight were much too frightened to approach them. Instead crowds parted and stared wide-eyed at them as they passed. After a little while the marchers were past the heart of the city, and on their way into the next district.

Here the houses were more modest, and had wide spaces between them for growing groves of trees. The ground hadn’t been leveled here, and naturally rose and fell in little hills and dells. As more and more of the city-proper fell behind them, it became clear that the drummer’s dance was leading them in a straight line for the gutted remnants of an old town in the distance.

It was perched atop a steep rise in the land, an old suburb of the city that had been almost entirely consumed in a terrible fire long ago. There was no official community there now, only vagrants and gangs of criminals, competing with the local wildlife for a hole to sleep in. Of course the knight with his sword and the guards with their half-spears were already better armed than any peasant that they might find, and so the party wasn’t too worried as they followed the slope of the land into its blackened ruins.

No one tried to molest them anyhow. Indeed, they didn’t even see any of the toys, only the ratty bedrolls and smoldering fires of their camps. So strange in this place was the sight of the visitors, that the inhabitants had scurried for cover, and now peeped out at them in awe from their hiding places.

The journeyers marched straight down the central street, old rubble crumbling into dust beneath their feet. The drummer’s beat echoed unnaturally off the half-toppled buildings, as if it had been so long since those old walls reverberated sound, that now they didn’t quite remember how.

All at once the drummer felt his feet turning, taking him off the central road. He quickened his rhythm, beating a trail down a nearby alley. Over the moldy frames fallen out of the windows, and across the crunching beads of shattered glass. His feet began to slow, and presently he came face-to-face with a small apartment, its door hanging on just one hinge, yellow paint peeling off in chunks.

The drummer stilled his batons, then looked back to his accompaniment, they looked back at him, eyes unblinking. He turned back, swallowed, and pushed his way through the creaky door. The knight and the guards waited respectfully outside.

Part Seven

 

This last Monday I discussed the importance of self-reflection in a character, and how it is most often used to signal a fundamental change within them. I took a very literal route with that in today’s post! Previously the drummer chose to spare the bear, only doing so after he took a little look inside of himself and decided what he wanted to be.

Of course even though he had made that choice, he had still betrayed the fact that his heart was quite changed from what it once had been. Yes, this time he managed to restrain himself, but what about next time? I felt it was essential for him to have a token of grace, a chance to be reborn entirely. It was then that I decided his old, tortured husk had to die, and he would be remade, as clean and pristine as at the very start of his tale.

Now, having been restored, he is at last ready to rejoin the dancer. As I reread this segment I realized that I rushed things quite a good deal here at the end. I’m sorry about that, unfortunately I did not have time to correct this imbalance. At the very least I can pause here, and take the time to give our penultimate scene between the drummer and the dancer some proper breathing space. As such, the conclusion of this story is going to come next Thursday.

Before we get to that, though, I want to take a moment to talk a bit more in-depth about how my vision for this story shifted while writing this tale. I actually had a pretty clear idea of where I wanted it to go when I began, and then it got off the rails quite quickly! On Monday I’ll pull back the curtain on what my original intent was, how and why it changed, and how it then proceeded to change again and again several times throughout. I hope you’ll find it interesting, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

The Toymaker: Part Four

multicolored broken mirror decor
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

“So how can we find the dancer now?” the drummer asked as soon as the knight’s attention had returned to the present.

“We’ll have to ask around I suppose. You’ve got a description of her? And of the bear what took her? Alright, I know a few good places to float those out. Someone will have seen them, don’t you worry.”

The drummer still didn’t understand, but the knight seemed confident, so that was reassuring. He decided he would just wait and watch what the knight did, and then he would understand what he had meant.

So they ambled along, the knight trying to find his way through roads that he only half-remembered. He had been down in the factories for quite a very long time, and things had changed a great deal in the meantime.

“Things haven’t been kept up very well, have they?” he said as they hopped across a particularly pothole-riddled road. “I mean they were never very good here to begin with. But somehow they’ve gotten even worse!”

“This is not a nice place,” the drummer affirmed. “Is the city at the end of the main road nicer?”

“What? You mean the one they tell you to go to when you first get made? You can’t ever get there, y’know. Probably doesn’t even exist.”

The drummer came to a sudden stop, taken aback by hearing the knight echoing the exact same thoughts as the bear when he took the dancer. “Why do you say that?” he asked sadly.

“Oh…don’t listen to me,” the knight waved his hand dismissively. “People around here just say that, but they don’t know anything.”

“Why do they say that?”

“Listen, when I first went down that road I was quite committed to it. I passed this city and went a long way farther before giving up and coming back. And let me tell you, there is unquestionably something strange about it. Not a normal road at all! Really you get the sense that you’re not even moving forward after a bit, like you’re walking in place and the turns will never end.

“And that’s not just me, either,” the knight continued. “Lots of other toys got the sense that something wasn’t ordinary about it, too. Like some of them turned around and went back to talk to those chess pieces that first set you on the road. They could never find them. The road just seemed to keep stretching out forever in that direction once you got set on it. So don’t let me cast a shadow on your hopes, but I do say that that is no ordinary road.”

“I guess it doesn’t go to an ordinary place then.”

“What’s that? Oho! I rather like that, good point! Couldn’t be a run-of-the-mill road that takes you to the Great City, now could it? You’re probably on to something there.”

“The Great City is supposed to be something special then?”

“Of course! It’s supposed to be paradise! Now don’t ask me what that means, I thought I knew once, now I know that I don’t know at all. But it’s good. And special.”

“I see. Well once we get the dancer free, she and I will be taking the special road to find the special city. You’ll have to decide if you want to come with us or not.”

“I’m with you for as long as you’ll have me, Captain. I like you. So what if I don’t believe that there’s a city at the end of that road? I didn’t believe you could save up all those discs either, and see what happened there!”

At this point they had come to a low, dilapidated tavern.

“This isn’t a nice place, either,” the knight told the drummer as they walked up to the door. “But it was the best place for information back in my day, probably still is. You just keep close to me.”

The drummer didn’t need telling twice, and so the two went through as one, peering through the smoky dark until their eyes adjusted enough to take in the scene. There were a dozen rough tables strewn about haphazardly; the clientele were in the habit of moving them about as they saw fit, and the management was in the habit of not caring. Along the back wall were two counters, the one for buying food was greasy, and the one for buying drinks was splotch-stained. The only light in the place came from some chandeliers with candles set in a ring. The place was so smoke-filled that it seemed to choke the flickering flames, and bid them shine only dimly.

“This way,” the knight said after a moment, leading the way forward to the bar.

“What can I get for you?” the wind-up clock barkeeper asked as they draw near.

“Some information, my good fellow,” the knight said brightly, flicking a medium disc onto the counter. “I’m trying to find someone.”

“Mm,” the clock said, pocketing the disc and cleaning a glass with a rag.

“A dancer, a spinning ballerina in fact. Possibly in the company of a large, tan teddy bear. They would have come into town over a year ago.”

“Well I remember the bear, of course, but not the dancer.”

“The bear is well enough. Where is he?”

“You mean you really don’t know?” the barkeeper asked incredulously.

“Well, no,” the knight cocked his head, wondering just what it is that they weren’t cluing in on. “You see, my friend and I have only just came out of the factory. Been down there for quite a long while.”

“Oho! Hope you aren’t leading the guards to my nice establishment!”

“Not at all! We came out honestly.”

“Sure, sure. Well then you probably don’t know, but a little while back they started a registry. Made everybody sign up, and kept tabs on where they all were all the time. And all the newcomers had to sign it, too. Even if they was just visiting.”

“So?”

“So that teddy bear is the last name in the book!”

“What? You don’t mean…?”

“I do! Hasn’t been a single other toy shown up since that day.”

“The Maker?”

At that the clock snorted. “Hardly. I mean some say so, but those of us with sense figure this finally proves that the Maker isn’t real. Course administration claims that he is, and rushed the bear straight up into their penthouse. They use him for a figurehead to push all their campaigns forward. That’s where he is if you want to see him, but good luck!”

“I see.”

“You said you’re from the factory? Any idea why its still running then? We sorta figured it would have shut down after the ‘Maker’ was found.”

“Well it’s not like my friend and I were privy to the board’s motivations…. But really a lot of us inside doubt that summoning the Maker was their real intention at all. Maybe at the start, but not for a long while now.”

“What then? Surely they aren’t trying to make the scowlies?”

The knight leaned in close, to be sure he wasn’t overheard. “Oh yes, indeed. They’re entirely committed to it now, trying to find ways to make them useful.”

“Train a scowlie? Why I never!”

“Only very basic things, you understand. They’ll never talk or reason like you and I do, but I’ve seen some tests run with them, where they had been fashioned for single, simple behaviors.”

“Like what?”

“Well…” the knight drew back somberly. “Not very nice things. But enough of that for now. Thank you for the information.”

The clock clearly wanted to speak more with the knight, but already the knight had turned, shepherding the drummer across the room and out into the light.

“What is a Maker?” the drummer asked when they were out in the open again. “And a scowlie?”

“You mean all that time in the factory and you never found out what we were doing there?”

The drummer just shook his head.

“Well…the Maker, according to those who believe, is some great being who made all of us. That’s why none of us knows where we come from, because he makes somewhere else, puts some of his own life inside of us, and then places us secretly in the world. Now that’s a long-old religion, and people don’t really believe in that today. They don’t like the idea of anyone out there having that sort of unbridled power.”

“Why?”

“They’re afraid of him. See we all know he wouldn’t be too pleased with us if he saw us right now. And anytime something bad happens they say its him punishing us. So one day, long time ago now, some of the richer toys got together and built the factory. Said they were going to start making toys of their own. Take the responsibility from the Maker. Not only that, but they said they were going to make the Maker! Fashion him right here in toy form!”

“But…I thought you said they didn’t believe in him?”

“Well, they don’t…and they do. It’s confusing, I know. I guess you could say they wanted to make him here just in case. Because then he couldn’t be up there anymore if ever he did exist.”

“So how did they know how to make him?”

“They figured that if they made enough toys they might make one that looked just like him. And then he would sort of–transfer into it. I don’t understand it all, it was based on ancient manuals that had been written about the Maker. Something to do with: if you capture his image, then he will be in that toy. Don’t quote me on that, but that was the gist of it. Anyway, just think about it: then you would have the Maker of us all caught up in a box. If he still had any powers you could make him do whatever you wanted, or at the very least keep him bound down so that he can’t blast us all into dust.”

“I see…and now they think that the bear is him?”

“Well, you heard the clock. They do and they don’t, same as ever I suppose.”

“Well I think that I’m the Maker.”

“What?! Don’t say that!”

“Why not?”

“It’s blasphemy. Well, I guess maybe you don’t know enough for it to be blasphemy. But a lot of people around here would find a claim like that insulting. They’d say you were being disrespectful to the Maker.”

“But what if I am him?”

“Well…no offense, but you just don’t seem the type.”

“What is he like, then?”

“I–I don’t really know…. Well, obviously he makes things, right? That much is clear. Can you make things like he can?”

“Sure.” The drummer reached down and stacked one rock sideways onto another.

The knight laughed and slapped the drummer on the back.

“Well who’s to say you aren’t, then! Really if any of us was, I suppose why not you?”

“Anyway…the teddy bear wasn’t even the last toy made either. I came after him, I just never signed the registry.”

“You what?! Well I guess that makes sense, you’ve already mentioned that you were around at the time.”

“And actually the dancer came even after me.”

“Well then maybe she’s the Maker!” the drummer laughs.

“I suppose she might be.”

“Curious that she wasn’t on the registry either…. Course, if the bear had her against her will, perhaps he was keeping her hid at the time.”

“But what’s a scowlie, then?”

The knight shuddered. “Nasty thing. See they couldn’t make anything proper in the factory. They couldn’t even make toys like you and I. They could make things that looked like toys, but they were just vacant and lifeless. They tried figuring out the secret of life, and that led them into…weirder experiments. The result were these strange, warped beasts. Random forms of metal, monsters really. And they weren’t ever really alive either. Just like I said in there, they can’t talk or reason, they just operate on one intent, usually a destructive one.”

“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

“No, you don’t. Trust me.”

“But at least we know where the bear is now.”

Here the knight sighed deeply. “Sure, we know. But that’s a long ways from actually being there. You can’t just stroll into the Administration Building. Especially if he’s their precious figurehead, he’ll be safe from the public, somewhere locked down tight.”

“You don’t think we could get there?”

He shrugged. “Frankly I don’t know how…. But I imagine you will want to try anyhow?”

“Yes.”

“Of course. And if that’s where your quest goes, then I will come along. Whether I can see success in it or not, I meant my pledge to you sincerely.”

“Thank you.”

“Well then…I guess the first thing for us to do is get a look at this place. Let’s go.”

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

 

On Monday I shared how story characters do not always progress towards the destination they are striving for, but that they should at least progress towards the conclusion of the story. They should be ever drawing nearer to their own, personal conclusion, even if it isn’t the one that they wanted.

This is certainly the case with our little drummer. He finally found his freedom, but still has yet to reach his long-lost dancer. In fact, he seems to have only grown further and further from her, the breadcrumbs are being laid down faster than he can pick them up.

That is an intentional pattern of this story, as I want it to have a theme of tireless pursuit, no matter how many discouragements he faces. With this I am taking cues from some of my most favorite heroic epics, stories that feature a very long way home. Come back on Monday where we will examine this theme more closely, and then on Thursday we’ll get to see the drummer and knight’s daring heist played out!

Massive Forces

tornado on body of water during golden hour
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Characters are everything in a story. They represent our different ideals and beliefs, they give us an emotional anchor, and they serve as the bridge to immerse us into the world of the story. If a story was devoid of any characters then it really would not qualify as a narrative, it could more accurately be called a bland list of events.

Obviously the most common form of a character is that of a human character, or else an object or animal that has been anthropomorphized to behave like a human. The key qualities of this sort of character are as follows:

  1. They are a distinct entity
  2. They have a personality
  3. They have individual desires
  4. They have the ability to choose

When a character possesses each of these attributes then readers will consider it a person, and assume that it is similar to them. If any of these qualities are missing then it is no longer considered a person, instead it might be seen as an object, or a machine, or an illusion, or a piece of set dressing. Even if the subject in question is depicted as a human, if it never shows any personality or individuality then it will be considered a non-essential “extra.”

This phenomena of fiction is called out in a very meta way during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one entitled The Measure of a Man. Here we see the android member of the crew, Data, facing a trial to determine whether he has any “human” rights or not. There are several philosophical arguments presented as to what it means to be alive, but the fact is the audience themselves are already settled on the matter long before the case even begins.

This is because the audience has already seen that Data acts autonomously, driven by his own desires, and in possession of his own distinct personality. Even if Data weren’t humanoid in appearance, the audience would have already accepted him as a person, far more so than the show’s countless “human” extras who are introduced and killed off without ever uttering a single word.

But while every person in a story is a character, not every character is necessarily a person. Specifically I wish to examine the characters that have desire, and even personality, but which never manifest as distinct or embodied beings. These are characters that are never seen, but are felt everywhere throughout a story’s pages.

Often these sorts of characters take the form of some great force in the world, such as nature, karma, or God. Examples of these characters would include the operating-behind-the-scenes aliens in Midnight Special and Escape to Witch Mountain. It is the Force in Star Wars. It is the plague in Oedipus.

One of my favorite examples, though, is from a little-known Iranian film called the Color of Paradise. Here a man is trying to achieve status and comfort in the world, all while shirking his duties to his blind son. No matter how hard he works to improve his station everything falls apart, seemingly as though some intelligent being is actively resisting him. That being is never seen and never named, but the viewer understands it to be the natural karma for the unkindness he has shown to his son. He will never be able to succeed until he has first made things right in the home.

Thus we see that the karma in this story wants something. It has opinions, and it has the ability to interact as an equal with all other characters. It serves the necessary role of bringing balance to a world of unbalanced men.

During my current series of stories it was my intention to incorporate some of these hidden characters in each of my tales. Let’s take a look at how I did so.

The first short piece I posted was the intro to the novel I am currently working on, which is entitled With the Beast. In this intro the reader arrives at an isolated island, here to witness a tragic memory, a memory of deep personal regret. Associated with this memory is a family of four characters, each of which represent different virtues and ideals. By this we understand that this memory is allegorical, a memory that personifies concepts and feelings.

But as each of these concepts are now embodied as persons it is now the readers themselves that become the unseen force. The exact details of what it is they regret are shrouded by the nature of the allegory and instead become reduced to a vague force of will. One way this is represented is by the very island that the story takes place on. Our four adventurers have come to try and develop a promising future, wresting from the land riches and accomplishment. In that way this island is a character that resists and concedes to their efforts, and what exactly it is meant to symbolize is left open to interpretation by the reader.

After With the Beast I posted a story called The Heart of Something Wild. This story features a man who has just inherited rule over his tribe in Africa. He knows that certain members of that tribe will try to challenge his right to rule, and for the sake of preserving peace he intends to let them depose him.

Though he tries to do just that, the main character finds that some force subverts all of his actions and ultimately restores rule back to him. That force, as the title of the story suggests, is the Wild. The story is meant to suggest that above politics and man-made laws there are also measures and balances more eternal. When necessary, those more eternal forces will intervene in our lives to bring about what is right. My greatest fear with this story would be that readers saw the end as a deus ex machina moment where everything just coincidentally seems to turn right for the hero. It wasn’t a coincidence, it was the conscious influence of an immortal nature.

Finally, just this last Thursday I posted the second section of Glimmer. In this segment I introduced the threat to our main character and her mission. This opposition did not take the form of a living, breathing character, though, but rather of an infinite void. This void possess neither emotions nor desires, it simply expands in such a way that undoes all life and existence. This makes it fundamentally an enemy of all living beings, although this short story suggests we bring the void upon ourselves when we hide from bravery and mute our yearnings to live as heroes.

This is therefore a force both grand and universal, but also personal and intimate. It did not make sense to me for any conscious being to have this sort of range, it would have been impossible to keep track of all its infinite perspectives. Also I feel it makes the essence more terrifying if it merely flows onward as an unyielding force of nature, immune to any appeals of pathos.

 

It’s easy when designing a story to forget about these larger-than-life characters, but successfully incorporating them can add a fascinating dynamic to the whole. The presence of these characters speaks to a common intuition that there are things out there bigger than us. It suggests that for man to chart his course successfully through life, he needs to take into account forces both seen and unseen.

Obviously there are plenty of stories that these sorts of characters might not be a good fit for, but if you’ve been looking for an extra layer of depth in your work this might be just what you needed. Come back on Thursday when we’ll see the continued manifestations of our infinite and impersonal void in part three of Glimmer.