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.

The Last Grasshopper

closeup photo of brown grasshopper
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Once the fields had been green and lush, covered by tall blades of grass rolling in the wind. Now they were scattered over only by the occasional dry stalks: brown, brittle and crackling under every chilly breeze. These remaining sentinels pointed up to skies that were overcast and perpetually stormy, a curtain of gray broken only by the occasional crack of lightning and thunder.

Across these fields’ shriveled husks there crawled a single warden, an old and weathered grasshopper. Of all the changes that it had experienced, it was this solitude that struck it as the most strange. For though it had been born in a time when the earth was still new, when flowers were in bloom and water was running, it had not witnessed any of this at the first. Instead it had been hatched within the ground, buried among the masses.

There the first life it had known had been dark and churning. The entire universe seemed a rolling, crawling mass. Its brothers and sisters were innumerable, swarming and pressing it, urging it to claw upwards, to chew through pod and earth, to climb until at last it burst out into the air and greeted its first sunrise.

Here at last it had stumbled upon the nature of its reality, to exist suspended between two great infinites. There was that of the never-ending depths beneath, the earth of its birth. There was that of the ongoing expanses above, the sky that it would dissipate into at the other end of life. Between those two extremes it would dwell: crawling, hopping, and flying, ever wavering between the two yet never fully belonging to either.

What it did belong to was the community. Each new day saw another geyser of small white nymphs like itself bubbling out from beneath the earth and crawling up to take their claim of the land. The ocean of greenery seemed endless, yet the appetite of their horde was relentless. They moved as a body from one field to another, ingesting and digesting, eating all that they could in a race to grow. And grow they did, first doubling in size, then tripling, then molting into a new form that could bear still more multiplications.

Perhaps if they had had a mind that could contemplate their nature, they might have considered the effects of eating this perishable food. For if the plant was alive as they had been, and if it could die and be consumed, and if that entity then became a part of their bodies and now defined them, then were they not consigning themselves to the same eventual fate? Perhaps had they found some immortal food that did not die in the eating of it, then they would have lived forever. But it was too late, they had eaten that fruit and now they bore the common curse of all the earth.

And death did, in fact, begin to manifest. Indeed, all that prevented them for overrunning the entire landscape was that now they were large enough to capture the attention of the birds, and the spiders, and the mantises, and all other manner of predatory life. So as they grew in mass, they diminished in numbers, such that an equilibrium was more or less maintained.

They were still legion, but with each following day they were lesser and lesser of a legion. By the time they approached full maturity and began to mate, their only remained enough to replace their initial numbers and thus not make any gains against nature’s balances. Here the grasshoppers found the beginning of their fulfillment, their great purpose to recreate themselves in new forms. Here was how they cheated nature and gained their immortality.

But that victory was momentary, and the world was already signalling a turning of the tides. For even as the grasshoppers planted their eggs in the soil, they were finding that the ground was colder and harder than it had been before. The loose moisture in it was beginning to freeze and the chill of the night seemed to persist longer into each new morning, suggesting soon it would overtake the days entirely in one eternal slumber.

In anticipation of that great sleep one grasshopper after another succumbed to the elements, curled up, and perished. In doing so their last duty to the next generation was being fulfilled: they were leaving a space in the world for their children to fill. Immortality was still the promise, but immortality only through death. Through incarnation.

Some fell when caught out in the cold. Others starved from the sparseness of food remaining. Others were simply too old and frail to support living any longer. Though when born in the spring they had defied numbering, yet they were finite. Numerically and mortally. As they entered late autumn they could be counted as no more than a thousand. A week later they were no more than a hundred. Before another week was spent there remained that only one.

That final grasshopper did not even know that it was the last of its kind, it simply was aware that it no longer encountered any others of its race. Of course every year saw a “last grasshopper,” by the nature of things some creature had to fill that role, and this year it happened to be this one. In some ways that may seem a momentous thing, yet it passed by each year with none to take any note of it. Perhaps that was fitting. Life began in heat and noise, but then tapered out in a long, slow decrescendo. There would be no loud crash to signal the end, only a muting into nothingness.

And yet not quite nothingness. For the seeds were already in the earth, and in time legions would rise again. None of that next generation would know of this, their nearest forebearer. This final grasshopper was a last strand, stretching from its edge of the infinite towards the other until it would break under the strain of that distance. The next year’s generation would not know of that past, yet they would still owe their entire existence to it.

The grasshopper raised its foreleg for another step, but its clawed foot failed to grasp the stalk, and instead it fell to the ground.

***

I really enjoyed writing out this piece. As I mentioned on Monday, the changing seasons has given me a lot of thoughts about the nature of existence, mortality, beginnings and endings, birth and death. It helped me to process and give closure to those sensations by just being able to find words that gave better definition to those ideas. It serves as an important lesson that we need to pause, take in the world, and then channel it through our imagination to create something new from that experience. I hope each one of us can live our days being inspired by all that richness which surrounds us.

Even as I concluded with this piece, though, it was already bringing up new thoughts and ideas that I still want to explore further. Specifically I want to take some time to linger on the idea of the passing of a torch. This is obviously a classic theme in stories, and there are many takes on the ideas of mentors, tradition, and old flame rekindling in a youthful disciple. Sometimes, though, this rite of passage does not occur so smoothly. On Monday we’ll speak some more about this concept, and I hope to see you then. In the meantime, have an excellent weekend!