The Gods Watched

At first there was one god. As far as it knew, it was entirely alone in an endless expanse of nothingness.

This first god set the universe in motion, and planted the seeds of life in a few promising solar systems. Eventually, on a small, damp planet, living cells appeared. The first god used them as toys, molding some into fixed, flowering shapes, and others into mobile creatures.

It released some of the creatures into the ocean. Others it placed on land. It launched some into the sky: “Fly,” it commanded, and they did. Watching the animals move and grow helped pass the time.

Soon, the first god noticed that some plants and animals died quickly, before reproducing. This was worrisome, but the god comforted itself: if this experiment failed, it could try again on a different planet. Observing closely, it realized that the strongest specimens of each generation not only survived, but also tended to pass on their advantages to their descendents. In this way the life forms gradually changed, becoming ever more resilient.

The test came when a meteor hit the planet, stirring up great clouds of choking dust. The climate changed. Many plants and animals perished. Soon enough, new species replaced those that had become extinct. The first god saw that life could recover even from large-scale devastation. There was no need, it decided, for further tinkering. It rested.

At this point, a second god appeared. “I’d like to try something,” it said.

“Where did you come from?” the first god asked.

Like the first god, the second one was without form, and it communicated its thoughts soundlessly, as the first god did. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m from the same place you are.” There was silence in the universe. Neither god knew where it had come from. And so the second god said, “Some things are a mystery even to us. Still, we have so many powers, and so much time to do whatever we wish. The life forms you’ve created... I like them. Even so, I have an idea for new little creature.”

A wave of distress rolled over the first god. “Whatever animal you might introduce, it would eventually transform into something else. In any case, since all the plants and animals are constantly changing, every possible life form will eventually appear. I see no need to attempt anything new.”

“Let me just try this one thing,” the second god persisted. “Shouldn’t I, like you, get a chance to play with the building blocks of life?”

The first god gazed upon the planet--upon its planet, as it thought of it. It admired the velvety patches of vegetation and glinting flows of water. “Maybe you’d better start your own bioregion.”

“This place has the only decent atmosphere in the area. The next suitable planet might be many light years away. I’d rather stick around here, with you.”

The first god felt its distress replaced by a surge of affection. “I guess I’d like that, too.”

“But you expect me to just float around here, watching? That wouldn’t be enough for me, not from now until forever. Well, think it over.”

The first god did. As it deliberated, the planet revolved many times around its glowing star. Finally, the first god announced its decision. “I might let you make one animal. Maybe you’d like to design a new form of camouflage? Or a new mating ritual, perhaps?”

“What I want,” the second god said, “is to endow one creature with advanced intelligence. I want to create an animal that could create things of its own—in a limited, un-godlike manner, of course.”

The first god objected. “What might such a powerful being do? You don’t know, and neither do I.”

“I’m only asking for one favor,” the second god said. “A teeny favor, a nothing. If that’s too much to ask, then I’ll leave.”

Again the first god gazed down on its creation. The animals were amusing and beautiful, but so feeble in comparison to its fellow god, an invisible mass of random ideas and unfathomable abilities. “Go ahead, then. Build your thingie. But make it compatible with the other creatures.”

“Of course,” the second god said. It fiddled with an existing species of warm-blooded, furry animals, seeding them with the rudiments of self-awareness. With every generation, these animals became better at communicating, and quicker at solving problems. As the gods watched, one branch of the species evolved into a tribe of gibbering bipeds. These animals used their flexible appendages to make simple tools of wood and stone.

“Very nice,” the first god said.

The second god paused before responding. “You don’t suppose,” it said, “that I’ve given this creature are too many advantages? What if it depletes resources other animals need?”

“It’s possible. Unlikely, I’d say.” By this time the first god had glimpsed a thrilling possibility: the new animals might, it thought, begin to intuit their creators’ presence.

Before long, the unarticulated wish came to fruition. “Glory, glory unto the Lord,” the creatures prayed. They spoke different languages, and their rituals varied, but their pleas were similar. “Help us, Beloved Gods,” they cried.

“Listen,” the first god said, “they’re talking to us!”

“Okay, but look: they burn the plants for no reason. They kill too many of the other animals. They even kill each other. They ask us for help, but much of what they want is idiotic. Instead of helping them destroy their enemies in battle, or acquire new lovers, or live longer, we should figure out how to tamp down their destructive tendencies.”

“Nothing to worry about,” the first god responded. “The other life forms will become stronger and sneakier. The Inventors can’t win every time.” This was what the gods had decided to call the new animals: the Inventors. “Anyway, for their own good, the Inventors will outgrow their worst habits.”

“I don’t know. I think they’ve stopped mutating. Instead, they manipulate their environment to suit themselves,” the second god said.

“Wait and see.”

The Inventors made tools that constructed, and weapons that destroyed. They built machines that sent information swarming around the planet. The first god was fascinated: these animals, so short-lived, so fragile, spent much of their time contriving intricate schemes. The first god watched them as they watched their media. It eavesdropped on their endless cacophony.

Meanwhile, the second god was losing its patience. “They grow noisier by the instant. For every insight they attain, at the same time they come up with ten new forms of cruelty.”

“They’re getting smarter all the time,” the first god said. “One day, maybe, they’ll leave their weak forms behind, and join us on the ethereal plane.”

“That seems unlikely. I’m so sorry; I’ve ruined your marvelous experiment. Let’s wipe everything out, and start over from scratch.”

“I won’t destroy,” the first god said, “what I have built—what you and I have built together.”

“I see,” the second god said. “You still wish to decide everything on your own.” With that, the second god withdrew into a state of seclusion.

The first god waited. As it lingered, it reminded itself: we are gods, both of us. We are enormously intelligent. Certainly the second god would realize it was being stubborn and selfish; of course it would be foolish to destroy all life on the planet after all the effort the first god had taken to establish it. As the second god’s withdrawal continued, however, the first god began to wonder if, perhaps, it should have been more tactful.

Soon after the first god suffered this thought, the second god returned. “Hello, again, my friend.”

“Welcome back!” the first god said.

“I’ve decided to start my own experiment in a new quadrant.”

The first god felt its irritation return. “You’d abandon me now? For the sake of our friendship, I allowed you to interfere in my project. Have you no gratitude?”

“Just come with me! Let this place go on as it is, and join me in a new venture.”

The first god paused, contemplating the beautiful, empty spaces that surrounded them, so empty and silent. Then it glanced at its planet, so busy and interesting. “I won’t leave. Not yet. But as for you…as for us, I do hope we’ll meet again.”

“Perhaps we will, perhaps not. Farewell, old friend.”

Now, once again, the first god was alone. It missed the second god. I should seek out my dear companion, it kept thinking. But then it would remember how stubborn the second god was. Wherever it might be, the second god would already have begun building its new world. Even if the first god were to able to track that place down, in any case the second god would make sure to maintain control of the creative process at all times. This, the first god thought, would be unbearable.

Meanwhile, at every moment on the little planet, the Inventors built tricky new gadgets. At every second, some of them praised the god, even as others cursed it. The first god knew these animals would never grow into the demigods it had once hoped for. It realized they were, for the most part, narrow-minded and impulsive, and that as a result, they probably wouldn’t be around for much longer. But try as it might, it couldn’t turn away from their senseless, fascinating chatter.

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