On a warm spring day, two young men, or rather, one boy and one man carrying their gear, slowly came down a footpath by the river. A close observer might have heard them complain about the locals, although he might only have heard silence as their complaints faded under the alternately sunny and cloudy day. One was short with long flaxen hair, and a sharp, suspicious expression on his face that occasionally relaxed before suddenly snapping back; and the other was an unperturbed blank as quietly along he clanked.
They passed by many things, and many things passed by them, until they came to a stone. Lying upon it was a young man of medium build, medium-high height, whose greenish eyes popped open in a face framed by curly brown hair and a close beard when he heard a twig snap. He looked expectantly and seemed pleased to see one, then the other, and leapt down beaming. The boy tensed, knees bent slightly as he pivoted to face the man.
“Hello there, laddie!”
“Who are you calling a small annoying dog -”
“Who am I? I suppose I’m a philosopher.”
“Why don’t we take a walk and talk, about ships and sealing wax, and what is the truth?”
Without waiting, the man strode briskly forward past the boy.
“Wait, about what? Who are you really?”
“We only know who we are, yet I’ve never heard anyone explain themselves well.”
He frowned at the man’s back. Riddles?
He took a second look at the man. Sturdy shoes; town-style pants and a thin but collared shirt (clean); soft hands (clean). Not a peasant. Seemed healthy and sharp. Too young to be a judge, and no military bearing so not an officer. He could be another alchemist, but he didn’t seem familiar, and lacked any visible equipment or identifiers (and there were no bulges in the pants, so no weapons or vials). A clerk, out here? Maybe the local schoolteacher out on break. Harmless, then, and an educated man who might know something about the recent incidents. He could be very useful.
“Then what can you explain well? Anything unusual lately?”
“Do you like stories? I used to like stories a great deal when I was a boy, but I’ve since become suspicious. I can’t help indulging sometimes, though.”
He waited. A man with a story will tell it, sooner or later.
“I said I was a philosopher and we prefer to deal with the broad and abstract, so my story won’t have many details. If I included details, it would defeat the point of my telling it, you see.”
A small incline distracted them from listening. And then the new view was distracting as well.
He bored a hole in the man’s back, willing him to start with the sheer force of his glare, remaining stubbornly silent. Some time later…
“You’re an alchemist, I know. So this story will be about an alchemist. Once upon a time, when tigers smoked pipes, there was a great alchemist -”
A dry chuckle at his hoary start.
“…And alchemists then had devised a way to see other worlds, and watch their histories. He wasn’t perfect so he could only see a few people sometimes, but he saw all the important and key events of a great war in one kingdom.”
A bird chirped pleasantly.
“How did he do that… Ah.”
“Yes, but not quite how you are thinking. The key ingredient, his sacrifice, was of his time or life. And Equivalent Exchange is never equal. For every hour he saw, he might lose more of his life.”
Clomp, clomp, thud.
“So he peeped in on this world. Are you going to tell me why it involves alchemy?”
“Ah, but he didn’t stop with just looking. One day, while experimenting with a compound, he accidentally goes there, and there was confronted with an awful choice.”
A pause for breath and then -
“He goes there? How does that work? You just said he saw the whole story.”
A hollow young voice spoke up. “Father had a book like that.” Quickly, almost as if to efface the original, the other—“I remember that one. It was a story about an alchemist who drew a hole in time, and went to the past. I think he found that an element he used hadn’t been discovered yet, and while trying to isolate it so he could go back, he falls in love and eventually realizes that he was his own grandfather. So somehow he had always been going to go back in time and be stuck.”
Another pause. “It was just a story. We looked; there’s nothing real like that in the stacks.”
“But if he had always been going to go there, why did he not see himself as part of the story?”
“If he saw himself in the story, he’d already know what choice he made. So maybe he chose not to interfere and didn’t see himself.”
“An ingenious idea—the way it happens is the only way it could happen? But let’s say that our alchemist’s tale was a little simpler and time doesn’t play funny tricks. So, he was confronted with an awful choice.”
“Yeah, like how he will get back.”
“Droll, but I should think an alchemist can easily undo such a thing. No, his dilemma was this. In the terrible war, countless innocents died or suffered or were injured, including some whose career he had followed in detail. So he knew much valuable information about their enemies and the truths of their world, but as he reflected on his memories, it occurred to him how close the war had come to being lost. Events had been an intricate filigree of chances taken and lost, long-buried memories surfaced, escapes made at the last year and last second, allies found and lost, traitors uncovered, new abilities developed and honed under fire, and arcane knowledge learned first-hand. If he ever intervened, the cascade of events would shatter and take on an utterly different shape. As well reweave a spiderweb.”
The man moved a branch out of the way, and looked up at a sudden shading of the sun.
“And so his three questions were: was this world like a story and existed solely because he looked for it and imagined it, and so was he responsible for not imagining a better world—responsible for all the evil & suffering in it? Or, if the world existed in its own right when he was not looking, when he interfered would ‘Fate’ or ‘Destiny’ or ‘the system of the world’ simply steer the good to victory another way with less blood? And if there were no such thing as Fate, did he have the right to interfere?”
He turned to face the man.
“His first question was just stupid. Whether it existed or not is meaningless. If he ever looked to check, it’d look like it always existed, and its people would still think they existed whether or not they actually existed. If you asked me if I existed, I’d say ‘yes, obviously’, but if a non-existent person non-asked a non-existent me whether they existed, that me would also say ‘yes, obviously’. Existing whether he looks or not is just a word game.”
He smiled, but made no objection.
“You said disaster awaited them, right?”
“So he doesn’t have any right to interfere, and if he had the sense God gave a kitten, he’d have left. Just think about the consequences: if you’re playing chess and you’re already going to win, you don’t risk your queen to capture another pawn. That’s just foolish.”
“But it’s not pawns we’re talking about. It’s humans.”
“So? It’s the same thing! If you catch the last train by 1 second, that’s as good as catching it by 10 minutes, isn’t it? If someone knew this and really wanted to help you, they shouldn’t tell you anything like ‘Main Street is blocked by an overturned cart’ because then you might go an alternate route and miss the train by a second because there was some other problem which they didn’t know about.”
“You think people shouldn’t try to help at all?”
“That’s not it at all. Helping each other is how we survive. But you’re trying to be general, you said yourself, and real life is always specific. Helping if you know something is great in general; but your alchemist isn’t helping in general, he’s helping in a specific circumstance where losing is unacceptable. Other times, other places—you can afford to lose. Not now.”
He again made no objection, and looked thoughtful. They came to a bridge, pausing. Three people walking together are a creature of one mind, but the creature did not know whether it was minded to cross or stay. And so one became three.
The man said, “I enjoyed talking to you, Edward. It’s been enlightening”, and stretched down on the grassy bank, closing his eyes.
The brothers looked at each other. It was clearly a dismissal. But…? But? No.
They walked on with their thoughts and burdens, until safely out of earshot.
Said the larger: “I thought he seemed like a good man.” Said the other, glancing back over his shoulder: “Maybe. We’ll see.”
The man laid there thinking until the brothers were long gone, until the sky was completely empty of clouds, a blue reaching to eternity. And then he left.