Emilio lay sweating on the sheets. Dr. Kirke was sound asleep next to him. For the briefest of moments he was tempted to roll over and cuddle her, but the feeling passed with a wave of revulsion. He wasn’t a solitary creature. He couldn’t live like this. The nature of his situation forced him to. The other men on the island tended not to trust Kirke’s latest battery and steered clear of him. There weren’t any women either. Not that they didn’t show up to the island occasionally, but they disappeared in short order. Even the ones the men would spirit away in the hopes of having some kind of physical companionship would eventually disappear. Kirke had eyes everywhere in a very literal sense.
At times like these, when he felt alone and vulnerable and wanted to reach out and touch someone, anyone, to really know that someone else was there, he would retreat into the crawlspaces of his mind. Down long corridors and echoey halls, where his memories left their claw marks on the walls. Sometimes he would stroll by his Happy Place, that safe space where he would hide when he felt like this, and stand in front of it. He would well up with tears, wishing he could fit in there still, wrap himself in warm memories and pleasant thoughts and dreams of the future.
Sometimes, when he was feeling desperate enough, he would pry at the hinges of the door that kept his Happy Place separate from everything else, clawing, trying to get in. Sometimes he would howl in a sad rage, terrifying the young soul that hid inside. Here in this mindscape, where there was no time, he would catch glimpses of a young boy, looking very much like himself, darting between rooms, laughing and playing. Always just beyond sight, always just out of reach. Every once in a while he would see a ragged man with white hair and empty eyes, dragging his feet around a corner. Lost. Forgotten.
Morning came swiftly and Emilio was up before the Sun’s rise. He noticed that the sunrise never came earlier or later. It was always the same time everyday. That meant he was either stuck in the tropics near the equator or the island existed in another dimension where time looped in on itself. Either one was plausible. On days like this, he liked to walk the winding paths around the mansion, snaking in and out of nature and landscaped terraces. A lot had been developed on this island, much of it thanks to the men’s labor, but the wild parts were still very much wild. On the borders between the wild and landscaped places, Kirke’s creations stood guard.
Mockeries of Science, these beasts kept watch over the men, making sure they never strayed too far from the camps. At the same time, they also protected the natural things on the island from the hungry, predatory men. Both sides were vulnerable to overhunting.
He walked past the farmhouse attached to the mansion grounds. Past the stable and the dairy and the coop and the pig sty. The pigs crowded near the fence, squealing at him. Begging. He tried not to pay attention to the pig that squealed the loudest. The one with the loose fitting shirt and glasses held together by duct tape.
* * *
Parallel 14: BioHack Earth
“Clarity was founded on one principle,” Jael began. “True freedom is an impossibility.”
“That’s a bit dark,” said Emilio.
“One cannot be free from consequence or cause and effect. If you jump, you fall back down, right?”
“And you definitely don’t want to be free of physical boundaries or you’ll fall right through your chair and straight on to the Earth’s core.”
“Freedom is a bit more abstract for me I guess,” said Emilio.
“In what way?”
“Well, freedom to do what I like. Choose how I live my life.”
“Ah, see? And that is where the freedom we seek lies. Choice. Behavior. Thoughts and actions,” Jael continued. This bit seemed well rehearsed. “This is where Clarity shines. It is choice that steers the ship of Self and here is where the stumbling blocks of our lives live as well. The rules we humans impose on ourselves and each other. Rules that we often leave unexamined, treating them like laws of nature rather than social mores. Take clothing.”
“I’d rather not,” said Emilio.
“How we dress changes through time and culture. It is never constant, yet in some places one’s manner of dress is of the utmost importance, taken as an eternal, unchanging truth. Clothing and accessories signal wealth, status, place of origin, and many other things besides. But the only thing holding us to this code of dress is purely social pressure. No law of physics demands that we wear shoes, or hats, or undergarments. Life is full of similar codes, from the basic to the complex, the solid to the abstract.”
“Is there a point to this?” Emilio asked.
“The point is that our society has solved for choice, you see, pushing freedom right out of the equation. No one is responsible for their actions anymore and without responsibility, choice soon withers on the vine. Blame society, or culture, or your very upbringing. Blame thought leaders, elected officials, business tycoons. It’s not my fault that women have to wear such tall hats, to use an old example. I can’t help it if my economic class determines my eating habits, to use a current one.
“Point fingers everywhere you like, and forget that we have more power than we realize. Is life unfair? Yes. Is the game rigged? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, you can still walk away. You can still say no to whatever is making you miserable. That’s what everyone is missing. That’s what Clarity aims to teach.”
“Fascinating, really,” said Emilio, sounding anything but.
“In a “Free” society, most of our misery comes from our choices,” said Jael.
“Is that why you all choose pain? And possibly tetanus?” Emilio asked. Jael nodded.
“Yes, but not everyone walks the path I do. Mine is one of the more extreme versions of the First Teaching. In order to rid ourselves of the old paradigms, a great shock to the system is in order. Because we work in the realm of choice, we encourage new brothers to choose difficulty, complexity and a lack of comfort.”
“Do you make other people wear that thing?” Emilio asked, pointing to Jael’s needle coat.
“This particular garment, the Mouth as we call it, was designed for well versed members of the organization. A wrong movement could cause serious injury and we try not encourage that sort of thing here.”
“Kinky but safe. Got it,” said Emilio, still trying to figure a way out of this place. Maybe an underground passage of some kind?
“I promised chips for your time, didn’t I?” Jael said suddenly. Emilio perked up.
“You serious?” he asked.
“I wasn’t lying before. Although I’m sure my brothers would love to see your disappearing trick, we’ll still give you chips and what few mods we have just for coming by.”
“I’m… thanks. Thank you,” said Emilio.
“You seem surprised,” said Jael.
“I haven’t seen much charity since I came here.”
“We aim to make the world a better place. One soul at a time. As we say in Clarity: sharing is caring.”
Emilio laughed. “That’s a good line,” he said. Maybe these guys weren’t so bad after all.
“Brother Jael!” a young brother called from the front of the headquarters. “The mob is advancing!”
“Brother Fenci! Fetch the Master! Quickly! Everyone else to battle stations,” Jael commanded.
Everyone went about preparing for the wave of people descending on the branch headquarters, which they had very little time to do. Emilio panicked. He didn’t want to die here. What could he do? He wasn’t a fighter. Sure he did some MMA training back in the day, but this was the real deal. This was for keeps.
“Hey, uh, you think I could have some of those chips now?” Emilio asked.
“It’ll have to wait. We’re fighting for our lives at the moment,” Jael said calmly. Shit.
“Shit! Okay, I’ll help however I can. Where do you keep your guns?” Emilio asked. Jael looked confused. “Don’t you have any guns for times like these?”
“We’re a peaceful organization. We don’t condone the use of firearms.”
“Now’s not the time for that!” Emilio yelled. The mob slammed against the front door. The young brothers held fast, barring the door with more tables and chairs.
“Ethics can be flexible when the need arises, but this isn’t one of those times. We can handle ourselves just fine without them,” Jael said.
“Well, what about your needle coat?” Emilio asked.
“What about it?”
“Is it safe to be fighting with that thing on? One wrong move and all that?” Emilio asked. Jael patted his sleeve which made Emilio cringe.
“I never fight without it.”
Well, they were all dead, Emilio decided.