Get ready for a lot of Caroline.
Caroline had been walking with the mutated people for several hours. They were almost entirely quiet throughout the entire walk, and she didn’t want to break the silence to ask how far away they were. Her legs were aching, still partially sore from her long run and walk a few hours before, but she felt sure that it couldn’t be too much further that they would go.
An hour later, she tried speaking with one of the people. “How much further before we get there?”
“I dunno,” he responded, “We’ll just get there when we get there.”
“Like, ten minutes, or like two hours?”
“We’ll get there when we get there.”
Caroline faced forward again and continued in silence once more. She wasn’t sure if they were being curt with her, or simply didn’t know or care how far away it was. Paul was in front, and it was more than possible that they were all just following him blindly, as it were, without a thought to when or how they would arrive.
Caroline made her way up to him and they walked alongside each other for a few minutes before she broke the silence once again.
“So, uh, who are you all? What do you do?”
“We’re Michael’s messengers, you could say,” he responded. “Messengers or… disciples. We go out and do what he cannot any more.”
“But, I mean… who…”
“Why are we like this?” he said, turning to face her. “Why do I look unlike any man you’ve ever seen? Because our parents didn’t let the hospitals euthanize us. Because they loved us no matter what we looked or sounded like. But then… Then they found out how hard that can be. People began to shun them, merely because of us. Some of them abandoned us. Some of them didn’t, but when we became adults we found nowhere to go, no one who would help us. No one but Michael. And so we followed him.”
“I see,” Caroline said, unsure of what else she could say. She felt, for a moment, as though she understood their perspective, but was almost taken aback at that, comparing herself to them and all that they had gone through.
They stopped a while later and ate a quick meal, from a small basket that seemed to be brought along solely for that purpose, then continued on again. Caroline’s legs, chest, lungs, and heart were burning. She would’ve begged them to stop and take a break, but knew how pathetic that would be.
They were walking through a desert. That was the best thing to describe it as, at least. It seemed to have once been something more, something far more, with fertile ground and lush foliage, large, half-destroyed houses scattered throughout, but now it was only desert. Close to the path on which they walked was a twisted heap of metal that Caroline realized must have been a child’s tricycle. Something in this image triggered an emotional response within her, and she suddenly found herself struggling to hold back tears. It was almost as though the tricycle was familiar to her. She hung back a moment behind the group and picked it up.
A beginning of a word was scraped into the metal of the body of the tricycle, “Ca”. Caroline’s eyes widened and she threw it down, backing away. It… it didn’t mean anything. No, it didn’t mean anything. She shook her head and caught up with the group again.
Later in the day, they rounded over a hill and Caroline saw what must be their destination; a large, squat house sitting on a flat area a distance away. Half an hour later and they had arrived.
Paul led her in through one door while the others of the group went into another area.
“Michael should be just in here,” he said to her. He scanned the room quickly, then pointed to a chair with its back to them. “There.”
He turned and left the room, leaving Caroline alone with the man. She took a step forward and, without turning the chair around, Michael spoke.
“You aren’t one of them. What brings you here? And what is your name?”
Caroline stopped. “I’m Caroline. I need your money. A lot of it.”
The chair slowly rotated until the man was facing Caroline. He was old, older than anyone Caroline had seen before. She almost would’ve thought he was a corpse, had it not been for the fact that the voice was coming from him. That, and a spark behind his eyes, a verve that outlasted his body. “Why, exactly, would you need that?”
She stepped towards him confidently. “To go to Introspect.”
He raised an eyebrow, seeming to understand there was more to what she was saying than just that. She paused, partially for effect and partially because she wasn’t sure what to say next.
“Not to join it, of course. I want to get there to talk to whoever is in charge. Stop them, if possible, but at least to talk with them, tell them my story, hear their own. See if there’s any possible way that they can defend themselves. And if not, stop them however I can. I believe the world can’t begin to fix itself until the company is gone.”
He sat silently for a minute after she had finished, his fingertips pressed against each other in thought. “That’s true. I believe there may even be more to it, more that they’ve done to the world, than you know. But I won’t get into that. Perhaps you will hear it from the owner if it is true.”
“So, does that mean that you’ll help me?”
He paused a moment before speaking again. “Maybe. I’d like, first, to talk with you a bit. To gauge you, I suppose. Please, take a seat,” he said, gesturing to a nearby chair.
Caroline sat in it and looked at him, unsure of what to say. He unrolled his fingers towards her. “So, what do you want to talk about?” he asked.
“I… don’t know.”
“Anything. Really doesn’t matter.”
Caroline looked down and gathered her thoughts, then decided to go for the obvious question. “Why haven’t you joined Introspect? You certainly seem to have enough money for it, after all. Paul told me you didn’t want to help them, but I think most people feel the same yet would still join if given the chance.”
“I’ve lived a long time, Caroline. I’ve come in contact with certain people and companies like Introspect and the people in charge there. I, in fact, came in direct contact with someone who was an unofficial… advisor, there, you could say. But from what I have learned throughout my life, I know that to join them in any way becomes an enslavement to them. They are people filled with malice, people with cold hearts – no, not just cold, but hearts that long ago stopped working altogether. They care nothing for the world’s population, so long as they can stay in control of them. That is why I refuse to work with them.”
Caroline cracked her knuckles, chewing at the inside of her mouth. She felt the gravity of this conversation; the fact that it would be the sole deciding factor in whether or not he would help her.
Michael, seeing that she wasn’t sure how to respond, spoke again. “Is there anything else?”
She looked up at him. “Who are… they?” she said, tilting her head towards the door and indicating the group she had traveled with. “I mean, how did they come to you, and all?”
“They are people whose parents refused to have them euthanized merely because of their defects, people who were able to escape with the newborns before it could be done. As you can imagine, raising people like that is very difficult, and must be kept more or less secret. Some abandoned them, and some didn’t, but their children were left without a place once they died. For a long time they lived in caves, forests, and abandoned cities and towns as best they could, but at one point several years ago I met one named Saul. He was dejected, living without place or reason to live in the world. He was about to commit suicide. But I found him, stopped him, and talked with him. I learned of what he and others had gone through. Moved by this, I took him in, with others who lived in the same small community. I renamed him Paul, a symbolic rebirth, you could say. I made him the leader. He had a place, now, and a reason to live. Over time, we brought in other communities of them, and began helping others; communities like the one I assume you came with them from.”
“That’s…” Caroline felt a sudden heat behind her eyes and forced it down. “That’s unimaginable, in this world. I doubt there are many other people like you here. But, if you’re against Introspect, then why haven’t you taken any action towards that? I’m sure your money would go a long way in helping certain… groups. Or, why wouldn’t you go about it yourself?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I can hardly move, at my age. I should’ve died decades ago, but I managed to buy a life-preservation system to string me along for a little longer. I don’t know why, but… I have always felt like I couldn’t allow myself to die until I had seen the downfall of Introspect. As for helping other groups with my money, I’m guessing you meant the Anti-Introspect group. I’m also guessing you didn’t say them by name because you’ve run into them before. And becaues of that, I’m guessing you know exactly why I wouldn’t do that.”
“You don’t work like they do.”
“I certainly don’t. A long time ago, maybe. I probably would have, in fact. But through the years I’ve seen groups like them come and go, and I see their self-destruction over time. I’ve focused, then, on trying to improve the world as I can.”
“I understand that. I was with them for a few days a little while ago. I was thinking of joining them fully, for a bit. But something happened. Someone I had placed my trust in fell out of that trust, and I left. Since then, I’ve just been wandering. But my one goal throughout that wandering has been to meet with the man in charge. It was an implausible, impossible goal for a while, but once I learned about you, I had my one glimpse of hope. So, do you think I’m… worthy?”
Michael shut his eyes. “I’m tired. I’ll think about it and rest for a minute. There’s a pitcher of water on the counter, there, and a bit of food. Help yourself.”
Caroline got up and walked to the counter. She was hungry and thirsty, would’ve eaten and drank it all if she could, but she wasn’t sure if he was still testing her in some way. She poured a glass of water, and took a slice of bread, then returned to her chair and ate it in silence, the man in front of her appearing to be asleep.
A moment later, he spoke without opening his eyes. “You’re very self aware. That’s good. That’s one thing the Anti-Introspect group lacks.” He returned to his motionless position. Caroline took a sip of water.
They stayed like that for close to five minutes, at the end of which Caroline was certain he had fallen asleep. His eyes snapped open, though, and he worked himself out of the chair to standing.
“I’ll help you,” he said. Caroline stood up and followed him as he walked into another section of the house. “I’ll give you enough for the entry fee, and that’s all. If I’ve misjudged you, and you are trying to trick me into paying for your stay there, then you’ll be sorely out of luck for the monthly payments. But it will be enough to get you there, don’t worry.”
He put two cards into opposing slots in a small machine, punched a few buttons, then handed one of the cards to Caroline. “This is it. They’ll accept it, don’t worry. Most other places and people won’t, though. Keep it safe.”
Caroline took the card and put it into one of her pockets, one that zipped shut at the top. “Thank you, so much. I can’t even explain to you how much this means to me…”
He held up a hand. “No need to explain. I think I understand already. You’ll need to go to a specific city, Newhaven 4. That’s the closest one I know of that Introspect has a center at. And just as a word of caution; be wary of some people there. There are drugs prevalent there that people take to live in their own virtual world, as it were. They think they do this in rebellion of Introspect, thinking they can get out of this world without joining them, but it becomes just as much of a slavery and dependance. There’s another degree of irony to it, too, considering that… Well, I won’t get into that. Anyway, I trust you, Caroline. Go and do what you can. I’ll send one of my people with you as a guide.”
She smiled, still in shock that this was all coming together for her. After he had finished speaking, she nervously asked “Would you mind if I… rested for a little bit before that? I’ve spent a large portion of the past two days continually walking.”
He glanced towards a clock. “Oh, for sure. In fact, it might be better if you set out in the morning anyway. Arriving in the city at night probably wouldn’t be the best, and we’ll be eating supper soon. Until then, feel free to pick out a book from the shelves over there.”
Caroline hadn’t noticed until then that an entire wall to the right was made out of bookshelves, all of them completely full. Caroline hadn’t read much in her life. When she was young, living with her mother, they only had a couple books, from which Caroline learned how to read. She read those books over and over, but had rarely come across any others. She stood, awestruck, in front of the shelves. She ran a hand across them, reading the titles with her head cocked to one side.
She pulled two of the books out and returned to her chair. She flipped one open and began reading. It seemed to be a nonfiction book about biochemistry, and the other a story called The Odyssey. The latter immediately interested her and she became immersed in the book, unaware of the passing time until a few people, two of which were from the group she had traveled with, came into the room. They set two plates of food, two glasses, and a pitcher of water on a nearby table, and left without a word.
He stood up to go over to the table, and Caroline went over to support him as he walked. His legs were thin, skin sagging in the absence of muscle. He smiled. “You know, it’s funny. Initially, I brought them in so that I could help them. Now, I must depend upon them to help me.” He sighed and sat down in front of one of the plates.
Caroline sat in front of the other, and they began eating. Michael ate slowly, taking small bites and chewing each for a while before swallowing and starting again. Caroline finished eating long before he did, and felt slightly ashamed at it. He looked up from his food at one point, though, and saw her expression.
“Don’t worry. I know I eat slowly. You can go back to your book while I finish, if you want.”
She did so. She continued reading through the saga, and became so absorbed in the story that she didn’t even notice that she fell asleep, right there in the chair with the book open in front of her.
A while later she was awoken by Michael tapping her shoulder. Outside it was now dark, pitch black, so she must have been asleep for several hours already.
“Sorry, Caroline,” he said,”but I can show you where you can sleep now.”
With Caroline supporting him on one side, he showed her to a room empty other than a bed and small bedside table. Her body felt sleep-lagged, like she had only partially woken up before getting up. She thanked him for everything, then fell into the bed and passed out within seconds.