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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Journey of the Soul-Linker, Part 6: Meet Your Trusty Flame Thrower

Previous chapter here
Beginning here

Your sandals crunch over diamond dust. The green liquid flowing throughout the room's intricate designs glows pink, and then gold, and then emerald again, and everything glitters--everything, off into the distance, as far as you can see. You're hunting for glimpses of that Person who just disappeared, peering into the light and shadows for the hint of a tunic, a coattail, a sparkling eye...

As you trot through the Cave of Gifts you hear and don't hear as the sandal'd Person, the master of the talents, explains the rules to you. You hear, because you suddenly know the direction you need to go, but you don't really hear, with your ears, or see the wearer of the sandals again. You've been given five coins, because you chose five, instead of one, or ten. A twinge of annoyance tells you if you'd had a positive outlook, and the faith to think something good would happen, you would've chosen ten, and now had ten items to help you on your quest instead of just five--but you brush that twinge away with a shake of your nappy hair and move on. You had no way of knowing the offer wasn't ten slaps in the face or something. Isn't greed a bad thing, or whatever?

Now you have mountains of treasure to scale, and something tells you there's a time limit. Black sailing trunks, wooden pirate chests, golden Pharoah-style boxes, pile around you towards the ceiling far, far above your head. Some of the piles look almost hilariously precarious, like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Little signs mark the boxes, by group: "artistic abilities," says this sculpted structure made of boxes of all shapes and sizes, dripping with drooping clocks. "Physical strength" says a placard in front of green crates arranged in perfect steel lines. The coins you have in your hand appear to fit the slots in the boxes.

My goodness, you wonder, out of all these choices, how will you make the right choice? Is there a right choice? What if you need something later that you forget to choose now?

"Am I going to make a mistake, here?" you ask the voice in the room.

"Don't worry," he says. "Some of your talents are predetermined. Some of them you can choose to cultivate."

"So, in practical terms…"

"Some of your coins only open one box. Two, in your case. The other coins open any box within a group--so, for example, within the group of musical abilities, you can choose whether to invest your talents in composition, performance art, technical piano skill, or something else, and so on. The boxes, you see, are your gifts."

You're overwhelmed by all this choice. "Wait. Wait," you say. "So I can choose my abilities, but not my gender? How is that fair?"

A double laugh, like a tinkling melody over a solid baseline, echoes through the cavern. "You're really stuck on this, aren't you."

You cross your arms. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You complained to Melly about being a girl, too."

"Yeah, and?" You cross your arms even higher up your chest.

"Tell me, do you know the effects of estrogen and testosterone on the brain?" The voice challenges you. "Specifically, on the developing fetus?"

"I--no."

"Well I do. I invented biochemistry."

"What? You can't 'invent' biochemistry. That's something that evolved naturally, like language, or finch beaks."

He laughs at you again. He's infuriatingly beautiful in his arrogance, and you've never thought that about anyone before. You're strong and independent and you hate cocky bastards.

"Contrary to the rumors, I am not a bastard, my dear." He adopts a Victorian English voice for a moment, and then giggles like a little girl you once knew from Georgia. "I do know what it's like to be one. I know what it's like to be anyone, and anything. And I know everything about chemicals, and especially the bags of chemicals that make up the little people who come into my world, Soul-Linker." You see something like a wind, a sprite, a flurry of snow jump from one precarious gift-tower to another. The tower sways, and you step back from it. He laughs again, this time in a voice you imagine Blackbeard the pirate once owned. "Every chemical in your body works together in a special way to equip you as a protagonist for a story built especially for you. Estrogen and testosterone are no different. They interact with every other system in your body, and just like every other system in your body, from the histamine your immune system produces to the histamine your brain produces, from the way serotonin affects your blood vessels to the way it affects your depression--these chemicals build your soul. The differences in the people produced by different mixes of chemicals matters. You can't ignore that."

You're not fooled with the pretty woo-woo words. You see past it to the identity politics underneath. "So you're saying my gender is determined by biology," you say.

He laughs again. "I'm saying there's no such thing as 'your gender'."

"Wait…"

"There's no reason to worry about it! You have some chemicals that make you a certain way, and that way is great! It won't stop you from doing what you need to do--au contraire, my dear," sniffs Pepe Le Peau's Frenchness. "This combination will equip you to excel. You are a girl because that ratio of estrogen, and that biology, works best with the other chemicals in your body to create the perfect formula for what you need to do. It's basic creative biochemistry."

"You can't just cite an imaginary branch of biochemistry without some kind of specific--"

He interrupts you. "Tell me." A deep, Maasai warrior's threatening lion growl shakes the nearest gift tower, and it topples. "Tell me, do you know how to navigate time?"

You're confused by the question. He repeats.

"Do you know your future? Do you even really remember your past? How are you sure of anything, with your flawed memory and limited powers of observation? Do you understand the alternate time streams screaming around you at speeds you cannot fathom, and do you know how they interact with the hundreds of other choices hundreds of other people are making at this very moment?" His voice rises in a primal, guttural crescendo. "Tell me, Soul-Linker! Can you navigate time?!"

"No, I--no one can," you stutter.

"I can. I know every twist and turn of this story, and I know what kind of protagonist we need to navigate it. I know the biochemical recipe for said protagonist. And it involved a certain amount of estrogen."

"I suppose, then…" You mutter. "I suppose I could be a physical girl, but still identify as a boy."

"What does that even mean?" All the gentleness in the world, and yet all the laughter, all the smirking and all the kindness, plays in that question. 

"I don't…want to be limited by…by societal constructs."

"And so you're bending to them, inventing 'boy' and 'girl' based on something other than measurable reality. No, Soul-Linker, a girl is you. You decide how to be it, and then just be. Anything else is spitting into the wind."

 You huff, and your crossed arms cross even tighter and higher, until you almost cannot breathe. 

He sighs, and for once the laughter is gone. "Soul-Linker, you only know what is best for someone's story if you really love that someone. You're here trying to determine the character traits for your own story, but how do you know you aren't being self-destructive? Do you truly, truly love yourself?"

"Don't psychoanalyze me. Of course I love myself. I've got great self-esteem."

But you know, deep down, that you doubt. Everyone does. And he knows, too.

But he doesn't call you out on it. He says: "Even if you do love yourself, you will never love yourself as much as someone outside you can, because you can't see all of yourself without a mirror. You will never be able to objectively look at the real YOU, and want the best for YOU at any cost." A whisper like a fairy's wings hums and tickles your heart. "Because the greatness you call Yourself is too deep, and big, and grand to be truly known by someone with a finite brain."

"Wait, is that a dig? What are you saying?"

But there's a sensation like the wind is sucked out of the room, or like the light's dimmed, even though actually nothing's changed at all, and suddenly you realize he's not there anymore, and you're alone.

Alone to choose your gifts, and hence your path, without any answer to your question of why. Why doesn't his "biochemistry planning" argument apply to choosing your abilities? "If I'm so incompetent, why trust me with anything at all?"

Because the greatness you call Yourself is too deep, and big, and grand to be truly known…

Clearly he doesn't think you're incompetent. Maybe choice isn't all or nothing.

"I want all the choice, or none of it," you grumble anyway. He's made a bad first impression, this master of these caves, and you hope not to see him again. Best get what you need for your mission and go.

Alright, so for your mission you need knowledge about the environment. Best go to a smarts pile first. Yes, you do have a token that matches the symbols on this pile about academic intelligence. You search until you find a box for "ecology," and slip the coin inside. It pops open, and green smoke flickers out and into your lungs, and while you don't feel any smarter you hope that did something other than make you cough. With four more boxes to go you open a treasure chest with a flame thrower--good against scary dark goo, you hope--and a treasure chest marked for long-distance hiking, which bursts like a bubble to spill red liquid and autumn leaves all over your sandals. Two boxes to go.

You soon realize these are the abilities you don't get to choose--you can't find any slot for them to fit into! One of them glows as you pass the humor pile, and while you try it in all the different boxes--stand-up comedy, musical humor, hilarious writing--you can't make it fit any of the abilities. When you finally get to a lonely box covered in brown muck marked "the ability to burp any word", you almost scream in rage. "Are you kidding me? We're wasting a whole talent on this?!"

You expect to hear the cave-master giggling, but there's only silence.

With a grumble you crawl over a huge pile of gold coins--some of which you shove into your pockets, just in case, because even though they don't fit into any of the chests money's always good to have. The metal's cool and slippery under your fingers, and you slide down the dune with a clinking, rushing whoosh, rolling to a stop at the foot of one giant, lonely chest. It's as tall as a maiasaura and as wide as an elephant is long, and as you reach up up up on your tippy toes for the slot you almost can't get your last coin in---

It falls in with a lovely hum, and the box gently fades away to reveal the word compassion floating inside it like a pink cloud. It dissipates on your breath, and you're left standing in its wake with a warm feeling in your tummy.

Is that a thing? Do some people have a natural disposition towards compassion that others have to work for? Is that "natural talent" because of their upbringing, or are people born that way?

"My, you ask a lot of questions," Melly says as you blink.

"What the..."

You're out in the blazing desert again. The tough little person squints at you from under her umbrella; a small hole in the ground, just the size of your shoe now, slurps shut behind you.

You're left standing in the sun with two pockets full of sand.



Begin your journey with your flamethrower next week. Suggestions on what to name it?

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