They didn’t see their main teacher for over a week. In the interim, every day when they woke up, there was a new person there, taking them on some sort of excursion or activity. The first day was spent almost entirely in meditation in a temple-like structure in the center of the city. Pillows and rugs were laid out across the floor, long tapestries interspersing the carefully painted walls, all depicting various vistas from the mountaintop. Talia had to stop herself from asking why they couldn’t just meditate outside, where they could see the nature directly. It was essentially the inverse of the days they had spent talking and exploring, and while it took a while to get into the proper mindset, by the time evening rolled around, they had a difficult time getting out of the almost trance-like meditative state they had all reached. Two musicians sat in the corner, continuing to play music after another teacher came by and led them out for dinner.
“In this place, it feels like you’re supposed to give so many things up,” Talia said as they ate on the temple plaza. “Like, nobody really uses any tech here — besides occasionally to help with teaching. You’re so far away from everything. I asked one of the guys in town, and he said that whatever they can’t make here, and there’s a variety of stuff, they either all vote to do without or they have to organize the hard work of getting it transported all the way out here. Not to mention they don’t use a money system like the nomads or the cities, so there’s the hassle of bartering for what they do make.”
“Are some things worth giving up for this sort of peaceful existence?” Sol asked. “Like, doing things the hard way they do here. Or the nomads valuing freedom of movement over other conveniences. It could be like that.”
“I think it is like that, but do they want me to make that choice?” Talia asked. “My mind is so buried in tech that I might as well be a robot myself. There’s nothing better than figuring out how to improve an existing system or machine, making it work just that much better, figuring out what needs to be changed. That loop is like…well…it feels better than any of the drugs I took, that’s for sure.”
“You’ve gone full teetotaler,” Noah said, taking a sip of beer. “You know you can dabble.”
“I over-dabbled.” Talia shook her head. “I’ll leave the alcohol to you two.”
“Maybe that’s all it is, then,” Sol said. “You don’t want it, you don’t drink it. It’s not going to make you happy. Noah and I want some. I don’t see any reason why you can’t learn here and then go back to the cities and live there. I’m thinking of doing that, in some capacity.”
“I’m not so sure I want to,” Noah said, pushing his food around his plate. “I think I might stay here.”
“But why?” Talia asked. “Won’t you get bored eventually? Or sick of the lack of contact with the outside world? What about your family? Wouldn’t you want to ever talk to them again?”
“I wouldn’t mind not hearing from my dad,” Sol grouched.
“And your mom? Or the rest of them?” Talia prodded.
Sol groaned, “There’s always something.”
“I know part of my problem is pride,” Noah sighed. “I mean, it’s what got me all the way out here in the first place. I ran off pride all the way here, and now, I feel like it’s just sort of…running out. But the sages are different. Sure, they respect the older guys who have done the long haul and figured out a bunch of stuff, but anything well thought-out is allowed at the same level. The guys working the printing press are treated as a vital part of the process. We might talk that talk in the city, but it doesn’t play out that way, no matter what my dad says.”
“You could just take that knowledge back to the city,” Sol said. “Know that you respect all the work, even if other people don’t.”
“Maybe,” Noah said. “But it’s pretty new. And I worry if I go home, it’ll be too easy to be swayed back to their way of thinking, even by accident. I think I need to give it more time to get its roots in, you know? Otherwise, I’ll be back in the same rat race I was before.”
“I am going to hug the first robot I see,” Talia said. “The second I see them. And I am never going to take air-conditioning for granted ever again.”
“What about your friends back home?” Sol asked. He had been playing around with the idea of not going back, or at least not directly, himself, but he couldn’t stop thinking of his family. Somewhere, he had stopped being mad at his father, though he wasn’t sure when. And part of him wanted to get home, even if it was just to make sure that his own siblings knew that they had options.
“There’s one friend,” Noah said, his face falling. “Andi. She’s special. I’ll miss her, I know that. But if I go back half-baked, we’re going to end up in the same arguments we did the first time around. One of the problems I ran into back there is I couldn’t manage to explain to her what my problem was with what was going on. I have to understand it completely, be able to show her, before I could ever go back.”
“That’s definitely a sacrifice,” Talia said, her voice soft.
“Maybe that’s my trade off,” Noah said, smiling sadly. “I don’t mind the lack of tech like you do. But I would miss her.”
“At the very least, Sol and I will get word back to her when we return,” Talia said. “Right, Sol?”
“Oh, yeah.” Sol nodded, feeling surprised. “I mean, we’ll be going to our own cities.”
“Doesn’t mean we can’t stay friends,” Talia said as she screwed up her face. “Come on, Sol. You didn’t think I was going to stop talking to the two people on earth who have any idea what I’m going through right now, or will have gone through, do you? We’ve got to like, meet up every five years at least to pass memories around at dinner, make sure we’re all still on the right path.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, about how we do this in the cities,” Noah said. “It’s part of why I’m thinking of staying, too. What good is it if I know I was right about my life path being wrong, or at least understand why it upset me, if I can’t change anything there?”
“The second we get to meet with our actual teacher again, I’m picking his brain apart,” Talia said determinedly.
They finished their meals, all hugging before they headed off to their rooms. The next day was another trip, another teacher. For a few days, they just hiked here and there, and at the end of each hike, the teacher for the day, often a person barely older than them, would read aloud from various texts that had been printed or carted up the mountains. They ranged in age, in authorship, in subject matter, but the takeaway became clearer and clearer each day — it was up to them. They had to stop relying on the AI, they had to stop relying on what they were told. They had to turn inward, figure out what felt right. Where was their heart, or soul, or instinct, or whatever the book that day called it, leading them? Where was the spirit moving them through the universe? Where did they want to go, at the end of the day?
There was no optimal path. There was no vocation or calling. There was just them, looking out at a life that could be lived however they chose, and if they listened to themselves closely enough, they could find the one that made them happy. By the time the next week and a half had passed, Talia, in particular, felt like she could predict most conversations before they were about to happen. Yes, I agree, she thought sarcastically. Everything is up to me.
Finally, they were brought to the pavilion, and found their teacher waiting there for them. Talia was the first to pipe up.
“I think we get the point,” she said, crossing her arms. “Thank you for the endless book club.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.” The man smiled.
“But we’ve been talking over something, and I need to know your input. What, exactly, are we supposed to do if we decide to go back at the end of this, and decide we want to do something other than our life path? If you think I’m just going to realize that the farm itself is good enough, and go along with that, you’re wrong, so what would I do, then?”
“What do you mean?” their teacher asked. “You would do what you — ”
“I can’t just do what I want, though!” Talia protested. “I can’t! That’s not possible!”
“Why not?” the man asked. “I never said it would be easy. No one here has said that. But each of you has already broken away from the life path, while in the cities, and done something else entirely. You figured out how to do that, didn’t you?”
“I don’t want to have to rely on the party-life underworld to do what I want,” Talia grumbled.
“You’re still seeing things in too much of a binary. You see the route you were given as above-board, straight-forward, legal. Anything other than that must be underground, shady, illegal. Right? You have been lied to about the tightness of the boundaries that have been placed on you. It might still be harder, yes, to convince a farm to hire you without a life path to back your application. But what harm would it do to apply out to other farms? You say that you have considerable skill and knowledge. If you demonstrate that, won’t you have a good chance of finding work that you enjoy?”
Talia blushed, looking over at the two boys for support. Noah shrugged apologetically, and Sol gave her an encouraging grin.
“They might all turn me down,” Talia said. “Even with my skills.”
“And you will have to look inward again, and find a new path. Maybe you introduce hydroponics to the desert. Maybe you join another city. Maybe you decide that working on your parents’ farm is better than working on no farm at all. But whatever you choose, it will be yours.”
“There’s one more thing,” Talia said. Sol wanted to tell her to stop, that she was going to end up embarrassing herself again, but he knew it was fruitless. There was a fire in her that he wasn’t going to be able to reason out.
“What is that?”
“I think…” she started, taking a deep breath, “I think you all here eschew too much.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you put too much aside. I think you’re right, about the true intention of the AI. And I think you’re right, that a lot of people are going to tell us how to live our lives, what we should do. Most of them will be looking out more for themselves than for us. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all going to be wrong. Two separate people told me about Ekur. If I had turned my back on their advice just because it came from someone who was not me, I wouldn’t have ended up here. I didn’t want to travel anymore. I was tired. But I pushed through because they pushed me. And my parents always backed me on my studies — sacrificed things they wanted so I could do what I wanted. Even if I knew they wanted me to stay on the home farm, they didn’t limit me to serve themselves. Why shouldn’t I take in that guidance, or appreciate the paths that others helped build?”
The teacher opened his mouth, but Talia put her hand up. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“You’re going to say that it’s fine to take guidance from others, as long as it’s what I want,” she groaned, looking over to Sol and Noah. “You guys have to be on my side at least a little bit, right? Having a few guiding posts wouldn’t be that bad.”
“You know,” Sol said, after a long moment. “I think it comes back to what the teacher said earlier on. We’re not here for answers. Just for options.”
“I think I’ve figured out what I want, then,” Talia said. “Haven’t you?”
Sol nodded slowly. “I don’t think I’m done learning, but I think I’m ready to start trying. We’re not supposed to do all of our learning here, are we?” he asked the teacher.
The teacher nodded. “That’s right. You already did most of it on your way here, as it was. We simply remove the constraints. What you do after that is up to you.”