The three sat quietly in the middle of a low courtyard. Another man from the city, one none of them had met, had shown up at the crack of dawn and escorted the three newcomers out here, leaving without a word. The courtyard itself was at the very back of the city, almost nestled into the mountain wall. Pillars surrounded them, ivy dripping down in between. The stone was cold underfoot, and Noah noticed Talia kept shifting as one part or another of her body became too chilled. He wished he had brought an over cloak to offer her or something, then shook his head. He wasn’t here to flirt.
After a whole hour, during which Noah — and he assumed the others — were too anxious to even talk, sure that someone would show up any minute. Suddenly, a man in his mid-50s walked into the courtyard. He nodded to the three of them, then sat before them, remaining quiet.
Noah looked at the man and back at the other two. Were they supposed to say something?
“My name’s Noah,” he said, clearing his throat.
“Teacher will do for me,” the man said. “Now, Noah, why did you introduce yourself to me, just then?”
“Well, it seemed like the polite thing to do?” Noah asked. He stared at the man, refusing to look at the other two. Had he made a fool of himself?
“Why was it the polite thing to do?” The man’s voice was measured, gentle, even. But it had a quiet force behind it, one that compelled Noah to answer.
“Because we’ve never met before, and if you didn’t know my name, you wouldn’t know what to call me?” Noah hoped the man was driving at a point, and didn’t have some fundamental misunderstanding of how meeting people worked.
“I could come up with something to call you. Like Student number 1! Do you doubt my ability to come up with something to call you?”
“No, I just…I would rather be called my name,” Noah said.
“That’s it,” the teacher said with a smile. “Now we are getting somewhere. Your impulse to introduce yourself does not just come from social convention, though that is generally what motivates the action. The social convention allows us to fulfill our personal want to be known and called by our names over other designations. Do you see the chain of cause?”
“We do it because we’re supposed to, but the reason we’re supposed to is because people all agreed it’s important,” Talia piped up.
“Exactly, Student two. Unless you would like to tell me your name?”
“No need for sir. I am not a titled man, just a learned one. Thank you for your response. The key to what I hope you will come to understand here is the patterns that make up every decision, every action. The AI technology you were all implanted with as children has effectively overruled that path for you, evaluating each situation on the terms it deems relevant and spitting out an answer or an action for you. Some people go their whole lives without seeing anything wrong with this system. Some have some discomfort but push through it, and some, like you, seek a greater understanding, another option. But the key to this alternative path is not simply tearing out this tech. It is training the part of you that did not get trained — making you aware of these patterns of causality in the world, and helping you determine what paths, options, and actions there are for you to take.”
“How do we do that?” Sol asked. He hadn’t introduced himself, and the teacher did not press him on the matter.
“Well, over the next two days, it is my entire goal to charge you through the developmental stages that were broken down or hobbled by the AI implant. And the first step is asking why.”
“Just asking the question?” Noah asked.
“In a sense. Ask why about everything. This is a very important stage in a child’s life — they start to learn everything from why the sky is blue to why people act the way they do. But, in your case, the second you asked this question, the AI spit out a fully-formed response. There were no half-answers from parents you had to extrapolate or later learned were inaccurate, a process which normally forces humans to be aware the authorities do not always have the answers. There was no need for you to go and figure out these answers yourselves, through childlike experiments or reading, as it was provided, which can break down a human’s ability to come up with theoretical problems or answers and then test them, which is important for making choices on your own. So, for the next two days, forget everything you have ever learned. As best you can. The more you lean into this, the more success you will have. Ask why about everything, and then, only using conversations with people in town, the books in the library, or your own reasoning, come up with answers. Ask about things you never thought to ask, ask about things you’ve thought about a million times before. Just do it all.” He stood, brushing off his cloak. “Meet me here in forty-eight hours. I am intrigued to see your outcomes.”
The three watched, dumbfounded, as their teacher strode from the square. His solemn pronouncement and exit were only slightly tarnished by him running into someone, clearly a friend, as he reached the edge of the circle, and the two of them launching immediately into a ribbing contest which the three could hear until he was fully out of sight.
“Why do we have to do this?” Talia looked at the other two. “What’s the point?”
“Tricky. Already starting, huh?” Noah grinned.
“No!” Talia shook her head. “I mean, I guess so?”
“What do we want to start with?” Sol asked, shrugging. “Doesn’t seem like it would hurt to try.”
“Why are you here?” Talia asked. “Let’s start with that. Why are we all here.”
“I thought we were all here for the same reasons. We didn’t like our life path,” Sol replied.
“But why didn’t you like your life path? We’re from completely different societies, we have to have different reasons,” Noah prodded.
Sol gave them a plaintive look. “Can’t someone else go first?”
“Why do you want someone else to go first?” Talia grinned. Noah could tell she was getting into it now.
“Because I don’t know! I don’t know why I didn’t like my life path. I was supposed to, right? And I just…didn’t. It didn’t feel right, maybe? I’m not sure that’s even right. It didn’t feel like anything. It just felt like something I was supposed to do, but without any meaning behind it.”
“That doesn’t seem like much to go off of, to make the whole journey here,” Noah said.
“It was enough for me,” Sol said, his voice verging towards defensiveness.
“We’re allowed to have whatever reasons we want,” Talia said. “Noah, why did you leave?”
“I was given the wrong path,” Noah said. “By rights, I should have been heading up the ladder, but they might as well have nailed me to the bottom. It was insulting, if nothing else. Why did you?”
“More than anything, I was disappointed.” Talia sighed, leaning back. “I had dedicated my whole life to getting a better life path than I was given. Missed out on everything for it. It was like a slap in the face. I knew it was what I should have expected, from where I came from, but I thought I could do more.”
“Okay, we know why we’re here. Sort of,” Sol said. “I think we’re supposed to go deeper than this. What do we do next?”
“Everything,” Talia said. “Should we just…walk around the city? Ask each other ‘why’ questions as much as they come up? In two days, well. That leaves time for a lot of questions.”
“Sounds as good to me as any plan,” Noah said, standing.
“But why did we think of this plan?” Sol said, and the other two laughed.
“We’re going to drive each other crazy by the end of this,” Noah joked, leading the way.
The three circumnavigated the city, wandering down alleys, up and down streets, stopping in at every shop or museum or pavilion they could find. It led to plenty of its own questions — why was the city designed this way? Why all the way up here? Why were there so few children? Why — really more, how — were the streets so clean? Even in the smallest alleyways, the most out-of-the-way corners, the place was nearly spotless. But they hadn’t seen any dedicated cleaning staff except at a few of the establishments serving food they had come across. The three of them hypothesized, with Talia going on for some time about her theories as to why they were able to keep the variety of trees up and healthy at this altitude.
By the evening, they were out of thoughts and out of words. A few other students, all who had been there much longer than the three of them and seemed to be aiming for positions within the city itself, showed up at the boarding house. There were three of them, two women and a young man and Noah couldn’t help wondering if that was always how they were divided up, into groups of three. How could the city be sure that many would show up? It had to be a coincidence.
The first woman, tall and slender, introduced herself as Sarai. The second girl, shorter and much rounder, was Bekah, and the young man — a large, sturdy man who looked like he had spent most of his life at a weight rack, not considering the larger questions of the world — introduced himself as Alden.
“Why’d you introduce yourselves?” Noah asked, getting a laugh from the three.
“Your teacher does that to you, too?” Alden chuckled. His voice was deep, almost rumbling, “They’ll keep messing with you in little ways like that. They want us all to be off-balance.”
“It seems almost like an act on their part,” Talia said, “The constant mind games. Is this really what they think is the best method?”
“It gets results,” Sarai assured her, “I guess we’re biased though. We’re all planning on staying on here.”
“I can’t imagine it,” Talia sighed, “But to each their own, I guess.”
“Have you played the questions game yet?” Bekah asked.
“It feels like we’re still playing it right now,” Sol pointed out.
“That’s the easiest one, and the most important one,” Alden said, his voice growing more serious, “I know it seems basic, but I really can’t stress how important it is you stick with it and keep doing it, even on your own. Just keep looking at things, keep asking why.”
“It is an interesting enough exercise,” Noah said, “Though it has to run its course eventually, right? Not everything has some in-depth explanation.”
“The worst thing a man can do for himself is never realize that his parents were wrong,” Alden replied, “That’s my theory, at least.”
Noah and Sol looked at each other, shrugging and nodding in agreement, “We can get on your side with that.”
“He doesn’t think things through,” Sarai interrupted, “He acts like we need to come up with everything on our own, ignoring the fact that we’re here learning from people who have spent way more time learning and thinking about this stuff than we have. Same way our parents were that back home.”
“But you left them behind,” Talia said, “Why did you leave?”
“I got exactly the job I had always wanted,” Sarai replied.
“What?” Noah laughed in surprise, “How in the world is that a reason to get here?”
“I realized, after the excitement had worn off, that I didn’t even know why I had wanted it. What it meant to me. It seems silly — why did it matter? I had gotten it! But just realizing that threw me completely off. I couldn’t sleep. All of my friends’ reasons for why they had wanted their paths didn’t seem to cut it. If they were good enough for them, they weren’t good enough for me. I started to spiral a bit, I guess. Questioning why I wanted anything at all. The rest is probably the same as you lot — ended up in the desert, then I ended up here. And here I’ll stay.”
“Did you figure out why you had wanted your path?” Sol asked, leaning in.
“Because I was supposed to,” Sarai answered, “And because it meant I never had to make a hard choice. Staying here is a hard choice. There’s a lot I’m leaving and a lot I’m going to miss. And that’s how I know it’s right.”
“I don’t have anything to go back to,” Bekah said, “Sarai likes to make things hard on herself, for some reason.”
“Speaking of hard on ourselves, are we hiking or not?” Alden asked.
“Hiking?” Sol winced, “We didn’t do that enough on the way here?”
“You haven’t fallen in love with it yet?” Bekah teased, “You three have to come with us. It’s got a view like you wouldn’t believe. And it’s not that hard of a walk, really. Alden always wants something to be a bigger deal than it is.”
The three looked at each other and shrugged. They didn’t have anything else to do at this hour, and Alden seemed like he wouldn’t take no for an answer, anyway. It was nice to talk to people who weren’t constantly speaking in riddles, even if it was clear that the lot were practicing to do so.
The three older students took them to one of the highest peaks surrounding the city, a short but arduous walk, and they were rewarded at the end with a spectacular sunset.
At the edge of the horizon, Sol felt he could just see the glittering rim of the sea. As he strained to make it out, he felt something alight in his chest — some desire. He focused in, ignoring the others as they chatted around a campfire the other students had set up, looking even as the light faded and their view darkened into nothing. There had been something there, something that had seemed worthwhile. Was it just the sea itself?
He looked down at his clothes, at the edges that had been stained by dirt in their scramble up to the peak. It was that feeling again, the feeling he had gotten after helping haul the spice boxes, the feeling when he had finally reached the base of the mountain, and then the top, the mix of trepidation and thrill he felt about the possible journey back home. It had all been hard to do, hard to get to, had forced him to push himself. And it had all made him feel…real. Everything he had been given his whole life had just been there, the same as anything else. It had all equalized out into one continuous stream of static.
Why had he wanted to keep living that way? He wondered. Working for his father wouldn’t give him this feeling, that he was sure. He would still be handed too much. But he had wanted to keep taking the easy path. Why? Because it was comfortable?
“What are you thinking about?” Talia asked as she sat beside him. “You’re a thousand miles away.”
“I kind of wish I was. Or heading there,” Sol said, looking at the fire. “Did you like the journey here?”
“It was alright, I guess.” Talia winced. “I’m hoping for an easier way back.”
“I’m not,” Sol said, surprising himself. “If I head back…when I head back? Not sure how this all works. But I think I might take a different route. See more of the desert. The mountains are so beautiful. There might be more like that out there.”
“It’ll be hard,” Talia said.
“This whole thing has been hard,” Sol said. “What’s a little more going to change that?”
Talia shook her head, patting him on the back before heading to the group. Sol realized he must be feeling how the nomads did. All that extra hard work, all that extra struggle, just so they could pick up and move whenever they wanted. There had to be a way to go about that without going quite as far as they did, he reasoned, as he turned back to the others and joined in a camp song.