“All men, no matter how free they think themselves, are slaves.”
Martin shifted in his seat and looked around the room. The rows and columns of chairs stretched to each wall of the room, and all were occupied. Unlike Martin, most of the people seated were dressed conservatively, in dark business suits and custom tailored jackets. He pulled his t-shirt down to hide the underwear spilling out of his pants and looked at the speaker, a tall man whose face was hidden behind a black hood. Each word he spoke was emphasized by a sharp hand gesture. Martin had almost tuned out the speech. He was much more interested by the fact that he didn't know how he got here.
“Power does not dictate freedom. Money does not dictate freedom. Humanity and slavery are inseparable concepts.”
How long had he been here? An hour maybe. Two at the absolute maximum. Beyond that everything was a haze. He thought it was night, and he thought he remembered shuffling into the room single file, but the memories were fluid. Every time he almost had the details of one it would slip from between his fingers and reform as something new. He thought of asking the man next to him, but like everyone else, he was too busy scratching notes on the legal pad he had been given. Martin's remained untouched. He picked up the pencil next, doodled a naked lady, placed it back down again. The speakers words slipped through his ears.
“The difference between master and slave is as the gulf between animal and man.”
There was one memory that had solidified in his head. A woman had brought him here. That he was sure of. She had been blond (maybe), and they had met at a library (plausible but not certain). Whether they had talked or not wasn't clear, but if they had he knew they had hit it off. She had been smart, funny, and wicked cultured. But had they talked? The memory shifted. Now he had just watched her from afar. Her beauty had been too intimidating and, when she left, he followed, working up the spine to ask her number.
“But while animals cannot hope to become men, all slaves desire to become masters.”
There were fewer men in the room than there had been a second ago. Some of the chairs had emptied. He hadn't seen anyone leave, but he also hadn't been paying attention. Their chairs, except for notes and pens resting on the seat, were empty. As he watched three small men came and took those away too. The speaker droned on.
“Desire does not equal implementation. There are so few willing to follow through and make the full transformation.”
The three men left. Martin drummed the pencil against the notebook in a cheap Smashing Pumpkins imitation. After the woman, he had slept. There had been unpleasant dreams. Dreams of flying and falling. He had soared, airborne, to touch heaven, then plummeted down again to be cracked upon the earth below. When he woke up she had been making breakfast. After that memory became fluid again. Somehow he had ended up here, to the droning of the hooded man.
“But we trust you.”
What the fuck was he doing here? What the fuck was going on? The others, the ones in their goddamn business suits scratching out notes, they knew. They had to know. He was left stranded, with no memory and no clue. The speaker kept talking, spewing bullshit like a toilet. Four more men had gone. For more had come to take away their notebooks and pencils. Did they pass? Were they let go? He tapped the man next to him on the shoulder. No reaction. He tapped again and said, “Excuse me,” to no response. He repeated it louder. The man just kept scratching jagged notes on the paper. Martin slumped low in his chair.
“You are the ones who can rise up from slavery to become something more.”
Another memory began to form. After breakfast she had offered to drive him home. On the way there he began to feel drowsy. She was talking about philosophy. How each one of us was just a puppet dancing on the strings of the universe. Each of us was a slave of a thousand different factors outside of our control. Free will was a myth for most of us. He questioned her word choice, and she just smiled and told him to go to sleep. Then there had been darkness, then the atonal words of the hooded man.
“We believe in you Martin.”
He looked up. All the chairs were empty. The speaker was standing in front of him, his face inches away from Martin's. Within the folds of the hood, Martin imagined a smile.
“The others were weak. They gave up long ago.”
What the fuck was this?
“But not you.”
When had they left?
“There was a moment when we thought we'd lost you. Came back fine from that though, good job. I wouldn't expect so much from a slave.”
And the words finally came to Martin's lips. “I am not a slave.”
The smile that wasn't there widened. “What an odd thing to say.”
“Let me go.”
“Look into my eyes.”
Two glittering shapes appeared in the darkness of the man's hood. They bobbed and weaved, and Martin couldn't help but stare. As he watched they begin to grow larger. They swallowed up the darkness and expanded beyond it, began to seep into the room beyond. He could feel himself being absorbed in by it. His body buzzed with the sensation of the light entering him. It pushed through every pore in his body. It contorted itself into his brain and he could feel his thoughts being eradicated. The light. The light was all he could focus on. It was beautiful. There was truth in the light. It was a happy place, where he could escape from everything. It would guide him. It would nurture him. If he could make it to the center of the light he would be safe. He would be reborn. One hand reached out. He grasped blindly in the glow, felt something hot and wet move at his touch. He extended his hand farther to it, and the thing moved back again. The light had almost fully swallowed him now. If it did, he knew, it was forever. He would never come out. But did he want to? The light began to move in closer. His body was being constricted. The wet thing moved against his hand. The knowledge came to him if he could catch it, he would be let go. One more time he hurled himself forward, and his hand closed around the thing. It writhed in his grip but couldn't break free. Then the buzzing under his skin began to fade, and the light pulled back into the man. Martin looked down. On his hand was a black mark, a snake twisting around an apple.
“Now do you see?” asked the man.
“I don't know,” said Martin.
“Hm. Give it time. You'll see everything eventually. Masterhood is still far away, but you'll reach it soon. For now, there's one thing you can take pride in.”
The man turned and walked away. “You are no longer a slave.”