Zui-Gan called out to himself every day, “Master.”
Then he answered himself, “Yes, sir.”
And then he added, “Become sober.”
Again he answered, “Yes, sir.”
“And after that,” he continued, “do not be deceived by others.”
“Yes, sir; yes, sir,” he replied.
Eleven years ago
An unaffiliated colony outside Federation space
There could not have been a less-likely place to seek enlightenment — even if such a place had been carefully devised by the most atheistic and cantankerous minds in the whole continuum of sentient existence — than Kershel’s “XXX” Club and Bar. There were stains everywhere, but in such number, and beneath such terrible lighting, that they formed a sort of intentional patina, as if the whole bar were actually the clever masterpiece of some daring avant-garde decorator who had long since become the talk of the galactic social elite. Within those amorphous shadow-soaked walls, the thrum of synthetic jazz rolled through the air at frequencies long and deep enough to pierce a mountain’s roots, while women and men and anything in-between undulated and bared themselves upon the stage.
The crowd that frequented this place bore every resemblance to such crowds anywhere in time and space, in such that any individual who entered it became part of it, assimilated into its collective as surely as any Borg. In light of this, the two figures who did sit apart, at one of the many private booths secreted around the main room, were an anomaly, though none could have known this but themselves.
The younger of the two, fair-skinned with a short-cut shock of flame-red hair, made every outward appearance of not being uncomfortable with the locale. This created the effect, to her companion’s more mature and steady eye, of being so entirely consumed with anxiety and discomfort as to have her fairly vibrating through the material of the floor. This appraisal could not have been more correct from Muninn Musgrave’s own perspective, though she would have been loath to admit it under any threat or coercion.
Dark-skinned, with faintly graying hair made into shoulder-length locs, Neva Adeyemi eyed the younger woman for a long while over her tall glass of Bermillian Vodka and Lime. The glass in front of Adeyemi perspired. The girl did not, though she gave the impression of someone who very much should have been perspiring by the bucket. She did not meet the older woman’s eye.
For her part, Muninn nursed a simple soda water, the bland salt of which served her upset stomach well. She did not want to be there just then, and would have been perfectly fine having never set foot in such a place. And yet, she also wanted nothing more than to be, just then, the sort of person who absolutely adored going out to the dark and dingy corners of the galaxy in search of carnal pleasures and… as some of her friends in high school had put it… ‘A good time.’ She glanced through the sheer curtain that separated the booth from the rest of the bar, and her eye lingered for a moment on the form of one of the dancing women on stage, just nearing the end of her act and in the process of ‘bearing it all’ to a whooping front row. She knew she lingered, and knew that Adeyemi would know, and when she quickly looked away she knew that this, too, would be observed. She had known the older woman for no time at all — barely three months — but it seemed as if Neva Adeyemi’s eyes could see through to the very core of whomever she looked at, piercing sharp as arrows through paper walls.
“So, why don’t you drink?” Adeyemi said. Her voice, more musical and soft than sonorous, drifted just above the rolling thrum of the synth, and between the reverberations of the electronic saxophone.
Muninn glanced at her soda as if surprised to find such a thing in front of her. Then her gaze roved to Adeyemi’s glass. “I just don’t,” she said a moment later.
“Did your mother beat you? Your father?”
The absurdity of the question knocked Muninn back apace, and she looked up, meeting the older woman’s eyes. “No! No, of course not. Hell. Why would you ask that?”
“Trauma creates a very clear response in some children of alcoholics,” Adeyemi said. “The vast majority succumb to the pressures of their family system, and play their own unconscious part in it. But others, often just as unconsciously, reject the apparent cause of their childhood suffering with the same devout passion that Vulcans cling to their logical religion.” The smile Adeyemi gave her was not unpleasant, merely unsympathetic. “I’ve been wondering about you, Muninn Musgrave. About why you came to Roshi Haggar’s group. Robert’s not a bad man, but he’s a terrible closet alcoholic. Literally, that’s where he keeps all his wine.”
“No,” Muninn repeated, somewhat less vehemently. “No, my parents didn’t beat me.” She held silence for a moment, then said, “I came to the group because… I don’t know. Oh, why does anyone go someplace like that?”
“You tell me.”
Muninn snorted, looked away. “Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be going back. It’s been three months now, and I think I’ve seen all I need to see. They’re all a bit…” but she held herself back, casting a quick glance at her companion as if worried that she might somehow upset her.
Adeyemi grinned and gave a little inviting nod.
Muninn’s gaze roved back to the silky partition between them and the crowd, who were all whistling at a trio of gender-fluid dancers now strutting onto the stage. “They’re all a bit like this. Like these people, I mean. It probably sounds horribly egotistical of me, but they are just like this. And I’m up to here—” she raised a flat hand to her chin “—with people who think they’re ‘all that’ and can’t get outside their heads, or their crotches, long enough to see the world for what it really is.” She glanced at her companion again, but the woman said nothing and appeared for all the world as if she wanted nothing more than to continue listening.
“I left home because I suddenly saw how pointless it was all becoming, right? We’re supposed to be better than we were centuries ago, but we still play all the same games with one-another and with ourselves. Only, we’re all so damned certain of everything, so much more so than we ever were. As a species, I mean, or a… a culture, or whatever. It’s like we’ve managed to create this perfect canvas on which everyone gets to paint, but as soon as the universe starts poking holes in our theories, we instantly run back to our most awful and pathetic roots. It’s like all this stuff that’s happening with Romulus right now, or in the middle of the Dominion War. Did you know—not everyone does—did you know that some admiral tried to have a coup and take over Starfleet in the middle of the War? Hell, what the Founders must have thought of that. They must have been dancing… or whatever it is sentient puddles do. And through it all, what do we do? Just keep voting in more conservative voices, keep changing the rules so that Starfleet looks less and less like what it’s supposed to be, and more like some warped self-congratulatory military outfit. Which is really the thing. I mean, we’re all so damned certain that we’ve got the best possible state of things right here in front of us, but we aren’t doing enough to actually use it!”
She snapped her mouth shut then and glared at the tabletop as if blaming it for everything wrong in the universe.
“Why did you want to join Starfleet, then?” Adeyemi asked after a moment. “If you detest what it’s becoming?”
Muninn looked up a fraction too quickly, unable to pull back the reigns on her surprise. “How did you…? I haven’t told anyone that I was trying to join up.”
Adeyemi snorted. “A nice girl like you, full of smarts and ideas, with a Californian accent? That’s basically a template for the Fleet right there. But it takes someone really, really let-down by an establishment to stab at it with quite that sort of vigor.”
“Yeah? Well…” Muninn shrugged. “I guess I did want to join up. But, I wanted to join, so I could make a difference. Or try to, I guess.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Adeyemi accepted this with such absolute grace that Muninn found herself annoyed. Someone shouldn’t be so damned insightful, shouldn’t get to probe you like that, and then just back off when you asked them nicely.
After a heated moment, she said, “I froze, alright? I got to the entrance exam and… I just froze.” She flushed at the memory. “I’m not supposed to do that.” This last sentence might have gone entirely unheeded if Adeyemi’s hearing had not been terribly acute, for Muninn said it in a whisper, like an angry prayer.
Muninn tapped her fingers on the table. She considered, briefly, that she could leave any time she wanted. She could get right up, go out of this bar that the older woman had invited her to, and get the hell away. She knew, as soon as she thought of it, that she would do no such thing.
The night before, in the bathtub, she had imagined all the ways she might kill herself if she tried hard enough, and found them all horribly unconvincing, and — against the great tide of anger and angst that summoned up those thoughts — being here in this awful bar, across from this strange insightful woman seemed absolutely, perfectly right. She would not leave, no. Because beyond the bar was just the rest of existence, and it looked no better than the smelly hot room to her inner eye.
“I guess it doesn’t matter now,” she said to the air, as if trying to convince a ghost hovering behind her shoulder. “It’s not like I’m trying to get in again anyway. So, hell with it. I’m not supposed to fail at stupid things like an entrance exam because I wasn’t made to fail at them, do you follow me?” She pinched the flesh of her forearm between two fingers, just violently enough to really hurt. “I’m augmented, completely and wholly augmented down to the last recessive gene. I’m smarter, faster, stronger, and more resilient than any other damned human being in this place… better than everyone in that stupid examination hall….”
She trailed off into a silence that Adeyemi allowed to linger for some time before interrupting. The music changed tempo and the crowd roared as some extremely untoward ‘dancing’ began between the trio of entertainers. Barely a step below pornography, and Muninn fought the urge to look over at it again.
“But you did fail,” Adeyemi finally said. “And, from what it sounds like, you failed before you even had the chance to show them what your augmented brain could really do. That must smart. Knowing how superior you are to the rest of us and yet being unable to show it off in the way you’re supposed to.”
Muninn gasped at the violence in the words. Not brutality, for Adeyemi spoke without rancor of any kind. And yet, her words were more cutting, more violent, than even the most outlandish rage could manage. She felt, beneath Adeyemi’s unblinking and dispassionate gaze, like some sort of worm that makes its living by crawling through other animals’ skin. All she could manage was a spluttered, “No!” and even that felt like it somehow served to vindicate the woman’s stark appraisal. Muninn felt tears well up in her eyes.
“Am I wrong? At least a little?” Adeyemi said. Then she sighed, took a dainty sip from her glass with puckered lips. “You can’t augment out the experience of life, Muninn.” The ice in her glass clinked as she set it back down. “Do you know why I asked you to come here?”
Muninn shook her head with some effort. Her neck felt stiff as stone.
“Because I’ve spent a long span of years watching men and women go into places of high spirituality in search of answers, and, before that, I spent an equally long time doing much the same in the ivory tower of academia. And what I learned as I watched all those bright, promising, miserable souls traipse by, was that we are all of us quite completely desperate to be saved. We want someone to swoop in and take control of our lives, to be our Roshi,” she said the word like a curse, “our moral and physical educator. We never quite outgrow the childhood desire to have a parent guide us through the world. And, because our real parents are always inexorably flawed, we’re stuck searching for something out there that is perfect, that can come along and make everything make sense. And people have gotten quite good at it. The Klingons all have their psychedelic blood trances and make-believe gods. The Vulcan’s have their logic wrapped around the neurotic heart of their belief in ‘souls’ transferred through neuro-electric looping. And humanity, fragile, shattered, terrified humanity… we have the scattered shreds of whatever survived our greatest World War.”
Adeyemi swirled her drink in the glass absently, while looking across the table at Muninn’s face.
“You don’t have to go back to Robert Haggar’s tired excuse for Zen Buddhism to find yourself in the same sort of room again. Plenty of earnest, kind people there, sure. But plenty who have spite flowing through their veins. And the real truth is, you’ll leave Robert’s psudo-enlightened claptrap behind only to end up somewhere else that’s equally depressing, until one day you find yourself completely jaded to the point of suicide, or else subsumed by someone who’s learned how to pretend themselves into belief better than you.”
Muninn wiped at her face, now quite wet, and blew her nose into her napkin. “Who the hell are you?” She felt numbed. When did I start crying? She couldn’t remember. But the tears were real. They were there.
Adeyemi shrugged. “I don’t know that any more than you do, kiddo. But, I’m not done — yet. Listen to me a moment longer… because I owe you the answer to why I invited you here, I really do.” She paused for a moment, perhaps gathering her thoughts, perhaps just waiting for the latest song to end and slide into a cooler number, one more conducive to conversation. “You asked a question, your first day in the group. You asked Robert why we needed teachers at all. Do you remember? Yes? Well, that struck me as the sort of thing that not everyone asks, at least, not for the reasons you had. You hit upon something there, something that few end up figuring out. Something Robert’s own ego is too bound up to admit. The truth that he’s perfunctory to the real experience he’s trying to sell whoever walks through his door.”
Suddenly, Adeyemi slammed her flat palm onto the table with such force that their glasses jumped, and she spoke an intonation that sounded like an incantation from some ancient and barbaric play. “‘Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā!’ Gone, gone, into the gone beyond. Forever, into the gone beyond. Enlightenment, at last!” She grinned, all white teeth shining in the dim bar light. “You want ‘Zen’? That’s it, right there. And Christianity, and all the rest of humanity’s great religions, too. It springs up from inside, not outside, and it can’t be directed to arise or depart when we’d will it so. What I know is that some people have a greater chance of doing good in the universe than they give themselves credit for, and most of them burn out long before they get the chance. It’s my calling to try and reach them before they do. Not to preach, or convert, or lead… but to listen, and to be there while they figure their own crap out. Because that’s what all sentient life needs, ultimately: someone there to walk alongside while we feel our way into the skin of our lives. I asked you here because I sussed you out early. I’ve met a fair few people like you in my time, and most were just as lost and confused as you. And I’ve been able to help a few of them, thought not nearly as many as I’d like. You’re not the first augmented person to come looking for help in spirituality, Muninn.”
Adeyemi stopped there, almost as if she had forgotten what it was she next wanted to say. And Muninn grabbed the space between them gratefully, using it to pull herself back to some semblance of normal breathing and feeling and thought. In the last few minutes, it seemed as if the relative stranger across from her, a woman she had seen and talked to just twice a week for just a few months at the Zen evenings, had taken on a sort of all-encompassing glow.
“I don’t know what to do,” Muninn said, and in those six words were every bit of pain and fear and rage that had followed her for years.
It seemed to Muninn, at that moment, that she could suddenly see a great cone of tension pointing back through her life when she was three, to the year spent away at the illegal Illyrian clinic where the great tormenting pain had finally been taken away. No more disease, no more pain. But now, it seemed to her that, really, one sort of pain had just replaced the other. Physical pain transformed into an early existential awareness of the separateness of self, a grown-up’s fractured mind inside the body of a child. No wonder there were so few in-vitro human augments who could survive and grow up sane. To be aware of the extreme loneliness of the human condition, to be Awake that early, would be a horrible source of suffering.
Adeyemi considered her for a while, then said, “For now, let’s leave.” She nodded at the stage. “It’s not a very good show. But tomorrow, if you want to, you can come with me when I go.”
“Where are you going to?”
“That,” Adeyemi said with a small laugh, “is something I like to rarely know.”