As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose.
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Never had my life changed so much in one week. The week started with me lying in bed wallowing in self-pity after a girl had broken up with me, eating food that I ordered to my apartment, so I didn't have to get out of bed. Then, out of nowhere, Charlie called me, and the next day, I was flying out to France. I arrived in France the morning of my third day. I spent that day driving out of Paris to inside Project Athena, where I spent the rest of my day at the chateau, embarrassingly meeting Doctor Skizan. I interviewed for the job on the fourth day, and as the vastest fear loomed ahead of me, I was able to release the beast of my ambition.
As a consequence, I underwent Destiny's Touch. After that, I'd gotten the job and gone to countless meetings where I met people whose job was to serve me. I spent two more glorious days with these people. They were training me for Destiny's Touch or preparing me for fame. After some extensive mental exercises, I was allowed to try Destiny's Touch again. I had gone from a man who thought that breaking up with a girl meant nobody loved him to be one of the most significant people in modern history. Moreover, I was one of the first people who could peek behind the curtain.
"Matt," Charlie repeated. I blinked and realized I had been smiling dumbly, daydreaming about how cool I now was… That wasn't history book material.
"Sorry, was thinking," I said. Charlie and I were in the Room of Ra. Before I was allowed to go under, Charlie had to turn on the machine and take measurements of Ethos. With three days of training and one experience, I wasn't as nervous as I had been before, but I still looked at the booth and the control panel covered in blinking lights with apprehension.
"It's ready when you are." He said, clicking the last button, and the door to the booth clicked and slid open.
I took a deep breath and looked at the helmet on the back wall with some apprehension. The day before they shaved my head for the helmet, I didn't like how I looked bald, and more, I still wasn't one hundred percent comfortable with Ethos being pumped directly into my brain, no matter how much training I'd had.
"Are you sure you want to do this? I know Josh can be pushy, and it's an honorable thing to do, but doing it once a day could be disastrous to your mind." Charlie asked. Thanks, Charlie, that helps a lot. I feel a lot better now. I thought
I nodded, too afraid to speak because it might betray how terrified I still was. My hands held behind me were now sweating, and my entire body was quivering as I realized there was now no delay. Daydreaming about it was one thing, but now I had to go back in.
He's Charlie, good ol' Charlie. He wouldn't judge me. He knows how hard it is in there. If I admitted to him, I was terrified and wanted advice or just another minute to prepare. He wouldn't think less of me. Some part of me pleaded.
"We have no idea what's going on. You are testing the very edges of reality, and we don't know what that could do to you mentally or physically. It was hard enough for me to do it a couple of times, and I don't think that anyone, no matter how prepared, could withstand it for days on end. Not even Dr. Skizan did it every day, he tried, but we had to pull him out after a couple of days because he almost had a seizure." He paused and sighed, "I don't want to discourage you. I just want to make sure you know what you're risking."
I nodded, but then the other voice spoke up. He doesn't think you're good enough. He thinks you're weak. You're not weak, are you? I cleared my throat. "I'm not worried. Josh thinks I can do it, and so do I."
Charlie bit his lip, closed his eyes like he was considering something, and then spoke, "I think Josh may be jumping to conclusions."
"What do you mean?" I asked. Josh was jumping to conclusions about how well you'll do? Charlie doesn't think you have it in you.
Charlie paused, "Josh doesn't want me to tell you this, but there is more than one reason I called you that day."
"There are?" I asked. More secrets? How much do I not know?
"Yes, and big ones. Back when I did Destiny's Touch, I was terrible at it, but the few times I managed to surf it right, I would almost always end up at you." Charlie said slowly, obviously choosing his words very carefully.
"What do you mean?" I asked, confused by his wording.
"After stumbling and wading through the infinity, the only thing I could find which was finite enough to remember was you. My old friend from college, with who I had written a paper on naked singularities. Mathew Meyers." I could tell he was cracking, the joy of truth was breaking him, and he was beginning to talk faster and more breathlessly. When you got Charlie going about some new science, it was hard to stop him.
"Why me?" I asked, nearly whispering, leaning forward over the table towards him. The spirit had caught me too.
"I don't know. I wasn't looking for you. I was trying to figure out what was going on, but I always got back to you. And it felt important somehow. At first, I saw the idea of you more than an actual picture of you, if you know what I mean. We barely understood Destiny's Touch at this time, but we decided to keep an eye on you. But you didn't seem to be doing anything that would affect the project, so we mostly chalked it up to be a flook. Dr. Skizan didn't see much of you, but I went under a couple more times after he quit. I wanted to see if we could use Ethos to find someone to replace the Doctor. This time I was a little better at navigating, still not good, but Ethos showed me you again. But this time, I saw in this room, I saw you with the helmet on undergoing Destiny's Touch. When Josh heard that, he decided that you really were important somehow.
"So we investigated more. We discovered you rarely left your apartment and definitely didn't seem to be communicating with an enemy of the project." Charlie continued. I felt a pang of embarrassment as I realized they had been watching me in my two weeks of wretched self-pity. "We decided it was one of two things, one, maybe something physical about your body was somehow wrapped up in Ethos. We were just confused and grasping at straws. But what seemed more likely is that something about one of your possible futures was important to the project.
"So that's when he had me call you. He wanted to interview you, but equally important was all the testing he wanted to do on you. Josh wanted to see how your body might react to being exposed to minimal amounts of Destiny's Touch. That's why he invited you out here before you even had the job. Josh wanted to perform some tests on you and get his own eyes on you. Once you were hired, he was still unsure, but after you discovered something your first time in Destiny's Touch, he convinced himself that you are literally perfect for the job. He thinks the reason I had seen you is that out of all possible futures in free will, the one where Athena hired you is the one where we succeed the most. Like you are the ideal candidate, genetically, mentally, and experience-wise, for Destiny's Touch. So now he's willing to put you in absurdly dangerous unknown situations because he thinks you're invincible.
"But I think he's jumping to conclusions. He doesn't want to admit that though we've gone far, we're still mostly stumbling around in the dark. Josh wants to succeed so bad he's willing to risk everything for it."
I barely heard the second part of what he said. I was still reeling from the idea that had exploded in my mind. Not only had Athena picked me as its champion, but reality itself had. This supported everything I had been hoping for. There was no doubt now. You are special. You are successful. Reality chose you. The seductive voice whispered in my ear.
"Thanks for telling me, Charlie. I'll keep that in mind." I said as I stepped into the booth. Why do I need to fear? I was invincible. I wasn't the new Neal Armstrong. Neal Armstrong was the old Mathew Meyers. Because I was something much greater, and I couldn't be stopped.
My eyes locked onto it, up ahead, the truck—a looming semi with an enormous grey shipping container on the back.
I was on a bright freeway. I was speeding past the sea of cars over a smooth plane of light grey concrete. It was night, but harsh white light from the towering streetlights lit everything, and then a river of white headlamps and red brake lights filled the eyes to the brim. My fingers and toes tingled against the pedals and wheel. I felt my feet sweating and smelled the oils released from all corners of my body. But I slammed the gas pedal against the ground. I was shoved back against the seat as I came up next to the truck. The truck was just ahead of me, in the lane to my right and five feet ahead of me. I braced myself against the wheel, pushing deep into my chair. Taking on my last deep breath, I tightened my hand around the wheel and then jerked to the right, swerving towards the truck's back corner. Just before I met it, I awoke with a gasp.
I sat up. I was in the chateau, my window was open, letting a summer breeze in, the room was dark and quiet.
I let my breathing slow down and swallowed. I was soaked in sweat. I'd hate nightmares, but never ones that vivid. It hadn't just been vivid. It had been more real than reality. But the pit of terror that did come with most nightmares wasn't even in my stomach. I just had this tense feeling of expectation. Something was coming, something that would shatter everything I'd planned.
I was not invincible. I was not a champion. The inevitability was coming.
I rolled over, trying to get away from the part of the bed soaked in my sweat. It is much easier to believe something that aligns with your current view of yourself than the one that shatters that, so as I fell asleep, I pushed that one away. Nothing to worry about, just a dream. Soon, I was asleep again.
Lies are always most dangerous when told to the self.