Burning the Man
A large sea of sand was surrounded by rocky black hills. Dust and vapor mixed as they ascended, pushed by the surrounding summer heat. Meters above the desert, a helicopter flew toward the south west border where a pentagon delimited what was known as Black Rock City, a temporary town confined in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.
Aboard the chopper, the passenger was looking down at the scene amazed by the geometry of the ephemeral town where he was summoned. As they were coming closer, he could notice slightly curved rectangles forming streets in the shape of an incomplete ring within the pentagon. The structure contained a circle at the base of the ring, one at the center and one that would connect with the circle if it was complete. All three were connected by many lines. The passenger felt like the place was some sort of massive magic seal, fueled by the passion of the hundreds who attended its annual event: “the Burning Man”.
The Helicopter landed in the small municipal airport. It looked more like a succession of dirt roads at the disposal of the attendees who flew to the event. The passenger took off his helmet revealing curly white locks of hair that sprang up defying gravity after being released from their confinement. He swapped his leather jacket for a white vest he put on top of his “Dark side of the moon” T-shirt, swapped his sneakers for a solid pair of boots and put on a pair of goggles to protect his golden colored eyes from the dust, the sand and the intense rays of the sun before stepping out of the aerial vehicle.The passenger grabbed his overly stuffed camping bag, thanking the Helicopter’s pilot.
As he walked across the dirt road, he noticed a huge cluster of multicolored bicycles with a big sign saying: “Free rides”. The sight brought back memories of his childhood when he used to bike to every destination. He found himself wondering when was the last time he went for a ride, He chose a light blue Speedvagen cross bike that boasted the most comfortable saddle he ever sat on. He wobbled for a few meters before finding balance with the fifth gear. He pressed the pedals harder increasing his momentum and driving increasing quantities of dust upward. On his way to Black Rock City, he saw countless other bikers dressed in all kinds of extravagant manners and spotting vivid colors, each of them filled to the brim with unique accessories; feathers of green and yellow, cyan leather and so many other fabrics and hues. He also noticed all sorts of vehicles, from camping cars, to trucks, to animal shaped rides, to houses on wheels and many more bizarre mobile structures.
He felt a strange sense of serenity in the surrounding chaos, until earthbound thoughts pushed him off his little bubble of peace. He didn’t come to Black Rock City because he just felt like it, he was asked to come following a series of events that were still fresh in his memory.
He remembered the five year long depression far too well, the feeling of pointlessness that made every day like the next one, the last hope to use his skills that turned into the sour realization that his skills weren’t needed, not by the people he targeted.
Liviano was a freelance game designer, in name. He mostly worked moon-shining assignments for game design students. He tried to make it on his own after graduating and developed what he believed to be his spear head project; The Fallen. He made the game on his own, using minimalist assets and focusing all the fun on the game-play and pixel art cinematic transitions. But the self-publishing was a disaster. No big distributor wanted to include The Fallen on their catalogue. He sold five copies by spamming the hell out of his friends and relatives to the point of alienation. He swallowed his pride trying to let his project aside and work for a company, but no game studio wanted to employ him. After some falling out with his folks on the matter of his unemployment, He got kicked out and spiraled down, keeping his basic needs in check working as a clerk in a convenience store near the tiny room he ended up renting.
It all came to an end with a call from Erica Silverstone, a mysterious acquaintance who popped in his virtual life from time to time. While on the phone, she told him about the Arcadia Corporation and a new project of theirs he might be interested in.
“Believe me, you gotta try out for the program. You might have what it takes.” She said.
“I am a clerk ...” Liviano responded.
Erica remained silent for a moment then said, “You lose nothing trying. I sent you an email with the closest testing facility near you. Try to make it before the end of august!” then she hanged off.
The conversation sparked interest in Liviano, he was curious about the Arcadia and tried to research them online, but only found very vague descriptions of commercial activities, mostly electronics through the Interface brand, there was no mention of software development, or games for that matter.
Two weeks after the phone call, Liviano finally amassed enough courage to visit the testing facility. It was set in one of the tallest buildings of Diamond City, The Cornucopia all the way on the 125th floor. He was alone on the escalator ride and fully enjoyed the view of the city spreading far in the Nevada desert, a spot of green and steel in the middle of the harsh sands and dirt plains. Once at the testing facility, he was immediately addressed by a blonde woman that was probably the same age he was.
“You’ve came for the ACMT testing right sir? Can I have your ID please?” she asked
Liviano took out his wallet and gave her the pinkish magnetic card that was his Nevadan driver’s license.
“Yes…” He mumbled after the fact.
“Alright Mr. Iskatel. Please follow me to the waiting room.”
The two walked in silence through a narrow corridor before getting to a large space with comfy benches and sliding doors filled by a dozen people or so.
“Your name will appear on the main screen next to the number of the door you will take, as well as on the screen on top of the door itself. Please wait until you see it to proceed. Have a good day,” she said before storming off leaving Liviano to his waiting.
Liviano stood among the people waiting. He heard a piece of a random conversation between a man and a woman.
“...Should have gone to the Atlantis Industry’s event...”
“...They have personal assistance...”
“...On Department K’s list...”
Liviano tried to follow, but his name appeared. He went through the sliding door to a cubical room with a mechanical chair in the middle. All sort of equipment was attached to the chair, mostly diodes that Liviano felt would be soon be put all over his skin.
He was asked to take off his shirt by a staff member, a tall fellow with a long white coat. He then sat on the chair and as expected, was covered by diodes symmetrically on all of his upper area.
“Please remain still while the scanning is in progress. We will broadcast a series of images and short videos in fast succession. Try to empty your thoughts and follow the clip until the end.” The tall scientist said.
Liviano nodded, then put his attention on the screen in front of him. The broadcast was fast and random, Liviano couldn’t follow most of what was happening but got a few images such as lamas with hats and drunk unicorns.
The scientist remained silent for a while, typing on the keyboard of his terminal. Liviano felt something was wrong, and wanted to move, but was stopped by the tall fellow while he was still looking at his screen.
“Don’t move yet, the scan is still in progress.”
“Does it always take this long?” Liviano asked.
“I needed to run a second test. The number I got is definitely an outlier.”
“And is that a good or a bad thing?” Liviano asked confused.
“In your case, if there is no scan error, it would be an incredible thing.” The scientist said looking at Liviano with a smile.
The scientist kept working on his terminal for about twenty minutes before concluding.
“Congratulations, you are 96.9% drive compatible. Only seven other people tested by our facilities exceeded the 90% compatibility threshold. I must put you on a direct video call with Alexis Makarov, the CEO of the Arcadia Corporation.” He said
He then led Liviano to a conference room where he could sit and face a giant video conference screen. After a few settings, Liviano was face to face with Alexis, a somewhat young individual with short silver hair and gold framed glasses. He was wearing a sharp gray suit and smiling in a formal manner.
“If you accept to work with us, you will be one of the very few people to experiment something truly unique and decisive for our whole world. It is not a job for the faint of heart, but with your numbers, I doubt you are one of those. If you decide to join us, I will personally explain to you the purpose of our new project, initiate you to our work of line if you will.” Alexis said
“I am interested.” Liviano said without a second thought
“Very well. Liviano Iskatel, you will officially start the 10th September, but your initiation will be held from the fifth to the seventh of the same month. During those three days, we will tell you all you need to know to operate as one of us.” Alexis told him.
At the end of August, he received a call from the Arcadia Corporation; they told him that everything was put in place to get him to the location of his initiation: the Burning Man festival at Black Rock City.
The young man stopped in his track braking just seconds before crashing in a considerably large yacht; the kind you wouldn’t expect to find in the desert. Liviano was so lost in his memories that he failed to notice the ship braking in front of him. Riding around it, he stopped to take a better look. He noticed that the mastodon was technically a car as six giant wheels were at the origin of its mobility on the sandy plane; he also noticed the ‘captain’ and ‘crew’ of this fish out of water who were in fact a group of young women and men dressed in accessorized sailors outfit and laughing while spraying each other with what he assumed was champagne.
“The rich kids are here to ‘occupy’ the burning man, that’s what they say to justify their presence, but I’m pretty sure they are just here to have fun and commune like everyone else.” The words were uttered from behind Liviano. He turned around to see if the person who said that was addressing him. He found a young women, probably in the mid-twenties, riding a green bicycle and clearly looking at him; she had that distinct 60s’ hippie look: red headband tightly embracing her long straight sand blond hair, round sunglasses like the ones John Lennon used to wear, dream-catcher pendant with multicolored feathers, rainbow spiral top, flare jeans, and sandals.
“Not your first burning man?” Liviano asked.
“That is correct, I come here whenever I can. This place is completely disconnected from the rest, it is its own little world, and everything here has this tendency to be constantly surreal! Finding you for instance! I thought it would take me the whole day, but here you are! Ain’t that surreal Liviano?” She responded.
“Wait! You know me?” Liviano asked surprise by the mention of his name.
The Young woman smiled before responding, “I do! Even though we haven’t been formally introduced yet… I am Rachel Mikayume! Burner, modern shaman, and employee at the Arcadia Corporation! I volunteered to welcome you and guide you through the festival and toward the first step of your initiation!”
Liviano look at Rachel who seemed very satisfied by her statement, taking a moment to digest what she just told him.
“It’s nice to meet you Rachel! My name is Liviano Iskatel, but you already know that. As you volunteered to guide me, I assume you are also involved in the same mystery project I was asked to integrate the Arcadia Corp for. I understand the initiation is designed to enlighten me about it, but can’t you give me a little hint of what I’m getting involved in... Please?”
“Haha, nice try! If I tell you, Alexis won’t stop bugging me about it for god knows how long. He really wants you to discover it in the right progression; the boss is a sucker for theatricals, so just relax Liviano. You are at the burning man! In the middle of a community of highly creative and free spirited people! Take a deep breath, chill, and enjoy the ride! Now common, follow me if you want to see some pretty unique stuff!”
The two rode their bikes through the chaos of chimera vehicles and toward the temporary town. On their way they rode under giant yellow and green cellophane flowers, one of many giant art sculptures that were created for the event. They made it through the vast array of artistic displays, some of which were giant letter forming words such as ‘Free’, ‘Love’ and ‘Believe’. Passing by the giant wooden “faces of the lovers”, they entered the streets of the town made up of tents, RVs and other ephemeral roofs the burners used as shelter. They made a quick stop by a giant RV with the Arcadia Corporation Logo spread on all of the surface of its two flanks; they dropped their bikes and liviano’s giant camping bag, ate a protein bar, and took some water before getting back to the chaos of the town’s streets.
As they walked, the density of the people around them rose and so did the outlandishness of the burners’ outfits and activities. The two ended up next to a gigantic wire dome that many burners around seemed to converge toward. Loud cheering and intense metal music was coming from the structure leading Liviano to believe that whatever was happening inside would be epic. He didn’t have to wait long to discover what was inside the dome as Rachel led him towards the crowded entrance of the structure.
“If we’re lucky, we might see Daal go at it!” Rachel said grabbing Liviano’s hand and rushing him through the crowd. For a moment, Liviano felt like he was going to be flattened by the mass of people they were navigating through, but he didn’t have to wait long enough to be free from the squeezing. He was surprised to see that it was way less packed inside, and he quickly understood why; most of the burners that got in climbed the large wires of the dome to take a better look at the scene and stay away from the flames surrounding it. In the middle, two people were suspended mid-air by large elastic cables. The two, a woman and a man were tangling around in incredible bounds enhenced by the elasticity of their harnesses.
“What are they doing?” Liviano asked Rachel.
“It’s Daal’s turn! I forgot to mention, but he is also from the Arcadia Corporation and part of the mystery project as you like to call it. So Daal and the other participant both start the game with five feathers placed on their arms, legs, and head. The goal is to leap toward the other participant and take their feathers. The first person to take all the other’s feathers win the game! Looks like Daal already scored a point!”
Liviano paid a closer attention to the arena. The aforementioned Daal looked like a mountain of muscles which greatly contrasted with the slender figure of the woman he was facing. The two opponent’s movement were precise, fast, and elegant. They never crashed into each other, but as they were leaping closer to contact, they plucked more feathers. Shockingly, Daal lost while his opponents had two feathers to spare. The two were cheered in a wave of excitement and lowered down to the scene where the fire was temporarily put off. They got out of their harnesses leaving their spots for the next contestants in line.
As soon as he got out of the scene, Daal noticed Rachel waving at him, and walked towards the two. As he was coming closer, Liviano was finally able to take a good look at this new coworker of his. The man was very tall, a hulking mass of muscles, but his face was peaceful and relaxed like a friendly Buddhist monk.
“You pulled off some amazing moves out there Daal!” Rachel said, “You could have won though, and shown Liviano how awesome you are!”
“My opponent was better, can’t deny that,” Daal said before turning towards Liviano, “It’s nice to meet you Liviano, I heard you are the newest member of our team…”
“Don’t spoil the surprise Daal!” Rachel stopped him.
“My pleasure Daal,” Liviano said to his future teammate before asking Rachel, “Are you also part of this team?”
“Well, yes! But you will know all about it a little bit later. Common guys, we are at the burning man for Ganesha’s sake! Let’s move! There is so much more we need to see and do!”
The three left the wire dome wandering deeper in the layers of the town, stopping here and there for a look at the strange patchwork of improbable compositions, the fields of human figures made of wooden frames, the man and the temple to be burnt at the end.
But some people could never wait, because some people feel that what they want comes before anything else. So was the case of a man who walked by Rachel, Daal and Liviano. The man was wearing a red rubber suit and a gas mask and Liviano could swear that the metallic cylindrical contraption he wore on his back was a flamethrower; he had seen enough videos of people fooling around with those on the internet to recognize it.
The rubber clothed fellow was heading straight to the giant wooden figure of “the man” in the middle of the town’s broken circle. He started shouting:
“The last hour is upon us! The Deus Ex shall come down and save us all from this deviant lifestyle!”
Nobody around seemed to notice or care. Liviano started thinking very fast, ‘The man must be stopped, but tackling him might lead to the flamethrower going off, injuring countless happy burners. I need to find a way to paralyze his progression without causing any incident, but how?’
Rachel put her hand on Liviano’s shoulder interrupting the rush of worried thoughts he was having. She smiled at him then nodded, before looking at Daal who nodded in return. Liviano’s companions headed toward the man moving around the burners to stay in his blind spot.
When they were close enough, Daal sprinted toward the targeted fellow and leaped on him firmly deadlocking him against the ground. Rachel quickly approached the paralyzed culprit; using a retractable pocket knife, she cut the straps linking the man to his flamethrower and took the object far away from him.
“You can’t stop the coming of the Deus Ex, it will cleanse this world and the next and unify everything!” The pyromaniac screamed.
“You, my friend, are coming with me.” Daal said to the man with a calm smile before forcing him up on his feet, holding his hands behind his back, and leading him away from the scene. The pyro shortly calmed and stopped his screaming.
“Way to go reading my thoughts!” Liviano said impressed, “But I guess you guys noticed him before I did. I see that The Arcadia Corporation doesn’t fool around when it comes to physically training its employees.”
“With our line of work, you must be ready for anything! And there is nothing wrong with training your body. At the end of the day, it is the only thing you can truly rely on. Good job spotting him though! I have a feeling we can truly rely on you once the work starts.”
“This job we are doing isn’t the typical white collar gig, is it?”
“Still trying to make me spill the beans. Well I’m gonna answer this one: it is and it isn’t!”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’ll understand in due time! Now common, we should join Daal at the security post of the festival and bring this dragon breath container to them!”
“For a modern shaman, sometimes you sound like a D&D dungeon crawler.”
Rachel laughed at the remark before answering, “Fantasy is at the essence of any Shaman’s narrative! And just to rectify, I spent my fair share of time role playing online during high school, but table RPGs eww.”
“You don’t know what you were missing.”
“Neither do you! Now let’s move or we’ll be at it until dawn!”
The two walked to the security post. The security guards already called the police of the neighboring town of Reno and sent a chopper to take the man and his flamethrower under their custody.
“You did well Liviano.” Daal said to the young man. “You have good reflexes, but if you want to make a difference you should start to seriously train. I’ll coach you anytime you want, you’ll be able to handle situations far more serious than this lone lunatic on your own.”
“I…Okay, sure!” Liviano responded hesitating a little, he wasn’t sure if he could keep up with his teammate due to the difference in physical condition, but he could use some help as fitness and other body building activities always bewildered him, “Why not, I’m sure I’ll be a mountain of muscles too in no time!” he laughed nervously as he realized he might have pissed off Daal with his remark.
Daal exploded in laughter taking a few minutes to get back some of his composure, “You are a funny one Liviano, I will train you until you reach peak efficiency, how much muscle mass you get will be up to you.”
“Your conversation is starting to reek testosterone, training is being in sync with your body, not growing muscle tissues like a production chain in a factory! I’ll train you too just to make sure your brain is not replaced with biceps” Rachel said reacting to the two guys’ conversation.
“Don’t get mad Rachel. You know that my training is not just that.”
“I know Daal! I just want to train him too to be honest!”
“You guys are really serious about this!” Liviano remarked, “Must be some pretty intense field work we are doing with the Arcadia.”
An unfamiliar yet mesmerizing voice rose behind Liviano and his companions, “Don’t get the wrong idea about the job. Our project within the Arcadia enable us to go where no one else in this world is.”
“Oh hey Sonata!” Rachel said addressing the new individual. Liviano turned around to take a look at this mysterious person which everything indicated was yet another fellow teammate in the mystery project of the Arcadia Corporation. He felt a strange jolt as his golden eyes crossed the acid green ones of the young woman. She was the embodiment of grace and radiated a strange and yet seductive calm confidence heightened by a faint smile on her perfect face framed by half long locks of light brown oak hair.
“Hey Rachel, Alexis called for you and Daal. I’ll take it from here with Liviano.” Sonata said.
“Okay! Common Daal, let’s go see what the boss want. We’ll see you guys later!”
As the two were leaving, Daal briefly spoke to Sonata, “Go easy on him.”
“Don’t worry,” Sonata responded holding Liviano’s arm, “I’ll be gentle in making him see the light.”
Liviano couldn’t move or think. He didn’t know what to think other than that he was feeling pretty good about this sudden body contact. He looked at Sonata at his side trying to figure out a little bit what kind of person this new teammate of his was.
“Look at you blushing! Don’t tell me you never had anyone holding your arm before.” Sonata said with a faint laughter.
“What? No! I... I mean, I don’t have to tell you those kind of things… Sonata right? It’s nice meeting you…”
“Let’s skip the boring introductions shall we? You know my name, I know yours yadi yadi yada, boring. I am not here for formalities my dear Liviano, but to get you one step closer to burning the man you formerly were.”
“Is the Arcadia a cult?” Liviano asked. “Because if it’s the case, I’d rather just go back to being a part time assistant clerk.”
Sonata laughed at his remark then said, “Oh we are nothing like a cult, what we do is pure science. Science so pure in fact it pushes the limits of what a human being is capable of experiencing through the biological machine we were provided at birth. Let’s walk for a bit:”
The two left the security post; Sonata still holding Liviano’s arm.
“How much longer do I need to wait before you people tell me what this is project is about?” Liviano asked.
“Not much longer, in a way, at each step we are taking, you are learning more without even noticing.”
“So far I know it is a scientific experiment involving a team of highly trained people and pushing the limits of human perception, what I don’t get is why it is so hush-hush? Is it unethical or dangerous?”
“Anything is questionably unethical, the simple fact of being alive causes so much consequences that are questionable, and the same goes for danger; no one knows when death can strike after all.”
“Why the burning man? Why this place?”
“There are a few reasons behind the location. For starter Alexis like it here, but it is more than that. The burning man is a hive for people with alternative ways of perceiving the world, a place where so many different ideals exist simultaneously in a chaotic tranquility. It is also where the man and the temple are burnt, and with them the stuck up ideals of a predefined world where everyone’s life is traced by the hands of destiny. We chose this place because like all the burners here we are not about destiny, we are about choice, and choice is at the center of everything we are doing in this secret little experiment of ours.”
“So I can choose not to follow through and leave now if I wished.”
“You could indeed, but you will be missing on the knowledge of what our experiment is about, and the new choices that knowledge could lead to. Of course you can quit at any time, but once you know, once you understand what we are trying to do, everything in you will push you to go further. Some would say it is destiny, but once you know, destiny becomes meaningless.”
Sonata stopped as they were passing next to the “faces of the lovers”. Still holding Liviano’s arm, she pulled him closer kissing him.
“If I was following what destiny would dictate, this would never happen, but I kissed you because I felt like it and chose to do it, it is as simple as that.”
Liviano was confused, but he enjoyed the kiss, and was feeling more and more intrigued by Sonata, even attracted toward the mysterious young woman.
“Now Liviano, your questions will finally be answered, it is time to see Alexis.”
The two walked through the town arriving at the wooden statue of the man. At its base, Liviano spot Rachel, Daal, and…Alexis Makarov; he recognized his short silver hair and his gold frame glasses, but this time, he was dressed more casual.
“We meet again Mr. Iskatel, I hope you had a great time so far at the festival and enjoyed knowing the present other members of our team. You will meet the rest once we officially start working, I guess you have been waiting for quite a while to know the nature of this job the Arcadia Corporation is offering you.” Alexis said.
“I’m starting to form an idea, but I might be wrong.”
“What is your theory Mr. Iskatel?” Alexis asked.
“You are working on probabilities, outcome determination, maybe some application to quantum mechanics.”
“I am impressed, you are very close. What kind of application do you think we are developing?”
“I can’t think of one specifically, but if I have to make a few guesses I would say entanglement, probability wave’s calculation, maybe even teleportation?”
“You are well informed on quantum physics. Your application didn’t mention any degree in the discipline.”
“I spend a lot of time on the internet, quantum mechanics is very popular with geeks.”
“So you must be familiar with the many worlds theory.”
Liviano stood silent for a moment, a thought of what this was all about passed through his mind, but he didn’t pay much attention to it as it seemed too far-fetched to be true.
“The theory that every possible choice happens simultaneously, that the other outcomes not observed still exist in parallel worlds, the multiverse? What? You’re gonna tell me that you have a way to choose the outcomes in advance and build your own navigation system in a perfect timeline?”
“Oh no, not at all, we are not trying to control the future, that would be boring.”
“What other application could there be to the multiverse theory?”
“There are potentially plenty. One of which is exploring the multiverse.”
“You heard well, at the Arcadia Corporation we built a device we called the “Multiverse Drive”, with it we are able to entangle our consciousness to compatible individuals in other possible worlds, when we drive, we become our alter egos and we explore their worlds.”
Liviano started thinking over all the implications of the words Alexis said. He felt his thought loosing coherence as all the possibilities that rose in his mind were colliding with each other.
“So if I join you, I will be sent to other parallel worlds to explore them? This is a lot to digest, but I still want to know one thing. What are you trying to achieve through doing this?”
“Observation of the drive got us to some conclusions, one of which is a theoretical explanation to the phenomenon of entanglement. The theory is simple, thinking on a higher dimension, everything that can be potentially entangled must pass by a central focal point, a knot in the fabric of space and time that links everything together, all possible worlds; we call it the Nexus. We believe that by traveling to other possible worlds, we might find a way to physically reach the Nexus instead of sending our brain signals, and by doing so, be able to physically travel the multiverse, maybe even higher dimensions than the timelines at our vicinity we are already accessing via the drive.”
Liviano felt a terrible doubt, it was all too perfect to be true. How come he ended up being offered such task? He always fostered an interest for parallel worlds and other planes of existence, but he never thought he would have the opportunity to be involved at that level. He thought about the alternative and what rejecting this offer will bring and shrugged.
“Perfect. Well then Mr. Iskatel, let me officially welcome you to the A.C.M.T, the Arcadia Corporation Multiverse Team as our number six.” Alexis posed letting the information sink in before finishing, “Congratulations Liviano! By joining us, you burnt the man in you who still believed in one world and are officially a Multiverse driver.”