The Journey to Ekur — Chapter 10
The room was so crammed that people were standing on top of chairs. Noah rocked back and forth, anxiously watching the door. Two hundred and twelve people — he had counted every single one. The most they had ever had at a rally. And still no Andi. He checked his integration. They would start any minute now; Bartholomew would get up on that stage and start talking, and she would miss the whole thing. Nikia had seemed hurt when he didn’t take her up on the spot she had saved him near the stage, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He didn’t want Nikia and Andi to meet, though he didn’t want to think about why he was avoiding it, either.
A bell rang from the front. Two minutes until the speech. He thought about calling her again, but it had taken enough to convince her to come down here.
“Where have you been?” she had asked as soon as she heard his voice. “I’ve been worried. We’ve all been worried.”
“I found a new path,” he’d explained. “I want you to come check it out. Have you heard of the Reformatters?”
“The crazy fringe group?” she had said with worry.
“It’s not crazy. Come on, you know me. I wouldn’t fall in with crazy people. We’re having a meeting this Saturday. Will you come?”
He’d only managed to convince her to show up by promising that he would call his family afterwards. He had messaged his mom since joining, just to let her know he was safe, but the thought of talking to his father brought on a queasy mix of anger and anxiety. How would that conversation even go? “Hey Dad, I’ve joined the group that’s trying to convince everyone that you were wrong?” In the end, though, Noah realized he’d rather have Andi come than not face his father.
Three more people squeaked in, shoving themselves into spots in the audience — and there she was. Andi’s hair was cut short since he’d seen her last, the ends dyed a bright blue, and she was still dressed for work, her QA company shirt’s hologram shimmered and shifted over her chest. It was a man, typing furiously at a keyboard, then throwing his screen in frustration, over and over. Some inside joke at the company, he figured.
She looked nervously around the room, her integration slipped from her arm and clutched in her hand. Noah wormed his way over to her, grabbing her arm as she went to call him.
“Noah!” Andi smiled in relief.
“Here, hop up,” he said as he helped her onto a line of chairs against the back wall. “We’ll be able to see from here.”
“Your hair’s gotten long,” she said, ruffling a scruffy tuft over his ear. “No clippers in the resistance?”
“It’s not a resistance,” Noah replied. “It’s a legitimate political front. We could get voted in like anyone else.”
Andi looked dubious, but then a tone sounded at the front, the crowd murmuring as Bartholomew took his place at the podium. He started to speak, and Noah found himself constantly glancing at Andi, trying to see her reactions to everything Bartholomew said. It was a good speech today — Nikia had worked on it — and as Bartholomew spoke, Noah could see a whole new world opening up in front of them. A world where your talents were really taken into consideration, where everyone’s actions worked towards the whole, without disregarding what each person wanted. It was good. He would have to compliment Nikia after. But Andi’s face was impassive, almost confused, and Noah grew more anxious. Why wasn’t it clicking for her? Even if she liked her job, couldn’t she see how this would be so much better than the current system for so many people?
After half an hour, Bartholomew finished, and members of the party started to work the crowd, having break-out discussions and handing out their literature. Andi stepped down from the chair and nodded towards the door. Noah followed her out to the alleyway.
“What did you think?” he asked once they’d cleared the noise of the room.
Andi shrugged. “He’s a good speaker.”
“That’s it?” Noah asked.
“I mean,” Andi mumbled without meeting his eyes. “He didn’t really say anything, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“It was just a lot of nice words,” Andi explained. “He said a lot, sure, but there wasn’t anything to it. Just platitudes. The world will be different if we elect him and his guys. All that stuff he was saying? That’s the stuff the life path is supposed to do already. All the things it’s supposed to take into account.”
Ah, that’s the disconnect, Noah thought. He could work with this. He could explain.
“It is supposed to,” he agreed. “But it doesn’t, that’s the point. It says it takes all that stuff into consideration, but that’s clearly not the case. With this team, it would actually happen. I mean, if the path did what it was supposed to, all these people wouldn’t have shown up looking for something different.”
“Just because you didn’t immediately jump for joy at your path doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right one, or it wasn’t doing all of those things. What makes you think that the life path Bartholomew sets the parameters for will make you any happier than the one you got now?”
“I mean, for one, he’s not going to stick me as some scribe, with all the experience and training I have,” Noah huffed.
Andi stared at him for a long moment. Noah felt small under her gaze. They had known each other since primary school, and while they hadn’t always hung out — that had happened more and more as they got older — she had known him longer than most. She had always been able to read his moods, and been able to pull him out of a slump. But now it felt like she wanted to send him into one. He hated it.
“Are you following him because you believe in what he’s doing? Or because he’s telling you what you want to hear?” she asked.
“Why can’t it be both?” he shot back. “Why can’t I actually be right here, despite what you and my dad and everyone else thinks? Why can’t you believe Bartholomew recognizes my potential, but this stupid thing doesn’t?” he said, slapping the integration on his arm.
“I do believe in your potential, stupid,” Andi said, her voice frustrated. “I do. That’s why I don’t want you wasting it on some guy who would be happy trading you out for the next pissed-off kid on the street who didn’t reach high scholar on his first try. I mean, come on. I didn’t like my path at first either. I was frustrated. But I stuck it out and I tried it, and it worked. You didn’t even give yours a chance.”
“The AI didn’t have to give me some high scholar position for me to listen to it!” Noah snapped, his voice rising, “It didn’t have to! That’s not the point here. This isn’t pride. This is me not wanting to waste five years of my life doing nothing!”
“You keep telling yourself that,” Andi said, shaking her head. “I’m not going to give you whatever approval you’re looking for here.”
“Why not?” Noah asked. “Why can’t you trust me enough to let me do this?”
“Because this isn’t you. This is him.” She jerked a thumb back towards the door. “This is every frustrated kid in there just kissing your boo-boos and telling you fairy stories to send you to sleep. This is a man weaponizing life paths for his own gain. And if you can’t see that, then maybe I was wrong. Maybe you really are as stupid as you’re acting.” She shifted her bag on her arm and started past him down the alleyway. Noah reached out, grabbing her arm. She tensed up as he touched her, which felt worse than anything she’d said.
“Andi — ”
“No,” she answered, looking back at him, and he thought he could see tears gathering in her eyes. “Call me when you get over this, okay? I don’t have time for this, Noah.”
Andi jerked her arm away and walked off, ignoring his pleas. He stared after where she’d been. What was wrong with her?
What’s wrong with me? He cursed, hitting the building next to him, his knuckles stinging where they collided with the thick metal.
“Dammit,” he said, sliding down against the wall. “What the hell?”
Was Andi right? She had been, so often in the past, all the times she got them out of the trouble she warned him they were going to get in. But he really did think she would click with the Reformatters. How could you hear Bartholomew speak and not agree with him? He had told Noah his story shortly after he had joined. He was going to end up doing maintenance and repair work — not even a scholar position — when he had such a gift for words. How could that have made sense?
Did Andi just not believe he had it in him to be a scholar? Was this her weird way of saying so, without having to actually say it? His sneaker squeaked across the ground as he kicked his leg out in frustration. His father didn’t believe in him, Andi didn’t believe in him…
No. He thought of Andi’s face, the way she had looked at him when he’d met her at the door. How happy and worried and excited she was to see him. How she had stood through the whole speech with him, even though she had clearly hated it. How she wanted him to come back home.
The door next to him swung open, and Nikia poked her head out.
“Noah! There you are!” she said with relief. “I thought — oh, never mind. Are you coming in? Most of the audience left, but some guys stuck around. We’re giving them the run-down on the whole system of thought.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You can ask me for a better one than that.” Nikia smiled. “What’s on your mind?”
“Are you following Bartholomew because you believe in what he’s saying? Or just because he’s telling you what you want to hear?”
Nikia scrunched her face and blew out an exasperated sigh. “Look, we all follow who is saying what we want to hear. Right? That’s how politics work. I didn’t want the job I was going to get, Bartholomew can get me the job I want if I help get him elected. Why does it have to be more complicated than that?”
“But is he right? Is his system the better one? Do you believe that?”
Nikia threw up her hand. “It’s all just made up! This system, that system. I’m going to go for the one I like. I’m not going to try and claim it’s the right one for everyone or the ultimate truth or anything like that. Why would Bartholomew or myself or anyone be able to figure that out?”
Noah stood. “But if he got elected, we would be enforcing his system for everyone. Shouldn’t we be figuring out the one that is right? The one that’s the best?”
“I think it’ll make more people happy than the current system does if that’s what you’re asking.”
“And what about the people who aren’t happy?”
Nikia shrugged. “They can try to get their own guy elected, I guess. Are you coming?”
“No,” Noah replied without thinking. “I think I’ll go get a bite to eat.”
“Alright. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Okay.” Noah nodded.
She winked, letting the door fall closed behind her. Noah stood, not sure where to go. What was he doing? This was his path now, helping Bartholomew. And if it made him happy, wasn’t that alright? He pulled the door open and saw Nikia walking towards a small group in the center of the room. Bartholomew had joined her.
“I think we lost Noah,” he heard Nikia say casually like she was updating Bartholomew on the weather.
“Really?” Bartholomew said with a sigh. “I thought he was a real believer.”
“Can’t win them all,” she replied.
Noah gripped the doorknob as they joined the group, Nikia’s bubbly voice doing its best to sway the newest attendees. That was it? She thought he was leaving, and that was it? Bartholomew hadn’t even mentioned…well, anything. The work he had done. How much of a help he had been.
Noah slammed the door, not caring if they heard, and walked to the street, his hands shoved in his pockets. He couldn’t go home now. And he wasn’t going back in there. He might be able to find some odd job out on the outskirts, but that wouldn’t fix his mood. It wouldn’t fix any of it.
He stared up at the walls that marked the edge of the city, hesitating, then turned and started walking towards them. It didn’t look like he was going to find any answers in the city.