The Journey to Ekur — Chapter 5
Talia tried to distract herself as she walked, counting the long paving stones of the wide streets, stopping to rifle through a rack of some clearly faux leather that a street vendor was trying to convince a passer-by was real. The sun was bright overhead but only touched the street in occasional, piercing shafts of light, the mishmash of buildings around her doing their best to keep the street in a hazy half-light. A gaudy ad flashed images of the latest synthetic pets — docile creatures who were perfectly happy to live in the cramped confines of the city dwellings. No need to take the long trek to the few parks for these creatures! Her father had been trying to convince her mother to get a synthetic boa for ages, guaranteed not to squeeze or bite, but her mother wasn’t having it.
She winced at the thought of her parents. They had been so encouraging, all her life, of her studies. Had they known it would come to nothing? A gaggle of teenagers laughed behind her, splitting like the sea to pass around her. For a moment, she was in the midst of them, and she could almost imagine herself one of them — walking with her friends downtown, going to check out the latest tech shipped in from the traders, see what all the fuss was about. They were all bright colors and even brighter laughter, their clothes shifting and hissing with the sound of synthetic fabric — everything the latest, everything reclaimed, everything a statement, Talia was sure. She hadn’t ever really figured out clothes, just trying to stick with what she liked or what kept her as comfortable as possible in the cloying heat of the greenhouses. But these teens flashed past her with bangles swinging from their ears and necks and arms, AIs projecting dancing animated figures, making their music everyone else’s problem. Here and everywhere without a care for anyone in the world. Talia had never been able to disconnect like that, to not be acutely aware of who was around her and taking them into account.
Within seconds, they were gone, past her and dipping into a nearby shop, and she was alone on the street again. Talia sighed and wandered on. She wasn’t even sure what she was hoping to get out of this wandering. Some sort of answer? Some acceptance? She had been given her fate. Maybe she just needed to talk to someone.
She hit the latch on her arm, releasing her integration from its housing, and scrolled through her contacts. Talia gnawed absentmindedly on her lip. She hadn’t talked to most of these people in months, some in years. Rachel might be up for something. They called every few weeks, checking up on each other. Rachel wasn’t going to get her path until next year, but she might at least be able to sympathize.
Talia hit the call button, feeling the slight hum in her head integration that signaled its activation. She slipped the screen back in her arm as the call connected, and smiled at Rachel’s face, projected just a few inches before her eyes.
“Rachel!” She said, “I’m having a rough day. Are you free to hang out for a bit?”
“Rough day today?” Rachel asked. “That can’t be a good sign. You didn’t get artisanal, huh?”
Talia nodded. “Family farm. Are you free?”
Rachel looked down at something Talia couldn’t see, then she looked back up with a frown. “I’m so sorry, Talia. I’ve been studying for this seed-vault certification for months, and it’s next week, and if I don’t have everything together — ”
“It’s okay,” Talia said, cutting her off. “It’s nothing, really. Just getting my head around it. Good luck on your certification, okay?”
“Thanks. I’m really sorry, Talia.”
“It’s no big deal,” Talia ended the call. She wanted to be mad and curse Rachel for being a bad friend, but this is why they had managed to stay in contact this long in the first place. They both knew that the other had a lot to do, had a lot to work towards.
Of course, that didn’t make the situation suck any less.
She was surprised when her integration chirped, signaling an incoming call. Rachel’s father? She accepted it, confused.
“Hello? Mr. Weston?”
“Hi, Talia. Sorry for calling all of a sudden, but I overheard Rachel’s conversation with you. So, you didn’t get the life path you were hoping for?” His face was wizened, friendly, and he looked genuinely sad, which made Talia feel awkward.
“No, sir. I’m afraid not.”
“Well, I had a bit of a similar experience in my youth, and I thought maybe some of my insight could be helpful.”
“Have you ever heard of a place called Ekur?”
“No,” Talia said, shaking her head. “Do they help with this sort of thing?”
“Sort of.” He smiled. “They can help give perspective. Now, the only problem is, it can take quite a lot of work to get there. I know somebody with your grit would be able to — ”
“I’m sorry,” Talia interrupted, her stomach turning at his words. “I just… Could I call you back later? I really appreciate you trying to help me, but I’m not sure I’m in the right mindset right now. I’ve already done so much, and it didn’t get me where I hoped to go. I don’t think I can take on more of that right now.”
“Of course.” He nodded. “I apologize for butting in. Give me a call whenever you feel ready. Ekur will be waiting.”
He ended the call before Talia had a chance to respond. She felt herself blushing. It had been incredibly rude, incredibly unlike her, to interrupt him like that. He was only trying to help! But what she had said was true. The thought of having to work towards something again was troubling. What if she didn’t make it to whatever place he was talking about? And what could they really do, anyway? It’s not like anyone could change your life path. The AI analyzed everything you had done your entire life and determined your optimal role in society. She had set herself up for disappointment by hoping to change it in the first place.
“Your life sucks, huh?” a young voice said behind her. Talia turned with a start. There, leaning up against the slick metal of the shop’s wall, was one of the teenagers who had passed her. He was framed oddly in the narrow alley between the buildings, gnawing on a burrito.
“I guess,” Talia said with a shrug, feeling embarrassed. She didn’t usually make calls in public for this exact reason. “Anyway…” she said, turning to leave.
“So, what are you going to do about it?” he asked, sounding bored.
“I don’t know,” Talia responded, turning back with a tight smile. Why was she even talking to him? He looked one, maybe two years younger than her? He didn’t have to deal with this sort of thing yet. “Guess I’ll do what everybody does. Figure out how to deal with it.”
“Nah, they all are fine with whatever they get.” He waved his hand generally out towards the street. “They think, oh yay! Someone to tell me what to do, how to walk in line. Now I don’t even have to think! They get a job they’re good at, who cares if they actually like it? If they actually want it? Nobody thinks about what they actually want. They get told what they want.”
“How old are you?” Talia asked.
“Nearly twenty.” He crumbled the foil and shoved it in his pocket. “Babyface. Common mistake.”
Talia glanced down at her arm. It wasn’t quite noon yet, early for someone to be out on a break. And she had seen him running around with the other kids — or should she call them that? They might have been older than her, apparently.
“I’ll answer your next question for you.” He grinned. “Why aren’t I at work? That’s easy. I don’t work.”
“Unusual life path,” Talia said, thinking that she really should get back to the house and apologize to her parents for leaving in such a huff.
“Oh, I didn’t take that advice.” He winked. “Didn’t really fit with what I wanted to do, you know? And it sounds like you’re in the same boat. I met an Ekur guy once. Was super cagey about it, but it’s all just mumbo-jumbo they feed you sometimes to make you feel better about doing what they want anyway.” He studied her for a moment. Talia felt strangely exposed under his gaze. It wasn’t inappropriate, just serious. Like he was trying to figure something out about her.
“You’re a nerd!” he said finally, with a triumphant smile. “That’s it, right? One of the kids who wanted better than the family farm?”
“Guilty as charged.” Talia grimaced. “It was nice talking to you, but I should get back.”
“And just go along with it?” he laughed. “Come on, you look too smart for that. So, you’re a nerd. Never had fun? Always work, work, work with you guys. Never lived, you know? Don’t you want the chance to do that, before you put your head down and accept what they handed you?”
“What do you mean?” Talia asked.
“It’s easy,” he said without shifting his smile. “You’ve got more time than you think. What does it matter if you start tomorrow or next week? You’ve got the rest of your life to work on the farm. Don’t you want a chance to have some fun before then?”
“I’m not the type to go wild.” Talia shook her head. “Just buck all my responsibilities? Sorry, I don’t know what you’re pushing here, but you’ve got the wrong person.”
“One party,” he said gently. “Look, I’m inviting you to a party! I know I talk a lot, and I’m sorry. Bad habit. My friends earlier? They’re getting everything right now. We’ve got a cool place, Trevor’s house. If you’re going to go along with this whole thing, what’s one night of fun going to change? One last gasp before you go down.”
Talia was going to leave. That was what she was going to do, just turn away and walk back towards her house, eat whatever family dinner they put together tonight to celebrate, apologize and get on with things. That was what she always did! Follow the rules. But — she tugged the edge of her shirt nervously — that was what had gotten her into this whole predicament in the first place, right? Always following the rules? Always doing the right thing? This guy was clearly a lay about, skirting around the edges. But she didn’t have to like him to have a fun evening. She’d just message her parents, tell them that she was going out with some friends. They wouldn’t be upset. Happy for her, even, maybe a little surprised she knew people to go out with, but they had always tried to get her to lighten up a bit. And one time, well, she could finally get what all the fuss was about. More than likely it would just be a group of loud and obnoxious kids and she’d be grateful when it was over. Give her some perspective. Make her realize this path was all the right choice in the end.
“Well?” he asked, glancing at his arm. “I’ve got to meet up with the rest of them. Do you want to come along or not?”
Talia looked back down the street, then back at him, “Okay,” she said, finally. “Okay, fine. But I’m telling people where I’m going. This better not be some trick. They’ll come looking for me if you’re up to something.”
At this, he laughed hard, gasping for air. “Oh, my gosh. You dweebs are always so sure someone’s trying to rob you or something. What do you have that I don’t? Don’t worry. I’m not going to try anything. Broadcast your location all night for all I care. And when you realize you love it and lighten up a bit, you can thank me.”
“Sure,” Talia said, still not quite believing her legs as they carried her after him.
“The name’s Elliot, by the way. Nice to meet you. And congrats on finally getting a life!”