The Journey to Ekur — Chapter 7
“Noah, do you have that speech for Bartholomew?” Nikia swept by with a stack of food boxes in hand, passing them out to the group sitting around the table. All on Bartholomew’s crack planning team, all young, all determined. The energy, electricity Noah had felt from Bartholomew in the alley was carried over and through everyone here. They were all thrilled to be here, all focused on what was coming next. This wasn’t like punching into a job you had to do. This was waking up knowing you were doing something radically new every day.
“I’m working on it!” Noah said. “He wants to cram so much into it, I’m doing my best to figure this out here.”
“Well, you’re good with words, and he needs it by this evening. You know the goal — punchy, to the point, something that will get people thinking.”
“I know, I know.” Noah pulled a fry from the box, munching on it as he scanned over the meeting notes. It was funny, now, to think about how nervous he had been about joining this organization at the beginning. It had only taken a week for him to fall in with everyone, and quite a few people already felt like old friends. The only friend from his old life he could think of who he had been closer to was Andi, and he hadn’t talked to her since his birthday — he chuckled before the thought could turn sad.
“What’s so funny?” Nikia leaned over him, trying to see what he had written so far.
“I was just thinking about stuff, and I thought about my time before here as ‘my old life. Isn’t that weird? It’s only been… What, nearly a month now?”
“That big of a change, it is a different life.” Nikia grinned. “Doesn’t matter how long you spend in it. For me, it’s been nearly two years, and everything before here feels like a million years ago. Could you imagine me doing testing? I would have pulled my hair out.”
“I have a friend…had a friend. She got that path, and really liked it.”
“Good for her,” Nikia said, clearly a bit annoyed. “But she’s not me. Have you thought about inviting her to anything? She probably just ended up convincing herself she liked it. We’re better judges of our own paths than the damn AI is.”
“I’ve thought about it,” Noah said as he nodded. “I just haven’t figured out how I would bring it up to her. Most people think I’m doing scribe work when I’m here.”
“You sort of are.” Nikia grinned. “Or, you sort of would be, if you were getting any work done on this speech.”
“I don’t see you doing anything!” Noah protested.
“I got food! That’s the most important job. And I’ve still got to organize the space for tonight. Last place fell through at the last minute.”
“Right, more important than the things Bartholomew will actually say,” Noah quipped as he scrolled down the talking points. “It’s good, but I think I actually have to cut some of this out. Make it more focused. We can always hold another rally, pick a different main topic for each one. As long as we reference the others in passing, it’ll create a through-line…”
“You’re thinking out loud,” Nikia said. “I’ll leave you to it. Good luck! And don’t screw it up!”
Noah looked around the table after she left. Everyone else was on research duty, hyper-focused on all the data the group had been gathering since long before they had invited Noah in. Demographics. Who got what paths? Why did they get them? What were the trends in most common paths each year, and how did that relate to the leaders’ overall goals? Everything that Noah couldn’t believe he was never paying attention to before. They were building a narrative, a clear sign that certain paths were just there to placate. Some were there to keep balance. But most of them were there to keep everything the same — balanced, peaceful, straightforward. No real room for anything else, anything different. And they were going to change that here, from this little basement room at the end of an alleyway. Noah grinned, focusing back on his work. Sure, it was something close to scribe work, but it wasn’t just copying over passages for some haughty academic. He was putting together the words that Bartholomew would use to help change the world. The guys around him would have been stuck in data entry or double-checking computational values, but now they were helping piece together an in-depth exploration of their whole society. Their work was being valued for what good it could do, not the easiest way for them to fit into what some guy on top decided was needed.
A little over an hour later, Bartholomew arrived, and everyone in the room rose to greet him, shaking hands and exchanging jokes. Noah eagerly held up his screen as Bartholomew approached.
“I tried something new,” he said, explaining his process for putting together the speech. “I think this will help really clarify what we’re about if we drill in on a different subject each time.”
“I like to make sure we cover all our bases,” Bartholomew said, squinting at the screen.
“We will. Everything gets mentioned, but since you were really focusing on the data we’ve gathered last time, I thought this speech would focus on phase one of the plan, which is getting like-minded folks elected. Next week, we could talk more about what we’ll do, and then — ”
“Different than what I normally do, but I’ll give it a look over.” Bartholomew smiled. “Send it to me, alright? And I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight!”
“Looking forward to it, too,” Noah said, watching him go. Bartholomew then stopped to talk to Nikia, who arrived with news about the new rally location, before heading up to the rooms he kept above their meeting place. Noah felt a spike of jealousy.
I need to call Andi, he thought. But one of the guys called him over to help explain some data sets someone had tracked down, and he found himself busy until the rally that evening. Some of the team — that’s what Bartholomew had been calling them all now, the team — had been scouting the city for people who might be interested in their ideas. Noah would be helping them out next week, now that he had been prepped on all of their talking points. The turnout was pretty good, though not their largest, and Noah made his way through the crowd until he stood by Nikia.
“Are you excited?” Nikia asked, craning her neck to see Bartholomew readying himself on the platform.
“I think it’s going to go really well,” Noah answered. “I can’t wait to see how my speech goes.”
After a few minutes, the room quieted at Bartholomew’s hand. As he started speaking, a projection appeared behind him, blowing up his face larger so anyone in the room could see clearly. Bartholomew went through the normal welcomes and introductions, and then he launched into the speech. Noah couldn’t stop himself from grinning, and he felt a shock as Nikia squeezed his hand and smiled encouragingly.
And as he listened, he realized it wasn’t his speech that he was hearing.
Noah watched Bartholomew in confusion. He was giving the same speech he had weeks ago — the first one that Noah had ever heard, in fact. The same old thing. Some in the crowd would have heard it before, but it was likely new enough for most of them. Noah stared down at the ground, pulling his hand away from Nikia’s, feeling his face redden and his stomach drop. Why wasn’t Bartholomew using his speech? Why let him work all day on it and then ignore it? It was something new, but it wasn’t that different. It would have worked. He turned and ducked and weaved his way out of the room, his heartbeat pounding in his ears.
Noah emerged on the street. It was past the dinner rush, but hundreds of people still filled the busy avenue, off to their evening entertainments, off from late shifts, or just out to move around. The various fashions and augmentations made it a busy, colorful mass, and he tried to get lost in people-watching. Physical upgrades were becoming more and more popular, people replacing arms and legs with pseudo-mechanical ones that could make them stronger, faster, or just stop the arm cramping from all day in front of a screen. For a second, he thought of just walking into the crowd, letting them carry him wherever they wanted, get on the first transpod line he saw and ride it until the end like he had before.
“Noah.” It was Nikia, her voice worried. “Why did you leave like that? It looks bad, people leaving during Bartholomew’s talks. You look like someone who disagrees with him.”
“Why did I leave?” Noah snorted. “You heard that. It wasn’t the speech I prepared. He gave that one weeks ago.”
“You’re not always going to get it right on the first try,” she said, leaning her head on his shoulder. Noah looked down, a faint smile on his face, though he couldn’t help feeling he should step away. She wore her hair in dozens and dozens of little braids, lines of spark-bright silver and gold woven through them. He ducked his shoulder down and turned to face her.
“Why didn’t he just tell me he wouldn’t use it? Or tell me not to do my own thing? When he gave me the job, he told me to make it my own. I did that, and then he thanked me for it, and ignored it!”
“Would you have had time to redo it before the speech? If he had told you?”
“No,” Noah admitted.
“Right. Bartholomew has been doing this for a long time. He knows what works and what doesn’t — it’s not your fault for not knowing. You’ll get it right next time. It’s just your pride talking, Noah.”
Noah laughed, harsh and short.
“What?” she asked, her eyes going wide as she ducked her head down.
“No, it’s not you,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve just heard that before…before I ended up here. I’m sorry for losing my cool.”
“I’ll wait out here with you,” Nikia said softly and smiled. “And when they’re done in there, we’ll join the others, okay? It’s always a party after a rally. You’ll feel better with a few drinks in you.”
“You’re right. Thanks, Nikia,” he said. They watched the road together; the buzzing of the neon lights a soft background to the rush and chatter of the people moving through the city. Noah did feel a bit better, but it still stung. And he couldn’t stop thinking about how he had wanted to leave, then, after Bartholomew had switched the speeches. Was it just his pride? Or was that a sign? Had he ended up at another dead end?
He needed to call Andi. She would know what to do.