Abelia tried to put aside her humiliation at having been mocked and ridiculed about her report, but it wasn’t easy with the other children hounding her about it at every opportunity both during school hours and afterwards on TREEfeed.
She’d decided then, for the past several days, to take an alternate route home and hopefully evade her tormentors. It seemed to be working, as they hadn’t found her yet. Someone else did, though.
As she cut through unfamiliar alleyways and walked streets she’d only been transported on, she felt watched. She couldn’t explain why, but she knew someone was following her.
Her suspicion was validated when a strange-looking transport unlike any she’d ever seen glided up beside her and slowed down to match her pace.
The thing was long, with strange fins on the back. It was black and shiny, and the windows were so dark she couldn’t see who was inside until one of them rolled down.
“Hop in, kid.”
It was a young man, maybe no older than 21. He looked familiar, but she could only see the bottom half of his face.
“Who… who are you?” she stammered, mentally preparing herself to break into a run.
The man leaned forward and then she knew why he looked so familiar.
“No way,” she whispered.
“Yes way,” said the man. “I’m a real person, believe it or not. I exist. I’m not just an image on feedscreens. I am…” He paused for a long time and then sighed. “The Prophet,” he mumbled, rolling his eyes. “Or the continuant of the Prophet, anyway. I will be the Prophet, someday. Number 50. Probably throw a parade in my honor, rewarding me just for existing.”
He snorted and looked away. “Continuants. I’m the only person on Ultimus who still has to reproduce that way, you know. It’s boring. I wish I could have my own identity, you know? Come on, hop in.”
Abelia had never seen the prophet in person before, or his continuant, probably because they rarely made public appearances. She supposed, though, that if she could trust any stranger, it would be a Kryuss. She boarded the transport.
There were two men inside with him–twins–and they neither spoke nor looked at her.
“You like?” asked Kryuss, caressing the plush upholstery of the seat beside him. “The design is based upon an old Earth luxury vehicle called a limousine. 42 came up with it. Dude was pure.”
Abelia was confused. “Pure?”
“Oh, sorry,” said 50, “I’m not used to conversing with people outside the Palatium. Inside talk. Prophet talk. Means you’re a lot like the First. The First liked all that old Earth stuff, and sometimes that pops up here and there in some of us.”
“Are you pure?”
50 laughed humorlessly and gazed out of his window at the fog-drenched jungle in the distance, beyond the twisting, jutting spires of Novae Terrae’s skyline.
Abelia was getting concerned now. They were exiting the city.
“Where are we going?”
“A little scimmon told me,” he said, leaning closer to her as he spoke, his voice softening, “that you’ve been to the whispering woods.”
Abelia was shocked. “How–how do you–”
“Some of your classmates have very well-connected predecs,” said 50 with a shrug. “They told them about your report in class the other day, and eventually the news made its way to my ears.”
Abelia stared at him in disbelief, her lips dipping their toes in the waters of a smile. “You… believe me?”
“Maybe. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve searched high and low for information about what happened to 28, and I’ve uncovered some things that seem to point towards 27 obscuring some of the facts related to his disappearance.”
“Like what?” Abelia asked, both intrigued by the unfolding mystery and ecstatic over the fact that an adult finally believed her. Well, sort of believed her. But that was better than being laughed at.
50 shrugged. “Oh, deleted TREE pathways, the vagueness of scrolls from that period, among other things. The scribes write down everything, and they always have. So, where are the scrolls? Stuff like that.”
Abelia sort of understood. “Oh. So where are we going?”
“You,” he said with a gentle shoulder poke, “are going to show me exactly where the whispering woods are. And then I’m going to find the living tree that is the 28th me.”
He must’ve seen the concern on her face, for before she’d had a chance to reply, he told her not to worry, that her predecs had already been informed that she’d been one of several chosen amongst all her peers to participate in a very special project for the Prophet himself.
She smiled, the reality of the situation suddenly sinking in. A special project for the prophet. Me.
“Wait ’til they hear about this at school!” she gushed.
“You can’t tell anyone,” said Kryuss. “This is a secret. I didn’t even tell 49 where I was going, because he wouldn’t understand. That’s why you’re the only person I brought. You can keep a secret, can’t you, Abelia?”
She nodded. She could keep a secret, especially for a Prophet.
“You know,” said 50, “I’m jealous of you. Of your life. It’s a lot of pressure on a kid, groomed from day one to be just like some guy who lived thousands of years ago. You have all these expectations placed upon you, and if you try to do something other than what they expect, the public crucifies you. It sucks.”
“Did you ever have bullies?”
50 shook his head. “No. No way. Of course not. Who would dare? I don’t even have any friends. All day long, I’m around people who practically worship me but… they aren’t my friends. They don’t know me. Nobody does. They think I’m who they want me to be. I wish I had bullies.”
“It’s not so great,” said Abelia. She nodded at the twins. “How do you know they won’t tell anyone?”
“Oh, these guys? They won’t do anything to violate their programming, and they are programmed to obey me without question. They’re robots.”
Abelia’s has dropped. “You mean they’re not real people? They’re machines?”
“Yeah. Cool, huh? This cyberneticist chick I’m seeing built them for me. Cutting edge stuff. You know, the First was experimenting with stuff like this back on Earth, integrating machines with TREE.”
She looked at their motionless, expressionless faces. “Do they have feelings?”
50 thought about this for awhile. “I don’t know, to be honest. I hadn’t really thought about it. I don’t even know if I have feelings.”
Abelia laughed. “Of course you do. Everyone does.”
“Oh yeah? Maybe I do, and I just bury them.”
“That’s really sad,” said Abelia, and the remaining hour of their ride to the outerlands was spent mostly in silence, with 50 staring out of his window and gnawing on his knuckle. Abelia watched the robots, waiting for some sign of movement. There was none.