The outerlands were rich with the not-unpleasant scent of decaying vegetation. The vast network of gnarled, tightly interwoven tree limbs that spread across them like a massive canopy of tangled wires was so dense that day became as night upon entering.
It was a dangerous place, a place little girls shouldn’t have been permitted to wander around in, and 50 said so.
“I know what I’m doing,” said Abelia as they hiked across a mossy blanket of rotting leaves, their path illuminated by the glowing blue mushrooms that dotted everything. The two robots walked behind them in silence.
“Bet the soil here is rich,” remarked 50. “It’s almost magical, in a way. No wonder 28 was drawn to it. He was a magician, you know.”
“An occultist. Like Aleister Crowley. At least that’s who he compared himself to. You know anything about Aleister Crowley?”
Abelia shook her head. “No.”
“Look him up sometime, it’s interesting reading. Guy was a total lunatic. 28 was obsessed with him.”
“We’re getting closer,” said Abelia. “Can you feel it?”
“It’s getting colder. The Whispering Woods are cold.”
“Now that you mention it,” said Kryuss, “I am a little chilly. I thought it was all in my head.”
“It is,” said the little girl. “But it’s not.”
“That’s pretty cryptic. I think I know what you mean, though.”
They continued walking for a few minutes until the little girl stopped and motioned for 50 to do the same. “Can you hear it?”
50 listened. “Yeah. I mean, I can’t, but I can. I can feel it. So many voices… but it’s like… it’s like they’re speaking in feelings. But through smell. What is that lovely smell?”
“It’s the fruit,” said Abelia, beaming. She was pleased that someone else had now experienced the feeling smells, and she hugged him, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Hey,” said 50, patting her awkwardly on the back, “it’ll be okay.”
She sniffled. “I’m just so happy someone believes me.”
“Let me tell you something,” he said, holding her at arms’ length with his hands on her shoulders. “Most humans are shortsighted fools. A scant few aren’t, and you’re among them. Those people whose opinions you value so highly are inferior to you. You were right. They were wrong. Never forget that. Ever.”
Abelia smiled. “Really? The Prophet thinks I’m smart?”
50 winced. “As I said, I’m not the prophet… yet. I want to stay me as long as possible. How do I find out which one of these trees is 28, anyway?”
“Listen for it. It will call to you.”
50 shrugged; closed his eyes. His fingers curled into fists, he concentrated hard, trying to isolate a single voice from the cacophony of whispers.
Abelia watched as he stumbled forward, arms outstretched. He found the tree he was looking for, and placed his hands upon the jagged, almost stone-like bark that covered its trunk.
The fruit hanging from its branches, which was yellow, oval-shaped and palm-sized intensified in smell, shimmering as it did so.
“Yes,” he breathed, his eyes still closed. “This is him. You’re right–I can tell.”
Abelia listened too, and soon became overwhelmed by a feeling of utter hopelessness, as if all good thoughts and feelings were being sucked out of her soul. She and 50 were both crying.
“So long,” whispered 50. “Centuries. Alive and aware, paralyzed and screaming in silence.” He stepped back, his face ghostly pale in the glow of the mushrooms. “We’ll get you home, my friend.”
“I don’t think you can get him out of there,” said Abelia. “There’s not enough of him left.”
“His mind is intact,” said 50. “If I can extract that, I don’t need any part of his original body.”
“And where are you going to put it? In a jar? What good would that do?”
50 stopped, turned around and looked at the twins, who froze in place. “In a body like one of these,” he said.
“You can do that?”
“Not yet,” said 50, “but we’re getting there.”
He plucked one of the fruits from a nearby branch and studied it.
“Don’t eat that!” warned Abelia.
“I’m not an idiot,” said 50, and hurled the fruit at one of his robots, who snatched it out of the air without flinching.
Turning back to the tree, he said, “I have so many questions to ask you. And the others, too. Who are all of these people? How did they come to be here?”
The leaves of the 28 tree rustled, shaking loose several small winged creatures who screeched in protest and fled to other trees.
“It doesn’t like that question,” said Abelia as an intense sense of something like dread mixed with anger washed over them. “Did you feel that?”
“Yeah,” said 50, backing away from the tree. “I did. And I didn’t like it.”
He turned to the robots. “Began the extraction process. And be very careful.”
To be continued…