The Journey to Ekur - Chapter 26
January 1st, 2022
Chapter 26:
Chapter 26:

Talia carefully clipped away an errant branch on the bonsai, sitting back with a satisfied sigh as she pulled the remains away. The tree had really come into its own over the last few weeks, and she was going to miss it when she left. Her bag sat on the bedside table, filled with the few belongings she had to her name at this point, and bundles of food that the boarding house owner had been preparing for her over the last two days. The city was pretty, but after enough time here, she knew the gardens were never going to be enough to keep her occupied. While the truck in the desert had been too much garden with too little tools, the garden here was too small, with too many tools and skilled caretakers. Still, some of what she had learned from chatting with a few of the men who tended the plants about oxygen supplementing would definitely come in handy back in the city.

She heard a soft knock on her door, and Sol poked his head in.

“Where’s Noah?” she asked.

“I’m not enough?” he joked, sitting down on a stool by the door. “He’s in another class. I talked to him about maybe coming with us, at least part of the way, but he doesn’t seem interested.”

“You don’t have to come with me,” Talia said. “Really. I can make the journey on my own.”

“I know,” Sol said. “And I’m grateful you waited a few more weeks for me. Do you think it’s been worth it?”

“It’s been reinforcing my decision, more than anything else,” Talia said. “Step one — you figure out how to trust yourself. What you want. Some of the books I’ve read here, they talk about how before the cities came to be, it wasn’t uncommon for parents to take the whole ‘you could do whatever you want!’ attitude with their kids.”

“Seems weird to think about,” Sol said. “My whole life, my parents knew exactly what I was going to do, and I figured they had probably guessed my life path right. They had, of course.”

“Yeah, but there’s another fact that they don’t talk about as much here,” Talia said. “I think that’s even more important.”

“What is it?”

“A lot of those same books, about people trying to do whatever they wanted? They failed. They didn’t have the persistence, or the luck, or the skill to do what they were trying to do. And sometimes, they got really frustrated over it, or as angry, as we all got before we left the city. It’s like tending the bonsai, knowing what to trim off, what to keep. We have to parse out what we keep from every place we’ve been.”

“It sounds straightforward, but it’s still a work in progress,” Sol said. “At least for me. I’m so used to their being one real option, and then I just either like it or don’t.”

Talia shoved an extra shirt in her bag, hanging her outer robe up in the closet. “Same. But I think we’ll have a better chance to explore our options in the cities. What are you thinking of doing?”

“I’m still considering,” Sol said. “I have an idea, and I think it might even be a bit of a compromise for my parents. I know that here they say ‘Do what you want and you’ll have a happy life’, but they clearly haven’t had to exist around my parents when they’re displeased.”

“Ha!” Talia laughed. “I’m grateful I won’t have to deal with that. Well, at least once we get past the whole me ducking and running thing,” she said, slinging her bag over her shoulder. “You ready to go?”

“Now?” Sol jumped up. “I’m only half-packed.”

“Then get to it,” Talia said. “I’ve got crops to grow.”

Sol left the room, his heart skipping with excitement. Talia had let him plan the route back. They were going to visit each of the tribes they had stayed with, even the one Noah had lived with, and a few more sites that the sages had information on. They apparently had a pretty good system for predicting the movements of the tribes after years of watching them from above. After that, they’d go to the halfway point between their two cities, then split up and head home. And then…well… Whatever came next.

Sol finished packing quickly, then wandered to the library, where he found Noah buried deep behind a stack of books. He pulled some out to make a little window, surprising his friend with a “Boo!”

“God, Sol, going to give me a heart attack,” Noah gasped then grinned. “Are you guys leaving?”

“Yeah. I’m going to miss you,” Sol said. “Last call to board the train.”

Noah shook his head. “I’m surer every day, Sol. I always thought about learning as being this outward activity or event — collecting information about the stars, about space, about whatever. I never really thought how much I didn’t know about myself. How did I think I was so right about so much for so long? Sure, I can memorize a bunch of formulas, but that’s just about how deep it got. I might be able to manage an experiment, but I don’t even know what’s worth looking for. I’ve got to figure that out more, before I can leave.”

“And all without the AI!” Sol said. “Could you have imagined researching without it back home?”

“You know, I would have said no, but I don’t think these are questions the AI can answer,” Noah said. “Our selves aren’t empirical, you know?”

“Yeah,” Sol nodded. “Well, you take care of yourself, alright? I’ll send word up this way as soon as I can. And if you ever do decide to come down from the mountain, you let us know, okay?”

“Sure thing. Can you get a word to my father?”

“And Andi,” Sol smiled. “You can trust us.”

“Safe journeys, my friend,” Noah said, standing and embracing Sol. “Don’t let Talia drive you mad.”

“We’ve got a bet going that she’ll manage to save my life twice before we get home,” Sol said. “So, I’ll take my chances.”

He left Noah at the library, sad to think it might be the last time they would ever see each other in person again. At least with Talia, even cities away, they would be able to video chat, from their home computers if not their AI augmentations. He looked down at his arm. He still hadn’t decided if he was ever going to put the thing back in or turn it back on. The people who stayed here didn’t, he knew, but he also knew how much of a hassle it would be without it in the cities. Was that a trade-off he was willing to make?

He had a few weeks to think on it still, Sol thought, as he met up with Talia at the house. She had gifted the bonsai back to the hostel-owner, who gave them both incredibly tight, and incredibly long, hugs before returning their integrations. Sol and Talia, both slipped them into their bags without a glance. They had already said goodbye to the other students the days before, and before long, Sol and Talia found themselves going down the path that wound back around the peak, walking against the guidance of the arrows.

“This will be good,” Talia said, humming to herself as she walked.

“Yeah,” Sol agreed.

Before they left the mountains, he led them on a little detour. The old man was nowhere to be found at his “hole,” but Sol left a large pile of supplies and food out on the stump next to a still-smoldering fire. Talia watched him, curious as he did it, but he didn’t explain. He had a feeling the old man wouldn’t appreciate Sol sharing his location with anyone else. A man’s house was his most sacred secret, after all.

Within a week, they were out of the mountains and had intercepted their first nomad tribe. They spent the next few weeks ping-ponging back and forth from tribe to tribe, Sol recording everything he could about each one, the different ways they all lived such similar, and yet such distinct lives. Talia tended to the occasional piece of tech different groups might haul around with them, earning them more than enough food and goodwill to keep them going as the weeks passed on.

Finally, after nearly two months in the desert, they reached the half-way point between their cities.

“What are you going to do?” Talia asked. “You never told me.”

“I’ll tell you if it works,” Sol said, hugging her tight. “You take care of yourself, okay? If things go well for me, I might be in your region soon.”

“Not thinking of becoming a farmer, are you?” Talia asked.

Sol laughed. “I wouldn’t dare. You’d beat me out for any job anyway.”

“That is true,” she nodded. “Alright. Until next time!”

Sol stood and waved until she was out of sight, tightening the straps on his backpack as he started his walk. He was not looking forward to the first part — his mother would cry, his sister, and father, and maybe even younger brother would get a good yell out at him about vanishing off the face of the earth. He was still nervous about having been tied to Dex’s work, and he hoped there would be some way around that, but if worse came to worst, he’d be back out in the desert again.

On the other side of the desert, Talia was almost skipping home, she was in such a rush. It was weird, she thought, how you sometimes needed so long to figure out such a simple thing. As much has the teacher had driven her crazy, he had been right. There was no reason why she couldn’t try to get another job. She had been setting her own limitations, or accepting the limitations she had been given were absolute when they weren’t. It might take a lot more work, and there was the chance that nobody at all would be willing to take her. She had to be okay with that, with that risk. But if push came to shove, she figured, she could turn to the desert — though this time, she’d bring plenty of her own tools.

Before she had left, she thought, she’d only had home to call her own. One place, one family, one set way of life. But now, whether it was Saleh’s tribe or the city itself, she had multiple lives, multiple places she could live, right at her fingertips. She had options. It had been a matter of walking out her door and realizing they were there.

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