Sol learned two things in rapid succession: he had severely underestimated the intensity of his family’s reaction to his absence, and, much to his relief, Dex and many of the others who had worked with him had been long since arrested. No more names, it appeared, had come forward. Sol wasn’t going to press whether or not his father had anything to do with that. He’d rather not know.
Once the crying, and fighting, and even the celebrating was over, he went to his father’s office. His mother was there fixing his father some tea, and his younger sister — who had started her own training since his disappearance, and didn’t see any reason why she should stop now — was working away furiously at one of the desks.
“Dad,” Sol said, steadying himself. “I want to work for you.”
His father and mother’s heads jerked up, a cautious smile spreading across his father’s face.
“I know you didn’t want to bring it up, because I left last time,” Sol said. “But I have a plan, and it’s a little different than what you had planned for me. I don’t want to be trained to take over the company. But I do want to be put in charge of the on-the-ground traders — the shippers and transporters. I want to lead them, and I want to travel with them.”
His father’s face betrayed a rush of emotion before he gathered himself and started to speak. “Sol, you have to know how happy I am that you want to work for the company, and I’m not saying that you wouldn’t be capable of that, but I think you could do so much more. You could play a much larger role.”
“I know how difficult the desert is now, and how much work it is to transport things,” Sol said. “I’ve built relationships with several of the tribespeople,” he continued as he pulled out his journal. “I’ve got information on who is more or less open to technology, who would be willing to pick up work moving tech for us, which tribal arcs tend to go in directions that are much more efficient than our own. I’ve even mapped out a large part of the oases, even the ones that aren’t always there. This is all information that we didn’t have before — at least not in this detail — and I got out there on the ground and figured it out. I want to expand this, and I can’t stay cooped up in the city. There’s not enough for me here. But I want to help out and help the company grow in a real way, not just acting as a figurehead while a board that knows a thousand times more than me about what we’re doing makes all the decisions.”
His father looked ready to object again, but Sol’s mother put out her hand, grabbing her husband’s arm and shaking her head.
“Okay,” his father said finally, nodding. “Okay. We can figure this out. We’ll have to do some groundwork first, and I’ll have to talk to the current team leaders, find one that fits best for you — ”
“Great,” Sol said. “Thank you, Dad. I’m willing to do whatever work needs to be done to make this work.”
“Words I never thought I’d hear from you!” his father laughed.
“Oh,” Sol said, as his father embraced him. “I also know of a trader woman, she’d be a great asset, Yara. And there’s this kid I really need to figure out how to get a game system out to. His name’s Tywin.”
“Whatever you want, son, we can make work,” his father said, letting him go and stepping back. “You were gone what, four, five months? But I swear you’ve aged more in that time than you ever have here.”
“It’s the desert sun,” Sol laughed. “It brings out the old man in you.”
It had taken her mother two days to stop crying in relief and another two weeks before her father would even let her think of doing anything besides be endlessly pampered by the two of them. They had taken the conversation about her not working for the family farm better than expected. This was helped along, no doubt, by the fact that she reassured them she’d still be willing to live at home, at least for the time being. She had charged up her integration the first night she was there, and felt a surge of relief as it booted up the next morning, the friendly chirp of its startup message giving her the sense that she was, really, at home.
Then, she had swiftly disabled the life path algorithm feature. It would still be a help in the farm, and she could still use it to communicate, but she didn’t need it analyzing and outputting on her every move anymore. If she really got stuck, she could always turn the thing back on. There were options.
After that came three days of pulling together every certification, every training class, all the experience she had ever had and organizing it into something that she hoped people would take the time to at least skim over. She practiced her opening pitches to her dad, who was happy to play the dubious but curious farm owners who she’d be trying to sell her abilities to. And then Talia did something new, something she learned from books she had read that hadn’t been feasible or even reasonable for people to do for generations upon generations… She hit the streets to look for a job.
Attention to detail being her favorite practice, Talia had worked out a list of all artisanal farms she believed could use some extra help, highlighting the ones where she had ideas for growth and improvement. The first four she visited wouldn’t even let her past the door when she couldn’t demonstrate a life path that aligned with the work, but the fifth at least let her talk to the farm manager. He hadn’t been willing to take the risk on her, but had given her the name of a friend who he explained was a little more “open” to giving people a shot.
Talia wondered why she hadn’t thought of this first, as she stood at the entryway to Rachel’s father’s farm. Their family had a more unusual setup. He and his wife both managed their own properties, the wife’s staple foods, and his, more artisanal. He shook her hand heartily as the entryway slid open.
“Talia!” he exclaimed. “You’ve been to Ekur!”
“How did you know?” she asked.
“The light in your eyes. And I did hear that you vanished for quite a few months there. Only tends to happen when people are looking for things they can’t find here.” He stepped inside, ushering her in.
“I got a life path for a staples farm,” Talia said. “But I thought you might be able to help me with that.”
“You mean, help you work here?” he sucked on his teeth for a minute, rocking back on his heels as he thought. “I’m not sure we really have many openings right now, I’m afraid.”
Talia felt herself deflate. If a man who had been to Ekur himself wouldn’t help her out, where was she going to find the option?
He noticed her disappointment; she wasn’t trying to hide it. “Look,” he said finally. “I can take you on for six months. You’ll help on the farm, but I’ll also have you help me around my office, on managerial stuff. Now, I know this probably isn’t the work you like, but it’ll give you the chance to meet other farmers alongside me. I can talk you up, build up your believability as a functional artisanal manager so that someone who needs your skills more can actually take you on without worrying about any life-path mismatch. Would that work for you?”
Her first instinct was a polite no, thanking him for the offer. She had walked for months. She had learned for months. She was ready to get into the work she wanted to do, now, even if it meant beating her head against people’s farms for weeks until someone let her in. Six months of office work to get there? Talia opened her mouth, took a deep breath, and made herself relax.
“Yes,” she said, putting out her hand. “That would be great. Thank you, sir.”
“Excellent!” he shook her hand again. “We can get started tomorrow. I’ll try and root Rachel out of wherever she’s hiding so you two can go out and celebrate. I know this might make your road a little longer, but your path was always going to be a curvy one, you know?”
“I’m realizing that,” Talia said. “Or, at least, I’m being reminded of it every day.”
“Ha! I know the feeling. I was supposed to be a maintenance tech, and look at me now! Took me nearly twenty years after Ekur to get here, but every minute of that made me better at what I do now. Plus, you get way better views on the scenic route. You’ve got the time for it.”
“I do,” Talia said, and it became true as she did so. “I do have time to get it right.”
“You ready?” Leon said, standing at the door to the boarding house.
Noah couldn’t stop fidgeting with his robe. Today was the day — he was graduating from apprentice to novice, something that was apparently pretty straightforward once you decided to stay in the city. But this was it. His dedication. After this point, Leon had explained to him, leaving the city wasn’t really just a matter of walking out one day. There were ceremonies and conversations and guidelines and everything that they could possibly make drag the whole thing out.
This was it. He had heard from his father, who had sounded cautiously optimistic, if a bit frustrated, about his son’s new life path. Noah wasn’t entirely sure how the man had known how to get word to him out here, but he was one of the leading scholars in the world. He could figure that sort of thing out. His mother was apparently less thrilled, but Noah had written back promises that he would figure out how to visit at some point, which he hoped would smooth things over. Since Talia and Sol had left, he’d started to have more and more ideas. There was still so much he needed to learn, but it was becoming more apparent to him every day that the thinking that was going on here needed to be more available in the cities. A lot of people might not even think to set out across the desert — why shouldn’t they have more power in picking their own path? When he’d mentioned it in passing to the Teacher, the man had simply shook his head and said that there was no man that could separate the knowledge from the journey.
But Noah could probably figure it out at some point, right? With some more study. There had to be a knack to it. Even just a little bit of it that he could bring back, to help out. Enlightenment shouldn’t just be cordoned off for those who had the time — or questionable sanity — for a death-defying journey across the desert, he’d told Leon, who had just laughed and told him he wasn’t sure Noah had ever really recovered from the heatstroke he must have suffered out there.
The ceremony was simple, as befitting the city. His teacher and everyone else who had helped him so far were there, including other students, other instructors, the woman who ran the boarding house, even the men and women that had hosted him and his friends at their restaurants and businesses.
His teacher stepped forward, Noah’s new robes in hand, their runic symbols standing out brightly against the fabric.
“Noah, do you promise to dedicate your life to understanding its intuitive mysteries?”
“Will you strive, through word and action, to live truly, free of the binds placed on you by others?”
“I do,” Noah said, as his teacher placed the robe around him.
“Will you, to the best of your ability, seek the truth?”
“Always,” Noah said, smiling as his teacher stepped back.
There was a moment of silence, and then Leon shouted out, “Welcome Noah!”
Noah turned and whooped, pumping his fist into the air. The other students gathered around him, cheering and hollering, while the teachers fell back, laughing to themselves at the young ones’ antics. Leon and two other students lifted Noah on their shoulders, carrying him down the center street to the tavern where they planned to celebrate long into the night. Noah looked around as they walked down the wide boulevard, the clean streets, the arching trees casting long shadows in the evening light. He was home, here, he thought. He was here of his own accord. And he would do everything in his power to make sure as many people as possible could feel the way he felt right now.