The Prophets Speak
Andrew Leon Hudson
Prophet Ability => Profitability?
Agnotious C. Clehrley scowled his way through the station crowds, his face a topographic map of angry contours. He was well ahead of schedule, his train wouldn't leave for half an hour yet; longer, if he felt like spreading some of his foul mood around.
He squinted up at the glare - no way could this day get any worse.He pushed his cap back, letting the air-con chill the sweaty tide-mark for a moment before screwing it down again tightly, dwelling yet again on the fact that his train would not be taking off this afternoon, that it would not soar through the skies like the spirit of freedom itself; that the amber wings sewn, spread, above his cap's plastic brim were simply the logo of AERAIL TRANSCONT, Inc. and not a proud badge of achievement. Never to be saluted. Never to be stared at in awe by a six year-old lad invited to a cockpit to experience a formative moment. Never to win one of a string of fleeting coital victories from air hostesses and breathy passengers alike. He was not a pilot, he was a driver. No-one would ever call him Captain, apart from that smart-mouthed, idiot-grinning conductor. Hell, he was more likely to be called a Brakes Technician for all the control he had over his route through life.
"Morning, Cap'n!" yapped the smart mouth. Agnotious grunted in return as his chirpy, blond conductor fell in beside him with wingman-like precision, smiling cheerfully both left and right. At least the crowds were parting quicker for the two of them. "Where to today, Aggy? Right between those rails, right?" The smart mouth laughed easily, as if he hadn't just reduced another man's whole life to a pair of parallel lines heading for a vanishing point of utter meaninglessness. Aggy tried not to bare his grinding teeth.
Down the escalators and out onto the sunlit platform, the heat hit him like a slap. Tender skin began to prickle immediately and now Aggy started sweating properly. He'd be in the shade soon enough though. Eight straight hours in his seat to look forward to, wet cooling in the crack of his pants as a chill straight from the Antarctic dryly circulated "for his comfort", and so he wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel - at the dead man's switch rather. He squinted up at the glare - no way could this day get any worse.
"Brothers, sisters," called the voice. Ah nuts, thought Aggy. Here we go.
The prophet wore his long hair in a tan-blonde ponytail, with a light beard attractively dusting his softly angular jaw line. His warm brown eyes looked with friendly intensity from face to face. He smiled with knowing sympathy at those whose gazes flinched nervously from his as quickly as they had alighted, or nodded with assumed camaraderie to those braver souls, even hostile ones like Aggy, who didn't look away. He was pleasing to look at, but in a vague sort of way and as always Aggy couldn't be totally sure that it was the same guy as the day before. Damn well kept coming back though, that was for sure.
"Brothers, sisters, I have words your hearts would hear. Pause a moment, if you may, for I will not take long and your train will not be leaving soon."
"Is, is that what passes for prophetic wisdom these days?" said Aggy, catching himself half by surprise. His conductor drew a nervous breath. Aggy's flagrant disregard for Aerail's "Sunshine" policy always put him on edge, and it wasn't as if he could even tell the guy off for it - Unhappy Employees Make Unhappy Travellers, as they had both recited in the past, and Aggy was his driver after all, bad natured or not.
"Oh, come on, Cap," he said, extra brightly, "He's doing no harm, I'm sure." Aggy let out a derisive grunt, but it was the prophet who spoke first.
"No, brother Tom, the Captain speaks well. Can there be a more needless activity than to fill thin air with empty words, unless it is to deliberately spread falsehoods in the name of truth? The burden is mine to be proven right and I eagerly accept the doubt of others, no matter how heavy that load becomes - for when the rightness of my vision comes to pass, the transformation of doubts into certainties will lift me like a feather on the summer winds!"
He ended this speech with his arms spread as wide as his beatific smile, and the three men now stood at the centre of a loose knot of observers, those on the outskirts peering to see what was happening. Aggy stared at the prophet in surprise, then turned to the smart mouth. "Is your name really Tom?" he asked.
"Yes it is, thank you," said Tom, hurt. They had only been paired together for approaching two years.
"I expect it will take more than one good guess to convince you though, won't it... Agnotious?" The prophet grinned.
"You could have got that from company records," Aggy scoffed, "anyone could."
"And it was not prophesy in any case," agreed the prophet. "Perhaps something..." His eyes fell closed and he stood for a moment in silent contemplation. The audience shuffled and murmured but Aggy kept his eyes firmly on target - not to spot some sleight of hand but because he didn't want to find anyone's amusement directed his way, smirking at his expense. The smart mouth... Tom was still flanking him.
"Let's go, that train won't drive itself," Aggy muttered finally, contrary to his own opinion; but at that moment, as if he had been waiting for that very cue, the prophet spoke.
Somewhere else, five banks of ten monitors bathed their operators' faces in a blue-green glow. They spoke into headsets, eyes occasionally flicking up to scan the huge wall screen opposite, which was divided into continental categories, each one filled with scrolling texts, constantly being replaced or updated.
The operator in row-three-booth-eight had been an unemployable Applied Physics graduate for three years before landing on her feet here. Above the many windows filled with scrolling text on her monitor (and the one featuring Agnotious's company record and employee photo) was the word "Philadelphia".
"The Phillies have signed promising rookie pitcher Jamie Jenkins of the Orioles for a record seventy-five, seven-five, million dollars," she read, then glanced at the main screen to check breaking global events. "A third aftershock in Japan, minor, no casualties." Back to her monitor. "Business: shares in Jacobson International Plastics rise 26 cents..."
"...And the earth will rise and fall again in a distant land," the young man continued. Some of the crowd had drifted but Aggy and Tom were still amongst the listeners. Tom was fidgeting now; it was a long walk to the engine up at the distant end of the platform and they were going to be actually late if they wasted much more time, but Aggy felt obligated to listen, even against his will. The prophet opened his eyes suddenly and looked at him. Aggy flinched.
"Do you invest, Captain?" he asked. "A quarter of Jacob's sons will rise as well. That's Jay Eye Pee," he added with a wink. The young man bowed his head for a moment and when he looked up he also held out a soft, colourful, hand-woven bag for donations. Aggy snorted, the spell broken.
"You're not getting my change for your old wiffle-waffle," he said, tugging Tom's sleeve as he started away. The train shone in the sun, a silver thread that would snake across the nation - just legally below the speed of sound - and be back before sunset, barring further delays.
"That's okay, Aggy," the prophet said to his back, a smile on his lips. "There's always another day, and change is, you know, inevitable." Aggy snorted again and didn't turn. Tom dropped a few small coins into the prophet's bag, hoping the faint noise went unnoticed by Aggy, then hurried after him.
"Oh, and wear a coat tomorrow," the cheerful voice added. "It's going to rain."
Thirty-six hours on the road, sort of, it ought to be good to be home, even if home was a twenty square metre box on the thirtieth floor. Aggy tossed his jacket over the chair back and went for a shower while the cooker rayed his dinner. There was more steam in his kitchenette than the bathroom cubicle when he emerged, clouding out of the tray slot like dry-ice at a nightclub. Have to get that fixed, he thought, again, gingerly pulling the meal out with a towel to save his fingertips.
He sat and flicked channels on the bedsitting-room wall for twenty minutes as his food cooled, but there was nothing on. Eventually he came to the news band, channel after channel of waving flags and action movie anthems: boring, boring, bland-business-news-boring. Resigned, he gave up, peeling the tray and waving away another little cloud of steam. On the wall two clones in grey suits with grey hair and grey skin were telling the underwear model anchorman how good things looked for the economy.
Aggy chewed his Chick-In-Pie™ and tuned out, staring through the ticker-tape scrolling over the bottom of the screen. GOL, GRD, GWW, HAN, HAR, HEC, ISL... then he paused, eyes tracking right to left until the legend JIP 142.03 +.26 vanished into the corner of the room behind his Plas-Authen-Tic™ cactus.
There was a clap of thunder outside his single opaque window, then it flickered at the flash of lightning. "Huh," said Aggy absently, as the downpour began. Ten channels over, at the start of the weather band, a Miss World runner-up was forecasting sun with absolute smiling certainty.
"We're on a three minute count to air, three minutes, count-and-mark -" Beep.
The message sounded from speakers in every part of the building except the one that mattered. Two men hurried towards that very room, one with fluttery little bird steps, the other with the charismatic stride of a person secure in his absolute importance. Other corridor users deferred reverentially.
"How's the line-up?" A rich voice, comforting, trustworthy. Award-winning.
"A great line up, just great, Greg, just great -"
"I'm not so sure, it felt stale this morning and only the time has changed. Give me the rundown."
"Okay, Greg, of course. Okay: starting with headlines, ad-break, then leading with the Presidential Response, expert commentary from Michael Haiyuns, ad-break, second tier starts with Japan -"
"Again? That's the third on the trot, there'll be nothing left of it this time next week. It's getting old, shuffle it to the bottom - but keep an ear out in case it sinks completely, that we'll go live with. Next?"
"The Rev. John James Faraway shouting down the hellfire about the conflict with -"
"No, no, no no no. He's becoming a cliché, this is no good. And after that?"
"Economic super-boom is forecast for -"
The two men stopped in the corridor - rather, the tall one stopped, thinking, and the other danced back and forth beside him, torn between a crucial spiralling lack of time and utter subservience to his master.
"Counting two minutes to air, two minutes, count-and-mark -" Beep.
"Good evening," said the most handsome and powerful man in the building."Hold it. Wasn't there something on the backup about someone, someone talking, a street preacher or something?" He frowned, staring into the middle distance. For a moment his aide marvelled at the same crafted lines which presented the dazzling illusion of interested focus, regardless of what an interviewee might be saying at that moment - then he snapped to it, tapping at his palm board, searching the entire mediabase for details of the story. Then he scurried to catch up as his boss strode ahead again.
The lift doors at the head of the corridor glided open for them. The taller, elegant man checked out his various reflections in the mirrored doors and walls as they descended. The palm board chirped.
"Okay, I got it: three weeks ago, some guy shows up in Baltimore spouting what are described as perfectly accurate predictions on all sorts of topics: local and international news, politics, financial, the weather, you name it - and, it looks like he's moving around the country, we've got mentions of the same from New York, L.A., Boulder, Philly... lots more - he's a rover."
"Same guy?" Now there was a hint of that smile, that heart stopping charisma.
"Good looking, pony-tail, ah... hippy-ish outfit. I guess so."
"Right, bump the earthquake coverage to backup and let's take this as a surprise second tier between the Pres and the Rev, call it The Only Man Who Knows The Score, watch the networks scramble, eh?"
"It'll be great, Greg, fantastic!"
"Counting one minute to air, sir, that's just one minute to air, are you -" Beep "- on your way, sir?"
"Get that running order to the dee's box now, move it move it." He slipped a sliver of plastic from his flawless suit jacket, flicking it open with the coolest of flicks. "To, Dan. Don't worry about me, you just make sure things are go at your end, okay? New schedule coming to you and you'd better move it move it, I'll need something to read straight after the first ad break. Earn your bucks, buddy. Send." He coolly flicked it closed and slipped it away again, watching his gofer hop off down the corridor. Past the door.
His door. He opened it. His studio. This psychic thing could be good. His crew. It was human, far more so than the usual personality crap, it could run. His desk. He sat behind it and blanked his mind.
"Count for twenty." Up in the box, Dan the studio director glanced around at his team and saw everyone in place. At the monitors, all angles covered. Through the window and down at the desk, and there he was, settling into his seat and ready to go. A door opened and the gofer entered, twitching, holding out his board urgently. Dan waved him to a seat and held up five fingers.
"Count for ten, sync music, sync vid, prep anchor, up fade and play all for five... four... silent..." and... smile... God, he thought. The man's like a machine. It's beautiful.
"Good evening," said the most handsome and powerful man in the building. "I'm Greg Torrent and this, is Channel Pi News."
Nine Months Later
The data centre had grown. An indoor ziggurat beneath four giant sloping wall screens, each face held ten rising ranks of monitors like the steps of a pyramid, twenty on each bottom row, eleven on the top, over six hundred in total. Audio baffles muted the chatter of neighbouring operators from each other, though the regional supervisors sitting in the small lounge on the top of the pile could stream any one operator's voice on demand. Mostly they didn't, just keeping one eye on the auto-transcripts updating on their lap boards and another on their respective donation logs.
"They're generous in Australia today," said Oceania, for whom Applied Physics was now just a hobby.
"Good for you," grunted Americas. "There's too much competition for quarters in North, what with all the homeless, the unemployed, and the church. And in South, well, no-one's got anything."
"Which is exactly why you guys consistently get the most positive feedback. Put a sock in it."
Americas grinned. "Yeah, I know." He held out a hand and Africa high-fived it. They all looked up at a sudden chime followed by a low humming, then a section of floor in the corner of the lounge rose into the air, opening onto a small elevator. A familiar face emerged and smiled at everyone.
"Hey hey, look who it is!" called Americas. "Let me get you a drink. Oh, and... how are the prophets?"
"I was just about to ask you the same thing!" quipped the prophet, and as had become ritual the others chimed in with a laugh. They all got to their feet and shook hands in turn. "Seriously, how's tricks?" the prophet asked.
Europe dropped back onto his beanbag and tapped at his lap board. "Looking pretty good, to be honest. Since the last quarter we've been seeing a steady increase across the board - even in the US, not that he'll admit it. If it keeps on like this, by the end of the financial year we'll be up to our neck in pocket money. Unless you wanted to expand again, of course."
"That's the plan. In fact, that's why I'm here. We're about to double - we've just finished construction on a second data centre, in Kyoto. It's going to handle Asia exclusively. We're going to need experienced brains to get it up and running... from the looks on your faces, I'm guessing someone kept her secret."
"You complete bitch!" cried Oceania, throwing a cushion at Asia, who batted it away with her lap board, giggling. "I knew it, I just knew it!"
"Great - we're always looking for someone with a talent for premonition. We were thinking, how do you two feel about co-heading the new team?" The prophet winced, then turned to the others and tried to make himself heard over the chorus of delighted squealing. "As for you guys, no big move I'm afraid. But this centre becomes dedicated to all the other regions and we'll be doubling staff in the field. So, you go to senior supervisors and see about sourcing some new guys from down there on the slopes, okay?"
"You got it, your holiness." Americas wore a sly, appraising smile. "That's the line now, did you hear?"
The prophet sighed theatrically. "Yes, I did, but that was always going to be on the cards. It's just a case of waiting and seeing who's the lucky winner." He shrugged, then separated Asia and Oceania and slung one arm each around their shoulders for a hug. "Come on. Let's have that drink you mentioned."
Greg Torrent fixed his audience with a gigawatt gaze and nodded tersely. "Welcome back with Channel Pi and, news today of, growing concern about the, self-professed prophet sighted, touring the nation. Unconfirmed reports have also surfaced placing him in, Mexico, Argentina, several of the former Brazilian city states and - although I repeat this is, not confirmed - in the New Russia. Here with me we have, Michael Haiyuns of the Dog-Watch-Dog watchdog association and, Reverend J. J. Faraway, charismatic preacher and of course spokesperson for the Church of the Intra-Faithual Coalescence. But first we go live to, Hammond Strichter on the scene of the, alleged seer's most recent sighting. Hamm?"
"Thanks Greg, I'm here at the -"
Torrent mentally muted him and stepped on the quick-cut pedal, silencing his live mic and opening a line to the director's box while simultaneously activating a CG loop of himself nodding seriously in case of unexpected cutaways - the same image which mouthpieced Channel Pi's various 24 hour-a-day automated newscasts. "Are they both in place, Dan?"
"Sure thing, Greg, they're in the green booths and ready to go."
"They'd better have something poisonous to say. I don't like this story, Dan. You know why."
"It's a blip, Greg, just a blip, nothing more, nothing to worry about, just a blip, seriously, don't get yourself worked up, it's only a blip -"
"If you don't stop reassuring me, Dan, you're going to find yourself on the fucking street and you can go talk to this asshole direct and ask him what the deal is stealing my god-damned wind." Dan shut up, but Greg continued brooding, oblivious to Strichter's inane babbling in the background.
The prophet gave a benign smile and Greg felt himself bristling.Ratings had dropped. Greg's ratings had never dropped, not one point since he took over as anchor, not beyond a plus-minus point-oh-five percent fluctuation that could easily be blamed on technical outages. They had always risen. They only hit a plateau when the researcher department announced there were no more households in the civilised world lacking a web feed, and with Channel Pi effectively the default information provider for the globe, everyone else in the industry had to scramble to repeat whatever Greg said was the news.
Yet now, a drop. A consistent drop, for over three months... approaching one whole percent. Not just on the artificial feeds, but even a drop in Greg's personal rating. Amongst the world's mere broadcasters, tethered to their pathetic national and regional concerns, it was worse - staggering plummets, tens of percents, all over.
All because of that damn-
"Greg! Greg!" Dan's voice broke though and he blinked. "Wake up! Look at the feed! Strichter!" Greg turned to his sub-desk monitor, where a shaking camera POV showed Strichter's meticulously coiffed nape jostling its way through a tightly packed crowd. And at their centre, a glimpse of - Him.
"I can see him, he's talking!" Strichter's mic was buffeting against the bodies of the crowd with a mix of annoying unprofessionalism and pleasing authenticity, the excitement in his voice much the same. "I'm almost at the front now - excuse me, Channel Pi - coming through - shift it!" Strichter broke into a circle of emptiness surrounding the prophet, who paused to look at him with what appeared to be an air of pleasant surprise. The crowd closed ranks and the cameraman failed to join him, having to settle for aiming his lens between their heads as best he could.
"Hello, Hammond," said the prophet. "How is Greg?"
"I'm Ham- Hammond Strichter of Channel Pi news," Strichter barked redundantly. In the studio, Greg scowled. "How do you answer charges today that you are endangering the lives of ordinary decent citizens with baseless claims for some kind of religiously fundamentalist, er, predictionalism, while extorting money that their desperate families need to support themselves in these times of financial instability?" Greg brightened. Maybe the man had a future as a reporter after all. If they worked on his vocabulary.
The prophet gave a benign smile and Greg felt himself bristling. "Hammond, I only ask for voluntary donations in return for the service I provide and, well, if you'll pardon the pun, it's all done strictly non-profit. As for your kind implication regarding my deep spirituality... I make no claims of divinity. I simply tell it like it is, and I think my record for accuracy is spotless. Ask anyone here, I'm sure they will agree."
There was an outrageous murmur of confirmation from all around; then worse, laughter, as the prophet added, "In fact, I predict that Mr. Torrent will have something to say about all this any second now!"
Greg stamped on the other pedal under his desk, the feed overrider, force cutting back to himself. "Thanks Hammond. We're back now with Mr. Haiyuns and Rev. Faraway, gentlemen, welcome." He stamped on the quick-cut peddle again just long enough to bark, "I'm out of here, Dan!"
Up in the box Dan and his crew scrambled to connect the appropriate feeds, materialising the guests from their booths into the virtual studio opposite Greg's desk. "Thank you, Greg," they chorused.
"Michael, let me start with you. This prophet: dangerous lunatic or unstable victim of his own delusions?" Greg leapt out of his chair without waiting for the answer and stormed from the studio, leaving his CG persona to deliver the other questions from the script. Neither of his guests, nor his gradually dwindling share of a shamefully disloyal audience, had the slightest idea he was gone.
Four Months Later
The two men settled into their seats with a shared sigh. It had been a long day and the lights in the room were comfortably low, leaving both men barely more than silhouettes. "So, how was your trip?"
"Nice. It's a pretty country, you know, when you can get past all the problems. I think we can help make a real difference. Anyway, how are things looking contribution wise?"
The other waved at the wall beside them and a small screen came to life, streams of text and numbers washing up and down it. "Incoming, better than good. The average donation is rising every day. People everywhere like this interaction, the personal quality, and they are happy to pay for it. The fact that we aren't scheduling their information for them or pushing some agenda seems to make all the difference. Not dropping a story because it makes bad copy or doesn't meet some vague criteria of entertainment value. And there's no adverts, of course. Plus at our current rate of recruitment we'll have to start up a third data centre before next summer; but we can already afford to do so without impacting our other operations. The profits, as they say, speak for themselves."
"We really need to get a new head of comedy around here. And the Outgoing?"
"Well, good and less good. Anonymously, we're now outspending two-thirds of the world's states on education, and in the last week alone we've started supporting eight new junior schools and four more adult education centres. Unfortunately, the reason for that is the move towards accredited donations. We're only testing the waters so far, but we've lost a few schools putting a name to the wallet. People are happy to take mystery money, but when these boards are actually facing someone across the table they want to know what axe you're grinding."
"We aren't grinding anything. Except unbiased education."
"Say that, they get more edgy than if you start praying at them. And the church-sponsor representatives, they hate it! With no strings-attached cash, we're threatening their charitable stranglehold. So, they do everything they can to sow seeds of doubt amongst the decision makers, asking what do we really want, etc. And they aren't above making direct threats too, loss of Holy favours, scare them into line."
"So, no change there then."
"If it's worked for centuries..."
"You make it work for you too. Pity we have to go down this path, but sometimes it's true: you do have to give the audience what they want, at least until they don't want it any more."
"Yeah, well. Only that one thing left to get the snowball really rolling, but I guess we know now. It's going to be in America. You owe me a few bucks, pal. Do you know who you want to handle it?"
"Actually, I thought I'd do it myself. I don't think I'd feel comfortable giving it to anyone else. Besides, I've got a small head, and every little helps. Who knows..." They stood up and embraced.
"Greg, it's just a - an honour to speak to you!"
Greg relaxed into the world's most expensive chair and smiled generously. The walls of his suite were blank. He spoke into his own phone for that intimate touch.
"Thanks, Hamm, really - and I just want to say it, I think you've got a great future ahead of you."
"Oh - I don't - thanks!"
Greg didn't reply straight away and could almost hear the cold sweat forming on the other end of the line. "Hamm, we've got a real problem with this guy, you know? Him. There are reports, not just in the US, but all over now - he's spinning his webs and people are getting caught up in them, you know?"
"Whoa. That's... that's, like..."
"I need to know that you're the man to handle this story, Hamm."
"I am, Greg, I promise! I've got it covered every way!"
"I know you have, Hamm. But listen: as a reporter, and when the time comes, as an anchor, it's important to know when to report the news, and when to make it."
"Sometimes, reporting the news is about saving lives, Hamm."
"And sometimes, saving lives means making a real sacrifice. If you know what I mean."
"I... I do, Greg."
"Have you ever been to war, Hamm?"
"Well then. All I can say is, when you get that chance, for an exclusive, one off, final interview - Hamm? Make me proud. Goodbye, son." Greg hung up and awarded himself a private Pulitzer for Best Anchor.
"It's been three days since the stunning, alleged murder of the, so-called prophet by former Channel Pi news reporter, Hammond Strichter. Later we'll be going to the Bush Secure Psychiatric Prison Facility for a, live interview with Strichter himself prior to his, key evaluation at the end of the week - and we'll be speaking with the good Reverend John James about, the support he hopes to lend to Strichter's cause."
"Back after, these messages." Greg smiled perfectly. Ratings had soared. He listened to Dan's quiet chatter in his ear, running an eye over the text on his backup prompt while he waited for the break to end - then Dan paused. Then he said something Greg couldn't make out. His voice sounded... bad.
"Greg, we've got to come back on right now."
"Dan, this is the ad break. We don't interrupt the ad break."
"We're going live in five, text on the prompt. Look fucking serious, man."
Greg didn't have to. Interrupting the advert break? The sponsors would kill them all, starting with their children. "We interrupt these messages - these extremely important messages," he ad-libbed, "to go live to... to where..." Greg read it again. "To, to go live-" Dan cut him off mid-word, but Greg didn't even notice, just turned immediately to his monitor to watch. It was Angela Voney.
She had to shout to be heard. "I'm Angela Voney reporting, live at the scene of the, death of the man they were calling, The Prophet Of Washington where this, massive, crowd have gathered to witness, the impossible. Because here, not two minutes ago - wait - wait..." Behind her tall, blonde bouffant hairdo the crowd was quietening. The camera's POV rose, lifted to look out over their heads - then, from the centre, like an expanding ripple on the surface of a pond, the people began to sit, right there in the street, spreading towards the outer edge, closer, closer, until the only other person still standing was - the prophet.
Silence. Then he turned once on the spot, slowly, to look out at them all.
"The rumours," he said, "of my death are, as they say, not really newsworthy." Just for a moment, he seemed to look straight into the camera. Then he waved. "So let me tell you something that is." He smiled, brilliantly, then began to spread some good news.
Back in his studio, a line of saliva leaked from Greg Torrent's slack mouth onto his tie, unnoticed by all.
One Month Later
The prophet led the newbie - subscriber, pre-convert, whatever - it would please the press no end if we called them initiates, he thought - into the spacious lounge, pointing out various features in passing, watching amused from the corner of his eye as the youngster stared at some other prophets, relaxing and chatting and staring peacefully out through the floor-to-ceiling window wall at the mountains and trees, or the animals grazing by the waterfall lake.
"Nice, isn't it?" he asked. His voice was deep, with just the hint of an accent.
"They all look like you," the newbie replied. "I mean, sure, you're black, and some of them are - he's Japanese, look, that one - but you all look alike. I mean, I never really believed..."
"We'll both dress up Oriental and go check out the fount of civilisation...""In the much fabled Conversion? That's where we're going now," said the prophet. He grinned at the newbie's suddenly wide-eyed expression and stopped walking. "Don't worry, kid, it doesn't hurt. We only call it that to give the media a shred of truth to hang their paranoia on. It is a part of the deal - everyone working in the field has to toe the company line, so to speak - but there's more than a little leeway; as you noticed yourself, we embrace all nationalities. Take me: I wasn't always this beautiful, chocolate flavoured god you see before you; my mother's side were Norwegian originally. I just really wanted to visit Africa, so that's where they sent me. Properly prepared, naturally."
"Well, maybe not," he admitted with another grin. He indicated the way and led the newbie out of the lounge and down a clean pale corridor. "But there's no questioning the freedom. You get to travel, to see the whole world if you want, and you're helping do good wherever you go. I've been thinking about a change myself recently. Maybe the exotic far east. China would be interesting. Ah, here we are."
Between a coffee machine and a ceramic drinking fountain was what looked like a tanning bed, hip-high beneath an opaquely glowing white domed lid. Just waiting for them there, halfway down the corridor - opposite the door to a unisex toilet. Like it wasn't very important. The newbie looked further down the way to a junction, nervously. A couple of prophets crossed it; one of them noticed his nervous stare and gave him a thumbs up. He looked back to the prophet - his prophet - this one.
"Man, I'm shitting myself a bit." The prophet patted him on the shoulder sympathetically.
"I know, don't worry. I was too, the first time. My whole identity is going away, who will I be, oh my god, oh my god! But really, don't worry. It only takes about fifteen minutes, it's only cosmetic, and it's entirely reversible. Seriously, I went back and forth for two hours when I joined up, just to make sure it always got me right. I used to put my old face back on like clocking off at the end of the day; this is just the uniform after all. But after a while, you know. Now I only bother if I'm going on holiday.
"Look, I'll tell you what: I'm going to be coming out with you while you find your feet anyway and I'll have to put my old face back on to blend in. Can't have two of us in one place at the same time. Why don't we just give you something nice and Apple Pie for now, and when you've got up to speed with the spiel and everything we'll both dress up Oriental and go check out the fount of civilisation for a few months - how does that sound?"
"I don't speak Mandarin."
"Wŏ bù xué wú shù," the prophet deadpanned. "Well, we can decide later. Hop on."
The newbie did, still nervous, looking about at the narrow compartment as he lay back. The prophet started tapping at the controls. As he reached up to close the dome the newbie took his arm lightly.
"You okay?" the prophet asked.
"Yeah, yeah, but..." The newbie swallowed, then squared his jaw. "I'm good. I just wanted to say..." He held out his hand to shake. "The name's Thomas... Tom."
Aggy smiled and took his hand. "I know," he said. "I remember."
© Andrew Leon Hudson 2011 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 11:01 Sat 10 Dec 2011
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