The train ride though the tunnels and valleys of the Fifty Peaks Mountains was uneventful and Will dozed much of the way. He was wakened by Bug just as the train was pulling into Great Roll Station.
“Hey, Kid, time to get up. The Prof says we have time to pick up some coffee on the way to the shopping lines.”
Will stretched as he stood up. “OK.” He then looked around and added, “Where’s the Professor?”
The gnome grinned. “He said he wanted to get off the train first to make sure the photographers got his good side. Just between you and me, I think he’s enjoying being famous.”
“Do you really think there’s going to be photographers waiting for us?”
Bug snorted. “In Great Roll? Hardly. Most of these folks have only a vague awareness the war is actually over.”
“But, there were gnomes fighting, and a lot more at the coronation. And haven’t they heard about all the refugees going home?”
“I guess,” Bug replied with a shrug. “But for ordinary folks, kid, news travels slow through the mountains. And Great Roll is the end of the line.”
“Kid, the average gnome in Great Roll is happy for the rest of The Realm is exist. Just as long as it exists someplace else. Dealing with the outside world is what the gnomes up the line are for.”
“But the Mayor was at the coronation!”
“Him? No one cares much about him. The city runs better with him out of town, I’m sure.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Neither do I, kid, but it’s the way things have been as long as I remember.”
Bug motioned Will to the door. “Now let’s get down to the platform before the Professor starts insisting commuters take his picture.
Will smiled and slipped past Bug on his way out the door. He made his way down to the platform, and was shocked by what he saw. Marching through Great Roll Station was sea of pointy-hatted gnomes. Despite all the momentous events going on in The Realm, for Great Roll it was just another ordinary day. With the notable exception of Nobody demanding to give an interview to a nervous couple while blocking their escape on the escalator.
“I’m famous, you know? I make chips! And my daughter is the Sovereign of The Realm, and I sent my son-in-law to import the Prophet of Narrative to The Realm. It was all very important. Ah, and here they are now!”
Nobody waved Bug and Will over to his captive audience. As they approached their nervous grins faded and the color drained from their faces.
“But… that boy is a wizard?”
“Well, no. He’s actually from the shops, and we’re returning him home today. He only looks like a wizard. He’s really a prophet. Isn’t that nice?”
“I think we need to go now,” squeaked one of the accosted gnomes as the pair pushed past Nobody and fled up the escalator.
“But… wait!” the academic called after them, “What about my interview!?”
“Prof, I don’t think they were reporters.”
“No? How odd. Being famous is much more difficult than I thought it would be. Perhaps I’ll just go back to the lab.”
“That might be for the best.”
“In fact, I was just imagining a new combination cookie cutter and baking oven. I’m certain I have the AI formula right, but I need the materials.” The gnome looked up at Will with hopeful eyes, “Will, do you happen to have any plutonium in your room?”
The teen’s eyes widened. “Uhh… noooo.”
“Ah, well. No matter. I suppose I can find some other material to combine with the rubber chicken. Shall we go? I believe there are six Apollo’s on the way to the shopping lines and Bug would like to stop at three of them.”
“Five,” Bug corrected, winking at Will. “Sindy’s back at The Throne so I’m indulging.”
Will grinned, “So why stop at five?”
“All things in moderation kid. Let’s get going.”
The trio ascended an escalator and emerged into the main concourse of Great Roll Station. Here the sea of pointy-hatted gnomes was even more dense, and most only gave Will a passing glance as they noticed the teen towering over the crowd.
As they exited the station and stepped out on to the sidewalk, Nobody took the lead and guided his companions through the streets of Great Roll. They hadn’t gone three blocks before they came to the first Apollo’s Coffee and ordered their drinks.
“Ahh. I missed this,” Bug mused as he savored his first sip. “The outside world is great, but they don’t know spit about coffee.”
“I got a large!” Nobody declared as he emerged from the store. He lowered his voice as he added for Bug, “Is that OK?”
“Well, maybe you’ll just order smalls from here on out.”
“Hmmm, yes. That sounds good.” With that the Professor turned back up the street and moved forward once more, taking long gulps from his cup as he stepped.
“Bug,” Will whispered after a few more blocks 1. “Is it just me, or is the Professor getting…. goofier?”
His friend sighed. “It’s the proximity to the Applied Imagination field. It helps him come up with some great insights, and he makes some amazing stuff with it, but it draws his attention away.”
Bug shrugged. “Kid, I don’t know. And I’m not sure I want to. All I know is it must be weird.”
“Will!” Nobody’s voice echoed off the building.
Startled the teen glanced forward and saw his friend had spun around to face his companions. A wild joy was on his face, which creeped Will out.
“You’re not wearing a robe!”
“And that’s why people aren’t recognizing you as a prophet! Prophets wear robes, everyone knows that. Perhaps you should put one on.”
“I’m not wearing a robe, Professor.”
“Ahhh, yes. You’re incognito. How silly of me. And here I am trying to draw attention to us!”
“Yes, Prof. So how about we quiet down and get Will to the shopping lines. OK?”
“Right you are, only four Apollo’s to go!”
By the time the trio arrived at the shopping lines Bug’s eyes were twirling in happy circles and Nobody was skipping along while singing, “I left my heart in some town who’s name I can’t remember right now 2.” Will followed along, smiling, as he nursed his first cup.
They stepped up to the shopping gate, where they were greeted by a dour guard. As she approached she removed her fake beard and used it wipe her brow 3.
“Name and appointment,” she said.
Bug blinked several times to bring his eyes under control. He then smiled while producing a sealed envelope. “Yes, I’m Bug Moume, this is Professor Cooly Nobody, and that is Will MacGil. This,” he added as he offered the envelope to the guard, “is a royal order to bump us to the front of the line.”
“Hmm,” the guard muttered as she accepted the offering. Cracking it open she perused its contents for a moment before re-folding it and buzzing the gate open.
“Everything’s in order. Lane three, please. No wait.”
Bug’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What, just like that?”
The guard’s eyes narrowed. “Did you want me to give you trouble?”
“Well, no. But that’s a royal decree. Out of the blue. In Great Roll. You’re not curious about how I got it?”
The guard shrugged, “It’s the right form, it’s signed. That’s all I care about. Now get going, my break is about to start.”
The trio passed through the gate and approached lane three, which was completely empty.
Will’s heart rate increased as they approached, and Bug removed his hat and began twisting it in his hands. Nobody, on the other hand, wore a wide grin.
“I must say, I find bureaucracy fascinating. I wonder what other forms Sindy can sign for us?”
“Let’s ponder that later. Right now, it’s time to say goodbye.”
“What? Oh… Will. Of course.” The academic reached into one of his many pockets and dug around for a moment. He smiled as he pulled out a single penny and offered it to the teen. “Here you are, Will. For the return trip.”
“I must say, it was wonderful having you with us.”
“Thanks,” Will replied as he accepted the coin. Tears began running down his cheeks, “I’ll miss you” he added as he knelt down to hug his friend good-bye.”
“OK, kid, enough of that,” Bug croaked as he tugged Will away. “I feel sad enough without you making it worse.”
Will spun on his knees and hugged Bug as well. Then he stood and Bug pointed him forward.
“Off you go, Kid.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“We only have permission for one, sorry. Just walk up to the lane, stick the coin in the slot, and step through. You’ll be back home in no time.”
Will nodded turned and approached the lane. He found the coin slot and deposited his penny. A mechanical voice called out, “Payment accepted, happy shopping.”
Before Will could proceed, Bug’s voice called out from behind him.
“Sorry about that whole kidnapping thing, kid!”
The teen spun and smiled, but said nothing as he turned back and stepped forward. Will was going home at last.