Hengki rushed out of the classroom. He had enough for today. Especially when the lesson was so gloomy. "How The World Came To An End" had been the name the oracle had given today's part of their education.
Outside Hengki had to shield his eyes from the sun. But even that helped only to a degree as the sunshine was reflected on the water around him. Nonetheless, he found his boat soon enough. It was one of about thirty that anchored at the school. It swayed as Hengki jumped down and for a moment he fought to not fall overboard. Like the rest of the village, the school was on a platform that was about three feet above sea level.
After untethering, Hengki cast-off. He was quite eager to go to a special place. As he rowed out onto the lake, he saw his classmates heading for their own boats. For a moment his eyes were caught by Tala, the oracle that had just taught him about the gloomy past. Hengki could have sworn he saw disapproval in her gaze to him. As if she knew what Hengki was about to do. Nonetheless, he rowed onward.
The village kept getting smaller and smaller. It was one of the few features that broke the wide surface of the lake. Here and there a hut poked out of the surface. Standing on big beams of wood. Each one won the hard way. By going to the shore. As he thought about it Hengki saw something flash at the shoreline. A robot. An animal made purely out of metal. They roamed the land and hunted everything. Even humans. Only one place was safe from them. The lake and the small community that settled on it.
As he rowed further he was reminded of today's lesson. It had been mankind that created the robots. With technology too advanced to understand today. At least the Oracle believed in it. Hengki doubted the whole story. They build with wood, leather, and twine. To make something with metal was abstract. Then to get it moving even harder to think of. He would have dismissed the oracle outright if it hadn't been for her uncanny ability to predict the weather.
After rowing for most of an hour he arrived at his intended target. One of the forbidden spots. Here the water wasn't as deep. His anchor hit the ground at maybe forty-five feet. After making sure his boat was secured Hengki jumped overboard. As always the water was cold, but not as much as the rest of the lake. This wasn't the only strange occurrence around here. As he dived a few feet down he saw an eerie glow at the bottom of the lake. This was the very reason the villagers were afraid to go to this place. And in their fear, they forbid this place.
After a half dozen of test dives, Hengki thought himself ready. He took a last few gulps of air before he committed himself. Diving as fast as he dared. He had trained for it in other spots of the lake, but it didn't make it any easier as the familiar pressure builds around him. He came closer and closer to the glow and it grew in intensity. Now he noticed how strange the glow was. It cut off in the middle. Drawing a strange rectangular shape underneath him.
As he hit the ground Hengki pushed himself closer towards the light. He arrived at a cliff. Or so he thought at first. As pushed over he saw the truth. It was a house. Under water no less. He did see light and air on the second story, but not enough walls on the outside. Maybe the villagers had been right. Witchcraft. How else could air exist there without spilling into the lake?
For a moment he contemplated abandoning his self-chosen mission. But the notion didn't last long. A few kicks of his legs and he arrived at the barrier. Pushing against it didn't help. There was no way for him to get through.
His lungs started to burn and Hengki knew he should surface soon. Just as he was about to swim up a thought came to him. Hengki pressed his face against the barrier and looked sideways. His guess was right. Glass. The whole second story of the house was surrounded by glass.
He thought about it as he swam upwards. Glass was rare enough. He had seen a few pieces in his life. A glass mug, some pots, and a bowl. Yet all these had never been this clear. So colorless that one could mistake it for being invisible. The ancients must have had means to produce glass that weren't possible in the era Hengki lived.
He broke through the surface of the lake and filled his lungs with new air. Hengki saw his boat not too far away. Yet he didn't swim towards it. What he had seen only fanned the flames of his curiosity. After paddling for five minutes Hengki dived down again.
This time he pushed further down. If the second floor of the submerged house was cut off by glass then maybe the first floor was a better option. At first, Hengki found only glass again. He nearly missed the opening as he saw it. The ground floor had no light so it was hard to see that two of the glass panels were shifted to the side. These were smaller two. Maybe they had been doors, Hengki reasoned.
As he swam through them darkness closed in around him. Unfamiliar shapes surrounded him. He was about to turn around when he saw a soft glow illuminating a staircase. He remembered seeing the second floor dry. There must be air, he reasoned to himself.
Arriving at the stairs he came up to the air. Cautiously he breathed it in. It smelled different to Hengki. Not as fresh as the air above the lake, but not bad like he expected. The stairs and the floor he had swum through was overgrown with algae and plants, yet as he stepped up he saw an immaculately clean floor and walls. As if someone had cleaned them just before Hengki's visit.
The walls here were strange. Definitely not wood. Smooth and hard. And quite solid he guessed as he knocked against one. The house was big, maybe even larger than the school building. It was filled with walls made of glass and whatever that other material was. It filled him with wonder. Many of the furniture was made of glass too. That and metal. So the oracle had been right. Once mankind had the knowledge to form metal.
He explored room by room. Their purpose eluding him. But they all were illuminated by lamps without flames. Had the ancients mastered magic? The Oracle always told him and others that there was no magic. Only advanced technic. "Science" she called it. For Hengki it always had been just another word for magic.
At last, he arrived at a room that was surrounded by glass walls tinted in the color of fresh milk. Within he found a bed. A rather strange one too. Much of it was below some glass. Stepping closer, Hengki saw the bed itself was made of leather. But one so strange he had never seen before. Under his hands, he felt no creases or folds. Not even pores. What animal was large enough to provide this much skin that didn't show folds where muscles stretched beneath it?
As strange as the bed was, Hengki knew he had to try it. To lay on something the ancients made. He stripped most of his clothes. Then crawled into this strange bed. It felt strange. Too soft beneath him. Not bad and kind of relaxing. For a moment he closed his eyes.
Then there was a hiss. Hengki opened his eyes and they widened in panic. The glass had closed around him. He pushed against it, but it didn't budge. Then lights appeared around him. Some even floating in the air around him. They took the form of symbols. So foreign Hengki couldn't decipher them.
Some changed constantly. Repeating the same ten symbols over and over again. One place moved fast, and every time it had gone through all ten symbols, the symbol next to it changed. Was it counting down? Hengki pushed stronger against the glass. Leaning with all his strength against it. Then the symbols flashed.
Hengki held his breath, but nothing happened. It took him a few moments to relax. With the panic gone, a tiredness overcame him. His last thought was that he shouldn't fall asleep here. But the pull was too strong. Darkness claimed him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hengki slowly woke up. Feeling refreshed as if he had slept in. One of those times his mother wouldn't wake him up early for school or to go fishing. As he opened his eyes that relaxed feeling vanished. His eyes took in his surrounding. It all came back to him in a rush. The submerged building of the ancients. The strange sight of what was in it. The bed that trapped him.
Now he saw it open. As he shifted to slip out of it, he felt wrong. As if his very own body felt different. He lifted his hand so he could see it and started to scream. That his scream was wrong made it only worse. It was too high pitched. Wrong. Just like his arm. Too slender. Not his own. He took a few panicked gulps of air before looking down his body. What he saw made him scream again. More in confusion than in panic.
He had breasts. And hips wider than his own. His whole body was different. It was if the ancients had punished him. Robbing him of his maleness and giving him the body of a girl. It took a long time for him to calm down. Only one reason made him not spiral out of control. The ancients had punished him. Maybe he did something wrong. Offended them. There could be a way to appease them. Earn his old body back.
As he slipped out of the bed his first steps were unsteady. Hengki needed a moment to find his balance. It was a new one. This body didn't behave like his old one. Close, but not quite right. The most obvious change that bothered him was his new breasts. Hidden underneath some strange clingy material. They shifted slightly with each step he took.
He paced around the room slowly. Trying to get used to them. There he discovered the next surprise the ancients had in store for him. As he stepped close to some sort of commode a mirror extended. One so clear unlike everything he had ever seen. The reflection showed him a girl that could have been his sister if he had any. She looked remarkably like him, yet subtly female.
But that was not what threw him off. It was the garment he was wearing. He recognized it. It was the clothing of the Oracle. The very one that hung framed in her home. His head spun with thoughts about what it might mean. It filled him with new panic, but also hope. Maybe the Oracle knew more.
As he stepped out to the corridor new strangeness threatened to overwhelm him. It was the same corridor, but there were a lot of new lights floating around. Many of them the same strange ciphers he had seen in the bed. He even saw pictures. They usually floated near entrances to rooms. Showing people in such details that no human hand could have drawn them.
Slowly he made his way to the stairs when he noticed something else. One of those symbols followed him. It was always there. Wherever he looked it was in the top left corner of his sight. As he thought about it, others like it appeared. More symbols that affixed itself to Hengki's view. Concentrating on the wrong one brought more light. More confusing symbols and pictures. He closed his eyes. Willing them away, but even there he saw them. Haunting him.
Then he found one symbol. It was like a cross. It made the lights vanish. He hunted for it and slowly the lights vanished. Until only one remained. The one in the top left corner. There was no cross for that one.
Truly freaked out by now he ran to the stairs. He didn't take long to get used to the water. It felt strange to him anyways. As if it was different for his new body. Nonetheless, he pushed forward. Taking some deep breath before diving into the water.
Hengki just passed the door to the building of the ancients when he noticed the next mistake. His lungs burned. This was not the body he was used to. The one he and trained to endure long dives down the lakes. Panic filled him and he pushed towards the surface.
He didn't come far when the burning got worse. He wanted to breathe. His body needed to. Desperate he looked up and frowned in confusion. He saw his boat and many others. There might be every boat of the village there on the surface. And divers. They gestured towards him.
New hope filled him and he gave a few kicks. THen his lungs gave out. He breathed in water. Struggled not to. It was in vain. In his panic, he nearly didn't feel the hands grabbing him. Dragging him upwards. Then there was air. He tried to breathe, but something didn't allow it.
Someone heaved him onto a boat and there turned him to the side. He threw up water and gulped for air. That was all he could do for a moment. Only when he calmed down he heard the many voices around him chanting in celebration.
"A new Oracle was chosen. Blessed be the Oracle."
Hands lifted him up. Carried him from boat to boat until he saw the weather aged face of the old oracle.
"Rest my child," she told him gently. "I will tell you all, but for now rest."
That sounded heavenly to Hengki. He fell unconscious a moment after they sat him down.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hengki woke to the sound of a fireplace churning on wood. For a moment he was confused where he was until his eyes found the framed clothes of the Oracle. The same one he still wore himself. With it, he knew. It hadn't been a dream. He was a girl now.
"You must be confused."
The voice made him look around and he found the Oracle sitting at a small table. Sipping tea of all things.
"Come sit," she offered. "Have some tea and I explain everything."
Hengki nodded. What else could he do? Standing up he decided to keep the blanket around him that he woke up with. It took him only a few steps to reach the offered chair.
"Why did the ancients punish me like this?" he asked as he sat down.
The Oracle laughed sharp and loudly. It made Hengki cringe.
"They didn't. You did," the Oracle said after calming down. "Ever heard the saying 'Curiosity was what the catfish got caught'? It was your own curiosity that led you down this path."
"I don't understand," Hengki truthfully admitted.
"The ancients had a word. 'Transgender'. Do you know what it means?" the Oracle asked, but continued in the same breath. "Of course you don't. You see one of the pearls of wisdom of the ancients was the fact that they knew that some souls were born in the wrong body. One with the wrong gender. Those souls they called transgender."
"Why would the ancients think I was this- 'Transgender'," Hengki asked.
"You most certainly were not," the Oracle admitted. "Though now you might be. You see the building you found was a 'clinic'. Their word for a healer's hut. This 'clinic' was built to help those they called 'Transgender'. They build two devices. Looking like beds. One to change a woman to a man and one to change a man to a woman."
"And I found the wrong one. It was my own curiosity that doomed me-" Hengki mused out loud. Then he jumped out of the chair. "Then I need to find the other bed."
"Sit down," the Oracle said softly. "The other bed- It is on the ground floor and doesn't work anymore. Believe me. I tried."
"Why did you-" Hengki started to ask, but then his eyes caught the Oracle's garment on the wall. "You are like me."
"A long time ago, yes," the Oracle agreed. "I too was once a young boy. My curiosity stronger that the warnings of my elders. I too laid on the bed. As did every other oracle before us."
"That's why the village was chanting," Hengki mused.
"My 'implant' alerted me of your change," the Oracle explained. "So I prepared the village to welcome you appropriately."
"What's an 'implant'?" Hengki demanded to know.
"A small machine. One inside of me. And inside of you. Don't worry. They are harmless. They talk to other machines and allow us access to a wealth of information."
"Can it control the robots that roam the land?"
"Sadly no," the Oracle said with a deep sigh. "Those are broken. Mankind couldn't fix them in time. But there are other machines." She pointed upwards. "High up in the sky there are those the ancients build to predict the weather. With their help, I make my prophecies. A duty that will soon fall to you."
Hengki gave a sad nod. "So that is how it is. No way for me to become a boy again and now I have to assume the role you lay before me."
"I understand your bitterness," the Oracle admitted. "I was once like you. Curiosity led us down this path. Now we are cursed with more information that we would have liked. It is our duty to keep the knowledge of it alive. When mankind fell they shunned technology. It is our duty to erode that superstition. To one day lead mankind back to its former glory. It might still take generations."
"There will always be that one boy to curious for himself, right?" Hengki asked.
"It did so far. Well, now. There is a lot more to teach. In time we will get to know each other well. You can call me Tala," the Oracle offered. "That was the name I have chosen for myself. You should choose a new one for yourself soon too. Then I can start teaching you the language of the ancients. They called it 'English'."
Hengki nodded. Didn't like it one bit. But Tala was right. He had chosen it at the moment he gave in to his own curiosity and ignored the warnings about the forbidden places. Before him lay a long road. One that might become lonely. Yet he saw no way around it. It was what it was. He was now a girl and the Oracle's apprentice. And with that, he had to live with for the rest of his life.
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