By Charlotte H. Lee
“Merdena is dead.”
Not words you want to hear when you find yourself in the dark, stranded on an alien planet. All four of us stared at Mina, the great gouts of smoke billowing from the pathetic fire Tulin had built the only movement in the miserable damp. None of us was doing well with the survival tasks, though, least of all me. My job had been to find edible vegetation, and all I had to show for two nerweens of hard work, scrounging through spiny bracken, were purple scratches on my face and hands.
Characteristically, Wis was the first to find speech. “That’s dismal. How long before we won’t be able to recover Mer?” She scrubbed at her brow, black eyes darting to each of us below black eyebrows braided back into violet tresses just above her pointed ears.
“The battery backup gives us enough power to keep Dena’s body cold for a little less than four nerweens, thanks in part to the local weather. I’ve already initiated compatibility testing from our crew files. It should complete by morning, about twelve newrots. Until then, we’ll keep busy, expand our foraging, and sleep in shifts.” Mina turned to me, azure eyes hiding any concern she must be feeling. Pale blue brows that twisted up into the center of her forehead accented the diamond shape of her face perfectly, and I stifled a sigh of adoration. “Lin, we need edibles. The converter is off limits until Mer has a new Companion.”
I swallowed and nodded. My first mission out of the academy, and I end up stranded on a heavy, cold, wet planet; our pod ship’s Companion an unanticipated victim to old age in a high gravity environment. And to make matters worse, we were on a landmass clearly past its growing season. If I didn’t find edible vegetation to supplement our food stores, we’d be forced to hunt for meat. I had to swallow against the gorge that boiled up my throat at the thought. A shiver ran down my spine, though whether it was because of the thought of eating meat or because of the general damp I didn’t want to examine too closely. I sighed and got to my feet, Tulin and Brima shooting sympathetic glances in my direction. I pulled my gloves on to cover my scratches, thumbs clumsy from the chilly night air. Wis turned back to stripping bark from the branches she’d collected, avoiding eye contact. I left them by the dubious warmth of the fire and struck out into the gathering dark.
Looking back on it now, I’m grateful it worked out that I was put on foraging detail rather than repairs or camp maintenance. The others were more adept with our pod ship’s older systems; my training had been focussed on the cutting-edge technology of the latest battlecruisers. How was I to know when I chose electronics weapons as my specialty that three nerthets before I was to graduate we’d sign a truce with the Orcasions. Lousy timing on my part. The resulting stand-down flooded the navy’s personnel resources, and I was shunted into Search & Exploration as a survey tech after graduation. My assignment to Merdena—a survey pod ship—had become a lesson in patience and persistence. Eight long, lonely nerthets serving aboard a survey carrier—with dozens of pod crews who’d been working together long enough that their casual verbal shorthand was incomprehensible jargon—had taught me just how much we use our bodies to communicate. I like to think I’ve gotten rather good at learning new languages because of that early career experience.
Considering how my luck had rolled out since entering the academy, I probably should’ve anticipated that this would be the first and only alien planet I ever set foot on. I wish now I had paid more attention to the natural beauty of this big island off the planet’s largest land mass—green even in the depths of winter. I was surrounded by trees, giant trees with alien, thick pale brown trunks that branched off into ever-smaller limbs thrusting their bony fingers into the night sky, waving at stars floating in a sky littered with galactic dust. There were also trees mixed among them that grew in tight clusters, smaller, with more normally sized trunks, whip thin and pliable. Everywhere in between the trees were low, winter-sleeping shrubs. Dead vines wove in and around it all, covering the ground and making walking difficult. Those vines also sported spikes that searched out my blood and hid the fungi that my porti-scan said was edible.
Just as I was straightening up from a great find of a mess of fungi growing at the base of one of the massive trees, I heard something moving through the brush. I froze and held my breath, trying to hear over the sudden hammering of my heart. My thighs burned, the higher than normal gravity making it hard to maintain my semi-crouch. The rustling continued, and I let my breath out slowly. I leaned forward to rest my shoulder against the tree trunk but misjudged the distance. With a startled cry, I toppled into a patch of dead vines, bending my left inner thumb in a direction it wasn’t supposed to go. I choked back a sob at the sudden fire lancing up across my palm, through my wrist, and into my arm.
It wasn’t until the buzzing in my ears faded that I realized the other rustling had stopped. I lay still, working up the courage to get back to my feet. A soft swish from close by disabused me of the notion that my fall had frightened away some small animal. With gargantuan effort I sat up, the calisthenics I’d had to do every day at the academy a distant memory my abdominal muscles shamed me into recalling. To make matters worse, my hair had tangled into the vine’s spikes, and several silver strands remained behind when I finally got loose. When at last the world stopped spinning, I stiffened in surprise, fear dancing up and down my spine. Not more than six steps away, a clutch of squat figures stood watching me. I counted seven of them of varying heights, though the tallest might only come to my shoulder. Pale beige faces peered out of heavy robes, three of them holding staffs taller than the tallest of the figures. Dwarves. How they’d come to be on this out of the way planet a mystery.
Raising my left hand palm out, I clambered to my feet, relying on only my right hand to aid my rump up off the ground. As a group, they all took a step back, the smallest one ducking behind another in the group. I kept my right hand arm tight to my side while I straightened up to tower over them, hoping they wouldn’t see me undo the catches on the holster strapped to my thigh. I only had a stun gun, but with luck I’d only need to drop one of them and be able to run away in the resulting confusion. I took a step back, dead leaves crackling underfoot, and glanced behind me, searching for an escape route.
When I looked back at them, five of them had pulled out long, wicked-looking white knives, and the sixth was barking orders. The seventh—the smallest one—had dropped to the ground, huddling in on itself until it appeared to be nothing more than a large rock. I blinked, gave my head a shake, and looked again. It really did look like a rock. I took another step back, and then stopped when all six of them started moving toward me, their shorter legs covering only half of one of my strides in a step. As smoothly as I could, I raised my gun and fired into the crowd. To my dismay it didn’t cause any confusion at all. The five still upright came on and, as luck would have it, it was the five who’d already had their knives out.
I turned to start running, but tripped on a vine and crashed face-first back into the patch I’d just pulled myself out of, the pain surging from my left hand forcing a scream. I barely noticed the vine spikes gouging at my face, the sound of other bodies moving through the underbrush far more frightening. It wasn’t fair! To be killed by dwarves, of all things, in pain and alone on a backwater planet during my very first planetfall. I tried to push myself up off the ground to get my knees under me, but pain exploded up from my broken thumb again, through my arm and carrying on into my head. I saw the first kick coming, but passed out before it connected with my ribs.
The first thing I noticed was pain. Everywhere. It felt like I had been dragged along a pishtanta trail, though as long as I didn’t try to wiggle my fingers, my thumb didn’t hurt more than anywhere else. Small comfort. What was truly comforting was that I had woken up at all. And warm. Wherever I was, it was warm and quiet, only the sound of a well-built fire to disturb the night. I cracked open my eyes to discover that I was laying on my side, alone in a large, bare tent made of a smooth material, its sections stitched together with heavy cords. I think it was the same type of cording that bound my wrists to my neck, knees, and ankles. My first attempt to pull free of the bindings proved that I’d choke to death long before I could free myself. I resigned myself to immobility.
A seam parted, and a robed figure came in, trailed by a smaller one. Both had lowered their hoods, and I noted the taller had dapple-gray hair, long down the back of its head, but eyebrows clipped close. Odd for a dwarf. More typically, however, hair grew below its nose, falling to the middle of its chest. The smaller one had dark brown hair just as long down its back, the same clipped eyebrows, but its face was as smooth as mine. Its features were as marred with dirt as mine likely was too. Given its size, a youth perhaps?
“Cen fath go bhfuil tu anseo,” the big dwarf said. Or maybe asked; the upward note at the end made me think it was asking a question. I stared at it blankly. It repeated the question more forcefully, pointing at the ground. It didn’t take a physics specialist to figure out what it wanted to know.
“I was looking for food. We’re surveyors, but our Companion died, so our ship isn’t generating power anymore. Without power, our food onboard will die, so I have to find something we can eat that we don’t have to run through the converter.” The dwarf stared at me, brows furrowing into deep grooves.
“An bhfuil tu de shaghas eigin ursceal?”
This time I caught two words it had used in its last question. A second iteration included a jab of its first finger at me. Obviously, “tu” meant “you.” Then it struck me; it had four fingers, not three. One thumb, not two. As much as these creatures looked like them, they weren’t dwarves. I was a prisoner being held by aliens. On my first planetfall. For all I knew, these creatures had built the fire not to warm me, but to roast me. The tent was probably nothing more than a way to keep the fire from getting wet in this miserably cold, damp climate.
“Please don’t eat me,” I whispered. I squeezed my eyes shut and flicked my chin down and out, audibly locking the bony outer plates of my spine shield into place. If they wanted to hack my head off before spitting me, I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. The creatures gasped, and I cracked one eye open again to see the smaller alien clutching at the robe of the larger, both standing there with their eyes rounded, mouths agape.
“Ni Sin ursceal, Daideo,” the little one whispered. The other nodded, then turned and strode to the flap. A grunt stopped the little one from following it out. Panting, the creature left behind whirled back to me, the whites of its eyes gleaming in the firelight. I lay there, unmoving, and eventually the alien lowered itself to the ground. It still watched me, flinching whenever a log shifted in the fire. After a time, it got up and added another log from a pile stacked somewhere behind me.
“I’m thirsty,” I said, “Is there water?”
The youth stared at me, blinking but otherwise motionless. I cupped my right hand and tilted it towards my mouth, then pointed at my throat. No movement. Trying another tack, I licked then smacked my cracked lips, then cupped and tilted my hand again. The creature gazed at me blankly when I did it again. Then sudden understanding animated its face, swiftly followed by a nod. It clambered to its feet and ducked through the tent flap. A moment later, it was back with a rough pottery cup. It set the cup down before me and then scurried back a few paces. I stared at the cup, wanting it desperately. I would choke myself if I tried to reach for it. A glance at the creature’s expectant face showed it wasn’t actually trying to torture me, it was just an idiot. It mimed drinking from the cup, which I chuckled at. Startled, it backed up another step, and I demonstrated its idiocy by showing just how short I would come to drinking from that cup by reaching for it.
The bonds cut into my vulnerable throat, making me cough. My chest and sides came alive with electric fire at the coughing and subsided into a dull ache when the cough eased into a moan. Tears had gathered during the coughing, and blurred everything when I finally opened my eyes again. With tentative steps, the alien came closer and picked up the cup. Visibly swallowing, it leaned forward and brought it to my lips. The water inside sloshed from the creature’s trembling, but I tilted my head as much as I could and awkwardly sipped from the rim, reveling in the simple relief of moisture against parched tissues. With a sigh, I laid my head back on the ground and closed my eyes.
“Thanks,” I said and let sleep overtake me.
“All right, Lin, let’s get you out of here,” Mina said, rousing me from a dream in which I had been running through a forest where vines were wrapping themselves up my legs, slowing me enough to draw me back into a great, gaping maw ringed with dagger-like white teeth. While my present reality wasn’t lovely, it was a relief to have the dream end.
She cut my bonds and unwrapped them gently, grimacing over the bruising bright against my marble-pale wrists. With a gentle finger, she lifted my chin to get a look at my throat and shook her head. “Let’s get you back to Mer and cleaned up. We can’t do anything about the bruising, but we need to set your thumb.”
I tried to hold back a groan when she helped me upright, but lost the fight. Alarmed, she reached forward, unzipped my jacket, and reached in to feel around my chest cavity. The heat of her against me made my breath catch, though she probably thought it was because of her examination.
“I think you’ve got two broken ribs, but I need Mer’s diagnostics to know for sure.” She turned away from me and jerked her head at Tulin and Brima, who were standing behind her. I almost wept when I saw them, and had to swallow hard to keep from crying like a baby when they flanked me and lifted me to my feet.
Gingerly, we shuffled out of the dim tent and into a bright daylight that did much to raise my spirits. Squinting, I looked about the village of wooden huts. Beardless aliens clothed in dingy, rough-woven fabrics stood in doorways, some clutching bundles to their breasts, others staring with hands to their faces. My attackers watched us from the edge of the forest, waiting for our little party to reach them. They turned as a group into the barren trees, leading us away. I desperately wanted to leave the village, but reluctance to follow my tormentors back into that forest made my steps heavy and slow. Brima grunted and muttered at me to get moving.
When we reached Mer, the cloaked aliens halted and, once we had moved past them, they sorted themselves into a row. Without ceremony, the little one that had sat with me last night was shoved forward, eyes wide and teeth pressed into its lower lip. Mina opened her mouth to say something, but the troupe turned their backs before she could get a sound out and dissolved back into the forest, leaving the little one behind. The poor thing stood there, trembling and obviously terrified. Nonplussed, we stood there, staring at it. The little one lifted its chin, pointed to itself, then at Mer.
“Dear Gods of Fanpara,” Tulin said, his voice catching in his throat, “they’re giving us a hostage. Is this exchange for Wis? Or reparation for Lin?” The way he said my name suggested he’d rather exchange me as reparation to the gods than accept an alien hostage.
Mina recovered and shut her jaw with a snap. “It doesn’t matter right now. Obviously, we won’t be taking it with us.” She pivoted on her heel and pointed to Mer’s open hatch. “Get him into sick bay and strapped into the bed. I want those broken bones set immediately. We are getting off this godsforsaken rock as soon as we can.”
Tulin and Brima maneuvered me between them up the ramp and into the ship’s tiny first aid station. Just as Brima let me go and punched for the bed to drop from the wall, what Tulin had said caught up with me.
“What happened to Wis?” I asked, letting Tulin help me strip my clothing and get up onto the edge of the bed. Brima got behind me and eased me down onto my back, then raised the side bar and keyed the diagnostic program into life.
“She went out looking for you just before dawn,” Tulin said over the whir of the scan arm swinging out from the bar over my head. It was sweeping me from head to foot before he went on, “She reported in that she’d found where you’d been taken and was following the trail.”
“She wouldn’t have had to do that if you’d taken your damned mobile with you,” Brima said, her voice sharp with disapproval. “That was a godsdamned rookie mistake of the worst kind.”
I had nothing to say to that. She was right. It hadn’t occurred to me to take it, nor had it occurred to me that I didn’t have it the whole time the aliens had me. Bloody stupid. How could I have done something so dumb? I’m sure my whole body flushed crimson in shame.
“Anyway,” Tulin said, breaking through the miasma of my self-castigation, “she was obviously following your tracks when animals attacked her. She only had a stun gun with her, so she wasn’t prepared for a whole pack of predators.” Tulin’s eyes got suspiciously full. “We don’t know how long it took for them to kill her, but judging by the blood spray, she was still alive when they started eating her.”
“The only good news out of all of this fiasco is that you came up as a match for Mer,” Brima said into the pause that followed. She glared at me, and my soul shriveled from her condemnation. “Normally, becoming a Companion is voluntary, but Mina says that since you cost Wis her life with your stupidity, you don’t get a choice.” Another sniff. “If it weren’t for that, my vote would’ve been to let you rot wherever you were.”
I swallowed and stared up the bulkhead, too ashamed to meet either’s eyes. A person died because I didn’t follow basic safety protocol. I lay there, wondering if the knives of guilt would ever stop carving me up, or if I would be plagued with this tearing pain for eternity. Even now, I sometimes wonder if that sin will follow me into the afterlife and haunt me in the pits of Gragesh. I hadn’t meant for Wis to die, nor had I suggested she follow me into the forest barely less naked than I am now, but that didn’t absolve me from my part in what led to her horrifying death.
The scan arm finished its sweep and clicked off. No one spoke while it retraced its path and tucked itself away. Brima and Tulin left me alone then, letting the first aid unit poke and prod me without the comfort of their company. I only screamed once, and I think I can be excused for it; my thumb was a mess of compound fractures, and the pincers pulled before the general anaesthetic kicked in.
“Wake up, Lin.”
The stern voice came from far away, echoing down a long shaft.
“Ensign Lin Harmuir, it’s time to wake up.”
It took me seconds more to figure out who the voice belonged to. Unfortunately, that connection was accompanied by awful memories. I wanted to stay unconscious; avoiding guilt as much easier that way. It was also the easiest way to avoid the sentence I knew Mina would be passing on me.
“Stats show you’re awake, Lin. Don’t stretch this foolishness out.” Feeling my ears pink in a flush, I opened my eyes, lifting a corner of the light blanket covering me to wipe away the grit that had gathered in my lashes. Mina sat beside me on a roller chair. The dark smudges under sapphire eyes and grooves etched by grief between her pale blue brows were heartbreaking. She and Wis had served together a long time, and I had suspected that their relationship may have strayed into less than professional areas. It looked like I had been right.
“You want me to become a Companion,” I said, loading as much sadness as I could into my voice. Oh, the melodrama of a youth with an unrequited crush.
“Want is not a factor. If we’re to get off this planet, you have to join with Mer.” While I was grateful her voice wasn’t dripping with disgust, resignation did nothing to lift my spirits. “Can you sit up?”
Wincing against the tenderness of bruising around the small punctures the machine had made to reset my rib bones and cradling my hand to my chest to hold the blanket up, I let Mina help me upright. My inner thumb was a mass of bruising and stitches, swollen to almost twice its normal size. I imagined I could feel the cold titanium pins now at its core, forever holding that single joint stiff. Not that I’d need to worry about bending digits for much longer.
With Mina’s help and only the thin first aid blanket for modesty, I slid off the bed and shuffled to the Companion’s alcove, hoping the whole way there for some kind of ceremony. Needless to say, I was sorely disappointed when Mina entered the command into the panel and watched the door hiss open without a word.
“I understand the interface process is uncomfortable,” she said, not looking me in the eye. “Once you’re in, and I’ve made the initial connection, Mer should recognize you. From then on, it will handle everything else.” I watched her, still hoping for a look, a kind word, or even a kiss as I made this remarkable sacrifice for our crewmates. Disappointment, alas. It’s not that I hadn’t ever been kissed—I had been popular both as a youth and at the academy for my looks and charm—but Mina was the first woman I’d ever truly longed for a kiss from.
I drew a breath to ask for one, the idea of never even having asked more mortifying than being refused, when she stepped away from me, pulling the blanket with her, and turned me to face her. Hope flared anew, only to be dashed even more cruelly when she pushed me back into the cradle, naked. With deft fingers, she fit the facemask over my nose and mouth, settling the strap over my ears. I should be thankful she took the time to be sure the strap wasn’t twisted before she clasped my wrists and ankles into the cradle’s brackets and buckled webbing across my hips. One last look, a nod, and she stepped away, waving her hand over the panel sensor to seal the alcove door.
Around me, warm vapor hissed, rising to obscure the window. I squinted in an effort to peer out through the caressing mist. Such things as windows lost their importance when needles pierced me from the backs of the wrist and ankle clasps. When I opened my mouth to cry out, a tube snaked down my throat, choking me. Fire crept up my veins and arteries, turning them black beneath skin changing from marble white to silvery-gray. I desperately wanted to scream, but the tube pressed tight against my vocal cords, leaving no room for vibration. With everything I had, I pushed against the restraints. Spots appeared in my vision: orange, purple, and green. They danced and spun, and the faster I panted, the faster they leapt and shook. The spots grew, the colors merging, twisting around themselves until I couldn’t see anything but streaks. With no visual frame of reference left, my belly heaved from vertigo, the tube carrying away vomit and bile alike. I spun with the colors, my body twisting and falling, the streaks flashing and pulsing sickeningly.
On and on it went. I was unable to hear my nasal whimpers over the thrumming in my ears. Just when I began to fear that I was indeed dead, that I had arrived in Gragesh, and this was to be my eternal sentence for my sins, the colors faded to a featureless soft gray. In the gray, I was neither hot nor cold, and it was in the gray I came to rest, the fall ended. Colors came alive again, but this time they were gentle, soft, reassuring, and in orderly lines.
I knew I was strapped down, but here in the gray I could lift my hand and touch the colors. Tentatively, I touched a green line that brightened as I focussed on it. When my finger connected with the light, it burst into a dazzling wheel, each spoke thrusting away from my finger a facet of Mer’s life support. Or more correctly, Merlin’s. I had become Merlin, and in that moment of acceptance, a peace I had never known flowed through me, washing away guilt, shame, and fear. When I first learned about ships and their Companions as a child, I had imagined it to be like two minds becoming fast friends. I had been wrong; it wasn’t anything like that at all. I was the ship, its operating system, programs, and data written into my very being.
Somewhere between one moment and the next, I ceased being me, Lin Harmuir, son of Idira Rindsa and Mas Harmuir. I was no longer brother to Ulin and Pinka, nor lover of Jin Tonj and Hela Wefdin. My crewmates, Mina Vasko, Tulin Oban, Brima Reelt, and Wis Fareer, simply became my crew. A pause. Record update, Wis Fareer deceased in the line of duty. A moment of remembered sadness, though I didn’t feel sad then. I was simply Merlin, a survey pod ship longing to return to a mother that drifted among the stars while she waited patiently for her children to play, exploring each solar system she carried them to. Mapping, testing, evaluating. Those were the games I wanted to play.
“Merlin, prepare for departure and return to Elfiska Survey Three.” I knew that voice; it was my crew captain, Mina. At one time, I had desired her, which seemed silly in the euphoria of the merge. I’ve heard that Elfiskans can lose their personalities completely in the days of that euphoria, and it’s easy to see why. Never before—or since—had I felt such simple peace and love. Some pod ships spend the rest of their lives searching for that euphoria again. Mine didn’t last very long; even as a pod ship, I made mistakes.
“All crew strapped and ready for lift off,” Mina said. I didn’t believe this was completely true, there was a member not in ES-approved safety webbing, but I trusted the captain knew best. Mindful of the fragility of the smallest crewmember, I lifted off from the planet’s surface as gently as I could, my crew safe, each quiet with its own thoughts.
On the third day after lift off, early in the shipboard’s nerween cycle, Mina found the extra crewmember sneaking into the galley. That was the first chink in my euphoria.
“Merlin,” she snapped, “what in the name of Gragesh is this creature doing here?”
“I believed the unnamed crewmember was not in optimal health and required nourishment, Captain. I was unable to establish communication with it, so the best I could do was guide it to where it would have access to food and water.” Confusion appeared as black spots around the edges of my serene bubble. “Was this incorrect? Was the crewmember to continue to have nourishment withheld?” This didn’t seem in keeping with the spirit of the standard ES employment contract.
Mina sighed, brows furrowed together. “This is not a crewmember, Merlin. This is a stowaway.”
Ah. “Shall I return to the planet immediately, Captain?” In the back of my awareness, a memory flickered. I tried to draw it out, but gave up when it faded back into the gray.
“No.” Another sigh, this time accompanied by a shrug. “We need to resupply in any case. We’ll leave Tulin and Brima to handle the debrief while you and I return this pest as soon as possible.”
“Of course, Captain.”
My captain took the waif by the hand and led it the rest of the way to the galley, parked it on a counter, poured it a cup of water, and then rummaged through cupboards and coolers to find it a variety of foods. I remembered that the crew had found it difficult to source food on our last planet, so I pulled up all the data from the samples we’d taken. I compared it to Elfiskan microbiology and was pleased to report to the captain that the stowaway should be able to metabolize all the foods currently stocked and growing. By the end of the session, I was amazed at how much the little creature could consume in a single sitting.
It’s ironic how the problems of being easily distracted had plagued me as a child now are what make me a damned good Companion. The key difference is that I now have enough synapses and nearly unlimited RAM to be able to do all those tasks simultaneously, rather than flitting from one task to another, leaving them all incomplete. Once the captain had our stowaway stowed away in Wis’s former cabin, she set me to learn as much about it as I could while she attended to her duties. To this end, I tasked myself with the duty of teaching it Common Elfiskan. By the time we reached ES3 eight nerweens later, it was able to string enough words together to communicate simple ideas. It was a minor relief to learn he had a name. Emris. Just a child.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to experience upon my return to ES3, but I can tell you my introduction was disappointing. No other pod ships had yet returned, and Jazteela was harried, maintaining connections with too many of her children to do more than give me a perfunctory acknowledgement of my existence, followed first by docking clearance and instructions, then a promise of a better welcome when I was able to berth for more than a simple restock.
Tulin and Brima disembarked, and supply and maintenance crews set to work. I provided our cargo master with a list of culinary requirements for Mina and Emris, and set to battle when he balked at the quantities requested for a half nerthet trip. Of course, I emerged victorious.
“Merlin,” Emris called out from where he lay on his bunk, hands folded under his head, “how many stars are there in the sky?”
“Thousands and thousands of billions, Emris. More than you could count in your lifetime.” The boy had been entranced by the idea that each star could have many, many planets. Even more fascinated that each of those stars could have more than one planet that had civilizations on it. He never seemed to tire of hearing of the different kinds of beings we had discovered and the things they built, wanting me to recite database entries to him. Often those readings would lead to teachings of basic mathematics and core engineering concepts. He was quick to learn and eager to manipulate the holo-field tutor. He did not read, however. Such a mind, wasted on a backward planet.
“How many have you been to?”
“That is a difficult question for me to answer, Emris. I have only been to your planet, but I have memories of 181 others.”
He scrunched up his face, “How can you remember a place you’ve never been?”
“When I became one from two, my Mer-self’s memories became mine.”
“Your Mer-self? Do you have a Lin-self too?”
“I did.” This was the first time since the interface that I’d put any thought into living before Merlin. Discomfort peppered the outer edge of my gray serenity. Vague memories of pain, fear, and anguish blurred the black pinpricks, giving the edge a texture that was both ominous and intriguing.
“How can someone have two selves?”
“It is science, Emris.” We had agreed that this was the response I would give him rather than launch into a lecture about topics he didn’t have the foundational knowledge to understand.
“But why have two selves?”
“A computer is not able to bend time on its own, even with an organic brain. Only consciousness is able to do that. An Elfiskan brain does not have enough data storage and retrieval capacity to be able to hold all of its time in one thought. The two are required to work together to accomplish the task.”
“What do you need to bend time for?” It’s truly amazing how the mind of this child simply accepts certain concepts. It had been something that I’d had a very difficult time understanding, and it had led to me flunking out of xenobiology. Pause. A memory drifted by, one unlike my usual memories. Ephemeral, tantalizing. I was sitting at a table with two others, watching my teacher demonstrate a concept that eluded me in a large holo-field. The memory faded, leaving me with a vague feeling of remembered frustration.
“If we were to travel through space without bending time,” I said, the urge to clear my throat distracting me from being distracted, “it would take lifetimes to move between stars. We bend time to make the distances between places in space shorter.” Time dilation I would leave for another time.
Later, after Emris had drifted off to sleep, and Mina’s data demands had been delivered, I contemplated that memory. It must have come from my Lin-self. I tested the outer edges of my bubble, the way one prods at a new gap in one’s teeth. Pause. A remembered sensation and memory of the taste of blood—hot in my mouth, coming from the place where a tooth had recently been—flooded my primary processing unit. My lip had throbbed for hours after the ball game, my mother insisting I keep ice on it. I remembered how that ice made it hurt more, but she insisted it would keep the swelling from getting any worse and, despite my best efforts to faithfully follow the doctor’s instruction, I hadn’t been able to stop poking at it with my tongue.
It’s odd how the most innocuous things are the ones that change your life forever. If my five-nerthmit-old self hadn’t stumbled over a rock that day, I would’ve caught the ball with my glove. Catching the ball in the face had made me afraid of the ball. From then on when my friends went out to play ball, boredom drove me to experiment with toy rockets and soldiers. From there, I graduated to complicated games of strategy and tactics, which led to a passion for the academy, and then finally to landing in a pile of dead vines. Memories cascaded, coming too fast for me to make sense of them. I let them flow, shunting them into a new directory, and set the security so that only I and Jazteela would have access to it.
Over the next newrots , and days, I opened the snippet files one at a time, piecing precious images together, lingering with them until reluctantly storing them into coherent memory files. My Lin-self’s life became a part of who I was, for better or worse, and the grey bubble melted away to reveal a private world of my own that was astonishingly beautiful, with an indescribable depth that would strike the breath from any normal Elfiskan.
“Time to go, Emris,” Mina said, slinging a small pack over her shoulder. She’d spent the time it took for my hull to cool packing the bag. It plucked at my heartstrings that she had come to like the boy as much as I did, and we’d taken our time deciding which treats would keep best without the aid of refrigeration. She wrapped loaves of the hardbread he preferred in a bedsheet printed in star patterns and the dried fruits he adored in delicately painted sturdy tins. My contribution had been a mini holo field projector, loaded with pre-specialization math and science lessons.
Emris blinked at her, his jaw set stubbornly. “I don’t want to. I want to stay with you and Merlin.”
“We’ve talked about this, Emris. It’s not going to happen. You are going to go back to your village and you’re going to be a great teacher. You’re going to help your people live better lives.” She sighed. “I don’t want to drag you out of here, but I will if I have to.”
Emris scowled and scoffed. “Fine.” He stomped past her, not seeing her scrub a hand across her eyes as she trailed after him.
“Merlin, will you come back to visit me someday?” he asked again.
“I’ll try Emris, but I can’t promise you I will,” I answered again. “If I’m able to return in your lifetime, I expect you to be ready for another download of lessons.” The new addition to what had become a rote response got me the impish smile I was hoping for.
Mina walked with him down the ramp, putting her hand on his shoulder when he stepped onto grass burnt from my landing. He stopped, looking up at her, ignoring the small crowd of robed figures gathered at the edge of the forest.
“Even if we never come back, Emris, we will remember you well. I hope you will remember us well, too.”
The boy flung his arms around her, muttered entreaties muffled by her loose jacket. She let him stand so for a few heartbeats, then gently disengaged his arms.
“Be brave now.” She smiled. “Be a good person, and teach others to be good.” She kissed his forehead, turned him, and gave him a gentle shove. Without another word, she turned and came back up the ramp. Before she reached the top, I was lifting the ramp closed.
Emris turned, walking backwards, his arm raised to shade his eyes. I flashed my running lights at him and he waved back frantically, tears sliding down cheeks lifted in a smile big enough to break my heart. Once he was outside my wash range, I brought my engines online, cycling them up to escape speed. He kept walking back, hands clamped over his ears.
Steam rose up to obscure him from my cameras when I lifted off. Moments later we were high above the surface, watching him wave good-bye for as long as we could before these wings of mine carried us away.