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 focused 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 liftoff, 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.
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