“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.
Charlotte H. Lee lives in British Columbia, Canada, and has been writing for fun since her teen years. She is a retired accountant with two grown children who have inherited her love of storytelling. Charlotte’s stories have appeared in Metaphorosis, Kzine, The Lorelei Signal, and others.