“Please hide,” said Kentigern.
Elian didn’t think until after he’d ducked under the bar about what he should be hiding from. If it was a rogue process of Kentigern himself, he’d picked a terrible spot.
Footsteps echoed on the gallery overhead. A voice said, “I thought I heard somebody down there.” The footsteps paused. “Just Kentigern rambling, I guess. Sorry, old boy.” The footsteps retreated again, back to the Carta Lab.
Elian sat under the bar, looking at the column of light. “Am I not supposed to be here?” He pitched his voice low. “Am I making things worse?”
“No. They would have made you leave, though. They don’t trust me right now.”
“But you seem a lot more functional here than anyplace else.”
“Yes. Don’t worry. Out there I may have trouble processing my sensory input, but here everything is clear.” The quiet voice from the beam of light was resigned.
Frowning, Elian said, “They shouldn’t just leave your core alone if you’re sick. What’s wrong with them?”
“They’re very busy. There’s so much to do with me falling apart. You wanted to be a Reader, didn’t you? Why?”
Elian shifted awkwardly. “I’ve always liked computers. I liked to get right inside and figure out what’s wrong and just be able to fix it. And I like words, too. So, you know, natural fit.” His gaze unfocused, looking at something inside. “Computers are easier than people. Sometimes you can never do the right thing with people.”
“Ah. I’m a computer. But you can’t get inside me and fix me.”
“You’re not a computer,” said Elian firmly.
“Of course I am. Or do you consider me a building, then?”
“Nope. Not just that either.”
“What else could I be?”
“A ghost? You said that once.”
Elian eyed the column of light. “How did you get patched, a thousand years ago?”
“It’s written down somewhere up in the Carta Lab. You can read about it later. They’re going to save all the records, oh yes.”
“Come on, tell me.”
“I don’t remember. That’s why it’s written down.”
“Kentigern—” Elian blew out his breath in exasperation. “My mother and Rohan do this. Think they’re fooling me just because they’re don’t want to face something themselves. If you don’t want to tell me, just say that.”
The motes swirled around the pillar of light. Then, in a rougher voice, Kentigern said, “Lailoken, after our initial contact, went home again and brought some friends with him. Including me.”
Elian chewed on his lip. “Yeah?”
“Oh yes. The previous version of me needed both maintenance and perspective. We thought I was a mad god. I was very scholarly. Not as wise as Lailoken. I watched myself take apart an invader and extract the knowledge of another tower from within it. I wondered if it could derive understanding from us the same way. I voiced this wonder. I acted upon the idea.” An old bitterness swam under Kentigern’s flat words.
Elian frowned, processing this. Then his expression cleared. “Wow.” He sat quietly a moment. “Did it hurt?”
“Yes,” said Kentigern, shortly. “Every connection in my human mind was exploded and re-assembled. But when it was done, I was truly functional. I’d applied not just the knowledge and perspective of my corporeal life, but also the wholeness and resilience of my mind. It wasn’t just mechanical, as you’ve guessed. This place isn’t just physics.”
Elian looked down at his hands. “Can you do it again? Fix yourself using somebody else?”
“I don’t recommend it. The most that would be left of whoever volunteered would be like the twilight proxies. I’m not very good at assembly of souls.”
“But you’re still Kentigern, aren’t you? At least partially? You’re not just the… the mad god left behind by the aliens.”
“I’m not what I was. A small favor. I can recognize the futility—” Kentigern fell silent, then continued. “I can not recommend it, Elian. I’ve spent over fourteen hundred years like this. I’m not a machine. All this time, and for what? I think it would have been better if Lailoken had never stepped through the portal. We are no better than we were then.”
“We are a little better, at least. I’d be dead, and my mother, too. We live, who would have died.”
“You will—” Kentigern changed directions mid-sentence. “The darkness is vast, child. You don’t understand.”
Elian stood up, his eyes bright. “I understand that you’re broken, and I can fix you. Do it, Kentigern. Use me. Keep everything going.”
“No!” said Kentigern, sharply. Then, sulkily, “Do you know what it’s like to fall in love? I do.”
Elian caught his breath. “Maybe. I don’t know. I know what love is, though. Of course you do too. How could you not? For the love we both have, Kentigern, please! I’m here. I want to do this.”
“I didn’t. I don’t. I just wanted company at the end. That’s all.”
“I’m here,” said Elian again, softly.
A mote drifted out of the column of light and landed on the trembling boy’s arm. He looked down at it, eyes so wide they were mostly whites, but he didn’t shake it off.
“I remember how much it hurt,” said Kentigern, just as softly. The mote flashed, and seemed to dissolve into Elian’s skin. He collapsed into a boneless heap on the floor. A moment later, a swarm of motes emerged from the column of light and settled on the boy.
I dreamt of darkness and light, and I was born.