It became their nightly habit, the Prince and his bodyguard sequestering themselves in Merlin's chambers for an hour or so, and the rest of Cayleb's protective detail adjusted around it.
Cayleb wondered if his bodyguards would have been quite as blasé about it if they knew what their charge and the resident seijin were discussing each night. It never became easy to hear Merlin's tale – Cayleb always came away feeling like his brain had been scooped out with a rusty spoon – but after the first week Cayleb thought he was starting to get a handle on it. He could just about imagine the world Merlin was telling him about by now; a world where people invented their own writing systems, where there were many ways of thinking about the spiritual world, where the Proscriptions were being learned through trial and error and the consequences of violating a Proscription weren't a targeted punishment, but a natural law. Merlin had spent an entire night just explaining that one. Illness due to not following the dietary rules, for instance, was a natural consequence, like falling if you threw yourself over a cliff, instead of a direct intervention of holy wrath.
An unanticipated result of their nightly discussions was that Cayleb would almost without fail end up holding Merlin by the wrist or hand. It was a kind of anchor, a reassurance that however much it felt like his world was turning to sand beneath him, Merlin would always be there, real and solid. Very, very solid, in fact – Cayleb had held so tightly once or twice that a normal man would have been in a fair amount of pain from the bones grinding together in his hand. Merlin never gave so much as a grunt of discomfort.
The concept of the other world developing in radically different ways in many different areas had been bewildering at first, but Cayleb had gotten his head around it more quickly than he'd thought he would, and the most difficult thing now was keeping track of all the different strands – Europe, Asia, the Americas, and even the smaller island nations, although not much had happened on the continent called Australia for a long time. Merlin had recounted what he called the 'Renaissance' in the European area of the other world, which sounded akin to the Asian area's flowering of technology during their Han Dynasty. Interwoven with the Italian Renaissance was the history of Catholicism. Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism, which all came from a common point of origin, were very, very close to the Church of God Awaiting, and it made Cayleb frustrated and uneasy that Merlin was being cagey about those similarities. There was something there, something that Merlin didn't think Cayleb was ready for yet.
An offhand comment that Merlin was glad Cayleb knew that worlds were round had occupied them for an entire evening, as Cayleb pestered his demonic bodyguard to recount the progression of knowledge from the sight-based assumption that the world was flat to the people's logical conclusion that the world must be round, which had been proven by the European discovery of the American continents. Even though the Europeans were actually thoroughly lost and not at all where they thought they were. It fascinated and amazed Cayleb, this fumbling, haphazard journey towards what God had seen fit to provide to Safehold at the outset.
Even with Merlin's graphic descriptions of how horrible life had been for most people without the Proscriptions in place to govern diet, hygiene, and construction, Cayleb developed a healthy admiration for the people of the other world.
Merlin had described the blossoming of the sciences that followed after the Renaissance, including the Scientific Method and all the advances in weaponry that resulted. Here, Merlin had become vague, giving Cayleb only theoretical overviews (if anything at all) of some of the weapons when they came into the narrative.
"These, these are more advanced than ours," Cayleb had said with wide-eyed wonder as Merlin rushed over the description of automated guns. At least now he knew where Merlin's store of knowledge about ships and weaponry came from. Merlin flat-out glossed over the mechanics of the atom bomb, although just that vague outline was enough to make Cayleb ill.
Merlin's description of outer space had taken some getting used to, especially when the seijin had explained that the other world, Terra, orbited around its sun, instead of the other way around. Several grapes and an orange had been called upon for scale-model purposes, and Cayleb still wasn't sure what to make of it. But space-flight! Merlin's description of that had Cayleb wanting to experience such a thing with a fierce hunger. To stand on a moon, or a different planet. To see Safehold as a burning blue jewel in the utter blackness of space… Merlin's description had been so vivid that Cayleb knew without doubt that this was something Merlin had experienced personally.
Cayleb almost couldn't imagine the enormous space-ships that Merlin described, and he felt even those imaginings must fall far short of what Merlin was describing as if he could see the sprawling, floating machines stretched out before him. There was a kind of joy, and a kind of hunger, in Merlin as he did so.
These, Cayleb realized with a shock, were Merlin's ships. Could Merlin… could he be from that other world? Were all the people there demons? Was… was the world he was describing somehow.. hell? For a fleeting instant he considered that – the lack of divine presence made sense if Terra was hell… But no, Merlin hadn't described those people as capable of feats like his. Not that Merlin had really concentrated on individuals, but the people as a whole all sounded perfectly human. Well, outside of the ridiculously long lifespans, at least.
And then Merlin described the new threat. Aliens from another world that were nothing like humans, that did not think, act, or look like humans. And he described the war. The first encounters, the battles, the arms race. And the end result.
Merlin clasped his hands together and waited for Cayleb's response.
"Humanity… lost?" Cayleb asked, stunned.
"Yes and no. The aliens, the Gbaba, were beating them, but the Terrans were catching up to the Gbaba, in terms of weapons and technology – maybe even starting to surpass them. But there weren't enough Terrans left, and they didn't have enough time to get their weapons widespread enough to make a difference. So, they devised a plan. A last hope, you could say."
Cayleb took a deep breath. "They took their ships and fled."
"Yes. Operation Ark, they called it. The plan was to start a new colony, far, far away, where they could hide and heal. There was a decoy maneuver involved, and ships were sacrificed to make the Gbaba think they'd gotten all of them, but even more, the remaining Terrans had to erase all traces of what the Gbaba tracked them by."
"The advanced technology."
"Yes. And to do that, the colonists agreed to let their memories be erased, so that they would never be tempted to create something they couldn't remember, at least for the next few centuries."
Cayleb looked up, a horrible, absurd suspicion starting to kindle in his mind.
"Some of the naval officers and scientists suspected a plot by the colony leaders, to… adjust the memory wipe. They were right, but even they didn't think the new colony's Administrator would go as far as he did." Merlin fell silent.
Merlin was perched on the edge of his bed, while Cayleb sat in a chair at a slight angle to his friend, their knees almost touching. Now, Cayleb reached out and took Merlin's hand to get his attention, and out of a nameless dread that he could feel building in his stomach. "Merlin?"
"The colony's Chief Administrator was Eric Langhorne. The Chief Psychiatrist was Dr. Adoree Bedard."
Blood pounded in Cayleb's ears. He felt like throwing up. He felt cold. "No," he breathed in denial, but it was as much question as statement. Merlin had told him that the angels and archangels were men, that night on the Dreadnought, and he thought he'd come to accept that, but this was so much larger than anything he could wrap his mind around.
"The memory-wipe was effective. So were the memories given to the colonists. Langhorne and Bedard chose parts from several religions from Terra-"
Cayleb breathed out harshly, unable to find his voice. Those religions that had seemed so similar to the Church of God Awaiting… He tightened his grip on Merlin's hand. "Stop," he strangled out.
Merlin fell silent. The only sound in the room was Cayleb's harsh breathing. He wasn't sure what to think, or whether to think anything at all. Cayleb found himself sitting next to Merlin. They stayed there the rest of the night, not speaking.
The next day passed in something of a haze. Several people asked him if he was feeling ill. Cayleb kept coming back to what Merlin had said and shying away from it. Cayleb didn't go to Merlin's chambers that evening, and Merlin didn't come to him. Cayleb was guiltily grateful for it. It felt like his head was about to explode. He wanted to reject what Merlin had said, but he realized with helpless and slightly hysterical amusement that some part of him had already accepted it.
The following day was easier, or at least he'd stopped feeling like the world was about to fall out from under him. Instead, it was as if he was seeing everything for the first time. Everything seemed… deeper. He thought about the stories – the histories – that Merlin had told him about. He looked around him and considered what had been stolen from him, from his people – the history of getting this far not through divine intervention, but by themselves. Then he thought about God. He thought about God for a long time. He prayed, even though going into a church and seeing a mosaic of the 'Archangel Langhorne' almost made him walk right back out again. Then he wondered why he was praying, but he prayed anyway. He worried his new knowledge one way and another until his head felt like it was going to fall off. He didn't come to a definite conclusion.
But he supposed he didn't need to figure out everything right this second.
It was like everything snapped into focus then, and he realized he was at dinner, fork halfway to his mouth. Suddenly he wasn't just there, he was present again. He saw Merlin's furtive glance at him from down the dinner tables, and realized that Ahrnold Falkahn had been guarding him for the past three days. He brought his fork the rest of the way up, chewed, swallowed. "Hey, Ahrnold," he leaned over to talk to his bodyguard, "ask Merlin to see me in my chambers later."
There was just one last thing to figure out, Cayleb had realized. Exactly how Merlin tied into all this.
Cayleb wasn't surprised to find Merlin knocking on his door later, and even managed a respectable smile for the seijin. Merlin nodded and returned the smile, but there was something careful, something uncertain in the set of his face.
"Worried I was going to condemn you as a demon?" Cayleb asked once Merlin was safely inside and away from prying ears.
"A bit, maybe," Merlin admitted. "I do technically qualify."
"You do. I just don't care," Cayleb admitted with a grin that felt real, and he realized he was telling the absolute truth. Huhn. How about that. "There are one or two more questions I have though," he added as he seated himself. Merlin settled into the chair opposite Cayleb's.
"I'd be worried if you ever stopped having questions," Merlin said, amused, his good humour starting to resurface.
"First off, who was Shan-wei, really?"
"A scientist and historian who disagreed with Eric Langhorne," Merlin said, a sad note in his voice.
"Did you know her?" Cayleb guessed. It surely wasn't possible, but he had to ask.
"Yes. Her and her husband, Kua-yung."
"Then, I suppose that brings us full circle," Cayleb said. He caught Merlin's gaze and held it. "Merlin. What are you?"
"That was what started all this," Merlin said, bemused, then scrubbed his hands across his face. "Okay. Do you remember I told you about the mechanical prosthetics, the artificial bodies?"
"Picas, right?" Cayleb had been a bit perturbed by the idea of a mechanical toy made to resemble a person, a machine even more advanced than the communicator Merlin had shown him one evening. The idea that people could move their memories into something like that was disquieting, although Merlin had reassured him that not only were Picas uncommon, but that strict laws had governed their use and the time someone was allowed to stay in one. At the time, Cayleb had thought that Melin was using these mechanical toys as an example to illustrate what the Terrans had been capable of. Now, he wasn't so sure.
"Personality-Integrated Cybernetic Avatars, or PICAs, yes," Merlin nodded. "There was a member of one of the fleets, a woman named Nimue Alban, whose father had bought her a PICA. She was part of the decoy effort-" Merlin stopped abruptly. He took a deep breath and Cayleb could see tension being forced out of his shoulders. "She was part of the decoy effort, but her PICA was stored with the main colonist cargo. The last memory recording Nimue made for her PICA was in preparation for going on a vacation with her father."
"So imagine my surprise when I woke up in the Mountains of Light a thousand years later, instead."
It took Cayleb a moment to connect it all. "But you- you're not- you're not-" he sputtered, shocked.
"I'm not-?" Merlin asked, expression strangely closed.
"You're. Not a, a woman." Cayleb blurted out the first coherent idea that blundered onto his tongue. When Merlin had explained that PICAs were machines, he hadn't exactly pictured something made of metal and wire and wood, not after having seen that communicator, but he certainly hadn't imagined something indistinguishable from a person.
Merlin shrugged, looking a bit… uncomfortable? Embarrassed? "Picas are. Malleable, to a degree. The model that my father bought me was meant as a toy for the very rich. I suppose it made sense to add all the bells and whistles to it that they could. You can change a PICA's gender, hair colour, eye colour, even its height, a bit. I actually shortened myself by an inch."
"But. Wait, you said there was a time limit on PICAs, that they could only be active for a few days."
Merlin nodded. "That's true. There was a computer programmer. A… a scientist, who worked with machines. He, hmmm," Merlin frowned, searching for the words – Cayleb knew that expression all too well by now, "PICAs have certain built in instructions, like a valve that shuts off automatically when a tank is full enough. The ten-day time limit is like that, and it's very hard to tamper with. However, the programmer found a way to… break that part of the instructions, or at least bridge over it, so that this PICA's countdown timer doesn't work.
"You. You're a machine? Like the machines that ran the star-ships?"
"An Artificial Intelligence?" Merlin gave a smile, but it was a sickly, broken thing. "I suppose I am." Merlin stood so abruptly he almost staggered, and went to stand in front of Cayleb's window, staring blindly out through the closed glass.
For a handful of moments, it was all Cayleb could do to sit there and gape at Merlin as the seijin, the machine stood by his window, ramrod stiff, arms closed around himself like he was holding in a belly-wound.
"Are you-" Cayleb floundered to a stop. What could he say?
"Sometimes," Merlin said quietly, voice thick, "I don't even know if I'm real."
Oh. This, Cayleb realized, was the weight Merlin had been carrying. This maelstrom of doubt, of difference. Merlin wasn't even alive. Or was he? Cayleb felt torn. Seijin, demon, woman, ghost, machine. What was Merlin, really? Was he even a person?
Cayleb felt shame flush over him. 'Was he even a person'? What kind of question was that? What did it matter exactly what Merlin was? Hadn't Cayleb already accepted that Merlin was a demon, or the next thing to it? Merlin was a person. A brave, loyal, lonely soul who made Cayleb strive to be a better man and a better prince, just by expecting the best from a reckless young hothead.
Cayleb put a hand on Merlin's arm. The seijin turned his head stiffly, eyes too bright. And Cayleb put his arms around his friend, and hugged him. It was like hugging a statue, at first, but gradually the inhuman stiffness bled out of the seijin, until Merlin was leaning into Cayleb's touch. Finally, Merlin returned the hug. Even if Merlin hadn't been physically indistinguishable from a human, he would still have been real.
"It doesn't matter what you are," Cayleb said with certainty when he drew back to meet Merlin's eyes. "Because I already know who you are, and that hasn't changed just because I know more about you. Whatever you are, it's still you in there."
"Cayleb…." Merlin started, ran out of words. The last of the storm seemed to settle then, and Merlin quirked a shadow of a smile at Cayleb. "Thank you."