Worth the Candle, Ch 93: Bottle Episode

“How goes it?” asked Fenn as Grak and Amaryllis emerged from the chamber. From what I could see of the room, it looked completely different, which wasn’t a huge surprise, given how easily the glove allowed free rearranging of the furniture, and how different the requirements for two people would be. They had bunk beds, it looked like, shoved off in one corner, with sheets hung up to block out the lamplight. There were more books on the desk than before, stacked up high, with more bookmarks in them. One of them was open; a calico cat slept on top of it.

“It was productive,” said Grak. He looked at me, where I was sitting on the ground. “How does it go with you?”

“He needs some time,” said Fenn, with a thumb pointed in my direction.

“Time in the chamber,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “Grak and I were talking about that. We’d like to go forward with a rotating schedule, one person in the chamber with me at a time. Less, if it doesn’t work out for interpersonal reasons.”

“I wasn’t actually thinking time in the chamber,” said Fenn. “Just, maybe, an hour or two away from people, a nap somewhere, a cup of tea, something like that.”

Amaryllis glanced at the recorder, then stepped over and began fiddling with it, replacing the reel with a fresh one from the glove. “I suppose I’ll learn whatever it was soon enough, from the house’s mouth.”

“Was that a pun?” I asked.

Amaryllis smiled and shrugged. “You’re welcome to join me, unless you have reservations.”

I glanced at Fenn, before realizing that the glance communicated something. I immediately wished that I hadn’t looked at her, but the damage was done. “I don’t want to be apart from Fenn,” I said.

“Aww, that’s sweet,” said Fenn with a roll of her eyes. “I’ll be fine if you’ll be fine.”

“I don’t want to cause problems,” said Amaryllis. “There are some things that I’d like Joon’s input on though, beyond just having company.”

“Okay,” I replied. I swallowed. “It’ll be fine. Anything that we need to discuss before that? Or, things that we should talk about as a group? I’d understand if you wanted to stretch your legs.”

At the prompt, Amaryllis stretched out. She was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, her ‘Boning by the Bay’ one, and when she stretched, I looked for a baby bump. If it was there, I couldn’t see it, but she was still three months and change along, and I had enough knowledge of pregnancy to know that the growth was exponential.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll get some,” she gave a glance at the decaying house, “fresh air, be back in ten minutes.” She looked to Zona. “Would it be too much to ask –”

“Yes,” said Zona.

“And here I’d hoped that there’d be some work done on my behalf,” said Amaryllis. “Very well.” She took off through one of the doors, and did a good job of seeming blithely unaware of the danger.

I felt Fenn’s hand on my elbow. “Care to say our goodbyes?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

She guided me into a room in the opposite direction from the one that Amaryllis had taken, where some kind of fire had briefly flared and then died out, immolating a bed in the process. I had no idea how long ago that had been, but decades at least.

“Not to be rude, but can I have you be the most social you can be?” asked Fenn.

“I am,” I said. “I mean, I have been.” She was talking about the two ability points I could shift around; I’d put them into SOC as soon as I’d had the chance, when it seemed like we’d need to deal with the house as a person rather than as a physical obstacle.

Fenn sank her face into her palm. “Yeah, I was worried about that.”

“Sorry,” I replied. “Not really at my best right now, for a handful of reasons.” I paused. “Is this really about saying goodbye, or … ?”

Fenn wrapped me in a hug, then gave me a kiss on the cheek. “I want you to know that no one will think less of you if you have to bail out early. I’m not going to ask questions about it, and I’ll make sure that Grak doesn’t either. Okay?” She backed away from me enough that she could stare into my eyes.

“Yeah,” I said. “Okay. If you’re worried about … about anything –”

“I am,” said Fenn. “But if you can’t stay stuck in a room with Amaryllis for a month without fucking her — if I can’t let you go into a room with her for a month without flipping my lid — then yeah, I’m going to choose to believe the best of you, her, and myself.”

“I wouldn’t,” I began.

“No, I know,” said Fenn. “But think about the unicorn, right? About a million timelines where things shake out differently, or think about the Dungeon Master and his nudges, and … I love you, I trust you, but I’m not sure I trust you that much, you know what I’m saying?”

“I … yeah,” I said. “Right now I’m kind of hoping that I can just have some time to be alone and think, if I’m being honest.”

“Arthur stuff,” nodded Fenn. “I get that. I mean, I don’t get it, but I get it. If you stay on the outside, you’d probably have to hear more shit from this house, who doesn’t like him, or had some terrible experience, and then it would be another couple of hours before Solace was born, which would be its own thing, and there’d be no room to breathe.” She sighed. “So I don’t get it, but I never really had a friend like Arthur was to you. Never really had much of a family either. This is the closest that I’ve ever come to,” she dabbed at one eye with a finger, and I realized that she was on the verge of crying. “I love you, Juniper, just please don’t fuck this up?”

“I won’t,” I said. I felt upset that she thought I would, and ashamed that there was a part of me that agreed with that assessment. I’d fucked up enough friendships in my life to recognize that I was the common denominator.

“Sorry,” said Fenn. She wiped a half-formed tear away and wrapped me in a hug so tight that it was physically painful. “Pregnancy hormones must be getting to me.”

I pulled back from her. “You’re not –”

“It was a joke, Juniper,” said Fenn, laughing.

We reconvened outside the time chamber, where Amaryllis had set up some basic amenities to make the waiting more bearable; there were four chairs and a small table with a plate of cheese, meat, and crackers.

“I told her that she didn’t have to do this,” said Grak.

Amaryllis waved a hand. “It was nothing,” she said. “You have another four or five hours out here, at a minimum. There’s a good chance that you’ll all need your strength at the end.” She looked to me. “Ready? Everything good?”

“Yeah,” I said. I gave Fenn one last kiss, we stepped into the time chamber together.

“No,” Amaryllis explained. “The real issue is heat, especially with two people. The time chamber is essentially perfectly insulated from the outside world, and that would be fine, except that we do a whole lot of heat production just through metabolism.”

“Do I need to know all this?” I asked. “Can’t you just say, ‘hey, I’m smart, I solved every relevant problem during the first day in here’ and we can get on with it?”

“I ran Grak through the same thing,” said Amaryllis. “If something happens, I’ll want your expertise in fixing it. And even if that doesn’t happen, these systems require maintenance, which you might have to help with if or when I can’t manage it all. Not to mention that you’re going to ask about them anyway when you see me moving jugs of water and blocks of ice around. Okay?”

So we went through the systems that Amaryllis had set up, waste disposal, air filtration and exchange, heat sinks, the carbon monoxide detector and smoke alarm, the fire extinguisher, the lighting, until I was pretty sure that at some point I was going to annoy her by asking all of the things that I’d forgotten. For her, this was a changing of the guard, but for me, it was only the night before that I’d fought with the tuung guards on the top of the train, and only hours since I’d nearly died on the Down and Out.

“Okay,” I finally said. “Can I sleep now?”

I saw her cheek twitch slightly. “Sure,” she said. “I arranged it so our sleep schedules should be roughly in sync, but I’m a little bit wired right now, and there are things that I’d like to get to sooner rather than later. Nothing that can’t wait until the so-called morning though.” She’d rigged a dimmer switch to a timer, which controlled the lighting in the chamber and gave some semblance of a day-night cycle.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know, I figured, I’m just wiped out.”

“Grak put up some wards, the bunks are soundproofed,” said Amaryllis. “I’m probably going to stay up for a bit.”

“Uh, one thing,” I said. “I haven’t had a shower since, uh, a few days ago, how is that sort of thing handled here?”

“Sponge bath,” answered Amaryllis. “If you need to wash your hair, there’s a washbasin that I use for that, and for doing laundry.”

“And, ah,” I said. “In terms of modesty?”

“That … wasn’t really something I’d considered, sorry, I should have,” said Amaryllis. “We can put up a curtain, I suppose, would that be acceptable? It wasn’t really a problem with Grak, obviously.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Puritanical Midwestern views, et cetera.”

“It’s something we can talk about later,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “I’ve been reading a lot of Earth history, as you can imagine. I think I’ve got a better handle on how you think now.” She was silent for a moment. “I’ll get everything ready so you can take a sponge bath without getting water everywhere, and we can run through setup and takedown for it.”

It wasn’t much later that I was out of my armor and sponging myself down. I’d done something similar on the train, to get the blood off me, and it was hard not to think about that as I washed myself clean of the stench of combat. A sponge bath in lukewarm water wasn’t what I’d wanted; I wanted a hot shower in my house, a place that I hadn’t thought all that much about since coming to Aerb. I felt lucky that the wounds I’d taken had been transient, enough that it was hard to remember them; I still looked at my left hand every once in awhile, just to make sure that it wasn’t deformed anymore.

Getting my mind off the physical didn’t really help things though, because that wasn’t where the real problems were lurking. It was hard for me not to picture Uther as Arthur. I found myself projecting the person I’d grown up with onto the imposing king of legend. When I tried to grapple with him having sex with a fake version of Tiff, it was hard not to just see the two of them.

Sleep didn’t come easy to me, despite the rigors of the day, but there was a spell for sleep, and I wasn’t hesitant to use it.

Amaryllis was barefoot in the ‘kitchen’ when I woke up, making pancakes and eggs using stuff she’d taken from the backpack. She’d set up a table in the middle of the room, with a chair for each of us. I wasn’t sure where Fenn had stolen them from, but they matched.

“Here,” she said, placing a plate on the table for me. “These were going to be for me, but you eat first and we can talk for a bit while I make my own.”

“They’re flat,” I said, poking them with a fork. “Not that I’m complaining, I’m just used to the fluffier kind.” I frowned at them. “Didn’t Fenn make pancakes before? Is there … some variation in pancakes across Aerb?”

“They’re crepes,” said Amaryllis.

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, we have those on Earth.”

“I know,” said Amaryllis, glancing back at me. “They’re from an Earth recipe, I’ve been trying to give myself the full cultural experience. Most of the good stuff from Aerb is a few months old by this point, and while we have a few pallets of the bad stuff — sterilized barren bread — I’d rather pull from the backpack and have fresh food.” She slid a crepe out of the pan and onto her plate, then poured more batter onto the pan. “There are limits on what we can cook in here, naturally, since a little smoke goes a long way in such a small space.”

The crepes were good, especially when Amaryllis put the extras on the table; she had maple syrup, butter, and some kind of mushed fruit. The eggs were a little runny for my tastes, but I didn’t say anything about them. I had other things on my mind, and if the breakfast was meant to help get me focused on something else, it wasn’t working.

“So,” said Amaryllis when she sat down. “I listened to the recording this morning.”

“Ah,” I said. “These crepes are good.”

“Thanks,” said Amaryllis. She set her fork down with the tines set on the edge of the plate. “Joon, if you wanted to talk about that, about what she said, I would listen.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s … there was this game called The Sims. It was a videogame on the computer, you had control of this little family, or maybe just a single person, they had all these little meters, it was … kind of like playing dolls, Will Wright had a TED Talk where he called it structured play, the sort of game that the user is meant to hang a story on because all the interacting internal systems allow the human brain to latch onto — you know what, that’s a tangent. The point is, it was something like playing with dolls, I guess, and one of the things that people did a lot — that we did — was to make all of our friends in the game.”

I cleared my throat. “Anyway, Arthur was never cruel, I mean, there were lots of ways to kill people in the game, and I did a bunch of that, you could make a person work themselves to the point of exhaustion and pee their pants.” I saw her expression. “It was cartoonish, not meant to be taken seriously, the animation and models were simplistic, and it wasn’t anything approaching … well, whatever this world is, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis.

“The point is, it wasn’t like that for him,” I continued. “For him it was about the stories he could tell with our friends, or the people we knew. Like, he’d make girls we knew, and flirt with them using his character, and it was …” I stopped and let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “This was when we were younger, maybe ten or eleven, the kind of thing that you look back on and cringe.” I looked at Amaryllis, finally meeting her eyes. “I don’t know, it was what I was thinking about. I’ve been trying to see it from different angles, to weigh the evidence.”

“Is it that he didn’t see the house as human, or that Tiff was your girlfriend?” asked Amaryllis.

“I don’t know,” I said. “If that story is anything to go by, he was going through some shit at the time, and I want to cut him slack because of that, but it’s still … it makes me feel gross.”

“Me too,” said Amaryllis. She ate more of her crepes. “You’ll let me know if you have more thoughts? Or if you want to vent?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I feel kind of crappy coming in here and talking about my stuff, I’m supposed to be here for you.” Amaryllis shrugged. “How have you been?”

“Fine,” said Amaryllis. “Having Grak here was better than I’d thought it would be. If you mean the chamber as a whole, I’ve been getting a lot of work done. I’m not sure how much any of that would interest you, but I can share it later, in a more structured way. Oh, and I’ve been doing some cultural exploration of Earth, which has been … interesting, I guess.”

“Oh?” I asked. “Anything I’d have heard of?”

“Almost certainly,” said Amaryllis. “That was part of the point, really. It’s hard, because a lot of information on Earth is or was stored digitally, or on the global internet, which I don’t have very good ways of accessing. Still, I gathered up some reference guides and lists of essentials that let me start filling in my Earth knowledge, especially in the areas that Uther didn’t directly copy, and the places that you’ve only mildly touched on. I’ve been making my way through the American Film Institute’s top hundred films. I think I’m starting to get a hang of the medium.”

“Wait,” I said. “You’re watching films? How?”

“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “Yes, I have a film projector. For the most part, I’ve been able to get physical film strips in their cans. The projector itself was a pain, since I think it was just a bit too big for the backpack, which meant that I had to get the parts individually and then assemble it, and then, as it turned out, I needed a new lens because I couldn’t get the focus I needed at such a close distance, which was an entirely different ordeal. It’s hacked together, but it works, so if you’re feeling particularly nostalgic, we could do that some night. The next one up is The Sound of Music, which is apparently a musical. I’m not sure if you like those or not.”

“Not really,” I said. “I’m impressed, and a little bit surprised you went through the work, especially if you’re not enjoying yourself.”

“It took me some time to get used to the cuts,” said Amaryllis. “You’d be watching someone one second, and the next second you’d be looking at something totally different. Don’t laugh.”

“I’m not laughing,” I said, but I was smiling. “It’s just that you sound like an old person.”

“In a bad way?” asked Amaryllis.

“Kind of,” I said. “I really shouldn’t be laughing, you’re trying to educate yourself about a medium that evolved over the course of a few generations, that’s noble, but … the idea that someone doesn’t like or understand cuts is kind of funny.”

“I understand them,” said Amaryllis, crossing her arms. “The concept of the notional camera is clear to me, I’d just like movies better if the camera were clearly moving rather than just jumping from one thing to another all the time. They do it during dialogue and it’s like the filmmaker was trying to put me in the shoes of a hyperactive teleporter. I don’t like having my viewpoint switched around so fast. I’m wondering how universal my experience is; if the medium needs to evolve itself by way of children growing up with it, that’s really going to create some problems in bringing our goods to market.”

“I missed a step,” I said. “You’re planning on selling movies? Specifically, Earth movies?”

“Oh, all of it,” said Amaryllis. “Uther was incredibly prolific, but what he brought over from Earth were bastardizations of works he remembered seeing or reading as a teenager, and in comparison with everything from Earth, his canon is minuscule. More to the point, none of this requires our direct labor to exploit. We can hire out people to copy the works and mass-distribute them, with our only role being selecting which books, movies, and songs to pull out.”

“Huh,” I said. “Can I say something that you might find really dumb?”

“Always,” smiled Amaryllis. “To be honest, I’ve kind of missed it.”

“I find the cultural sales stuff to be kind of boring,” I said.

“That’s not dumb,” said Amaryllis. “It would be dumb to not do just because you find it boring, but finding it boring in and of itself is just a matter of taste. Besides, as I said, we don’t really need to have that much of a hand in it, so long as we can find people that we trust to run things for us. There are some important questions about how we’ll do it — I’ve made a list — but your actual involvement can be close to nil. It’s mostly as a way of accruing capital for the other projects I want to run.”

“Any luck figuring out why Aerb lags behind Earth in terms of development?” I asked.

Amaryllis sighed. “No, not really. We don’t really have fossil fuels, which hurts immensely, and to some extent the athenaeums drain away brainpower from other pursuits. The multitude of species on Aerb are also a problem — sorry, not a problem, but a possible explanation for why we’re progressing so slowly. Different cultures, different minds, different ways of doing things, all of which you’d think would contribute to a marketplace of ideas, but I think in reality just creates a lot of friction, as well as removing a lot of people from contention as inventors. Dwarves live almost exclusively underground, they don’t really have much use for radio technologies, the elves are essentially static outside of a few aberrations, you have groups like the tuung that are intentionally regressive, it’s kind of a mess.” She frowned slightly.

“You still don’t think that explains it all,” I said.

“No,” she replied with another sigh. “It’s been nagging at me. Maybe it really just is a combination of factors. Or maybe it’s the Dungeon Master putting his foot on the scale somewhere, either because he wanted the world to look a certain way, or because he wanted this opportunity for us.”

“I’d think he’d be more seamless about it,” I replied.

“I’m not sure that’s his style,” replied Amaryllis. “I’ve been finding a lot of things that just make me groan. It reminds me a lot of you, actually.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“So, I was reading Alfred Kinsey’s work on human sexuality, and the name kept bugging me,” said Amaryllis. “Then I pulled out The Book of Blood, and do you recall who wrote that?”

“Syfriend?” I asked.

“Alek Syfriend,” replied Amaryllis. “Which is an anagram for Alfred Kinsey.”

“Huh,” I said. “Yeah, I’ll confess to having missed that one. But that’s not really a seam, in the way that I would think of them, it’s just a … a wink, I guess.”

“I suppose,” said Amaryllis. “But there are thousands of those winks, and it’s sort of made me reconsider what’s going on here.”

“You know, when we first met you’d have said that I was just partially dream-skewered, that it was Earth that had conformed to Aerb, rather than the other way around,” I said.

“It seemed sensible at the time,” said Amaryllis. “Now, I’m not very confident that’s the case. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been absorbing a lot of American media, history, and political theory, and realizing how much Uther copied from the world he knew. It makes me think that’s true for everything, that our world in some respects is just a reflection of your own.”

“Yeah,” I said. I finished the last bite of my breakfast, which had grown slightly cold as we talked. “Thanks for helping me take my mind off things for a bit.”

“No problem,” said Amaryllis. “You seemed like you needed it. I’ve always liked talking to you.”

“No, you haven’t,” I said.

“No, that’s true, I haven’t always,” said Amaryllis. “Especially the beginning. I suppose there have been a little bit of rose-colored glasses on my end. Grak said the same thing, that I was romanticizing our group a bit.” She cleared her throat. “But I am happy to have you here.”

“Alright,” I said. “Let’s get started on mapping out the future of the world, shall we?”

Most of the ‘work’ involved me sitting there while Amaryllis explained things. She had a dry-erase board that she’d pulled out of the glove and set against one wall, with the markers taken from Earth and the board itself just a sheet of glass with white backing, which I thought was probably made from native materials given it was too big to have come out of the backpack. She had a variety of questions for me, most of them written down in a notebook, and made some notes on the board and the notebook when I answered, even though I didn’t think my answers were all that illuminating.

The plan was to build up as much money as possible to get us into a position where we could be the first movers on all of the technologies available to us. Ideally, we’d be able to buy a factory outright, then hire a team of engineers in order to get that factory to produce the goods we thought were most important. This was a slower method of distributing technologies, but it would reap us greater personal rewards, some of which would funnel back toward the ‘adventuring’ side of things, if we still had cause to do that (which we both assumed would be the case).

“Ideally, we would have the full backing of a state,” said Amaryllis. “Actually, ideally, we would be a state, since that’s the only way to have true top-to-bottom vertical integration.”

“You’re talking about reclaiming the throne of Anglecynn?” I asked.

Amaryllis actually laughed. “Well, I never had the throne of Anglecynn, and it’s a really poor candidate for a number of reasons, like the legal framework, the sheer size and scope of the country, the entrenched institutions, the politics — no, I was thinking somewhere small, with lawmakers that are easy to bully around with our power and influence.”

“Huh,” I replied. “That’s … cutthroat.”

“Sure,” said Amaryllis. “I mean, I am talking about creating an oligopoly with us at the top. I stumbled across the phrase ‘benevolent dictator for life’. It seemed really apropos. Anyway, I was thinking about this time chamber, which should have only a little less than two hundred years in it when we’re done with it, and about what Esuen had said. In thirty years, she could produce five hundred thousand young. Meaning, essentially, that we could have our own nation in a single-digit number of years.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“Blegh, Jesus,” said Amaryllis, rolling her eyes. “Some night when we don’t have more pressing matters to talk about, I’m going to rant to you about the Bible. I can’t imagine why I thought it would be worth reading.” She paused. “Is having our own country one of those things that you think is distasteful but will do anyway? Or are you actually against it?”

“It’s just … bigger than anything we’ve done,” I said. “You’re talking about actually entering into international politics.”

“It had to happen at some point,” said Amaryllis. “The whole point of this, all of this, practically from the beginning, was that we’d change the world. To my way of thinking, if we can get the backing to create our own nation, one formally recognized by the Empire of Common Cause, we can set all the rules up how we want them from the start. We go to whoever wants to back the rogue tuung, keep our information advantage under wraps, they set us up as a lever to use against the other tuung, and then before anyone knows what to do about it, there are cheap electronics being teleported into every city in the world, and we take a cut.”

I found Amaryllis scary sometimes.

There was a lot for me to catch up on, but very little that was actually new. Amaryllis had developed embryonic plans into thick binders filled with typewritten thoughts and ideas. She was roadblocked in a number of places, limited by information she’d need to get from the outside world, or places where she didn’t quite understand some bit of technical jargon and needed more time for study, but it was everything she’d said she was going to do when she’d talked about going in the chamber.

There were a few surprises though.

“Here,” she said, sliding forward a sheaf of papers. “It’s an analysis of your expanded character sheet with some notes on moving toward an optimal build the next time you change things around. Obviously what’s optimal depends on what you end up doing, but it’s my belief that you should either focus on social or mental abilities, especially those that aren’t easily available to other people.”

“Huh,” I said. “Okay, can I read this later?”

“Sure,” said Amaryllis. “No rush, we’ve got tons of time.”

So there was that. Amaryllis had laid plans for unlocking all of the remaining magic I should have access to, ranked them by both mundane and combat utility, and by what she thought we’d need in order to get the unlock done. On some, she’d written ‘potential quest?’, because she thought they’d need an appreciable amount of effort in order to actually get unlocked. Revision magic was at the top of the list; the way a revision mage was inducted was particularly onerous, but the most burdensome aspect was the time it took, which we could reduce down enormously by using the time chamber.

There were some other ideas she’d been kicking around that I was less enamored with.

“We can rush Solace,” said Amaryllis. “When she’s born, you’ll take a look at her soul, and if it looks like everything but her body is as it should be, then we’ll have you do a wholesale replacement of her physical self. Then all we should need to do is heal her into that form, rendering her a full adult and capable druid a few minutes after I’ve given birth to her.”

“That … does make some sense,” I said. “I would think there would be some problems as far as mass goes. Do you know whether bone magic actually replaces lost mass?”

“Our only reference book on bone magic is The Commoner’s Guide to Bone Magic, which unsurprisingly doesn’t go into it,” said Amaryllis. “And yes, that’s something that we should test before trying it. Obviously if the magic is cannibalizing other muscle, fat, or bone, we’re not going to be able to turn a six pound baby into a hundred pound woman. In general concept though, what do you think?”

“I was going to say that it feels unnatural, but we’re already talking about the result of an eldritch ritual done on a dead woman’s soul with the help of a non-anima and a square mile of sentient forest, so I suppose we threw the concept of ‘natural’ out right from the start,” I said. “It all depends on if we can do it safely or not.”

“I suppose in theory, if she has her faculties, Solace might be able to do a less risky version of what I’m proposing,” said Amaryllis. “But that’s a question of what druids can and cannot do, which is always a tricky thing. Logically, I’d think that she’d be able to do it, but logic isn’t always on the menu as far as druids are concerned.”

“I can understand not wanting to stay in here that long, so long that Solace would be able to develop her motor and language skills the natural way,” I said. “But if I look into her soul and she’s lost a lot in the process, we might have to raise her in the time chamber, at least long enough that she gets back to being herself.”

“Yeah,” frowned Amaryllis. “I’m aware, just not looking forward to it. Even if we feed her formula and take shifts raising her, it’s still more time in this tiny room.”

“Are you going to make it?” I asked.

“Maybe,” said Amaryllis. “I found myself looking through medical texts from Earth, trying to get information about how to induce labor, and how early it was okay to do that.” She shook her head. “Obviously the stress of being in here would be something we’d have to worry about with Esuen as well, and I’m worried that if I can’t hack it as a test case, I can’t ask her to do the same. The tuung lay eggs, so we could still probably do some speeding up, but it’s another case where I’m a bit blocked on outside information.” She sighed. “Okay, I think we’re done for the day.”

“Done?” I asked. There was no clock in the room for easy reference, only a timepiece that Amaryllis kept in her pocket and referred to only reluctantly.

“Done,” replied Amaryllis. “Did I not go over the day structure?”

“Nope,” I replied.

“Mornings are for collaboration, information exchange, et cetera, then we have lunch, and until a few hours before bedtime, you work on your own, doing whatever you think your efforts would best be put toward. Then we have a late dinner, and spend the rest of the day after that on enforced leisure. That’s what Grak and I worked out, adapted from my previous schedule when I was solo. I guess I’m open to change, if you’d like.” She really didn’t sound like she was open to change.

“No,” I said. “That’s fine.”

Lunch was a stir fry with thick noodles, heavy on the vegetables and with two enormous shrimp, bigger than any shrimp I’d ever eaten but apparently from Earth. Amaryllis was a surprisingly good cook, and I wondered how much of that skill she’d picked up in her time in the chamber. She ate quickly, without saying much, and then tended to the chamber for a bit while I finished up. For all that she described the chamber as being a delicate balance of heat and air, I hadn’t found it all that different from a somewhat stuffy room in a house without air conditioning.

I spent free time training up skills to their soft cap, to the extent I was able to do that without any help from Amaryllis. Most of them were already there, and had been for a while, so I put work into some of the ones that were harder to raise, like Horticulture or Engineering, done using materials taken from the backpack. I tried to bring Solace’s lessons to mind as I worked with the plants, but it was difficult to get in what I thought of as being the right mindset when we weren’t outdoors. True flower mages tended toward disorganized, organic gardens, though maybe not to the extent that was true for Solace.

For dinner, Amaryllis pulled out a crockpot that she’d loaded up before breakfast, filled with root vegetables and beef.

“You’re very domestic,” I said. “If it were Fenn, she’d probably just be eating fast food.”

“Fenn knows how to cook,” said Amaryllis. “Sometimes I feel like you don’t give her enough credit.”

“No, I know she knows how to cook,” I said. “I just don’t think that she would, if you were in each other’s shoes. You can pull whatever you want from the backpack, and I know for a fact that hot, cooked food is well within its abilities.”

“I think it tastes better if you make it yourself,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “Do you wish I didn’t cook?”

“I appreciate the effort,” I said. “I just … maybe don’t understand it? Like, Fenn wouldn’t cook because she likes to be lazy when she can be, and I thought that maybe you wouldn’t cook because you like being efficient and spending time cooking is time you could spend doing something else.”

“I like cooking,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. She furrowed her brow. “I do take it out of my time budget.”

“Sorry, this is good eats, I didn’t mean that you shouldn’t have, I just,” I stopped and shut my mouth. “It doesn’t seem like you, to focus on something aesthetic and fleeting.”

“I’ll choose to take that as a compliment,” said Amaryllis. “From what you’ve told me, on Earth you focused on nothing but the aesthetic and fleeting.”

“Ouch,” I said. “Tough but fair.”

“Isn’t that how you described the games you played?” asked Amaryllis. “You compared them to performance art.”

“I said it was fair,” I replied. “I was thinking more about the time I spent online.” I ate more of the roast as I thought about that. “You know, I think you’d love the internet.”

“I have part of it,” said Amaryllis. “The backpack doesn’t allow me access to a computer, lap computer, or intelligent phone, but it does allow printouts of websites.”

“That’s … not really the same thing, since you’d be missing out on interactivity,” I replied. “But I suppose it’s as close as we’re going to get. Find anything interesting?”

“Many things,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “It’s unbelievable how much Uther brought over from Earth. I’d thought, when I started, that I’d find a few places where he’d been obviously influenced by what he’d grown up with on Earth, but it’s almost overwhelming how many parallels there are. Even his name is taken from Earth legend, did you know that?”

“Well, usually it’s ‘Pendragon’, but yeah, I knew,” I replied. “But that’s not actually on him, unless you want to judge an adolescent boy for his choice in names. The Penndraig name was sitting here, on Aerb, waiting for him. At least he didn’t call himself Megatron.”

“I’m not sure that you understand who Uther Penndraig was,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “The way you talk about him, it’s like you know all the details, but haven’t been able to internalize how he appeared to us.”

“He’s the most important man in history,” I said. “Responsible for the First Empire, and by some accountings, accidentally responsible for the Second Empire, kicked off a minor scientific revolution that petered out without him around to keep things going, led millions if not billions of people — yeah, I know.”

“You know, but you don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “You’re repeating back facts, but to you he’s still your teenage friend. The tape — can I talk about it?”

“About what Zona said?” I asked. I got that nauseous feeling again, and pushed away what was left of my food. “Sure.”

“There have always been rumors about him,” said Amaryllis. “He was … he was Donny Osmond, Shakespeare, John F. Kennedy, Nikola Tesla, all rolled into one. Anyone that big, that important, that popular? Well, of course there would be rumors and stories, even if none of them were true. That’s just how some people interact with greatness, they feel a need to tear it down so that it’s not so imposing, or make excuses for why that greatness wasn’t really an achievement. People would say that he’d sold his soul to accomplish what he did, or he was selling lies, or even that he was simply a deeply flawed man who had nonetheless done a lot for the world.”

“Some of that might be true,” I said, swallowing. “Yeah, I … I never thought of him as perfect, back on Earth. Good, maybe, better than me, certainly, but not perfect. I just thought the imperfections would be, I don’t know. Not in this particular direction. Not him using people. I thought that it would be insecurity, a lack of direction, something like that. Or, putting his family and friends before others, maybe. Being inconsiderate? I don’t know. Something that I could handle a little better.”

“You’re struggling with the fact that he wasn’t the person you knew,” said Amaryllis. “Or rather, simply not confronting it.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It was decades, sure, but he wouldn’t totally change, would he?”

“Do you think that you’ll be even remotely how you were in high school, when you’ve lived in Aerb for another forty years?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “Probably not.” I wasn’t sure who I would be, but instinctively it felt like only the vestiges of my old life would remain. “There will come a point when I’ve been on Aerb longer than I’ve been on Earth.”

“I think about that sometimes,” said Amaryllis. “Not about you, but about myself. I’ve been in this room for longer than I’ve known you. Most of my time as a member of this group will have been spent waiting for the pregnancy to progress. And my perspectives on the four of you have changed too, given such ample time to reflect.”

“Oh?” I asked. “Was that why you didn’t hug me?”

“Last month?” asked Amaryllis. She turned away slightly, so she wasn’t looking at me. “I don’t want you to think less of me.”

“I won’t,” I said. My heart was beating faster. I looked over at the side of the wall, where the control for the time chamber was. It was a lever, nothing complicated. Depending on what she said, I might have to leave. “If you’re dealing with feelings, then I think you should talk about them.”

“Grak thought so too,” said Amaryllis. “Here, let me clean up first, if you’re done.” She reached out with her gloved hand and touched her plate, which disappeared after ten seconds, then did the same for the silverware, napkins, and finally, the table. “Chairs too,” she said. “I think we’ll watch a movie tonight, and even if we don’t, I think it’s good to have open space.”

“Sure,” I said slowly. I watched as she removed the chairs to the glove. She went over to one wall and set up a film projector on the table, then put a couch in front of it. “Are you stalling?” I asked.

Amaryllis sat down on the couch. “A little bit,” said Amaryllis. “I’m composing my thoughts for the fifth or sixth time.”

“Ah,” I said. I took a seat on the couch with her. It was blue and stuffed, large enough that we had some space between us, which I was grateful for.

“You’re going to think less of me,” Amaryllis said again.

“Probably not,” I said.

“Well, I worry that you will,” said Amaryllis. “I would think less of myself. I do think less of myself.” She cleared her throat. “There’s a part of me that thinks about what would happen if Fenn were to die. It feels like we’ve been living on the knife-edge of survival for quite some time, and Fenn’s come the closest of us. When she was bisected … that was before everything had been settled between the three of us, but I didn’t think that she would make it, and I thought that you would find comfort in my arms.” She paused, pursing her lips. “There’s a part of me that’s in love with you.” She glanced at me, just for a moment, and I could see that her eyes were wet with nascent tears. “We’d make a horrible couple. We both know that. There are times when we’re not even all that good of friends.” She folded her hands in her lap and looked at them, rather than meeting my eyes again. “And there’s this part of me that sees you as somehow completing me anyway, as though a romance between us is what’s missing from my life. I see the warm affection that you give to Fenn, and I feel happy for the two of you, but also jealous.”

My heart was hammering away. Some of that was just simple fight or flight response, I was sure.

“I’m going to have to talk about all of this with Fenn,” I said. “I mean, I’m going to have to disclose it, because I would want her to do the same if someone said that kind of thing to her.”

“I know,” said Amaryllis. “It’s a complication. It’s bad for the group. I would let it lie, but that hasn’t been helping me, and with months in here … I’m not really sure that I can make it if I don’t get things off my chest, so here we are. Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “Not fine, obviously, it sucks, but I do think it’s better for us to talk about it rather than letting it fester. Maybe we can talk our way to some kind of catharsis.”

“Maybe,” said Amaryllis. “I’ve had three months to get over it, or to figure things out on my own. It wasn’t just a matter of moping, I was trying to figure myself out. I saw it — see it — as a personal problem, a defect that I can remove like I’ve removed so many others. It’s a weakness.”

“But no luck on that end?” I asked.

“I read books from Earth,” said Amaryllis. “That was why I was reading Kinsey’s work: it was part of a survey of works on romance and sexuality. Aerb has its own books on the subject, but I think it would suffice to say that we don’t have the same depth of research. There are so many different species that it makes proper research difficult, and research for any individual species is less economically viable and less scientifically important.”

“And?” I asked. “Did any of it help you to understand yourself?” I didn’t mention that Kinsey was a little bit suspect, as far as researchers went. Either she already knew that, or telling her might undermine whatever she thought she’d learned about herself.

“I made a survey of myself,” said Amaryllis. “I tried to imagine how things would feel to me, sexual, romantic, physical things. I tried different emotions on for size. I had never been that sort of reader before, the kind to project herself into the characters and live vicariously through them, but I really tried, and found that I could do it, if I put the effort in, which was helpful in allowing me to learn what was and was not compatible with my own mind.”

“So … you’ve been reading romance novels?” I asked.

“I have,” nodded Amaryllis. “Not exclusively, obviously, but I’ve been treating them as a form of self-care. Obviously the novels never portray romance as it actually is, but they’re meant to evoke those particular feelings in the reader, so I thought to that extent they’d be useful.” She stretched out slightly, then rested her hands on her knees. “I used to think that I was broken.”

“No, you’re not,” I said. “Just … asexual?”

“Mostly,” said Amaryllis. She frowned at me. “Did you know before I did?”

“After our long talk in the bottle, it seemed like one of the two likely options,” I said with a shrug. “The other being that you were lesbian.” I hadn’t wanted to pry or make assumptions, but I’d really been hoping that her revulsion towards sex with me wasn’t just because it was me.

Amaryllis gave a nonchalant shrug. “A bit.”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” I quickly added.

“Admirable of you to say,” said Amaryllis with a small smile.

“Not really, by the standards of my culture,” I said. “Obviously there are some issues if you’re part of a five century long hereditary line.”

“Obviously,” replied Amaryllis, smiling more. “Do you know that’s one of the things I like about you?”

“Oh?” I asked.

“You like to race ahead,” said Amaryllis. “And even when your observations are sophomoric, it’s the energy and enthusiasm with which you do it that I find charming.” She looked away from me again, turning solemn. “This isn’t helping.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Did it at least help to talk? To express?”

“Maybe. Not really,” said Amaryllis. “It made me feel better in the short term, but it hasn’t solved the long term problem.”

“Sometimes if your emotions are pent up, you just need a release valve,” I said. I frowned slightly. “I don’t want to change subjects, if there’s more you wanted to say.”

“Go ahead,” said Amaryllis. “I was going to share my findings from reading Earth’s literature on human sexuality, but I imagine it would bore you, and that’s a change in subject all its own. Speak what was on your mind.”

“I was going to say that maybe for Arthur, Kuum Doona was just a release valve,” I said. “Maybe … it takes some interpretation on my end, but maybe Arthur had gone down into the Boundless Pit because he wanted to escape from his reality, or to go back home. On his last trip, he was away for a month, which means either he had some actual adventures down there, or he was just dropping for something like a hundred thousand miles. Whatever he found, or didn’t find, it was crushing. And when he came back … Kuum Doona wasn’t Tiff, but Tiff wasn’t Tiff, she was just a representation of home, of a life he’d left behind, things he’d never done. It was an outlet for him.” It had felt right as I was saying it, but at the end I began to falter, because it sounded too much like apologetics for something that was too much like sexual assault.

“Do you need an outlet?” asked Amaryllis.

“For?” I asked.

“Arthur,” she replied. “Or other feelings about home that you can’t express. Or anything, really. I appreciate that you took the time to listen to me — I really, really appreciate it, more than I can say. I was worried that you would be upset with me, or worse, that …” She trailed off and folded her hands.

“It would be a mistake on a lot of fronts,” I said.

“Yes,” replied Amaryllis.

She didn’t say, ‘and yet …’, but I wondered whether she thought it. There was certainly a part of me, the hormonal teenage boy, that was thinking about going ahead and damning the consequences.

We sat in silence for a moment. Whatever she’d needed to get off her chest, it seemed like she was done with it, and I’d weathered the storm. I still felt shaky and slightly sick. I wasn’t in love with Amaryllis, or even infatuated anymore, but she was still devastatingly attractive and readily admitting that she had a thing for me. I’d have liked to believe that if Amaryllis had tried to seduce me, I would have pushed her off and left the time chamber early, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like I was just fantasizing instead of worrying. It all left me feeling a little bit uncomfortable and anxious.

“It makes me think,” I said, frowning slightly. “It makes me think about the choices that Arthur was faced with, and how he dealt with them.” I let out a shaky breath. “The thing I’m really worried about is that this is the tip of the iceberg. That it’s a single grain of sand on the beach, that the further we probe, the more we’re going to see, and I’m going to find that he was destroyed by this place, back from the dead but then scrubbed away.” I swallowed. “Or, maybe, something worse. I don’t know.”

Our conversation petered out after that, and Amaryllis put the movie in the reel-to-reel projector. She’d selected Groundhog Day, for obvious reasons, and while it wasn’t really the movie that I was in the mood for, I knew it well enough that I didn’t have to spend too much mental effort trying to follow it. Amaryllis asked questions throughout, enough that I could almost convince myself that she really did want me in the chamber with her just to be her cultural translator.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 93: Bottle Episode

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