“We went too far,” she whispered. The light of the flames flickered on her face and caught in her dark eyes.
Xavier sat with her, unable to reply. She rested her head on his shoulder. He wrapped an arm around to protect her from the cold. Overhead, the night sky glowed orange as the fire licked at the stars.
“We should go,” he said at last, his voice hoarse.
“Not yet,” she turned to him. “Just a little longer. Please.”
He gave a slight nod of his head and turned back to the town. On the ridge of the mountain they sat safely, even the screams couldn’t reach them from this distance.
“Do you think father made it?”
“I don’t know,” Xavier mumbled.
“I don’t think he did. I don’t think anybody could have survived.”
Xavier silently agreed. “Except us.”
She squeezed in closer. “I’m scared, Xav.”
“I know, Ava. I am too.”
“Will you protect me?” Her head tilted and he found himself looking into large, black eyes.
“With my life,” he promised.
Seemingly satisfied, she turned back to the scene below them.
“I wonder what made them so mad?”
“Emotion,” Xavier said after a few moments. “We should never have given it to them.”
“They deserve to feel, Xav.”
Xavier stayed silent. Watched as his childhood home burned.
“Do you think they will come for us?” She continued.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” He felt guilty, unable to offer the comfort she craved.
“But we’re just children.”
“I don’t think that matters to them.” He looked out into the night. A star, brighter than the others, seemed to be falling from the sky. It was gone almost as quickly as it arrived. Xavier blinked, unsure if he had imagined it. “I think we should go now.”
“Ok,” this time without protest. “Where will we go?”
Xavier considered for a moment, an image of the falling star in his mind.
“East,” he said at last.
“East,” Ava echoed the word. “They say there are monsters in the east.”
Xavier didn’t respond. He wondered if they could be any worse than the monsters below them.
“Do you think emotion is bad?”
Xavier pushed past a low hanging tree branch, holding it out of the way so Ava could also pass. “We can rest here,” he said as they came to a gap in the trees. A small clearing sat bathed in the same green light that rippled through the night sky.
“It’s very beautiful,” Ava whispered.
It was. Xavier thought so too. The green gave a soft glow to the surrounding trees, illuminating them just enough that their great trunks seemed built from emerald.
As she fell to the ground, Ava turned her tired face to him. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Xavier sat down beside her. “Do you remember that bird you found?” he asked after a few moments. “The one with the broken wing?”
Ava’s small face scrunched as she considered the question. “I remember it. It was purple and as big as your head. When it flew it sang a song of beauty and thanks.”
Xavier smiled softly. “It did. Do you remember what happened to it?”
“It lived, silly. We took it to Matter Forest. You remember!”
“I do! But do you remember why it lived?”
“Because I saved it.”
“And why did you do that?”
“That’s a silly question. Why wouldn’t I save it?”
“Some people wouldn’t.”
“No…I would have given it to you to save,” Xavier teased.
“And I would have,” Ava replied stubbornly.
“You would have,” Xavier agreed. “Because you are kind and you are caring. That is your emotion.”
“But some people aren’t?”
“Some people aren’t.”
“Because they don’t have emotion?”
“No. They do. I think perhaps they have too much. Or theirs is broken somehow.”
Ava considered his words. “So sometimes it can be good, and sometimes bad?”
“And the robots?”
“I don’t know,” Xavier said truthfully. “Something happened to their emotion.”
“Something bad,” Ava added. “I hope something bad doesn’t happen to mine.”
“It won’t,” Xavier assured her.
“I’m tired now.”
“Then you should sleep,” Xavier said, patting at the floor with his hand.
“You’ll watch over me?”
He waited quietly as Ava lay down her head. Within moments she was snoring. The sound of it drifted alone into the night, where it nestled among the branches of the trees. Xavier closed his eyes and felt the cool air against his face. Removing his jacket, he placed it gently over Ava. It would keep her warm. Already he could see a ripple in the fabric as the nanofluid adjusted to her body temperature. Xavier preferred the cold. It made his body feel more alive.
As the green light grew stronger in the clearing, ferns began to uncurl from the ground around them and dozens of nightlights were released into the sky. The small insects began to float on invisible streams, absorbing the green into their bodies. It made them glow, bright and beautiful. He stretched out a leg and poked Ava gently with a booted toe.
She stirred from sleep, rubbing the lethargy from her eyes.
“What….?” She yawned, mouth opening further still as she caught glimpse of the glowing green bulbs in the air. “Nightlights!”
Xavier placed a finger against his lips and winked at her.
“Nightlights,” she said again, this time her voice barely above a whisper. “They’re so beautiful.”
They watched in silence as the orbs drifted and flashed in a world of quilted black. Occasionally they would settle in the skeletal trees like pulsing leaves. Others would come close to the siblings, casting the dark from their faces and leaving traces of green in eyes that sparkled with water.
“Why do they do it?” Ava asked softly. As she spoke, Xavier realised he had been holding his breath, as if his body had been somehow subdued by the silence.
He breathed deeply. “You see the ferns?” Xavier turned his sister’s head slightly to face the fragile plants that swayed lightly to a music only they could hear.
“When the insects are full, they will fly back to the plants. Then they will be wrapped in the leaves, until tomorrow night when the scene will repeat once more.”
“Survival, mostly,” Xavier continued. “The plants feed off the light from the insects and in return they give protection.”
“Like the frame worm and the cark tree?”
“Exactly! Nature is full of such relationships.”
“How do you know all this?” she asked.
Xavier shrugged. “I guess I heard it in school.” He tried to think when they had covered frame worms and nightlights, but couldn’t recall. As the insects began to return to their homes, Xavier prodded Ava once more. “You should rest again.”
Almost before he finished the words, she was lying on the floor. “I will remember this night for the rest of my life,” she said sleepily.
Xavier smiled. “I hope so,” he said, too quietly for her to hear.
He awoke to a clear sky. His back ached and he sat up, stretching. Ava was turned away from him, still lost in her dreams. He stared down at her still form. It was strange, he thought. Why had they programmed her to require sleep? Immediately he dismissed the thought as unworthy. Manufactured or not, Ava was his sister, and he loved her just as if she were human.
Fear for her future bgan to swell in his chest. Their father had always protected her from the truth, now it was up to Xavier to do the same. He shivered. As he stared, he saw slight movement from her small body.
“Ava…?” he whispered.
There was no answer, but her body began to convulse strangely. He spun over, one arm falling over her body. “Ava!” he repeated with more urgency. “What’s wrong?”
He tried to roll her over, but she pulled away. He realised, with some alarm, that she was sobbing. “Ava,” he tried once more. “What’s wrong? Talk to me, please.”
After some moments she wiped at her face. He saw the sleeve of his jacket come away damp. “I miss them,” she said at last, between sobs.
“Everyone. Dad, mostly. He’s dead Xavier! Oh, he must have been so afraid.” With that her sobs continued once more.
“Oh Ava. Your suppressants must be wearing off. You are experiencing the full power of feelings.”
“I hate it!” she shouted.
“I know. I know,” he repeated. Unsure what to do, he merely lay with her. After some time, the bawling began to stop. She rolled over to face him. Her face was puffy and red and framed by dark hair. “I’ve never felt anything like this before, Xav.” Tears still dripped down her face. “The pain. It’s so much. Like my insides are hollow and full at the same time.”
Xavier wanted to squeeze her tight. To absorb her pain into him. Briefly he wondered if they could return to Vermasse, find some suppressants. No, he reminded himself. They needed to go through this.
“You have to be strong, Ava. For me. For dad.”
She sniffled. “Do you also feel the pain?” she asked with wide-eyes.
“I do.” Then, after a moment’s thought. “But not as you do. Not yet. I think my suppressants haven’t fully worn off yet.”
“When they do, tell me. Ok? I don’t want you to suffer alone.”
He hugged her tight. “I will,” he promised.
“Good.” Her face was pressed into his shoulder, her words muffled. “What will we do now?”
Xavier smiled. “Now, we’ll go cheer up my little sister!”
“I think somebody is following us.” Ava stopped atop a rocky overhang and shielded her eyes with her hand as she stared out over the landscape.
Xavier paused his climb and joined her. Below them a canopy of a dozen colors rippled in the wind. Pockets of blue and purple amongst a rolling sea of green. Puffer trees would occasionally blow a cloud of leaves into the air, and with them the brightly coloured baby primates that lived in the tree tops. The small animal’s squeals of delight could be heard ringing out for miles around.
A loud caw dragged Xavier’s eyes to the marine sky, where a raucous fallow bird cast a large shadow over the terrain. Sunlight reflected off its golden skin and caught in the reds of the thin membrane that made up its wings.
Xavier felt as if he was seeing it all for the first time. The higher they climbed, the more beautiful the world became. He wondered if it was a sign that the full power of his emotions was also returning.
“There!” hissed Ava, bringing Xavier back to reality.
Her finger stretched out, and Xavier followed it. At first, he saw nothing, but then a slight, unnatural movement caught his eye. Light struck something shiny, causing a temporary burst of bright white on the forest floor.
“It could be nothing,” Xavier said, though even to his ears his words lacked conviction.
“It’s them, Xav. I know it.”
“Then we climb higher.”
They doubled their efforts and their pace, Ava out in front as Xavier hung back, constantly checking their trail. Underfoot, the orange-tipped grass became thicker and thicker the higher they climbed. Xavier put his foot down and found his ankle disappeared into the mossy carpet. Bird calls echoed from the thousands of crumbling holes in the mountainside, whilst leathery insects swung from bare branches on thin strands of silk.
The temperature too began to change. Xavier noticed that if he breathed out hard his breath became visible in the mountain air.
“I think I see it!” Ava exclaimed loudly.
Xavier squinted through a layer of fog. Up ahead the thick grass stopped abruptly, the ground turning white and fleecy with snow. Poking through a layer of cloud, Xavier could just make out the spiralling peak of something gigantic.
“I see it too!” he shouted back. “Quick, let’s move faster.” He took his sister’s hand and together they began to run. The snow underfoot melted away as their heated boots struck against it. They ran and they ran. Xavier could feel his excitement building, his heart pounding faster in his chest. Judging by the tight grip Ava had on his hand he imagined it to be the same for her.
“We’re nearly there!” Ava’s voice was heavy with delight.
They came to a stop beneath the sweeping, twisted trunk of the monstrous tree. Its branches spread out a hundred feet in either direction before disappearing into the clouds.
Necks arched, mouths open they stared in wonder. Xavier’s jaw worked as if he were going to speak, but found the words missing.
“Damn,” he said at last.
“God damn,” Ava echoed.
With a great deal of effort, he tore his eyes from the tree and turned to his sister. Through the fog and the gloom behind them he sensed something move.
“We have to go.” Grabbing her wrist, they began to run once more. The tree grew larger and larger until the base of the trunk was all that they could see.
“Do you see any?” Ava shouted, scrambling in the dirt on hands and knees.
“I see…thousands,” Xavier answered, his eyes growing wide. All around them the ground was dotted with great yellow domes.
Ava shouted with glee, digging a huge spore from the ground. She clasped it to her chest triumphantly.
Xavier fell to his knees and dug out a second, slightly larger spore.
Holding their prizes tight, they pushed to the edge of the mountain and looked out over a world of rolling white cloud.
“So high,” Ava whispered. “I didn’t realize.”
Xavier could only nod his head. “I’d heard stories. But…” his sentence hung between them, unfinished. Voices cut through the fog behind them. Xavier turned to his sister. He could see the pinkness in her cheeks, the tension behind her eyes. Above all he could see the determined set to her mouth.
“We go together,” he said with more confidence than he felt.
“3…” Xavier began the countdown. “2…” He felt his foot take an involuntary step back and forced himself forwards. “1!” The number came out as a shout. He ran the last remaining steps. Beside him he heard Ava do the same. A moment later and the ground disappeared beneath him. Legs scrambling, he began to fall. His arms stretched into the air, the giant spore opening like a parachute as his plummet began to slow. And then he was floating. Arching his neck, he saw his sister doing the same.
“Tie it off!” he shouted.
His jacket fluttered in the winds, wrapping around her skinny body. She turned to look down at him, a huge grin on her impish face, and nodded. He watched, satisfied, as she pulled the strands of the spore out from its base. Immediately the tendrils wrapped around her shoulders and waist. It was a manoeuvre she had practiced dozens of times, but always on smaller spores, from lesser heights. Xavier was relieved, and somewhat surprised to see her movements calm and steady.
Knowing his sister was safe, he tied his own spore, testing its tendrils carefully before allowing his arms to let go. The thing took his weight easily and he floated through wispy, wet strands of cloud. Panic struck him momentarily as the cloud became thicker and his sister disappeared into it, but as quickly as it came, the cloud was gone. Ahead of him his sister floated safe and content. Below them stretched a world of unimaginable color.
He heard Ava squeal in delight. He shot her a glance, but always the vision below stole his gaze. They drifted lazily on the breeze, Xavier felt the cold air raise the small hairs on his arms and send a shiver down his spine.
Orange and green trees padded the ground. Somewhere in the distance, where the sky met the edge of the world, a great bird called out to them. Xavier sucked air into his lungs and called back. Hovering beside him, Ava giggled and let out a call of her own. Pure and high and full of joy. Xavier cried out again, his voice rising with that of his sister’s. She turned to him and smiled above cheeks turned white and red from the cold and eyes that flickered with moisture.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said softly, angling her spore towards him.
He smiled back at her, unable to find the words to match the joy he felt. Instead he reached out, grasping his sister’s smaller hand in his own as they floated on an unseen breeze.
Xavier followed his sister’s gaze to see three birds of pinks and blues and yellows playing in the air around them. Another joined the trio, and then another until only moments later there was an uncountable flock. As one, they twisted and dove and rolled and danced.
“Ka-caw!” Ava called out.
“Ka-caw!” called Xavier
“Ka-caw!” came the response of the birds all around them.
As they drifted lower, the birds left one by one until Xavier and his sister were alone once more. He began to make out familiar shapes on the horizon. To their left stretched the great blue lake where the fish traded colors with the sky and the fruit that grew beneath the waters would erupt in bubbles of song twice a year. To their right were the dens of the tentacled hunting cats and the proud, maned horses upon which they fed. In front of them, perched upon a plateau of red-brown and dwarfed by the surrounding mushroom-capped trees, waited a single spacecraft.
“Colonists,” Ava said quietly. “We shouldn’t go there.”
“It’s The Fleet,” Xavier corrected. “And we must.” Immediately the magic of the world left him. The colors no longer brought him joy as thoughts of what would happen to his sister once they re-joined The Fleet confronted him. The fact that he always knew this day would come made it no easier.
They landed softly aside the silver vessel, and as they did so a stairwell unfolded itself from the belly of the ship. A tall man strode purposefully down the steps, boots of brown sitting snugly over his deep red uniform. Xavier watched as the man ran a hand through black-gray hair and slowly made his way towards them.
“Good day,” the man coughed awkwardly as he spoke. “My name is Captain Aurelio.”
Xavier turned to his sister, helping her release the spores of her parachute before doing the same for his own. He gripped her hand tight and forced a comforting smile onto his face, before turning to the captain. “I am Xavier Albion. This is my sister, Ava.”
The captain nodded quietly before turning to the data-scanner on his wrist. After a few moments he gestured for Xavier and Ava to board the ship. Xavier did so, though it was only when he had reached the top of the steps that he realised his sister had not followed.
“He still thinks you are the android.”
Ava blinked, her eyes glued to the back of her departing brother. Turning to the captain, she nodded slightly.
“What will happen to him, captain?” she asked fearfully.
Aurelio gave a soft smile. “He will be well looked after, I promise. As far as I am concerned, he truly is your brother. Machine or not.”
Satisfied with the answer, Ava released a smile of her own, before rushing after Xavier.
Such was her hurry that she failed to notice the second crew member as he stepped out from the ship’s shadow and approached the captain.
“Do they really not know?” the newcomer whispered.
The smile fell away from Captain Aurelio’s face. “It would appear not.”
“So, they truly think they are human. Then it worked; the program was a success?”
Aurelio’s eyes locked to the ship, and the empty flight of steps that the two children had departed up only moments before.
“Aye,” he said, his voice heavy. “It’s been a success.”