by Xenophon Hendrix
I now remembered the last few moments of my previous life. My name was Ursus Enlil. I had been lounging atop my tower while admiring the lovely bay that spread to the west. The tower was attached to a comfortable house. The house was located on a large beachfront property. The bay was a natural deep-water harbor that handled a great deal of shipping, and the clipper ships with all their sails were beautiful as they glided along. So were the young women on the beach.
I had discovered the node of the multiverse I was living upon. It hadn't been prime real estate when I found it, but I had been the first leader of the terraforming project that was still in the process of turning much of the world into a garden. Before we had started, the highest form of life on the node had been blue-green algae. Now, fish filled the oceans. Birds and squirrels and trees and flowers surrounded me. We had done good work, and our successors on the project were still doing it.
I actually said to myself, aloud, "Life is good," just before I felt an immense magical attack strike me. Apparently, so many years without enemies had made me soft, for the attack had caught me by surprise. I hadn't had time to identify my attackers. I hadn't even realized that someone had wanted me dead.
The next thing I remembered was being a disincarnate spirit floating in the Metaphorical Aether--the physically unreal space that surrounds the nodes of the multiverse. I came to the conclusion that my body most likely had been destroyed. However, over my centuries of wizardry, I had enveloped myself in many layers of protections. Some of them, apparently, had managed to preserve my consciousness, at least for a time. That consciousness, though, was bound to be slowly decaying without a body to maintain it. Therefore, I needed to install it into a new body.
I considered the problem of finding a new body. I wasn't a murderer, so I wasn't about to steal a body that someone else was using, even if I could figure out how to do such a thing. A freshly dead body, on the other hand, was liable to have problems, so that was a last resort. I could take over a recently conceived embryo, but that still struck me as wrong. It felt like stealing someone's child. What to do?
I pondered for a while before I came up with a solution that I found ethically acceptable. It was dangerous and desperate, but I didn't have a choice. I reached out with my senses for magic, which can't be described to those who don't have them. The Metaphorical Aether was filled with loose magical energy--call it manna (it has many names: manna, mana, potentia, amorphia, etc.)--and I gathered some of it to me. Even bodiless, I still had much of my wizardly skill, and magic was particularly easy to do in the Aether.
I created an algorithm to search the nearby nodes--nearby metaphorically, not physically. I wanted a married couple who desired children but who were mutually infertile. Ideally, the couple would have at least a comfortable level of wealth, as would the place where they lived, and it would be politically stable. If possible, my would-be parents should look enough like me that no one would question that I was their son.
The node needed enough responsiveness to magic that I could accomplish what I intended to do, but it couldn't be protected against the meddling of ethereal beings such as my current self. It also needed enough loose manna available that I could someday leave that universe.
I turned several copies of the algorithm loose and fed them manna steadily. It was an immense amount of energy, but I was an experienced wizard used to dealing with such power. I refined the algorithm as it worked.
I didn't have an objective way to measure time, but subjectively the search was a long process. Whenever the spell found a candidate place and couple, I spent some time observing it and them and created a ranked list of choices. I continued the search as long as I could but eventually noticed that my sense of self was beginning to decay. It was time to move on to the next step of the plan.
I selected the top couple on my list. As a spirit floating in the Aether outside the node, I couldn't do anything large within the node, but what I intended was subtle rather than grand. In this node of the multiverse, the instructions for creating a person were chemically stored, and the instructions in the germ cells of my candidate father had become slightly scrambled, rendering him sterile. Fortunately, I could ignore his somatic cells; I merely had to fix the scrambled code in the cells that created sperm.
Even more fortunately, I didn't have to know in detail what was wrong with his genetics. I was a wizard working with magic, and magic is controlled by visualization and metaphor. I only needed enough understanding to create a good metaphor for his problem and then manipulate the metaphor to solve it.
In the Aether, magic was easy enough that I could create and implement the spell entirely mentally. Very roughly, I created a detailed vision of a knotted string squeezing his testicles. I then untied the knot. That is the gist of a great deal of ritual and mental preparation.
Fixing his sterility was payment for what I was about to do to him and his wife. I created a much more elaborate ritual. Its result was to send into his wife's womb the instructions for creating my new body. That was a tricky bit of work that involved a duplication of my substance in protoplasm--a zygote to be precise.
I also made a metaphorical pocket to store my personality and memories and attached that pocket to the growing embryo. The memories would begin to be recalled by my new brain shortly after it reached puberty. Any sooner, and I risked damaging myself with memories an immature brain was unequipped to understand. My final memory before my transition to a new life was of launching the spell that poured my essence of self into the pocket.
Either I was going insane, or my plan had worked, and I would assume that I was sane until proven otherwise. To sum it up, then, I had a new life and a new body that had lived independently of the rest of my memories for more than eleven years. If I had done everything right, my new body would grow up to be a near copy of my old body, and it would have all of my old memories.
Upon consideration, I decided that it perhaps had been unfair to stick my essence into the child who had so far grown up without me. I plead desperation. When I had made the plan, my focus was on saving my life, and I hadn't taken the rights of my clone into consideration. It was utterly thoughtless, and I felt the beginning of an immense guilt building. Nevertheless, to my great good fortune, the eleven-year-old part of me hadn't been overwhelmed and subsumed by the ancient part of me. To my great humbling, he didn't even seem angry.
Hey, old man, thought Arthur. After I got over being scared, it started to get interesting. Am I going to be able to cast spells and stuff?
That's the plan.
Cool. I could forgive a lot for that. Anyway, you're already starting to feel like a part of me, and it's pretty hard to be mad at your own--Arthur grasped for the right word--appendage.
Moral pondering done for a while, I reached out with my senses for magic and "felt" for loose manna. I had a vague feeling that it was nearby, but I couldn't reach it. It looked like it was going to take me some time and effort to figure out how magic worked on this node.
Man, when you were in the Aether, you just pulled it in like picking grapes, thought Arthur.
Different places have different rules. Part of the danger of going to a new node is that one doesn't have a feel for the rules.
Is being a wizard dangerous, then?
It can be, especially if one is stupid. A magically inclined idiot can get himself into all kinds of trouble, Ursus thought.
You're not an idiot, are you? Arthur asked.
I sometimes have my doubts, but your brain is a genetic copy of my original. You tell me.
I mostly spent the rest of the day actively remembering. Other than that, I got examined and prodded some by the medical staff, and I walked up and down the halls a bit. At about four in the afternoon my parents came to get me. They had some clothing for me and the rest of the clan in tow. After they received final instructions and signed some forms, I was free to go.
There was a chill in the air when we left the hospital. It was the sixteenth of November, and there was no doubt that winter was on its way. We all piled into Mom's van, which had three rows of seats. Mary made sure Susan was buckled in beside me and then took the other end of the bench seat beside her. Mary was almost exactly one year younger than I was. I had been born on February fifteenth, and she had been born on February sixteenth one year later.
Susan was four years old, and she was definitely going to be the last of the kids. Susan had been an extremely difficult pregnancy, and Mom was no longer able to bear children, which I suppose was just as well.
Mom and Dad had got married about a month after Dad graduated from the University of Michigana with a degree in mechanical engineering. They had badly wanted children, but none had been forthcoming. Ursus's memories now informed me why they had gone from being thirty-year-olds without kids to forty-somethings with a large brood relative to their time and place.
Rich and Charlie were relegated to the middle bench, where everyone in the van could keep an eye on them. They were ages eight and six, respectively. They weren't horrible as brothers went, but they always seemed to be under foot.
Although I was the oldest, Mary was the true chief kid. When the younger ones had problems and the parents weren't available, Mary was the one they went to. She liked taking responsibility for her siblings, was even tempered for her age, and had a heart that was bigger than her chest. I, on the other hand, had always been introverted, moody, and felt somewhat distant from the others. Physically, all five of us kids had the same dark brown hair, blue eyes, and generally resembled each other, so nobody would doubt that we were all siblings, despite my not actually being one. That last thought bothered the Arthur part of me. I wasn't related to my family.
Dad drove. Rich and Charlie stated making funny noises as they played with a couple toy cars. Susan asked me, "Are you going to stay home now?"
"I think so. Did you miss me?"
"Yep." She must have been contented with the extent of the conversation, because she started humming to herself. Mary reached out and brushed her little sister's face with the back of her fingers.
This is insane, Ursus thought.
You've belted yourselves into this steel box, and now you have it hurtling along at speeds far in excess of what are safe for an unaugmented human body. Worse, you are surrounded by other morons in similar contraptions all doing the same thing. Does this infernal vehicle have any safety devices besides these straps?
Well, it has brakes. My hand was cramping up from the force of its grip upon the armrest. Loosen up. You're hurting us.
Does it have an automatic pilot? Anything to keep it and these other automobiles from colliding?
Even as he asked the questions, Ursus gained access to my relevant memories, but I answered him anyway. No, it's all up to the driver.
Fortunately for Ursus's nerves, the drive home didn't take that long. Home was a three-bedroom, brick, ranch-style house in a dozen-year-old or so tract neighborhood. Dad and Mom had bought the house when they had found out that they were finally going to be parents. For its time and place, it was nice enough. It had a kitchen/dining area, living room, family room, a full bathroom with a tub, and another bathroom with just a shower stall. Part of the basement had been turned into a recreation room with a pool table and bar.
With seven people living there, it was crowded, and the parents were talking about getting a bigger place that was still near Dad's business. Being a founding partner limited his options for just locating a new job and moving.
When we piled through the door, I could smell something good cooking. A quick glance verified that the large slow cooker was full of chicken stew. After a bathroom break, I headed into the room I shared with my two younger brothers. I saw with dismay the pile of schoolwork that had been stacked upon the desk for me.
"You sure have a lot of schoolwork to make up," Rich said. "I have some, too, but nothing like you."
Rub it in, you little brat. "You only have to practice your arithmetic tables and spelling," I said.
"Yeah, I'd sure hate to be you."
In lieu of Rich's face, I began punching out my pillow. It was all such bullshit! I didn't mind learning new things, but half of what we did in school was busywork.
I then had one of the weird splits in consciousness that I'd been experiencing ever since I woke up. At the very least, from my ordeal, I had gained the ability to have a genuine conversation with myself. Hey, it won't be so bad, Ursus thought. You have me to help, now.
Sure. You can provide the running commentary while I beat my head against the desk.
Rich hastily got out of my way as I wheeled around and went out the door. I stomped to the kitchen to fill a plastic bottle with water. Mom said, "Supper will be in about an hour. Mary brought your schoolwork home for you today."
"I saw. I must thank her for that," I said totally deadpan.
"She's a good sister. You should be nicer to her."
"I'll try. For now, I better start looking my homework over. My immense pile of semi-worthless, unjust, boring, soul-destroying nonsense."
I went back to my room and attempted to settle in at the desk, but Rich and Charlie decided to have a dogfight with a couple of toy planes. "Why don't you guys do that somewhere else?" I said.
"It's our room, too!" Rich replied. This was a conversation that we'd had many times since I'd started having to do regular homework in grade five.
"I don't dispute that, but you're just playing while I'm trying to do schoolwork."
"So you think you can just kick us out of our room."
"The desk is in here, but you can play lots of different places. Why don't you two go downstairs?"
"Why don't you?"
"I told you, the desk is here."
"There's an old table downstairs."
So there was. "Fine," I said. "I'll do that." I gathered up a great stack of papers, folders, and books and tromped out. As I passed the kitchen, I said to Mom, "Rich and Charlie are making a lot of noise. I'll study downstairs."
Dad, with the help of Mom and the alleged help of Mary and me, had finished the basement several years before. Once I got over my fear of being alone down there, it had become my favorite spot in the house. Unless someone wanted to play pool or watch the old television, there was usually a lot less traffic than upstairs.
The stairway ran approximately east-west with the top being at the east. East of the staircase, across the full eastern wall, Dad had made a workroom full of both electric and hand tools. It was separated from the rest of the basement by a wall that came perpendicularly off the end of the stairway.
Just west of the workroom, and sharing a wall with it, was another full room with a door on its northern wall. I believed that it was intended to be a home office, but it had never been furnished and tended to collect junk. Just west of it was a narrow storage room full of steel shelves. Everything but the workroom and storage room was paneled and had a suspended ceiling.
The big L-shaped room that made up the rest of the basement was a recreation room. Across from the end of the stairs, along part of the west wall, was a wet bar with it's own refrigerator. Dad's pool table, running east-west, was a little east of the bar, far enough away that the cue sticks didn't hit it. West of the non-office and beside the storage room was a sitting area with an old couch and chair on top of a rug covering the tiled floor. The couch, an old television opposite it, was in line with the bar along the west wall. North of the non-office was an old kitchen table surrounded by beat up chairs. That was my objective.
I less than gently brushed some toys out of the way, put down my school stuff, took a seat, and started going through my work. In Arthur's time and place, elementary school ran from kindergarten through grade six. Junior high school ran from grades seven through nine. High school was grades ten through twelve, with an optional grade thirteen for the university bound. A free year of trade school was available for the non-college bound.
In grades five and six, the teachers were supposed to assign one hour of homework per school day, but it had been taking me longer than that to do the work assigned by Mr. Dean, my teacher. I wasn't alone in taking longer, but whenever one of the students complained, Mr. Dean assured us that we should be able to get it done in an hour. On top of the homework, I had all the in-class assignments to do. "O God, just take me now."
I felt Ursus rustling around in my memories. Calm down, kid. It's not going to be so bad.
I replied with a vision of long hours working on crap that bored me stupid.
Part of your problem, Ursus thought, is that you are temperamental and stubborn. You double your workload because you are constantly fighting yourself.
What do you know?
Well, for one, I have access to your memories. For two, you are a clone of me, and I remember what I was like when I was your age.
Ursus began guiding us through his memories. I saw that arithmetic was now going to be a snap. Ursus knew mathematics well beyond arithmetic. The symbols were different from what Ursus was used to, but Arthur knew what they meant, and translation was almost instantaneous.
Language arts should be almost as easy. As Arthur, I already tested at high-school level on various measures of reading and writing. Ursus had beyond-doctorate proficiency in composition in several languages. All he had to do was study English punctuation and usage a bit and everything should be simple after that except, perhaps, spelling. English spelling was only semi-rational.
There was a health book and a science book. Mr. Dean didn't use them much. He mostly used lectures, mimeographed sheets, films, and filmstrips to present those subjects. Examining Arthur's memories, Ursus decided that the curriculum was designed to expose the students to a broad array of ideas. He would find it interesting to start learning how the rules of nature operated on this node of the multiverse.
The social studies book was another hodge-podge. In social studies, Mr. Dean wanted to concentrate the classroom time on projects. To ensure that the kids read the book, and to make them practice taking notes, he required that every chapter be outlined, approximately one per week. Of all of his regular assignments, Arthur hated it second worst of all. Outlining an entire book is bullshit. It's just a horrible, hideous, disgusting time sink. I could be doing something I want to do. Hell, I could be learning something useful.
Ursus thought about Arthur's memories. I bet you really remember the material.
Well, yeah, but it takes forever. If I had to do it for every subject, I wouldn't have time to sleep.
Perhaps. In any event, I've had a lot of experience taking notes. It should go faster for you, now.
Arthur's most hated subject of all was the vocabulary words, twenty per week. Arthur didn't mind learning new words, but each word had to be looked up in the dictionary, and the entire definition, word-for-word, needed to be copied down and the appropriate citation given. When Arthur had told his parents that he needed a dictionary for school, they had bought him a collegiate dictionary with excruciatingly detailed definitions. Copying them took a long time.
After being guided through Arthur's memories, Ursus thought for a moment and then gave Arthur an internal slap across the back of the head. Why didn't you ask your parents for an easier dictionary?
Mr. Dean said he didn't want us using a little-kid dictionary.
There is a lot of room between a kid's dictionary and a collegiate. What are you, a masochist? Arthur started to think about the dictionary meaning of masochist, but Ursus's memories instantly gave him a detailed visual definition. I found myself blushing while simultaneously being amused at my reaction.
Mom and Dad already got me the collegiate dictionary, said Arthur, and I didn't want to beg for another. You know I don't get an allowance and have almost no money to buy one myself.
Suck in your pride; explain the problem; and ask them for another dictionary. They're your parents.
I don't like asking them for too much. They both work so hard.
Ursus actually had sympathy for that line of reasoning, but he also had a deeper understanding of the issue: One of the reasons your parents work so hard is because they love you and your brothers and sisters, and the cost of a dictionary isn't that much. The amount of time you spend writing out definitions is ridiculous; it's just time down a rat hole. But if it will make you feel better, we'll find a way to make the cost of a dictionary up to them.
Arthur had no answer to that.
In addition to copying word definitions, I had to use them in a sentence, find them in and cut them from a newspaper or a magazine, and memorize how they were spelled. I hated the word search, but the rest wasn't so bad, and Ursus knew some tricks to help with the memorization.
Looking for words to cut out is another huge waste of time, I said.
I can feel your sense of tedium, but it does force you to read.
I read on my own initiative, constantly.
Well, we'll think on the problem.
Soon after I had given the pile of work a once over, Rich and Charlie came downstairs and began rolling billiard balls around. "You guys have to go back upstairs," I said.
"You don't own the basement."
"You made me come down here, remember?"
My new adult consciousness said, Careful, their big brother just got out of the hospital. Maybe they just want to be near you.
Maybe. Or maybe they just want to torment me for their own amusement.
Stern measures were called for. I walked to the bottom of the stairs and called up. "Mom, Rich and Charlie are now down here bugging me, even after they drove me out of our room." The door to the basement was only a half-door, so I didn't have to raise my voice much for her to hear me.
"You two, get your asses up here. Now!" Charlie stuck his tongue out at me as they passed.
I worked until called for supper. After we had all sat down, I said, "Mom, you know that dictionary you bought me?"
"What about it?"
"It's a good dictionary, but I have to copy twenty definitions a week, and the ones in that dictionary are awfully detailed. Do you think you could buy me a new one? Not a children's dictionary--that's not allowed--but a lot less elaborate adult dictionary? A cheap paperback will do."
"Why didn't you tell me that's what you wanted before I bought the other one?"
"At the time, I didn't know there was going to be a problem."
Mom shook her head. "All right, I'll see what I can find."
See, Ursus told Arthur internally, things are already looking up.