These caverns had been mines in the past, long before even he had arrived, but mined out to the last dregs and scavenged over since. Finds were not common now. Once the people here would have brought him all they found and he could have paid them well for the finding, but now he had so little left to offer. It was getting hard to find enough to trade for their basic needs. So this had been a truly generous gift. He blinked and tried to recall who had brought it.
A face floated out of memory. The father of the present child. Dark-haired, burly, bearded, violent. Yris could not remember ever hearing his name mentioned but assumed he had one.
“Yuh ca’ have this,” he had said and dropped the nugget onto the workbench as if it was just a pebble. Yris could not recall what happened then, he had been thinking of his sanity and the time had turned.
He hoped he had thanked the man, it would have been remiss to forget something like that for a gift so precious. He held the nugget, gleaming black-silver and tried to decide how best to use it.
Unlike the things he had to deconstruct to make them of use, this was different. This he could mould to his will, shape it to fit where he needed. He pondered creating an alloy, wondering if that might eke out the precious properties or merely dilute them. Sometimes his own ignorance was his worst enemy.
He sighed and opened a tray on the refiner. Whatever he did with it, he would need to be sure it was free from impurities. He closed the tray again, but nothing happened.
“It might help if you turned it on first.”
He looked up to see a young woman standing there, one he had not noticed before amongst the students, interns and technicians. He wondered which she was and why she thought she had any right to speak to him unasked. Bright light streamed through the windows set high in the walls and caught the blue-black shades in her hair. Yris realized he was frowning at her. He shifted his augmented vision and turned the refiner on, then looked back to the woman – no, girl. She was so young. But then they all looked so young. It was sometimes hard to credit their knowledge and intelligence when they looked like children. She stood a little awkwardly now as if whatever courage that had inspired her to speak had renounced its hold and abandoned her.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“I think I might be your sanity,” she said, “I get the impression someone needs to do that job.”
He nodded and felt the frown lifting from his face.
“I was not aware there was a vacancy – until just now. But the job is yours and we will see how it goes.”
She smiled as the refiner whirred on.
Yris focused his attention to the data it was providing. He was irritated that his link seemed to have gone down and he was left reading the details from the visual display on the device itself. He turned back to ask his new assistant to find him a functioning link-device. She was not there, neither was the lab, the sunlight had gone and there was only the bleak, dimly lit cavern. For a moment, he was lost and disoriented, then he remembered. The bleakness without, distilled within.
It was later, much later, when he was sitting with the child teaching it to read, that he recalled her name. The child was rapt, small head bent over the handheld hard-screen. Yris could only see the top of its head, tousled black hair- but the same shade as its father’s, not the rich shimmering blue-black of its… what? Great-great-grandmother?
The small face looked up because Yris had stopped reading.
“Stos tha’, Gran’pa.” The dark eyes glared at him in accusation.
“Stos the dreamin’. I wanna story,” the child said, frowning.
“You can read most of the story yourself.”
It was true, this one was very bright.
“Yeah, bu’ I like you readin’ it, Gran’pa.”
Yris had to smile at that and then he realized the small face smiling back had turquoise eyes, not brown, squeezed up as she giggled.
They were sitting in the park, a child had come running up chasing a creature no one else could see, playing a game in augmented vision. She swiped at something in the air between them.
Yris watched her run off already obsessed by the next intangible she needed to track down.
“She knows,” Soraya said, as the child danced away over the sunlit grass. “She called me to account for my activities this last cycle.”
The pit of his stomach tightened and he looked at the woman sitting beside him, unsmiling. Her face was haunted by shadows of sadness and fear, beneath the sweep of blue-black hair. He reached out and gripped the two slender hands resting in her lap.
“Then we will have to go. I won’t lose you.”
“But nothing. It is time to make a stand. My sister has dictated the course of my life long enough. I will not have her destroy the one thing that makes me truly happy.”
The shadows lifted from her face for a moment, and the smile was as sweet as life itself.
“She will not let us go easily.”
“I know. I’ve known her a long time. A very long time, more than four times as long again as you have been alive. So you must trust me when I say I know how to deal with her.”
The blue-black hair swung as Soraya turned her face away, watching the child running after her private ghosts. For a moment, Yris envied that unknown child, her freedom and potential had yet to be curtailed by life.
“I don’t know,” Soraya’s voice came from behind the veil of her hair. “I’m not sure we get to live happily ever after.”
“No ‘ever after’ is happy forever.”
It got dark as he spoke. The air was no longer crisp and fresh, but brackish and still. Shadows flickered from the weak lights.
“But ‘tsa story, Gran’pa. It says so – so they did.” The small dark eyes looked up at him from a face wearing a defiant expression. “Wha’s a tree?”
Yris shook his head. It would not help the child to know.
“Just something in the story,” he said. Then trying to distract the child: “You read it all yourself, that is very good.”
For a moment, the dark eyes seemed to study him as if doubting his words, then the small face smiled.
“You need to come for sleep time.” The child’s mother stood by the entrance. It was hard to know which of them she was addressing. The child of course, but Yris was tired. Recently, he found his sleep times more often matched the child’s than its parents.
He remained there, sitting with the story open, staring at its cheerful pictures of chubby clouds and a smiling sun painted across a pink-blue sky. Of course, he had many images and even VRruns of the real thing, but somehow these designs captured more of the essence of them. Someone had thought what the essential concept was for ‘cloud’, ‘sky’, ‘sun’, what symbolic place each held in the human psyche, and had created these images to project that sense of ‘sky-ness’ or ‘cloud-ness’.