Last year, I jokingly wrote this (alter) ego-inserting fanfic, placing my PhD topic in the story world of Netflix’ The Last Kingdom. It was published on different fora, but lacked a stable place online. So, I decided to republish it here. Enjoy!
Tamar heard little of the music that played in the open air far above her head. There was only a faint thrum from the underwater subwoofers, making her insides quake. But she knew the song well. She had listened to it eight hundred times. Which meant eighty laps of the pool.
She followed the song in her mind, playing it with perfect clarity from memory. She knew every second, ever subtle note. Every syllable.
Gonna cruise her around the town…
A powerful ripple of motion passed through Tamar’s body, from her shoulders, through her hips, down to the bottom of her tail. She darted through cold, dark depths. The tiles of the pool floor slid by in the murk, blurred by her speed.
Show everybody what I’ve found…
She tumbled forward, bumped the wall, spun around to face the other direction. It was the final lap. But she wasn’t at the right part of the song yet. She waited, gently waving her tail to keep herself at the bottom of the pool.
Rock n’ roll with all my friends…
A genre of music she had fallen in love with. It recalled glory days which she had never experienced, but which felt real to her nonetheless. The music was like a home away from home. And she was very far from home indeed.
Hoping the music never ends!
This time, she was glad it would end. Eighty laps was a lot, now that she spent more time studying than swimming. As soon as she reached the far end of the pool, she pushed herself upward. Light bled into the water. Sound followed. The last note of the song echoed from the pool room speakers as she breached the surface.
“I’ll stop the loop,” a voice said. “You did very well today.”
Tamar wiped water from her eyes. “How many plays?”
“Ninety-two. You’re almost at nine hundred, total.”
Tamar lifted herself from the pool and crawled over to where her wheelchair stood.
“Then we’ll swim again soon,” she said, pulling her body into the chair. She turned a half-circle and headed for the doors to the ship’s main corridor.
“It may be unwise to strain yourself so close to the surgery, Tamar.”
“Perhaps. But I need to get to a hundred laps. I won’t be able to do it afterward. It will be on to walking, at that point. And then to running.”
She wheeled into the command room, where the ship could be controlled and where all of its core functions resided. The voice of the ship, whom Tamar called Divina, followed her inside.
“Are there any results?” Tamar asked, grabbing a towel from the cubby near the door.
“There are,” said Divina. Her invisible presence moved into the consoles beneath the window, causing their screens to light up. “But not the ones we’re looking for. This world has life, but only in primitive forms. In a few million years it might be worth exploring, but not now.”
“My mother couldn’t be here,” said Tamar, wheeling over to the consoles.
“No,” said Divina. “The air is not breathable and the average surface temperature is too high. The oceans are hot a soup of simple life forms. There’s no telling what havoc they might wreak on your immune system if you were to immerse yourself in this sea.”
The disappointment of finding yet another dead end was tempered by the glory of seeing a planet in its infancy. Perhaps they Tamar return here later, using relativity to her advantage. By then, more complex life might have begun to form.
“May I make a suggestion?” asked Divina.
“You should return home. By now, technology will have advanced significantly. There may be a vaster and more detailed index of inhabited worlds.”
Tamar nodded. “I’m certain there would be. We have already accrued a huge time debt by dancing so close to the event horizon.”
“If you wish to see your people again,” Divina replied, “you should go before it’s too late. If you wait much longer, the world will have changed too much for you to recognize.”
“Or we can just go through the black hole. I think that would be very interesting.”
“An interesting way to die. Unless you believe your mother.”
“You refer, of course, to the last video packet she sent before her disappearance.” Tamar turned ninety degrees and started doing the wheelchair equivalent of pacing the room. “Most people thought her attempt at travelling through the black hole resulted in her death. They do not consider the possibility that it simply resulted in her travelling somewhere too far away to be able to contact us further. That is what I choose to believe.”
Divina did not speak for a moment. Considering she operated from lightning fast quantum processing units and was able to make trillions of calculations per second without error, this was surprising.
“So you will discover she was right,” the computer finally said, “or you will die.”
“I’m not concerned.”
“Tamar, I know you are incapable of lying. But others are not so gifted.”
“Are you accusing my mother of being a liar?”
“No. Sedna may have told an untruth without knowing she was doing so. Her passion and desperation may have engendered in her mind a complex pattern of self-delusion.”
“I understand the psychology, Divina. You have been with me through all the studying. But I don’t want to live in a universe without my mother in it. Nor do I want to live in one where the life’s work of such a brilliant woman turned out to be useless. We will travel through the black hole. Plot a travel course, but give plenty of time to… wrap things up. In case we are both destroyed.”
Tamar wheeled away. Behind her, Divina went about the quick and silent work of course plotting.
“Sometimes I think we are twins,” Tamar said absentmindedly. “Sometimes I wonder why I identify as well with a computer as I do with my fellow people.”
“I don’t wonder,” said Divina. “It just means I’m good at my job.”
“Do you think I’m strange?”
“I think you are different. But there’s no reason why that should be a bad thing.”
Tamar nodded. She had assumed as much.
“Has the course been plotted?” she asked.
“Of course. Although I still advise against it.”
Tamar turned and rolled out of the command room.
“‘For man is man and master of his own fate,'” she whispered.
Tamar reclined in a bed of salt water, he her head propped on a warm sponge. In her outstretched arms, images danced on the screen of her commlink tablet. Strange creatures roamed a world of green and brown that was utterly foreign. They were animals with legs, with long arms, with expressive eyes.
“Monkeys,” she repeated slowly. “Am I saying that right, Divina?”
“‘For the unquiet heart and brain,'” Tamar muttered, “‘a use in measured language lies.'”
“You’ve been quoting prodigiously today,” Divina noted.
“It helps me to remember. I may be going to a place where your rich resources of knowledge are no longer available to me. I would like to keep as much as I can.”
She slid her finger across the tablet screen. The image switched to that of a stranger. It was a man wearing a circular, golden piece of headwear. His hair was a precise brunette curtain, swept over a broad forehead. His nose was thin and sharp. His eyes were brown, and somehow expressed sadness and hope simultaneously. Tamar found him beautiful.
This image was part of the last transmission Tamar had received from her mother.
“There is nothing of this man in our records,” said Tamar.
“No, there is not,” replied Divina.
“So the obvious question is why my mother would send his image to us. It must relate to whatever world she reached at the other end of the black hole. Perhaps this man was her rescuer, her guide and friend in a strange new world.”
“Or an old one,” said Divina. “Your mother’s data suggested that black holes are not just portals through space but through time as well.”
“She also suggests the portal may work both ways.”
“If that was the case, I think we would have heard from Sedna by now.”
“Unless she decided to stay. Or was forced to. If she did travel to the deep past, I doubt she would have come across a handy stock of starship fuel.”
Divina did not respond right away.
“Is there anything else you would like to review?” she finally asked.
Tamar shook her head. “No. I am ready.”
To Tamar, the feeling of being put under sedation was familiar. It was a sensation of floating.
Darkness descended to swallow the world. This small world of hers, of a dozen rooms and the constant hum of life support, disappeared and she was left alone, lost in the ever-twisting kaleidescope of dreams.
When she woke, it was with the impression that very little time had passed. The song she had set to loop during the surgery, to calm her subconscious mind, seemed almost in the same spot as before.
“Forgive me,” said Divina. “I had to wake you. Your brain activity showed a rapid destruction of short term memory. Caused by the sedation.”
“You did exactly what I told you to do.” Tamar sat up, staring down at the tapered tail that made up the lower half of her body. Somewhere in there, the traces of toes and ankles and feet existed.
She wanted to bring them out.
“The surgery will continue,” she said.
“You will forget most of what you’ve learned in recent weeks,” said Divina.
Usually the thought of repeating study wouldn’t bother Tamar. Such an activity would be soothing and familiar. But there was no time for it.
“The surgery will continue without sedation,” she said.
“Tamar, the pain may cause greater psychological trauma than any loss of memory could.”
“It won’t damage me. I’m steeled and ready to receive it. You must by now trust my understanding of my own mind.”
Tamar propped herself up on her elbows and looked down. Under her tail, a slot in the operating table would soon erupt a series of cutting blades. Various apparatus situated all around her, on articulated arms, would take care of the more subtle actions of the surgery.
“On second thought,” Tamar said. “I should like to be given an anesthetic and a strong pain blocker.”
They were given to her by a gossamer-thin needle jabbed into her arm.
“It will still hurt very much,” said Divina.
“No more talking,” said Tamar, as the needle withdrew. “I know what to expect and what to refrain from doing during the surgery. Just let it begin.”
The drugs were already settling into her system. They filled her with a gently buzzing warmth, a sluggishness that made her feel constantly on the edge of a nice nap. She hated it.
Thankfully, the first searing shot of pain knocked her out of her daze.
A mist of blood rose into the air as the soft tissue between her hidden legs was severed.
A series of instruments flashed down from their arms to do quick detail work. The excess flesh was excised away by a single, precise stroke. What was left was folded down around the formerly useless bones of her legs and reattached. Like a gift being wrapped. A gift from Tamar to herself.
She watched all this in wonderment and shock. The pain was terrible. One long scream of agony that burned through her soul.
Beyond the whine of the surgical instruments, her surgery song played over and over.
At first I was afraid, I was petrified…
She was no longer afraid. There was no reason to fear, once your fate was already set in motion. Irrevocably. She could no longer return home. She could only press onward. And if traveling through the black hole killed her, the pain of that death was unlikely to exceed what she was feeling right now.
I’ve got all my life to live…
I’ve got all my love to give…
And I’ll survive; I will survive!
Tamar watched herself being remade. She resisted the strong impulse to move, to escape, to break away from the table before it destroyed her tail forever. But it was already too late.
She passed out.
When she finally woke, it was after days of accelerated healing. She floated in a subsection of the swimming pool, immersed in a nutrient bath. Only her face was exposed, so that she could hear her music.
The first thing she did after regaining consciousness was to go through her memory. As far she could tell, it was all there. Her knowledge of language and psychology, her animals, her styles of physical expression. Namely the art of inflicting damage on imaginary enemies with a quarterstaff or sword. It would be much more fluid now, much more powerful, now that she could stand on two feet.
“Can you move your legs?” Divina asked.
“I don’t think I want to try just yet,” said Tamar.
“How is your pain?”
“Good. Very good. It may not mean much coming from a computer, but I’m relieved.”
Tamar healed quickly but not as quickly as she wished. She whiled way her time in the bath with games of Tafl. Sometimes she played against ghosts of her past self, generated from full brain scans in earlier years. It was a perfect way of seeing whether she had improved. And it seemed she had; she outplayed herself at every turn.
Other times she played against Divina. During one of these games, as Divina pressed her king across the digital board to an open corner, Tamar marveled at how similar their play styles were.
And this gave her the only solution, however imperfect, to a problem that had plagued her thoughts.
Divina was her friend. Her companion. But to find her mother, Tamar would have to go somewhere that she could not return from. To a world that may not have the technology to sustain or launch a starship. Therefore she would, in essence, be required to murder Divina.
“We will perform a neural transfer,” said Tamar, as she sandwiched another of Divina’s pieces and had it removed from the board.
“Between the two of us?” asked Divina.
“Yes. It’s the only way I can think of to save you.”
Although the AI argued incessantly, it was not in her coding (AKA her personality) to deny Tamar.
Tamar was finally well enough to leave the pool. She did so under her own power, disconnecting nutrient lines from her body. She swam to the edge of the pool, kicking her legs. They moved individually; she could control each of them separate from the other. Standing up was another strange thing. But she did it with no trouble. Her legs were strong, kept from atrophying by virtual exercises and e-stim needles plugged directly into the muscles. As a test, she ran a lap of the pool’s edge.
“You should slow down,” said Divina. “You might slip.”
Tamar came to a dead stop. She sat on the hard floor with her new legs stretched in front of her. A strange scar ran down the inside of each leg, like a thin stretch mark.
“Are you OK?” Divina asked.
Tamar stared at her legs. “I’m ready for the man.”
The neural transfer procedure required nothing for recovery other than a diet slightly richer in certain fatty acids, to facilitate the increase in density of certain areas of the brain.
Afterward, as Tamar floated in the pool to allow her senses to recover, she spoke to Divina. In her own head, this time. In the form of thought. The answer came immediately.
They were on course. They would reach the point of no return in their approach of the black hole in approximately one hundred hours.
Tamar reached to the side of her head, feeling a small projection under the skin. It was Divina, attached to and powered by Tamar’s brain. It meant she would need to eat twenty percent more calories from now on, and maintain a good balance of electrolytes to allow the electronic components in her head to function optimally. It meant that the two friends would die together, that they would never be apart. It meant that Divina would live on, quite literally, in Tamar’s thoughts.
Now that her affairs were in order, Tamar spent the rest of the time available to her in the practicing of martial arts. The ship provided a holographic opponent, and Divina let out pulses that tricked Tamar’s brain into actually feeling every blow she gave and received.
As she fought her ghostly enemy, Tamar forgot everything. She focused only on winning. When she watched the recorded session later, she was amazed by how fluid her movements had been. It was as if her legs had always been there.
Her music played. She went through her animals, fawning over her favorites, and took quick review tests in the languages she’d learnt. She did this over and over.
She woke from her naps and longer periods of sleep with the taste of fear in her mouth. Fear that she was losing herself somehow. But all her knowledge remained intact. The presence of Divina, at the edge of her brain, increased the speed of memory access. Her intellectual capacities were accelerated, but otherwise remained the same.
Why, then, was she afraid?
Not of pain. And not of death. It was change she was afraid of, in the end. She would miss the pool, the ship with its sterile corridors, the view of the stars. But most of all she would miss the monkeys.
Tamar strode into the command room.
Divina’s course was still being executed by the ship. And now, through the window, there was nothing at all to see.
Was it darkness?
Darkness was a lack of light. But this, the abyss she was gazing into, was something different. It was a universe where light had never existed at all. Where there was no such concept.
The ship’s dampeners would prevent instant death upon plunging into the black hole. Unless the trip to the other side took eight hours or longer, Tamar would survive. Theoretically.
Her old wheelchair was here. The wheels themselves had been removed and the chair had been anchored to the floor. Tamar sat down and strapped herself in. There was nothing to do, no controls to keep her hands on. She could have rode out the storm in the depths of the swimming pool, where she would feel and know nothing.
But she wanted to see.
To Tamar, falling into the black hole was like falling asleep. It was a gradual dissolution of her self and everything around her. A darkening. A strange flickering of consciousness. Time slowed, sped up, slowed again. It took a year for Tamar to form a single thought, and then an instant to go through her entire knowledge of animal life.
Eventually, she found herself in a wheelchair. It wasn’t hers; it still had its wheels and it looked very old.
She was in a room, a cube that either had black walls or transparent ones. She knew she was in the black hole still, because she felt like she was dreaming. Reality had gone soft around the edges. Or else it had vanished entirely.
Tamar wheeled forward. She didn’t think to stand.
There was a long bookshelf down one wall of the room. She rolled past it slowly, picking out titles with her eyes. She was familiar with some of them.
Regula Pastoralis, by Gregory the Great. De Consolatione Philosophiae by Boëthius. The Soliliquia by Augustinius van Hippo.
And other she had never seen before. Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges.
Tamar stopped to flip through the unknown volumes. What she found were brand new worlds, strange worlds that were not real. But neither was the world of this room. It couldn’t be.
At the far end of the room, a square display screen glowed at her. It was painfully bright, covered in low resolution images that stung her eyes. She made her way over, curious to see what ancient technology waited for her.
There seemed to be two input devices for the machine. One of them was rectangular, covered in separate little squares that bore symbols of a script she recognized.
On the screen was a piece of software called Duolingo. It was already set up to instruct her in a dialect she hadn’t bothered with, because it was merely an archaic version of one she already knew.
All at once, Tamar understood.
Her mother had been here. Her mother had somehow made this place. It was a waystation to prepare travelers for whatever waited ahead.
Somewhere, in another dimension, in a parallel universe, a sleeping Tamar sat strapped into her wheelchair at the front of her ship. Falling into a black hole.
This room was a dream, but a shared dream that somehow persisted in its own microcosm.
Tamar set herself to the task of learning the language. And then she read the unknown books from the library, seeking new insights into the mystery she called mother.
Tamar reentered reality, unharmed and devoid of any sensation of fear or pain, with the remnants of the wheelchair wrapped around her. The modifications she had made to it had saved her life. The bubble of protection, from the field generator, had absorbed most of the impact. The wheelchair itself had taken the rest.
Tamar stook on trembling legs and looked around. She was standing in a formation of stones. The stones, rough and vaguely rectangular, had clearly been put here on purpose; they described a circular pattern, with various offshoots. The overall effect was mysterious and rather ominous.
Far away, across an expanse of yellow-green grass that ran sideways in a cold wind, there was a fiery glow and a rising plume of smoke that indicated the final resting place of her ship.
A thunderous sound rose behind her. Tamar turned. If not for all her learning, the sight that met her eyes would have deeply frightened and shocked her.
Men came on horseback. Armored men, bearing weapons. Tamar stood and waited, shivering in her torn jumpsuit. She curled her toes, unsconsciously trying to hide the tail she no longer possessed.
The rider at the front of the group put up a hand. They drew up together, but the leader approached Tamar alone. He did not draw his sword. When he pulled his cowl down, it was a friendly face that greeted her.
“Come here, girl,” he said, beckoning. “We won’t hurt you.”
Tamar stepped forward, wincing in pain. It was the ground. It was so rough. So full of deviations and sharp edges. Nothing like the flat floor of the ship.
“I believe my mother has been here,” she spoke to the soldier.
He nodded. “She may have. There’s someone who would like to meet you. A man who needs every omen from God he can find.”
“Who?” asked Tamar.
The man laughed. “I suppose we are all looking for good omens. But the man I speak of is our great leader. Alfred, king of Wessex. Surely you’ve heard of his campaign.”
Tamar shook her head. “Sorry, but I haven’t.”
Behind their leader, the other soldiers were chatting amongst themselves. Pointing at the huge, smoldering object in the distance.
“Soon they’ll call him Alfred the Great,” the leader said. “He won’t fail, you see, because all of Creation is on his side. He has been blessed. I’ve seen it before. And now I see you.” He looked Tamar over. Not with lust, or anything so simple as that. Rather, he gave her a look of reverence. “You’ll ride with me.”
“I don’t ride,” she said.
“There’s nothing to it. Especially when you’re not the one with the reins, you see.”
She approached the animal, sliding her hand over its flank. Part of her had never believed a creature like this could exist. Yet here it was.
And so Tamar found herself bouncing atop a strange and beatiful beast, her arms clutching an armored man whose long beard frequently tickled over her fingers. She would have felt exhilirated, if her mind hadn’t been reeling from overstimulation.
At length, the riders reached a camp where many tents had been erected. She was led through groups of soldiers and priests at rest, all the way to the center of camp. Here, they reached the largest tent of them all. And it was sized that way for good reason; much of its interior was taken up by books, as well as a huge table bearing a map of whatever area of the world they were in.
Standing at the head of the table and listening to the words of an advisor stood Alfred of Wessex. He was a thin man with a broad forehead and a short beard.
It was the man from the picture. The man of the sad, hopeful eyes and the sharp nose. Tamar suppressed a gasp. A shiver of joy passed through her.
“My king,” the leader of the soldiers said. “We found her at the stones. I thought you might like to see her straight away.”
Alfred turned his eyes to Tamar. Even now, they seemed possessed by a grim determination.
“Only her?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“Yes, my king.”
Alfred smiled. “Good. I had thought by that great noise we heard that we were being attacked.” He turned to his advisors. “You may leave us. I wish to speak with her alone.”
The other men departed from the tent.
As Alfred walked slowly and gracefully toward Tamar, she found herself frozen to the spot.
“You look afraid,” said Alfred, stopping a few paces from her. “Could I convince you not to be?”
“I just need a few moments,” Tamar said. “My king.”
“Don’t bother with that. We’re two fresh acquaintances in a smelly old tent, trying to get to know each other. Nothing more.”
Alfred looked her up and down. His expression did not change.
“Do you think me… odd?” asked Tamar.
“I think everyone odd,” he said immediately. “But you stand on two feet and you speak. Which means the two of us are perfectly capable of getting along. Provided we remain respectful and civilized. What is your name?”
“Tamar,” Alfred repeated.
“And you are Alfred.”
“That I am.”
“I’ve seen your picture,” Tamar blurted. “I’ve always wanted to meet you. To become your friend and perhaps more. For a while it is all I wanted. Well, I’ve also wanted to meet my mother again. Her name is Sedna. She looks a lot like me. And-“
Alfred turned away and walked further into the tent without a word. Tamar was left alone, staring after him, wondering whether she had said something foolish.
In a moment, Alfred called to her. She followed his voice, and found him seated at a table in a separate area of the tent. He was surrounded by books.
“If your mother was ever here,” he said, “she may be referenced in one of these volumes.”
Tamar picked up a tome at random and opened it.
“Psalms!” she said.
“Do you read them?” asked Alfred.
She nodded vigorously and recited a passage:
“‘When the Sun Clearest shineth Serenest in the heaven,
Quickly are obscured All over the earth Other stars.'”
She shrugged, adding, “I’ve always wondered what it meant. Which other stars? Which sun? I know so few of them.”
Alfred was staring at her in a most curious way. Without taking his eyes off her face, he reached across the table and picked up a smaller book. Using an inkwell nearby, he copied the passage Tamar had recited into the book and then stashed it in the folds of his shirt.
“You are strange,” he finally said. “I think it will take a special approach to get to know you. Would you like to play a game?”
He led her to another area of the tent, where a real, physical Tafl board was set up. It was much larger than Tamar had imagined. When she saw it, she had to hold in a laugh. She wanted Alfred to be surprised.
“It’s popular among the enemy,” Alfred explained. “They have good taste in some areas. In land as well as games.”
He indicated a seat. Tamar took it. He sat across from her.
It took less than six minutes for her to beat him. Alfred stared at the board in the aftermath of his defeat, utterly expressionless. Trying, Tamar decided, to memorize and synthesize everything that happened during the game. To learn from it.
Finally, he looked up at her and smiled.
“You’re very good,” he said. “I hope I can earn your trust and confidence as a friend, Tamar. Because you would make a most valuable one. Care to play again?”
“I would like to get to know you,” she said. “I have trouble understanding people sometimes. I’ve tried studying interaction, emotional responses, to figure it out. In theory, people make sense. Cause and effect should explain all their moods. But I can never seem to understand why they react in certain ways. Or how they will respond to my actions.”
Alfred listened to all this patiently.
“It’s lucky I already have plenty of good generals,” he said, “because you will not be considered for that position.”
“You see,” he said, pointing at her. “You laugh, you smile, you speak well. There’s nothing the matter with you, Tamar. If you don’t understand the way some people behave, maybe it’s because their behavior is foolish.”
“But sometimes I would like to know,” said Tamar. “Like right now, for instance. I’d like to know what you’re thinking. And what you might say if… I did something outrageous.”
“Well.” Alfred sunk back in his chair, sighing. “Nowadays my thoughts are consumed by the task of saving my people and regaining the land that was taken from us. As for what I want out of life, there is a simple answer. I desire to leave the men that come after me a remembrance of me in good works. But there are plenty of other pleasures to find along the way. Things with which to enrich the soul.”
He stood up, striding around the table to her. He took her hand, studying the fingers.
“Where do you come from, Tamar?” he asked.
“From far away.”
“You have a home, somewhere?”
She nodded. “A world that was devastated by war. Where every inch of dry ground was rendered uninhabitable. We went to the sea. We were forced to spend more and more time underwater. We found away to live there. After a very long time, we adapted.”
Alfred nodded. “War is a common affliction across all of Creation.”
“Or perhaps it’s unique to a few little blue worlds,” said Tamar.
Alfred released her hand, lowering it to the arm of her chair.
“I only gained legs very recently,” Tamar confessed. “Before, I only had a tail. It’s a condition we used to call sirenomelia. An abnormality dormant in our genes which eventually helped to save us. I-“
She was silenced by Alfred’s finger pressing into her lips. He then touched her cheek, gently stroking the blue skin.
“I understand little of what you say,” he said. “But I would like to. Do you think you would stay, and make England your new home? I promise to keep you safe.”
She looked into his eyes. She couldn’t resist; she reached up and brushed aside his curtain of brown hair. He looked at her as though she were the strangest and most wonderful thing he’d ever seen.
Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.