Climbing when you knew how far away something was always felt faster and easier than climbing when you didn’t. Kel was accustomed to spending large portions of every day walking, in the woods, up the mountain. Climbing was as natural as breathing, though usually Kel climbed outside, among the silver-and-green-leaved trees branching everywhere in the woods.
Now that they had a light source, they leaned close to the tunnel walls to look at the scales. Not just red and gold, blues and greens shimmered there, iridescent. And the scales had a tiny space between them that the diffuse light seemed to be coming from.
“Was it grown?” Kel mused aloud. Mama had said that the house was grown, that most of the things around them had been grown long ago.
Kel reached out to touch, and thought, I wish it was brighter.
When the tunnel brightened, Kel startled so hard the pixie nearly fell off their head.
Unsettled, Kel continued climbing, as tiny hands clung tightly to their curls.
After a while, they climbed the stone ramp again, to find the door closed. Kel stared at it, then tentatively reached their hand out, and said, “Open, please.”
They only startled a little bit when it actually worked, the door sliding open in front of them.
The room had gone dim again. This time Kel reached out with purpose, touched the tabletop and didn’t jump at all when the room brightened. The wall lit up, and the image appeared, but didn’t say anything.
Kel studied it. The person on the wall looked maybe Kel’s size, though it was hard to tell, but Kel didn’t have much to compare with. Mama was a head taller than Kel now, though sometimes she seemed so much bigger than that. And Mama was rounded and bumpy where Kel was flat. The person on the wall was also flat, but where Kel had short, twisty curls, and Mama had loose curls that hung to her shoulders, the person on the screen had the longest hair Kel had ever seen, brown waves of hair shot through with sparkling silver threads. Where Mama’s skin was light brown, with freckles, and Kel’s was a bit darker, without freckles, they both had warm undertones to their skin. The person on the wall was a pale olive brown, with strangely sparkling green eyes.
“Can you talk?” Kel finally asked, coming closer.
“Will you run away if I do?” the wall answered. The face looked dimensional, but when Kel reached out to touch, the wall was flat—just a little rough under their fingers.
“Not if you answer my questions,” Kel said, peering at the face from about an inch away. And then added, “And tell me who you are.”
“I’ll try. I’m Ama,” Ama said. “I use ‘she.’”
“That’s what Mama uses. I use ‘they.’ Why are you in the wall?” Kel asked, stepping back so they could see better.
“I’m not,” Ama said, her eyes following Kel’s movement. “That’s just a picture of me that I’m sending.”
“But it moves?” Kel said, puzzled.
“How old are you?” Ama asked, cocking her head to one side a little and looking puzzled.
“Almost eight,” Kel answered. Mama never let them forget their age, because everything seemed to depend on being a certain age to be allowed to do things. Eight loomed close with a promise of new discoveries.
“In Avalon years or Earth years?” Ama asked.
“I don’t know what those are.” Kel stared at Ama’s face..
There was no visible reaction from the image on the wall, but there was a pause. “This place you live,” Ama finally said, “what do you call it?”
“Home?” Kel asked.
“The planet,” Ama clarified.
“Lon,” Kel said. “Why don’t you know that?”
“Why are you surprised to see a talking image? Aren’t you and your cohort taught with screens? You are Kel, correct?”
Kel tried to parse that. “I’m Kel. Who else would I be? What is a cohort?”
“The other children,” Ama said. “Your younger siblings.”
Kel tipped their head to the side. “It’s just me and Mama. And I can’t find her anywhere.” They swallowed hard, but a tear fell.
The image was still for a moment, and then Ama said, “Mama is resting. She will come back to you in a day.”
“How can you know that? Where is she?” Kel asked. “What are siblings?”
“I can… feel her. And siblings are other children of your mother.”
“But where is she?” Kel persisted.
Kel made a small, frustrated noise and then looked around the room. “Why is there a snake in my mountain? What is this room?”
“Snake?” Ama said.
“The tunnel with the funny skin. It’s like an inside-out snake.”
“You know snake but you don’t know siblings?” Ama asked.
“We were going to make some snakes, when I’m eight. And other animals. She never said anything about siblings. But why is there a snake in my mountain?”
“It grew there,” Ama said. “It helps bring the power down from the peaks.”
“And what is this room?” Kel asked.
“A communication node. It helps you talk to me, and helps regulate power flow.”
“Regulate…” Kel’s head swam.
“Control. The mountains are covered with a skin that collects light from the star and turns that light into power. The conduit you found takes that energy down into the valleys.”
“Is that why it sparkles up high?” Kel asked. “I never thought to ask, but the stone in here is different. Dull.”
“Yes,” Ama said.
Kel thought again. “Has the con… Con…”
“Conduit,” Ama supplied.
“Has the conduit been there always?”
“Nothing has been there always,” Ama said. “Except the stone.”
“But is it new?” Kel asked. “I didn’t even know there was a door there until today.”
There was a pause, and then Ama said, “It isn’t new, it just isn’t easy to see when it’s closed.”
“I still don’t understand how you’re on the wall? Who are you?”
“You keep asking questions without waiting for the answers,” Ama said. “Do you want to know who I am or do you want to know how my image is on the wall? Both answers are complex.”
“Tell me who you are, first,” Kel said.
“You might want to sit down,” Ama said. “This could take a while.”
Kel looked around. There weren’t any chairs, so they crossed their legs and sat on the floor, wishing hard that it was softer.
The smooth, grey floor softened under their legs.
Kel squeaked. “Why did it do that?”
“What did it do?” Ama asked.
“The floor went soft.”
“Did you want it to?”
“It is made of a billion tiny things that can be controlled by signals,” Ama said. “You gave it a signal that it understood, so it did what you told it to do.”
“I just wished,” Kel said. “Will everything I wish for happen?”
Ama shook her head. “That would be terrible. You would need to be specific, and you’d need to be thinking about something that is within the realm of what they can do, and you’d have to really want it. But do you want to know about the floor, or do you want to know about me?”
Kel put a hand down on the floor, and made a clear picture in their head of the shape and feel of one of the more comfortable chairs on the ground floor of their house. The floor vibrated underneath them, and then pushed them up and wrapped up around them in that familiar shape, still grey. Kel stretched and shifted in the new chair.
“You,” Kel said. “If you’re not the wall, who are you?”
Ama smiled. “I’m the morning star.”
“Are you like me?” Kel asked. “How can you be a star and be a kid?”
“I’m not really a kid,” Ama said. “That’s just how part of me looks sometimes, when I need to.”
Kel blinked. “What are you?”
A small opening appeared on the lower wall underneath Ama’s image, and the little blue bot skittered back out.
“You see little Bot there?” Ama asked.
“It is connected to me. Like your hand is connected to you, but with a little bit more independence.”
“So it was you that poked me earlier?”
Ama shook her head. “I wasn’t awake. You woke me up. Bot has some independence.”
The little pixie chose that moment to let go of Kel’s curls and flutter into the air. It buzzed down to Bot and landed on top of its carapace, tiny fingers investigating the stalks.
“What is it doing?” Kel asked.
“I think it’s just checking in,” Ama said. “It has probably been a while since the pixie has seen something like that.”
Kel sighed. “I feel like there’s too much I don’t understand.”
Ama smiled. “I think that may be true for both of us. I don’t understand why there’s just you. There should be younger children.”
“I don’t know,” Kel said. “It’s always been just us.”
“I must investigate,” Ama said. “But I can talk to you while I do that. You have not used screens, you do not have siblings. What do you do all day?”
“I play in the woods and help Mama in the garden. She teaches me how to cook, but the stove doesn’t work for me when she’s not there. There is so much to tend. We are very busy. Sometimes, I climb the mountain. Sometimes we go together.”
“Can you read?” Ama asked.
“I can. There are stories about animals, and recipes, and stories about the pixies and the dwarves. My notepad has many stories in it.”
“Show me your notepad?” Ama asked.
Kel opened their pack and pulled the notepad out. It was a cream colored tablet, small and light, and when they touched the face of it, a number of simple pictures showed. Before Kel could pick one, one of the stories they’d been hearing for years opened on its own.
“Hey, did you do that?” Kel asked.
“Yes,” Ama said. “Read.”
“A long time ago, and a long way away, there was a beautiful star named Sol. Sol was brilliant and warm, and watched for eons while their planets spun around them, each unique, each beautiful in their own right.”
Ama interrupted to say, “Do you know what a star is?”
“Chara is our star that gives us warmth,” Kel said. “It is very hot and very far away, but much closer than the other stars. Mama told me that. Do you want me to keep reading?”
Ama nodded. “It’s been a long time since I heard that story, and I want to know if it has changed.”
“Can you read?” Kel asked.
Ama laughed. “Yes.”
“Can’t you just read it yourself?”
“I can, but if you read it, I can ask you about it as you go, or you can ask me,” Ama said.
Kel grumbled, “You sound like Mama when you say that.”
“It’s almost reading time for you anyway, isn’t it?” Ama asked.
Kel frowned. “Ama, can I stay up here tonight? It’s weird down there without Mama to talk to.”
“I’d like that,” Ama said. “Now tell me the story.”