My Shadow, My Friend

by Megan James © 2001

At first I knew only darkness and the feel of my parent’s flesh between my teeth. When I was older, and had reduced the carcass to a tiny pile of hollow bones, a rosy glow appeared on the horizon; I experienced what I later learned to call curiosity.

When I was older still, and the sun had crept into the sky in brilliant triumph, I saw a dark shape trailing on the ground behind me and ran in terror. It was during my flight - useless, for I could not outrun that black, silent form - that I found the Box. I touched the Box, and in that instant gained Understanding. Once I had Understanding, it could give me Language, and spoke to me.

“Behold your Companion.” I looked at the wavering creature, still afraid. “The Companion is good. He will not hurt you, but will only help you. It is bad for a human to be alone; history has shown us we we can not exist without companionship, and solitude brings madness.”

Then the Box taught me how to spread the membranes beneath my arms, exposing them to the sun so I could absorb its energy. This would be the food that would support me for the rest of my life. One I had fed, I returned to the Box, and my teaching began in earnest.

I told the Companion everything I learned. He was the best of students, sitting eagerly beside me the moment I sat, listening in silence, only standing when I had finished and rose to my feet to feed. The poor creature couldn’t speak, but never seemed to tire of being taught, so I did not pity him.

“My race once teemed in billions,” I told him. “We ruled a solar system, and filled it with our art and music. But before we could unlock the secret of travel to other stars, we were struck by the double sword of plague and exhausted resources. My people wished to live on, somehow, in case travelers more advanced than we might find us in their wanderings, and renew our race.” I dipped my head toward my Companion, to ask if he understood, and he - dear friend, so close to me he almost knew my thoughts - simultaneously nodded his own head in affirmation.

“They couldn’t reach the stars, but they could modify themselves so a line of individuals, dual-gendered, could exist indefinitely, each one giving birth to an offspring which would feed on it, then on the sun. They couldn’t travel to a new home, but they could construct this smooth, metallic sphere, featureless to eliminate accidents, and place it in orbit. They couldn’t broadcast all they knew to the galaxy, but they could construct a computer that would download the information into each of their progeny.” I looked up at the sky and wondered whether I would be the one to pass on my genetic code and my species’ culture.

The Box fed me images of all of humanity’s great art, and taught me how to dance and sing. It suggested I teach my Companion. He was an excellent dancer, able to mimic any step I showed him. He added his own joyous writhing, elongating an arm here, a leg here, unchained to the constraints of any style.

I passed middle age, and the Box warned me that my Companion would leave me for a time. It said this was for the best, for the Companion’s health.

“You won’t really go, will you?” I murmured. He tried to stay, I think, but diminished with each day. “Go,” I finally said. “Go, and come back whole.” So it was I spent some time clinging to the Box for solace, scarcely able to eat, until I saw the Companion slowly return, growing to his original size. I teased him for standing on my other side, but was secretly relieved that he seemed none the worse for his experience.

I had food, I had knowledge, I had friendship. What more could I ask?

When I was old, and saturated with learning, the Box told me the Companion would leave me again. This time he would not return, but a new Companion would be there for my child, who was growing within me. I laughed in disbelief and the Companion shook with laughter beside me. The Box told me again and again that he would soon go; he loved me, he wouldn’t want to leave me, but he would.

I didn’t believe it until it happened. I was stooped over, barely able to move. I was numb internally, and couldn’t feel the slow, methodical chewing of my offspring, but my uncontrollable twitchings and jerkings told me it was making its slow exodus out of my body. The sun was approaching the far horizon and twilight settled around me. As I watched, my Companion slowly faded away.

So now I am alone, huddled on the ground, unable to move. My hopes of being the spark of a new humanity are over, but perhaps my child will be the one.

The thought is little comfort.

Hurry, sweet death; save me from this anguished isolation, for I can feel the false caress of madness on my cheek.

x x x

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