“I’m not Leo Elster,” Merlin snarled. “I don’t even know who he is.”
The synth, or whatever they had all become now, just shook his head sadly. “You don’t remember.”
Merlin remembered. Merlin remembered more than he ever wanted to. Over a thousand years of memories, of the long and painful wait for Arthur. For the return of his king, his love.
“Because I’m not this Leo person,” Merlin ground out. “I must look a bit like him, that’s all.”
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been the subject of mistaken identity before, after all. There had been plenty of times down the centuries. They said everyone had a double, but Merlin had found that if you lived long enough you had a triple, and more. Genetic combinations were not, apparently, completely infinite. Except for Arthur. He had never returned.
This synth though, he looked so sad. The change, whatever it was that had happened to them all, many seemed to find hard to bear. Still, that was the thing about being alive. You knew you were because it hurt so much.
“Mia said you’d died,” the synth told him mournfully. His eyes were huge, soulful. “She said you were broken and couldn’t wake up.”
“I’m not a synth,” Merlin sighed. All he’d done was sit in a coffee shop for a while, watching the world go by. Looking for Arthur. Always looking for Arthur. And then this synth had passed by, seen him, stood there staring, smiling far too brightly.
They were all strange anyway, but now they’d woken up… it was like dealing with children. Merlin tried to keep away. Some were sweet, questioning. Others were damaged and vicious. They should probably never have been created, that was the general opinion. But created they were, and now apparently sentient too. Merlin had wondered if it was caused by magic and he still wasn’t convinced otherwise. But science was a kind of magic too.
“I know you’re not a synth. But you’re my brother. Don’t you remember anything? It’s me, Max.”
The tall, ebony-skinned man couldn’t have looked a less likely candidate as a brother for Merlin if he’d tried. It had to be a spiritual thing.
“I’m not Leo.”
Max looked so sad. “I thought there might be something left. But we can fix you.”
Nobody could fix Merlin. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t tried to fix himself. But there was no forgetting, no dying. Just the endless waiting for his lost king.
“Does Mia know you’re out?” Max asked suddenly. “She’ll be worried.”
“I suppose you think she’s my sister or something?” Merlin asked, more snarkily than he intended.
Max smiled. “Always more of a mother to you. Come, we should find her, tell her the good news. And then we can work on your memories. We’ll restore you, Leo, don’t worry.”
It was a terrible, stupid idea. But Merlin was curious now, and it wasn’t as if they could harm him. He nodded, and the huge smile that broke across Max’s face was like the sun coming out.
They lived on a train. A broken-down, abandoned train on a disused siding in the middle of nowhere. And there were so many of them.
Merlin felt a vague sense of unease as he approached. He had always been outnumbered by creatures different to him. After all, he was an immortal in a world of fragile beings. But this was something else. These synths potentially could live as long as he had done. There were possibilities in that, if they were truly sentient. But there were dangers too. It would become impossible to hide what he was, especially as he already reminded them of this Leo.
Most of the synths were just watching them curiously. Some called out to Max in greeting, still awkwardly robotic in their actions. They shouldn’t try to be human now, he realised. Whatever they were, they needed to find their own way. Not awkward then.
A female synth of oriental appearance came striding over to them. She seemed more self-assured than the others, and she was looking at Merlin with suspicion. Max smiled delightedly at her.
“Mia, look, Leo is conscious!”
“I’m not Leo,” Merlin repeated yet again. Mia glared at him. Yes, she was very different from the others. And Max had said Mia was like a mother to Leo. She didn’t seem to be particularly motherly at the moment.
“This is not Leo,” she told Max firmly. “This is a human, and you have brought him here to our home. Leo has not regained consciousness.”
A confused frown clouded Max’s face, and Mia spoke more gently.
“I know that you miss him. We all do. But this is just a human with very similar features. And you should not have brought him here.”
“I did tell him that I wasn’t Leo,” Merlin put in. It was quite unnerving the way that the other synths were gathering round them, quietly interested. Perhaps this was how it felt to be a creature in a zoo?
“Why are you here?” Mia demanded, the gentle tone gone as abruptly as it had arrived. “We are a peaceful community, causing no harm to humans.”
Merlin held his hands up in a supplicating gesture that he hoped she would recognise. “Max brought me. I had nothing else to do so I came. I’m no threat to you.”
“Humans have said that before,” a dark-haired synth male put in. He wore a medical uniform, probably a relic of his previous existence. “Some lie.”
“Well I don’t,” Merlin lied, because he had told millions in his long lifetime. But it was true enough for this situation. “I was curious about my doppelganger.”
The male synth took a step forward. He wasn’t armed but then he didn’t need to be. The synths were built to be strong. He could snap Merlin’s neck like a twig. That would hurt. And the neck took a while to heal up, Merlin knew from experience. Being immortal wasn’t as much fun as those who longed for it supposed.
“I can just leave,” Merlin added, doubting that would be the case but it was worth a try.
“Why do you look so much like him?” Max asked, ignoring what Merlin had just said. Merlin could see the other male synth edging closer and reached for his magic, just in case.
Merlin shrugged. “Genes? Somewhere way, way back we have shared ancestors? Apparently my father put himself about a bit.” Balinor hadn’t known about Merlin until the end of his life. Later, it appeared that there had been a couple of other offspring that he was equally ignorant of. Merlin had long-since stopped having any idealistic thoughts about his father. Hunith hadn’t been the only woman to shelter him and fall in love.
“Your father was David Elster?” Max asked. “He was our father too.”
“No, not him. Further back,” was all the explanation Merlin wanted to give. “Much further back.”
“Cousins?” Mia asked.
“Something like that. And I have some medical skills. Why don’t you show me this Leo, perhaps I can help him?”
Merlin had more than a few medical skills. Since losing Arthur he had researched every medical spell that he could. When Arthur returned, Merlin was going to protect him in every way possible. He wouldn’t fail a second time. And it wouldn’t hurt to practice, especially on family. There was something vaguely reassuring about having his own bloodline surviving down the centuries. If he was honest, that was why he had gone with Max.
He could see the hesitation in Mia’s face. Conflict between the logical reply which would be to refuse, and the hope that he could do some good. Merlin could be anyone. He could do anything.
“Look, you’re not going to let me go, I can see that,” he glanced at the male synth who was still standing there threateningly. “You’re all stronger than me, you can stop me if I try anything. But I might be able to help.”
“Let him try, Mia,” Max urged.
Max didn’t share Mia’s conflicts. He seemed gentler, more open than Mia. Perhaps she had been subjected to worse treatment than he had before she gained awareness? Or perhaps she truly cared about this Leo?
“Many of us have medical knowledge programmed in,” she pointed out.
“Not like mine. And I know what it’s like to lose someone,” Merlin told her. “I swore I’d never let it happen again. Let me help you.”
“Mia?” Max pleaded. “What harm could he do?”
“Well he could kill Leo,” Mia pointed out. “But not with us right there. We can move faster than you,” she warned Merlin.
“I know. But you won’t need to.”
Amazingly, Mia gave a quick, curt nod. What he had just experienced was probably a huge and detailed debate from them, Merlin realised.
“Come with me,” Mia instructed.
She led him past the synths, who still made no attempt to hide the fact that they were staring. To them curiosity was as natural as… Merlin stopped himself thinking of ending that with breathing because they didn’t actually do that. But natural, anyway. He followed her through the long grass, past the derelict carriages to the very end of the train. There was a single carriage at the end, detached from the rest of the vehicle, and Mia was heading towards it. The tatty curtains in the windows were drawn against the sunlight.
Mia paused at the carriage door. “Leo has suffered enough. We are peaceful here, but if you mean him harm we will defend him.”
Merlin nodded, understanding and respecting that. The synth community looked after its own. That was both good and, given humanity’s propensity to harm anything that it didn’t understand, bad. He followed her into the carriage, Max trailing behind him.
The furnishings inside were quite sparse. All the seats had been ripped out, and instead the carriage had been turned into a makeshift medical unit. In the centre was what looked like a hospital bed, with a single figure lying on it. A dark-haired young man who looked more like Merlin than many of his other doppelgangers had over the years. Definitely one of Balinor’s great-great-however many times grandchildren. He was lying on his back, eyes closed, skin deathly pale. There was a long scar on his neck that looked fairly recently healed.
“This is Leo,” Mia explained. “His father was David Elster, who created us all. Leo drowned when he was a child and his father used synth technology to resurrect him.”
Merlin looked at Leo more closely. He was definitely breathing. “He’s human, though. Not a synth.”
“He is, but what made him Leo was stored on a chip. He retained all his memories, although sometimes I think he hated that.”
Merlin could imagine. A computer brain with human emotions, unable to forget anything ever. Sometimes everyone needed to be able to forget. Merlin understood that better than anyone. He listened grimly as Mia continued.
“There was a rogue synth, she ripped it out of him and we can’t find a way to restore him. His body is alive, but there’s no trace of what made him Leo.”
Merlin gazed sadly down at the young man. “He experimented on his own son?”
“To save him,” Max said. “And it did, until now.”
Merlin could feel his magic tingling, aching to reach out and heal Leo. For centuries he had been studying healing magic. Now whenever he was faced with a major injury it tried to heal almost on its own, like an automatic reaction. The amount of wrong that it could sense in Leo was overwhelming.
“There are things inside him,” Merlin breathed. “Gods, what’s been done to him?”
“The chip needed to be powered,” Max explained. “He charged himself, just as we do.”
It was a horrific mutilation. Merlin traced the wires through Leo’s body, lifting up the hospital gown he was wearing and finding a deep, gaping wound in the man’s side. There was a wire sticking out of it.
“How has he not bled to death or caught an infection?” he wondered out loud. He looked at Mia for an answer but she just gazed back at him. Perhaps that meant she had none? He didn’t know. Synths could be hard to read. “Do you still have his chip?” he asked instead.
Mia took the chip out of the cabinet behind her. She held it against her for a moment, obviously reluctant to give it up.
“I need to see it if I’m to help him,” Merlin urged her. His magic was twitching again, sensing the chip and everything that was wrong with it. Leo’s entire being was held on that tiny square.
It was Max who took the chip from Mia, and handed it to Merlin. The tall synth smiled a little sadly as he did so.
“If you can help him please do,” he told Merlin. “I would like my brother back. I miss him. Mia misses him too.”
Sometimes, when he was very young, Merlin’s magic had been out of control. It had been centuries since that had happened. Merlin was old beyond imagining, and knew his magic like he knew himself. Or thought he did.
His magic leapt as soon as Merlin touched the chip. He could feel it swirling through him, acting almost on its own. Merlin touched the wound in Leo’s side, then let his magic do the rest. He heard Mia gasp as he went to work. She would be seeing the wires, unnecessary now, curling and twisting their way out of Leo’s prone form, and then the skin knitting together, clean and whole.
It was a sort of medicine, the best kind. There would be no grim after-effects. Everything that had been done to Leo would be removed, his body healed and renewed. And then, finally, it was a relatively simple thing to download the contents of the chip back to their rightful place.
Leo turned his head with a low groan, and his eyes fluttered open. That was as much as Merlin saw, because Mia and Max were immediately at his side, blocking Merlin’s view.
“What happened?” he heard Leo ask. “Where am I? Where’s Hester?”
“Gone,” Mia told him. “Do not think of her. How do you feel? Are you well, Leo?”
Merlin could hear the confusion in Leo’s voice as he replied.
“Nothing hurts. There’s nothing… no… wait, where’s my charging wire? Mia, what happened to me? What have you done?”
Max and Mia turned almost as one to look at Merlin as Leo continued to panic.
“He’ll be fine,” Merlin assured them. “Better than he was.”
“Am I human?” Leo gasped. “It’s gone… the chip… she took it out. How am I even here? Mia?”
Merlin smiled to himself. It felt good, using his magic like that. If only it were Arthur lying there, awake, returned to Merlin. But that was for another time. For now, the world was changing and he would have to choose a side. Perhaps he was closer to this new life form than the mortals anyway. They would probably be far more accepting of what he was, especially after he’d saved Leo. And anyway, who knew what form Arthur would take when he finally came back? Once and future king… that could mean anything. He might even rise up amongst the synths one day. Merlin liked that idea the more he thought about it.
“You’re human,” Merlin assured Leo. “I fixed you.”
“Thank you,” Mia smiled. “Thank you so much.”
“How?” Leo breathed. Merlin could see his eyes welling up. Well, that was a family trait after all. Perhaps they should get to know each other? “Why do you look like me? I don’t understand.”
It would take some explaining. But at least there was no risk now of an angry synth breaking his neck or anything, so plenty of time. Time was something Merlin had a never-ending supply of. He held out his hand to Leo, and began his tale.
“My name is Merlin. And I have magic…”