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A Brinnite walk-in on Byway
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Minaiyu spent a lovely afternoon with some friends at their homestead outside of town, and is now pedalling home on a cargo trike piled with zucchini.

He reaches an intersection; on the cross-street is a farm truck carrying produce to the train depot. He has right-of-way, and pedals forward, realising too late that the truck isn't stopping--

 

 

 

He wakes up groggily.

On habit so long ingrained it might as well be instinct, he reaches for the tetra of meal-replacement drink on his bedside table. It'll be easier to get up if he's not fighting false-tiredness.

The tetra's not there. In fact, his bedside table's not there.

Wait, hang on, he-- the last thing he remembers is--

--oh shit--

His eyes fly open.

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It is recognizably a bedroom, at least. There is a bedside table, it's just on the opposite side from what he's used to.

He's under a full-body weighted blanket. The bed is very soft, and tall, and wide enough for one person, but you'd be hard-pressed to fit two.

He groggily mumblesighs, streeeeeeetches like a cat, wiggles, throws the weighted blanket off, and literally flops out of bed.

Only he's not doing any of that.

The (male, ?mid-twenties?, 5'10", slight-built) person who is not Minaiyu gets up, grabs some clothes including jeans and a T-shirt out of an organizer, and gets dressed. He seems to be making a fair effort to be quiet.

Other than the bed, organizer, and windows, the room contains a bookshelf overflowing with a desultory library whose titles are illegible in the dim dawn light, a portable floor fan plugged into the wall but not apparently turned on, and a high, sturdy standing desk, on which there sits what someone from a civilization with laptops might recognize as a three-inch-thick laptop (with pinches in the form factor presumably so you can still pick it up), and scattered notebooks and pens.

There's also the presumably-light-fixture set into the ceiling, and the grates in the ceiling and floor that look like they're for heating and/or A/C.

With increasing frequency, the person who is not Minaiyu shakes his head, his arms, as though trying to throw off some strange vestige of sleep.

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Fuck fuck fuck--

--okay, okay, don't panic, panicking is not helpful and giving your new host physical panic responses is definitely not helpful. Focus.

(The body takes a deep breath without the host willing it. This might be a bit unnerving in its own right, but it's better than the alternative.)

Okay. So. Bloom where you're planted. Where is he planted?

He seems to have lucked out on the physical form: not far off from what he's used to. (A bit tall, maybe, but not horribly so.) The clothing looks machine-made (which is a very good sign, even if it does mean that knowing how to build a spinning wheel is unlikely to be useful here), the room appears to have electric and HVAC hookups (even better sign), and...oh hey, looks like that's a computer: seems like this place is probably basically up to speed on technology, though there's always something to be said for triangulating off what other places have come up with. And he's getting semantic bleedover on the language, excellent, that'll make things a lot easier.

(if he had to get run over by a truck at age 23, he couldn't have asked for a much better result okay, no, panic is unhelpful but it's also too soon to be relieved: he first needs to get his feet under him (so to speak))

He does not want to be snooping on this guy's life without his knowledge any longer than he has to: that wouldn't be a good start to a relationship where they are going to have to trust each other. He'd better get on with things.

He'll follow the host's lead on how quiet to be: presumably there are sleeping housemates or something.

Hello? he signs, in the local language.

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He shrieks like a seabird. Gaha'eka (elsewhere known as Bywayeans) don't build themselves prepared for this.

There are two response shrieks from elsewhere in the house.

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Xakda fumbles for a pocket mirror in the drawers of his organizer and stares into his own eyes, groping in his mind for where the intention to sign 'hello' to himself, came from.

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Welp. He was hoping for a freeze response to startlement, but he knew he was taking a risk. He's not sure he actually had any better options.

he's acutely aware that he's going to spend the next several decades replaying this and the next few minutes over and over in his mind, and probably like four years from now he's going to figure out what the better option would have been

honestly he is under enough stress right now and it was not really the best moment to look in a mirror and see something that is clearly not his own face, he just got used to what his adult face looks like

There doesn't seem to be a point in being quiet anymore.

"Sorry, sorry!" comes a voice from Xakda's own mouth. "I-- I didn't-- there didn't seem-- oh no you don't have a word--"

He takes a ragged breath.

"My-- my name's Minaiyu. I..." they don't have separate words for dying and departing, he guesses that makes sense if they don't know about the afterlife situation "...died, and then I woke up here. That's...what happens to people, when they die, they wake up in someone else's body, in some other universe.

I-- I'm so sorry, this must be such a shock for you, it was a shock for me and at least I knew, that this was something that could happen, you don't even have a word--

--I wouldn't have dumped this on you, if I'd had a choice. It was an accident. I-- I want to make the best of this, for both of us."

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"Sir-r?" The voice on the other side of the door sounds to Gaha'eka ears like it's trying not to sound any of { approximately three years old, confused, petulant, scared }.

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We don't know how our children will come off to people from other worlds where childrens' inborn first concern may not be method-acting adulthood as seriously as possible from as young as possible, and there are so many mortifying possibilities that we're kind of afraid to think about it.

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"I don't know what's happening either, kid."

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"Xakda?" This voice is clearly adult, and ?female?, and confused and baffled, and a little on edge.

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"Uh, good morning, Sinber. I don't know how much of that you heard, but I to my knowledge didn't say any of it. It sure looks to me like I'm going insane, or like I really have been half-possessed by some foreign soul*. Feel free to stand by if you want while I get ready for work to make sure I don't start, like, breaking stuff, but as far as I can tell I'm not going to have to miss work over this. Sorry!"

(This is Xakda's fault somehow.)

*There is a common word, soul, in natural languages on Gahai, that has none of the woo-woo connotations of that word in English, and all of the mechanical connotations.

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". . . Noted!" says Sinber.

(That sounds more compassionate in the local dialect.)

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"So, Minaiyu. Hi. That was my coparent, Sinber, and his-by-somebody-else son. We live together with our other son here. It was my idea. There are lots of benefits, Sinber agrees, but it's not ideal for these circumstances, I apologize.

Sorry also about your death, and sorry the reception isn't all it could have been. Do you, like, have experience, being in someone else's body? Because you're right, I've literally never heard of that as a thing that could happen. I mean, very occasionally multiple people in one body, but not - suddenly, with - like this.

Where are you from?"

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('Insane'? It...seems to have connotations of both 'delirious' and 'neurodivergent'? What a weird pair of concepts to combine. Presumably Kakda--no, wait...Xakda was referring to the delirious bit?

Well, Xakda doesn't seem to be insisting that Minaiyu's a dream-figment, so it's probably not the most pressing concern.)

"Uh, not...personally? I have...or, well, had...a pair of acquaintances who are twin-souled, and when I was eight there was this ten-year-old in Peace River's End who ended up hosting a subsistence-farmer kid who'd died of diphtheria, someplace called--" Tashayan does not have the phonemes for this, but he thinks if he leans on some of the extra phonemes from the new language he can probably actually pronounce it properly this time "--Kreltz, I met them a few times when we were in the same museum tour-groups...and of course I've read books on what to expect and all that, we-- we all grow up knowing, back home, that someday this is going to happen. I just...thought I'd have a few more decades first. And some warning, probably.

My world's called Rekka, at least in my language. More specifically I'm from Bluecoral Bay, in Tashay. First-south Thirtysixth-east, not that our coordinate system means anything to you I guess...east coast of the Continent, kind of on the border between temperate and subtropical.

And, uh, thank you. This is...not the day either of us wanted to have, I'm sure, but all things considered I think you're taking it pretty well? And it looks like you're not a subsistence farmer, so that's great news. I did the usual technological-bootstrapping training, but it's looking like y'all don't really need it. Though I'd be happy to share any tidbits y'all haven't happened to come across yet, or linguists who'd be thrilled to learn Tashayan, or anything like that.

...I promise not to break anything. Or, uh, I promise not to break anything on purpose, and to be very careful about breaking things by accident."

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". . . Wait, how could you have known it was going to happen to you? If I were on Rekka, I imagine I would go 'okay, so our world very occasionally receives souls in this way - not even nearly as often as we lose them to death, but even setting aside that lopsided ratio - maybe there are a thousand things that can happen when people die and this is only one of them.' How did you know that wasn't the case? I mean, the evidence says that clearly you did know, you came prepared with the right kind of training for approximately the situation you actually ended up in" - and it sounds like such juicy training, too - "I'm just deeply confused."

Xakda at this point can no longer stall by checking his pockets, and must voyage beyond his bedroom door in search of coffee. On his way to the kitchen he passes the sitting room, where Sinber is reading sleepily in a beanbag chair and the three-year-old is lying facedown on the floor with his hands stretched out in front of him, clutching a book.

It's a couple hours before their wake-up time. Xakda grimaces and mouths 'Sorry'.

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"Don't die, please?"

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Xakda gets a handleless ceramic cup and starts filling it with water.

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"Well, okay, I guess 'knowing' is a strong word, but...for one thing we didn't have anything else to prepare for? We do suspect there might be other afterlives out there, it would certainly explain some things about ratios, but there's not really anything to be done about total unknowns.

And the ratios do seem to be different in different worlds: you're not the first place we've heard of who had never heard of this before, and...I don't know any solid statistics but I've heard there are places where they definitely seem more common than they are back home? For all I know there might be worlds way at the other end of the spectrum where there are like ten people in every body.

In any case, now that I'm here I can be more confident I've got at least another life or two left in me, walk-ins--" (he uses the Tashayan) "--are about one in thirty thousand but a lot more than one in thirty thousand of those are on their third or more life. It's rare to meet anyone with more than, like, eight or ten, though, so clearly there's some sort of attrition going on." He grimaces. "All I can really do is hope it's not anything too awful...though there's some reason to believe it might be worlds inventing soul-transfer tech, taking over the process themselves, and thus ceasing to generate new walk-ins plus adopting any that hit them? We think it should be possible to do that, though we haven't got any solid leads on how to go about it yet...but we have noticed that we've pretty much hit, now, the highest tech level anyone's ever seen. The more optimistic among us think that means we're nearly to figuring out immortality and dropping off the map; the more pessimistic among us worry that maybe there's some black-ball tech so fundamentally destructive that it doesn't even leave behind a bunch of walk-ins talking about having died in a mass extinction.

...maybe y'all can invent immortality too. I hope so."

(He kind of regrets saying that part? It feels like it's too soon to think that too hard, he's still too ignorant and too precarious here, this life still could turn out to suck in ways he can't yet foresee, he can't quite let himself endorse a desire to stay here forever even as a rather large part of him hopes that he'll never have to roll the fucking dice again.

...but also he did maybe flinch a little at the 'don't die, please'. He does not, actually, want Xakda to die. And if, as he increasingly expects, he also does not want Xakda to die tomorrow, then by induction he wants Xakda to live forever.)

"Uh, and even if the truth is that all but one in every thirty thousand people cease to exist or something...one person, with the right information in the right place and time, can do a lot of good. I can't say I've ever endorsedly wanted to be someplace else's Amethyst Brightpath†, but I also can't say I've never thought about it, and I was willing to take on the role if it were thrust upon me.

...also it's just...good, in general, even in your first life, to know how you'd deal without having much help from industrial civilisation? Lots of people like knowing they could handle the basics of life themselves if they had to, it...makes people feel safer, gives them a sturdy foundation. And-- some people still become small mostly-self-sufficient farmers on purpose: it sucks a lot less when you have, like, modern medical care, and-- and you don't have to do it if it doesn't resonate with you." His breath hitches a little, thinking about a goodbye that he did not know would be the final one.

---

†he gives the translated meaning of her name, in accordance with her preference

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Drinking coffee by the cup is not super common back home--caffeine dependence is an extra vulnerability in one's life, and if one is in a situation where one particularly needs a stimulant overlay, one would probably rather not bother with brewing a liquid--but he's had enough mocha desserts that he recognises the scent once Xakda starts making it. The jolt of energy from the shock is wearing off, he's noticed.

"Oh, caffeine, right? Is that what direction this tiredness is coming from, then? I'd been wondering if maybe we needed breakfast. Could well be both, I suppose. I don't know, can you tell?" Host/walk-in pairs are known to be disproportionately likely to share convergences, but that still leaves a large fraction that don't.

 

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". . . yeah, I suppose you would also have informational access to the worlds people 'walk-in'-to Rekka from, so that'd be additional evidence that they're the standard and even maybe the only form of after-death experience in some large subset of worlds . . . and presumably those worlds get 'walk-ins' from Rekka - does Rekka get self_'walk-ins'? - or you wouldn't know that Rekka itself belonged to that subset. It sure doesn't sound like a fundamental feature of the universe, it sounds like something somebody put there, that human souls would for a period of lives wake up only as headmates of humans from vaguely adjacent worlds and not of writhing alien chimerae."

Xakda's thought process is indeed speeding up as he becomes caffeinated!

"People where you're from aren't generally addicted to caffeine? Why not? It's a . . . very basic aphorism, in my experience, that the drawbacks are embarrassing but wildly outweighed by the benefits. Some people do take pills for convenience, but eh, I like an excuse to have a hot drink every day. 'Breakfast', wow, haven't heard that word in a while. Actually never tried a routine with eating in the morning at all, myself, so it wouldn't be that.

I'm happy to be able to tell you that this society has just about invented immortality! The important people right now are still debating whether people my age and fitness have hit longevity escape velocity, but about 90%* of them are pretty sure we have. I've already had a few gene therapies that are, in sum, optimistically predicted to extend my life by twenty or so years. You're probably good - at least, as far as aging goes!

. . . Who's Amethyst Brightpath, if-you-want-to-say? Is my brain right in its incredibly uncharitable interpretation of 'lots of people', there, that in your home society it's considered, like . . . okay, to not carry around a compressed copy of your entire society's cumulative knowledge with you? Aside: I am so eager to swap notes about that when I get home from work - I'm a diagnostic tech, by the way."

He's putting on his shoes, waving bye to Sinber and the kid, though the latter is still insensible. Sinber is looking concerned but supportive.

"Sinber is a kidshaper, he's taking our kids to his school in a couple hours. Free tuition!"

*Gaha'eka, in general, use base-12, but it will be rendered as base-10 henceforth for legibility.

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"Well, it'd be surprising if it were all one-way, right?

We think we've probably had a few walk-ins from our own world? But it's hard to tell: even the one who was only on their second life had been gone for centuries and recordkeeping was not as good back then, and most of them had been gone for millennia. And we think one of them was probably just from some very nearby world with the same geographical landmarks.

Likewise, we've heard occasional secondhand otherworld legends that might be based on historical walk-ins from Rekka, but, like, very few worlds that we know of have radio, a lot of them don't even have newspapers, it would be very easy for someone to share a world with a Rekkan walk-in and not find out.

Supposedly some fae have said that most dead fae have come back, reporting a single walk-in life with a human host and waking up back in the fae realm when the host died like they did when they first came-of-age. But I don't know how far I'd trust anything a fae said, and certainly not with the amount of whisper-chain on that: nobody's talked to a fae, at least not knowingly, in almost two centuries. Anyway, humans don't come back like that.

In general hosts and walk-ins tend to be a lot more similar to each other than two random people? We think probably it's easier to, like, successfully lodge in a host brain the closer it is to how yours was. Maybe there's some absolute cap where if it's too different you can't lodge in it at all no matter how lucky you are, and there are lots of writhing alien chimerae out there in the multiverse and we just never see them because they're not compatible with us."

He makes a pitying-and-somewhat-disapproving facial expression for a moment when he hears about the widespread caffeine addiction including in his host, then catches himself.

"I've only done caffeine a few times myself, on days when I had a shift at the medical centre and hadn't slept very well, but I've heard from people who've tried doing it a lot that if you take it too often your body habituates and all it ends up doing is bringing you back to baseline? And if it gets to that point it's not actually doing you any good, it's just a waste of resources you could've spent elsewhere and an extra thing that can go wrong if one day you can't get hold of it. Plus it makes a lot of people feel twitchy and nervous, and they know it's not really them but it's still unpleasant. I seem to be one of the lucky ones on that, though."

He pauses at the bit about longevity escape velocity.

"...oh. Wow."

He is...going to put whatever these emotions are that he is having (he'll be safe here, he doesn't have to roll the dice on the wilds of the multiverse again   this had better be a good place to spend eternity   what about the other 10%   gene therapy wouldn't have helped with yesterday, would it   if he'd been luckier, if he'd been more fucking careful, he probably could have lived to see his homeworld figure it out themselves, perhaps even as they speak his centuries-old loved ones are toasting an absent friend) on the list of things he absolutely does not have time to process right now.

"Amethyst was...the big thing was that she introduced us to steam engines. Like, we had a couple steam-engine designs kicking around? But they were just curiosities, they were so primitive as to be useless, and we didn't know it was possible to do better than that.

I remember...I was seven years old, and my household went out northwest to visit my uncle's household, and while we were there we went to a museum of industrialisation. And on the grounds as we walked in, one of the statues was a woman in some sort of foreign tunic, pointing at a locomotive and grinning, and a little behind her, holding her other hand, an amazed man looked on.

The plaque, and some of the exhibits, and some other bits from my family, told me about Amethyst's accomplishments. She was called Brightpath because where she was from, people chose second names based on their jobs, and she named herself after the better way she worked to show us. Lots of places have been at more or less the tech level we were at since time immemorial; who knows how much longer it would have taken, if we'd had to stumble across it ourselves.

...they also told me about artistic metaphor: she didn't, exactly, look like that. Like, she used to look like that, the statues and whatnot were based on self-portraits she drew, but what people saw when they looked at her was the guy who'd been standing behind her in the statue, Kotellu yet Shenedi.

Like I said, people tend to be similar to each other, but it's not absolute. Hosts and walk-ins are usually the same sex," he was going to say gender, but this language doesn't have a separate word for that "but not always, and...their souls were similar enough that they could share a brain, but his body didn't fit her very well, and it was rough for her. So a lot of artwork of them depicts them as separate-bodied people--usually holding hands--to show her in her true form.

...I'm glad your body is a lot closer to me: it's a little weird but I think I can get used to it. I'd like to draw you a self-portrait sometime when we're less pressed for time, though.

Uh, I wouldn't say it's 'okay' to not know bootstrapping, for one thing it'd be like not knowing algebra or something, and..." oh this language has a terrible vocabulary for talking about acausal coordination, huh "...it's not what we would want other people to do in our place?

But what I meant by 'lots of people' was, like, the 'even in your first life' part, that even if we were one of those worlds that had never heard of walk-ins we'd probably still do quite a bit of making sure that our tech level fails gracefully. The more complicated something is the more fragile it usually is, and often it's worth it to switch to using mostly the complicated thing, but it's not something to rely on lightly.

About seventy years ago we had this huge coronal mass ejection, basically knocked out our whole power grid, and...we didn't know that was something that could even happen, and we were very aware that if we'd had a couple more decades to get more entrenched on electrifying everything we'd have been extremely screwed? We've done a lot of hardening and decentralising on our electrical grid since then, probably we'll be okay when it happens again though we don't yet know that empirically, but...like, that's just one thing that can bite you if you take technology for granted."

He is not sure exactly what Xakda means by "diagnostic tech"--the connotations seem a bit vague--but he figures he'll probably find out firsthand soon enough, so he doesn't even add that one to the list of things to process.

(If Minaiyu had more time to reflect, he'd think about Xakda saying that people do not ever suddenly turn up with headmates here, and how the first explanation out of Xakda's mouth that Xakda came up with was delirium-or-something, and he'd ask about being less conspicuous in public. But he has a lot of other things on his mind, and he does not think to ask.)

He tastes the word "school". One-to-many-tutoring-place? He would not expect a three-year-old, of all people, to get anything positive out of in-person one-to-many tutoring: there aren't a lot of circumstances in which in-person one-to-many wouldn't be prohibitively overstimulating for at least one of student and teacher, and he's pretty sure none of those exceptional circumstances involve three-year-olds. Something for the list of lower-priority questions, probably.

Minaiyu stops doing the usual absent-minded human face-touching once Xakda puts shoes on, and in fact switches to absent-mindedly arresting movements Xakda makes towards doing so.

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Xakda persists valiantly in putting on his shoes (and backpack) and is out the front door before Minaiyu finishes about the caffeine.

It's sunny, dry, and warm! The air is still and it's almost cloudless.

Xakda and Sinber, apparently, live on a little plot of { house, huge-two-door_garage, concrete, swingset, a couple young trees, and utterly wild grass } in the middle of a vast field of what Minaiyu may recognize as potato plants. A few little rolling hills stand sentry around the horizon, but mostly the land is pancake-flat. Other settlements - some with silos, some with other houses, some with just sheds - are sparse, and located outside of maybe a 3/4 mile radius. There's no road or railroad or anything going to Xakda's house.

He's almost to the garage, hand reaching for a mechanism set into one of the big shutter-doors, when Minaiyu starts about Amethyst.

And Xakda stops, and his hand will just hover there, unless Minaiyu does something else with it.

 

". . . Huh.

Sorry, you're probably gonna have to repeat all that stuff about about the coronal - the natural disaster?"

Smile. Slight laugh.

"You know, Minaiyu - Vaxi, this is so weird - assuming this is all real, assuming Amethyst Brightpath is real - I think most people, in this place where you've landed, would do decades of hard labor, maybe their whole lives, in exchange for a guarantee that they'd get to be somebody's Amethyst Brightpath when they died. Even after accounting for utilitarian concerns. But I think, that - after accounting for utilitarian concerns - I wouldn't. It sounds so - lonely."

Xakda snaps himself out of it and yanks the mechanism. The garage door snaps open, gracefully decelerating to a stop three feet above his head.

In the garage there are two aircraft. The close one is blue with a smaller cab and the far one is white with a bigger cab, but they're similar in design. Each is dual-propeller, the propellers mounted on wings double-folded like a bird's to fit in the space. They're sleek in a way that's suggestive of formidable power and efficiency, not design-for-the-impression-of-sleekness.

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"...have you...made it as far as inventing laptops...without having any solar flares big enough to collapse your electrical grid," he says, in a tone of dawning horror.

"We are...definitely going to have to discuss grid-hardening measures."

At the loneliness bit he sighs, a wistful expression on their face.

"...yeah. It is."

He looks at the carplane, putting things together with the lack of paths around the house.

"You do everything by air? That-- I mean, I'm looking forward to the view, but you must have to be extremely careful not to run out of fuel or anything, huh."

He thinks things over for a few moments.

"...would you like to hear a song from my home? Even if I am a dream-figment--and I don't believe that, but I can see why you would, and I am very grateful that you're provisionally accepting me--but even in that case, then you'd have dreamt a whole song out of nothing, and that's something wondrous in itself."

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"Well, you could hardly believe you were a dream-figment! If you believe anything at all, then you're clearly real."

Xakda steps inside the carplane and takes the pilot's seat - you could squish a second person behind him if you really tried, but it's obviously not intended so.

"Not necessarily from Rekka, but clearly real enough that I won't be embarrassed later for believing you made movements using my body."

He turns a key and the controls boot up. They're analog, though the plane is apparently newish.

"Please, do sing!" The command is vaguely compassionate, though Xakda does his best not to sound pitying. "If you can use my voice to actually sing, in front of just about anyone who knows me, I legitimately think they'll have way less of a problem believing you exist. Me too, for that matter."

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He sings, a folk song about the eternal cycle of the seasons. Though some summers are wet and others dry, still the fundamental essence of summer-ness remains, giving rhythm to life. And though the winter is long, spring shall come again.

The song dates back about three hundred years, before the development of decent mosquito-control and subsequent expansion of permanent human settlement into central and southern Tashay. It was written for a climate significantly colder than the one he actually grew up in; the language, to a fluent Tashayan speaker, is comprehensible but noticeably archaic.

The cycle of the seasons may be a constant, but the song itself was born of far more transient circumstances. It was already substantially displaced from the space and time it describes, even before turning up in another universe altogether with a singer who'd probably been in the sleep-between-lives for centuries.

And yet. And yet. Summer's fundamental essence does remain. And spring will come again. Even here.

It feels...appropriately bittersweet, for this to be the first song from his home that this world ever hears.

 

It's not his best singing ever--he's still getting used to the new vocal cords--but it's passable.

Afterwards he gives a translation of the lyrics, focusing on preserving meaning without regard for rhyme or meter. Perhaps he'll think over more poetic translations later.

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