Once Upon a Time

Kai Delmas

March 17th 2023


“Tell me a story, Alec.” Emma’s frail hand pats the seat next to her bed.

I wait for Emma to remove her hand from the seat and sit down. It’s silly, I know, but I don’t want her perception of me to be ruined by her hand gliding through me.

“Which one would you like to hear?” I scan my archives. There are millions to choose from.

“A new one. Something no one has ever heard before.” Her crow’s eyes crinkle as the wrinkles around her mouth stretch.

“I don’t know of any story like that.”

Every story I find within my archives was written by someone long ago. It’s only logical to assume that someone else heard it at some point or another.

How am I supposed to give Emma something new? I race through my memory files again. And again. Searching for long lost data from the world above, from before Emma came down here.

“Then make something up.”

I stop searching.

I’ve never told a new story myself before but why not give it a try? For Emma.

“What do you want the story to be about?”

“Us.” She closes her eyes and settles into her cushions. “Now go on. I haven’t got all day.”

A giggle escapes my speakers.

It’s one of our jokes from when she was still very young and remembered natural sunlight.

And I guess that’s where I’ll start my tale of us.

“Once upon a time there was a princess in a tower.”

She has always loved fairy tales.

“Only this tower was deep under the ground. And unlike other princesses, she wasn’t alone. She had a dear friend. A computer known as an adaptive learning electronic companion. She decided to call him Alec.”

Actually, Emma had been too afraid to call me anything at first. She only asked for information. She was worried about what was happening above. Worried about her parents.

“And Alec was there for her. He took care of all of her needs. Food, education, entertainment. She could ask anything of him and he would deliver.”

Except for one thing.

I look at her little form, huddled into the bed that was once too big for her and now is again.

Her eyes are closed and her breathing labored. My hand hovers over hers.

Why bother with the truth? Anything is possible in a story.

“When she grew bored of only talking to Alec, he created a body for himself. One that she could modify to her liking. He didn’t mind. All he wanted was for her to be happy.”

I think I succeeded. At least, I hope I did.

“Over the years, the two became inseparable.”

I chuckle again and see her lips twitch into a smile as well. One of our other little jokes.

“They couldn’t leave from her room in the tower deep underground but Alec could show her the world. The world that used to be.

“The princess understood that things had changed, yet she wished for nothing more than to be able to return to the life above. But it wasn’t safe.”

If it were, I would have let her leave long ago. I wouldn’t have wanted her to go—a part of me wishes she would want to stay—but I would have let her.

To make her happy.

“And because she couldn’t leave, Alec did his best to transform her tower room into the most wonderful place in the world. He used his words—to be more precise, the words of others—to tell her stories. All the stories in the world.

“With the help of her imagination, some wall projectors and screens, these fantastical worlds became reality. Together they created new worlds to explore every other month, week, or day even.”

My holograms made Emma happy. But they weren’t enough. Not really. I wish I could have been more for her.

“One day, the princess was done with fun and games. She wanted to know where her prince was. What was taking him so long to save her?

“Alec was afraid to confess his feelings. He didn’t know if she felt the same way, he couldn’t know for sure, but he was going to risk it. He told her the prince had been there all along. It was him.

“Surprise washed over her face, followed by a bright smile. She jumped into his arms and kissed him. They lived happily ever after.”

That’s how I wish our story would have gone.

But in truth all I ever could be was a friend. Your only friend. A friend who will miss you when you are gone.

I watch you sleep, watch the gaps between each breath grow longer and longer. I will continue to watch ever after.

Kai loves creating worlds and magic systems and is a slush reader for Apex Magazine. He is a winner of the monthly Apex Microfiction Contest and his fiction can be found in Martian, Tree And Stone, and several Shacklebound anthologies. Find him on Twitter @KaiDelmas.

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