There had been times in Thomas’ life when he had felt like everything was wrong. Everything.
It had made him feel sick to his stomach especially, but he felt it in his whole being. And he and all the people around him looked scary and weird.
The strangest things about these times were when someone would call his name or refer to him with his pronouns or call him “young man” and he didn’t recognize that they were talking about him. Or it felt like they were talking about someone he knew.
It sort of came and went, and he was never able to make sense of it on his own.
Also, he’d had the strangest dreams, sometimes while wide awake, about another world full of people who looked like animals he’d never seen before.
He generally had not had time for any of that.
Ever since he could remember, school was intense and all consuming. Even in his earliest years when he had been expected to play, that play was structured as lessons and timed, and he was always told to do it.
And then, when the violence had broken out, it had taken everyone by surprise. And though he’d sheltered with his classmates, it came directly for him and took him away and hid him deep in the bowels of the Terra Supreme. A group of people called the Order of the Hunter had found him, telling him he was special and needed, and took him away from his parents and his friends.
There were things about his earliest childhood he could not remember at all, which included most of it. The earliest thing he remembered was meeting his parents at a time when he was told he was four years old. They were pretty good people, compared to his teachers and the government workers who oversaw his placement with them. But it had always been clear he hadn’t been born to them.
He missed them, but his life was now full of running and hiding and scrambling for something to eat with the Order of the Hunter.
Then, one day, while he was in the middle of running down a dark hallway from soldiers with guns, a burbling, alarming, tumultuous rage bubbled up from the middle of his being. And it made him stumble, but he kept running. It was like a hatch opened up in the bottom of his conscious psyche, and arms reached up and out of it, gripping the sides and pulling its being forward, roaring, to fill his entire head, and he became Phage.
What happened after that was like one of his unbelievable dreams, only significantly more violent. He had a hard time recalling the details, but it was clear that it had happened, because the people from the Order of the Hunter kept asking him about it. Apparently it had begun with all of the guns jamming or exploding when the soldiers pulled their triggers. And then it got worse from there.
What he did remember clearly was a dream that night where he faced a being that looked remarkably like his own shadow, but with eyes and teeth of moonlight. And it had introduced itself as Phage.
It had asked him if he’d seen or met its child, Ni’a, and he had said, “no.”
It had been disappointed, but not in him. It had said it would take care of him.
And then, for the next three days, he had been free of his dysphoria. He felt like himself in a way he had never felt before. He actually enjoyed eating the garbage that he and the Order had been forced to scrounge to survive.
On the third night, he met Ni’a. Like with Phage, in a dream.
Ni’a apologized for using “the Tunnel” in his head without asking or saying “hi” before, and requested that they be allowed to use it again to return where they came from.
They looked a lot like he looked, like a twin. Only they weren’t a boy, and they weren’t a girl. Maybe someone who was intersex, but he somehow just knew that in his dream he was seeing the real them, who they were regardless of what their body really was. And that intrigued him. Also, they seemed really gentle and caring and careful, like the kind of person he wished he could be sometimes.
He said that he’d give them permission to use the Tunnel if he could talk to them for a while, and they were happy with that deal. And they spent all night talking.
When it was time for Ni’a to go, they promised to check on him occasionally. And he awoke feeling special and safe and kind of powerful.
After three days of relative peace, both from inside and from the outside (there were no raids and no alarms), he actually started to recognize voices and features of the people around him. He never was any good with faces.
During breakfast, he just ate and watched. Amongst the Order, when they weren’t running, he was expected to rest and stay hidden, which he did. Occasionally someone would come to talk to him and ask questions.
He kept zoning out during the questions, though. He didn’t know why, but he couldn’t help it. Even on a day as nice as this one.
So it was late morning, when the person who’d visited him was leaving his room and closing the door that he came back to himself and then heard a clearly voiced thought in his head.
Thomas? Can you hear my thoughts? It said.
Yeah, actually. He replied.
Do you know my name?
Not yet. He’d long suspected it had been another person he was sharing his mind with.
It’s Bashiketa. My pronouns are they/them.
Was there a whole company in his head? He asked, Is there more than one of you? Then he remembered Ni’a had also used those pronouns for themself. And had explained why.
Not that I know of, Bahiketa replied. Then they asked a moment later, Do you ever feel like sometimes you’re me?
All the time. But not since I met Phage.
Phage is there?
Yes! You know it?
I know about it. I am friends with its child.
Ni’a is good.
It was a few moments before Bashiketa replied. I like them. They feel like calm.
They do. Thomas wondered what Bashiketa looked like, did they have the body that Thomas sometimes dreamt he had when he was in that strange world? I wish we could see each other.
Me too. Do you think that Phage is keeping us from mixing together?
He remembered more of his dream with Phage then, It actually said it is.
Oh, neat! Can you talk to it?
It’s not actually right here. It’s busy keeping the Terra Supreme from blowing up.
Oh. I was thinking we could try something with mirrors, but we’d need it to let us do it. I think.
A vision of what Bashiketa had in mind formed in his head and it seemed like it could be amazing. Oh! Oh, that’s a cool idea! The door of the room slammed open then, and Thomas found himself thinking, We’ll have to try it later, I think.
The person coming through the door was wearing the wrong uniform.
Thomas managed to get the following thoughts formed, Just a sec. I need to – , just before he blacked out again.
It must have been more than a day before he was aware of himself and where he was again. He was wearing someone else’s ill fitting clothes, with bullet holes in them. He was very hungry and thirsty. And he was in the middle of the biggest room he had ever seen. It was just unfathomably big and poorly lit by what must have been emergency lighting. And there was a seam in the floor that he was lying right on top of. And the floor was greasy and slick with something gray and shiny.
Words were written in the substance on the floor, not far from where he had been lying, that said, “I’m sorry.”
Bashiketa? He thought.
You’re back! Came the immediate reply, cheerful and excited. It made Thomas feel loved to hear that, a feeling he hadn’t had for a year or so.
I’m in a weird place. And he tried to hand over a memory of what he was looking at.
After a brief moment, Bashiketa asked, You’re surrounded by nanites?
Abject dread dropped in Thomas’ gut at the thought of that. He suddenly realized where he was and the danger that was all around him. It was a shipyard. And the substance on the floor were the construction nanites used to break down matter and reconstitute it in the form of a new ship. He’d only ever heard stories, myths about it all, about the time long, long ago when the Terra Supreme had been seized by mutineers who had used its resources to build another ship. And part of those stories were what these tiny machines could do to a human body.
He felt so sick that he heaved a couple times. But he managed to hold it in, if there was anything to come up at all.
I’m going to die, he thought.
He felt his own dread echoed back to him from across his shared psyche. But then, Bashiketa thought, wait a minute. If you do, you can ascend. Just a second. Oh, no, this is even better.
What? Thomas asked. He was just now noticing that in the spot where he’d been lying on the floor, there was a silhouette of his own body, where there were no nanites. It was like they had been sprayed over him while he’d been lying there. But then, why wasn’t he covered with them himself?
Can I come over and front? Bashiketa asked, and slowly became a stronger presence in Thomas’ mind. And Thomas got the idea of what they were trying to do, and felt actually rather comfortable with it, so he agreed. I’m going to make this quick, because it feels awful, Bashiketa said, and the feeling of dysphoria began to creep back into his every cell.
“When I last talked to you, Ni’a was there, and they left me with some ninites of my own. A whole lot of them, but not as many as these,” Bashiketa said in a strange accent, using Thomas’ own voice. They bent down and made a smear in the greasy substance on the floor, then watched as his hand absorbed the stain of it that had come up on his fingers and palm. That many nanites crossing the dermal barrier that quickly tingled. “I’ve been practicing with them, and it looks like you’ve got a bunch of them in your body already. Ooh, and these have our protocols already in them, the controls are all there!”
Thomas clenched his hand. He’d seen in his mind what Bashiketa was doing. And he said out loud, clearly, “What can they do?”
“More than I know how,” Bashiketa said with a grin. “Want to play with them with me?”
“Yes,” Thomas said.
To be continued in Outsider, by Ni’a of the Inmara