3.02 Refuge

I saw a clear vision of what had happened the instant the memory of it hit Thomas’ face. I’m not even sure if he’d projected it, or if Bashiketa had, or if my greater subconscious had provided it through cosmic grade association. It hit me too hard and fast for me to bother analyzing where it came from, and it was too traumatic for me to even look back on it now and try to figure it out.

I later talked to Phage to understand how it could have let this happen, too. And it said that it had been during a moment when it was more focused on the whole of the Terra Supreme’s system and less conscious. It had thought it had left enough safeguards in place around the shipyard where Bashiketa had found Thomas, and where the two were learning how to use the nanites. And it had thought it had left the two with enough instruction and power to protect themselves, forgetting that they were two nine year old children that were not me.

Phage may have unfathomable abilities, but it is not infallible. And I really need to remember that that is true of me as well. Case in point, what I’d just done to Thomas to remind him of how he’d died.

Something had caused the gigantic hatch of the shipyard to open, and even with the nanites there as a tool to help, Thomas’ body could not survive the catastrophe of that. Neither he nor Bashiketa knew how to do it. But, at least Phage had accelerated the nanite terminal’s processes when it had given them to Thomas, and Thomas had been able to ascend.

Even without Phage’s explanation, that vision answered so many questions that someone in the room had probably been about to ask.

“Ni’a, are you OK?” Aphlebia asked with their body language.

“No,” I said, already crying and sniffling. I put my eyes in the palms of my hands and shuddered, holding in a wailing noise I so much wanted to make.

Abacus had been right in the process of saying, “Ni’a, are you OK?” out loud when I’d said no. Our words overlapped, and it looked at Aphlebia and understood then I’d been responding to them.

“I’m sorry,” I told Fredge, who was right across the table from me. Then I turned to Bashiketa, who was also Thomas, who was being tended to by Laal, and said, “I’m so, so sorry!”

Bashiketa nodded.

“That looked like a trauma response,” Fredge said.

Abacus nodded.

Fredge looked over at Laal and said, “Maybe we should take things way more slowly. Get Thomas into his new clothes, and then let him lead the way. It’s probably really OK if we don’t leave these quarters for a while, anyway. I’ll clean that up, Laal.”

Laal nodded and helped Bashiteka get up and go to a back room, probably the washroom. 

Then Fredge got up and got some cleaning supplies, and said to the rest of us, “You should stay until Thomas has recovered, if it doesn’t take too long. I saw how he reacted to you, Ni’a. Aside from that one trigger you handed him, I think you might be his lifeline here. Well, you and Bashiketa together. It’s like he already knows you.”

“He kinda already does,” I sniffed. “We met. Sorta.”

Abacus concurred with Fredge, “Anything familiar to Thomas right now is critical for him. We’ll stay. On another note, it is good to see you during a time when we’re not actively breaking any rules.”

“And to be able to hear you talk out loud,” Fredge said.

Aphlebia scowled.

Abacus noticed the scowl, smirked at Fredge, and then signed back, “I’m actually surprised you recognize me.”

Fredge glanced at Aphlebia, who stuck their tongue out at them, and then signed back, “I read your book.”

Aphlebia laughed at Abacus, and then signed to both of them, “talk in your favorite way, I don’t care.” And then they glanced at me to get my attention and looked pointedly at Thomas’ discarded nanite clay. It was creeping very slowly back toward the drum in the corner.

I just nodded. I wasn’t in the mood to do anything about anything at the moment. I was still recovering from what I’d seen.

So I got a questioning look from Aphlebia, and I looked really hurt back at them, as apologetically as I could but I don’t know how it really came across.

Abacus saw that exchange and asked me, “What happened?”

I sort of opened my mouth but couldn’t really say anything, and then squeeze my eyes shut and sobbed again. I gestured a hand limply toward Aphlebia and then the other one toward Thomas’ nanites.

Abacus frowned, trying to decipher that, but Aphlebia gasped and then put a hand on the table for me to hold, which I did.

Abacus knew enough about me, how I work, and my relationship with Aphlebia to get an idea from that, and said, “Oh.” Then it turned to Fredge and said, “I don’t think Thomas was the only one triggered.”

Fredge, who was in the middle of cleaning, said, “Ah.” And the maker dinged.

Laal came back out and said, “Bashiketa is leading Thomas through some grounding exercises for meltdowns. They think they’ll be able to come back out soon. Thomas wants to, actually.” Then hen leaned down to me and asked, “Can I do anything for you?”

I actually felt my heart beating rapidly, and I don’t think it was just a simulation from my Network avatar. I think my own biological body was reacting to my own flashbacks and the extremely vivid vision of Thomas being spaced. I was also connecting that to my memories of my own nanite exobody spacewalk, which had been a profoundly healing experience, and making those visions feel threatening and deadly, too. I didn’t want any of that, but my body wasn’t listening to me about it.

Laal sat opposite me in the seat Fredge had been sitting in and said, “Hey. Why don’t you return to your home for a little bit, hug your caretaker and eat or drink something for real, and then come back here when you’re ready? No one here would be hurt by that. Do you know some grounding exercises?”

I frowned and shook my head.

“OK, when you wake up in your bed,” Laal seemed to be well versed in this Network projection thing for being a Monster, “count down things you can sense. It won’t cure you, but it’ll help. Five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Maybe wait until after you get that hug. Or during the hug.” Hen tilted hens head and raised hens eyebrows in a prompt for my understanding.

I nodded, and then practiced grounding myself right there. I didn’t feel like I could move from my chair until I did, anyway.

I could see the table, Laal, a chair, Fredge, and the cloth Fredge was holding. I could hear Bashiketa mumbling to Thomas in the back, the sound of the life support system of the quarters, the sound of Fredge moving the cloth over the table where Bashiketa’s lunch had landed, and… my own heartbeat. I actually could hear it. I took a deep breath, feeling both my nanite body moving with it and my body at home actually breathing, two things right there. And I could feel the table. I could smell cleaning fluids and vomit. And I could taste… nanite clay. I could actually taste the inside of my nanite exobody’s mouth! That was kinda neat.

But I had one more set of senses I could access and I decided I needed to do that. I consciously connected with my greater self, the entire system of energy transference and transformation throughout the Sunspot, and really the rest of the Universe. Following Phage’s teachings since I had been three, I only expanded my awareness as far as the space between my nanite exobody and my original body in bed. And I could feel Phage, my mother, all around me as I did this. I could feel how much it cared about me as if it was a constant in an equation about a law of physics. Which, it was, and is.

I don’t really know how to describe what doing that feels like. I’ll try it all sorts of different ways throughout this book, but I don’t think my words can convey it to any being who does not also experience it. But what it afforded me was an outside view of my own bodies. Both of them. The biological one and the Network driven nanite body. And my psyche as it was stretched and echoed between the two of them. I saw it all as its own complex system, almost separate from the me that was really me.

I reached out and smoothed the shock of acute waves that had recently propagated in the system. It wasn’t anything big enough to have to send it out through the ship’s exhaust. Nothing that dramatic. But it had been a reaction that was teaching my body’s neurons to overact about a number of things, wrenching up their sensitivities beyond their typical hypersensitive states.

And then I thought I could do the same thing for Thomas. But, again, I remembered Phage’s teachings. To not do that without asking first. So I returned to my nanite exobody, and looked up at Laal.

My posture and expression must have changed more than I realized, because hen leaned back and straightened up in mild surprise.

“Can I go back and see Thomas?” I asked.

Everyone else watched with curiosity. Fredge seemed astonished at my change. Aphlebia and Abacus both took it as typical. Laal nodded and gestured for me to follow hen.

Hen took me through their spacious kitchen and to a door that led to Bashiketa’s own room.

At the door, Laal asked in a soft voice, “Bashiketa? Thomas? Can you see Ni’a right now? They want to ask you something, I think.”

A mumble came through the door, and Laal nodded at me and let the door open.

I went in, while Laal stood at the open door.

Bashiketa was sitting on the edge of their bed, holding their shoulders and rocking back and forth. I recognized that stim. Aphlebia sometimes did it when they were happy, but this looked distressed. Bashiketa had been doing something like it back when we’d first visited the labs below their quarters, where they’d been born, and where the original Tunnel machine was housed.

“Thomas,” I said. “I’m sorry I reminded you of… things. I can help, though. Will you let me help?”

Thomas nodded Bashiketa’s head. They really were a system now, just like my siblings the Whorlies.

I sat down cross legged on the floor in front of them and looked up at their face, but at their forehead because now I knew eyes were a bad idea between us. Sometimes I look into someone else’s eyes because I know they like it, even if I don’t. Then I said, “I need to explain first, because what I do is weird and I need you to understand it before you say it’s OK. OK?”

Thomas nodded again.

“I’m like Phage,” I said. “I’m its child. I can… make things calm down. But, it’s good at spaceships and stars and things like that. I’m good at people. Only, doing this for people kinda violates their consent and autonomy, so I try to not do it. Or I try to work on such a big level that it’s more OK, I think. I hope. But, if I do this for you, it might feel like I’m hugging your brain. Are you OK with that?”

Thomas nodded vigorously. I could tell it was Bashiketa who followed that with a quick, little smile.

“OK,” I said. “If it turns out you don’t like this, I’ll be able to tell and I’ll stop immediately and I won’t do it ever again, unless you ask. But you can even say ‘stop’ if you feel like it. OK?”

Thomas nodded.

So I took another deep breath, feeling both of my bodies going through the motions, and then slipped into my Phage-state again. I still want a better name for that.

There I saw Thomas overlapping in space/time with Bashiketa, and I could see how they were affecting each other through Bashiketa’s body. I could see the interplay between the waves of acute distress in Thomas and Bashiketa’s efforts at soothing them. And I could see the vibrations of what I guessed was dysphoria aggravating both of them. I couldn’t read their minds, but I could see their states. And I started to add standing waves to counteract the worst of the distress, both the trauma reaction and the dysphoria. They both needed relief from both.

The dysphoria would come back every time Thomas came back to consciousness in Bashiketa’s body. I couldn’t end it. But I could suppress it in the moment. And the trauma of Thomas’ death was something that would take years to heal, and maybe never completely. But this would be a boost that would make it easier.

When I was done, I said, “I’m going to go back and tell the others what happened so that they know what not to say. Is that OK with you?”

Bashiketa gasped with relief and Thomas said, “Yes, please!”

I sniffed and tried to wipe a tear from my eye, but it was the wrong set of eyes. Oh, my face was going to be a snotty mess when I got back home.

So, I got up and went out with Laal and told everybody what I’d seen. But I warned Aphlebia before I did, so that they could brace themselves. They reached out to ask me to hold their hand while I talked, so I came over and did that. And we squeezed each other’s nanite hands, back and forth, as I got to the hard parts. Little signals we’d learned to send to each other over the years.

I really try not to favor any one person. Everyone I know, from Phage to my friend Bri, I try to treat as equals, because I really do see them that way. But, some people’s needs in relation to me are just bigger, or I feel more personal responsibility for them. And I just naturally am there for them more. At least, when I’m in my body. But with Aphlebia it goes deeper somehow. I feel like they understand me in a way that even my mom doesn’t. And, of course, I feel personally responsible for their health, too. But, that understanding, in the face of all we’ve been through, is a support I cannot afford to ignore. And it would be unloving to not try to return it in every way possible.

I found myself wondering if Thomas would ever feel something like that from anyone. If so, it would probably be Bashiketa, but the perspectives and confusions of being a system might muddle that. I don’t know. I’m not part of one, but since that time, I’ve seen some of the Whorlies reaching out to other people for love instead of relying on each other. It seems like a thing sometimes.

The Flits, on the other hand, are a trinary system that I know, that are very insular and self-sufficient, and so there’s probably hope there for Thomas.

Abacus was saying, “Well that’s a mess I should add to my book if they’re OK with it.” and I was frowning at it, when Bashiketa and Thomas walked back into the room. 

I’d intended to give them a signal, but had forgotten to explain that part, so they’d decided to return on their own.

As Thomas took control of his nanites again, which were halfway across the floor in their journey to the storage drum, Bashiketa shook their head.

“I’ll tell you how I went there,” they said. “But don’t write the worst thing ever, please.”

“OK,” Abacus said.

Bashiketa told a newly formed Thomas, “I think your clothes are done.”

I went over to the maker and pulled them out to present to him. He took them and then went back to Bashiketa’s room to change into them. He could have just put them on over his nanite clothes and then told his nanite clothes to go away but, even if the others didn’t understand, I got it. He came from a culture with different notions about what can be seen of a body, and different ways of dealing with that.

“So, I think we might have gotten most of the worst stuff out of the way,” Fredge said. “But we’re going to need to find ways to help Thomas adapt to living here. I think he needs a Tutor.”

After some hesitation, Abacus said, “I suppose I could take that on, on top of everything else I’m doing.”

“Please don’t take offense at this,” Fredge said. “But I wasn’t implying you, and I don’t think you’d actually be a good fit. Not that I know Thomas that well at all. But from what I’ve seen here today, I’m thinking that he needs another peer more than anything else, and someone he trusts. And it can’t be Bashiketa, because even though they seem to be friends and connected to each other, Bashiketa also needs some tutoring, in a way that I can’t help with.”

“What do you have in mind?” Abacus asked.

“Ni’a,” Fredge said, turning to me. “You’re the same age as both of our children. You are a child yourself and should say ‘no’ to this, really. But I’d be remiss not to ask. I have never seen anyone exhibit the spirit of what I think the Sunspot should be than you have done just now, even in the midst of making a mistake. Would you at least be OK with being a good friend and peer for the two of them, and help show them around the ship when they’re each ready? With Phage’s help and support, of course.”

“Yes!” I declared. “I want to! I like them both!” But I did find myself wondering why I kept taking on responsibilities without really thinking about it. I didn’t resent this one in the slightest, but I did finally start thinking about that habit of mine. A part of me knew I had limits and had surpassed them recently.

Bashiketa tilted their head at me, furrowing their brow, and said, “I like you, too.”

Thomas re-entered the room, wearing his new clothes, and tugged at the chest of his shirt, saying, “This is really cool! I think I can feel each thread!” But he’d said it in his own dialect, forgetting to relay through Bashiketa.

“One hundred and twenty eight per square centimeter,” I said.

Fredge gestured toward us and said to Abacus, “And that’s the other reason I thought of them. They speak his language.” They turned to Thomas and said, “Thomas, would you like Ni’a to visit more often and maybe be the one to show you around the ship.”

Thomas considered that for a moment, probably letting Bashiketa translate, then nodded quickly.

“Hey,” Laal said softly. “Let’s sit down and relax again. And, Thomas, do you have any questions for us? What do you want to do?”

Thomas opened his mouth a couple times without saying anything, and then shrugged. He went to sit down, though, and took one of the cups full of tea, and seemed confused by it.

I put my hand over my mouth for a second as I realized his hesitation, then sat back down opposite him and took a tea cup, too. “Even in these exobodies, we can still drink and enjoy the tea. The nanites don’t need it for anything, but they can use it. But better, yet, you can taste it!” Then I demonstrated by taking a sip myself. “Someone programmed them to do this!”

So Thomas sipped the tea and looked sufficiently surprised. Bashiketa’s face echoed that surprise. So, eating things wasn’t one of the activities that they’d explored while using nanites aboard the Terra Supreme.

“How is it?” I asked.

“It feels real,” he replied.

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