We’d decided to play with blocks instead of cards.
Candril was sitting in the middle of the room, as still as ze could be, which wasn’t very still, and talking all about the cuttlecrabs. And we were building a growing elaborate wall all around zem. The idea was that when we were done, Candril would find a way to knock them all down in the best way. The wall was about a meter and a half away from all edges of Candril, so it didn’t take up the whole room and we could walk around it, but Candril also didn’t feel too crowded and could stretch when ze needed to.
Candril’s patience was becoming legendary in our family. Not because ze was the most patient amongst us. Aphlebia still held that record. But because ze had come so far from when ze was younger. The idea of doing this sort of game when we were just a few years younger would have been utterly unthinkable. But Candril was so happy that ze was going to get to make one of the biggest messes ze had ever made, with what ze imagined would be the loudest crash, and talking about cuttlecrabs with Bashiketa and Thomas was also a delightful distraction.
Though, Thomas was distracted by the Whorlies. He was torn between speculating about the cuttlecrabs and trying to ask the Whorlies what it was like for them to grow up sharing a body. In fact, as the game carried on, he talked more and more with the Whorlies, because he found that they had so much more in common that he’d hoped. And, eventually, it was clear that Bashiketa was listening.
Well, Bashiketa was translating for him over their connection, so Bashiketa couldn’t help but listen. And it also tired them a bit, so after a while they just sat down and watched.
Candril didn’t really notice and just kept infodumping about the cuttlecrabs, and mostly going over stuff we all knew already. But ze was so pleased with zer own knowledge, it was a pleasure to see and hear anyway.
And Phage was making midnight snacks for everyone while talking to Emala quietly about household stuff.
So, I found myself working alongside Aphlebia and communicating mostly without words.
I approached them apologetically, which they dismissed cheerfully, making it clear they were not hurt by me. So, I enjoyed their company for a while, cooperating with them in building the wall, and taking their suggestions and making my own, and we worked well together like always. Which told me that nothing significant had changed between us. At least, not on the surface.
So, then, halfway between the nanite bin and the block wall, I stopped and gave them a questioning but friendly look.
They responded to that with the sardonic look of theirs that meant, “You’re not noticing the obvious.”
I shrugged, pushing my head forward with a short quick double nod, and gestured with my hand at them.
So they put their hand on their hip and just sent me the thought, wordlessly, that my psyche translated to, “You have two families now. I have one. It’s OK.”
“Ah,” I said out loud, and then gestured at everyone in the room, and sent the thought back, “I’m trying to make this one big family.”
Aphlebia grinned and offered me a hug with outstretched arms. And I hugged them back, getting their message of approval and acceptance.
But I felt like there was still something else going on with them that they weren’t talking about. Maybe it had something to do with the arguments they were having with their Tutor, Chalkboard.
So I sent them a general questioning thought about their Crewhood.
To which they whirled toward me with fury and disgust twisting their face and signed sharply, in distinct words full of vitriol and finality, “Fuck the Crew.” Then they took a deep breath, softening their face just a little, tilting their head, and looking at me with hurt and questioning eyes, to wait for my response.
I was so startled by that, I’d taken a step back, my eyes wide. I held up both hands, and opened my mouth. And then just stopped as I processed their anger. My body wanted to turn and walk away, I was overwhelmed enough by their emotion, but that didn’t feel right. I’m pretty good at speaking Aphlebia’s language, but it’s not really my natural mode, and they’ve made it clear repeatedly that they don’t expect it of others. They only expect to be understood. So I let my mouth say what I needed it to, “OK. Sorry. I am so sorry.”
Aphlebia nodded and scrunched their face and sniffed like they were crying a little. Their Network metabolism was probably simulating it, though I didn’t see any tears. Their nanite body wouldn’t make any, anyway.
I offered them another hug, and they reluctantly accepted it. This one was gentler and less intense than the last one. And I asked myself, why was everything so hard for us?
And all of sudden I had the intense need to go off and be by myself. And the easiest place to do that was the washroom, so I went in there, closed the door, and sat on the toilet. I put my eyes in my palms and sobbed quietly while I thought.
I wasn’t even remotely thinking I might write a book one day, but it was in this moment where I had my first thoughts that led to it. To the title and subject, at least.
Some people had asked once, or a few times, if Phage was an Outsider. There were stories Emala had read to us, speculative fiction or horror stories, that had involved Outsiders. There were people all around the ship who liked to speculate on whether or not we’d meet Outsiders some day. And I’d maybe made contact with one while dreaming the other night! So, they were on my mind.
And I thought that I felt like an Outsider.
Everyone in my family was really unique and wonderful in their own way, even each Whorlie. Every person I knew was so very different from everyone else. But, amongst them all, I was so many steps above and beyond them. I could see problems that no one could see. I could see problems that even escaped Phage, I thought. And I wanted to make them right. And it was hard.
But then, like, my own loss of control had made Aphlebia an Outsider in their own life. An Outsider to the future they’d thought they would have, and an Outsider to our family. We all did everything we could to make it known that they were still our sibling and still a part of our lives, but it was clear that it all felt different to them anyway. And the therapeutic tours of the Sunspot that Abacus had been taking us on were helping us both feel alive and remain connected to each other. But now Aphlebia was sometimes making stronger efforts to reconnect with Candril and the Whorlies, which was good. And sometimes they were going off on their own business, and that was mysterious and worried me.
I had been worried about losing them to their upcoming life as Crew in training, but they’d responded to that with, “Fuck the Crew.” And I’d hurt them in the process of prompting that.
Then, I also had Bashiketa and Thomas in my life now. Two more Outsiders. Bashiketa because they’d been raised as a Monster with a hole through space/time in their mind. And Thomas because he was literally an Outsider. Someone born outside the Sunspot. And even though he was human, he met every definition of the word that people had been using for the past hundred or so centuries. The culture he’d come from was so alien.
And it all felt like my fault. If I hadn’t been born and if I hadn’t touched the world in the way I had, it wouldn’t all be like this.
I countered that thought with, “But here we are, and we’re all Outsiders, and we have that in common.” And laughed bitterly at myself through my sobs.
We were all so broken, and even with my inherited Phage-state senses and abilities, I couldn’t figure out how to fix any of us. All I could seem to do was reveal more stress fractures in the Sunspot.
At that moment, even the amazing cuttlecrabs seemed like just another source of more chaos about to be unleashed on my favorite little world, my home.
There was a knock on the washroom door, and Thomas said through it, “Candril is going to knock down the wall! Want to see?” It took me a moment to pull myself out of my sobs to say anything, so Thomas followed that up with an, “Are you OK?”
“I can see it from here!” I shouted.
I got a thought over the Network from Phage asking, “May I come in?”
“Now you notice!” I angrily sent back. “No! Leave me alone!”
I heard Thomas slump against the door and slide down it to sit on the other side, and then he said, “Ni’a? Thank you!”
“What?” I asked. That didn’t make any sense to me.
“Because you’re good! I just wanted to say that. You’re good, and your family is good. And thank you, OK?”
I didn’t feel good. In fact, I didn’t feel welcome in my own home.
I felt the need to run away. I thought that this was the point in a story where the hero would leave home and go on an adventure and come back better, changed forever, and everything would be OK.
And there was that bitter laugh again, because I’d already done that! I’d been to the Terra Supreme, and I had single handedly saved that ship from certain destruction, if by no other means than prompting Phage to follow me. And I had learned so much while I was there.
And here I was, back with my family, and everything was too much.
And then I got a message from someone I wasn’t expecting.
I was prepared to shout at any one of my family members. To shout them down and deny anything they might have to say to me. A message from Akailea was not part of any of my scripts.
“Come to the Bridge,” it said, simply.
I felt a chill go through me. I worried I’d done something really wrong. Or maybe there was another emergency only I could solve.
But Akailea had only ever been friendly and helpful to me, and I liked hir. A lot. Which countered my worry.
But this informal command felt more like an invite, really, when I remembered how people talked when they were on the Bridge. Which then made it feel conspiratorial. Especially when I thought about how Akailea usually talked to me.
Most importantly, I was in crisis mode, panicked, and feeling cornered by both my family and my own emotions, and here was a clear direction from an Elder Crew member and I should clearly follow it.
By all of my upbringing and the laws of the Sunspot, I didn’t have to. Obedience was a thing of only the Terra Supreme. But the more I thought about it, it felt like the right thing to do, to go to the Bridge. And if anyone objected, I could say that Akailea had told me to.
So I got off the toilet and sat back against the wall, to give my body better support, and dove up into the Network and to the Bridge, where Akailea was waiting.
Of course, there were the attendants, a new shift of them, keeping the Bridge secure, but Akailea was the only other person there besides them and now me. And sie smiled upon seeing me.
“You look really upset,” Akailea said. “We can do this another time if you like.”
I shook my head quickly, not quite trusting my mouth.
“OK,” sie said. “Would you like to sit.”
I shrugged and then I guess I nodded, so sie called up a couple of chairs facing each other and took one. I sullenly walked over to the other one and sat in it.
“There’s actually a lot of different kinds of business I would like to do with you,” Akailea said, half wrinkling hir nose. “And that’s still on the table, if you want and are OK with it. And, of course, you can tell us all when it’s too much. But I wanted to tell you some news, here, on official Sunspot record, because you might like it.”
I felt very confused by all of this. It was hard for me to understand the words in the moment. So I just made a worried but expectant expression.
Taking that as assent, Akailea leaned forward and put hir elbows on hir knees, clasping hir hands, and said, “Someone cares a lot about you and is looking out for you, and they want to help.”
Suddenly, this whole thing was feeling really contrived to me, and melodramatic. But I was also still confused and hurt and feeling needy, so I frowned and decided to go along with it and said, “Who?”
“I mean, besides me, of course,” Akailea said, and I started to feel like I’d been trapped. Then sie leaned back and gestured with hir left hand.
Abacus appeared, standing behind hir, and smiled kindly at me.
Its appearance utterly flabbergasted me. And I glared up at it. It just shrugged apologetically.
“Ni’a,” Akailea said. “You can see things none of the rest of us can. But we wonder if you can see that you’re part of a team here. And we were thinking maybe if you were surprised by that, that maybe it would help to know that some of us can see some things that you can’t, or at least that you might not be looking at all the time. Maybe it would help you to realize that your team has your back, and can actually help.”
“What?” I asked.
“Sorry,” Akailea said. “We can see that you’re in crisis, and we want you to know you’re not alone.”
“But how does Abacus know?”
Abacus smiled again, and said, “This was Aphlebia’s idea. They said that they could be more melodramatic than Phage if they really wanted to. But also…”
“Aphlebia?” I asked, incredulous.
“Oh, they watched you go into the washroom the way you did and knew something was wrong, so the very first thing they did was contact me,” Abacus explained.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, I think it’s because, of all the people on the Sunspot, you have always understood them and the way they talk better than anyone else, and they’re worried about losing you.”
Well, I mean I knew that, but I also felt really guilty about it right then. So I stammered, “B-but, I killed them!”
Akailea sighed heavily and they both looked at the floor. Abacus put its finger to its mouth, resting it sideways between its lips.
Akailea looked back up and said, “That’s going to haunt the both of you forever. But Abacus here fought for you tooth and claw, it grew teeth and claws to fight for you, because it saw something the Council of mostly Elder Crew did not. You were having a meltdown. You weren’t aware of what you were doing or what was going around you, and you couldn’t be. And the last time you had been aware of Aphlebia was when they were right by your side. You had no way of knowing that their own meltdown had driven them to crawl under the stage. And you had no idea that the stage would collapse. You didn’t cause that. Physics did.”
“But I am physics!” I shouted.
“Are you?” Akailea asked. “Is Phage? Or are you both beings that are actually separate from physics but just can interface with it on a level the rest of us cannot yet fathom? Because, are you actually making stars explode right now? Really? Ni’a, you’re a person. An extraordinary person. But a person with limits. And it’s OK to have limits. It’s expected.”
Abacus dropped its hand and said, “And here you are, a person who is just about to reach ten years of age, who is taking on more responsibility in one week than anybody aboard this ship who is ten thousand times your age would willingly take in a year.”
Before I could make a peep, Akailea picked up from there, saying, “You’re doing so well at it, too! We are all in awe of you. But even if you weren’t doing anything, or if you were genuinely making things worse somehow, we’d still be here for you. Because you are hurting, and as a person you deserve to have someone here for you.”
“You really do,” Abacus said.
And then they both gave me the time to speak, so I said, “I don’t feel like it, though.”
“Yeah,” Abacus said, glumly, “That’s kind of how these feelings go. They really suck that way. But those feelings are wrong in this case.”
“I don’t want to have them anymore,” I said. “I just want to play with my family without having them anymore. I don’t want them to have these feelings either. I want Aphlebia and Thomas and Bashiketa to be OK. I want Candril to not feel so left out and weird. And the Whorlies…” I trailed off, because I felt like they needed something I couldn’t give them, but I couldn’t quite place it. I think I wanted to be able to spend more time with each of them. To be closer friends with each in turn than I could ever have the time to. But that felt selfish to say.
“Yeah, and you know what?” Abacus said. “It’s gonna take a while, but you’re all going to heal. You’ll figure these things out. None of you will ever be the same, and it’s work. But you’ll find way more peace than you have right now.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
Abacus gestured at Akailea before it, and said, “Because there are 900,000 Elder Crew on this ship who were originally born on the Terra Supreme and they fought a literally bloody fight to be here. And they almost killed each other in their trauma from that before one of them summoned Phage aboard. And when it arrived, things got better. And then when you arrived, things got even better.”
“No they didn’t, they got worse,” I pouted sternly.
“No, they got better,” Abacus said. “We can show you the graphs, but we don’t need to. You can look at the ship with your eyes in a way we cannot and see for yourself. But more important than that, when we look at you, we can see that you are already healing yourself.”
I didn’t understand what it was saying there. It sounded like a lie or a mistake. So I said, “How can you see that?”
“Because,” Abacus said, “You’re letting yourself actually feel these feelings now. You’re aware they’re there, you can identify them, and you’re not hiding from them. And for us, those were the first steps we had to take to start healing, too.”
“You’re doing things right,” Akailea said. “And if you keep this up, you’ll probably heal faster than I ever did.”
I felt my being relax despite myself. Maybe I was starting to see what they were saying. Or maybe it was their calm persistence and the care I could hear in their voices that was getting through my pain, and I was just thinking more clearly. And they let me work on that for a while there.
Finally, I felt compelled to say, “OK. But Aphlebia needs help as much as I do. Maybe more. They are really hurting.” I looked up at them with the most serious, tear filled eyes I could muster.
“Oh, we know,” Akailea said. “We are well aware.”
“And we’re there for them, too,” Abacus said. “They chose not to come here, because they wanted you to know that they think you’re badass enough to not need them. Those were their exact thoughts. Also, though, I think they may have worried you were angry at them and would have run if you’d seen them. They also wanted you to know that they dismissed Chalkboard.”
I was taken aback and horrified at that last bit of news, and felt like they didn’t realize just how serious it was, so I emphasized my point by saying, “They said, ‘Fuck the Crew.’”
“Damn straight,” Abacus said. And Akailea looked up at it with a proud smile when it said, “And I’m working with them on a project all about that right now. Though, I am encouraging them to try out the phrase ‘abolish the Crew’ instead.”
I cast a startled and worried glance at the attendants on the Bridge.
In all of this, I’d forgotten how much of an Outsider Abacus had become, too. But maybe this was an official project that the Crew was considering?
I mean, by the time I’d sat down to write this book, the project has come to fruition, and I know what it was now. But, back then, I was so nervous and confused by that conversation.