Twelve year old me was probably one of the only people aboard the Sunspot who could have a meltdown on wilderness land and leave it almost as if I’d never touched it. I did do damage. I was there. I could not prevent myself from having some impact. But it was less damage than your average Monster, who are allowed to walk in the Wilderness without comment. Anyone can go walking in the Wilderness, it’s just rude and frowned upon and you usually get a reminder that you shouldn’t do it, if you’re not a Monster.
If you do a significant amount of damage in the Wilderness, however, you might get sanctioned until you can show that you won’t do it again. And the nanites will automatically do their best to repair your damages. The idea is that we do not put undo pressure upon the life in the Wilderness to adapt to our presence. And also, to keep humanity from simply overwhelming it with our numbers. Because there is a certain point where we could do damage faster than the nanites might repair it. Especially if flora and fauna start dying from our presence.
But a twelve year old me, walking through the seaside woods near a city park, hands on my head and elbows drawn in, shunting every urge to thrash and lash out instead through the drive of the Sunspot, was not going to be much of a concern. Also, the Crew was afraid of me.
The records will show that they had no need to fear me, but I know they did. I should have gotten a reminder, a personal notice, but I didn’t.
Well, also, the big meltdown I’d had in Agaricales two years earlier had endangered the ship. I don’t think I can ever take that back in the minds of the people who witnessed it, no matter how often I prove myself afterward.
I was aware I was making a transgression, but that was part of what I needed, I think. To sense that I was doing something, however minimal, that wasn’t beneficial to the wellbeing of the Sunspot. Only it was beneficial, because I was taking care of myself instead of actually lashing out. Part of conscious emotional regulation is that you kind of have to trick yourself. You sort of step aside from your raging self and make decisions for the better while allowing some slack for emotional satisfaction, without letting that part of you that’s hurting notice enough to care. It felt like following my intuition and whims, but making quick little decisions to hold back, or to guide my energy in the right direction, and then forgetting why I did that.
I started causing what I knew were visible flares and warps of energy in the exhaust of the ship, only no one was looking. Flash, flare, floosh, woosh! Nothing to significantly alter the efficiency of the thrust, but definitely spectacular and weird.
OK, someone would see it, in a little over two hundred years. But I wasn’t thinking of them. If you’re them, and you were wondering, this is what those flares were about. I was venting my frustrations.
Well, it was a full blown panic attack, and it wasn’t going away, though.
I felt like I needed to figure out why I was having it and fix the problem, but I couldn’t get myself to think about it. Every time I tried to return to the first thought I’d had when it started, I felt driven away from my memory of it with a resounding “No!” from my whole being.
And then, I was panicking about that.
And I kept walking. The walking was helping.
I kept my eyes clamped shut and navigated with my Phage-senses, which just felt natural since I was also messing with the plasma trail of the Sunspot at the same time.
I was becoming aware that I needed help, and I knew that my mom would be the best bet for that, but for some reason thinking of it made things worse.
Kind of like how the Collective just kept thinking of me but being unable to explain why, my own psyche settled on one person as being the most comforting in the moment, the best fit. Abacus.
I resisted contacting it for several iterations of my panic cycle.
But even though it was probably very busy, I was in need. And I felt like, for whatever reason, that if it could be there for me I might just stop panicking.
In retrospect, it was pretty clear what was happening to me and why I felt I needed Abacus. Let’s just say for now that Abacus was the closest person to me I knew who was also one of the biggest dissenters on the Sunspot. It was nearly family to me already, but crucially not actually family. And if there was anything that the Crew seemed to take for granted as The Way To Do Things, Abacus seemed to be against it. It did pick its battles, but it had started to find critical words for just about everything Crew related. And though I wasn’t really feeling enmity toward the Crew myself at the time, I can look back now and see how that attitude related to what I was struggling with.
So, eventually, I pinged it with the simplest message, “Abacus?”
After a couple of steps I got a reply, “Yes?”
“Help?” I sent back.
Two more steps and then it was already a Network projection right beside me, walking through the woods, a little whiff of nanites floating where the vision indicated its head was.
It could see what was happening just by looking at me, and seemed to know what to do. It just matched my pace and quietly made its presence as clearly known to me as possible without saying anything or touching me or making any other movements. Just walking.
It even walked right through a bush, so I started choosing my path so that it didn’t have to do that to keep up. And after a bit I did start to feel some relief. I was able to open my eyes and drop my arms, but I kept sputtering the plasma trail of the Sunspot.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I said. “I’m panicking and can’t stop.”
Two more steps, then it said, “Mmm.” And two more steps and it asked, “Can you tell me what was happening when it started?”
My panic flared and I shook my head. I realized I was actually terrified of something.
Two more steps, “Are you having any namable worries? Even if they don’t seem like what you’re actually worried about?”
Again, I shook my head. I knew my thoughts weren’t empty and silent, but I literally couldn’t remember what they were seconds after having them. And I certainly couldn’t speak them. It felt worse to name it.
Again a couple more steps, which was nice, before it asked, “May I check the ship’s records of where you were and review the transcripts? I won’t tell anyone what happened and maybe I can reassure you or something like that.”
I clenched my teeth and grimaced for four steps, then squeezed my eyes shut and nodded. Its suggestion didn’t feel good or safe, but it was better than me trying to explain it, and I needed to do something.
It didn’t go anywhere and just kept walking by my side casually, appearing to look out through the trees over at the bay we were next to, and swishing its tail back and forth lazily as it strolled with me. It even clasped its hands behind its back as it did this, and frowned amiably as it concentrated on the ship’s records it was reviewing, the only indication that it was doing so. Wow, did it seem to know just how to put me at ease. Like, genuinely, truly at ease.
“Ah, ok,” it said softly after a while. Thirty four steps. It probably hadn’t counted them, but I had. It had definitely thought about what it saw for a while, though. “That makes sense, and your reaction is understandable, considering what you’ve been through, and I could explain it if you like. But what I think you need to hear is that I think I can shoulder this one for you. In fact, the fact that you’ve just had this reaction here might even help with that, but only if you want. How does that sound?”
I’d actually tensed up a bit more while it had been talking. Certain phrases it had used seemed to stress me out. But when it was done talking I had enough faculty to start doing my grounding exercises.
I looked up at it to see its friendly draconic, closed mouthed smile, and the glint in its amphibian eyes. Just above its head, but below its lure, I had a view through the trees to a patch of sky where a bird was flying. I counted five things I could see in that glimpse and named them in my head. I could hear the bird crying, my feet crunching in the duff of the woods, the lightest sound of the gentle precipitation settling on the leaves, and the crowd in the park, now so far away, still echoing faintly through the tree trunks, people laughing and calling to each other. I could feel my clothes draping my body and wrinkling and shifting as I walked, and I could feel the moisture of the air as it hit my face while I moved through it, and I could feel my heart slowing. I took a deep breath and smelled over a million things all bundled into the soft, comforting rot of the woods, and I could have counted every detail, but then I lifted my palm to my nose and sniffed my own skin to have something distinctly different to count. Then I licked my finger, to taste the sweat and oil of my skin.
Then I took a deep breath and let out a long sigh and said, “OK, I think.”
“Is that good enough?” the old studentless Tutor asked.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, shaking my head as I watched where I stepped. I had stopped sputtering the plasma, though. But I wanted to talk.
“I’ve made time, want to talk?”
“Yeah. But, I think I want to talk about things I’m not worried about right now,” I said.
“That makes sense. That’s a good idea. What kind of things?”
“Well. What are you doing today?”
“Oh. Um. The kinds of things you’ve been worried about, from the looks of it,” Abacus said.
“Oh, hey. Actually. You know how you’ve said you find that counting things and the properties of things makes you feel better?”
“How many nanites am I controlling right now?”
I looked up at it. I was now the same height as Phage, but Abacus was still taller than either of us, and it was standing on its hind feet so I had to look up.. “Three thousand and seventy-nine,” I said.
“Did that work?” It asked.
I stuck my tongue out at it.
“You picked that up from Aphlebia,” it pointed out.
“I did!” I replied.
“You had a PTSD attack,” it said gently. “You were triggered, you know. That’s all that was.”
I frowned, “but I don’t remember being hurt by… by…”
“Don’t bother saying it,” Abacus said. “I know what you’re talking about.”
“Trauma is weird sometimes. It’s squidgy and eats things. It latches onto new stuff and makes it hurt you. Because when you experience a lot of it, it trains your brain to be hypersensitive to other things, especially when you’ve been triggered. So you can develop new triggers over time, even as you’re working on healing from it.” Abacus grimaced at me, and said, “It’s OK, though. It’s expected. And if you just keep doing what you’ve been doing, what we’ve been teaching you, but with the new triggers, you’ll be fine. It just really sucks that you have to.”
“Oh,” I said. “I hate that.”
“I know,” Abacus said. “I hate it, too. But, I think that in this case, this trigger is directly related to your experiences, because you’ve actually talked about it a bit when I was interviewing you for my book. I could explain that for you now, but I think you’ll figure it out when you’ve had time to feel safe enough to think about it. Is it OK for me to say things like that?”
I thought about it for five steps and then nodded, “yeah. I think so.” What it was saying was useful to me. It felt good to hear it, like it was confirming something. And later I did figure it out, like it said. It had to do with that thing where I was taking on responsibilities that I saw around me, especially during that time when Phage wasn’t on the Sunspot. I’d really pushed myself too far too many times and had too many close calls with not enough real reassurances afterward. But at the time we were having this conversation, I just felt myself feeling more stable and really curious about a few things. I was OK that it had sort of ambushed me with that. It had been gentle about it, and I think it needed to do that to help. But I needed to talk about something serious with my conspiratorial friend.
“I did something really weird before I got triggered,” I said. “Did you go back far enough to see that?”
“No,” Abacus shook its head.
“Did you know that nanites can emit different colored light?” I asked.
“Really?” it frowned. Then it looked slightly upward as it was checking something on the Network and then said, “No, they can’t. Not yet. Like, they can be configured to do a lot of amazing things, but that’s not something they’ve been designed to do yet. Like, I don’t know if it’s physically hard to do? It shouldn’t be. Or if no one has thought of doing it. But between using Network projections for most people, and the fact that the nanites themselves can be used for a variety of sensors that cut through the dark, maybe there hasn’t been much call for it.”
“Well, I used them for making light,” I said, eyes wide. “But that’s not really the weird thing.”
“I was using them to talk like a cuttlecrab, with flashing colors, and using my hands to gesture like their tentacles, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it!”
“You were mimicking the cuttlecrabs?”
“Yeah! Like, automatically!”
“And they understood what you were saying?”
“Some of it? Yeah. But not all of it. I think I garbled it a bit. But it had stopped using words out loud, much, and I was still understanding it just fine!”
“I know,” I said, and let us walk on for a while before asking another question. “Do you ever miss working on your book?”
It nodded a few times and said, “Yeah. Yeah I definitely do. In fact, I uh… I was reviewing it the other day and I realized just how badly I’d messed up a lot of the numbers. I’m working on an addendum to clear that all up. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, you know how you have your PTSD triggers about, well, things, and they’re kinda changing for you?”
“So do I, and apparently the numbers of things is one of them. I think you could tell me some numbers and it wouldn’t bother me at all. But when I try to look them up or try to recall them, my mind just sort of slides out from under me. Especially lengths of time and numbers of people.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know how Akailea corrected me way back when you were going to do your spacewalk and I was trying to tell you my age? That sort of thing. It really rattled me back then, so much so that I didn’t really look into it until just recently. But then I also noticed I didn’t really like contemplating the number of people living on the Sunspot, and when I went looking for it with the Auditor and then verifying some things with the Council records, I found that other Crew members also don’t like working with those numbers. It’s really weird!”
“What’s wrong with the numbers?”
“Well, my age is just kinda scary, really. I’ve been alive way longer than a human seems to be made to be alive. I mean, for my definition of alive, I guess. But the population numbers actually don’t add up! The Auditor is even missing something!”
It glanced at me and scrunched up its lips and didn’t talk for a bit after that.
“What?” I asked.
“Mmm,” Abacus grumbled, then asked, “Can Phage do your numbers thing?”
“Maybe?” I said. “It’s never talked about it. I kinda don’t think so. Like, it seems to talk about the same things but in a more, not numbery sort of way. Like, it can see what I see, but it maybe doesn’t get numbers.”
“Well shit,” Abacus said. “I need numbers. Can you look at the Sunspot and tell me how many Crew there are right now?”
“Oh, yeah! No problem!” I bragged. Then looked and said, “Not counting Aphlebia and Thomas, there are fifty-three billion, seven million, six hundred thirty-three thousand, and seventy four Crew right now.”
Abacus nodded, “Same number the Auditor gave me. Same exact number, yeah.” It made a sort of cringy, self-conscious grin. The kind where it’s more like you’re snarling at yourself, like you’re discouraging yourself from making the next step in something, and then it asked, hesitantly, “Can you tell me how many people have lived on the Sunspot ever?”
That was trickier, but I got it. “Not counting Tutors, I assume?” I asked, because I could see right where it was going when I saw that number.
“Yeah, no. No Tutors.”
“Nine hundred seventy-eight billion, eighty seven million, six hundred three thousand, two hundred and seventy-seven,” I reported. “That’s including the Senior Crew.”
“Welp,” it gulped. “Thank you.”
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“I don’t actually know,” it said. “But I’m gonna find out.”
“I want to help,” I found myself saying, kicking myself for taking on another project.
Abacus stopped walking, turned to me, but looked right down at the ground and sighed really big. “No,” it said, “You really shouldn’t. I mean you’ve already helped a lot just by giving me those numbers. But that’s all I wanted, and I’m good at doing these investigation things so I’m OK. But if you try to help, it’s just going to make your triggers worse. It’s too related to your trauma.”
“But Abacus,” I said. “You and Akailea said I have to face my fears in a safe way, and reassure myself that I’m safe in order to start to get better over them, right? And this is safe, isn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” it waggled its finger. “Being triggered is a way of being hurt itself. And also, your emotional dysregulation and systemic overload even without your PTSD is a sensitivity that can get you hurt by taking on too much. Right?”
“Solving the puzzle will make me feel better, Abacus,” I made my eyes really big and set my mouth as small and seriously as I could. Then I emphasized my last word, “Endorphins.”
“I am categorically and emphatically and genuinely and very seriously recommending against this,” it said, in low and guilelessly honest tones. It was pleading.
“Who have you asked about where the Crew are going, Abacus?” I asked. “Because that’s so many people missing!”
“I am revoking my consent for your help in this. I am not going to cooperate with you to get the answer to these numbers,” it said sternly. It looked genuinely pained, too. Like it was struggling to decide what words to use to dissuade me. It didn’t want to insult me. It didn’t want to encourage me. And it didn’t want to prod my stubbornness about my curiosity any more than it had.
“Then I guess I won’t tell you the answer when I find it,” I said. “But, I will if you ask.”
Abacus sighed again.
“You know who probably has the answer? Or can probably just get it out of thin air like I can do numbers?” I asked.
Abacus tightened its lips and said nothing.
“Benejede!” I said.
It slapped its thighs in resignation, and shook its head.
“I’m feeling smug, like Phage,” I declared. “It’s a good feeling!”
“I should not have talked to you about this,” Abacus said.
“But I feel better, now,” I retorted. “Thank you!”
I started walking back toward the park where my family was. And I did feel a lot better. Now that I had a mission that I had chosen, instead of one that had been sort of shoved in my direction, I felt like I had control. Which in turn helped me to feel more safe. I felt like I could face the Collective and tell them honestly that someone was indeed working on an answer for them.
Abacus kept walking with me. Eventually, it said, “I feel like I’m condoning your actions when I say this, but I’d be irresponsible not to. I want that to be clear. I want you to know that I’m continuing to request that you drop this project and let me and others handle it, OK? But you should have support, and I’ll support you.”
I looked up at it again and twisted my mouth to the side while I tried to figure out how I felt about that. My immediate impulse was to tell it that I didn’t need its help. And, I thought I really didn’t. It had just told me the thing I really needed to know to control my PTSD.
Actually, Abacus and Akailea had told me before, but I hadn’t really internalized what they were saying at the time. But this time it just sort of clicked. Probably because of everything else I was doing at the time. And, also because playing with the plasma jet of the Sunspot reminded me of how I’d been manipulating my body during my metamorphosis, and even how I’d done so way back during my tenth year birthday party while flying. If I treated my body like another system I was in charge of, I could head the PTSD off at the pass, soothe it consciously before it even started. I had this advantage that no one else had. I could step outside of myself and then soothe my body from a relatively dispassionate place. I was still affected by emotions in that state, but it wasn’t the same. I’d even practiced on myself already in the past, and on Thomas and ‘afeje’a, I remembered then. And all I needed to do was remember that I could do it.
“Thank you,” I said, realizing that that needed to be stated first. Then I looked forward toward the park, which was still far away through the trees. I’d walked quite far! And I told it, “I’m really not like other children. I can do things they can’t.”
“Mmm,” Abacus acknowledged. “But you’re still only twelve years old. There’s a lot of experience you don’t have that, if you did, could help you avoid getting hurt.”
I genuinely considered that. It was right, I knew. But, that just brought me back to the realization I’d had that had set me on this path, after Abacus had started telling me what it was struggling with, which I explained without breaking stride or even looking at it, “And, you realize that people keep telling me things they don’t tell other people, right?”
“But the avoiding getting hurt part is important,” it replied. I know now that it had almost added something about hurting other people, but had decided it was better not to mention that, and I’m glad it didn’t.
I felt the dreadful tension still lingering in my body begin to rise again, so I stopped, looked up at Abacus and said, “Watch.”
Then I took a measured breath and detached myself partially from my body, putting the locus of my consciousness outside of it but not letting go of control over my muscles. And there, I looked at my whole biological system and searched for the stresses in it. And I treated it like I did the Sunspot when Phage had been gone and I was in charge of keeping it from falling apart. I soothed the wrinkles. I applied counter waves to the vibrations that were threatening to push me toward meltdown. And then, I tweaked my own neurotransmitters the same way I’d been doing for my hormones as I’d been maturing. And as I did this, I felt my fear and distress being massaged away as if by a pair of great big, gentle hands.
And as I returned to my body, I could feel it naturally standing more straight and with no trace of any sort of tremble or waver. My heart had slowed down and beat with less urgency, and breathing was easier and more rewarding.
And my thinking itself had changed. Nothing felt urgent anymore, and there was a clarity to the whole situation that hadn’t been there before. I saw nuances that I don’t think anybody was seeing. And if I’d been a normal Dragon child, I would have seen the truth of Abacus’ arguments and relented right then. But I’m not.
“Abacus?” I asked, trusting that it had seen the deep change in my stature and voice.
“Yes?” it sounded spooked.
“I have a weird way you can help me, but it’s going to feel wrong. We can make it right afterward, though,” I warned it.
“What do you have in mind?” it asked.
“When you write your addendum, say that you set me up to investigate this and say that sending me to Benejede first was your idea,” I explained. “Benejede won’t be fooled. But I’m going to talk to someone else later, and they might fall for it.”
“How is that going to help?”
“Emotional leverage,” I said, feeling really smart about this realization. I may have sounded smug.
It stood there scowling down at me for sixteen heartbeats before it said, “OK.”