I’d spent most of my life up to that point really frustrated that every time I tried to be there for other people, to do what I felt like I was meant to do, my PTSD would flare up and make me the center of attention. It always felt awkward and wrong, and like a distraction from what was really important.
Most of my life? No. It was actually just two years! But it felt like most of my life. When you’re that young, even if you’re born imbued with the entire history of the universe in your subconscious, a day itself can feel like a lifetime slowly dragging by. And with how much I’d been growing and learning in those two years, between ten and twelve, it might as well have been most of my life. I finally had enough awareness of the world around me to start really participating in it, and my attempts to do so kept getting snatched away from me by my poor, jumpy, traumatized neurons. I was getting better, definitely healing, but it always interrupted things when it was most critical for me to function.
I wanted my life to be about other people, the people I love, not me.
It turns out, though, that I am other people. Literally.
My body was shaking and felt fizzy all over inside. It wasn’t a distressing sensation though, not like a panic attack. This time, I felt like I was on the edge of unlocking something amazing. I felt like I knew what was going on and didn’t know what was going on at the same time. And I felt like I knew why, but I needed, desperately wanted, more confirmation somehow. So I had chosen to talk to my peers about it.
“So, what’s been happening?” Firas Whorlie asked.
“Well,” I said. “The others kind of saw this because they were there, but when Eh said something that upset me, I sort of accidentally slipped into my Phage-state, and then when I came back I was in the middle of saying something to everyone else. Only I don’t remember what the first part of the sentence was. And then, I guess, someone else in my head started giving me suggestions?”
Someone who was not exactly me was extremely angry with Phage. So I had told Phage I didn’t want it to be part of this conversation. We’d talk later, like we usually do, under the moon.
“You did a pretty good job of hiding all that from everyone,” ‘afeje’a said. “All I could see was you were confused for a moment.”
Thomas nodded, “That’s also a lot like things Ba – ‘afeje’a and I’ve done to each other.”
“Yeah,” ‘afeje’a said, glancing at Thomas and smiling.
This conversation was taking place after our meeting with Eh, and we were holding it in our favorite park, huddled in our favorite pathways that tunneled through a large clump of bushes in the middle of the park. It was where Aphlebia had told me their name, and where Abacus and Aphlebia had conspired with the Flits and Pembers to figure out how to keep me from being sanctioned after my ship rattling meltdown in Agaricales. More importantly, it was our place because we all loved to play there all the time.
Most of us didn’t fit in there very well anymore, though, because we’d grown a bit faster than the bushes had. It was crowded, and we were hunched over or just sitting down.
“So, do you all think I’m really plural?” I asked.
I’d tried to get Aphlebia to come along, but they insistently bowed out and said they wanted to go do something with Candril anyway. “This is systems’ business,” they had signed.
So it was me, ‘afeje’a, Thomas, and the Whorlies.
“Well, you haven’t told us much, yet. Do you feel like you’re plural?” Firas was fronting, but had said the other Whorlies were eagerly listening in. Ze said, “What does your gut tell you?”
I smirked and looked down at my midsection, then asked, “Is that a plural joke?”
I laughed a little harder at that than I expected, then said, “I do kinda feel like it would be cool if I was. But also, it kind of scares me.”
“Yeah, that’s…” Thomas said, trailing off while staring past me for a bit. “Not being in control is not fun.”
“Same with not remembering,” ‘afeje’a added.
“But if you trust each other, it can be really great,” Firas said. “Is there anything else you’ve experienced that might be clues to how you work?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I felt my shaking getting worse. Adrenaline was giving me a foundation of excitement and worry, and on top of that I was riding a raft of poorly cobbled together memories and hopes. I tried to think of other times that might have been like what happened at ihns house. I couldn’t really remember anything quite like it, though. But, I knew I had been jumping between different states of consciousness my whole life. Then I heard my voice say, “We’ve just been really cooperative, I think.”
Thomas pointed at me and declared, “You just said, ‘we’!”
“That’s gonna happen now,” that other me said. To which I responded with, “Weird!”
Firas fell back on zir haunches, laughing. Then ze said, “I think you’re just going to have to get used to that, Ni’a.”
“Oh, yeah,” ‘afeje’a said. “You’re one – uh – a bunch of us. Some of us?” They looked at Firas then and asked, “How does that work?”
“I don’t know. We just say things that sound ridiculous and let other people sort it out,” Firas said. “It’s part of the fun!”
“It’s kinda weird how we have, like, ‘you’ and ‘you&’, or ‘we’ and ‘we&’, so we can tell if we’re talking about systems, but nobody’s figured out how to say things like that,” ‘afeje’a complained. “You’re one& of us? Huh. You’re right. That’s not as funny.”
“But it works, though.”
“How many of you do you think there are?” Thomas asked.
I had no clue. I knew there was at least one other. But it felt like the other thoughts had come from different parts of my brain, so maybe there were more? “We don’t know,” my mouth said, “But I’ve got an idea! Let’s split up!”
“What?” I asked. And then I felt like a pressure I hadn’t noticed in my head just moved away. It had been warm and comfortable but also heavy and confining, and as it receded to the right and back I felt lighter and like I had more mental elbow room. Then another pressure, this one green in flavor where the other had been purple, also drifted away, this time downward. And suddenly I felt like I had just woken up, and my body felt extra energized. Or maybe just more responsive and more… Me? “Oh, wow,” I said.
And then that adrenaline I’d been feeling surged as I watched someone pull themselves from out of the ground a few steps up the path behind the Whorlies, creating a new nanite exobody that looked almost exactly like me. They flapped their hands and laughed, eyes wide as they looked back at me, still standing there awake and lucid. And Firas turned to look.
“It’s so weird I can see you in my body while I’m out here!” my counterpart said.
“Your body?” I asked in a daze. I thought maybe there was another one that wasn’t me, because I didn’t feel like I’d said that, either. But maybe I was just kind of in shock.
Firas, ‘afeje’a, and Thomas did their best to make room for the other me, who stepped forward into the little junction of trails.
“Sorry, our body,” they said. “So, what’s your name?”
My counterpart looked at Firas and asked, “Can we have the same name?”
Firas shrugged, “That’s up to you. I hear it happens. But you’ll probably figure out nicknames or something eventually.”
My head was spinning as I said, “So, this is really real.”
“Yeah, I think it is,” Thomas replied.
At which point the air around us became a little more dense feeling, more taught. It felt as if it had been transformed into the head of a drum, though we could still breathe it and move in it easily. It was just a sudden lack of movement and vibrations that had been there before. And to me there was the sense that the molecules were all more connected to each other and more in sync in a vaguely familiar and indescribable way.
And without my mouth moving, I heard an echo of my own voice saying softly, “Ni’a, can I soothe our body? It’s headed for another panic attack, and you don’t need that.”
I let out a little hysterical laugh, and felt my face cast itself in a worried expression, but managed to intentionally nod after a moment of realizing that, yes, I definitely needed that. Then I braced myself for the weird feeling I knew was about to come.
“I think there are only the three of us,” I heard the air say as what felt like someone else’s fingers reached from behind me into the center of my being and stroked downward along my center. And then, just, all my tension faded and I started to feel very relaxed and OK with all of this.
It was still weird and new and hard to believe. But now I felt more free to think, and it was occurring to me that neither I nor my counterparts had ever done anything to contradict or hurt each other. Not that I could remember. We’d been so cooperative that we hadn’t realized we were separate people. And, maybe, sometimes we really weren’t separate people, but we sure were now. I wondered about something, then.
“I remember using my, or, our Phage-state to do that for Thomas and ‘afeje’a. Also, I thought I was the one that dropped into the Phage-state to see someone… Well, when Eh was talking,” said. “Can we all do that? Or am I remembering wrong? Why am I the one in our body?”
My nanite counterpart shrugged and then looked at a leaf and watched it start fluttering. They turned to me and said, “I don’t know, but try using the Phage-state. I think it’ll work.”
I looked at my siblings, who were all grinning and quietly watching us interact, and sort of grimace-grinned at them and settled myself back to try to leave my body. They smiled and waited patiently as I balanced my spine, and laid my hands on my lap, knowing that I could usually stay connected enough to keep myself, or our vessel, upright while doing this.
And then I expanded myself just like I’d always done.
I heard my nanite counterpart saying, “Welp, I don’t think we can use that to tell us apart.”
The fun part of this whole experience is that now, when we look back on it, we can replay our memories from each of our perspectives. In fact, the only reason we chose “my” point of view for this one is that “I” was the one stuck in the body last and the one who was the most panicky, and that makes for better storytelling. At least, that’s what Abacus says.
The very last vestiges of that panic fell away completely as I became part of my greater self. And I felt my other self waiting there for me, the two of us floating in a bubble of control we’d created within a sea of Phage’s presence. Our mother was all around us, as always since it had returned from the Terra Supreme, as it had been throughout our childhood before that.
And it wasn’t that I could see my other self while there, or even Phage, not like I could see the Sunspot and all of its inhabitants. It was like when we were sharing our consciousness in our body. There was just this warm purpleness to my right that nestled up against me and felt so comfortable with the blackness of Phage all around us.
And then we saw the nanite exobody of our third system member collapse and a greenness began to fill our bubble with us, also nestling in and increasing our collective glow of awareness.
What color am I, I thought.
Pink, thought the other two.
We don’t know, it’s just what you are.
Do you think we can hug like this?
I think we can define what that means.
I think so. Imagine it and just sort of make it happen.
Thank you, both.
And we hugged.
Have you ever yearned to have someone hug your very soul? Have you ever imagined what that must feel like? It is every bit as tactile and satisfying as hugging with your bodies, and we hope you get to experience it someday. We could feel each other in our own embraces and we could feel ourselves being embraced, and as we did we could feel each other’s thoughts like heartbeats.