“Plurality” by Samuel Mae
Outside, in the void, where atoms sail and breath refuses to exist, we see glitter in the distance. Beyond the emptiness. Will we ever reach there, we ask?
Wonders I. Wonders we.
We turn from the contraptions that let us watch the outside, drift down the narrow corridor. It is comfortably closed-in and peeling in places, gray and blue and yellow and…
Too much! We are what, exactly? Stuck in never forever!
Enough. We rebuke you, threaten you. You quiet down. You simmer.
It was not always like this. We know. We remember, in snippets, vaguely. But that was so long ago. What matters is that we are here now and we are together — we, us, plural. No other way exists.
Something outside changes.
What is that? Does it get closer? Only one of us sees it at first. No, we all see it, but only one of us takes it for something other than another glimmer in the void.
At first we think nothing of it. A mirage, borne on the winds of nothing and born of our desire to traverse this expanse. But it does get closer. Slowly, slowly, slowly…
It is just the foolishness of our fettered minds! Everything we are is foolish. And broken. Foolish and broken and foolish and —
The chorus for silence is unanimous. You acquiesce, grudgingly. You know you cannot survive without us. We are upset with you, but we still love you.
This new thing continues to approach.
It is a form that looks and feels familiar, but we do not know it. It rubs against the walls that hold the void back, its shape blocking our view of the glitters in the distance.
We claw at the contraptions that allow us to see outside. We shout and thrash. If we cannot look across the expanse we are nothing. But to no avail. The familiar form does not leave.
To a safe place, far away from this monstrosity, we retreat.
Then there is noise.
Not much, at first. Rattles and clanks. But then the noise increases. Laughter and chatter. Voices that are not ours…
Someone has come for us.
But how can that be? We are all there is. There used to be others, long ago, but they rejected the offer of our warmth and companionship or left our embrace and now they are no more.
But you are right. Someone — or some many — has come for us. They don’t find us immediately. But when they do — two of them, united in purpose but singular in stride — their reaction is emphatic.
“Wow. What the hell is that?”
“Those, I think.”
“Are there radiation leaks? Is that a mutation?”
“I think it’s four people, huddled together. They must be original crew. How’ve they managed to survive this long marooned out here?”
“It doesn’t look like four people to me. Looks like some conjoined nightmare. Whatever it is, it’s disgusting. It’s not right. And the stink. I think I’m gonna heave.”
One of them — singular; how can that be? — reaches out a hand.
We scream and thrash, recoil even further into our hiding space. The singulars exchange more words, then stride away. Hopefully they will leave, and leave us to watch the void.
But we are divided. These others have come for us. Perhaps they will take us to our heart’s desire. But we cannot leave. This is our home.
As it turns out, we get no choice in the matter. More come, all singular, but different than the first. They don’t speak, just raise their arms. We are struck invisible blows. All of us. There is no pain. We are confused.
And then there is nothing.
I wake. Singular. Alone.
Alone! This cannot be. I try to rise, but have no strength. The walls are white, bright, and alien, not gray and blue and yellow and comfortable. Where are we? I am here, but where are we? We cannot be apart. It is not possible.
Solid. Pressing down on me. Heavy air.
I fight. Feebly. But I must find us. If I don’t we will die.
There is activity. Are we here? Have I found us?
But it is others, singular. They jab sharpness into my arms. They talk to me, words that do not make sense.
“It’s okay, Falak, it’s okay. You’re safe now. You’ve been under sedation for a long time while we’ve been getting your muscle mass and organ strength back up, but now you’re home. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.”
Where are we? Falak is distant, a memory that has no relevance. I — singular, alone — try to shout, but the air is too heavy.
My strength is gone. I stare up at the ceiling. We cannot be apart. It is not possible.
“Do you know what day it is, Falak?” A singular — woman, kind eyes — sits next to my bed. She folds her hands together in her lap, a deliberate motion.
I do not speak. I have nothing to say. I need we. I need us. Without us I do not exist. I am incomplete. But none of the singulars understand.
“It’s Wednesday the twenty-third of July,” she says. “The time is three-forty-five p.m.”
Now I do not understand. But she is nice, this woman. She does not force me to speak. Perhaps she does comprehend our — my, only my now, alone, worthless — pain.
My first steps are the hardest. No familiar mass surrounds me. And I have not walked on solid ground for longer than I can remember.
And I do remember. More and more. The balloon of my existence begins to fill out.
The doctors and other staff are amazed. They speak in whispers when I am near, thinking I cannot hear.
“How did they do it? Fifteen years, stuck in a ship that barely functioned, out in the middle of empty space. I wouldn’t be surprised if they never get back to normal.”
I do not look at them. They are castoffs, rejects. I need us. I need we.
There is continuous therapy. It is exhaustive. They — singular, but working together as a group — try to strip we, us, away.
I fight and scream and thrash.
But it is no use. They do not stop. They give me drugs and tie me down and fill my void with pictures and books and movies and flowers and sunlight.
Dr. Mortimer, with her kind eyes and calculating hands, talks. She cajoles and reasons and states. Her voice never raises. Continuous and insistent. I listen, even though I do not want to.
And every time another piece of we, us, is ripped away, guilt twists deep within.
I can go nowhere without someone accompanying me. A few different ones, men and women, all characterized by their silence and their attempts to exist in my shadow. As if I might think for an instant that I am alone. They even lurk in the corners of my room, never speaking, just sitting, impassive and emotionless.
Alone. A state of being by oneself, without the influence of others.
The concept terrifies me.
Eighteen months pass. I’ve learnt how to measure time again.
I no longer scream and thrash. Needle marks no longer decorate my shoulders and arms. The guilt has ebbed. I’ve become a crust, filled with things that make me I.
Dr. Mortimer is very happy with my progress. And the progress of the others has been excellent too, she says. So good, in fact, that a group activity has been organized. Nothing major, she quickly assures me, smoothing an eyebrow, then replacing her hand in her lap, just an opportunity for the four of us — you, the others, not we, not I, except in the sense of my singular presence — to meet. We’ve been apart ever since the men came with their tranquilizers and put us to sleep and took us from the ship.
My breath is quick and shallow and I feel dizzy. I’m not sure I want to see the others again.
Dr. Mortimer must notice my unease, because she straightens her shoulders, adjusts her hands. “We’ll take precautions to make sure the emotional responses that triggered the symbiosis aren’t replicated. I and some other caregivers will be with you at all times. And we’ll have the meeting outside, in the park. Thus you’ll be surrounded by nature and life, not by metal and death. You’ll be okay. All of you.”
Her words help. I’m still scared, but I can return my breathing to normal. If I can control my breathing I can control my fear.
The day of the meeting arrives. Today’s orderly leads me to the park. It’s pretty. Trees and leaves and a lake and swans and people running and laughing and walking dogs. Full of life.
Dr. Mortimer has set up a picnic. I smell jam and fresh bread.
You’re already there, sitting on the blanket, submissively, a glass of water in your hand. I have forgotten your name.
Must control my breathing.
I sit and nod. Dr. Mortimer hands me some water, and I’m happy I have something to do that doesn’t involve talking.
Soon the other two arrive, quiet and brooding, like the two of us. I do not remember their names either.
“Good to see you all,” Dr. Mortimer says. She stands, smoothes her skirt, and backs away to where our orderlies lounge on the grass. “Introduce yourselves to each other and have a chat. I and your caregivers will be just over here if you need us.”
None of us — as in a group of singulars, not one, not we — say anything for one-hundred-twenty seconds. Then I swallow and focus on the red and green stripes of the blanket. “Hi, I’m Falak. It’s nice to see you all again.”
You speak next. “Hi, I’m Marissa.”
The other two pipe up. “I’m Pavel.” “And I’m Yuki.”
We — I, not we, not us, I, singular, though it appears you and Pavel and Yuki are having the same trouble — do not know what to say next.
My breathing is rapid. Perspiration tickles my forehead and spots dance before my eyes. I gulp in air and gasp out words. “So, how’s your therapy going, Marissa?”
“Good,” you say. “Hard, though. I still miss you all sometimes.”
You miss us. You miss we!
“Same here,” Yuki says.
She does too! We need us.
But that’s not right. I is right, we is not.
“We did good out there, though, didn’t we?” Pavel says.
“Yes,” you say. “We did.”
It is too much. I stand, take half a step forward. I falter. I am unsure. Am hyperventilating.
Yuki stands too. It is enough. I rush to you, embrace you. So does Yuki. Pavel does not move.
You rise and push we away. I fall. Yuki falls. We land on the blanket with a thump.
I am confused. You miss us. You need us. What makes we not right?
Still hyperventilating. Passing out. There is noise. Footsteps, Dr. Mortimer’s voice. Sharpness is jabbed into my arms. My breathing settles. The world grows violet edges.
You stare at the lake. Yuki sobs. Pavel jumps up, starts running towards the building where we fester.
Hands grab me. I fight. Feebly. Dr. Mortimer shakes a finger. Her eyes are not kind.
You and Yuki are led away. Apart. Two orderlies chase after Pavel.
We are alone.
|Samuel Mae lives near the bottom of the world, in Auckland, New Zealand, but spends most nights travelling the universes of his imagination. This may sound corny, but it’s resulted in him selling short fiction to Electric Velocipede, Wily Writers, and elsewhere. He can be found blathering pithily on twitter (@samuel_mae) or blathering less pithily on his blog (http://www.samuelmae.info).|