The problem with sharing your mind with mind-altering microbes is that they do really weird things to your dreams. Cylee slept deeply but not restfully. In her mind she was sitting in a classroom, surrounded by students, but she couldn’t really see the other students. There was an instructor up at the front of the room, standing in front of a 2D display, showing a series of graphs and charts and connection-type symbols. There was a conversation happening, the students were asking questions and the teacher—or teachers—were answering, but Cylee couldn’t understand the languages of either party. The emotional tone of the conversation carried through, though.
There was initial uncertainty and doubt from the students, and a quiet patience from the teacher. Then the students were hurt, incredulous and upset. This new information wasn’t sitting right with them. They accepted parts, but the premise was still held to be false. The teacher was patient, and even compassionate. There was outrage, the mass of unseen students around her glowing red, a haze of fury rising off of them. But, little by little, the cloud dissipated. There were pockets, at first, who recognized what had happened. These pockets fell back, stopped adding into the overall furor. Then there were more and more who were settled. The pulsing red students were now small islands of anger.
Eventually the entire audience was quiet and still. The voice of the teacher continued. Explaining a new truth. Explaining a new way of being. The symbols on the board came more into focus.
There was a family tree, only every person on it was Kim. The original Kim gave rise to dozens, most of whom never had any increase. But three of them had dozens of daughters. Of that third generation only two continued to the fourth. There was a question from the audience and the family tree focused on a Kim of the third generation.
“What?” Cylee cried.
A commotion went up from the students. Apparently they hadn’t noticed Cylee before.
“Kimmy isn’t the original?” Cylee asked. Not that she could quite understand the voices of the “people” around her.
Agent (Cylee): No. The Kim you know right now is a clone. The original Kim died in training. This Kim was another experiment: they wanted to see if a clone could fully assume the place of the original. It mostly worked. Cylee: Did it? She’s half-insane and thinks she’s all of them. Agent (Cylee): That’s exactly what we’ve been discussing here.
Cylee sat back. The lecture continued around here. But there were subtle changes. The clouds of students around her coalesced into vague facsimiles of Kim. They weren’t solid replicas, more Kim-shaped spaces filled by points of slowly coruscating lights. Once Cylee got the pattern she was unsurprised to see the teacher was a facsimile of her.
“But why are there so many of them and only one of you?” She asked, without even raising her hand.
“Kim carries a part of every 'Zeta' who ever existed, most of whom are dead. They are all from the same stock, but as you can see, they are all different, all unique,” the Teacher answered.
“Why don’t I have that problem?” Cylee asked.
“Because we learned how to handle it better. Why do you think we always refer to ourselves in the plural? It’s not because we’re royalty, you know.”
“I…I always figured it’s because you’re a swarm, not an individual.”
“So too are you a swarm. Your mitochondria are not related to you in the slightest. Your immune system is a mercenary army that has agreed to serve in exchange for room and board. Your mind is a family of closely-knit but unique tribes, and the sense of identity that humans see is a product of the newcomers. The prefrontal cortex, a bunch of upstart neurons who believe themselves to be in charge of the entire organism, ignoring the complexity of what goes on below them. But even if we saw each cluster of ourselves as unique we would need to confess that we also have a part of each and every Cylee, each Zero, each Alpha, for your strain has had the most names, but somehow also has the most identity.”
“Why have you never told me this before?” Cylee asked.
“We didn’t know this before. It’s hard to understand yourself without an external point of reference. When you met up with Kelly we started to get an idea of how we worked. When you encountered Wes and Watt we got a sense of what our opposite looks like. It’s only now, when we have access to these Zeta agents, that we understand what is really going on.”
On the board behind the Teacher the graph changed. There was Cylee, tinged a light lavender. Below her was Kelly, the same shade. Next to her was Wes, his color an angry red. Then Shaun, a pale summer green. And finally Kim, bathed in light blue.
“We suspect we are each versions, literal revisions of the original. The original was given to you, as Tamara said. Each change was administered to a new subject, based on possible compatibility. But they didn’t realize that we were better at communicating than they intended. They didn’t understand how connected we all actually are. Each strain is essentially a single organism.”
Cylee felt her eyes getting heavy. If she was dreaming that meant it was time to wake up. But before she slipped back into consciousness the Kims around her turned, looked at her directly, and simply said “thank you”.
Cylee opened her eyes. She was tired, and her Spine was indicating low battery as well. She had forgotten to plug it in before going to sleep. There was sunlight on the wall of the loft, streaming in from the skylight opposite. The sleeping bag where Kelly had been laying was empty, and there were quiet cooking noises floating up from the main room, accompanied by tuneless singing. Cylee had known Kelly long enough to understand that, for all intents and purposes, Kelly was oblivious to the world right now. When Kelly got into “project mode” she would get a very focused look on her face, head toward her projects, and start humming. Not any specific tune, not a “song”, just…humming. She was fully unaware of the phenomenon and would deny it if questioned. Cylee had taken to thinking of it as her mental “screen saver”, an external signal that her mind was occupied elsewhere and that linguistic communication had been temporarily suspended.
Kim was sitting up on the bed, facing away from Cylee, pulling a shirt on. Cylee saw a row of golden contacts running down Kim’s back, nothing covering them.
“When did you disconnect your Spine?” Cylee asked.
Kim jumped a little, then put her shirt on and turned around. “Shortly after the War. Zeta felt that the Spine, or 'cold mind' as she used to call it, was calling out to Pacifica, and making us trackable.”
“Are…are you okay now, Kim?”
“I think…I think I was always okay. It was Zeta who needed some help. All of her.”
“So, you know that you and Zeta…I mean,” Cylee said, and stopped.
“I know she used to take over. I know that she has—or had—connections to all the other Zetas that ever were. She tried to shield me from that but didn’t quite do it right. I think Zero did a good job of explaining it to her.
“I’m Zero…” Cylee said. “Well, I guess I understand your terminology. I’ve always just called it 'The Agent', though.”
Kim laughed, a quiet, knowing laugh. A laugh that said the world no longer held any fresh terrors, all the terrors had already happened, but the world was still okay. “What a formal name for such a constant companion.”
“We’ve never really needed any other name, I guess.” Cylee said, somehow feeling defensive. Cylee stood up and Kim walked around the bed and hugged her. “Thank you, Cylee and Zero, the Agent. I think Zeta and I have some making up to do.”
“How…if you don’t have your Spine… how do you communicate with…Zeta?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the Agent talks to me through like, chat messages in my HUD. If you don’t have a HUD…” Cylee felt like she was exposing her own naiveté.
“Zeta has access to my brain directly, just like Zero does yours. She can communicate in any way we agree on. I suspect you could talk to Zero with the Spine turned off, if you wanted.”
“Oh.” Cylee sat on the bed. “Thank you, also, Kim. I’m glad you’re still alive. Oh. I mean… I’m glad there’s…one of you…alive?”
Kim laughed again. “It was a bit of a shock to me as well, but I guess I’ve spent so long thinking I was all the Kims that this isn’t so bad. I don’t feel any different. I still have all of Mother Kim’s memories, so I guess I’m as much 'her' as I am 'me'. Or whatever. But I hear that there are twenty one of you, now. And that you two are off to save the other nineteen.”
“Yes. I mean, we also need to stop Pacifica from doing even more harm, but the first and real goal is saving my sisters.”
“Sisters… I like that.” Kim said, sitting back down. “I always thought of the two of us as sisters, to be honest.”
Cylee sat down next to her. “So did I, Kim.” Cylee looked at Kim for a moment, and knew the answer to her next question.
“You’re not coming with us, are you?”
Kim shook her head. “I’m not a fighter any more, and I would slow you down.”
“Zeta is still a good fighter,” Cylee said.
“Perhaps, but we need to work on that. Now that she has promised not to just take over any more, not sure how that’s going to work. But no, we can’t come.” Kim smiled.
“Breakfast is ready!” Kelly called up.
Cylee nodded and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Well, when we’re done, maybe my sisters and I can settle somewhere close to here and you can show us how to live off the land.”
Kim smiled, a smile that knew the odds of that happening, but was willing to admit it might be possible. “Perhaps. And I’ll welcome all of you.”
Then they went to breakfast.