By the Numbers

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SPOILER WARNING : (If you’ve read The Sundered, you’re good to go. Otherwise, head back to the short stories for safer fare.)

One, two, three, four, fifty-three alive – no more!

Quimby loved numbers. She loved to count, to hold the infinity of counting in her head, to know the number of stars seen and unseen (yes, all of them. How could she not? They sang), and even the number of nubbly little bumps all over her red sea-star body.

She chose to keep her gender. Not many others did.

The Sundered were shape-changers, their forms altering with every thought as sheets billow and undulate in the wind, but sometimes, they’d find a form they liked and keep it. She had no intention of giving up the star form, or her tiny teats, or even the small, slitted place between her lower points. She liked being a girl. She felt pretty.

Her own joy rippled through all her brethren like a breath on hot coffee, and here and there, colors bloomed: Sundered Ones matched her red to see the reflection in the water, or borrowed her shape and added more points, or chose complementary colors just because they could.

An old image (from her memory or a sibling’s, it was one and the same) came back to her, caught long ago from one of the humans who’d originally landed here: sharp cracks and the smell of smoke, insane light-flowers bursting in the sky. Suddenly in love with the word firework, she flew into the air and began raining white sparkles upon the black sea.

She flew right over Harry’s lonely island (alone in his head, though since he was with the Sundered, he wasn’t by himself at all) and dropped extra-special sparkles in his favorite colors of orange and white. But he didn’t understand this was a present; he stared after her, mouth open, then looked down at the sparkles fading in his hand (melting like snowflakes because that human memory was beautiful, and why Aakesh always ran his own temperature hot – to melt snow).

Tiring of sparkles (ha! That was a joke. She could never tire of them), she looped around Motherwater, plunging down and in and out again, singing and squeaking sounds that meant nothing and everything at the same time. She’d make him understand. They would all make him understand. It was just going to take time.

The Sundered had been silent until the humans came. Perfect mental communication and a world without noisy creatures did that, but then humans arrived – oh, humans! – with heads and mouths and rooms and machines filled with noise. Noise, beautiful noise, noise with meaning and noise with none, noise for amusement and comfort and warning, and wake-up-now noises and go-to-sleep noises and appropriate levels of noise for eating and voiding and everything else. If they weren’t making noise, they were remembering it. Even procreation (procreation! Everyone thought only lower creatures like fish did that) came with its own set of breathy cries, and the Sundered latched on to this new wealth of sound as if they’d been starving.

Quimby had not been able to understand many of the feelings and thoughts she (they) found in humans’ heads. Humans were sundered (alone? How could any thinking, feeling creature be alone?), and they carried pain (a completely foreign concept), and they caused pain (what?), and they even killed each other. Somehow. For some reason.

There was nothing to compare any of it to. Incomprehensible. And on top of all that, the humans had abandoned their own world for dead (the thought of a dead Motherwater made her weep, once she’d learned how to weep). The only possible feeling in the wake of all this horror was pity.

Maybe the humans were sundered because their world was dead. Maybe that made them sad. It only made sense to offer them help. Why, of course: the answer was to heal their sundering.

The attempt to fix them almost broke them. Fifty-three humans, all in need of fixing (soon to be fifty-four, which was utterly unbelievable – they’d MADE another one) were mentally joined together, and promptly passed out. These human creatures really were broken. The Sundered – who were not yet sundered themselves – conferred like a human debating with herself, and realized that these poor, homeless humans could not be one like a proper sentient being. Maybe ever.

It was the most tragic thing they could conceive.

Quimby wanted them to be happy. She adapted to singing (though it was slightly more difficult in the perfect sphere shape she then preferred – round like the sun, and just as red) and gave them their favorite songs. She changed first to male and then to female (ooh) to seem more familiar. She adopted the five-pointed star shape (ooh!) and showed up with little presents (complete with sparkles and bright colors and many, many feathers) for the humans to make them happy.

None of it worked.

She borrowed their memories to make them flowers and recreate tiny toys (toys!) they’d liked in their youth, but they reacted with fear.

She sang their favorite songs, and that made them afraid, too. Decorating their quarters sent them into spasms of paranoia (which was weeeeeeird) and even anger.

Their utterly insane reactions made Bakura angry (he’d only just chosen his name, too; the idea of giving themselves individual names was such a silly one that the Sundered had leaped into it like a new game), and his anger sent a ripple of discontent through them all. But Quimby kept trying (and since she did, they all did).

Gorish, Aakesh (such lovely names they chose) all tried to make the humans happy. Nothing worked, and Gorish somehow finally figured out the bizarre truth: the humans wanted to be alone.

There was no alone. It didn’t exist. Then again, humans had imagination and were always making up new things (it was the most glorious thing about them). They could dream up things no one knew and invent them from scratch. Maybe alone was inventing something new.

Giving alone to the human who demanded it the most (trying to ignore everything he thought) was painful, but Jason Iskinder had so many things he thought were secrets (and such amazing memories) that they tried to give him what he asked.

It seemed to make Iskinder happy.

And later, when it happened –

Later, when Iskinder claimed them –

Later, when the Hope turned on and broke their perfect union –

Later, when all the birds were dead (”get rid of the vermin. I want to live here in peace”) –

Only then did Quimby decide once and for all that alone for humans was always bad. Even if it made them happy.

Quimby could forgive. Humans were broken, solitary things who lived their lives in the hell of alone (she’d been almost alone for 400 years, but only partly, for even sundered, they were never truly separated). Besides, Harry had tried to be nice.

Gorish loved him. So she loved him, too.

Fifty-three humans had landed on this planet, becoming fifty-four soon after. Fifty-three now lived – chosen to survive, chosen to keep their race going. Because Aakesh said so. Because he would not see them wiped out the way his own people almost were.

It was all of their idea at once, not just his. And yet… it kind of was only his.

Harry was nice. Gorish loved him. Quimby, therefore, loved him too, though he didn’t understand her presents at all. Squeaking again (yesterday, she sounded like a flute all day long, so today, it was back to her favorite sounds, like baby mice), she flew over Harry’s head again, and just for fun, changed his paintbrush to purple.

It had eight-thousand three hundred and forty-eight bristles, and now all of them were purple tipped with red. There was a present anyone would enjoy.