I was on my back, the proverbial overturned tortoise, staring up at the ceiling of Quinn’s room. Quinn, for his part, was on the bed, doing roughly the same thing. Miri was there too, I think. The walls? Faintly blue and gently vibrating, like a giant speaker playing a bunch of really good OP themes all out of key.
“Holy shit, I have four hands,” I said.
Quinn tried to get up, failed, and instead flopped over repeatedly until he was half-hanging off the edge of the bed and could mostly see me. “Fuck, dude, you sure do.”
I stared at all of them, the room suddenly looking really bright, probably because my pupils were completely fucked up. With slow, tentative movements, I reached up and down at the same time, clasping the two hands on each side together. “It’s like I’ve come to agreement… with myself.”
“I don’t think that’s how that works,” said Quinn, very slowly sliding over the edge of the bed. “I mean if I went and clasped hands with… whatshisname, the guy who’s going to murder us all, I think he’d just shoot me.”
“Oh. Yeah. I guess he would, huh. Why did you say that?”
“Because you were just talking about how your hands were… making peace with… yourself or something…” Quinn finally lost his battle with friction, sliding entirely off the bed and onto the floor with a loud thump. His entire body ended up in an accordion-like pile on the carpet.
“Quinn?” I said.
Miri chuckled. “You okay there?”
Quinn tried to talk, forgot how to, then gave a thumbs-up while trying to remember how to sit.
Miri laughed, harder this time. “You need to get me some of this stuff sometime. Why is it that I’m always the one who ends up having to sit for you two?”
“Because you’re the… trusty one,” mumbled Quinn. “The trustable one. Such trust, much levelheaded.”
I nodded. “You’re super smart and you know safety, and you are good at math, and you speak two and a half languages, and you have an amazing butt,” I said. I tried rolling over onto my side and failed. “I feel like I wasn’t supposed to say a couple of those.”
Quinn nearly screamed. Well, it was one part scream, one part laugh, at least. He rolled around, heaving with exaggerated peals of laughter that echoed off the walls at least three or four times more than they should have. I’m pretty sure that one of the lamps started laughing along with him.
“Oh come on, Quinn, it’s not that funny!” I said, but I don’t think he heard me.
Miri just grinned sheepishly, a slight blush of red (and green and grey, but definitely also red) coming to her face. “I mean, they do have good taste.”
“Yeah,” I said with a laugh. “Wait, who’s ‘they’?”
Quinn, who had almost stopped laughing, resumed, his face going red as he clutched his stomach. “You are, dumbass!”
My mandibles fell open. “Oh shit, yeah. Those are my pronouns now.”
Quinn had to force himself to stop laughing, slowly pulling himself back up onto the bed. “You know, I was thinking… with your gender and stuff… I think you might be gay now. At least a little bit.”
It took me at least fifteen seconds to realize what he had said, and another ten to stop staring at the ceiling for long enough to come up with an answer. “I mean… yeah. I guess I kinda am gay. Sort of, in like the same way that tomato is a vegetable, you know?”
“That’s really profound, Cathy,” said Quinn. “You should get a degree in… Gender Studies or something. From the university of… space? I think?”
“My name is Cathy now…” I said. “I’m gonna have to get used to that. Cathy. Caaaaaaathy. Cathyyyy. Weird.”
“Do you like it? You can always change your name if you want to.” Miri sounded like she was going to get a serious and reasoned answer out of me in the state I was in.
I rolled over onto my side, which was the best I could manage with respect to actually looking at her. I was fairly sure that I had at least nine limbs, and could only hazily remember what “standing up” was. “I really like your name,” I said. “It’s cute, I like saying it. Do you like saying my name?”
“Cathy? It has a ring to it,” she said.
“Then I think I like it,” I said.
I rolled back onto my back and stared at the ceiling for a while. There were little bugs in the air now, flies and moths and tiny flying beetles that whirred around above me. For whatever reason, I really wanted to catch one, more than anything, but I felt heavy and slow and limp, so the best I could do was to reach out with my hands and try to grab. The bugs could always flit away from that.
“Hey, Cathy.” Quinn had propped his head up on his hands this time, staring intently at me with dilated pupils. “Hey. Hey. Cathy, hey.”
I ignored him for the pretty butterflies.
“Cathy. Hey. Hey, Cathy. Cathy. Caaaaaathy. Hey, Cathy. Hey. Hey Cathy. Can you hear me. Cathy? Hey Cathy. Cathy. Hey. Hey, Cathy.”
“What is it?” I moaned.
“I totally knew you were gay, the whole time.”
I stretched all my limbs and my spine, like a cat, and said, “Shut the fuck up, you did not.”
“Oh, come on, we’ve been joking about it for years,” Quinn said. “Do you even remember how we met?”
“Don’t tell that stupid story again…”
“Miri, did you ever know how A-- Cathy and I met? They were wearing a pink skirt. And also a wig. That was pink.”
Miri’s eyes widened just a smidgen, and she shot me a little grin. “And where was this?”
“Big viewing party, all the weebs in town were getting together at one guy’s house to watch the fuckin’ movie… with the train…”
“It was cosplay!” I said, trying and failing to drown Quinn out.
“So anyway, because I’m the hottest shit on the planet and was just starting to figure out my sexuality, fourteen-year-old me sees a chubby guy wearing a pink skirt and thinks that ‘yeah, I could probably make out with him.’ So anyway I start flirting with Cathy—”
“You were flirting with me?” I said, suddenly beginning to actually remember the conversation he was talking about.
“Uh, yeah, of course I was,” said Quinn. “So anyway, it takes me about half an hour to figure out that they aren’t interested, because fourteen, but by that point they were talking about all of their AMVs, so I was basically trapped. And then we were friends.”
Miri’s brow furrowed. “So you went to a whole party wearing a pink skirt…” she said pensively, “and it took you until just now to figure out that you aren’t cis?”
“It was cosplay!” I said.
“Cosplay with a pink skirt, Cathy, you have to admit that that says something.”
“Oh come on,” I said, “don’t try to tell me that you’ve never heard of As… Asto… Uhh, I think my tongue’s gone.”
“You don’t have a tongue any more,” said Miri. “Remember?”
I remembered. “Oh, right. So what were we talk…”
The colors were starting to explode and multiply, scintillating starbursts and fractal spirals of vibrant colors beyond the normal visible spectrum. There was an unmistakable pattern to them, but from the order arose chaos, and from the chaos arose beauty. “Everybody shut up, the hallucinations just kicked in.”
Quinn’s brow furrowed. “That stuff causes hallucinations? The guy did not say that yours caused hallucinations…”
“Shush! Shushushushushsush! I’m experiencing.”
The colors bloomed outward. Somehow, despite them being entirely opaque, I could still see the room around me through all the colors, and I knew concretely where I was, which was helpful as the colors shifted from the abstract to a vast, boundless black. It was a star field, an enormous one, thousands and thousands of stars arrayed out in three dimensions, all shifting very very slowly, as if rotating. I stood up to see it all better, though I fell back onto my ass after no more than a second or two.
“Wow, and here I was thinking you were tripping already,” said a feminine voice. It sounded very, very far away.
The stars suddenly shifted and condensed and vanished, at least all but the brightest ones did, and formed into something distinctly more tangible and uncomfortably familiar. It was a silvery metal thing, like a cross between a violin, a reliquary, and a gun, covered in antler-like protrusions and pyramidal knobs. It floated down toward me, and when my hand brushed against it I could feel the texture of the metal under each finger as though it were totally real.
“How is it?” This voice was different, masculine, but still just as far away as the first.
“This thing is… incredible?”
The thing, whatever it was, suddenly collapsed in on itself in a burst of light, shedding a nebula of multicolored shapes as it did, until it took on the exact size and shape of the Waterspindle, except wreathed in coruscating light. I instinctively reached out to grab it, but the light burned to touch, and my hand snapped back like I’d only just learned that fire is indeed hot.
The Waterspindle did not take my intrusion lightly, and started unfolding like a time-lapse of a blooming flower. The metal almost exploded outwards in a fractal pattern, one that I instinctively knew would not lead to anything good if I let it catch up to me. My wings flicked open and I leapt away, landing on all sixes in the corner of the room, my eyes locked on the expanding metal bulb, hissing and clicking in fury as my mouth filled with the bitter taste of venom.
Just when it seemed like I was going to be crushed against the wall, there was a girl standing between me and the growing metal. “Can you hear me, Cathy? I’m right here, it’s going to be okay, whatever you’re seeing isn’t real and it can’t hurt you.”
My head felt fuzzy, but after a couple of seconds I remembered that that was Miri, that I was in Quinn’s room on New Malagasy, and that I had probably just come near the edge of a bad trip. I swallowed my venom and stood up, taking Miri’s hand in my own.
“Can you still talk? How are you feeling?”
“I’m… doin’ okay, I think,” I said. “I saw some crazy shit, then some freaky shit, but… this is why you’re here, right?”
The image of the rapidly growing metal flower, the remnant of the Waterspindle, slowly faded and shrank as I stopped feeding it with mental energy and focused on Miri right in front of me, and Quinn leaning on a nearby wall.
“You looked super… like very uncool with everything, you know? What were you seeing?”
One hand shot to my chest. The Waterspindle wasn’t there. “I saw… this. The Waterspindle. Where is it?”
“You took it off because we all decided that having a big metal thing on you wouldn’t be safe,” said Miri.
“…oh yeah. There were some stars too. It… the Waterspindle burned me, and then it started growing like a plant.”
“Sick!” yelled Quinn, way too loudly for the enclosed space. “Wish that I got to see cool shit.”
“I mean, if you wanna try the stuff, you totally can…”
“Cathyyyyy!” Quinn whined. “The guy saaaaaid that that stuff would kill a humaaaaan! You can’t off me that easily, ya know,” he continued, slumping down onto the floor again.
I chittered at that, less because it was funny and more because everything was funny. Quinn was funny, the hallucinations I’d had were funny, the air was funny! And then I noticed something, and I chittered and squeaked even harder. “Hey, Miri?”
“We’re still holding hands,” I said, barely suppressing laughter. “How lewd.”
We were in fact still holding hands, though Miri very gently let go of me. “You are so immature,” she said.
“We’re the same age!”
“And yet you’re still repeating memes that haven’t been funny since middle school,” she said, walking back to her chair on the far side of the room.
I don’t know how long we were quiet for after that. Time was getting really, really hard to understand. Sometimes I would try to move, only for my arm to get too tired because I’d accidentally been holding it completely still for almost a minute. I felt exhausted, but I also didn’t particularly want to sleep, so I thought about nothing and pondered on what was going on with the subtly shifting smell of paint and human breath in the room.
Quinn suddenly interrupted the silence, just before I astrally projected out of my body, saying, “So… are you gay now? Like, I don’t wanna assume that you’re gay just because you’re kinda… uhh… trans, sort of?”
“Is it even possible for me to not be gay now? I guess I could be bi…” I spent several seconds with all eight of my eyes squeezed shut, trying to imagine as hard as possible to find the answer to that question. “I don’t think I’m bi.”
“Took you a hell of a lot less time than it took me,” said Quinn.
I nodded. “Yeah. I’m way smarter than you, Quinn. And everybody knows the more smarterer something is, the more lesbian…”
“And the more lesbian it is, the more Marxist,” Quinn agreed sagely.
“I wish I’d brought popcorn, you two are incredible,” said Miri. “Wait, Cathy… Did you say lesbian?”
“What?” I said. “Why would I… Oh, huh. I guess I did.”
“Yeah, what was up with that,” said Quinn, very gradually sliding down the wall.
“Fuck, dude, I dunno. I think it means something, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s not totally accurate, y’know? I’m pretty sure I’m not a lesbian, but… I mean I’m not a woman either way, so…”
“You aren’t a woman,” Quinn said with a nod.
“I’m not a woman,” I said.
“You’re not a woman?” Quinn asked, just as his head hit the floor.
“I’m not a woman… probably. I have had a lot of time to think about this and also I figured out my gender literally three days ago.”
Miri leaned forward in her chair. “This is probably the most coherent I have ever seen either of you while high. Who knew that all the really good stuff came from space.”
Quinn and I collectively ignored her. “How do you, like, know, you know? I mean, how does anyone know anything… but also how do you know… what you are?”
“I dunno! I don’t know anything about anyone. I just sorta…don’t want to… be… girl? It’s too… solid. Sharp. Heavy. Like there’s… stuff.”
Miri suppressed a laugh. “Yep, that’s definitely what being a woman is. Sharp and heavy and full of stuff.”
“Have you ever had to think about this sort of thing?” said Quinn. “Gender n’ stuff. You’re sort of the odd girl out now.”
“Of course I have!” Miri said, folding her arms. “I may be cis, but I’m doing cis as best as I can.”
“Well, what have you thought about?”
“You know…” Miri suddenly leaned back and looked really nervous. “I’ve questioned my sexuality… wondered what it would be like if I was trans… that sort of thing. I’ve definitely learned some stuff about myself, but it isn’t really any of your business anymore.”
“Miriiiiiiiiii,” I moaned. “It’s always our business. I’m your… something!”
“That’s certainly one way to put it…” she said, rolling her eyes. “I guess I can tell you a secret. You probably won’t even remember it later.”
I scooted a few inches closer to where Miri was sitting, and my antennae snapped to attention. Quinn stumbled to his feet and staggered over to the far end of the room, suddenly having gotten very interested in something over there.
“Do you remember how you made Stacey Q. put eyeliner on you so you could dress as a goth vampire for Halloween?”
“You looked like you were gonna die literally the entire time,” I mumbled.
“Because I thought you looked… super sexy with makeup on. I was freaking out the entire time because my boyfriend, er, partner, was wearing eyeliner and I was going gaga over it.”
I paused, nodding over at the far wall. “Is that why after we got home you pulled me into the bathroom and—“
“Cathy!” Miri was suddenly very, very red. “Quinn is still here,” she said, then nodded enthusiastically at me. The nod probably meant something.
Quinn was standing over by one of the tables, messing around with his Ariel, and probably not having a very good time of it. At least, he probably wasn’t, going purely by the way the entire room was starting to smell like vague frustration.
“So I guess we’re all going around and telling each other embarrassing secrets, huh?” said Quinn.
“I don’t think that’s what…”
“Well, I guess that means it’s my turn.”
“Quinn?” I said, very sweetly. “You don’t need to tell us anything. We already know about your huge celebrity crush on Ell—“
“Shut the fuck up!” said Quinn, in his shrillest voice. “It’s not my fault he got really hot right when I was discovering men!”
“And suddenly you were really interested in that Netflix series…”
Miri leaned over in her chair, the blush fading from her face. “Let they who are without sin throw the first stone, Mx. I-Would-Let-Matthew-Mercer-Plow-Me.”
“I did not say that!”
“Liar!” shouted Quinn. “I remember exactly where I was when you said that! And don’t even get me started on your Fullmetal Alchemist phase…”
“I hate you all!” I announced, then followed it up by muttering, “A thousand years… in acid jail.” To my mind, this was an incisive and hilarious reference, but I’m pretty sure even if either of them had read that book it would come out as complete gibberish.
“There, now it’s your turn,” said Quinn, still messing around with his Ariel.
“Oh hey, the hallucinations are back,” I said.
“Seeing anything interesting this time, lovebug?”
“It’s… a drawing I did, a few days ago. It’s called the Spire. Still looks like a pencil drawing on paper, but… 3D, somehow.”
“That kicks ass,” said Quinn. “But it’s still your turn. Spill the beans, beetle-guy.”
I did not spill the beans, at least immediately. Instead I sat against the wall and watched my own drawing, slowly rotating in the air in front of me. It was huge, obviously not life-sized, but enough to stretch from floor to ceiling. I could remember drawing it, some of the weird details and mistakes still present in the hallucination, and yet it was so much deeper than anything I could have possibly drawn.
“Haven’t you been spending the last twenty minutes roasting me, anyway?”
“It’s been about three minutes, Cathy, but maybe.”
“I already told you all how I spent the last eight years wishing I could…” I waved all four arms around in a limp approximation of the idea I was trying to get across, “…into a cool genderfucked thing. I feel like that’s the biggest secret here.”
“Well, good news!” Quinn said. “Now you’re a cool genderfucked thing, and also you’re a four-armed beetle person. And from what I’ve seen of your notebooks, that was probably also a goal of yours.”
“It was not, come on! What are you even doing over there?”
“Trying to get my playlist to work on the techno-thing,” he said. “I’m almost there, I’m sure.”
“Your playlist?” said Miri, raising one eyebrow. “You mean the one that’s ninety-nine percent Abba, late-album Genesis, and Fallout Boy? Honestly, I think I’d rather we not have any music…”
“What she said,” I said. “Also, I don’t think you can do that? I mean your thing is on Earth stuff, and this is on space stuff, and you can’t mix Earth stuff and space stuff because it’s bad.”
Quinn did a fist pump. “Okay, I have it! I think. This is going to be awesome!”
“I just had to…” Quinn waved one hand at the Ariel. “I just had to do a thing and it worked.”
“That’s not how you science, Quinn. Also your music sucks, can we not turn it on?”
“I’m gonna turn it on, turn it on again, even,” he said.
“Damn you and your bad music jokes.”
He pressed a button, and after a moment’s delay the music started. In my addled state, the opening notes of “Land of Confusion” felt a little bit like getting washed over by a warm wave, and I was reminded what it was like to actually be able to, like, hear things. I leaned back against the wall and shut up for the next few hours.