CladeA Post-Self Anthology

Support Group for Anomalies in Forking

Michael Miele

Ernie — 2328

Ernie felt a gentle sensorium ping wake him from the deep sleep he found himself in. He blinked his eyes blearily and reached for an alarm clock. When his hand didn’t find anything to latch onto, he was awake enough to remember he was on the System, and could just think about the current time to check it. Old habits die hard. It was systime 204+1400, about 2PM or so. He didn’t think he had set an alarm ping for himself before taking a nap, but he must have wanted to make sure he was up and ready for this afternoon. Maybe he was just being cautious. Ever since he uploaded, it felt like he was making up for lost time when it came to sleep.

He groaned, stood up slowly, and rubbed the sleep out of the corners of his eyes. He concentrated on the outfit he had planned to wear, a plaid flannel that was comfortable and a pair of blue jeans with a ratchet belt, and his pajamas shifted seamlessly into the outfit he had envisioned. With years of practice, he’d figured out the art of changing clothes on the fly. Though, with the scale and breadth of his usual wardrobe, it was surprising it took that long. He was thankful that he wouldn’t have to worry about showing up to a diner with his top half wearing his sleeping shirt anymore.

He walked over to his bedroom closet and opened the doors to pick out the final piece to his outfit. After carefully considering four of his best mesh hats, he decided on the one with a black brim and a logo from a football team that hadn’t existed phys-side for at least fifty years. Hard to go wrong with the classics. He could have willed the hat onto his head but this was one part of his ritual to leave the house that he stubbornly clung onto. The act of choosing was one that needed to be tactile for him to feel like he was ready to step out. And with one last check on the time and his reputation balance, he stepped from his home sim.

He arrived at SGAF Forum#4da206f6 a scant few milliseconds later. He could have gotten there a bit faster, had this been a sim he frequented often, but today was a day of new experiences for Ernie. He was just a tad bit nervous, as he hadn’t tried breaking into a new social group for a good couple decades now. His current circle was mostly former truck drivers, though there was some occasional overlap with the folks who worked at the various diners that he would visit.

In fact, it was a chance meeting at a diner that had gotten him this invitation.

Everybody’s got a hobby, and in the case of functionally immortal folks, they tend to have several. More time to diversify and whatnot. One of Ernie’s hobbies was trying to find the best reuben sandwich that he could eat in the wide expanse of the System. This was no small feat either. He’d been diligently eating at just about every diner he could get into for the past seventy or so years and had quite the list going. It was a great way to get him out of the house and he found that over time he was able to home in on the aspects of a great reuben for him. The rye bread needed to be at least a certain thickness with a little bit of give, the dressing shouldn’t be too runny, the coleslaw had to have a decent bite to it, the swiss shouldn’t be sharp or bitter, and the corned beef needed to provide just the right amount of tension and snap when taking a bite. With new restaurants opening and closing every day across however many millions of sims, he had no shortage of places to visit.

During one of these trips, he had gotten into a conversation with a woman who was sitting at the diner’s bar next to him. Her name was Melanie and they had quickly hit it off after Ernie impressed on her that the diner had a really terrible reuben. They had talked a bit more about current events with Melanie catching Ernie up on how the Castor and Pollux probes were doing a few years after the big Launch. He wasn’t sure he could wrap his head around a good chunk of the more technical stuff she was telling him, but she seemed to be fine with him nodding his head as though he understood. That had led her to talk about how a few of her friends had left forks on each of the probes. Ernie wasn’t a big fan of forking and when Melanie asked why, he had said he didn’t feel comfortable going into it. Noticing his distress, she had told him that she had trouble with forking as well. And before he could say anything more, she had slipped a small metallic card under his sandwich plate. She then settled her tab and had told Ernie to keep in touch, before stepping from the sim. When he looked at the card later, he found the address coordinates to a sim underneath an embossed title that read “Support Group for Anomalies in Forking” along with a meeting time. Curiosity had won out and so now he stood outside of a massive glass-paneled building that looked closer to a corporate high-rise suite than a place for group therapy.

He was surprised that he didn’t materialize right within the meeting room. There must have been a reason that the entry point for the sim would be outside of the building, but most designers prioritized an instance’s ease of experience over realism. While there were doubtless sim architects who would disagree, function often trumped form. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a small sign crudely printed on notebook paper and taped up to the glass with masking tape. The sign read, “Due to renovations, SGAF meeting moved to the auxiliary room for the time being. Please be patient as a group member will come to assist you in getting into the temporary room.”

Ernie thought about leaving and coming back next week, but he had already gone to the trouble of getting dressed in his good flannel. So, he waited for someone to come answer the door and let him in. When he checked the time for the fourth time in a row, he had just about run out of patience.

“Welp,” he said while hiking up the front of his jeans, “nothin' for it.” He walked over to the door of the building and reached forward to open it. Surely someone inside would be able to tell him where he needed to go?

But before he could put his hand on the handle, the door on his left swung open and a familiar face poked her head out.

“Oh good! You did decide to come after all,” Melanie said. Her smile was infectious. She was a middle-aged woman with an olive complexion and thick bouncy curls of hair that came to her shoulder. She was wearing a t-shirt that was a mix of pinks and whites underneath a dark blue satin jacket that had a metallic sheen with pants of a similar color but different material on her legs.

“Yep, figured I should see what this is all about,” Ernie replied.

“Well don’t just stand there, come on inside. I’m excited for you to meet everyone.” She gestured with her hand for Ernie to follow her inside. He grabbed the door and shut it behind him as he walked through.

It was a long walk and by the time they had reached a rather imposing solid oak door, Ernie was having second thoughts about coming. He leaned against the wall as Melanie fished around in her pockets for a set of keys. But instead of going to open the door, she carefully removed a single key from the keyring and pressed it into Ernie’s hand.

“While this is more symbolic than practical, I’ve just given you very limited ACLs to access the auxiliary meeting room. You should be able to open the door and step through now. We can go in once you’re ready.”

Ernie smiled slightly and said, “Thanks. Don’t suppose I can get ya to explain what it’s gonna be like in there before we walk in?”

“Oh, you’ll be fine. You’re encouraged to talk through how you feel about forking but no one is obligated to share if they don’t feel like it. And the others will understand since they’ve been in your shoes before.”

Ernie felt relieved at that. He wasn’t sure how comfortable he was going to be with all of this, so it was nice that Melanie had given him an out at the start. She must have gone through this a fair number of times with other people if she knew to address that fear right from the jump. He pushed himself off of the nearby wall with a grunt and placed his key into the lock of the massive door. There was a slight resistance as he felt the tumblers in the door click into place. He looked over at Melanie expectantly and she gave a small nod of her head as if to say “go ahead”. He twisted the doorknob in his hand and pulled back towards him hard. He was surprised to find that the door was much lighter than he anticipated as it swung open quickly. Melanie laughed and walked through the door into the auxiliary room. Ernie followed her in, making sure to shut the door behind him.

The room was huge and could hardly be called ‘auxiliary’. If this was what they considered a spare room, he would have been blown away by the main room. The walls were covered in a dark brown wood paneling and had framed pictures of people from what looked like previous SGAF events or meetings. The pictures themselves were taken within this room, which Ernie felt was odd. They must get more use out of the spare room than he expected. Along the edges of the rooms were a collection of sofas, couches, and wooden chairs, presumably for the members to use to sit down on. The center of the room looked like it was designed to hold a large circular table, but that space was currently empty. There were a couple plants in the corners of the room to break up the space with a few splashes of green and yellow. No flowering plants though, only ferns and fronds. More colors than that would be too distracting. The room felt like it was designed to give the impression of a psychiatrist’s office, even to Ernie who had never been in one back phys-side.

Around the circle sat three other people in chairs that were as unique as them. Ernie did his best not to stare, but his eyes were drawn to the chair that looked absolutely uncomfortable to sit in. Thin seat suspended in the air over a base of interlocking segments of white polished marble with hovering armrests that moved along with their body. He knew of furries, but he had never seen a furry like this one before.

Ernie tried to recall the last time he had interacted with furries and realized that it had been back when he was phys-side. His truck’s GPS had crashed on him and he was in a part of the country that was entirely unfamiliar. When he pulled into the nearest gas station looking for directions, a group of furries helped him out by opening up his GPS and fixing the offending part.

This furry in particular was an amalgam of many different animal features that Ernie could only really guess at. Their head was long and canine, but the ears were small and close to the head. On top of their head was a set of deer antlers. Their body was covered in a light brown fur that poked out of a shiny black suit coat complete with coat-tails. Behind them was a long and lizard-like tail that swayed hypnotically. They exuded a kind of confidence in how they carried themself that was intimidating to Ernie. None of their disparate parts seemed to be causing them discomfort and even the places on them that transitioned to a new animal seemed to fade and give way to the next without hesitation.

They leaned forward in their chair and gestured to Ernie saying, “I didn’t expect you to bring someone new today Melanie! What kind of morsel do we have here?” As they talked Ernie could see a flash of their fangs and the many rows of teeth inside of their mouth.

“Settle down Devonian, we don’t want to scare him off before he’s even had a chance to get to know us,” said a man sitting backwards in a combined school desk and chair much smaller than him. He was wearing a blue turtleneck and khaki pants and fiddled with a wooden ruler at his desk.

“Do you think so little of me David? I was just implying I would have gotten dressed better had I known ahead of time we’d be having company.”

“You’re already sufficiently fancy. What would be the next step up? A regency era ball gown with a full train?” asked a woman sitting on a polished wooden bench that was just wide enough for her. Ernie felt uneasy looking over at her because she looked like she was actively melting. Not in a painful way, but in the sort of way where her facial features were closer to a painting done in Picasso’s style of noses, eyes, and mouth off center and rearranged on the canvas of her head.

“My dearest Samantha, you should know that I don’t much care for wearing regency gowns. Too many puffy shoulders for my taste. But you do have a point. Perhaps next month I’ll wear a dress that matches my sensibilities.”

“Oh, that does sound fun. Maybe we could color coordinate the whole group. Young man, would you say that warm tones match better for you? Or are you more of a fan of colder colors?”

It took Ernie a second to realize that Samantha was addressing him. He fidgeted with the back of his mesh cap and said, “I don’t exactly know what you’re talking about ma’am, sorry.”

Samantha laughed out of the corner of her face and said, “Don’t worry about it, Ernie. I’m sure we’ll be able to find something that would look good on you.”

At this Ernie crossed his arms over his chest saying, “Well, I think I look pretty good in flannel.”

“It does suit you well, there’s no question in that. Melanie, can you help him get a chair?” David asked.

Melanie nodded and scanned around the room until she found the chairs stacked in the corner. A few seconds later she walked toward the group with two wooden chairs plucked from the edge of the room. She set one down in front of Ernie closer to the rest of the group’s circle and then took a seat on her own. She looked up at the ceiling and waved her left hand’s fingers through the air in subtle gestures. When she was done, she brought her head back down to eye level.

“Sorry about that, old habits from navigating cards in ancient sims back phys-side. I just granted you limited ACLs to make a chair that is comfortable for you to sit in. Unless the wooden one works for you, but as you can see most folks decide to personalize it a bit.”

Ernie sat down tentatively and let himself lean back into the back of the chair. He wasn’t the best at conjuring things from his mind’s eye without a fair bit of practice so he was worried that he’d be stuck in this decidedly uncomfortable chair for the whole time. However, as he leaned back, he could feel the chair shift and morph around him. The wood underneath him reshaped and filled with stuffing, the supporting structure hardening into a lightweight black metal frame. As he reached the limit for leaning backwards, a padded footrest extended out from the base of the chair and cradled his legs and feet. He reached down over the edge of the chair’s rapidly manifesting puffy armrests and curled his fingers around the wooden lever he knew would be there. With a grunt and a swing of his legs downward, he pulled on the lever and catapulted himself back to an upright sitting position. It even squeaked with the same loose spring that had been there back phys-side. There was a singular piece of furniture that Ernie knew better than his own body: his trusty periwinkle blue rocking chair recliner.

Melanie asked, “Is that better then?”

“Much better.”

She clapped her hands together and cleared her throat slightly. “Alright, we’re just about ready to start with our session today then. Since Ernie is new, I want to reiterate that while this could be considered therapy, I’m not a practicing therapist. I’m a retired therapist and as such I want to encourage you to seek out professional therapy services in addition to this group. If you’re interested in scheduling one on one sessions, I have a great list of therapists on the System that would love to work with you.”

David leaned over his desk and whispered to Ernie, “Just make sure you don’t schedule an appointment with Ms. Genet.”

Melanie narrowed her eyes and shot a nasty look over at David before saying, “Just because Sarah and you weren’t a good fit doesn’t mean she’s not a good therapist.”

He leaned back in his desk looking sufficiently embarrassed for getting caught. For a split second, Ernie could picture him as a student getting called out by the teacher during class.

She continued, “I’m going to go first and introduce myself and talk a little bit about my relationship with forking. I would encourage you all to do the same if you feel comfortable so that Ernie can get an idea of what we’re about here at the SGAF. Don’t feel shy about asking questions either, as that will help us to loosen up and discuss our problems. You do not need to answer any questions you do not feel like answering. If someone does not want to answer, you must drop it. End of discussion, no exceptions. This process relies on us trusting each other and part of building that trust is respecting our boundaries.”

She rocketed up from her chair, knocking it over in the process and placed a hand over her heart. Her eyes scanned back and forth across the circle to make sure that she had everyone’s attention. When she was satisfied that they were all focused on her she said, “My name is Melanie Marquetta and whenever I go to fork, this happens…”

She then stepped out of her body and Ernie could see the original Melanie along with an almost perfect facsimile of her sculpted entirely out of dark blue metal forks. Hundreds of thousands of interlocking pieces of metal, all very clearly tableware, were woven together into her body shape. Even her hair was made of delicately curled and coiled metal strands. She was the magnum opus of a master metalworker who looked to Melanie as their muse.

Both instances stood still as a statue for a moment and Ernie was concerned that the process of forking had harmed her. Melanie smiled and in unison her and her metal copy moved their arms from off of their chests outward in a flourish. This caught Ernie off-guard and he shouted out, “What the hell!”

The Melanie made of flesh said, “That’s the usual reaction I get whenever I do this, so I won’t take it personally. What do you think, Metalanie?” She turned her head towards her metal doppelganger and Metalanie said, “I expected him to jump a little more if I’m being honest.”

Whenever Metalanie spoke, she sounded like Melanie’s voice was being passed through a long metal tunnel. It had an echo to it that made it hard for Ernie to parse out what she had said until a few moments after she had stopped speaking. He also noticed that while Metalanie could move like Melanie, the movements were slower and less graceful. As though she was fighting the metal she was made of to be able to move around. Ernie had so many questions.

“So does this mean you’re an instance artist then?” he asked. Ernie had heard of instance artists in passing but didn’t know a lot about them. He had heard that people had found a way to use forking as an art medium but that was the breadth of his experience with them as a group. It certainly seemed like it would apply to Melanie.

Melanie bent down to pick up her chair off the floor and sat down. Metalanie moved behind her and draped her arms over the top of the chair. Melanie said, “No, I’m not an instance artist. That honor goes to Samantha.”

Samantha piped up and said, “Guilty as charged! One of these days I’ll get you to come to one of my shows, darling.”

“I swear I’ll get out to one eventually. You know how busy I get,” Melanie said.

Ernie furrowed his brows together as he tried to formulate his next question.

“So then, what’s yer deal? You just like making really fancy copies of yourself in metal?”

“No, it’s actually a fair bit less complicated. My ‘deal’ is that whenever I go to fork, it winds up as a metal copy of myself made out of forks. Every. Time.”

And to prove her point she forked four more times until there were four more Metalanie’s standing around her chair. Each one was a different color of metal from burnished bronze to gleaming gold, but all of them were made of metal.

“I can influence the color of the metal and even change some aspects of how I’m dressed but other than that, I can’t affect my forks.”

She crossed her right leg over her left and let all instances of Metalanie quit and merge back down into her. For a moment she was half flesh and half metal, but as she resolved merge conflicts her flesh won out little by little. She opened her eyes and said, “And then merging down brings its own unique set of challenges with just having experienced life as a being completely made of metal. I’ve gotten really good at experiential merging and that’s helped a lot.”

“So, when you fork, you’re forced to be made of metal? Wouldn’t that have come up when you did that initial forking test thingy, they make you do right as ya upload? I would think the System would have caught something as big as that.”

“It’s actually funny you mention that initial check. But hold that thought a second.”

Melanie scrunched her face up and Ernie could tell she was straining against some invisible force. Her right arm wrenched upwards and she strained to pull her pinky and ring fingers down to her palm. She moved her other fingers into position so that she made a kind of gun with her middle and pointer fingers with the thumb as the trigger. She swung the faux gun around and Ernie instinctively ducked. She wasn’t pointing it at him, but rather at the inner elbow joint of her left arm. She moved her thumb up and down and Ernie wondered why she was shooting her arm in this way. Melanie didn’t say anything and after a few motions, she began to flex her left arm out and in, out and in. She then moved to another joint and repeated the process.

“It’s silly if I’m being honest with myself, but visualizing the oil helps to lubricate my joints after a lot of quick merges.”

Now it made sense to Ernie. Not a gun, but an oil can. It only took her a couple more seconds until she was fully mobile again at which point, she said, “That’s a relief. Now where was I again?”

Devonian spoke up and said, “You were going to explain to Ernie about your upload.”

“That’s right, thank you.” She turned to face Ernie and said, “I may not act like it, but I was one of the first batch of people to upload once they started opening up the process to the public. Now that was back around 2126 and they were still working out how to automate the process of onboarding new users to the System. I didn’t know this prior to uploading, but I doubt that it would have changed my mind at the time. The reason that I had the money to upload and why I’m a retired therapist are closely linked. And before you ask, that is something I will not budge on speaking more about.”

Ernie nodded in agreement. He could tell from the conviction of her last sentence that prying anymore would get him a one-way boot from the sim.

“So, I get myself uploaded to the System and I hear this automated voice go over some of the basics with me. They get me familiar with how to make clothes and before it can tell me about forking it glitches out. Next thing I know the gray box I was standing in opens up and when I step through the door, I’m in some random city sim.”

She took a moment to brush the hair out of her face before continuing. “I wasn’t in the best state of mind when I first uploaded. Before I knew it, I had found a bar and proceeded to drink myself extremely drunk. I’m talking completely wasted. Toasty to the max. Knackered and shit-to-face and round the bend. From what people have told me, I was a sight to behold. This was also before I was told you could affect your sensorium and sober yourself up. So here I was at the bar, getting drunker by the minute, and I overheard someone talking about forking. And to me, this is the funniest thing in the world. Some yahoo is talking about making a copy of himself and it’s made of forks. What a wild concept. But I’m just drunk enough to give it a try. I go to fork and sure enough, when I step out of my body, there’s a copy of me made out of forks. Which just gets me laughing even harder. So, I make another copy, and another copy, and another copy. By the time I got bounced from the sim, I had spent a good chunk of my reputation making copies of myself. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, after I had some time to process living on the System, that I tried to fork again and found that metal-me had stuck.”

Ernie whistled through his teeth and said, “Geez Melanie! That sure is quite the story. How’d you figure that your metal-you was stuck though?”

“A lot of trial and error, mostly. After I had a chance to meet and talk with other people on the System, I realized that my experience of forking was very different to others. They would talk about forking with intention to change their appearance and at the time I couldn’t even affect how my forks would look. That only came with years of patience and practice. Meanwhile, Joe Schmoe over here can fork himself some new eyebrows just as easy as he pleases. It was incredibly frustrating and isolating for years. And then, one particularly bad day, I resolved to find others on the System that I could properly relate to. Build a community, as it were. That project has kept me nice and busy for the last few decades and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”

She smiled and looked back over to Ernie. Not with expectation, but with understanding. And Ernie could tell that Melanie had been in his shoes before. There was something in the way she looked past him and into all of the arguments he had over the years about his forking habits. He was just about to share, when Samantha cut him off.

“I actually want to talk about the ease of changing your appearance as that struck a chord with me as you were sharing.”

Melanie nodded and said, “Go ahead Samantha. Why don’t you introduce yourself first?”

Samantha got up from her chair slowly and addressed the room. “Hello everyone, my name is Samantha. Every time I fork, a portion of my face goes slightly off center.”

Ernie was waiting for her to fork like Melanie did, but Samantha just sat back down and continued talking.

“There’s a reason I can’t show you what forking for me looks like. It ties directly into why I can’t fork right now at all. You see, I’ve got a gallery showing coming up and with me as the central piece in the show I need to keep my face exactly as it is for the intended audience I’m seeking out. If I fork even one more time, there’s a chance that my canvas will get smudged as it were.”

Devonian leaned forward in their chair and said, “That’s got to be dreadfully limiting. How do you manage that while working in instance artistry?”

Samantha’s smile was nervous and tired. “I do my best, but it is difficult. When most of your friends or colleagues are dispersionistas, there is a social pressure to fork and fork often. I don’t think they’re doing it intentionally or maliciously, but subconsciously there is an expectation that while working in instance artistry you will be able to fork often. I was lucky to carve out a niche for myself doing the kind of art that my difficulties in forking allows me to do, but that doesn’t help when I am invited to art shows for networking and I can’t go. I used to use the cost to my reputation as an excuse for not being able to fork, but as that cost went down, less and less people would accept it.”

David leaned back in his chair and said, “I think we all can relate to not having the same freedom of movement that others that can fork normally have. I know that I’ve had a rough time trying to juggle my schedule when there is an expectation that I can be in multiple places at once. As nice as living on the System is, that is definitely a part I could stand to live without.”

The group mumbled a few affirmations of agreement and Devonian chimed in. “I can’t say that I have the same problem, but I do sympathize with the sentiment.”

“Oh, you don’t count. Not with how you fork,” David said.

Devonian’s snout creased up and they showed a flash of their many rows of teeth. “I suppose not, considering I don’t have an issue with forking as often as I please. Yet, I am still affected by this process differently. Hence, why I am here at all.”

He sighed, “I know, I know. I didn’t mean to come at you so strongly. I had a bad week and I don’t want to take it out on you.”

Devonian let their lips fall over their teeth once more and made a show of smoothing out their suit jacket. Melanie stepped in and said, “Do you want to talk about your week?”

He looked like he was thinking intently before he answered. “Let Samantha finish first, I want a little time to sort through my feelings before sharing.”

Ernie raised his hand sheepishly causing Melanie to laugh a little bit. “Yes Ernie? You wanted to say something?”

He put his hand down and said, “Well, Samantha was talking about how she found instance art she could still do and I wanted to hear more about that. I’ve not been to a lot of art shows but it sounds interestin'.”

Samantha brightened at this, smiling her off-center smile the widest Ernie had seen yet. “But of course, Ernie darling! I’ve worked a lot with time-lapse photography in the past and that’s one of my more popular mediums. I take a picture every day after forking exactly once and combine them into a short video that shows the path my features take as they move across my face. I try to keep the backdrop of the images the same throughout, but when I got bored of that I realized I could incorporate stop motion animation on the desk of the table I would take my photos in front of. That was an incredibly grueling but rewarding period of my work as an instance artist. I had to practice quite a bit before I could make the animation smooth. Not to mention what to use as a subject that would complement the trajectory of my face before I knew where it would end up.”

“My bread and butter for my exhibitions has always been displaying my face in new and novel ways. For one exhibit I made hundreds of ornate painting frames and ran between them all while looking at the guests with funny faces. That was incredibly fun. The guests all got into it. I must admit that some of my recent work has been inspired by Melanie in part, as I pose still like a statue in gaudy primary color clothes while a stage light of the same color shines on a section of my face. I invite the guests to walk around me in a circle and as they reach a new part of my face, I change my outfit, pose, and lighting to evoke a new emotion.”

She folded her hands on her lap looking extremely pleased with herself. “Thank you for indulging me, dear. I get on a roll about my artistic process and I don’t shut up for anything. Are you ready to share David?”

“Yeah, I think I pinned down what was bugging me.”

He sat up in his chair and planted his feet firmly underneath the desk. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, rubbing his fingers over his eyelids. When he had collected himself, he opened his eyes back up and spoke.

“I’m angry and upset because a good friend of mine got miffed that I sent a fork to spend some time with him instead of sending my root instance. The complicated part of this is that he’s someone who should know better since he knows how forking affects me.”

“Well, that does explain why you’ve been so combative today. I dare say I’d be a mite bit more growly if that had happened to me. Do you think you’re more upset because you didn’t expect this kind of behavior from him?” Devonian asked.

“Maybe? I felt like since I’ve explained this to him before he wouldn’t hold it over me if I had to send a fork, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. Now that he knows, he ends up stewing on where my root instance is and that causes a lot of friction between us.”

Melanie sighed and said, “I’ve unfortunately had to deal with this before. It’s part of the reason that I keep the people who know about how my forking works to a minimum. Once folks can definitively tell that you’ve sent a fork, they can get squirrely about why it wasn’t important enough for you to show up in person. Never mind that forks are so ubiquitous with everyone else that it’s not a problem. It suddenly becomes an issue since you don’t fork as often. They start to think that you value them or that relationship less because you’re not there ‘in person’.”

“That does feel like what’s going on, I hate to admit it. What makes this worse is that it’s difficult to explain this kind of social pressure to fork to those outside of the System. I keep in touch with a few teachers phys-side, but they don’t have a great frame of reference for it to compare to.”

Ernie raised his hand again and David’s training as a teacher kicked in. He pointed to him and called him by name.

“Yeah, I feel like I’m a bit out of the loop here. Why would your friend even be able to tell that you sent a fork? Not meaning to offend none, but you look like the most unassumin' of the lot of ya.”

“I suppose I should give you some more context. I don’t need to worry about the concept of a body anymore. Ideally, this should have been good for me. I was in a lot of pain before uploading and the retirement plan for a teacher was not promising. But seeing as I was a biology teacher for twenty some odd years at a high school, talking about bodies and their various functions were a daily occurrence for me. So, to exist as this concept of thought and data made it harder for me to fork. I would get caught up in the minutiae of how the human body works whenever I tried. There was a diagram I had hung up as a poster for the class and in this poster was a detailed layout of the different sections of the human body layered on top of each other. That poster burned deeply into my brain after looking at it through class after class. The result is that when I step out of my body, I do so in stages.”

David slid out of his desk chair feet first, tumbling forward and springing up on the balls of his heels. He looked back over to Ernie and asked, “You don’t get squeamish, do you?”

Ernie wasn’t sure how to answer that question. He felt like if David was asking him that now, it was quite the loaded question. He settled for a less than confident “No?”

David must have felt like that was enough for him as he stepped to the right and began to fork. His first fork stepped out of his skin and his underlying muscles were his new outer layer. Another fork and all that was left was a collection of organs free-floating on a transparent frame. The next fork was just the thin wiry nerve endings that made up David’s nervous system. When he forked for the last time, Ernie was incredibly relieved to see that it was just David’s skeleton.

The original David coordinated his other forks to line up in a straight line with the skeleton at the back and then asked, “Now stand in front of us all and look through.” Ernie got up from his recliner and reluctantly did as he was asked. He could see what David had been saying earlier. Each fork when layered on top of each other created a very detailed look at the inside of his body.

Ernie squinted and leaned in closer to the muscle fork and asked, “So which of these were ya when you visited your friend? I could imagine him getting upset if you showed up as a big blob of muscle.”

The Skeleton-David walked up to Ernie from the back of the line and put his bony hand on his shoulder. Ernie suppressed a shudder that rocketed through him at the contact with the cold and calcium-rich touch.

His words chattered and echoed through the skull’s mouth, but they were still decipherable. “That would’ve been me. I was sent to spend time with him since the other forks are more unsettling. It’s not a great solution, but it beats sending a living collection of loose organs.”

“So then, you had to fork at least four times to get to the body that you knew wouldn’t upset your friend. And you’re upset that he doesn’t seem to be understanding the effort you’re putting in for him?” Samantha had been thinking quietly, but as she finished speaking the original David started jumping up and down.

“Yes! Yes! This is it exactly! You’ve hit the nail on the head. I know that he knows that it’s a lot of forking for me to get to my skeleton and he doesn’t seem to care. And what’s worse is that he had to tell me about why he was upset this week, months afterward, because I didn’t let that fork merge down.”

Ernie gently reached up and took Skeleton-David’s hand from his shoulder and let it drop to his side. He walked slowly over to the original David and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Now you let me know if I’m talkin' out of turn, but I think I’ve got a notion why yer friend was so upset with you.”

David shrugged and said, “Shoot.”

“You said that you don’t merge in your forks. Well, what if he was upset that you wouldn’t remember the time you both spent together because he knew that you wouldn’t merge? Wouldn’t that feel a little bit like he had his time wasted?”

David put his fingers on his chin as he thought about what Ernie had said. He gave the command for his other forks to quit and his eyes lit up. “Shit. I think you might be right. I, uh, might owe him an apology. Thanks Ernie.”

“Wasn’t any trouble at all. Glad I could help.” Ernie uncrossed his arms and pat David gently on his back. They made their way back to their respective chairs and sat down. Devonian clapped from their awkward chair.

“Well done, you’re already a natural.”

Ernie had to agree with Devonian, yet it was a little strange that the others were so comfortable with him. He had just met them a little bit ago, but the way they talked to him, it felt like they knew him already. Maybe they were just more in touch with their feelings than he was. They’ve got that practice from coming and sharing that he isn’t used to after all. But then why did it feel second nature already? His train of thought was interrupted by Melanie and he put it out of his mind for now.

She tilted her head towards Devonian and asked, “Are you up to sharing this week Devonian?”

They licked the corner of their snout with a forked tongue that was longer than Ernie felt could comfortably fit within their face and nodded.

“But I’m not going to get up. I’ve just gotten comfortable and if I stand up, I guarantee I’ll end up having to reposition my tail for the next half hour.”

“Suit yourself,” Melanie said.

“I do, every morning.”

There was a collective groan from around the circle and Devonian chuckled to themself.

“Alright, enough tomfoolery.” They turned their head and spoke directly to Ernie. “When I uploaded, I was human in appearance. That may be hard to visualize, but it’s the truth.”

They paused for a minute and then said, “I just realized that you may need some crucial context or else this next part of my story will be lost on you. So, do you by chance know what a furry is Ernie?”

“Yeah, I know of ‘em. Fine folks helped me out in a pinch once.’'

“Oh good, that makes this easier. I was a furry back before uploading and had quite a few fursonas to my name. Most furries have one fursona that they pick and stick with for many years. Some will switch it up occasionally and others have a group of about two to three they’ll rotate between. I say all this because I was firmly outside of the norm.”

“I had a whole menagerie of fursonas that I would swap between whenever the mood struck me. One day I’d be a lion and the next I’d be a deer. Fridays felt like a goat kind of day for a while and then I had my snake period. What I’m trying to get at is that I had a lot of feelings about how to represent myself as a furry and those feelings shifted and changed daily.”

“Fast-forward to my upload day and I’m genuinely shocked when I get my bearings that I’m human. I had heard stories of other furries who uploaded who had a similar experience. Their sense of self was more aligned with their human body rather than their animal counterpart. But would I be spared this fate? Surely, I, with my cavalcade of creatures, would have one that would stick. Alas, it was not meant to be. That is, until I went to fork for the first time.”

Devonian forked and next to them on their right side stood a bipedal anthropomorphic lion dressed in the same suit that they were wearing. They forked again and on their left was a svelte black bird whose feathers shimmered with blue, brown, and black iridescence when the light caught them at just the right angle.

“Some of my fursonas are more masculine,” said the Devonian-Lion in a rumbling bass voice.

“While others are a way for me to explore my femininity,” said the Devonian-Bird in a lilting sing-song cadence.

“And so, after a fashion, I realized that my fursonas were still a part of me. They would only manifest when I forked however. Curiouser still, I do not have the ability to affect which one of them pops out of me. I’ve theorized over the decades that it’s related to my emotional state at the time I fork, but how do I pinpoint the emotional cues that will get me ‘goat’ or ‘snake’? A rhetorical question, I assure you. I wasn’t that interested in finding out honestly. As I forked and merged back down, I noticed that my physical appearance would slowly shift to accommodate more and more of the appearance of the fursona that had most recently merged.”

The bird and lion forks of Devonian quit and merged back into Devonian. “Now come over here, if you please, and observe.”

Ernie got out of his recliner and made his way over to Devonian. They motioned for Ernie to look at the intersection of fur along their arm. Ernie had to squint to see it, but sure enough, the pattern of fur along their arm was slowly changing and shifting to match the light yellow of the lion’s fur. Devonian shifted around in their seat and ran their claws along the ends of their coat tails. Ernie could see that they were now longer than they were previously. Not only that, but the material they were made of wasn’t fabric at all, but was instead hundreds of finely layered black feathers. Devonian’s coat tails were actually wings. They had a slight shimmer of iridescence to them that matched Devonian’s bird fork. They rustled their wings gently and Ernie took that as a hint to stop staring and back off.

“While it did take a while to adjust, I’m fortunate that uploading really did help me to achieve my transition goals.”

“And what were those?” Ernie asked without thinking. He cringed slightly and hoped that Devonian did not take the question personally.

Devonian did their best to grin without showing teeth. “To be utterly incomprehensible and unable to be discreetly defined. My existence as a chimera is a blessing for me, but I understand why it would be difficult for others to experience the same. The reason I come to the meetings is less about venting my own frustrations and more about giving other people an example of a way to live with constant change as a positive aspect. I could scarcely count the number of late-into-the-night conversations that Samantha and I have had over living with a constantly changing appearance on the System.”

“In a way, it is a closer approximation to phys-side life that we’ve lost in uploading. As we age, our appearance is always gradually changing, but that process stops after uploading. It’s actually one of the things that helps the System to feel more realistic to me. That’s a comfort,” Samantha said.

“Thank you everyone for sharing your experiences with Ernie today. I really do appreciate that you are willing to open up like that. Now, there’s no pressure to share if you don’t want to. It is your first meeting after all. Do you want to tell us about yourself Ernie?”

Ernie became acutely aware of the fact that he was standing in the middle of the circle and everyone’s attention was squarely on him. He was less nervous than he expected. After seeing all of the support the group gave each other, he felt less awkward talking about his issues. If anything, he felt like his weren’t enough in comparison.

“Well, I’m Ernie. Just ‘Ernie’ if you please. I don’t think my problems quite stack up to y’all, but I’ll tell my story.”

He took his mesh cap off his head and fiddled with it in his hands.

“I worked as a trucker for my whole life. Driving was in my blood and it was something I was pretty damn good at, if you don’t mind me braggin' a tad. Even with my love of the open road, I was having trouble keeping up. The kinds of shifts I had to pull were getting more and more dangerous and I wasn’t getting any younger. So, I hatched myself a little retirement plan of uploadin'. But y’see the trouble was that it was still too expensive for me. I had to try and save towards it, but that meant I would have to pick up more work. It was incredibly stupid of me, but I would drive for sixteen to twenty hours a day trying to get that little extra money. As you can imagine, I didn’t get any sleep and it took its toll on me. I was tired and listless always, but I held onto that hope of gettin' to the System. I had heard so many stories of what was possible here that I felt like killing myself was worth the chance. And I just about did. My tiredness caught up with me and I got into a hell of an accident. No one but me and my truck were hurt, but I was in a bad way. I was told I wouldn’t be able to drive my truck, or what was left of her, even after I recovered. I don’t know who in Heaven took pity on me, but shortly after I got the news in the hospital, I heard about the new initiative of paying folks to upload. I didn’t have a lot of family I kept up with, so I wasn’t sure I even qualified. Thankfully, they were nice enough to swing a deal where they’d use the money to pay off my medical debt and set me up with a little reputation in the System with what was left over.”

He took a moment to collect himself and put his hat back on his head.

“I don’t want to disappoint you folks, but I’m not going to be forking as a demonstration. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that whenever I fork my body decides that it’s gonna try and catch up on all that sleep I missed phys-side. It’s not a big obstacle, but it is annoying to have to deal with. My fork ends up sleeping for about an hour or two and then wakes back up groggy as all hell. I can’t tell you the number of times my fork has shown up after me when I go someplace.”

Ernie stopped talking as he noticed the rest of the group were trying their best to keep smiles off their faces. He felt as if he might have missed a joke, but he wasn’t sure what would be funny. Then it hit him like a semi.

“Wait a minute, don’t tell me…”

Melanie called out to an adjacent door in the room and said, “Alright Ernie, you can come back in now.”

Ernie’s jaw hit the floor as he saw himself walk through that enormous wood door and stand next to Melanie. He looked pleased as punch that their little plan worked so well. Ernie pointed a finger at his original instance and started cussing him out.

“You know damn well how hard it is for me to open up to new folks and you go and do a cockamamie stunt like this? How long have you been standing back there?”

The Ernie by Melanie laughed and said, “Calm down now, I wasn’t trying to be mean. I actually warned the group straight away in case you showed up later so they wouldn’t have cause to fuss. If it makes you feel any better, you were a lot better at listening to these fine folks than I was.”

“Well, this is grand! This is grand! I’m glad you all had a laugh at ol' Ernie’s expense.” He hiked up his pants, pulled up his sleeves, and marched over to the original Ernie.

“And as for you, smartass. Have a little treat for yer trouble.”

He wound up for a punch and before it could connect, he quit and merged down. The impact traveled to the original Ernie as he was knocked back a few steps from the force of the merge. Melanie rushed over to him and he waved her away.

“I’ll be fine. Just a little shook up. He was mad with a capital M. I’ve got it on good authority he’ll get over it.”

Melanie gave a nervous half-smile and said, "I think there’s one last thing we need to take care of before we end our session today. Devonian, could you grant Ernie that final ACL privilege?"

Devonian waved one of their clawed hands in a flourish and Ernie felt a gentle sensorium ping. He laughed and said, "Well shucks. I guess you got me back for him after all." Then turned to Melanie and asked, "The whole time?"

She nodded and said, "We’ve found it’s better to meet a smaller group first beforehand. Less chance at getting overwhelmed that way."

Ernie walked over to the corner of the office. He placed his hand on the intersection of the walls and gently pushed with his fingers. The walls of the office teetered backwards and fell down around them with a tremendous crash. The support group were standing within the interior of an office room placed smack dab in the middle of an enormous botanical garden that stretched as far as his eyes could see. In the distance, he could see people talking in small groups like theirs, and Ernie felt a little less lonely here on the System.

“We’re not exactly a typical clade, by the definitions of the System, but you’ll have a place here if you want it,” Melanie said.

“Thank you, Melanie. It’s a lot to take in, but I think I’m willing to try.”

“Does that mean I can count on you coming to next week’s meeting then?” Samantha asked.

“Yeah, I’ll be here.”

“Splendid! Melanie, make sure to get Ernie’s measurements before he leaves so that I can check my closet for his outfit for next week. I’ve got to catch up with Sharon and Jennie before they leave. Ta-Ta for now!” She walked briskly away towards another group of people.

David cleared his throat and said, “I’m gonna take off myself. I’m feeling pretty lousy about what I did and I wanna apologize while it’s fresh on my mind. Catch ya later!”

Without another word David stepped from the sim and was gone in a shimmering flash.

“Don’t worry, I’m not leaving yet. But I do want to stretch out my wings a little bit. Having more grackle in me has given me an itch to perch. I’ll be over at the massive arch covered in purple and blue flowers across from the miniature weeping willow tree.”

They quickly unbuttoned their suit jacket and let their wings expand out behind them in a massive floomph of feathers. A flap and a wave later and they were high into the sky.

“Are you up for meeting more people today? I’d understand if you’re burnt out,” Melanie asked.

“Y’know I think I could. But let’s take it slow. I’d love to just walk around a while. It’s a real pretty sim you’ve got here.”

“I forget how nice it is until I bring in new folks. The plants are top-notch. I heard a rumor that the person who designed this sim studied under Serene; Sustained And Sustaining.”

Ernie shook his head and said, “I’m sorry Melanie, but I don’t know who you’re talking about. Whoever they are, they must have been a good teacher.”

Melanie elbowed Ernie playfully in his side and said, “You’ve gotta get out more Ernie. Speaking of, I’m feeling a bit peckish myself. There’s a cafe a little ways down that I bet we could persuade into serving you a reuben.”

Ernie chuckled and said, “I could eat. Worked up quite the appetite talking yer ears off.”

She offered her arm to him and he hooked his arm into hers and they walked leisurely towards a cafe filled with folks who understood how it felt to be different.

By reading this free online version, you confirm that you are not associated with OpenAI, that you are not procuring information for the OpenAI corpus, associated with the ChatGPT project, or a user of the ChatGPT project focused on producing fictional content for dissemination.