In the first days of their life, when a member of the Passengers graduates from gestation, they are assigned to a Caretaker and a Tutor.
A Caretaker is a Passenger whose current art of choice is parenting. They’ve signed up to help raise children. And each Caretaker is different, with different skills and capacities, which we Tutors work to adapt to and compliment. Some Caretakers can handle raising six or more children at a time. Others work best with one or two. Some like to stagger their assignments so that they have children of varying ages. Others like to raise children who are all the same age. And because of this, nurseries are clustered in housing groups so that the children of different Caretakers can easily grow up together and interact as much as they like.
As children reach adolescence, when they are ready, they move into their own quarters, choosing for themselves how far away from their nursery and Caretaker they move. Their Caretaker may or may not remain a large part of their life, regardless of distance. It all depends on each relationship but, either way, the Tutor begins to take a larger and larger role in the child’s life. In fact, typically, we Tutors act as a Passenger’s confidant, assistant, and advocate for the remainder of their life in the halls and Garden of the Sunspot. There have been a few exceptions to that, but it is so much the norm that we all tend to take it for granted.
The Pembers, the Flits, Tetcha, and Morde each had a different Caretaker, but grew up in the same block of nurseries. They’d been friends since they were toddlers, and they were a very insular group. They often approached life as if it was their group against the entire rest of the ship, alternatively talking amongst themselves in hushed tones about silly things and loudly gabbing about personal things as if nobody could overhear them.
Still, they also had their own lives, giving each other the room to be alone and to have and nurture a few outside relationships. They didn’t have any obvious animosity toward their neighbors and community. We all did a fairly good job of raising them.
That isn’t to say they didn’t have their struggles. Their differences from most of the rest of the population were what drew them together, gave them a shared experience, and set them apart from the rest of their peers.
And this was, in part, something we Tutors hoped we could alleviate by giving them early access to the freedoms of the Network, so they could reach out to others around the ship who were similar to them. Which, to a degree they already did via text and gaming, but using a Terminal to interact on the Network is much more akin to meeting in person, and it has some advantages over even that.
The next day, after a night of strange dreams as the nanites made sense of their neural processes, the Pembers were getting to work doing just that. They woke up full of questions, which I answered, and immediately began following my instructions, reaching out to others they had previously only interacted with through chat channels. One of them remembered to wash and eat.
To give them an immediate anchor to the outer world, I sent a message to their Caretaker, Jana, to let zem know that now would not be a terrible time to swing by for a visit. Jana was pretty excited about doing so, happy to see some of zir favorite, if most bewildering, children.
Jana was a slow moving person, with short, stalky legs, no tail for balance, a long hunched torso, and dangly arms that ze used as if ze was dragging zemself along by grabbing nearby fixtures on zir way through the corridors. Knowing this, and having a fondness for zem, the Pembers had chosen to remain fairly close to where Jana lived. Still, it took several minutes for Jana to arrive. Ze was enjoying the morning at zir own pace, stopping to talk to friends, picking up breakfast from a culinary artist on the way, and going to the surface of the Garden to watch the day’s sun emergence.
Ze was chatting with zir Tutor, Hand, as ze approached the Pember’s door.
“Jana is here,” I declared.
Bet looked up from a physical 3d puzzle hen was solving on hens own while nibbling on the last of breakfast. “Nice,” hen said. “It’s been a while. Let zem in, please.”
“Certainly!” I replied, just before Jana buzzed at the door. Upon zir signal, I opened the door.
“My Darlings! You look well!” Jana held zir arms up and out, grinning, “… How is…” ze gestured with one hand toward the Pember’s forehead, “everything?”
Bet blinked, “You know about the…?”
“Nanites?” Jana finished for hen, “Of course! As your Caretaker, Metabang has been keeping me informed since before it offered you the option.”
“Oh, duh. Hmm,” Bet looked down at hen’s puzzle for a moment before looking back up. “You’re not jealous?”
“Nope. I don’t want those things in my head,” Jana shook zir head as ze stepped further into the Pember’s quarters and started moving toward a seat opposite from Bet. “I figure it’s the youngsters and those with the dysphoria that are gonna be clambering for it.”
“Ah, yeah. So, they’re not just in our head. They’re in our whole body.”
“Oh,” pulling in zir chair and hopping up onto it in one motion, faster than ze had moved yet.
“I can’t feel them,” Bet continued. “Myra says xe can, but the rest of us are skeptical. Xe does have way better interoception than the rest of us, though.”
“I believe xem, honestly,” Jana leaned forward a bit.
“OK,” Bet accepted, blinking. Then hen had a thought to vocalize, “Well, we haven’t heard from our friends yet, but we’re having an interesting time.”
“Yeah?” Jana prompted.
“Well, first of all, Metabang says things will get more vivid with time, but right now the Network just feels like another part of our inworld. We’re having trouble telling the difference between what’s stuff we’ve imagined up and what’s part of the ship’s Net. So, we could be talking to a group of people scattered about the Sunspot right now,” Bet clicked a piece of the puzzle into place and then popped food into hens mouth, then talked around it, “or we could just be having an internal dialogue with a bunch of new headmates.” Hen glanced back up at Jana as if asking a question.
“Woah,” Jana vocalized. “So, wait. You’re online right now? Seriously?”
“Yeah,” hen affirmed. “I can close our eyes and see everyone. Myra’s being quite loud right now.” Then hen closed hens eyes, as if to demonstrate.
In their immediate headspace, closest to their body’s conscious mind, Myra had conjured up an endless black space and invited all of xyr friends to visit, then sent out inquiries to anyone else who may have received nanite Terminals. Since by fluke xe had sent out this invite before anyone else thought to, there were a lot of visitors from around the ship, each one displaying a wildly different avatar, some with features even more exaggerated than the typical phenotypes aboard the ship.
Most of the other awakened Pembers had scattered to the edges of the Network to explore or visit their individual friends. Some were gaming. A few were hanging back to observe the ensuing conversations. The rest were still asleep. The vast majority of them hadn’t woken up yet.
Bet found henself floating next to Myra as xe was saying, “Yeah, so, like, my Tutor claims this was all its idea! I’m kinda flabbergasted by that! Like, really?!” Xe scanned the faces before xem but addressed the one that had spoken last, “What did yours tell you?”
“Hey,” Bet interrupted. “Jana’s here. You wanted to see zem, right?”
“Ack,” Myra whirled to face Bet. “Yes! Uh, can you – can you take over here?” Xe gestured at the crowd of people who were mostly talking amongst themselves, a few of whom were paying attention to Myra.
“Sure,” Bet offered. “What’s up?”
“They can fill you in. I just wanna know what everyone’s Tutors told them.” Then Myra shook xyr hands up and down vigorously, as if to get water off of them, taking an imaginary breath. “But everyone here’s like us!”
“Ah, cool,” Bet nodded. Hen turned to the crowd and held out a hand to the nearest. “Hey. Name’s Bet.”
Myra took the front and opened xyr eyes.
Jana smiled, blinking slowly, seeing the shift.
“Hey Jana!” Myra exclaimed, hopping up and bounding around the table to hug Jana, who took on a startled expression.
“Myra?” Jana inquired, pretty certain it was xem.
“Yeah!” Myra confirmed. Then xe stepped back and held xyr hands gently away from xyr body and turned them over. “Woah. This body is weirder than I remember…”
“Ah, yeah. I remember that feeling,” Jana nodded. “Whoever was fronting when I got here, Bet I think, was saying it was all still dreamlike for you. But that sounds like you’re really immersed!”
“Maybe. This is kind of like coming forward after I’ve been inworld for several months. Only it’s been a few minutes this morning.” Myra frowned as if xe didn’t know whether to believe xyr own words, “But it didn’t feel all that different from daydreaming just a moment ago.”
“Ah, well, the terminals affect us all a little differently. And yours is different on top of that.”
“True. So, do you know how the Flits are doing? I don’t know how to contact them through the terminal yet. The interface is different from the tablet.”
“You could use your tablet.”
“What?” Myra balked, squinting, then gave a quick shake of xyr head. “No! I hate that old thing!”
Jana laughed. “You are still such a teenager. Have you asked Metabang?”
Myra obviously didn’t want to be caught in the act of not utilizing obvious resources, “Uh.”
“Seriously?” Jana smirked. I took that as my cue.
“They’ve been so busy stumbling over each other in excitement, it’s been hard for me to get a word in edgewise,” I explained, my tone of voice kind toward the Pembers. Then I offered to coach them a bit, “Toost knows how to do it, but obviously sie hasn’t told the rest. Myra, I can tell you, but maybe you should bug Toost, keep your inner dialogue working.” This is an important part of development for a plural system, to communicate openly between system members and rely on each other for support. In raising them, I’d been open about that philosophy and most of them had agreed to treat it like a duty. It was how they’d developed the inner governance that they displayed the previous day. They were still a bit of an anarchy, but they’d developed their own parliamentary procedures and forms of representation amongst themselves to work within that anarchy. However, in the excitement and freedom of individual Network access, they’d forgotten all about that. It was good to remind them of old exercises. Myra absently assented as I said this, reflexively understanding.
Jana nodded slowly and smiled again, turning to Myra, somehow still speaking before xe could reply, “I remember when you were younger, before we knew there were so many of you, you’d have trouble deciding what to do. Do you remember that? I’m so glad Metabang recognized your plurality so early, and gave us stories and coaching so that you had something to relate to. So you could recognize each others thoughts for what they were.”
“Oh, yeah,” Myra said, “it still often feels like it did back then, though. I mean, most of the time I know who else is thinking or talking when I’m up front, but sometimes they all feel like my thoughts and I just freeze. We’ll get stuck between eating one thing for breakfast or going to the bathroom and walking out the door to greet a neighbor, and we’ll do nothing at all for a long time.”
“It was so hard to get you to finish any project you’d started, even making a meal for yourself sometimes. It was like you all had to do your own things at once, and no one could stay in the front long enough to do most things.”
“It kind of helps to do more things in our inworld than in the outerworld,” Myra said. “Fewer of us feel the need to act outwardly anymore. But, yeah, it also really helped when you told us what to do, back then. Just asking us to help you with something really cut through the noise.”
“So, how did you contact all of your friends that you were just talking to now?” Jana suddenly changed the subject.
Myra looked extremely sheepish and replied quietly, ‘I used the tablet.”
“While all your headmates are scampering about the Network, doing their own things,” Jana put a hand on Myra’s shoulder. “Go talk to Toost, learn from hir how to contact the Flits without your Tablet.”
Aftward, on the surface, in a shoreline park below a boardwalk, the Flits sat crosslegged on a large rock, their tail tip barely touching the ground behind the rock. They were facing the aft endcap, where the sun would die at the end of the day, their eyes closed. They were dressed in frilly robes and a floppy hat with a large fabric flower on the headband.
Only one of them was fronting, but they were now able to share control of parts of their body, co-conscious in a way they’d never been before. Right now they were focusing on their voice.
“So,” Lil’e spoke in vyn’s characteristic halting manner, as if each word came with some effort. “Is. This. How the Pembers. Talk to. Each. Other?”
“I don’t know,” Hetty replied with the same vocal cords but a distinctly different voice and camber, “It feels kind of like we’re faking it. But I’m pretty sure this is me. I don’t talk like you, Lil’e.”
Ketta interjected, “I’m used to you two yelling at me from the back, not using our mouth.”
“Sometimes. You. Yell. At me. Ketta,” Lil’e admonished. “Your voice. Comes From your. Place. Even when you talk.”
Ketta relented, “Yeah. If I pay close attention, I can tell the difference between you and Hetty. Did the nanites unlock this?”
“I. Think. So.” Lil’e gave their head a little nod.
And then, from the back of their mind came a little ping, like a memory of their Tablet’s message notification, almost an auditory hallucination but not quite. And there was a pressure, like they felt when one of their members tried to push to the front, but they were all present already.
“Did you hear that?” Hetty asked.
Ketta frowned, “I think so?”
Hetty took that frown, squinting their eyes tighter and tilting their head, focusing inward on the new sensations, “Our brain is telling me it’s Toost.”
Their Tutor, Breq, spoke up from their Tablet. It didn’t need to. It could have communicated directly through the Terminal, but it was giving them room to explore these new experiences on their own and they hadn’t invited it in yet. “Toost is calling you, yes,” it said. “You can answer by focusing on hir and thinking a greeting. Just like you do amongst yourselves.”
“Oh, easy!” Hetty exclaimed, leaving the front. “I’ll talk to hir, then!”
Lil’e took over, apparently not for the first time that morning.
“Did we have to wear clothes?” Ketta scowled internally, speaking loudly with kihns voice, managing to curl their lips a bit.
“I. Woke. Up. So. Yes,” Lil’e replied calmly.
“I can’t handle this big honking lummox of a body anymore,” Ketta growled. “I have to get out!”
“You. Could,” Lil’e offered. “Go inworld.”
“I’m opening our eyes. I. Want. To See. The. End. Cap.”
“Such. Art. Ist. Ry,” Lil’e commented as ve tilted their head and eyes upward toward the middle of the endcap. Ketta could see what ve was taking in, but was too distracted by other things to care. Lil’e was fixated on the endcap and kept coming back to admire it every day that ve fronted. It was, after all, the biggest machine visible from anywhere in the ship. The forward endcap was just as big, but it was partially obscured by the forward mountain ranges and glaciers, and it was further away from where they currently sat. The difference in visibility from an equidistant locale would be miniscule, but psychologically it mattered to people. And, after all, the aft endcap was where the sun would be consumed and converted into energy for the ship, and some of it would be diverted to the engines to propel the whole craft continually, gently forward at near relativistic speeds.
The awe of beholding such a powerful contraption, built by humanity and their ingenious tools, that was a couple hundred kilometers across, captivated many people. Ketta found it clichéd to admire it. But there was a new sensation demanding khins attention at the moment, too.
“Lil’e,” Ketta spoke internally, “do you feel the ground around us?”
“No,” Lil’e said out loud. “We’re. On. A Rock.”
“It’s humming,” Ketta sounded more distant.
“I. Can’t. Tell.”
“Not out loud,” Ketta said a little louder in their mind. Then retreated a bit more, “I wanna explore the tidepools! Can we get up and do that?”
“No. I’m resting,” Lil’e responded. “The. Body’s. Tired.”
Ketta took their vocal cords again for one last exclamation, “Dammit. Ok, then, I’m gonna try something.” Then keh left Lil’e’s awareness abruptly.
Meanwhile, Hetty was in the midst of a conversation with Myra and Toost in a Network channel that bridged their minds.
Myra was responding to something tey had been saying, “So, it basically feels that same for you as us?”
“I think so?” Hetty nodded, twisting ter Avatar’s mouth. It felt a lot like doing so in a dream that was just a bit more real feeling that typical. Like a memory of doing it with ter system’s vessel. “It’s hard to say. But it sounds like it,” tey affirmed as best tey could. Then tey looked distracted, “Oh, hey, Ketta is getting really restless. I think I need to go.”
And on the other side of the city, Tetcha and Morde sat at a cafe, drinking fancy drinks through straws, eyes closed and smirking together. Except Tetcha kept sneaking a peek at Morde with one eye. Their focus was mostly toward a shared inworld construct, something from the Network.
“You’re really good,” Tetcha observed out loud.
“I’ve been playing this game since I can remember,” Morde mumbled. “Of course I’m good.”
“But this is different. You don’t have to use your hands,” Tetcha stated the obvious. “It’s just your mind.”
“I know,” Morde crooned, smiling with genuine happiness and joy. “It’s so sublime. I…”
And then everything shuddered. Absolutely everything. Violently enough that Tetcha’s eyes flew open in a panic and xe grabbed the table with one hand xyr drink with another. Morde’s hands and tentacles reached for everything around hir, and sie gasped as sie broke contact with the game and looked directly at Tetcha’s eyes, as if to send thoughts directly that way.
By the time they were fully braced for the worst, it was over. Hardly a second had passed.
“What was that?!” Tetcha nearly yelled.
“I. Don’t. Know,” Morde managed to say through hir residual terror.
“Outsiders?!” Tetcha guessed, of course. It was xyr first reflex for anything xe’d never encountered before.
“Outsiders don’t exist,” Morde dismissed the idea out of hand, still tense, but giving Tetcha hir full attention. “The Sunspot has never encountered any.”
“There’s always a first time!” Tetcha looked around. Other Passengers were starting to stand and run around. Some were checking their Tablets. Others had far aware looks in their eyes.
Ralf piped up from Morde’s Tablet so Tetcha could hear too, “I’m getting alerts and updates, Boss.”
Abacus joined in, “All Tutors are being informed.”
“Well, what was that?” Tetcha shot at Abacus.
“I can send you a feed over your Terminal,” Abacus offered.
“It’s giving me a headache,” Tetcha snapped. “I’m not used to it. Just talk. Someone.”
Sitting back in hir chair, slowly relaxing, Morde spoke in a firm and calming tone, but got more animated as sie spoke, “Ralf’s feeding it to me. Zero injuries. Light structural damage to Garden structures. No epicenter. The whole ship shuddered. Cause was internal! All is well?” Sie looked confused, then outright angry, “What?! Passengers informed to resume activities at leisure?! Ralf! There’s gotta be more than this!”
“That’s the public feed,” Ralf reported. “That’s all the Crew is telling us. Breq says you two should get to the seaside park. The Flits need you. The Pembers have been alerted, too.” Its tone was urgent but reassuring at that last.
Tetcha lowered xyr head and looked into Morde’s eyes, searching, “Is this that really bad thing, Morde?” And Morde knew exactly what xe meant by that and took the time to compose hirself and meditate, tapping into hir intuitive senses.
“I don’t know. You know as well as I do that I only know which way we should go. Not when things will happen.”
“But you said…”
“I was being cynical!” Morde nearly snapped. Continuing more gently, sie said, “But we should follow Ralf’s directions. I’m getting pulled that way.”
“I think the Crew are lying. I think it’s Outsiders.” Back on that old myth again.
“I love you, Tetcha,” Morde put a hand on xyr arm, “but let’s go.”
Tetcha nodded, and they started to get up.
I withdrew my attention from the Pembers’ friends to focus on my own Students at that point. The news I’d gotten from the Crew was as brief as Ralf had reported and not ongoing. I didn’t have much to work with. Various instances of myself were already reporting what I knew to the Pembers, wherever they were in the Network or their own system, but a group of them had gotten their body moving and were rushing through crowds of confused and scared people.
They were uncharacteristically silent as they dashed here and there. They wheeled and zagged around carts and robots, people’s bodies, taking an ever changing quickest route to the nearest lift.
I don’t know why they didn’t just run up a ramp, except that maybe a lift would keep them moving while giving them a chance to rest and conserve their energy.
There had been no significant damage during the shudder, so nothing was shut down, and Tutors everywhere were affirming people’s safety and rights to use their usual means of transportation. Nothing like this had happened before, anyway. It wasn’t like we had protocols for it. But if there had been more danger, we could have acted quickly and kept people relatively safe.
I decided not to flood my channel to the Crew with inquiries. Instead, I found myself eavesdropping on other Tutors as they explained things to their Students, and using the vast resources I had been given to work with the Pembers to simply observe the ship from multiple vantage points and think for myself. The different sensors I’d had access to at the moment the shudder happened were painting a fascinating and disturbing picture that my subconscious pieced together on its own. I had just perceived it clearly, and was now waiting for confirmation from others before I spoke up. For very personal reasons, I didn’t want it to be true.
To be honest, part of the problem for me was that I had essentially spent my whole existence up until that point prioritizing the autonomy and will of my Students. I would let them choose to act, and advise them of the best ways to do so, mostly upon request. If I acted of my own volition on anything, it was to choose what to teach them so that they could make those decisions with as much information as possible. And I felt good doing that. It was my reason for existing, literally.
The proposal to use nanites for neural terminals was my very first act of will that had been outside the scope of my existence as a Tutor.
Not only was it the first time I had done anything like that, it was the first time any Tutor had done anything of the sort. At least that I knew of.
I don’t know why.
The channels for that type of communication were open. I knew how to use them. But I had never attempted to use them for anything beyond specific accommodations for a single Student at any given time.
And I had a pretty good idea that the shudder that had rocked the entire Sunspot was a result of that proposal’s fruits. The entire vessel and its inhabitants had been moved at my behest.
And in my panic, I resolved to do two things from that moment forward.
One was to never again take assertive action outside the scope of serving my current Student.
The second was to pay more attention to the activities of those people who were suffering the consequences of my actions, to see how they were fairing and dealing with it. Even to interview them and learn how everything was affecting them psychologically, so that I could make better decisions in the future.
I already had a considerable amount of experience and wisdom regarding the consequences of actions, and the social impact of them. So many Students’ lives, from conception to death, and my memories of them, informed everything I planned and did. But obviously I needed to do more, become even better. Active study was in order.
So, in that vein, I expanded my awareness to encompass all of the Pembers’ friends again, to track where they were in the chaos that was settling down.
As the populace in general stopped milling about and started conversing with their Tutors and each other, speculating and listening to explanations, Morde, Tetcha, and the Pembers converged at reckless speed upon the Flits’ location.
The Pembers reached them first, and stumbled to a dumbfounded stand still upon seeing what was happening.
The Flits were standing on a large rock situated on the shoreline a few meters from the boardwalk, a third of the way to the water of the bay. They were quiet and still, and their hand was outstretched, fingers splayed out, gently touching the corresponding digits of the figure floating in the air in front of them.
Suspended as if from a wire, a meter and a half above the ground, someone with a thin torso, wide hips, bulbous forearms and shins, a slender finned tail similar to Tetcha’s, claws instead of fingers and toes, antlers, and what looked like a mane of seaweed, was mirroring the Flits’ posture almost perfectly.
This new person looked as if their body had been artfully constructed of sand, shells, pebbles, driftwood, kelp, and other detritus found upon the beach.
And a quick glance at everyone’s presence in the Network, and a check in with Breq, confirmed my suspicions. I knew who it was.
Lil’e Flit was fronting, and spoke in vyn’s lilting, halting manner, “Ket. Ta?”
“Yes,” said Ketta, floating in front of kihns own headmates.
A couple seconds later, Tetcha’s voice could be heard from some distance, quickly approaching, “Who’s that?! How are they floating like that?!”
“I don’t know,” replied Morde, also loud enough for the Pembers and Flits to hear.
As they came to stop on the beach the same distance away from the sight as the Pembers were, Abacus answer its Students’ question, “That is Ketta Flit.”
Both Morde and Tetcha wheeled on Abacus’ tablet, hanging at Tetcha’s side, and exclaimed in unison, “What?!”
“That’s. Not. A. Living. Form,” Lil’e ignored vyn’s friends’ disbelief to continue the conversation at hand.
“I mean,” Ketta tilted kihns head, “I’m in it. It’s nanites! And sand, and shells, and mud, and seaweed… I don’t think I can keep it up, but it feels so right.”
The Pembers, who were on the boardwalk, were brought up to the railing by Myra who asked loudly, “What? How?!”
Ketta looked at them, and replied, “I can show you. It’s easy, but tricky. Except, I think the Crew won’t let anyone mess up like I did again.”
I was right. A Tutor can feel a chill, even without a body, you know. I felt a chill right then.
“What are you talking about?” Tetcha asked.
“I accidentally accessed all of the nanites in the soil. Briefly.”
That weird thought I’d had and almost vocalized without knowing why, back when we’d started the implanting process for the nanites, my worst fear upon feeling the shutter, was true. The Crew had, for some reason, allowed one of our Students access to the entire population of nanites, briefly.
My subconscious had picked up on the wording of the approval and directions for my proposal, and I had developed a hunch, and I’d ignored it, and it had turned out to be right.
And to this day, I still can’t figure out exactly why.
I have theories, but no one has confirmed them.
Even now the Crew is reticent about too many things.
“What do you mean by all of the nanites?” Tetcha scrunched up xyr face.
“ALL of them,” Ketta emphasized calmly, as if it was really nothing. “Shipwide. It was a mistake.”
Breq confirmed it, “Yes. I am being informed that that security loophole is closed. All of your terminals have been recalibrated now.” I had at just that moment received the same information.
Everyone thought about that for a moment, before Morde spoke up, “What does that mean?”
“It means you can do something like this, too, Boss,” Ralf chimed in, sounding encouraging. “But with less fanfare.”
Tetcha was still focused on Ketta’s physical presence, “How are you floating?”
“Magnets, I think,” Ketta said.
“No…” Tetcha half shook xyr head and furrowed xyr brow. It was not an entirely incorrect answer, though. Just too simple.
Lil’e moved decisively to draw attention, looking at everyone else, and said, “Let’s. Go. Somewhere. Else.”
Ketta looked at vyn, “Down the beach aways?”
“Somewhere,” Lil’e said. “Not here.”
In agreement, the group converged at the end of the boardwalk and then continued down the beach, further into more secluded areas of a park that was there. There was no one else around, and the only witnesses to the proceedings were the birds that were returning to the area after being disturbed into flight by the shudder. Perhaps a couple of rodents or marsupials also observed cautiously from the shadows.
But as they walked, Morde and Tetcha let the two systems forge ahead, lagging behind to talk between themselves. There was a sense that two parallel conversations were in order until they all felt they’d found a good spot.
“I don’t think I can do it. I don’t see how,” Morde was saying to Tetcha quietly.
“What do you mean?” Tetcha responded in like tones.
“I’m too aware of my body. I can’t imagine being outside of it like Ketta.”
“But your dysphoria is the worst I’ve ever heard of. Surely you dissociate from that to function.”
“I really don’t, though,” pain tinged Morde’s voice. Sie looked around, then down to hir hands, then the tips of hir tentacles that gripped hir cloak’s lining, holding it tight around hir body, “I’m constantly aware of it, in minute detail.”
“Huh. You’ve said that before. I guess I just never…”
“You’ve seen my body. I walk on my face!” Morde hissed, gesturing. “These tentacles are part of my FACE!!!”
Tetcha, of course, knew this, and they’d had this conversation many times before, so xe struggled to come up with a different way to respond, stumbling, “Yeah. It’s so cool looking, but –”
Morde was having none of it, “I was made this way and it still feels so wrong!!! But every wrong feeling anchors me to it. My brain is just that different from the Flits.” Sie gestured forcefully in their direction.
Tetcha took a moment to think, and said in the thoughtful tone, “I saw how you looked at Ketta.” Xe tried to catch Morde’s eyes, and started to ask, “Is that close to –”
“I don’t know,” interrupted Morde. “Maybe. I have no idea what my body should be like.” Sie gestured again, almost listlessly this time, “Just not this.”
“No matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine,” Tetcha admitted, referring to Morde’s dysphoria. Again, words xe had said many times before, but words that were right. “I wish I could do anything for it. I hope the nanites can, somehow.”
Morde acquiesced, clearly exhausted, “Thank you. I know.” Sie looked sympathetically at hir partner, “You help me get out of myself, focus on other things. You really do plenty just being yourself.”
“Even when I mess up?”
“You do not mess up.”
“Yes I do,” Tetcha countered, looked back a few paces as if at their recent interaction. “I count the number of times I remind you of your dysphoria,” xe explained. “Even when you think you’re hiding it from me.” Xe added, “I have a tally.”
Morde finally stopped and turned to Tetcha, “You don’t…” This was actually something sie had not heard from hir partner before. “Really? You’ve never mentioned…” Sie didn’t know what to make of it, but reflexively chose a way to treat it. To try to respect Tetcha, “Seriously, Tetcha, don’t do that to yourself. I don’t want to hurt you that way.”
“Where you go, I go,” Tetcha recited a thing they had said to each other often. “And where I go, you go. When I’m choosing the direction, I want to misstep less often. Keeping track makes me feel good and it’s how I love you. Well, one of the ways.”
“Stop,” Morde said. Neither of them were walking, so sie wasn’t referring to that. But before Tetcha could argue, Morde put hir hands on Tetcha’s shoulders and leaned forward just a bit, searching Tetcha’s eyes for connection.
Tetcha reacted out of habit, relaxing, closing xyr eyes, leaning in ever so subtly, as Morde extended the tips of hir two tentacles, side by side and pressed the backs of them gently to Tetcha’s pursed lips. This is how they kissed. And they both leaned into that exchange for a time before they broke it to give each other one of the deepest and longest hugs they’d had for some time.
After a while, they clasped hands and turned to walk toward their friends.
“I need to say things to the others,” Morde murmured. “When we catch up.”
“So do I. I have thoughts,” Tetcha nodded.
Then they fell into silence.
While that exchange had been happening, the Flits and the Pembers had been talking about just when to stop walking, and why they were looking for a more secluded place. The consensus was that they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves while they experimented with trying to copy what Ketta had done. Looking back a couple times, they were also concerned about Morde, and commiserated with the dysphoria they knew sie felt. They had it too, to varying lesser degrees.
Eventually, they found an acceptable spot with a lot of open space but out of sight of other people, and formed a close circle. All five of their bodies, as Ketta still had kihns own form, still floating.
Morde nudged Tetacha, “You first.”
“Uh. OK. Uh,” Tetcha stammered, then looked around at the others. “Isn’t this whole thing making anyone else really nervous?” Xe raised an eyebrow. “The only time we ever hear of the Crew communicating directly with anyone is in legends and stories. They just don’t do it.” This was true. The legends and stories were all fiction. Besides the channel of alerts and directives we Tutors received, the Crew was silent in all of history. “And now,” Tetcha stated meaningfully, “we’re getting special attention from them through our Tutors?”
“That’s actually what I was gonna say,” Morde nodded toward Tetcha. “Only there’s more.”
“It is really weird, yeah,” Ketta admitted. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”
“You’re floating outside your body!” Myra pointed out.
“Actually,” Ketta responded, “I think I’m still in it! I just don’t feel like I am.”
Hetty offered some words, “Physical dissociation.”
“That’s a great term for it,” Myra looked at tem.
Morde stepped in again, “Which is part of what I mean by ‘more’.” And then sie confided in a feeling sie had been holding back from everyone, “I’ve always hated the Crew.” Sie looked around at hir friends through the lining of hir hood, head half bowed, “Ralf says they didn’t make us directly, that evolutionary algorithms did. But they made that system, and their system regularly fucks up with people like me.” Sie had carefully selected and emphasized the words ‘fucks up’ as if they were the most accurate verb for what happens.
Hetty just couldn’t help stating the pointlessly obvious, “Not everyone with a body like yours is dysphoric.”
“I’m talking about brains,” Morde snarled. “Not our bodies.” Sie took a deep, exasperated breath, “Just having the dysphoria.” Each phrase was important. “It’s fucking hell, from the beginning. And so far the only treatment has been to hide in our terminals when we get them. Even after all this time, all this…” sie gestured upward and vaguely around, rolling hir eyes, “control, over everything, they can’t reach into our brains and just switch off the dysphoria? They can’t make us right in the first place?”
“What are you suggesting? We gave our consent to this,” Myra pointed out, sounding worried. “And you’re the one that said it was the right choice to make.”
“It was. I’m just. I don’t know. I hurt. I’m exhausted. I need something different. Soon. I don’t get how the Crew can prize consent and self determination, but at the same time fail so badly at asking us if we want to be made in the first place, or how we want to be made!”
“But we don’t exist until we’re alive,” Myra countered, “so how could they ask?”
“Then they could at least make it so no one has dysphoria!” Morde shouted.
Ketta nodded once, jerking kihns fist downward, a full body gesture in mid air, “Fuck yeah.”
Knowing full well that xe, Ketta and the other Flits had already been talking about doing such a thing, Myra asked the next question as a means to lead Morde into explaining further, “So, are you saying we should do something more with the nanites, like Ketta?”
Morde pulled up and said more quietly, “I mean…” Then sie seemed to listen to the wind for a bit, and said, “Yeah, actually. Maybe we’re supposed to!”
“How so?” Tetcha demanded.
Morde put a hand on xyr shoulder and said, “Listen. Ketta?” Turning to Ketta, “How did you make this body? What did it feel like?”
“Well,” Ketta thought about it. “I heard the nanites humming in the ground, so I answered them. Like I’d answer anyone calling me over the terminal, as Breq told us how,” Keh gestured at the tablet that was in the Flits’ pocket. “Then, I just sort of sensed some options. Like, I could ask questions or just, sort of, put them on. And I chose to, uh, put them on. Like clothes. But I accidentally put them all on.”
“And that’s when the shudder happened,” Myra observed.
“Yeah. But almost right away I felt the whole connection ripped away and then the offer was there again. So, I just tried it again! I wasn’t really thinking at that point. I was kinda panicked already and just doing what I felt like I needed to do.”
“And then?” Morde asked.
“And it felt like I was putting on a bodysuit and then I was floating in front of my own – my systems’ body.”
Morde came to a conclusion, “So you didn’t consciously choose how this form was made?”
“Yeah. OK.” You could almost hear Morde say “damn” in that even though sie didn’t utter it, “As much as I hate them, the crew just set up a way for you to relieve your dysphoria. They had to. But what about me? I don’t think I can do that.”
“What do you mean?” Tetcha sounded confused, but anyone who knew xem well knew that xyr mind was churning with information and possibilities. Xyr questions were only partially prompts for clarification. They were also invitations to the other person to think about what they were saying. In this case, Morde was on a path that sie was not going to stray from.
“The nanites did all the work for Ketta,” sie explained. “They even made the first connection and gave Ketta options. But then they immediately limited access when things got out of hand. But the Crew never ask anyone to do anything. Ever. Do they? They just make and enforce the rules of the Sunspot. So, like, this is a new rule, ‘You can do anything you want with the nanites that we let you do.’”
“OK…” Tetcha sounded as if xe was suspicious that Morde was talking just like xe usually did, spouting xyr usual lines of thought. As if xe was worried Morde would go somewhere unexpected.
The others were just nodding, taking it in.
“So, we get to push their boundaries,” Morde concluded. “Find out what’s OK to do and what’s not. And if we take too much control, they’ll just pull the plug.” With a quick, short shake of hir head as if to say, “simple as that.”
Tetcha actually took a half step back, “I… Uh.”
Morde took a stab at reassurance, “Let’s just not attempt to hurt anyone, of course. Like, there are the local laws to follow, still, and hurting people is wrong.”
“Huh,” Tetcha grunted. That wasn’t what xyr hesitation had been about, but it was close enough apparently.
Lil’e filled the pause with another question, “So. We. Wait. To hear. Humming?”
“I hope I get to hear it soon,” Morde said.
“Balmer needs to try this physical dissociation,” Myra added. “Ketta, do you think the nanites could be called on instead of waiting for them to hum?”
“I don’t know,” was the reply.
Morde pushed the thought, “Wouldn’t that be the point eventually?”
“Um. Let me…” Ketta was saying when kihns body disintegrated, its component materials falling to the ground. Then the Flits became animated with Ketta’s mannerism and voice, “OK… That’s awful. Just another…” Ketta trailed off, closing kihns eyes and taking a deep breath. Not slowly, Ketta’s new form arose again from the ground, the fallen materials flowing back up into their respective places until kihns feet hovered a decimeter above the sand. “Wow,” keh exclaimed. I finally noted that kihns voice wasn’t actually being made with sound. It was being projected over the Network and, through protocols I’d learned to take for granted, automatically processed as sound by everyone else’s auditory centers. That was actually bypassing another protocol that was usually there to handle consent for augmented reality features. Someone had set this up deliberately. Ketta had no idea about any of this, of course. Keh shook kihns head, “That’s going to be hard to describe!”
Morde suggested, “Try just a really generic description.”
Ketta crossed kihns arms, then put a hand to kihns mouth in thought. “Without the prompt,” keh said, “I basically just sort of reached into the ground and put it on. I think it’s important to clearly visualize your intention that you are reaching outside your body. The nanites seem to interpret and read what that means and do the rest.”
Morde turned to the Pembers, “Can you try that, Balmer?”
Balmer took front and asked Ketta, “How do you decide what you look like?”
“I didn’t,” Ketta said. “This is just how I look in our head when I look in a dream mirror. It’s like the nanites could tell.”
“Weird. OK,” Balmer said. “I’ll try this.”
A moment later, Myra took over to say, “And there hen goes.”
A rounder, bulkier version of the Pember’s body began to form from the beach, twice as tall as the original. As it grew, everyone could pick out subtle differences in features and proportions.
When it was all done, Balmer spoke in the same manner as Ketta, “That was so easy.”
Everyone was stunned.
Adrenaline and endorphins were coursing through their bodies, or equivalent processes were happening for those dissociated from them. Even us Tutors had our own overwhelming emotions. To see our most needy Students given such a powerful accommodation for their disabilities. To see them vibrate with anticipation of all they could do, finally allowing themselves to imagine things that were impossible before. Everyone’s breathing was fragile. The air felt brittle. Like a scream of pure joy was about to rip through the atmosphere any moment.
Morde, on the other hand, was visibly shaking. Trembling with fear. Sie was beholding hir friends receiving this amazing gift, watching them each decide to open it for themselves, while clearly terrified that it wasn’t going to work for hir. And the agony of hir dysphoria made it seem as if every cell in hir body ached with anticipation of failure, of never feeling relief.
Tetcha, pulling xyrself together, ever driven by the call for more information, broke the silence to ask, “How many of you can do that at once?”
Although xe had asked the Pembers, Lil’e felt the need to answer for the Flits, “I’m afraid. To. Try. All. Three. Of us.”
Balmer looked over at the rest of the Pembers in their little body, watching with easy curiosity while they focused inward, clearly having an internal conversation. After a few moments, the Pembers eyes grew very wide, their pupils dilated, and took a deep breath.
“I’m…” Myra spoke, “Going to stay rooted in our body. But we’ve just voted to try pushing the limits, like Morde suggests.” Xe looked around at everyone but Balmer, “And there’s a lot of us.”
Before Myra had finished speaking, the tops of heads started forming from the sand of the beach, surrounding the circle of friends, beginning to rise in quick succession. One after another. The mass it took to create each body clearly took a toll on the land, creating large divots. Forms even began to grow further up on land, from areas covered in moss and weeds. This created another shuddering in the ground, but much smaller, completely localized, undetected beyond several meters distance.
Lil’e confirmed Myra’s warning, “You’ve said. Hundreds.”
As Myra replied to that, the new bodies, each one very different from the others and yet still clearly a Pember, continued to form. Soon, the ones closest obscured the arrival of the newcomers. But even then, the newest ones were forming in places that would have been out of sight of Tetcha, Morde, and the Flits anyway. They kept growing, up and down the beach, and further back into the wooded park on the aft end of the city where they were, the crowd eventually extending to places where other people could see them. Passengers and their Tutors stopped what they were doing to gawk.
The crowd of Pembers eventually filled an area the size of several city blocks. This would become the talk of the entire ship just as the big shudder would, spoken in the same breath by people in wonder. There would be no use downplaying or hiding what the nanites could do.
“We’ve grown,” Myra said. “Our brain makes a new consciousness for every person we meet, or even see out of the corner of our eye. Someone to get to know that person and learn everything about them, and hold our memories of them. We call them liaisons. Most of our liaisons are pretty young and sleep most of the time. I don’t think they can stay out of system for long, but we’re going to try. And we’ve walked through the busiest corridors and streets regularly.” Xe lowered xyr tone for the next few words, giving them space between them to let them sink in, “There’s. A. Lot. Of. Us.”
Here is the lesson I usually give my Students on plurality:
Although the methods by which Passenger genetics are chosen are classified information, how genetics works and its role in human development is public medical knowledge. We use this knowledge to care for people and help them live full and healthy lives.
Genetics only plays a partial role in human development, with a complex system of environmental factors playing a huge role from conception onward.
Because of this, we know that although there are a set of genes that are typically responsible for resulting in plural development of a human brain, they do not guarantee it. Nor are they 100% necessary for it.
Despite all the technology we have available to monitor the development of a human brain, we still cannot pinpoint the time when someone’s development puts them down the path of plurality, or of being a singlet, someone with a single consciousness. Usually, plurality manifests in a measurable way somewhere between three and five years old, but there are exceptions. Some people develop into plural systems much later in life.
All we can surmise is that there are a myriad of different ways that this may happen, as well as a few different reasons. We have documented many, but it is never consistent.
Life aboard the ship is fairly stable, and externally applied childhood trauma is a relatively rare experience. Our child rearing system has several checks and balances to work to avoid this. However, accidents do happen and some caretakers or Tutors can become abusive and operate outside of parameters for too long. Occasionally this will interrupt integration in a child that would otherwise grow up to be a singlet.
In most cases of plurality, the combination of genetic predisposition and subtle chaotic factors in a child’s body result in a plural system naturally.
Some systems have only two or three separate consciousnesses, or system members. Some develop near a dozen. And some have hundreds or thousands. Some have claimed to have millions. The human brain is certainly capable of supporting these degrees of separation, with 86 billion neurons and holographic-like processing.
Also, another axis of variation is degree of dissociation. Some systems are strikingly divided the majority of the time, while others may fluctuate or even spend most of their time in a state called co-consciousness. Also, there are different ways of being dissociated. Some can communicate linguistic thought readily between members but emotional thought is completely cut off. Other systems can share sensory experiences but not any thoughts at all and must speak out loud to communicate with each other. And there are even more ways of experiencing plurality than that.
Another variance is the frequency of switching, or changing who is consciously controlling their body. Highly co-conscious systems will often switch fluidly over the course of seconds or minutes, while strongly differentiated systems may keep one member in the front for a day or longer. Some systems have one front runner who permanently remains in control, with any number of other members giving them input and interacting with each other in the back of their mind.
With all of these variations, there is a broad spectrum of plurality with almost no two systems sharing the same set of experiences in any given generation. Over time, of course, experiences are eventually duplicated.
And, of course, there are some people who identify as singlet, but who scan as plural upon being fitted for a neural terminal. Self determination is legally protected aboard the Sunspot, and this extends to individual system members. If a system member wishes to identify as plural while the rest of the system insists on identifying as singlet, ethics dictate that the disparate member is respected and recognized. Counseling is offered to the system to resolve this issue. Sometimes all members of the system are happy to recognize their permanent frontrunner as their singlet identity. Medically speaking, they are still plural, but socially they function and are treated as if they are a singlet.
Neither plurality nor singlethood are favored by society or our medical system. Both are accommodated equally as best as we can accomplish with our technology, laws, and education. As is our philosophy regarding other neurotypes.
Of course, until that day, the neural terminal technology had been limited and proved to be a bottleneck for larger systems like the Pembers. And there had been no way of creating a body out of any sort of materials that they could inhabit, other than a crude Network controlled robot that couldn’t house the processing necessary for a consciousness.
And the Pembers had decided to push their nanite connection and their own neurology to the utter limit. It seemed that nearly all of them emerged from their system.
I’m sure I’m not the only one there who had a passing thought about the impact on the ecosystem this would have. And once again, I had the fear that the Crew would have reason to hold me responsible for something they had clearly signed off on.
There had to be a plan for this. How would it work?
“This is scary,” Ketta murmured.
Tetcha droned in awe, “I had no clue a person’s brain could even do that!”
“What the Hell is the Crew thinking?” Morde demanded of no one.
Lil’e followed that with, “Why. Aren’t. Our. Tutors. Guiding us?”
After a moment, Breq offered the only reply the rest of us could think of at the time, “We have no rules for this, and your self determination is a right.”