1.03 Pains

of Systems’ Out!

A full two days later, someone finally saw fit to seek out the Pembers and follow them. Perhaps they’d been stalking them for longer, but no one noticed and I have no record of it.

As the Pembers walked through an artistry square in a surface neighborhood, wearing a gown with a red, gold, and deep grey-blue floral and oceanic print and perusing displays of hand made parkas, a hunched over figure about two thirds the size of the diminutive Pembers lurched in shadows half a block away, moving furtively to keep an eye on them.

This individual had red fur, a blunt, darkened face with high floppy ears and a big, pointed, bushy tail with a shock of white on it. And they hid their body with a long, canvas hooded jacket with many pockets, their hands jammed into the biggest of them. Some of the words they mumbled to themselves were audible to anyone nearby.

Dangerous…” they blurted. “Don’t trust the Crew, don’t trust them…” they growled, “Nanites… Gonna kill us all…” and they turned just their left to move to a better vantage, loudly declaring, “Someone should –”

Do what?” Tetcha asked boldly, body checking their face with xyr clenched belly by stepping into the way.

Shsh!” Morde admonished.

The grumbling stalker took a step back and squinted up at Tetcha and then Morde before their eyes widened and they hissed, “You!”

Tetcha blinked and scowled, “What? How do you know us?”

Not gonna tell you! Stay away from me!” the stalker took another half a step back.

OK,” Tetcha replied, holding xyr hands up and straightening up to appear less threatening.

Morde slid closer, “Where’s your Tutor?”

The stalker glanced at hir and snapped, “Wouldn’t you like to know!” before dashing away, running hard and ducking between obstacles and people to find cover and finally escape.

The two partners didn’t bother blocking their path or following, but instead turned to each other, with half an eye on the Pembers.

“That was weird!” Tetcha said.

Morde assented, “Wasn’t it?”

Tetcha tilted xyr chin in the direction the stalker had run, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone talking like that before.”

Ralf is telling me that they’re slipping through the cracks of human rights,” Morde reported. Sie had already dispensed with hir tablet and was communing with hir Tutor over hir neural Terminal. “Their self determination is allowing them to live in distress, so long as they don’t hurt anyone else.”

Tetcha nodded then looked directly at the Pembers who were still apparently unaware of what just happened, “It sounded like they were planning something, though.”

If so, they’re being watched now,” Morde smirked with hir eyes.

Tetcha looked a little confused but decided not to pursue that thought, letting Morde be mysterious. Instead xe asked, “Is this why your magic led us this way?”

Maybe…” Morde mumbled, leading the way toward the Pembers. Sie turned hir head to Tetcha to see if xe was coming, and commented, “You know. You do talk like that sometimes.“

What?” Tetcha was too startled by the statement to feel any way about it yet, just confused.

You do,” Morde said, and then with a smile in hir voice, “It’s OK.”

And Morde was right. The stalker was being watched. By me, keeping track of the consequences of my project.

I watched through a myriad of cameras as they found and stumbled into a lift and hit the controls for the lowest inhabited deck. And while the lift began moving downward — downward being outward through the two kilometer thick hull of the Sunspot’s spinning habitat cylinder — they huddled in the corner of the lift, shivering.

By the time the lift stopped, the Pembers were agreeing with Tetcha and Morde to find a quiet, out of the way place to convene.

The lift door opened and the stalker hurried forward to peek out cautiously before dashing across the corridor before them. There wasn’t anyone around, but they hid briefly around a corner as if to avoid someone. After a few moments in which no one walked by, they then crawled along a corridor floor on hands and knees until they got to a non-descript spot on the wall. Well, the acoustic damping was particularly flat there. Then they pulled out an old tablet with an odd, irregular box attached to it. They held the tablet up to the wall and pressed the screen.

A panel in the wall slid aside. They glanced up and down the corridor then stepped in, reaching for rungs that were immediately handy. And then they proceeded to climb downward as the panel slid shut.

I had to stop tracking them at that point. I wasn’t allowed to continue.

A short time after that, we were all convened with the Pembers’ Council of Eleven in a private Network forum. Tetcha, Morde, Ketta, Lil’e, Hetty Ralf, Abacus, and Breq were there, as was I. Myra was acting facilitator of the Council and ten other Pembers were present. All of our Students hovered in a circle so that could speak equally with each other, as was the custom of the Pembers’ Council. We Tutors stood, in a manner of speaking, at equidistant points outside of the circle, creating a square that encompassed it.

After proceedings and explanations bringing the Council to order and inviting the others to join, Tetcha was asked to elaborate on what had happened. Which xe proceeded to do. Then, xe added, “They seemed angry at the sight of your system, Myra, and they seemed to recognize Morde and I and ran when we tried to talk to them.”

How?” Lil’e asked.

Abacus spoke, adding relevant data, “Your names and likenesses were not released with the shipwide update about the nanites.”

So,” Tetcha thought about that briefly, “they’ve been watching us?”

It is possible,” Abacus confirmed.

That’s scary!” Myra blurted.

Tetcha agreed wholeheartedly, “Yeah!”

Morde reminded everyone of my lecture when this all started, “Our Tutors said our nanite access would get some attention.”

Everyone was quiet for a while, trying to figure out what to say. It was Hetty who formulated the next question, “What could they do, though?”

They probably don’t know,” Ketta offered, then speculated, “I bet that’s why they ran.”

If they’re not alone, they might coordinate with others to corner one of us.” That was Jural, who spoke slowly and low, glancing around at the others as if to wait for a reaction to that scary thought.

Except that none of us are ever alone anymore,” Myra pointed out. “Tetcha and Morde are always together, and we and the Flits are systems with access to the nanites.”

Only if we stay in the Garden,” Ketta countered. “Corner one of us in a corridor and we can’t use the nanites to split. At least not locally.”

Bet straightened up and spoke boldly in reply to that, “As long as our body is alive, I can come running from the nearest park.” Then looking each of the other Pembers in turn, hen bragged, “We all can.”

Jural concurred with that and elaborated, “And we can do that for any of our bodies now. We are connected through the network.” Ve seemed to be struck with a thought and looked at Morde and Tetcha with a half a grin, clearly hoping what ve would say next would strike a chord, “We’re a super system with four vessels, effectively.”

Tetcha, whom Jural was looking at on the last word, balked and floated back half a step. Xe looked like xe was not at all OK with the implications of that, “Woah. Wait. Are you saying you could enter my body and take control?”

I wasn’t saying that,” Jural shook vis head, dropping vis grin. “But if you give me consent I could try it.”

Let’s not,” Tetcha replied quickly, moving back into place and looking at Morde.

Morde said, “That sounds interesting.” Then added quickly and with emphasis, “You have my consent.”

Ralf, whose avatar was a glowing, pointed, wide brimmed hat floating in space with a long scarf flowing beneath it, spoke in a tone that made it sound like it was shaking its head, even though the hat didn’t move, “No one’s ever even tried that, Boss. The old terminals don’t work that way.”

Morde looked right over Tetcha’s head at hir Tutor, rising up in space in order to do so, and directed at it, “I want to know if it’s my body that has dysphoria, or me.” Then sie settled back down and looked at everyone else, “And I wonder what it would feel like to be disconnected from it. Maybe if Jural fronts in my body, I’ll be able to stop feeling it even while I’m logged into the Network.”

This was the subject that had dominated my life for the past few generations. The one for which I had boldly approached the Crew with a proposal the likes of which the vessel had never seen before. The whole reason we were suffering the consequences that had led to this meeting. I couldn’t ethically remain silent. There was history to share.

Morde,” I spoke up. “If your dysphoria is that bad, that’s the whole reason I proposed the nanite terminals to the Crew. If they followed my suggestions, you should be able to start altering your body to fit your needs.”

Morde looked piqued, and raised hir voice, “I don’t even know what my needs are! I don’t know what I should look like! See?” Sie gestured at hirself, “Even my avatar looks just like my body!”

Yes, that’s troubling,” I agreed. I didn’t have anything more hopeful to say, but it was important to state the stakes so the others there could make informed decisions, so I continued, “The last Student I had who suffered as you do died early.”

Ralf interjected in a sombre tone, “I would like to help you avoid that fate.”

So,” Morde said, looking between the two of us, “Let me and Jural experiment with this and see if I can detach myself enough from my body to… I don’t know. Explore myself?”

Jural had been listening carefully, eyes on what passed as the floor of the space. Ve spoke for verself, in a cautious voice, “If I experience your dysphoria, I do not know how long I can stay in your body, even if this works.”

Morde could only offer ver a helpless, pleading shrug.

Tetcha desperately seemed to want to change the subject and latched onto the more immediate crisis as an opportunity to do so, in the momentary pause created by that gesture. Xe loudly entreated the council, “Can we talk about what to do about our stalker?”

Let us handle that.” It was Aval who had spoke, another one of the Pembers, half a head taller than Myra, who was the one Pember who most resembled their body.

Morga, a darker, older looking Pember, slightly shorter than Myra, nodded and said, “Oh, yes. I think we can spy on our spies.”

Firan, who was tall and thin and muscular looking, bragged thoughtfully, “I think we can get enough volunteers from our system to make quite the net.”

Ha!” Toost blurted a short, sardonic laugh at that understatement.

On it,” Ploot said, and stepped backward into the darkness, disappearing.

So,” Myra said, looking at each of the remaining Council in turn. “We go set a trap while the Flits, Jural, Morde, and Tetcha do their experiment?”

Aye,” said Aval.

Aye,” from Toost.

Tetcha tried to interrupt with, “Hold on!” Xe looked agitated and rushed.

Aye!” declared Firan enthusiastically.

I am really uncomfortable with that experiment!” Tetcha called out, hoping someone would listen and stop.

The rest of the Council of Eleven chimed in simultaneously in response to Firan, “Aye!”

Morde turned to hir partner and spoke in a quiet, gentle voice, “Tetcha, I need to try this. I feel like it’s a better move than using the nanites to alter my body without an idea of what I need.” She held hir words for a moment to implie a “but” before asking, “What do you think will go wrong?”

I don’t know!” Tetcha cried. “I don’t know how any of this works and no one has done it before and that’s scary!”

Morde seemed to take a breath and put hir palms together in front of hir face, maintaining hir calming voice, but speaking even slower, “With you, the Flits, and our three Tutors monitoring the process, we should be able to catch anything going wrong before it hurts me or Jural. Anyway, for all I know, my psyche will subconsciously lock ver out, I’m so attached to my body.” Sie dropped hir hands and tilted hir head up.

I don’t know…” Tetcha droned.

What would you need to be reassured?”

To know that you won’t disappear or stop being you somehow.”

Morde put hir avatar’s hands on Tetcha’s virtual shoulders

Tetcha,” sie said matter of factly, clearly enunciating each following word, walking hir partner through this thought. “Is it OK for me to get rid of my dysphoria?”

Yes, of course!”

Even if that means my body is altered beyond recognition, and the relief changes my personality?”

Tetcha dutifully thought about what Morde was saying as sie said it, head dropping slowly in a single nod, to jerk back up in affirmative at the end, “Yes. Yes, definitely.”

Then,” Morde said, “please try to be OK with me doing this. Because if I don’t, we all could permanently lose me. I cannot endure my dysphoria very much longer.” Sie stopped to let that sink in as deep as it would go. Then, “Please.”

It seemed to work. Tetcha looked cowed, looking downward, brows furrowed in worry, eyes appearing to water, mouth quirked up, twitching between a pout and a frown. Xe took in a deep, simulated breath, no doubt echoed by xyr actual body, and whispered with fragility, “Oh.” Xe timidly looked back up at Morde, “Oh. It’s that bad.”

Yes,” Morde said.

Tetcha nodded carefully, “OK.” Then xe looked at Jural, and not at all confidently said, “Let’s do this.”

And with that, the Council agreed to be officially adjourned, but not before briefly going over plans and agreeing to wait until the next day to proceed with them. They’d lay low and try to enjoy regular life for a little bit with what remained of their current waking hours. They figured that their stalker wouldn’t try anything again for some time, but they didn’t want to delay their schemes unnecessarily.

In fact, they expected a week or more before they’d catch sight of them again. They were wrong.

The next day, at about the same time as the previous encounter, the Pembers chose to walk through a different set of corridors. They picked up some food from a culinary artist they hadn’t visited in some time and then went to a park to eat it. While they sat under a tree and ate a mixture of fruit and savory spices wrapped in leaves, several of them quietly formed bodies nearly out of sight behind other trees and among bushes.

Meanwhile, in their head, the Council of Eleven, minus Jural, stood on a Network projection of a map of the neighborhood. People could be seen moving about on the map. Trees could be seen swaying in a breeze.

The map was the joint work of a group of Pembers who had individually taken to exploring the Sunspot’s Network protocols and commands. They’d stayed up all night to figure out a way to cobble together access points that were never intended to be used in this manner, and using their own brain to tie it all together and visualize the results, hiding what they were doing even from me.

I had been with each of them when they’d done the initial exploring. But they’d put it all together and written the code in their head, where I wasn’t able to go.

I was told about this Council meeting later, when it was all done, after greater transgressions had occurred.

Toost asked, “Do we also have our online agents in place yet?”

Yes,” reported Bet.

So we can move,” Myra stated.

Morga spoke up, “I wish we had more technical experts in our system.” As if what they had already done wasn’t astounding enough.

It can’t be helped,” Ploot had eir hands in the pockets of a set of trousers e imagined emself wearing, frowning down at the map. Ploot didn’t have a tail.

So,” Myra said, “no one’s seeing anything suspicious yet?”

No,” replied Bet. “But I don’t think we will until we move our vessel.”

Oh. I have an idea!” Toost declared. “Insects.”

What?” Myra looked confused.

Toost asked everyone, “Can we have some agents disguise their forms as tiny flying insects? Like a bee, or gnat, or something?”

Myra tilted xyr head and furrowed xyr brow, “I don’t think anyone’s tried a nanite form other than their own body map, yet.”

I imagine we have people who’ve dreamed of it, though!” Bet joined in, “I’ll send the call out inworld to see if anyone wants to try.” Hen stepped backward and disappeared.

Myra looked back down at the map and said, “I’ll wait to move our vessel until we get confirmation of the attempt.”

Myra had been fronting and eating their lunch this whole time, xyr attention divided between the food and the meeting. This meant that xe really didn’t see many details on the map, and had been reliant on xyr headmates to keep an eye out for signs of anything there. But xe reported that the whole thing was clearer and more substantial than ever before. Xe could see and hear the control room and the conversation as if xe had been fully immersed in a dream, but instead it had been a sort of double image with what xe was experiencing from xyr body’s senses. Not exactly a double image, though. The mind’s eye was still separate in a way from the inputs of their optic nerve. It was more like the input from the outer world hovered in the center of Myra’s attention, while everything else that was inworld was occurring and fully palpable in xyr peripheral vision. And the sounds could be differentiated because they came from different sources. Xyr ears didn’t vibrate with the words of xyr fellow system members, but xe had heard them clearly just the same. Apparently, this was much like how xe experienced the Pember’s meetings in their conscious headspace on a very good day when xe was fronting, only readily available, more stable, and requiring very little mental effort to manage.

Before, on a bad day, they weren’t able to sense each other and their mind was quiet. They hadn’t had a bad day, or even hour, since they’d received the nanites.

It was just how singlets accessing the Network through a terminal for the first time described the experience.

In just a few days, the nanite terminals had integrated with their system enough to match the effects of the old implanted fiber terminals. It was nearing time to start introducing new options to them. Things they could play with. But by the map projection, they appeared to be discovering some of those things on their own.

There were, after all, an awful lot of Pembers tramping around on the Network at any given time.

Of course, I wasn’t told this until much later, and by then they’d uncovered even more on their own.

While this was happening, Morde, Tetcha, the Flits, and Jural entered a clearing in the same woods where this all had started.

Morde breathed the forest air deeply and sighed, “This feels like the spot.”

Good,” Jural nodded, already inhabiting a nanite body. “Away from prying eyes, lots of nanites underfoot. Probably safer than your own quarters.”

What’s next?” asked Tetcha, hands in pockets looking worried.

Ketta answered that, “We’ll set up watch. You should be online for Morde, to keep in touch with hir there.” Then turning to the one Pember present, “And then Jural will do whatever ve have in mind?”

Yeah,” Jural confirmed. “I’m thinking I’ll need Morde’s help for this.” To Morde, “We’ll start online, since that’s basically our collective inworld, and I’ll just try to walk you through a voluntary switch. See if that even works.”

Sounds good. I think I’ll lie down for safety,” Morde replied.

You probably don’t need to,” Jural said, “but if it feels better go ahead.”

Morde found a spot, lowered hirself to the ground and lay back. Tetcha sat next to hir and reached to hold hir hand.

Actually, Tetcha,” Morde said, looking at xem, “it might be better if we hold hands online but not here, so I have fewer sensory distractions from offline.”

Oh. OK.” Tetcha dropped xyr hand and took a deep breath, “Logging in.”

In a private Network forum created by Morde at Jural’s instructions, Tetcha, Morde, Jural, and Hetty found themselves standing roughly in the same positions they were in the outer world. Tetcha immediately reached out to grasp Morde’s hand.

Jural stepped up to Morde and looked hir in the eye, “OK. A lot of what we’re going to do here is really gonna just feel like switching places with someone else in the outer world when you’re standing in line somewhere. Or dancing.”

OK?” Morde prompted.

It always feels like that to our system when we switch. I’m expecting it will work a lot like how we access the Network and the nanites. The terminal protocols and our psyches will interpret our intents and make the right connections.”

That makes sense.”

Jural turned to Morde’s partner, “Tetcha, I’m going to put my hand on Morde’s shoulder, and step past hir into hir terminal to take the front. If this works, sie should just become more relaxed as sie dissociates from hir body. Hir avatar might change shape, though.”

OK,” Tetcha looked like xe was succeeding at a great effort to remain calm. Xe turned to Morde, “Are you ready?”

Morde nodded, “I think so.”

OK!” Jural exclaimed. Then ve put vis hand on Morde’s shoulder, pausing before touching hir to gain consent via a nod, “This is a formality to help you go through the motions. We do this non-verbally between the Pembers. Morde? May I have permission to take the front?”

Please do.” Morde replied.

OK,” Jural instructed, “stand aside and let me take the front.” Stepping past Morde, “I’ll give it back when I’m — Huh.”

What?” asked Morde, brows furrowing.

Jural stepped back and gave Morde a confused frown. “It almost worked, but then it didn’t. How did that feel to you?”

I felt a pulling, but then it stopped and you said ‘huh.’”

Let’s try that again.”

Hetty interjected, “We’ve never been able to switch like this in our system. Not even now, with the nanite terminal. Frankly, I’m jealous you even think this might work.”

At this point, back in town, the Pembers leaped up from beneath their tree, swang their arms a bit, and noticed it was starting to rain. They made a dash for the city streets. They passed an artisan who was making painted umbrellas and took a moment to select one. A fly landed on the Pembers’ shoulder, but no one seemed to notice.

The artisan looked at their partner and they both grinned, “We’re honored by your choice. That’s one of my favorites!”

Thank you!” Myra chirped. “It’s beautiful! I’ll give it a good life!”

The artisan handed it over with both hands, and they all bowed briefly.

The Pembers hefted the umbrella proudly to demonstrate their happiness with it, then unfurled it and continued on their way, slower. Looking at windows, and plants, and people, they muttered to themselves.

So!” Myra murmured, “Who should we give this umbrella to when we’re done with it?”

There’s a child who loves pink and green near our quarters. They would adore it!” Morga replied.

Ooh, yes. I love them! They’re so enthusiastic about going for walks, too.”

This rain is going to interfere with some of our plans.”

Gosh, I hope not!”

Morga caused their head to turn a bit, looking around, “I wonder how the others are doing. They headed in the direction of the Greater Park. They’re gonna get wet.”

The Flits tend to love the Rain,” Myra said. “And Morde and Tetcha take care of themselves alright.”

True.”

You know what?” Myra declared, as if it was a sudden thought. “I want to walk the lower levels! We haven’t been down there for ages, and some of my favorite artists are down there!”

OK!” Morga agreed.

Toost chimed in, “Sure!”

The Pembers took a set of major ramps downward, instead of a lift, and someone followed them. The fly that had been on the Pembers shoulder followed that person.

Morde and Jural had attempted their switch a few more times by then.

Morde was holding hir head, eyes shut. Jural held hir shoulders, vis head close to hirs.

This is making me feel dizzy and weird. And I’m getting the strong urge to stop,” Morde slurred hir words.

OK, OK, let’s stop,” Jural relented. “We can take a rest and restart if and when you feel ready to try again.”

I feel like it’s not going to work,” Morde sounded broken.

Jural stepped back, cocked vis head, and asked amiably, “What does the weirdness feel like?”

Whenever you try to switch with me,” Morde switched to one hand pressed against hir forehead and grasped Tetches hand again with the other, “I feel everything starts to go numb, and it’s like I’m getting pulled backward into a tunnel behind me where I’ll just cease to be.” Sie dropped hir hand and glanced at Jural for emphasis, “It’s really scary.”

Well, your Avatar here stays solid enough!” Tetcha reported beside hir. “But that sounds like a good reason to stop and never try again!”

No, actually, that’s a good sign,” Jural stated. “Morde, that’s dissociation. We’ve felt that, too. Usually when someone is trying to force a non-consensual switch.”

Oh …” Morde thought about that for a moment, “If it doesn’t work today, do you think we could keep trying every few days? Maybe teach my brain how to dissociate?”

Tetcha looked uncomfortable, but looked at Jural for direction.

Sure. Of course,” Jural assented, “but this seems to mean a part of you is not consenting to this. Part of your subconscious.”

Oh, of course,” Morde nodded. “Still, I’d like to keep trying.”

Tetcha just rested xyr forehead on Morde’s shoulder, eyes squeezed shut.

Morde touched the top of Techa’s head, “Tetcha? Are you going to use the nanites for more than just going online like this?”

Nope,” Tetcha replied without moving.

Oh.”

I can’t imagine how I would,” Tetcha explained, briefly lifting xyr head to look at Morde.

I think you will, actually,” Morde said cryptically.

Suddenly Ploot appeared and everyone looked at them. “We’ve got one,” they reported.

It was a different individual this time. Taller, calmer, more quiet, wearing a yellow parka and a brown hat, pointed ears sticking out just past the brim. They walked on naked paws, claws retracted and silent. Their tail was like the Pembers’, nearly hairless and capable of grasping objects and fixtures.

And as they casually walked through the corridors as if they were paying the Pembers’ no mind, just incidentally walking the same path half a block behind, the fly followed them outside of earshot.

Ploot had provided a view from the fly’s vision. The Pember that had created and inhabited the fly was utilizing the nanites’ optic receptors to approximate typical human vision. No need to fully simulate an actual fly.

That optical capability had not existed just a few days ago. Some member, or team, of the Crew had to have spent a considerable amount of time and effort to figure out how to turn a group of nanites into a camera and then write the tools necessary to interpret a user’s will to create the right kind of camera for them.

This was true for every aspect of the nanite exobodies. It had all been planned for use by our Students, an extremely complex system I had not requested, had not been informed of.

And yet, someone had left a door open for the entire population of nanites which caused that shipwide shudder when Ketta had mistakenly reached for them. Why?

Had it been a test? A lesson? Some sort of demonstration? It seems really unlikely that it had been an accident.

We’re going to just go right back to our quarters in a bit,” Ploot said. “But we’ve got some nanite spies like this fly following them to see where they go from there.”

Morde looked to Ketta and Tetcha, and said, “I have the urge to go and help.”

We’ve got it taken care of,” reassured Ploot.

Morde leaned in toward Ploot, and said in a stern tone, “I’m going to go see with my own eyes. It’s going to happen.”

Welp.” sighed Techa, sounding relieved. “Here we go.”

I better check in with the Council,” Jural replied to that. “Ploot can accompany you, or I’ll be back shortly.”

Ketta spoke up, “Hey, we Flits are here. We’ve got Tetcha and Morde covered.”

Jural and Ploot looked at each other, and Jural said, “OK. Sorry.”

The Pembers were headed down a familiar corridor, their door visible several meters away.

Their shadow stopped right in the middle of the intersection where they had turned, and watched as the Pembers entered their quarters. Then the person continued on their way. The fly looped along after them.

In moments, the Flits were following Tetcha and Morde, who were walking side by side. Morde pointed the way.

It took them a while to get to the Pembers’ neighborhood. Occasionally they were greeted by a Pember in a nanite form, usually lounging at a street corner or sitting on a park bench, observing things.

When they got to the intersection before the Pembers’ apartment they continued in the direction the shadower went.

Toost was standing at a spot on a bare wall.

They went down here,” Toost said.

Down?” Tetcha asked.

Toost placed a nanite hand on the wall and a hatch opened.

Our spy followed them,” Toost explained. “But we think they know we’re onto them. They’re just hanging out in an empty room, all alone. Like they’re waiting for us”.

Morde relaxed and sighed, slapping hir cloak with hir hands, “We haven’t exactly been subtle getting here, if they have friends watching us.”

True,” Toost admitted. “I’m gonna go check on our own door now. Take care.”

We’ll go first,” Ketta offered.

Morde nodded, and the Flits climbed into the shaft and started working their way down the ladder, careful to arrange their bulbous tail to point downward. Ketta hoped they wouldn’t reach a bottom, just another hatch like this one.

Isn’t that a Crew shaft?” Tetcha asked nervously.

Yes,” Morde said, inspecting it.

We’re not supposed to go near those.”

It’s where we go,” stated Morde and started to climb down.

Tetcha watched hir descend and hesitated. And hesitated. And hesitated. And then ran down the corridor away from everyone.

Morde heard xyr frantic footsteps and popped hir head up from the shaft again to see where Tetcha had gone.

Tetcha? Tetcha!” Morde called out desperately. Nothing. The sound of Tetcha’s running could no longer be heard. “Shit.”

Morde closed hir eyes for a moment, then got a determined look and continued descending. Several floors below, Ketta was waiting in an open hatch. There was a fly on the hatch.

Morde said to Ketta, “I think I know what xe’s doing, and crap, dammit.”

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