1.04 Monstrosity

of Systems’ Out!

Toost rejoined the council as they met in their vessel’s headspace in protected privacy. They were all there, sitting cross legged or kneeling according to personal preference, in a circle.

We’re secure,” Toost reported as sie deftly lowered hirself to a seated position, “We’ve managed to confirm there is a group of them and they are definitely interested in us for some reason.”

How’re the Flits, Tetcha, and Morde?” Myra asked.

Hetty reports Tetcha took off down a corridor alone, with no explanation,” Toost frowned.

Morga jumped in, “Damn, why?”

No explanation.”

And?” Myra prompted.

Ketta and Morde are cautiously approaching our shadow on the assumption they’ve been made and are either entering a trap or an impromptu meeting.” Toosted adjusted hirself as if hir inworld body was actually uncomfortable and pinched, likely a memory of outworld physics prompted by emotion. “Honestly, if they know we’re following them, I can’t imagine that they aren’t fully aware of our capabilities with the nanites, and I’m just not sure how a trap would work, unless they had the power of the Crew. And if they did, then I don’t see why they’d try to lure us into a trap, let alone physically stalk us.”

OK,” Myra said, looking at Morga.

All in favor of letting our friends lead the way?” Morga called out to the rest of the Council.

All ten other Council members said “aye” in succession.

Instead of adding xyr eleventh vote, Morga declared, “It’s unanimous.” Then xe looked at each member in turn before pointing out, “We’re getting a lot of unanimous votes these days. If I couldn’t see you all clearly with my own… mind? I’d worry we were integrated.”

Tell me about it,” Jural muttered.

Maybe it’s time to elect a new council?” Bet suggested. “I could use a break. Get some fresh views on board.”

Probably,” Morga nodded. “But we should wait until after the current crisis.”

Seconded,” said Myra.

A full round of “aye”s followed that.

I didn’t even call the vote!” Morga chided them.

Several levels downward and six blocks over, in a deck that looked remarkably like the one in which the Pembers lived, except absent entirely of residents or traffic, Morde and the Flits crept through the ghost neighborhood following a nanite fly who was talking to them over Network channels. Mostly, the fly, who was a Pember in disguise, was saying things like, “this way. We’ve cornered them in an empty quarters over here.”

The door of the apartment was left open, but the first room was empty, even of furniture. This was one of the larger quarters, and there were two closed doors leading to other rooms. The wash room would be the one on the left, in the back of the room, near the kitchenette. The door to the right would lead to the bedroom. Ketta opened that door and ushered Morde through.

Tetcha is in Monster hands now,” a voice spoke as Morde’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was a table with their quarry sitting behind it, and three stools were waiting to be used. The individual had doffed their hat, and their brindle colored fur looked black in the shadows, their ears perked upward, alert. “We should talk.”

Morde flicked the light on manually, then straightened and glared at the person. The Flits stepped in behind hir and made fists, black smoke billowing around them.

Neat trick, bringing nanites with you. What exactly will you do with them?” The person gestured at the stools across the table from them. “Sit.”

What is this place?” Ketta asked, not moving.

The Pembers’ shadower shrugged and said, “Just another level. It’s mostly closed off. Available for population expansion. They say the last time it was used was just before the Sunspot spawned its last child.”

What does that mean?” Morde demanded.

Just rumors the Crew makes more ships whenever the Sunspot encounters enough usable mass. Last one was Generations ago.”

Why don’t we have records of that?”

Why indeed.”

Morde wouldn’t let it go at that and pressed, “Why have we never even heard of that before?”

It’s a Monster story,” came the answer.

Ketta made a face, “What’s a Monster?”

Sit,” commanded their host.

They sat down, keeping their eyes on the shadower the whole time, Ketta’s hands still wreathed in nanites.

You’re basically stooges of the Crew, so I’m gonna talk to you like you’re one of them,” the person explained. “For all I know, you are.”

Really,” Morde dismissed, incredulous.

For all our being careful, our efforts are fruitless anyway,” they stated. “The Monsters exist at your behest. You don’t let anything happen you don’t want to happen.”

We’re not Crew,” Ketta snapped. “This is ridiculous.”

Is it? It’s your game. You made it. We’re just mortals to you.”

Stop,” Ketta barked.

Morde almost put a hand on kihns wrist, but remembered hir friend hadn’t offered standing consent like sie had with hir partner.

We don’t like what you’re doing, though. We dissent,” the shadower continued anyway. “You keep yourselves secluded, or lead us all to believe you do, and manipulate everything to go as you plan. And that’s been creepy and unacceptable until now, but at least you left the nanites out of it, and you let people be people.”

What?” Ketta was genuinely baffled but also still losing patience.

But now you’re making us in your image?” The shadower stood and pounded the table, “Taking the humanity you gave us? No! We will not submit! You may go.”

No,” Morde said firmly.

What?!” their adversary rose up straight and stepped back, eyes wide with indignation.

You said you have Tetcha,” Morde calmly spoke. “Let xem go.”

The shadower relaxed at that and a smirk grew and broke into a grin as they replied, “With xyr consent.”

As I was watching this exchange, I could also see Tetcha walking down an empty corridor, moving away, looking back the way xe had come. Xyr expression was unreadable.

I couldn’t report to anyone where xe was. It wasn’t my right.

Meanwhile the Pembers were sitting on their bed, eyes closed, as their internal populace followed the orders of the Council of Eleven. Everywhere one of them went, there I went too.

I had my own senses trained on more of the Sunspot than I had ever had before, thanks to the Pembers.

Back in the abandoned quarters, the Flits leaned sideways to look at the side of the Shadow’s head.

You don’t have a terminal?” Ketta asked, “How old are you?”

More than old enough,” the Shadower replied, calm again.

Where’s your tablet?”

Not here,” they smirked again.

Then how do you know where Tetcha is?” Ketta asked.

I told you. We’re the Monsters.”

Myra snapped the Pembers’ eyes open with a furious scowl, then they composed xyrself and closed their eyes again. Xe’d been listening in, of course.

Morde asked, “What do you mean, you’re the Monsters?”

They’re just playing with us,” Ketta warned.

Sure, that’s it,” the Monster gestured at Ketta. “You know what I mean.”

No, seriously,” Morde said. “I don’t.”

The Monster tilted their head quizzically, as if they were actually surprised Morde wasn’t getting it.

Just then, Ketta gave a little jump and exclaimed, “Oh.” Ke held out kihns left hand and a tiny, gray-black Myra formed out of the nanite cloud that had been enshrouding it.

To Morde, Myra said, “We can’t find Tetcha, yet.” Then xe looked at the Monster and spoke in a tinny but audible voice, “We’re not the Crew, but we ARE quite numerous. If you don’t release Tetcha, we will find where you’re keeping xem. And we will discover what you’re doing. Leave. Us. Alone.”

The Monster stood up and loomed over Myra, hand on table, and declared, “Tetcha is free to return to you any time xe wants. We’re Monsters, not the Crew.” Then they walked around the table and swiftly stormed out the door.

Morde, Myra, and the Flits watched the Shadow leave. But then the Shadow stopped at the outer doorway, and turned to look at them.

If you’re the Crew, then you already know this and there’s nothing lost,” the Monster offered. “If you’re not the Crew… The Chief Monster is stuck in the Engine Room. Every Monster has spoken to it. We know our way around.” They whirled and took a right out of the doorway and were gone.

We’ve got eyes on them,” Myra said, “but they know that now. They won’t go anywhere interesting for a while, I imagine.”

Balmer briskly walked in the door, slowing down from a run, looking around at things with concern, “I got here as fast as I could. Let’s go find Tetcha.”

Morde slumped in hir stool, back against the table, and looked at Myra, “For all our excitement using the nanites for terminals, you and the Flits are still not used to actually using them like terminals to communicate with us Singlets. Myra, you had to appear physically to talk to all of us. It’s a neat trick, but you could have done it through Network protocols.”

Not for the Monster’s benefit, though. They’re disconnected,” Myra responded.

Morde tilted hir head slightly upward as if mouthing the word “ah”, though no one could see hir mouth. Sie continued out loud, “I’ve been trying to call Tetcha since xe ran down that corridor. Xe’s deliberately not answering. Xe doesn’t want to be found. I said what I said here to try to get that Monster to talk.”

Oh,” Ketta vocalized.

Tiny Myra crossed xyr arms and bowed xyr head.

Morde got up, “I’m going for a walk. I need to think.”

Online, in another temporary forum just outside the Pember’s headspace, Jural and Morga were consulting me. Myra appeared.

Metabang,” Myra ordered, “contact Abacus.”

If you’re trying to track or contact Tetcha while xe doesn’t want to be found,” I replied, “you know that Abacus cannot divulge that information or open such a channel.”

Seriously?!” Myra bursted with exasperation. “Even now?”

Yes, even now,” I said evenly. “This AI policy is for your protection as well as everyone else’s.”

Fuck!” Xe clenched xyr fists and threw them down, stomping and turning away from me. I really wish I could have helped. It hurt to see xem hurting like that, and I was also worried about Tetcha. But, Abacus was with xem.

We’ll find xem,” Morga spoke up, trying to be reassuring. “Given time. Or xe’ll come back when xe’s done doing what xe’s doing.”

Jural held vis arms and looked sideways at both Morga and Myra, “I’m concerned about Morde. Those two have been inseparable for years.”

Yeah,” Myra let xyr tension out reluctantly. Then turn back to deal with the matter, “Actually, we should follow Morde’s lead. Hir intuition is so accurate and sie knows Tetcha best.”

I’ll check on hir,” Jural decided.

We’re spread so thin right now,” Morga addressed Myra. “Did you know we have system members opposite the sun path from us?”

What are they doing there?” asked Myra, taken aback.

Testing the limits of the nanite terminals, mostly,” Morga reported. “Visiting places we haven’t seen. But also networking and keeping an eye and ear out for Monster activity.”

How far forward have we ranged?”

Bet is on the ice ring itself. There are nanites embedded in the ice!”

Huh,” Myra blink. Then, “Wow!”

And even with members at that distance, we have over a thousand liaisons and headmates scouring the local corridors for Tetcha.”

OK,” Myra accepted that. “OK, I guess I have another question.”

Yeah?”

What’s the Engine Room, and how do we get to it?”

I interjected with the one thing I was allowed to say, “That’s Crew Knowledge.”

Myra tilted xyr head at me, squinting, “Apparently, it’s Monster knowledge, too.”

I couldn’t say anything more as factual. In fact, I was directed to sow doubt, though I didn’t exactly want to. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to say, “Unless they were lying.” I let my disbelief in that statement be heard in my tone of voice.

Metabang,” Myra leaned back on one foot, crossing xyr arms, and really skewering me with an incredulous look. “We haven’t you told us anything about the Monsters?”

That was easy, “Like Tetcha currently, they want privacy.”

Sometimes, the Crew’s laws are really inconvenient!” Myra snarled.

Yes,” I agreed. Oh, how I agreed with that! But, also, the Monsters did have that right to privacy just as everyone else did, and respecting it was more than just following the edicts of the Crew. It was the right thing to do.

As we discussed the finer points of working around that to contact Tetcha, a fruitless effort, Morde found hir way to the spot on the shoreline where the Pembers had first summoned their system members into nanite and detritus bodies. The soil had been returned to the ground shortly after that, and the nanites had gone to work rearranging things to look almost exactly as if they’d been undisturbed. It was one of their original functions.

Morde stood and looked up at the Aft Endcap.

Ralf?” Morde asked out loud. “How do I get up there?”

I can’t tell you that,” the Tutor replied truthfully from its Tablet, still in Morde’s pocket.

Morde remained silent for a while. Then Jural stepped up beside hir, having just formed from beach sand and nanites.

Thank you for answering my call,” Jural said, referring to an exchange that had just happened over the Network. Ve settled in next to Morde, and looked up at the aft endcap as well. Morde found vis presence reassuring and calming.

I need your help,” Morde admitted.

Of course.”

While Tetcha is away, I can do what I really need to do,” Morde explained, but wouldn’t elaborate. Sie took a breath, held it, and shook hir head and then let it out to say, “For so many reasons.”

I am not sure I like the sound of that,” Jural warned.

Ralf won’t help.”

You’re damn right I won’t,” Ralf snapped. “Your impatience will get you hurt, and you’re asking me to instruct you in ways I don’t have clearance for.”

Oh, forget the Engine Room,” Morde took the tablet out of hir pocket and placed it propped up in the sand facing hir. “That’s just a whim.”

Liar,” Ralf said.

So,” Jural cut in, suggesting, “do you want to try another switch?”

Yes,” Morde rubbed hir shoulders briefly, turned to ver and let hir arms fall to hir sides. “But this time, really push if you can.”

OK, you’re gonna want to lie down again.”

Morde was already getting down into the rocks and sand.

Meet you online,” Jural said and disintegrated.

Morde closed hir eyes.

Online, Morde and Jural took each other’s right hands, facing each other, then with solemn deliberation both tried to step past the other. It was a very practiced move at this point. But, just like so many times before, they stopped, with Jural’s left hand half invisible, like it was disappearing into fog.

Jural put vis weight into that hand and really pressed forward. Meanwhile, Morde tried to relax.

Jural’s visible strain got more and more intense.

Then Morde suddenly disappeared, connection cut.

Sie opened hir eyes on the beach. Jural had reformed a body already and was moving to kneel down beside hir. Morde half sat up, in that peculiar way sie did by readjusting hir tentacles.

Dammit,” sie said, pressing a hand to forehead. “I just snapped back to my body. I could almost feel release. It was utterly terrifying.”

Jural observed pointedly, “That’s not what you want help with, though, is it.”

It’s a start,” Morde replied. “Can you walk me through, in detail, what it’s like to put on a nanite body?”

Sure. It’s a lot like what we were just doing, only different…” Jural stepped back and offered Morde a hand in getting up. Morde didn’t need it in the slightest, but took it anyway out of graciousness.

As Morde struggled to understand just why sie felt hir body was wrong, and had no clue what changes would sooth hir dysphoria, Balmer experienced the opposing dilemma of the same problem. Hen had a very detailed concept of what hen’s body should be like, and hen was already feeling more at home in hen’s nanite and dirt form.

Besides Balmer’s notable size and muscular looking girth, the other striking thing about hen was that hen leaned forward and supported hen’s weight on knuckles as hen walked. Also, hen’s tail was shorter, proportionally, than that of the Pembers’ body, and tufted at the end. Furthermore, Balmer had a small pair of horns, nubbins really, growing just above hen’s brow, and hen’s plume was much shorter and neater looking, almost non-existent. The Pembers’ vessel had a long, thick plume of longer fur on their head that they could raise and lower expressively.

Balmer was accompanying the Flits as they explored the empty corridors of what the Monsters have come to call the Fallow Decks, the abandoned extra quarters meant to accommodate population growth, that had perhaps been inhabited before, long ago.

Balmer amiably inquired of the Flits, “How long are you gonna stay down here?”

I don’t know,” Ketta answered for kihns system. “I want to see what’s open to us and what’s not. And we can resurface to look for Tetcha once we’re beyond your headmates’ search perimeter. But maybe xe’s down here.”

What if we run into more Monsters?” hen proposed.

Then we learn more about them,” Ketta shrugged. “I think they’ll avoid us, though.”

A fair assessment, I suppose. Still nervous.”

Well,” Ketta made a point of looking around as they walked. “This is technically a restricted area.”

Mmm,” Balmer intoned as they entered a square that would have been used as a communal maker space. There were units of fabrication equipment in the walls, and counters embedded in the floor at reasonable intervals. But there were no other accoutrements. Nothing loose or movable. Smaller furniture would be custom built for the artisans who’d use it. Balmer was fascinated by all of it anyway, taking the time to imagine who might have worked here.

The Flits took Balmer’s cue to look around and even walked over to one of the automakers and peered into its workings. It was just like the ones they used near their own quarters a few decks up.

Why are you spending so much time fronting in your systems’ vessel?” Balmer stepped up to look at what they were examining. Hen could tell who it was by their posture, “What about your dysphoria?”

Well, for one,” Ketta said. “I found that once I experienced having my own body, I felt less constrained by this one and now I feel less dysphoric in it.”

Ah! For me, it’s the opposite.” Balmer nodded. “Once I found out what it’s like to have this body, going back to my old one makes me more dysphoric. Neurodiversity, I guess.”

The other thing is this,” Ketta added, looking out around the space before meeting Balmer’s eyes, which were spheres of graphite and sand. “Before the nanites, we Flits could only yell at each other mentally across our dissociation. We couldn’t share memories, we couldn’t cofront, we couldn’t switch purposefully.”

And. Now. We can,” Lil’e said.

Followed by Hetty, “And we like it.”

A lot,” Ketta finished, with an emphasis on the last word. Each of their voices had sounded distinctly different, with a different pitch, timbre, and inflections.

Woah. Cool!” Balmer’s eyes went wide. “Again, sort of the opposite for us. We’ve been blendy and coconscious for most of our life. With so many system members, it’s really the only way any number of us get a fair chance at seeing the outer world. Now that we have access to the net and… exobodies, most of us are taking the opportunity to be as far away from the others as possible.”

Makes sense,” Ketta nodded, and then chose to continue walking further away from the quarters where they’d met the Monster. They were headed aftward, Balmer noted.

Balmer continued while following, “Like, where I’m at right now, I have silence in my mind for the first time ever.”

Really?” Ketta asked.

Yes. I have to use Network protocols to contact the others.”

You’re a singlet!” Ketta exclaimed with a mix of horror and delight. “Well, temporarily, at least.”

Yep,” Balmer said. “But, in time I will miss the others and return to our subconscious to recoup. Or just spend time in a crowd, maybe online, maybe out here.”

Of course,” Ketta understood. Keh would feel the same way.

What’s interesting, and fortunate,” Balmer went on, “is that when I look at the world with these eyes, separate from my system, we don’t create liaisons like we do with the vessel’s eyes.”

Oh!” Ketta was surprised at how surprised keh was.

We can finally control our system’s population. Just send exobodies out for necessities and keep our vessel secluded,” this was clearly a profound breakthrough for Balmer and the Pembers. Then hen added, “unless we want more members.”

Why would you want more members?” Ketta asked.

Well, a liaison is someone with an obsessive interest in another person. It sounds awful outside of our mind, but it’s how we used to keep memories of the people we meet,” Balmer elaborated. “For instance, I’m finding it hard to remember much about you, and we’ve been best friends for ages.”

Oh.”

But, now, I get to exercise my own memory and grow as an individual. I like it. Still, it’s hard.”

Right.”

So, let’s say we want to start tracking the Monsters and be able to predict what they will do next,” Balmer suggested.

Yeah?”

Balmer’s voice took on a conspiratorial tone as hen got to the point of the idea that seemed useful to their current situation, “Get our vessel’s eyes on one. Create a liaison for them. And then send that liaison out to shadow them and learn who they are.”

Oh!”

Balmer let Ketta silently think about that for several steps before saying, “Yeah.”

I made a mental note to subtly discourage the Pembers from doing such a thing, while I explored the ethical and legal ramifications of such an action. However, it would turn out that I wouldn’t need to do so. Events led them to even bolder actions before they found cause to experiment.

Morde, on the other hand, was experimenting right then.

Hir robe removed and folded neatly, set beside Ralf’s tablet, Morde lowered hirself a few meters away to the ground to put hir hands in the sand of the beach.

Jural, who was coaching hir, had never seen hir naked body before, and was in awe of its bizarre shape. Morde’s head was large and shaped like the inside of the hood of hir cloak, nearly hairless, with a fleshy fin running the length of it on either side. Hir body itself was about the same size of hir head, triangular shaped with well developed shoulders that supported boney, muscular arms that ended in hands. Hir legs very nearly didn’t exist at all, essentially serving as extra flexible joints for two flipper-like feet that dangled at the bottom of hir torso, from a miniscule pelvis. And from the bottom of hir face, no doubt surrounding hir mouth, and hiding it completely, sprouted eight 143 centimeter long tendril-like arms, boneless, fully prehensile and somehow quite sturdy, that sie walked with, and a pair of 211 centimeter long tentacles with a cluster of suckers on the end.

Hir body was a marvel of biological development and Jural found it quite beautiful. Ve knew that there were a few other Passengers with similar physiology, and hoped to see them someday. But thanks to the struggles of some of vis headmates, Jural also knew how unreasonable and unrelenting physical dysphoria could be. So, ve solemnly worked to accommodate Morde in hir pursuit of relief for it.

The next steps were all in Morde’s mind, though, and all Jural could do was watch at the moment.

Dark sand and nanites crept up hir arms and began to cover hir body completely. And they kept building up from the surrounding beach, adding to the mass covering hir, raising hir high into the air on a column of larger tentacle-like arms. Jural let out a long slow breath and looked upward as Morde became a version of hirself that was a full nine meters tall, standing in a big divot that was quickly filling with water.

Yes!” Jural shouted.

Morde looked down at hirself and groaned in a nanite generated voice, “Dammit. I’m still me.”

But you’ve got the first step down!” Jural called up at hir. “All you have to do is start with small transformations of the nanites. Eventually,” ve suggested, “try imagining yourself as someone else. Like, copy me. You don’t need your own body map to tell the nanites what to do. You can shapeshift with them.”

How?” Morde asked.

I’ll send one of our spy flies to talk to you. They’ve got that part down.”

OK,” badly hiding how doubtful sie was.

Then sie noticed some people in the park staring at hir, jaws agape. Jural followed hir gaze and winced.

Morde put on a friendly tone tinged with authority to address them, “You might be able to do this someday, if the Crew doesn’t lock this down.”

The people ran.

With a sigh, Morde returned the nanites and sand to the ground, causing a gush of sea water. The nanites immediately went back to work trying to restore the beach to a semblance of its natural equilibrium, a slow process that was nonetheless visible.

Morde took a breath and managed some energy to exclaim, “I’m surprised I was allowed to use so much material!”

Jural held up a hand and stood silent for a moment, then grimaced, “Dang it! I’m being called back to the Council.” But then added, “Before I go, I meant to ask you a question.”

Yes?” Morde asked.

What do you think Tetcha is up to?” ve inquired. “Should we pursue xem?”

Morde took some time to search hir thoughts, then said, “I’ve said a bunch of needly, crappy things to xem in the past few days for some reason. I don’t know why. I love xem more than I can describe. The words just came out of my mouth, and I almost regret them. But they felt right and still do.”

Ah.”

No. Xe’s not just reacting to that. That was a nudge. We know each other so well, it’s like we can read each other’s mind. Xe’s on a mission, inspired by Monsters, nanites, fear, and belief. I just don’t know if xe’ll be back. It hurts. It hurts like hell.”

Should we look for xem?” Jural repeated.

No,” Morder concluded. “I’ll find xem when it’s time for me to find xem. Focus on other things. I’ve got this.”

OK,” Jural relented. “Thank you.”

No,” Morde said, spinning and gesturing at the large disc of churning sand beneath hir. “Thank you.”

I took this as a cue to shift my focus to Tetcha, who had, in that time, taken an express tram several neighborhoods aftward to a place outside city limits, situated below protected wilderness.

Xe really seemed to just be running away from everything, and I felt bad for the obvious duress that xe was exhibiting in the wake of what people would begin calling the Nanite Awakening.

Something about that stop had caught xyr attention, and xe’d gotten off there, wandered aimlessly for a bit, and then slumped down against the wall at the edges of a communal artisans’ studio, not really watching the pottery being made there, or the people sharing other goods, or playing games.

After a surprisingly short time, someone much smaller than Tetcha sat down in front of xem, composed themselves and looked xem right in the eye.

The person was sparsely covered in short bristly hair and extremely wrinkly. And they were wrapped and mostly covered in what appeared to be a burlap robe. Their eyes were little black olive shaped things nestled in a set of the larger wrinkles, and their nostrils were just a set of the deepest wrinkles on the tip of a short snout that they held higher than their brow. Large front teeth were partially visible between the wrinkles that were evidently their lips. And when they spoke, they had what Tetcha thought was a cute lisp that was much less pronounced than xe expected.

Wanna go someplace private to talk?” the person asked.

Sure,” Tetcha sighed, exhausted.

The little bag of wrinkles in a sack got back to what was presumably their feet, and beckoned Tetcha to follow them, which xe got up and did. They then proceeded to lead xem through some side corridors to a section of wall that was momentarily out of sight of anyone else. At which point they pulled out an ancient looking tablet with a weird box attached to it and held it to the wall, where a hatch proceeded to open.

You looked like you could use a conversation,” the person said. “I’m Gretcha. Pronouns are ze/zer/zers.”

My name is Tetcha,” Techa replied. “Xe/xem/xyr.”

I know!” Getcha chortled. “Isn’t it funny? We agreed I should approach you because of our names.”

Cute,” Tetcha grunted.

I’m kidding. I’m here because this is my district,” gesturing downward. “Our names are a great coincidence.”

Can’t win ‘em all.”

But you can win the right ones sometimes,” ze cheerfully declared. “I’ll go first. You are free to back out at any time.”

OK.”

And with that, they both went down the hole. I dared to follow, because I was tracking Tetcha. That was not strictly my duty, and Abacus was with xem, too. But I could probably use that excuse to also follow the Monster without actually following the Monster, keeping the action technically legal. I hoped.

It was Tetcha’s turn to be introduced to the Fallow decks, and then shortly, at Gretcha’s insistence, another set of abandoned living quarters. Where they sat on the floor.

Who are you?” Tetcha asked once they were situated.

A Monster,” came the reply.

Why do you call yourself that?”

Because we’re different,” xyr host rocked back a bit, holding zer feet to keep from falling. “We choose to be different. We challenge the system.”

Is that why you and your friends have been shadowing me and my friends?”

Yes, precisely!” A big, friendly grin.

Why?!” cried Tetcha.

Gretcha held up a clawed finger, then put it down on the floor between them. “What are the two human rights?” ze asked.

Autonomy and Consent,” Tetcha recited from xyr first lessons with Abacus and xyr Caretaker. Xe just refrained from rolling xyr eyes.

Good,” the little Monster nodded with satisfaction. “Everything the Crew does is to maintain those two rights for everyone while we are all stuck in this tiny little world,” ze explained.

So they say,” Tetcha rumbled.

Exactly!” clapped Gretcha. “You’re good at this! So, what’s the problem?”

Life is messy!” Tetcha snapped. Xe’d been over this so many times with Morde. “My autonomy sometimes violates your consent. Or worse, my lack of consent to something sometimes violates your lack of consent to something.”

Close, but not quite. The Crew manage those gray areas pretty well, actually. They educate us all pretty well and prep us for living with others, through our caretakers and Tutors. I have some quibbles with the details, but that’s not the problem.”

Tetcha frowned and looked down at xyr own feet, and was reminded of those conversations xe’d had with Morde. At first, xe was thinking about how what Morde wanted and needed was at odds with what xe wanted and needed, and what xe was afraid that meant for their future. Tetcha was really scared for Morde when it came down to it, though. Even if their partnership were to break, what mattered to Tetcha was that Morde would keep living, and be happy somehow. And something Morde had said had given xem a chill. But xe also had to agree with it. It was a problem. So xe thought, maybe, it was relevant here, “We… don’t give consent to live in the first place.”

Hotcha!” declared Tetcha’s host, proudly flashing xem double finger guns.

I never thought about that,” Tetcha admitted, “because I like being alive.”

But Morde doesn’t.”

Tetcha’s eyes widened. Xe didn’t know how to respond to Gretcha having that knowledge. Xe didn’t like that it was true, didn’t know how to face it.

Why are you here, anyway?” Gretcha asked.

You… Monsters have been following us. One of you said some scary things.” Then very sternly, pointedly, “You know things about us you shouldn’t.”

And?”

I want to know if you know something I don’t.”

Oh, lots of things!” Gretcha chuckled with smugness. “But you too, you know.”

Huh.” Tetcha grunted.

It’s OK, I don’t need to know what you know, but I’m curious. We can make a fair trade. What’s it like to have the nanites?”

I haven’t really used them,” xe waved a hand dismissively in front of xyr face. “I’ve only used them like a normal terminal.”

I’ve never had one of those,” the Monster said.

But you…” Tetcha leaned this way and that to check for the old signs of an implant. “You look old enough!”

Yep!” Pure, cheerful smugness, “Much older, even. But I’m disconnected! All Monsters are.”

What about your Tutor?” Tetcha was confused and worried.

I released it so it can go teach someone else.”

You can do that?!”

Consent and Autonomy,” Gretcha reminded xem. I could sense Abacus tensing and straining to remain silent. I knew how it would feel in this situation, with a Monster explaining just how to become a Monster, and not be allowed to speak up due to Crew edict. And this monster continued, “They just never explicitly tell you how far it extends.”

Does your tablet still work?” Tetcha asked.

That’s what this box is for,” came the explanation, as ze turned zers over in zer hands. “Some of us know how to make ‘em. Also these allow us to open things only Tutors can open. We’ve got physical access to things other people don’t. The Crew must think it’s a fair trade or something.”

Then, how did Toost open the Crew hatch back there?” Tetcha wondered.

A Monster must have left it unlocked,” Gretcha shrugged.

So, what do the Monsters want?”

Maximum autonomy. We just want to live as ourselves in a way that no one else can. We’re not any more unified than that, though. We share resources and skills, of course, and information. Face to face, by word of mouth. It’s a matter of survival. But we don’t all have the same goals beyond that.”

Weird.”

Any weirder than accepting your place in the hive mind?”

Uh,” that brought Tetcha back from xyr place of judgment. “No, I guess not.”

Gretcha decided to make a point of obviously studying Tetcha for a little while, as if ze was thinking about how to proceed next, based on what ze saw.

Then ze asked, “Did you know you can go back on your deal with the Crew? If you don’t like the nanites, you can ditch ‘em.”

Really?”

Consent and Autonomy,” ze repeated. “You can kill a person, too. But hardly anyone does. We all mostly don’t want to.”

What?!” Tetcha nearly scrambled back to stand up, but stopped xemself despite how uncomfortable xe suddenly was with that turn in the conversation.

Everything on the Sunspot is taken care of. Our basic needs are taken care of and most of our deep neurological needs, too,” Gretcha pressed on. “Even the weirdest, most wildly different ways of thinking and feeling are accommodated. Allowed to be, but not stamped out. Except dysphoria, yet. They don’t have a handle on that. Well, and a couple other things.”

Oh, right,” Tetcha relaxed a little. “Abacus told me all that when I was younger. But killing? Really?”

Some people need death,” Gretcha declared blithely, with a wave of zer hand. Then, matter of factly, “Actually, we all do. If no one died, this steel can would be so stuffed with life there’d be no air. But some people are in such agony that can’t be treated, they personally need it.”

But taking your own life isn’t the same as taking another,” Tetcha pointed out with a tinge of warning in xyr voice.

Very true. So, there must be a reason that killing another is allowed. Like, why you’re not paralyzed or stopped in another way by the Crew if you try it. They almost certainly have the power.”

Tetcha furrow xyr brow and grasped xyr own shoulders, “This conversation is making me scared and sick.”

Sorry,” Gretcha relented. “I’ll stop.”

They then spent several seconds looking at each other, waiting to see who would talk next, and about what.

Gretcha broke the silence with, “Think you might be a Monster?”

What? No!”

Again, the silent stalemate. The dare to speak first.

Again, Gretcha broke first, “We’re pretty cool people.”

I’m not sure about that.”

OK. Suit yourself.”

If I give up my connection to the Network,” Tetcha countered, “I give up my connection to Morde. I can’t do that.”

No you don’t!” Gretcha contradicted xem. “You still have your voice. You still have your face and hands. You still have your feelings for each other.” Ze pointed at xem with every sentence. “You are in each others’ souls. That’s all you really need.”

But what if one of us dies?”

A relaxed grin, as if the lesson reached the important conclusion, “That’s the really big question, isn’t it?”

And all the while that conversation was coming to that point, Morde was making preparations for something that felt increasingly ominous. Sie had arranged and rearranged hir cloak, then momentarily sat on it like a pillow, still buck naked, and picked up hir tablet.

Sie pressed the screen a few times, flipping through archives of personal notes sie’d taken over the years. Then sie just stared at it for a long time.

Finally, sie put it back in that place where the front facing camera would have a good view of the beach, got up, rearranged hir robe once again, and then drifted halfway toward the water.

Ralf?” sie asked, turning to look at the tablet,

Yes?” asked hir Tutor.

You know I love you, right?”

I don’t like where this is going, boss,” Ralf intoned, worried.

I’ve noticed something,” Morde said, seemingly off hand.

Consciously this time?” the Tutor quipped.

Your snark is my favorite thing about you,” Morde smiled with hir eyes, then looked wistful. “I wish you’d use it when you’re not resentful of me, though. I’m sorry.”

Apology accepted, I think,” apprehensive.

I’ve noticed the obvious, of course.”

Oh, of course!”

You AI Tutors are all different,” Morde finally explained. “You’re supposed to teach us how to live on the Sunspot harmoniously with everyone. But you all have different… Moods.”

Of course we do. We’re people, too. Just, Network people.”

But then, your differences must affect the way each person is raised and educated.”

It does.”

How much of that affects things like my dysphoria, or the way I’m here and Tetcha is…” Morde looked around as if about to gesture with hir hand, but settled on the tablet again, “somewhere else?”

Ever ask yourself this, boss?” Ralf countered. “How much does your uniqueness affect me?”

Oh,” Morde hadn’t.

I’m glad you’ve figured out how to harness the nanites,” Ralf said, hopefully. “I think it will help with your dysphoria. It should prolong your life.”

Ralf,” Morde settled lower on hir tendrily arms. “What happens when I don’t need you anymore?”

When you die, I get assigned to another Student. You know that,” Ralf replied, suspicion tinged its voice.

But can I still be friends with you?”

You’re dead then, so not really,” sounding increasingly concerned.

What if I don’t need you as a Tutor while I’m still alive?”

Pure awkwardness radiated from the tablet and filled the air with silent distress.

After the discomfort really permeated everything, Ralf snapped, “Why the living fuck would that happen, boss?”

Because I think I need to be free of your responsibility to do what I need to do,” Morde answered with measured calmness.

Why?!” cried Ralf, panicked.

I don’t know!” Morde said. “I just feel it.”

Oh, fuck your feelings.”

You’re as headstrong as Tetcha,” Morde dismissed it.

Your feelings bring that out in us,” Ralf retaliated thoughtlessly. They were both becoming abusive toward each other, and I could not intervene. I could just be a witness. I still disagree with this restriction.

OK, fair,” Morde relented, and I could feel Ralf relax a little at that. Only to tense up when sie continued, “But, I CAN release you from my service, right? This is just a hunch, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Since you taught me about Autonomy and Consent.”

Ralf was broken by that, and had only one tactic left, “It’s your dysphoria, isn’t it?”

Sure,” Morde admitted, but again pressed. “Can I, though?”

Yes. Yes,” Ralf heaved a huge simulated sigh, “and we can still be friends. Though I’ll be really busy. We’ll grow apart.”

You might be surprised,” Morde started to get back up.

I’d rather you didn’t try me,” Ralf pleaded. “I like arguing with you. I’ll miss it.”

Morde drew hirself up and said in a clear authoritative tone, “Ralf, I hereby release you from your duty to me.”

Dammit. No, Morde!”

Yes. I release you.” Then, waving at the sky and shouting, “You hear that, Crew?! I release Ralf!”

I think I taught you too well,” Ralf said.

Ralf?” Morde held hir arms partially out, apparently readying for something. I felt my code drop out from under me, a chill run through my being. Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

What?”

How quickly do you think nanites can alter a living body?” Morde asked.

Ralf started by answering that as if it was a straight question then realized what was about to happen, too late. “No one’s tried it — oh, fuck no.” Morde had already started.

A black slime of pure nanites crawled up and covered all of Morde, from tip of tentacle to top of head, and became a wreathing mass.

Don’t!” shouted Ralf.

But the mass of nanites became increasingly deformed, and there was no answer from Morde.

Slumping to the ground in short, broken falls, the lump of slime slowly became a widening pool, with less and less room in it for a body the size of Morde, no matter how flexible sie might have been. And then it all began to seep into the sand, leaving a stain that simply looked like a wave from the bay had washed over the area.

Ralf was stunned into silence. I could hear in that silence its horror and indecision. It could not have known what to do next. The procedures for moving on to the next Student were all in place, and it would happen easily in time, but Ralf had to process what had just happened. And its mind had to be a blank slate. I had been there before, myself. I knew what it was like. I was feeling the same things all over again, paralyzed myself by them, otherwise I would have reached out to be supportive.

Boo!” Morde’s voice came from the Tablet.

Holy shit!” Ralf screamed.

I fled from the scene.

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