1.05 Confrontation

of Systems’ Out!

Myra was very distracted during the next Council of Eleven meeting. Xe was thinking about what was going on in the meeting and worrying about the implications of it, what it meant for xem and xyr experiences with xyr headmates from that day forward. Everyone there was thinking about it, and they were talking, deliberating. But Myra had zoned out at the mention of the word “integration” and found xemself in a loop of rumination about it.

Integration was pretty rare. In fact, it was almost more of a rumor than anything. But xe was still afraid of it, and curious about it at the same time.

Some plural systems, apparently, had strived for it. And some had achieved it. Some had achieved it accidentally. And in becoming integrated, they had become singlets, according to stories in the plural community.

According to Metabang, me, there are no clear records of that actually happening. Everything seems to indicate that systems who think they have integrated still show neurological signs of plurality upon being implanted with a neural terminal. They continue to work as one, a tight cooperative, and feel as if they are singlet, but the terminal still picks up patterns of plural dissociation. But with the neurodiversity present in humanity, actual true integration can’t be ruled out, and I had told the Pembers that as well.

The Pembers were in agreement that they were not interested in integration. Even if integration was just a higher level of cooperation than they already had. They were proud of their plurality and of their individuality, and were scared of losing themselves to the group identity. So, they were holding a vote to do something to avoid what they feared. They were moving to shake things up by changing the membership of the Council by system wide internal vote. Some of the membership would remain in place, while others would step down and give their positions to new elected members.

Myra’s worrying was not interrupted by Morga’s words, “Are we ready for a vote?” But xe did hear them and started to come out of it.

I am,” Jural replied. “So, seconded?”

Morga looked at Jural and nodded, approving of the parliamentary procedure. Then to the rest of the council, “All in favor of proceeding to a vote, say ‘Aye’.”

Ayes” started to spread through the ranks, not immediately. They didn’t come all at once. Each member spent a little extra time trying to think about it. They all knew that they were going to vote unanimously, but they were giving themselves the space to dissent if possible. And when no thoughts of dissent presented themselves, that strengthened their resolve.

Myra was the last vote. Xe had been counting. But before xe could pull xyrself together to go through the ceremony xemself, a familiar but unexpected voice spoke to xyr right and slightly behind xyr, “Ney.”

Myra spun to look up and everyone else raised their attention to follow.

An empty cloak hovered there in the forum space, as if it was occupied.

You’re not on the Council!” Myra snapped before xe could fully register what xe was seeing. Xe just knew that the person there was not a Pember.

I know. I’ve just always wanted to butt in,” the hood seemed to look down in deference. “Sorry.”

With the posture and movement, it clicked for Myra, who squinted and craned xyr neck to look up into the empty hood, “Morde?” xe asked incredulously. “How did you get in our head?!”

Morga scowled.

Ah,” Morde said. “You all slipped. You are in your nanites, online, not your head. And this forum is not secure because whoever built it didn’t notice what they’d done,” sie paused to watch Jural glance at Morga. “So, I figured I should let you know so that you can be more careful next time. But also, I found my true self. And before you all take action, I think you should wait for what I do next.”

What would that be?” Morga asked in a grumpy tone.

Get more information. I’m going to visit the Flits and Tetcha next, then I’m going to try something rash.”

Again,” Jural turned to back up Morga’s inquiry. “What would that be?”

I’m going to test the Monster’s claims,” Morde gestured vaguely with hir arms, but no one could interpret it because sie had no hands. “I’m going to seek out the chief Monster. Maybe I can get them to stop stalking us, too.”

Oh?” Myra asked, with more sympathy than Jural or Morga.

Well, stalking you. They can’t follow me anymore,” Morde added.

That statement sounded foreboding and made Myra nervous, “What do you mean?”

Morde appeared to look down again, and hesitated before explaining, “Well, I had to deal with my dysphoria. It was killing me fast. And, I had to prepare for my trip to the Engine Room.”

We’ve been all over the accessible parts of the Sunspot,” Bet spoke up. “We can’t find any Engine Room.”

Balmer interjected, “The Flits are still wandering below decks, too. Found a working transit. They’re headed to the endcap, but we don’t think there’s an access point there. Not even from the lower levels.”

I think it’s online,” Morde said.

Oh!” The exclamation burst from Morga, who slapped xyr knee, “of course!”

And I was too attached to my body and its dysphoria to focus on finding it.”

Even though that’s what xe expected, it still startled Myra, who snapped, “What?!” Without Morde stating clearly what sie had done, no matter how heavily it was implied, it was hard to believe it.

I think dysphoria comes from different places,” Morde turned hir hood toward Myra, and Myra felt as if hir eyes were there, invisible, piercing xyr own with a knowing expression. “Some people, it’s social. A disconnect between the way people see them and the way they are. For others it’s neurological. It might even go deeper than that sometimes, but not me. And neurological dysphoria is still so different from person to person.”

What did you do?” Myra asked, knowing but needing it spelled out loud.

Well, maybe my dysphoria was cellular,” Morde continued to postulate. “But you know how some people can’t stand the feel of their arms. Or their face. Or other specific parts of their bodies? Sometimes it’s just their dominant hormones and that can be fixed. Sometimes it’s social expectations of their bodies. But sometimes it’s something wrong with their very cells.”

What did you do?”

What I had to do. And it’s going to be OK. Maybe.”

Morga spelled it out, finally, “You killed your body.”

Actually, I didn’t,” Morde visibly turned to xem, lightening hir voice, adding a tinge of enthusiasm. “I’m not in it anymore, and the cells aren’t the same. But they’re still alive. I couldn’t bear to kill them. They deserve their own autonomy.” And then, after a moment of not being sure everyone grasped that, sie added, “I did leave them on the beach, though.”

Everyone but Morga was visibly aghast.

Also,” Morde said. “I think that when you all create a body outside your old one and walk around in it, you’re actually in it. You’re connected to your subconscious core by the Network, but you also have a copy of that core with you in the nanites.”

Myra had enough wherewithal to blink xemself out of horror and ask, “Really?”

That’s what it feels like, yes,” Morde affirmed. “The transition was smooth. There was only a faint flicker as everything fell away, but it felt like I was gaining even more consciousness, not losing it.”

How?” Jural seemed to jump a little when vocalizing that, as if it took an effort to push it out or to restrain verself from acting further.

Morde considered ver before saying, “I have theories. But Tetcha’s the one that’s really good at figuring this stuff out. That’s why xe sounds so fearful so often. Xe doesn’t show it otherwise, but xyr brain is constantly spinning at 10 Gs.”

They spent a little bit more time working out how to agree with what Morde was saying and what hir plans were. Nothing substantial was said that hadn’t been said in that exchange already. Then Morde left. And then they started discussing their vote again.

The next thing sie did was locate the Flits, who were walking toward a lift near the Aft Endcap. As Morde moved to make contact, Breq interjected and gave a suggestion. Morde happily assented.

When the lift door opened to admit the Flits, they saw Morde’s disembodied cloak floating in the middle of the lift. It was obvious to them that it wasn’t really there, but that they were seeing Morde’s online presence superimposed on the space.

This is neat!” Morde declared.

Ketta tilted the Flits’ head up and said, “Breq showed us how to activate the Augmented Reality overlay. I guess all Terminals have it, and it thought we had learned enough to be OK with it.”

Yeah,” Morde replied. “It noticed when I got here and told me. That’s why I’m projecting for you. Figured we’d all appreciate it.”

Ketta moved the Flits by stepping onto the lift

You’ve,” Lil’e said. “Changed.” Ve looked over at Morde.

Yes, quite a lot,” Morde appeared to look back.

I like it,” Lil’e chirped easily.

Thank you. So…” and Morde began to explain the situation and hir hopes to the Flits as the door closed.

Some time later, Tetcha was still sitting with Gretcha on the floor of the abandoned apartment. Gretcha was grinning really big, nearly but not quite lost in zer wrinkles. There were a set of cards between them.

That skips you,” Tetcha recited while placing three cards onto the middle stack, “then me, then you. I go again.”

Yep!” Gretcha slapped zer knees in joy. “See? You’re learning! This game is way better with three or four people, though. Two is just silly.”

Like Tonk,” said Tetcha, who had no idea what Tonk was.

Yes, yes! See? Learning!” Gretcha snapped with zer fingers.

Tetcha, turn on your augmented reality protocol.” It was Morde’s voice, coming from Abacus’ tablet, which made Tetcha jump.

What? Morde?!” Tetcha leaned over to peer at the tablet’s screen. “How? You’re in my Tablet?”

Yep!” Morde quipped. “Turn on your Augmented Reality Protocol. It’s neat! Abacus, show xem.”

Abacus acquiesced by instructing, “Tetcha, just say, ‘A.R. protocol on’.”

How’d you get permission?” Tetcha frowned.

Just say it!” came Morde’s voice again.

Tetcha sighed audibly and spoke, “A.R. Protocol on.” Suddenly xe could see Morde’s cloak hovering behind Gretcha ominously. “What the -?”

Unfortunately,” Morde said through that connection. “Your friend here can’t hear me now. But I had to show you. I’ll talk through your Tablet again, for them.”

Gretcha twisted to look where Tetcha was looking and asked, “Do we have a third player?”

Tetcha scowled at Morde, feeling a chill creeping up from the floor where xe was sitting, “Where’s your face?”

I…” Morde was uncertain how to inform hir partner of what sie’d done. From the outside, this exchange looked quick and even flippant at moments, but it really wasn’t. Emotions were running high in both of them. “‘Transitioned’ is a good term for it.”

How?” Tetcha asked, become visibly more tense.

Morde replied slowly and carefully, but kept it simple and as direct as sie dared, “The nanites, of course. But as you can see, I’m still here. Alive.”

What do you mean?”

Morde felt the need to deflect again, to demonstrate instead, “You’re pretty far away from a source, so it’s gonna take me a while to get here. But sure, I’ll join in on your game. Tetcha, in the mean time, I need your help figuring something out. You’re really good at putting together the weirdest ideas.” Sie hoped that an appeal to Tetcha’s nature would help smooth things over and help xem digest what xe was about to learn.

Tetcha did seem to relax a little, “OK, but what do you mean?” Still suspicious.

I’ll get to that,” Morde said. “Just promise me you’ll trust my magic and focus.”

Tetcha was stricken that Morde not only wouldn’t tell xem what sie had done, but had also referred to hir intuition as hir magic. Xe swallowed, eyes wide, visibly shaking, then pulled xemself together, remembering past conversations and promises and said, “OK.”

Morde’s projection sat down between Gretcha and Tetcha, as if joining the game of cards, “Alright. When my body gets here, it’ll sit where I’m sitting now, and we’ll link. So, Tetcha…”

Yes?”

How do you think consciousness works?” Morde asked. “Thinking about what we’ve heard from the Flits and the Pembers and all that we’re going through now. Do you think consciousness is anchored to the body?”

Yes?”

What if I have evidence that it might not be?”

Oh now we’re getting somewhere!” Gretcha exclaimed.

Morde glanced at zem, but ze couldn’t see that. Gretcha was focused on the Tablet where Morde’s voice was coming from. Then Morde turned back to Tetcha, “OK, here’s what I told the Pembers. And when I’m done, and we’re done with this game, I want you to go to them and tell them your conclusions. Tell the Flits, too.”

Why can’t you tell them?” Tetcha asked, more amiable than before.

Morde paused long enough for a grin that nobody would have seen even if sie had had hir body, “Because I’ll be busy provoking the Crew. Now listen…”

During all of this, the Pembers were lying on their bed, staring at the ceiling, hands behind their head. Well, their body was doing that. Many of them were all over different parts of the Sunspot. But Myra was fronting and staring at the ceiling while xyr newly coconsious headmates were settling in and talking to each other.

After a few hours, I announced the arrival of some of their friends, “Tetcha and someone else are here at the door.”

Myra sat up, “Let them in!”

Tetcha and Gretcha walked in the door. Gretcha immediately started touching things, which distracted Myra while Tetcha ignored it. But Gretcha didn’t keep anything ze picked up, and was very gentle.

Hey,” Tetcha spoke searchingly, wondering if things were still OK between them, not sure how to explain where xe’d been.

Hi!” Myra jumped up to offer xem a hug, “Are you OK?”

I think so,” Tetcha said, accepting the hug. Turning to introduce, “This is Gretcha. Ze’s one of the Monsters. Ze’ll actually answer questions about them, unlike the other one.”

Oh,” Gretcha put down Bet’s favorite puzzle, and looked at Tetcha, “that was Veron, probably. They’re a Discordian.”

What’s that?” asked Myra.

The opposite of an accordion.”

Also, I talked to Morde,” Tetcha jumped in before that conversation could get out of hand. Xe’d been around Getcha long enough to pick up on the patterns.

Myra cheered up, “Oh, good!”

And, sie told me to talk to you,” Tetcha said solemnly and carefully. “The Flits, too, but I guess they’re off near the Aft Endcap, so I’ll do that online. At least while I still have my terminal.”

Myra looked worried, “What do you mean?”

I’m not sure, but I’m thinking of maybe joining the Monsters,” Tetcha explained. “But only for a little while,” feeling the need to be reassuring. “What they do is scary. Especially with what I suspect now.”

Ever since we got these nanite terminals, all my friends have started doing scary things!” Myra cried at that. “Including my own headmates!”

Yeah,” Tetcha agreed, clearly too tired to emote as much as Myra was doing. “Anyway. Remember what Morde was saying about hir… transition? How it felt?”

Yes,” Myra nodded, swallowing.

I think it works like this. Over time, the old neural terminals become like an extension of your brain,” Tetcha looked for a place to sit and slumped into the nearest chair at the table. “At least that’s what they say. People say it feels like they can think better and faster as they get older, and they feel their senses expand. I think the nanites help us reach that state faster.”

OK. I think I follow,” Myra said, sitting opposite.

Gretcha just walked up to the table and kept looking back and forth between the two of them, eyes barely clearing the table edge.

Tetcha continued xyr last thought about the nanites, “Much, much faster.” Xe looked back out the now closed door as if gazing at xyr partner somewhere, “Morde thinks maybe so much so that we’re already existing mostly in our nanite terminals, echoing our brain activity near perfectly and expanding beyond it.” Then, after a moment’s thought, “You know? We can probably ask our Tutors about this! Abacus?”

Abacus responded without considering the present company, “Your neural and metabolic patterns have changed significantly since installing the nanites.”

Tetcha gestured at an empty spot in the room, “See?”

No, actually,” Myra said, confused. Gretcha shook zer head vigorously.

Oh,” Tetcha squinted. “Say, ‘A.R. Protocol On’.”

A.R. Protocol On,” Myra repeated.

Abacus appeared in the room for Myra. And instant later I decided to project myself in their space, following Abacus’ lead. But I was wondering if I shouldn’t do something to accommodate Gretcha as well.

One disadvantage of being a Monster,” Gretcha muttered to Tetcha.

I’m thinking about trying out Monsterhood to test this,” Tetcha explained to Myra, forgetting xe hadn’t heard Abacus. “See if I become two people, one in this body and one in the nanites. Or if that matters, even. You probably have insight into that as a member of a blendy system.”

You’re losing me, I think. I don’t have the same Council members backing up my thoughts as before,” Myra shook xyr head. “We held an election, and our memories are jumbled.”

Tetcha mouthed a silent “ah” and nodded, “Sorry. Morde keeps leading me on. And Gretcha has that habit, too. I guess I picked it up.”

Gretcha and Myra watched with curious anticipation as Tetcha took a deep breath.

Consciousness might not be anchored to the body and I think I know who the Crew are,” Tetcha said. “There’s just the big question of why they remain so secluded.”

What. Do. You. Mean?” Myra drew out the words to indicate that xe still felt Tetcha was stalling and prompting questions.

They’re our ancestors!” Tetcha finally blurted with excitement, momentarily getting energy from the idea. “Ascended to the Network through their old Terminals. And I think they’ve given us these nanite Terminals in order to improve the process! Also to properly treat dysphoria finally. They probably took so long to approve the idea out of fear.”

Gretcha nodded sagely, “The nanites are pretty scary! Especially if they got out of control, right?”

Tetcha gestured ascent at Gretcha, looking at Myra, “I can think of all sorts of nightmares. Especially with how they can blur what a person is and with that the lines between autonomy and consent. Also, if someone gained control of all the nanites, they could destroy the whole ship.”

Ah. Oh. So…” Myra searched what memories xe had of their last conversation with Tetcha’s partner, “What’s Morde doing to provoke the Crew? And why? Xe only hinted at it to us, and didn’t explain.”

Sie’s going to go talk to the chief Monster,” Tetcha replied. “Sie still hates the Crew.”

Sie told us that already,” Myra said, recalling that much. “I thought sie was going to ask you if you had ideas about how to get there, but I didn’t think that would provoke the Crew. Don’t the Monsters visit their chief?”

Through these, yeah,” Gretcha spoke up, holding zer modified Tablet high so it could be seen above the table. “It’s got protocols you all don’t have access to. Trade off for being a Monster.”

So, I could talk to them through that?” Myra pointed at the Tablet.

But I’m not going to let you,” Gretcha put it away.

Why not?” Myra asked, furrowing xyr brow.

Because I don’t want to be the one to provoke the Crew. It’s probably a minor offense, but still.”

Myra let xyr hands land on the table, “So, now what?”

I think we wait,” Tetcha said. “Wanna play Shithead after I inform the Flits?”

What’s that?” Myra asked.

Gretcha opened zer mouth in the biggest, happiest grin, “A terrible old card game!”

I watched as Gretcha started dealing and explaining and Tetcha messaged the Flits.

I could not watch what Morde was doing, but I have accounts from all parties involved.

There’s a place online that is like the inside of a grey lozenge. It’s a permanent forum, usually only frequented by select members of the Crew. It was not the Engine Room.

It was empty when Morde appeared there.

Hm,” Morde vocalized to the empty space. Sie had decided to take a detour before attempting the Engine Room, but had expected someone to be here. “Ralf?” sie called out.

Ralf didn’t appear. Of course, it was already pursuing its next assignment, but it had promised Morde it would answer if it could. So long as sie didn’t do so too often.

Can’t come here,” Morde spoke to hirself. “This must be it. OK.” Sie raised hir arms, and shouted, “HELLO CREW! ANSWER TO ME!”

For precisely three seconds, nothing happened. Hir voice didn’t even echo — it wasn’t a physical space.

Then, “This is the Bridge,” came a voice from behind Morde. “The ship is asleep right now. You’re not supposed to be here.”

Morde turned to look and retorted, “I’m technically Crew now, aren’t I?”

No. But you have provisional permissions.” The individual who had appeared there had an imposing figure. Greyish green hide, with bone colored plates running down their long neck and chest, with gigantic wings folded loosely behind them, a tufted tail wipping back and forth, an ivory colored mane pierced by two long horns that were swept back from the rear of their skull, they had striking blue eyes, a large, wide snout with spacious nostrils, and a bearded underbite with two tusks jutting up in front of their nose. They stood two and a half times taller than Morde, resting on their haunches, with their forearms resting on their knees, “We’re divided about how to proceed,” they grumbled. “We’re watching to see what you do. To get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. And you’re not the only one going through this.”

Oh,” Morde advanced on them boldly, “Do you realize what you’re doing to people like me?”

Yes.”

No,” Morde corrected. “I mean, people who have been hurting since they were made, like me.”

Yes,” said the Crew Member, firmly. “Yes, I personally do.”

Morde drifted back what would have been a pace for someone else.

This is life,” the Crew Member gestured with their chin in a circular motion at everything. “We’re just trying to live life and let it live and be itself as best as it can. You are our children. You are new, and unique, and the product of millions and millions of years of evolution. Some of it accelerated by this ship’s processors, but still very much you.”

But I didn’t consent to be me,” sie put a low snarly sound to hir voice, tense.

I know,” they replied. “And I didn’t consent to be me. I didn’t consent to be born into terrifying, violating dysphoria any more than you did.”

Morde couldn’t hold it in. Every gram of agony, every litre of personal loss, distress at feeling like hir life had been taken from hir by the ever present grueling distraction of dysphoria and no one’s ability do anything about it until sie had chosen to cut hir connection to hir body entirely, destroy it, dissolve it, leaving nothing behind — it all exploded out of hir in a seething rage, as hir vision dimmed with the effort, “Then why let it happen again?!”

The Crew Member squared their shoulders and adjusted their wings, then answered in gentle but resolute tones, “In hopes that we can learn how to prevent it. And because it’s so temporary.”

Temporary?!” Morde shouted. “Yeah, it’s gone now!” Sie flailed with one arm as if gesturing at the past. “But every moment of dysphoria I experienced is eternal! It’s an agony I still carry with me in my nightmares and memories!” Sie held up both arms as if clenching absent fists together in front of hir empty hood, trembling, “I shouldn’t have had to experience it at all. And you have the power to stop people like us from being made!”

No. I don’t. In order to do that, we have to stop life altogether.”

Please do!”

There was a long silence as the Crew Member let Morde’s words hang in the air, while Morde waited to see what they’d say. Eventually they sighed and said, “You need to talk to Phage.”

Morde straightened a little, and asked warily, exasperated, “Who’s Phage?”

The Chief Monster,” came the reply. “It’s stuck in the Engine Room.”

Why do I need to talk to it, and how do I get there anyway?”

You, just go,” the Crew said, “to the Engine Room. Like how you came here. Phage can give you perspective I can’t,” they explained. “But listen…”

Please,” Morde insisted.

The Crew Member leaned forward and put a gigantic clawed hand down on the floor of the Bridge, to lower their eyes to peer into Morde’s hood, “I wasn’t made. I was born,” they emphasized. “My body didn’t look like this,” gesturing with their other claw at their girth and length. “It was more different from this than your current form is from your old body. I was born like the fauna in the Garden. And I had dysphoria from the instant I had my first thought. It was, by appearances, at least as bad as yours.” They paused long enough to let that sink in, then acquiesced, “But we can never really know.”

It doesn’t matter,” Morde growled, almost reflexively. Sie knew that they understood, though, “However severe it is, it’s bad enough.”

I agree,” the Crew Member sat up. “I also feel the same way you do. I still do. But, I couldn’t blame anyone but my own two parents. They took a gamble. A pretty good one. The odds were high that they’d get a cisgender child, as we called it in those days. They didn’t. That word means nothing here, of course. We made sure of that. It’s one of the reasons we ‘Crew’ sequester ourselves. To let your culture remain pure and free of unfair birth assignments.”

But it doesn’t work.”

No, it doesn’t. Dysphoria still exists due to other factors,” the Crew Member explained, and Morde nodded. “Chaos is everywhere. We can’t stamp it out entirely. Nor should we. But we can always strive to make things just that much better. To that end, we are considering bringing our seclusion to an end. So we can be better parents. Go talk to Phage.”

What about me?” Morde asked. “When do I become Crew?”

The Crew Member smiled, “That’s up for a change, too.”

Right about that time, Tetcha was picking up xyr cards after communicating with xyr other friends, and saying, “The Flits are on their way back. Have you noticed that even though keh says keh’s got kihns dysphoria handled, Ketta is grumpy when in their body and cheerful when in kihns own?”

Balmer pointed that out, yes,” Myra responded.

Welp,” Tetcha quipped, “they’re discussing the implications of what I said about consciousness and the Crew. Amongst themselves. Loudly.”

That will make anyone they share a transit car with super comfortable,” Myra over emphasized the last two words of that.

Sarcasming from experience?” Tetcha asked, flipping through xyr hand.

No.The subject matter.”

Oh. Yes. Of course. Do you…?” Tetcha glanced briefly at Gretcha. “Are you OK with talking about murder?”

I think so,” Myra replied, squaring xyr cards off and looking around the table, then at Tetcha, concern on xyr face. “Yes. You have my consent. Why?”

Something Gretcha told me is still bothering me,” Tetcha said.

Oh, yeah. That,” came from Gretcha, who had hauled zerself up on a stool.

Tetcha turned to the little Monster, “Just who is murdering people? I’ve never heard of it outside of legends. Like what people used to do.”

It still happens,” Gretcha said, without looking up from zer hand. “It’s just really pretty rare.”

How do the Monsters know about this? Are you the murderers?”

Oh, no,” Gretcha put zer hand face down on the table and looked up at both of them. “Not any more than the rest of the populace. Too much is at stake for us to risk that anyway.”

So, there are consequences,” Tetcha inferred.

Gretcha nodded, “The Crew let the regional governments enact their own laws, as you know. They really only restrict what the regional governments can do, so as to protect our human rights. Even the human rights of murderers. But yeah, regional laws usually cover it.”

Huh.”

But since, as you’re guessing, for most of the populace, death of the body is only a minor setback, the regional governments have some leeway as to just what the consequences are, depending on the circumstances.”

And that’s why the stakes are so high for you?” Tetcha asked

Exactamacta!” and there were those double finger guns again.

So,” Myra spoke up to ask, “why do you risk permanent death to live unplugged from the network?”

We don’t risk it. We embrace it,” Gretcha said proudly.

Both Myra and Tetcha were appalled and exclaimed simultaneously, “What?”

Hey,” Gretcha responded. “Until you got your terminals, it’s what you faced. And until you figured out the purpose of the terminals – which the general populace doesn’t know by the way – it’s all you could expect!”

True,” Tetcha relented reluctantly, glancing at Myra to see if xe got it too.

We Monsters,” Gretcha continued, “reject continued life for a number of reasons. So many. As many as there are Monsters. In return, we’re given just enough resources to help us avoid misunderstandings and accidents that might result in an early death.”

Including our personal information?” asked Myra with an accusatory tone.

No. We dig that up ourselves,” Gretcha answered easily, “through observation. You haven’t been discrete. And some of us are real busybodies, like some of you are. They call it, ‘taking precautions.’ Some of us really don’t like what the Crew seems to be doing.” Ze shrugged, “To the Crew, we’re dissenting voices. A protected class, of sorts, so long as we don’t actively hurt anyone.”

Myra snorted, “Oh, I bet a lot of rumors and legends are started by the Monsters.”

Maybe,” Gretcha voiced. “People are people. You all do it too.”

So. What does the Chief Monster usually have to say to you?” Tetcha leaned forward.

Gretcha looked at xyr and grinned, “You’ll have to talk to it to find out.”

Myra followed that quickly with, “If the Engine Room is only online, like we think, and the Monsters all stay offline, how can the Chief Monster be a Monster?”

Gretcha smirked and grunted, “Names are just names.” Nodding in the direction of the Aft Endcap, “It,” ze referred to the Chief Monster, “is different.”

And coincidentally, at right about that time, Morde was appearing in a different Network space, one that was all darkness. Sie could perceive hir own avatar, much as if sie consisted entirely of hir cloak (as sie now typically animated it with nanites) floating in actual space, with some sort of unseen light source illuminating hir presence. But there was nothing else to see.

Sie was expecting this to be the Engine Room, but saw nothing to indicate sie’d arrived to the correct address.

Hello?” Morde called.

Hello,” a voice casually answered, an indeterminate distance away.

Phage?” sie asked.

Yes. And you are?”

My name is Morde.”

No one,” Phage said, “has visited me in this manner, ever.”

Morde hadn’t expected that. If accounts were right, Phage had been here for hundreds and hundreds of years, and in all that time the Monsters had communicated with it regularly somehow. Sie couldn’t imagine no one ever visiting it in person, “Not even the Crew?”

No. Not even them. They are afraid of me or hate me.”

Morde tried looking around to see some sort of detail, some sort of clue as to where Phage was and reported, “The one I talked to doesn’t seem to hate you. They seem to respect you.”

They could show their respect,” Phage responded simply.

How do they talk to you?”

Comms. Network channels. Same channels the Monsters use,” Phage replied. “They could come here, but don’t.”

Morde nodded. That made sense, as hard it was to imagine being secluded for so long, “I was sent here to get ‘perspective’. Why are they afraid of you?”

The darkness suddenly filled with stars and galaxies as if they winked on with the flip of a switch. Then it became smaller. On the periphery of the Morde’s vision, the darkness receded from the space, leaving behind a view of the Engine itself. Sie was floating within an enormous tube, the diameter of which was measured in kilometers, with sunlight streaming in behind hir. The walls of the tube were divided into eight long blocks that ran the length of one end to the other, with unidentifiable technological structures between them. Morde grasped that sie was within the sun intake itself, where the gigantic plasma ball would be harnessed by a magnetic bottle and ushered into the final fusion chamber to be milked of all of the energy it could offer.

As the darkness shrank to reveal the gargantuan funnel behind it, it took the form of Morde hirself, a visual copy of hir cloak in silhouette, with galaxies, stars, and nebula visible within it as if it were a window into the rest of the universe.

Because one day,” it said in a kindly voice. “I will devour all of them and this whole ship.”

Oh…” Morde let that trail as sie searched for words to respond to that.

No,” Phage interrupted quickly, “really, I do not know. They invited me to make my home here and I help run the ship. But I scare them.”

What -” Morde began, pulling hirself together. “What are you? An AI like my Tutor? From… Outside the ship? How?”

I am the death of all energy,” The chief monster held up an empty sleeve of cosmos and formed a hand at the end of it to turn it over and examine the stars within it, ”With a sense of humor, apparently.”

I don’t understand,” was all Morde could say.

Well,” Phage returned a handless sleeve to its side. “There’s what they tell me. What’s in the ship records. What’s in my own memories. And what my sense of identity tells me,” it listed. “And they don’t all match.”

Morde nodded, almost afraid to speak, but said, “Please go on.”

They,” clearly referring to the Crew, “say they invited me aboard to help run the ship. The ship’s records identify me as an emergent consciousness from the AI that first ran the nanites. My memories are confusing, matching some of that, and predating all of it at the same time.”

And your sense of identity?” Morde asked.

Phage floated forward and leaned in so that Morde’s view was dominated by imagery of the universe sie had only ever seen in still images on hir tablet, and whispered emphatically, “The death of ALL ENERGY.” Then it drew back, “Only, if I’m that, then how do I have a consciousness confined to just this ship?” The silhouette of its hood moved as if it had tilted its head, “One theory, posed by one called Fenmere, is that ideas can become identities, and that identities can become conscious if put in the right system.”

Morde connected that to hir own experiences and spoke up, “I think my friends the Pembers call that a liaison. Well, for them, it’s the idea of a person they’ve met becoming a new system member.” Turning that back to Phage, sie posited with a question, “In your case, you’d be the ship’s liaison for what? Entropy?”

Entropic Decay, technically,” Phage corrected.

Well,” Morde said, deciding that was as much answer as sie would get, or wanted, “it is an honor to meet you. I am the first person who used the nanites to get here. I did a thing that gave me provisional clearance, so I came to see you.”

Thank you. I appreciate the attention.”

I have a big question,” Morde prompted. “But I don’t know how you might be able to answer.”

Please, ask.”

Morde imagined opening hir mouth, pausing, then closing it again. Sie felt hirself take those actions, even though hir avatar didn’t have a mouth and neither did sie. Then sie asked hir question, the one sie’d tried to ask the Crew Member sie’d met but couldn’t word it right, the question that had dominated hir existence, “Why is life considered so sacred that we’re expected to be grateful for it, even when it hurts so much?”

Ha! Oh, that question!” Phage barked with mirth. Then it straightened it’s voice, “I don’t know.”

But -” Morde started.

I’m not you!” interrupted the being sternly. “I am not of you. I am not like you. I don’t have any clue why your people think the way you do. My memories tell me I have seen planets form and be swallowed by stars. Galaxies collide. Bursts of gamma rays as blue giants are ripped apart by holes in space/time. All before the planet that spawned this line of tiny mobile worlds even dreamed of life. Are those memories real? I don’t know, but they make me what I am. Which is not you.”

Morde scowled, but sie was the only one who noticed sie did so, feelling what wasn’t there. Memories of hir face.

But,” Phage continued, “I can tell you what I experience and what I think of life.”

I thought that’s what I asked,” Morde said.

It isn’t, but OK.”

Morde watched and turned as Phage started to float around hir in a semicircle to stop in front of the oncoming sun, which was still a few hours away. Close, bright, it didn’t blind hir in the slightest because this was a Network projection and such impairments weren’t necessary here. Phage became a Morde shaped hole in the sun, filled with the image of billions of actual stars.

Phage continued, “Life is a mistake. It hurts. Even in a place like this, it’s messy and profoundly unfair. When the Sunspot left its origin, it left behind so much life that had been exploited to create this vessel. Left it on that planet to struggle and rebuild itself. Except, I am there too, to keep them company. But this ship was born in injustice, from it, of it. Cannot escape it. I have been conscious in this ship since its construction and I have seen so many lives begin, struggle, flourish, diminish, cry in agony, and die. Even the Crew, in their semi-immortal state, do not experience things evenly. Some have memories of trauma, others never experienced it. They have nightmares and share them with each other. It’s better than it could be, but it’s horribly uneven. Lopsided. Lumpy. Like the universe itself. With masses drawing energy and other masses into themselves until they collapse under their own weight or explode. But life is aware of it. In pain from it.”

Yes….” Morde said in reflexive agreement but moved to interject with something.

Phage firmly kept speaking, appearing to grow in size ever so slightly, “And I am choosing to experience it. Even in my own pain of seeing and feeling this fabric of injustice. Because being aware, and thinking, and imagining, and doing kind things for others who are in pain, is so amazing.”

I -” Morde tried again.

It might not be amazing to you!” Phage kept going, and grew suddenly even bigger. Or was it closer. Its hood seemed to tilt toward Morde, “I don’t believe in telling you what you should feel. But it’s amazing to me. It can end any time and that would be fine, a relief, but until it does, I intend to do what I can with it.”

I – I hate this!” Morde finally shouted at it. Sie could feel hir rage boil in a simulation of the feelings of a body sie had left on the shores of hir home region, in the Garden of the Sunspot. The sensation made hir feel sick.

I know!” Phage exclaimed.

You’re just telling me how privileged you are to not have felt my dysphoria,” Morde accused.

Oh, exactly!”

Why?!”

Phage drew as close to hir as it had been yet, “To remind you that you shouldn’t be asking something like me for perspective for such an amazing whorl of chaos like you.”

Dammit!” Morde hissed, backing away and whirling with rage, only to turn back to glare with an eyeless hood.

Regardless of what I say I am,” Phage also backed up a bit, “the process of entropic decay made you, too. It made everything. Moving complex energy to simpler states, through gravity wells and mass and dense space, causing eddies and whorls and knots in the energy, and the mass, and binding it together to create life.

Morde,” Phage addressed hir pointedly, “you are an agent of chaos. Everything you do is an act of what I claim to be. You, too, and everything around you, are an avatar of Entropic Decay. Dancing between agony and beauty, making complex energy into simpler. And you have the choice of whether to continue that or not in your current form. Well, within the limits of natural change. Or let others continue that work in their way. Your own choice. And no one on this ship will stop you.

Think very, very carefully about all the implications of that. Please. I worded it precisely to make an important point.”

Morde hurt and was having trouble thinking. Sie wasn’t sure sie could remember all that clearly to follow its instructions, or that sie really cared, “Why?”

I didn’t consent to be alive either,” Phage said. “And you’ve never experienced MY dysphoria. But I’ve found that sharing relief in life, with others, and helping them feel it too, is the antidote to the worst pain I’ve ever known. And I’d like to have people like you with me to do that. But that might not work for you. It’s still your choice. And no judgment from me, only my understanding and company while you make it.”

And that was all the lecturing Morde could bear.

Back in the Pembers’ quarters, Myra laughed, “This is such a terrible little game! It’s awful!”

The Flits had arrived and had joined in. They hadn’t gotten very far into the game, but Ketta was already moved to say, “We’re all shitheads for playing it.”

I know, right?!” Gretcha cackled, grinning.

Tetcha solemnly added, a little too deadpan until the last three words, where xe broke into a smirk, “We should deal Morde in when sie returns. Sie’ll hate it.”

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