In case you haven’t yet taken the time to enjoy it, the sun emergence is definitely worth beholding. If you happen to live in the aft coastal regions, as the Pembers and their friends did, it will have a distinctly different character than if you live forward of the mountains. If you have a good view of the water, you will get to see the entire ring of the sea light up and glow with sunlight before the land you are on is fully illuminated.
The terminator appears near the base of the Aft Endcap, so that the whole Endcap and a ring of ocean around it are slowly lit up by the growing sun. You will be able to watch the unbelievably huge machine that is the Endcap begin to glow with a dark red and grow in brilliance to the ruddy gold of full daylight. Then, as the sun begins to move aftward out of its magnetic womb, it’s light spills out further into the Garden from the hole in the Forward Endcap where it begins. That edge of darkness moves quickly. Looking up, you can watch it march forward across water, then land, forests, hills, mountains with glaciers, then plains and deserts. City lights across the cylinder from you fade out as daylight reaches them. But as more and more of the interior is lit, the reflected light illuminates the darker areas too, so the area around you grows in radiance gradually.
If you look at the Forward Endcap before the terminator passes you, you’ll see the sun’s light reflected off the interior rings of its womb. You can look at that directly without damaging your eyes, and you will see it as a small disc in the sky. In the beginning of the process, you can watch it turn on ever so faintly like a lamp switched on, then brighten gradually as the sun is fed more hydrogen and brought up to temperature.
Once the terminator passes you, the sun will suddenly be in direct line of sight to you and the glare can damage your retinas. It is best not to directly look at it then, if you have retinas.
Sitting on the rock where they’d met with the Pembers and the Flits just a few days ago, where we’d proposed to them the offer of the nanite terminals, Morde sat next to Tetcha while staring directly at the sun as it came into full view. Tetcha looked away, focusing on the rapidly shrinking night as it retreated into the Forward Ice Ring then was gone. That end of the habitat cylinder was obscured by hundreds of kilometers of atmosphere, faded to monotone fuzziness, but the effect was still quite visible.
It was the morning after Morde’s confrontation with the Chief Monster, Phage, and they had spent the entire night sitting on that rock, talking. Mostly, they had caught up with each other more thoroughly from their time apart. They also touched on their future prospects, but they had talked around a couple of pivotal topics. And those topics were the whole reason they had spent the night awake on that rock. They both felt the pull to address them, but were afraid to.
After several minutes of silence watching the sun emergence, still keeping xyr eyes averted, Tetcha let xyr hand fall to the rock xe was sitting on, to rest where xe sensed that Morde should be resting hir hand by hir posture. And there was no hand to touch, just cold stone.
Tetcha’s stomach churned with shock and dread, and xe reflexively looked over at xyr partner. Morde was still there. In a manner of speaking.
“You need to get yourself a pair of gloves,” Tetcha said carefully, xyr mouth feeling too dry to speak well.
“I do,” Morde seemed to glance over. It was heart droppingly spooky to watch that empty hood move. Hir old cloak was inhabited and animated by nanites, and the nanites by Morde. In the dark it had been easier to take, but in the light the details were horrifying, like a nightmare. Yet Tetcha knew sie was indeed still there, really there. At least, xe kept telling herself that.
Tetcha took a deep breath and licked xyr lips before proceeding with airing xyr fears, “I am so glad you are free of your dysphoria, but I am scared that the original you died when you dissolved your body and you’re now more like a child of yourself.”
“I definitely am different without my dysphoria,” Morde acknowledged, hood not moving from the position that indicated sie was looking at Tetcha. Hir voice was being generated somehow by the nanites. It had a strange sound, quiet but clear and understandable, “And I don’t have those senses or synapses anymore. I have new ones.”
Tetcha hesitated and felt that xyr voice was as strange as Morde’s when it came out, “But what about your soul?”
“How do you define ‘soul’, though?” Morde turned hir entire cloak to face Tetcha, to show dedication to listening to hir partner. It was hard to tell, but it looked like the base of the cloak moved in the way it would if Morde’s body was still there. An invisible mass of eight tentacle-like arms seemed to be doing the work. Otherwise it floated. The effect was enough to convince part of Tetcha’s brain that they were in a Network space, and nothing felt real.
“That part of you that’s aware of your own awareness?” Tetcha said.
Morde nodded, hood moving slightly, “OK. As far as I could tell and can remember, I had no interruption to that.” Sie moved as if to hold Tetcha’s hands and stopped to stare at that mistake for a moment. Sie really did need gloves, immediately. Then sie looked up, “No significant difference. It felt like I closed a set of eyes to use a new set that were already open instead.”
“Do you ever miss it?” Tetcha asked, hopeful, but afraid of any answer.
“Actually…” Morde considered that, “Yes.” Then, to elaborate, “I don’t miss my dysphoria, at all. And I can recreate my old body in a way with my nanites. I didn’t hate the shape of it. I didn’t think it was ugly. It just felt wrong to be in it. Very, very wrong. But I’m used to the habits of having that old body. And, somehow, I still have trauma reactions, and flashbacks to the dysphoria.”
“The nanites and the Network so faithfully recreate my neurology that it works just like my old brain,” Morde continued. “It keeps me being me. But it means I still have PTSD. It won’t let me fix it with a flip of a switch, either. I have to work through it and retrain myself the hard way. It’s like my individual simulated neurons have a legally protected autonomy that I have to negotiate with. I think I understand why the system is made that way. It’s weirdly reassuring.”
Tetcha turned away a little, not able to look at Morde directly for the moment, “How’s Ralf?”
“Watching its new Student. Ralf and I still talk. We’re not friends, but we might be someday.”
“That’s what’s holding me back from being a Monster,” Tetcha replied to that. “I love Abacus too much.”
“I care about you, too,” Abacus spoke in the old way, from its Tablet.
Morde leaned forward a little bit, “The Crew are deeply interested in whichever choice you make.”
“Are…” Tetcha’s growing discomfort was painfully visible, and xe hesitated to ask this question, but obviously felt compelled to, “are you actually Crew now?”
“Technically, yes. Factually, no,” Morde replied, relaxing and trying to keep hir tone soft and considerate. “They have to accept me, and they don’t know what to do with me yet. Besides, do you have any idea how many Crew there are?”
“Not really,” Tetcha said absently.
“There are currently 3.6 million Passengers on the Sunspot,” Morde reported. “The Sunspot is generations old. The Crew are our ancestors.” Then sie waited for Tetcha to process that.
“Oh.” Then, “Shit.” Then, a quick little shake of xyr head, “I can’t wrap my mind around that.”
“Most of them lie dormant, or choose to merge with others, like their life partners and such,” Morde explained. “The active governing population is actually quite small, too. But in my quasi-Crew state, still part of the experiment, I have more influence on them than if I were to accept the promotion.”
Tetcha slowly internalized those words and thought about them, gazing numbly at the morning light illuminating the park.
Morde watched hir partner and remembered their times together. Tetcha had always been so comfortable and confident in xyr own body, and yet almost perfectly considerate of Morde’s dysphoria. Morde felt like crying for what hir choice was doing to Tetcha, but, of course, couldn’t. So, instead, Morde solemnly watched xem, and noted xyr features and physicality with hir new senses.
Tetcha’s frame was probably closer to humanity’s nearest genetic relatives, primates, than most Passengers exhibited. Morde often wondered how close it was to humanity’s origins, but dismissed such speculation as unprovable. Most primates had tails like Tetcha did, though, but Tetcha’s was different. It was useful primarily for quick shifts in lateral balance when Tetcha was leaning forward in a sprint, and it was lined with a thin, long ridge of dark brown fur along the top and bottom of it, like a fin. Tetcha’s skin was covered with a fine, short tawny colored fur, with naked pads on the tips of xyr digits and the palms and bottoms of xyr feet. Xe tended to wear sandals to accommodate thick nearly claw-like toenails, trousers specially tailored to accommodate xyr tail, a t-shirt, and a blazer. Xe liked xyr clothes and had quite a wardrobe. Xe kept the sturdy nails of xyr hands neatly trimmed so that xe could work with finer crafts, but just long enough to assist with prying things open. And the features of xyr face had a vaguely bovine cast to them, or perhaps it was caprine, covered with that same fur that coated the rest of xyr body, with golden eyes and a nose with slits for nostrils. Xe had six barbels bracketing xyr face, though, stretching out to either side behind each eye. They lay between xyr long pointed ears and the two ornate, layered hornes that grew from xyr forehead and swept back quickly and curled up at the tips. The top, back, and sides of xyr head were covered with the same dark brown fur that xyr tail sported, about as long, too. Xe could raise it when alarmed or emotional in other ways. Or lie it completely flat when trying to be small and unnoticeable, such as when xe was embarrassed. It was about half way up right now, but kept dipping briefly. Xyr brown lips quivered as xe considered saying something, and xe gathered xyr satchel to xyrself for comfort as if it were a Fluffy Fauna.
“I feel weird about learning I could be Crew someday,” Tetcha finally said.
“Hey,” Morde spoke softly. “I’m with you on that. I’m still angry with them.” Then, after half a second, a little harder, “I just have to figure out why, now.”
“Why?” Tetcha glanced briefly at Morde.
“Their lectures were hard to argue with.”
“You got lectured?” Tetcha craned xyr neck, bowing xyr head and looking sideways directly at Morde, finally distracted enough to relax. “Like by an angry caretaker?”
Morde really wished anyone could have ever seen the wry grins that sie so often expressed, even before sie had given up hir body, instead sie tried to express it through hir voice, “I got lectured by the Universe Itself.”
Not long after that, the Flits and Gretcha were walking through a culinary artistry square. They were watching food being made and eaten by their neighbors, taking in the smells, trying to decide what to eat. Every now and then, they caught sight of a Pember sitting or lounging around the periphery of the square, pretending to do something normal in their nanite bodies. They were obviously keeping an eye out for Veron’s associates, in case they tried something.
“What’s your favorite breakfast?” Ketta asked.
“Oh, I’ll eat anything!” Gretcha bragged.
Hetty clarified for Ketta, “Yeah, but what’s your favorite food? Like what gives you the most pleasure?”
“That’s what I mean. I like anything edible,” Gretcha gestured broadly. “Every single thing I’ve eaten has such amazing textures and flavors.”
“Huh,” Lil’e spoke next. “Do. you. ever. get bored of. a food?
“And nothing ever scares you or grosses you out?” Ketta asked again, shaking the Flits head a little, thinking they were sounding just like the Pember’s used to.
“We just can’t imagine what that’s like,” Hetty chimed in. “Anyway, we like raspberries. Anything with raspberry in it for breakfast.”
“Oh, yeah,” Gretcha was totally unphased by the changing voices. “Those’re so good.”
“Sometimes,” Hetty continued, “biting into a raspberry filled pastry, if the raspberries are fresh and treated just right, it’s like an explosion of flavor.”
Gretcha grinned and started nodding vigorously, “Oh ye –”
Suddenly, there was a quick roll of ominous thunder that burst upon the land around them, shocking everyone at once, and fading quickly into echoes off the mountains and hills around the city. People were confused because the sky was clear. The Flits thought they had felt a slight tremble in the ground similar to what Ketta had caused with the nanites that one day, but it was so faint.
“Look! There!” someone shouted, and soon the pointing and staring spread through the crowd to where Gretta and the Flits were, and they looked.
Spinward, only a few degrees above the city skyline, distant on the upward curving Garden of the habitat cylinder, the nearest town that was usually visible there was obscured by a circular, dark, growing cloud.
Breq’s Network projection appeared next to the Flits, visible to anyone with a Terminal. Breq’s avatar looked like a board game pawn.
“That’s an explosion,” it reported. “Source yet undetermined. Passengers in this region are advised to retreat to quarters until further notice. Relevant information will be made available as it is evaluated.”
“Oh.” Lil’e replied, “Wow.”
“What is it?” Gretcha looked over at the Flits.
“We’ve never seen an explosion before, actually,” Ketta intoned, then looked back at Gretcha. “Have you?”
“Well,” Hetty said, pointing, “that’s an explosion.”
Ketta relayed to Gretcha what Breq was now telling them, “We’re supposed to retreat to our quarters.”
“Not doing that!” Gretcha retorted. “What caused it?”
“We still don’t know,” Breq told the Flits.
“Don’t know,” Ketta repeated, then called, running toward the old park, “Come on! Let’s find Tetcha and Morde!”
As people left the square and the surrounding streets, the various Pember body guards remained standing in place, all looking in the direction of the explosion. One by one, they collapsed into dust and detritus.
Back at the rock Abacus had appeared next to Tetcha, a large single wooden bead for its avatar, and was attempting to inform Tetcha of Crew edicts, “You are advised to take shelter in your quarters.”
“We’re staying put,” Morde informed it.
Tetcha addressed Abacus, “Why?”
“The Crew has determined that it is safest for you to do so,” Abacus replied.
“My magic says stay put,” Morde firmly stated, again using Tetcha’s word for hir intuition.
Tetcha smiled at Morde, even though Morde was clearly fixated on the smoke cloud hovering over their neighboring city, then looked at Abacus, “Abacus, I love you, but we’re staying put.”
“Also,” Morde said, pointing at Gretcha and the Flits who were just arriving at a lope, “I told them we were here. Gotta wait up for friends!”
“What now?” Ketta gasped as they came to a stop facing Tetcha and Morde.
“Everything but Abacus is telling me we should stay here,” Morde replied. “The Pembers will find us when they need us.”
“Anybody else hate how the Crew is telling us nothing?” Tetcha asked.
“Did they ever?” Gretcha chuckled.
Tetcha looked over wide eyed at Gretcha, “Right?!”
“So, wait,” Hetty fronted, sounding alarmed by a thought. “Don’t people get hurt in explosions like that?”
Breq appeared nearby to simultaneously answer with Abacus, “Yes.”
Gretcha noticed everyone looking in horror at the spot where the two Tutors were, and gathered that there was a Network projection there that ze couldn’t see. Ze looked around at everyone and spoke up, “What’d they say?”
I turned the bulk of my focus at that point to what the Pembers were doing.
Nine irregular shaped city blocks were flattened or damaged by the explosion.
Safety Patrol volunteers were sifting through the rubble looking for survivors and clues as to what had happened. Most were equipped with exosuits specially designed for the Safety Patrol, originally to use for wilderness road maintenance and building construction. They were equipped for dealing with disasters, but their pilots were not very experienced in doing so. With no tectonic movement, a carefully managed weather system, and a populace that had most of its needs and concerns met, disasters just were not very common on the Sunspot. Nevertheless, space is a dangerous place, and some people realized that being prepared for the worst was a good idea. And until disaster struck, the Safety Patrol, which was formed to handle such things, was also useful for large civic projects and also making sure that the wilderness of the Garden was stable and protected from thoughtless and excessively enthusiastic Passengers trying to explore it. Also, occasionally they would do search and rescue, particularly in the mountain regions. But now, they were trying to remember their training for this particular kind of incident, which had been predicted by someone long ago, but had not happened yet in anyone’s records.
Justa let zer exosuit settle into a resting position as ze surveyed the portion of the explosion site ze’d been assigned to. There was just so much work to do, and ze was stunned by the destruction. This used to be a building, but now it looked a lot like the large rocks piled along some shorelines, but with pieces of furniture and other now unidentifiable things sticking out of the cracks like so much garbage.
If there were people under there still alive, which was hard to believe, ze would have to take extra care in moving the pieces. There was no telling where they might be, unless their Tutors could pinpoint them.
None were appearing to guide Justa, so maybe there weren’t any people there after all. But it was probably best not to assume.
Ze sighed and kicked zer machine into gear to pick up the nearest chunk of building.
“Can I help?” came a voice, suddenly next to zem.
Justa stopped and looked, to find zemself face to face with a strange looking person who was as tall as zer exosuit. They appeared to be made entirely of some sort of black slime. Even their clothes seemed to be made of the stuff, or covered in it. Clothes that didn’t look like a uniform. “You’re not safety patrol,” Justa replied.
“I can be,” Blamer said, and moved to gently and easily lift up a very large piece of building. “I just need a little direction.”
“Ah. Uh. Yes. Follow me.”
At another spot, in the middle of a particularly flattened area, Myra arrived in xyr own pure nanite exobody, having picked xyr way over the rubble to get there.
“Is this the center?” xe asked the nearest Safety Patrol volunteer, one of the few without an exosuit.
“Who’re you?” they asked.
“I’m Myra!” xe responded as if they might know xyr name. Then, very seriously, with emphasis, xe repeated, “Is this the center of the blast?”
“Reports say it is,” the volunteer looked confused and uncertain.
“Cool! First nanite probe on the scene at your service!” Myra declared.
The volunteer blinked and raised a hand in a cautionary gesture, exclaiming, “What?”
Myra looked up at the sky and shouted, “You hear that, Crew? Probe away!” And xyr exobody collapsed in a splash of muck and dust.
There was no water in the nanite mass, but with their graphene shells and carefully controlled magnetic fields, they didn’t look or behave like anything anyone was used to seeing.
“Wha-?!” the volunteer blurted, stumbling forward to examine the churning mess but hesitating. They then stood straight as they consulted their own Tutor online to figure out what to do about this intrusion.
Yet another block over, Toost ran past an exosuit.
“I’ll help the people under this thing,” sie barked at the volunteer in the suit, feigning authority, and then pointed, “You take care of the ones under that over there!”
“OK!” they replied reflexively.
Several minutes of this activity later, with the Pembers chipping in at my guidance and cooperating with the Safety Patrol and the survivors’ Tutors, Morga formed an exobody near the rock in the park where the others were still waiting.
“It was a bomb,” xe reported.
“A what?” Hetty asked, scrunching the Flits’ face up in a grimace of confusion.
“A machine created by a person for the purpose of exploding,” Breq explained, using the Flits tablet to accommodate Gretcha, who was still there, too. “I know of no records of any bomb being constructed on the Sunspot before.” Its avatar projection hovered near the Flits shoulder.
“We have Pembers all over the surrounding area searching for people who know what happened,” Morga continued. “More are converging on the corridors below decks. We’ll share any information we find with the Safety Patrol and you, of course.”
Tetcha looked at Gretcha, “Would any Monsters have done this?”
“Oh, yeah,” Gretcha nodded. Then emphasized, “If they could. Making bombs isn’t a knowledge we have, I don’t think. But there are a couple of us that are that angry.”
Morga tilted hir head up and spoke, “Myra got some nanites to the blast center and left them for the Crew to investigate the site with.”
“Oh?” Tetcha prompted.
“Xe stayed present in the nanites and eavesdropped on the Crew’s proceedings. Either the Crew didn’t mind, or they are not as omniscient as we tend to think.”
“The Crew aren’t unified,” Morde quickly interjected. Sie had interacted with them in person more than anyone there, including us Tutors, and felt the authority to speak on the matter. Likely hir intuition was guiding hir more than hir reasoning, though of course there had been what Phage had told hir, “I think they often distract each other.”
I didn’t think sie was wrong in that assessment.
“Ah!” Morga nodded in acknowledgment. “Well, Myra reported back that the Crew determined the bomb was too sophisticated for Monsters to have created it. Something about the materials being too refined, and assembled without them noticing.”
“Nanites!” Tetcha declared.
“Hoowatcha!” Gretcha exclaimed, sounding actually a little surprised and alarmed.
“Alright,” Morde told Morga. “I’m on my way. The rest of you, go to the Pembers’ quarters with some breakfast. We’ll keep in touch. Tetcha, please hold my cloak” And with that, the cloak collapsed and fell off the rock to the ground where the nanites within it could be seen seeping from its fabric into the moss and dirt..
“Sie keeps leaving me,” Tetcha said to no one in particular, tension in xyr voice and body, poised to get down and reach for the cloak, but not moving. “And I know sie is not really gone and still able to appear to me at any moment, but I miss hir so much anyway.”
Ketta speared Morga with a demanding stare, “Why are we getting involved in this?”
“Yeah,” Tetcha agreed, glancing over, “why?”
“To know. To prepare. To choose our future,” Morga answered.
Gretcha slapped zer thigh and turned to everyone, “I’m gonna go Monsterin’! I’ll meet you at the Pembers’ place!”
86.3 km away, back in the center of the blast zone, Morde used the nanites that Myra had left as a probe to form hir own exobody, a semblance of a disembodied robe floating in the air, ghostly as if made of smoke. Sie had used just enough to present a physical shape, no need for physical contact between the tiny robots. Sie wouldn’t be lifting anything.
“Ah!” the SP volunteer there jumped. “Another one!”
“You might get to do this someday, too,” Morde told them, “if this disaster doesn’t put a halt to everything.”
“Weirds me out,” the volunteer stated.
“Me too?” Morde replied. “But it’s also fun. Do you know how many were caught in the blast?”
“Well, for such a large area, it wasn’t all that many. 38 people have been located alive, mostly injured and scared but well enough. 6 have been found dead, and Crew report that at least 3 more are dead, but no one has found their bodies. No children, thank the Network.”
“Well, that we know of,” Morde added.
“Yeah, that we know of,” the volunteer swallowed and nodded. “But these were artistry warehouses. Fairly unpopulated at this time in the morning. 4 blocks over and it could have been so much worse.” Then after a pause, they squinted and asked Morde, “Who are you? What are you?””
“My name is Morde. You could say I’m Crew in training, I suppose.”
The volunteer looked positively terrified at that, and stammered, “Is that what you all look like?”
“Nope!” Morde quipped, and floated away.