1.07 Struggles

of Systems’ Out!

Since Gretcha didn’t have zer own set of nanites and the Monstrous Edicts dictated that I couldn’t follow zem anyway, I had to rely on the reports ze gave to me to learn what ze did after ze stomped off deeper into the woods. Ze would actually tell me later, much later, which is how the account makes it into this story.

Instead, I focused on Tetcha and the Flits, who left the park and started walking through the now abandoned streets of their city. Almost every other resident had followed their Tutor’s instructions to seek shelter as directed by the Crew. It was disconcerting even to me to see the top streets so empty, as if like a fallow deck. Abacus and Breq were floating along as Network projections, each beside their Student. Or Students, in the case of Breq and the Flits. I simply observed and didn’t project my presence.

I have to say,” Ketta spoke after some time of quiet. “I’m scared about what this bomb means.”

Yeah,” Tetcha nodded, glancing sideways out at the empty city. “Public trial of the nanites was a bad idea. Too many hard feelings about it with too many people.”

I’m afraid of them taking the nanites away,” Ketta countered. “We need them too much.”

Lil’e added, “Fighting. Dysphoria.”

Coconsciousness,” Hetty said from the same mouth.

Ketta nodded in agreement with kihns headmates, “I don’t think a regular neural terminal will work for us now. It would be too much of a loss!”

Oh. I still don’t know if I’m gonna keep my nanites,” Tetcha declared at that. Then explained in softer tones, “They keep giving me a headache.”

No. Good.”

Yeah, no,” Tetcha agreed. “I might not do the Monster thing, but I might downgrade still.”

Ketta took a quick glance at Breq then turned back to Tetcha, “Hey. If the Crew are our ancestors, what do you think our Tutors really are?”

Machine code, mostly,” Breq answered.

We were made to serve you,” came from Abacus.

I wanted to say something here, because I didn’t exactly agree with those statements, but these were not my Students.

Really?” Ketta asked, kihns tone half teasing and half genuinely incredulous, a knife’s edge of daring, “You’re not Crew in disguise?”

Yeah, no.

Abacus took that one, “Not that we know of. It would violate the purpose of the Crew sequestering themselves.”

To keep their old culture, the pre-Sunspot culture, from infecting Passenger culture,” Breq elaborated.

How can that work, though?” Tetcha asked. “They made you. You are a product of their culture.”

Imperfect insulation is better than none at all,” Abacus responded.

That was true enough that I was satisfied. This exchange is worth noting in particular, however, because of how this line of questioning would affect Abacus later, long after this particular story was over. Abacus wasn’t the first of the AI Tutors to start questioning its origins and its nature, but it took things in a direction none of us were expecting, probably in large part as a result of what it faced in its next assignment, but Tetcha and Ketta’s questions no doubt pushed it in that direction to begin with.

In any case, my own hyperfixation on this conversation, the realization that I should not intervene because my own Students weren’t there, and the sudden release from it due to being satisfied helped me to face my own uncomfortable truth.

I’d been neglecting my own Students.

To be clear, each one of the Pembers had an instance of me assigned to them, that followed them around and assisted them whenever they needed. And I was able to sync with and get updates from those instances whenever I needed. I wasn’t exactly fully dissociated from them, either. I don’t actually know if they were separate consciousnesses from me, but the focus of my awareness could only rest in one relative point of space/time, and they did act independent of that focus. They just acted enough like me that it wasn’t jarring whenever they did so. At least, so far. And I could switch my focus to any one of them at any moment, as if it was me that whole time.

Or was it that I was all of them at once? That there was no real me, but that for some reason my strongest set of memories were the ones I could string together into a narrative? That at each point in space time where I synced my various selves together, the sets of selves that were thinking of each other formed the strongest memories? And that that’s what I’m remembering now as I tell this story?

Because, if the right association pulls up a memory of an instance of myself that I don’t remember focusing on at the time, I remember what I did there clearly as if I was conscious of it. It’s so weird.

I can use multiple cameras from different angles to create an awareness of a single locale, but I never figured out how to be aware of every place I was in the ship all at once when I was following the Pembers. There was some kind of limit to my awareness there, and I couldn’t tell why that limit existed.

This, along with so many other experiences, shows me that I do have a subconscious and a conscious mind as part of my psyche, just like humans do.

So, was I plural during this time in my life? I don’t know. I haven’t yet checked the ship records of my neurological state. I don’t know yet if I’d be disappointed to learn that I wasn’t plural, or to learn that I was. I almost prefer to leave it a question.

In any case, I’d shifted my primary focus of awareness away from my Students when I’d decided to follow their friends. I’d told myself I was tracking the effects of my decisions on the rest of the populace, but I think I was also running from the overwhelming and monumental task of managing the Pembers. Facing the full brunt of their plurality and what it was doing to my own psyche, as they explored the Network with the aid of the nanites, was overwhelming.

I chose to check in with Myra, since xe had been working as the system facilitator for a while, and seemed to be the senior frontrunner lately.

Xe was sitting in the rubble on the periphery of the blast site in the next city over, face in hands. Xe had brought the Pembers’ own body over there to sit in it. They had been moving it since seconds after the explosion, taking advantage of an express tram and running. Interesting that the Crew had kept the trams running through the crisis. The Pembers had traded off frontrunners, as Myra and the others had been exploring the site with their nanite exobodies, in order to get their body there. They did this for some reason they wouldn’t vocalize. All with my coaching, and against some of it.

Myra was in control now and obviously just a total wreck.

My timing was fortuitous. My local instance had exhausted Myra’s patience and chosen to stay quiet, but remained curious and worried about xem. But just as I settled into that point of reference, Morde appeared in a cloud of nanites slowly growing more dense, and settled down next to Myra. With Morde there, I was able to go from long distance visuals of the situation to a more personal view.

It’s me, Morde,” sie said.

Hi,” Myra looked up, blinking away tears, “I don’t know what you can do here.”

Be with you, actually,” Morde said gently. “I can do that.”

Someone killed themselves here,” Xe pointed toward the center of the destruction, as if xe didn’t know Morde had already learned this from Myra’s own work. Xe put some effort into saying the last word, “Deliberately.”

I figured that was it,” Morde said.

They used their allotment of nanites to collect material and process it into something volatile, and then discharged a whole neighborhood capacitor into it. Right into their own body.”

I…” Morde hesitated, “I’ve imagined…” then sie decided not to finish that sentence. It sounded like sie was going to say something along the lines of “doing the same thing”, hir tone had been so dark and painful.

And killed nine other people!” Myra cried, “But here’s the thing.”

Morde waited patiently for Myra to continue. Sie nearly moved to put a hand on Myra’s back, but stopped, remembering either that Myra had never given hir consent for that, or realizing sie hadn’t manifested hands yet and wasn’t sure if sie wanted to.

Myra sat up straight and turned fully to face Morde with a sobering face, “Those nine people are ancestors now. They get to join the Crew, according to what you’ve said, right?”

Something like that. Yes. If their neural terminals were mature enough. Apparently, there’s ranks of a sort, though.”

Yeah, but generally speaking,” Myra pressed, “adults get to look forward to more life after their body is gone.”

Yes. Usually.”

The bomber, though?” Myra looked toward the center of destruction again before looking back at Morde, swallowing. “They totally erased themselves. There’s no one to experience the consequences except their victims. And if there had been any children?”

Oh,” was all that came from Morde.

Myra ducked xyr head, tilting it up to look into xyr friends’ nanite facsimile of a hood, “Morde, just a few days ago, we were children. Nothing like this has happened on the Sunspot before.” Xe gave that statement room to make impact, then continued, “This is the first time, ever. I asked. I asked several questions. To make sure Metabang didn’t miss anything in its answers. People have died in personal accidents. People have killed themselves. People have killed others. All pretty rare events, apparently. But there have been no explosions, no big disasters, no uprisings, no mass deaths.” After searching as if looking for a reaction from eyes that weren’t there, xe turned completely away to stare off into the sky, at the gargantuan curving Garden of the Sunspot and the cities that dotted its landscape. “9 people in one event is historical. I can’t, Morde. I just can’t…” Xyr voice trailed off with a choking noise.

I was projecting my Network presence on the opposite side of Myra from Morde, so it was easy for Morde to look up at me, and I had a weird moment. One I’d had countless times before in various circumstances with other Students, actually, but my experiences with the Pembers’ as a Tutor to a plural system made it notable this time. Because my Network projection was just a set of instructions to everyone present with a Terminal to visualize me in that location. I, myself, wasn’t there. I was using visuals from other optical instruments in the surrounding area to track everything. And right now, thanks to the destruction, the nearest available optics were the nanites Morde was using for hir exoform, the ones that had been modified to work for that task. I saw myself from hir perspective, and only when sie looked at me.

My avatar still looked exactly like the icon I had chosen centuries ago, when I’d first picked my name. An upside down exclamation point, the dot being a silvery sphere, and the line below being a collection of swirling rays of plasma and lights illuminating a space roughly the bulbous shape of the typographical character, like lasers and spotlights in a fog. And though the apparent fog only occupied the space of the character shape, it spun and twisted with eddies and a central vortex, laced with the plasma. There were sparkles as if a myriad larger dust motes floated through the lights. The light wasn’t actually there. It was just in everyone’s minds, an hallucination effectively. But there was actual dust.

Morde pierced the center of what passed for my head with hir gaze. “Did you tell xem it’s not xyr responsibility?” sie asked me, pointedly.

Xe has the autonomy to take it on,” I reminded hir. “But yes, I advised against it.”

Myra threw up xyr hands and shook them frantically and vigorously up and down, and screamed, “Aaaah!!!” furious at the both of us. Then xe put xyr head in xyr hands again.

Morde gave xyr a moment then said, “Seriously, Myra, it is not your job to figure this out. It’s the Crew’s job, but even so you have the rest of us to do the work as well. We who are part of this mess, too. And did you forget that you’re part of a system of…” sie paused, thinking about what sie’d learned the past few days, “how many of you are there now?”

It took a few seconds for Myra to answer, and then xe just mumbled into xyr hands, “… Thousands. Thirty, four… thousand.”

Holy shit,” Morde leaned back and looked at me again, then back down at xem. “You’re saying you didn’t even manifest all of you in the park that day?”

Myra shook xyr head, “… No. That was only a handful. A few hundred. We wanted to do more, but we became self conscious of the land we were disturbing.”

The human brain has capacity for more,” I offered. “A lot more. But I have not seen it personally. The Pembers are my largest class. The Crew let me copy myself for each of them. So, um…” I didn’t realize I’d be hesitant to admit this, but I went ahead, “I’m nearly just as numerous, sometimes.”

All in that little body?” Morde asked. I think sie was asking about me manifesting for the Pembers, but we Tutors don’t enter our Students’ heads without permission, and I was about to say so, but Myra looked up to speak in response, eyes clearing.

Not anymore,” xe said.

If Morde had a mouth, it would have popped open in realization. “That’s why you’re everywhere!” sie exclaimed.

I’m not, but we are, yeah!” Myra said, reflexively. “Only, we don’t communicate with each other as much as we used to. I have no idea where Bet is, for instance. Or Ploot. I suppose I could find them, though.”

Metabang,” Morde asked, “how does autonomy and consent apply to system members?”

Each one is treated like an individual to the extent that they can act outside their shared body,” I replied. “Decisions over the body must be made democratically. Unanimously in some cases.”

I suppose that makes sense,” sie muttered.

Morde,” Myra addressed xyr friend. “What happens if the Crew decide that they can’t control the nanites? What if, because of this bomb, they take them away?”

And that, indeed, was the question of the hour. Everyone I was tracking at that time was in the process of asking something like that of their nearest Tutor or friend. Usually, because of the Pembers, that was me. Later, my peers in this project would report that their own Students were also worrying about this. Answers to the questions were typically, “I do not know,” unfortunately. We were not well enough informed.

Morde tilted hir hood downward, searching hir memories and thoughts of the Crew and hir last interactions with them then, after a bit, snapped hir gaze back up to Myra and stated resolutely, “I think we need to get you and the Flits before the Crew to tell your stories.”

The Crew are getting my reports,” I told hir.

Not good enough,” sie dismissed me. “The Pembers need to see Phage, too.”

Myra brightened at that thought, then began to look horrified, “We’re not going to… do what you did! We can’t!”

OK,” Morde responded as if that’s actually what sie was proposing, but I think there was a little miscommunication there, “Well…”

I’ll send a request,” I suggested. “Morde, you could also make one in person.”

Sounds as good as we can do for now,” sie agreed. Then sie turned back to hir friend, “Myra, we’re learning that the Crew are not omnipotent. They’re hampered by… well, mostly themselves.”

No shit, right?!” Myra snapped at hir, eyes wide.

OK, you get it. Sorry. I’ll just go do this,” Morde waited to see that Myra had absorbed that. “See you in a bit,” sie said carefully, and then let hir nanites drift to the ground, unoccupied.

Morga chose just then to appear as a network projection in front of Myra, stating abruptly, “The new Council needs you.”

It was about this time that Gretcha found a gigantic old tree with a hollow beneath its roots. It was distant enough from the city that hardly anyone walked by it. Ze entered the hollow, which sloped steeply downward and quickly opened up to standing height, with a door in the far wall. Most anyone encountering this would be stymied upon finding the door locked, and feel as if they were encroaching on something dark and secret, potentially guarded by the Crew. In a sense, they would not be wrong to think that. Gretcha pulled out a key and unlocked the door, going through it. Ze walked down the stairs on the other side, closing the door and locking it behind zem.

Meanwhile, Myra dragged the Pember’s body back to an express tram, to head back home. As xe sat on a bench the tram, xe closed xyr eyes and joined the Council of Eleven meeting that had been called. Someone else took over to front for their body.

Everyone at the meeting was new except Myra. They were in a Network forum and it was possible for me to observe. Myra had invited me at least, but ended up just watching the following conversation with an expression describable as bleary eyed. I was capable of keeping track of who said what, but they did not give me permission to identify them in this text, and listing them without names might simulate how Myra perceived it all. Several members spoke in chaotic alternation.

We’ve got some issues to resolve.”

Reports are coming in from Metabang that physically dissociated members are all getting more irritable and less observant.”

I feel it, too, yeah.”

I think we’re all staying away from our brain too long. We’re not used to it.”

Right? Most of us have spent our lives dormant, or just participating with our inworld.”

You’d think the nanites wouldn’t tire like our body does.”

But they’re programmed to simulate our brain for us, so we remain the same as when we’re in it. Except it’s not perfect. They don’t simulate having headmates that can manage your body when you rest.”

Do you think there’s a way to change that?”

Should we?”

Well, while we try to figure that out, maybe we should tell the other Pembers to come back home more often and get more sleep!”

I know some won’t.”

Ploot’s been out nearing 32 hours!”

Really?!”

What is e doing?”

E says e is pushing emself to the limit, purposefully. Wants to see what the nanites can do.”

Balmer is the second worst. But that’s understandable, with hens dysphoria.”

Well, obviously, we can’t order everyone to return. It’s just an advisement. Our vessel can restore you.”

Which is the other thing.”

What?”

Our vessel is experiencing seizures.”

Oh, shit.”

It went on in more detail, but was kind of repetitive.

I knew all this already. Myra apparently didn’t. Xe took it all in, then zoned out, clearly processing the impact of the news on xyr psyche. I chose to keep my focus on xem, to monitor xyr state and health. My other selves could function just fine without my full focus on any of them. Time passed.

Then Myra was pushed to the front of the Pember’s body with a start and a jerk. Xe found xemself lying in xyr bed with Tetcha and the Flits there.

I manifested in the room for them and reported to Myra, “Another seizure. They are not epileptic, fortunately. Best guess from the readings is it’s uncoordinated system member activity. You are losing cohesion.”

That can happen?” Tetcha asked.

Ketta answered, having experienced something similar in the past, “It’s more like grumpy, sleep deprived people sharing a bed that’s too small and elbowing each other when they roll over.”

Myra sat up, holding xyr head, “Ooogh… Shsh…”

We all waited patiently and quietly as xe just held xyr head.

I want to be unconscious forever,” Myra finally mumbled. “I’m just so exhausted. My inner eye aches.”

Everyone remained silent. Xe’d ask a question when xe was ready to hear voices.

But at the same time, I never want to go to sleep again!” Xe moaned louder, head still in xyr hands, “I need to be with you. All of you. I need to see flowers, and suns go by, and smell the sea. Also forever.”

Tetcha knelt and offered to hold Myra’s hands. And while Myra let xem do so, Ketta and Hetty manifested AR projections of themselves beside their vessel.

Myra looked up pleadingly at everyone.

Someone like us,” xe said, “someone with a nanite terminal, was in so much distress about something that they obliterated all trace of themselves and killed 9 people in the process.”

I thought it might be good to add, “Their Tutor is being debriefed.”

But, why?’ Myra asked. “I mean. I kinda know why, but, why?”

Tetcha offered an expression that was pained and sympathetic.

The Crew will probably learn why,” I told xem, “but I don’t know if they’ll share that knowledge.”

Tetcha snarled at me, “We need to change that! Demand to know!”

That…” I started to speak the official line regarding communications with the Crew, then thought better of it and told the truth, “That might finally be possible. Morde is attempting to speak to them now, and I have sent my own memo. In the mean time, the Pembers need to return to their vessel and rest.”

Tetcha got up and stalked past everyone to a clear corner of the room.

Dammit!” xe growled. “Everything’s falling apart since we got these nanites, the Pembers are having seizures, Morde’s basically dead, a ghost, and I’ve got a headache.” Then xe whirled and gestured spinward, “And now there’s been a bomb, for the first time in… in…”

Since before the Sunspot was built,” I finished for xem.

What?!” xe whirled to face me.

There has been no explosion on the Sunspot in its entire history,” I reported. “No bomb, no accident.”

Everyone let Tetcha stare in horror at me for several breaths.

Then, how did it happen now?” xe breathed more quietly, seemingly afraid of what my answer would be. “What’s different?”

The Crew…” I hesitated with another official line. I didn’t want to speak it.

It’s the nanites!” Tetcha supplied the answer xe was afraid I’d say, after it was clear I wasn’t going to say it. “It’s obviously the nanites! Don’t tell me it isn’t.”

Abacus appeared and cut in, “It isn’t the nanites. They were a tool in the bomb, but the fault lies in the Crew and the ship’s system.”

Abacus…” I warned.

They will not delete me for saying this,” it said to me. “It’s not their way. It is against policy. But my Student needs to know for xyr well being.”

So long as you’re saying it, not me, I guess,” I replied.

Abacus turned back to its Student and continued, “The Sunspot is very nearly a closed system. The only input it receives currently are fluctuations in cosmic radiation, hydrogen atoms collected in its Bussard scoops, and its changing position relative to nearby matter. There is very little feedback between it and the rest of the universe. And, for all that, it is tiny compared to its parent system, the planet of origin.”

Yes, yes, I know this!” Tetcha dismissed the elementary lesson impatiently. Abacus did have a habit of making its lectures longer than absolutely necessary. It loved words.

This makes it relatively easy to control,” Abacus persisted, knowing that its Student’s brain was subconsciously soothed by an onslaught of information, even if xe didn’t admit it. Xe would be reflexively putting these puzzle pieces into a broader picture as Abacus spoke. “It has been engineered to be as stable as possible. And the energy taken in is equal to the energy expelled, carefully managed to maintain that balance. But, thanks to entropic decay, stability in any system is still a temporary thing.”

Rrrrgh….” Tetcha rumbled.

I know you are listening and internalizing this,” Abacus said. “Please have patience.”

Tetcha sighed, “Go on.”

The balance isn’t perfect, however,” Abacus continued as it bobbed its avatar in acceptance. “There is a discrepancy in the energy calculus. With every generation, the population grows. The Passenger population is managed to stay within bounds, until it is possible to spawn another ship. But the Crew population grows, and grows. You already know how Morde has reported that the Passengers become members of the Crew when your bodies die. There is no further step once you become Crew. Most Crew lie dormant, to rest and conserve energy and processing power. Much like how the Pembers’ liaisons have done before gaining access to the nanites. Also, quite a few have chosen to merge, to permanently combine their consciousnesses and memories into one being, usually out of something like love. They call it Accord. It is like the process of integration that some plural systems experience, or try to avoid. It may be the same thing. But there is still growth, still a collection of memories and perspectives over time. One day, you will add your own to their culture, if you choose to.”

There have got to be so many of them, too,” Tetcha interjected, playing the role of Student finally.

Yes,” Abacus confirmed. “And, at some point, their growing disagreements with each other are going to result in carelessness and damage. Such as now. Especially whilst making major adjustments to the whole system, as they are doing.”

Then why do it?!” Tetcha asked, anger in xyr voice again.

Because if they don’t make adjustments now, the catastrophe will be worse,” the Tutor explained.

This is the point where I gave in. Our Students were in the middle of an historic event, the very center of it. They deserved to be fully informed, and we Tutors could protect both them and ourselves better, and very likely the Sunspot itself, by keeping them fully informed. That is my official stance on my decision here, and I still stand by it.

The ship is overdue for a spawning,” I confessed, to everyone’s shocked looks, “to relieve pressure on the Crew. When we spawn another vessel, half the crew disembark upon it. But it can’t be helped. The next source of sufficient mass is still very far away.”

Abacus bobbed another nod and turned back to its Student, “But the instabilities are inherent in the system even so. Poor choices were made during construction. And those need to be corrected.”

True,” I confirmed.

Abacus addressed me, “Which is why you proposed the nanites in the first place. And why I am educating our Students now.”

I concede,” I let it know. “You are correct.”

Ah!” Tetcha threw xyr hands out to xyr sides and exclaimed, “I am so sick and tired of being a child!” Xe turned accusingly upon xyr Tutor, “Our autonomy is still so restricted. If it isn’t by not knowing enough, then it’s through lectures! I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do. I just don’t want to be experiencing this! They’re making decisions and we’re suffering the consequences!”

Tetcha,” Abacus said. “So long as you live in the proximity of other sentient entities, your autonomy will have limits. And on the Sunspot, your actions will always have an effect on others, including your sudden absence, if that were to happen. And their actions upon you. There is no escaping this.”

And that is what being a member of a plural system is all about,” Myra stated loud and clear.

We all looked at xem. Xe was still very exhausted looking.

On the Bridge of the Sunspot, a place I could not go uninvited, Morde faced the Crew there. Sie talked at length, and they apparently listened for a time. Then one of them answered. Morde would report their response later.

Gretcha, another whom I could not follow but who filled me in eventually, entered a stone walled room full of books. Books were on shelves, on tables, and on other books. Ze started wandering through them, looking at them. When Ze found the book ze is looking for, ze pulled it out, pulled a pen from out of zer robe, opened the book, and started writing in it. Then, when done, on leaving, ze made a mark on a bulletin board near the door, then looked over the bulletin board, nodded, and walked out.

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