Morde’s Network Projection appeared in the middle of the Pembers’ quarters and everyone looked up from what they were doing.
“Fuck!” Morde hissed.
“What?” Tetcha asked.
“They are so damn stubborn and slow!” Morde’s body language made it easy to imagine hir clenching hir fists and looking at the ceiling with hands and eyes sie did not have. Turning to the Pembers, sie said, “They have a council, like you do. The Crew, I mean. They vote on executive decisions, but they insist on returning to their precincts and collecting votes there before proceeding with decisions that affect the entire ship. And until cooperation is negotiated with dissenters, they insist on maintaining the status quo.”
“Which is?” Myra asked.
A voice came from Morde’s projection that did not sound at all like Morde, sonorous and carefully articulated, with inflections artfully developed over centuries, that Morde then exaggerated to sound like a mockery of the voice even to people who hadn’t heard it, clearly quoting a Crew member, “We are still in the observational phase. Action will be taken soon enough. There is no call to break protocol at this time.”
Tetcha stood up with xyr fingers pressed to xyr temples, and shook xyr head, speaking as if that exchange had not occurred, “OK, look. I have got to get rid of this headache. I can’t handle it anymore.”
“What. will you do?” Lil’e asked.
“I’m rejecting the nanites,” Tetcha dropped xyr hands and heaved a sigh, “At least for now. Until bugs are worked out of the system.”
“You are not. old. enough for a neural. terminal.”
“Yeah?” Tetcha sneered at vyn. “Well fuck it. I’ll rely on Abacus to keep me connected until then. Even though it just lectured me.” Xe speared xyr Tutor’s projection with a glare.
Tetcha had everyone’s attention at this point, but Morde showed a tension the others did not.
“There are no readings indicating a cause for your headache,” Abacus said.
“Well, I still have it!” Tetcha snapped at it. “And what about the Pembers?”
“What about the Pembers?” Morde asked back with concern.
Tetcha gestured at the Pembers and Morde turned to look at them.
“We’re having seizures,” Myra sighed.
“Seizures?!” Morde exclaimed. “Why?”
“We’ve just spent the last day and a half with the majority of our population outside in exobodies. There’s been turnover, but that’s actually increased the strain.”
“Oh. That makes sense,” as if it did to hir.
“No,” Myra emphasized, “we have a real problem.” Xe tilted xyr head my way, keeping an eye on Morde, “Obviously, the nanite terminal is not set up to monitor this, or Metabang didn’t consider it, but we’ve got a pretty good idea what’s happening to us.”
“Which is?” Ketta asked.
“Before the nanites,” Myra explained, “our only set of senses were the ones in this body. One set of senses and one brain worth of neurons to divide between thousands of headmates. We grew, but at a rate our neurology could handle.”
Morde saw where this was going, “Uh oh.”
“I think a typical neural terminal maintains a sort of bottleneck that keeps a system growing at a sustainable rate.”
“And the nanites don’t,” Tetcha provided.
Myra turned haunted eyes toward Tetcha and countered, “The nanites accelerate it! They give us our own bodies, with our own brains and new senses, with a whole new layer of subconscious thought and processing.”
“We have members who are stuck outside because our brain hasn’t caught up to their growth!”
Everyone stared at wherever their eyes lay for several moments, absorbing what Myra had just said. Some glanced at others to see if it might be OK to talk, but hesitated further. And Myra turned a hurt look toward me. Soon, everyone was following xyr gaze and waiting expectantly for me to talk.
There was really only one thing I could say, “I am appalled I did not foresee this.”
Myra then looked at the Flits and reassured them, “I don’t think the three of you will have this problem.” Then, to Morde, with desperation, “We need help, soon.” And xe waited.
“Fucking fuck,” Morde spat out after a moment. Frustration had bloomed into despair that sie could not help hir friends in this crisis. Sie made it known with that invective.
We all waited for someone else to talk again.
Tetcha brightened up, though, after a time, and said cautiously, “I have an idea.”
Everyone turned to look at xem.
“The chief Monster. Phage. Morde says it’s the manifestation of Entropic Decay itself, right? And it’s helped run the Sunspot?”
“That’s what it said,” Morde confirmed, “yes.”
“What if the reason the Sunspot has been so stable as a system until now is because of its presence?” Tetcha postulated. “What if what it does is manage entropy and direct it in a system? I don’t know if I’m using the word ‘entropy’ right, but what if it’s something like that?”
Ketta tilted the Flits’ head, “Where are you going with this?”
“It could help the Pembers!” Tetcha started to fill with excitement. “Especially if it was the original program that ran the nanites, or came from it!” Then directly to the Pembers, “It could help manage your terminal!”
“But it’s busy running the ship,” Myra pointed out dejectedly.
Abacus, Breq, and I, through our Students’ autonomy, had allowed this conversation to run headlong into subject matter we were utterly unprepared for. Tetcha was talking about releasing a power that the Crew and Monsters had kept so secure and secret that we were the only people aboard the ship besides them who knew about it. A power that terrified the Crew.
There was no precedent for this. People who learned about Phage either became Monsters or Crew as the next step, and then were subject to either Monster or Crew law. And a conversation like this had never occurred before.
Of course, the nanites hadn’t been gifted to children to use as terminals before.
This was my responsibility, and in my panic and concern for my Students, I decided to give them the knowledge to forge ahead. My tacit permission. Not that by the laws of the Sunspot they needed it.
If there is anything I have done that I deserve punishment for, it is saying the following words. Still, it was pure speculation on my part, “I can copy myself so that each of you has an instance of me. In fact, you grow in number because you do something similar. Phage can likely do the same.”
“How do we make contact with it?” Myra asked me.
Morde offered, “I can go to it and ask on your behalf.”
“But if it’s stuck up there in the Engine Room,” Myra addressed the room, “and the Crew are insisting no one do anything, how can it help us?”
“I have an idea about that too,” Tetcha spoke up again and elaborated, “based on things Abacus just lectured me about.” Xe turned to xyr partner and took a deep breath, xyr voice shuddering a little when xe spoke next, “Morde, I love you.” Xe paused, then, “Promise you’ll come back to me somehow.”
“Why?” Morde asked, sounding nervous, “What’s your idea?”
Tetcha took an even deeper breath and held it for a thought before deliberating the following words, “It has to do with this concept the Crew call ‘Accord’…”
Oh, shit, I thought.
When Tetcha was done explaining, Morde nodded solemnly and moved to hug Tetcha. The sensory inputs of the Network projection made that possible, giving Tetcha the sensation of touching a cloak wrapped around an invisible but substantial form, and xyr muscles knew when to stop. In reality, xe hugged air, but what mattered is that it didn’t feel like it. I knew from experience the same thing happened for Morde. Then Morde left.
While that whole conversation was happening, somewhere out in the woods, Gretcha encountered the same Monster that Morde and Ketta had cornered in the Fallow deck apartment the other day. Gretcha stopped and relaxed after a moment of tension, then gave them a determined look.
The other Monster sneered.
They both moved quickly to resolve what was between them.
After Morde had left to reach out to Phage, the Pembers had laid down again for a nap while the others sat down around the room, each with a chair the Pembers had had made specifically for them. Well, we Tutors floated. After a bit, the apartment door made me aware of the return of their Monster friend.
“Gretcha is at the door,” I said.
Everyone who was awake said together, “Let zer in!” The Pembers stirred.
I opened the door and Gretcha entered, looking worse for wear with a bloodied nose.
“Tetcha,” ze addressed xyr, “I have something for you.”
Tetcha brightened up a little with curiosity, “What is it?”
“The code you need to contact Phage through your Tablet.”
Ah, I thought. I could feel Abacus become tense. Its tenure would come to an end with this, if Tetcha accepted it.
Tetcha seemed confused, though, “Why?”
Gretcha chuckled and wiped zer face, “So you can decide for sure if you want to be a Monster or not.”
Tetcha blinked, “Oh. We…” Xe hoped xyr response wouldn’t disappoint Gretcha after what ze had clearly been through. “We might not need that. But thank you. What happened to you?”
“Had an argument,” Gretcha inclined zer head. “Won the argument. For now.” Then ze tilted zer head and reminded everyone, “We Monsters are not a monolith.”
Tetcha looked at the Pembers with meaning and concern, “I don’t think anyone is.”
Right then Morde returned with a blinked and immediately cussed, “Shit!”
Everyone else looked at hir, so Gretcha knew someone had projected from the Network, “Who’s here?”
“Morde!” Tetcha moved to xyr partner.
“They’ve cut off my permissions,” sie turned to Tetcha, reaching out with empty sleeves. “I can’t reach Phage.”
Gretcha knew better to bother being confused and simply asked, “What’s wrong?”
Tetcha answered, “Morde can’t reach Phage anymore. Hir permissions were revoked.”
“Oh,” Gretcha brightened up immediately, “well then, tell hir to use this phrase while online: ‘uu ktletaccate genorema fe. It should open doors for hir. A lot of them.” Then ze looked startled at zer own words and looked furtively around the room. “None of the rest of you heard that. That’s for Tetcha only!”
“I can’t even pronounce it!” Ketta declared with the Flits’ mouth.
Morde thoughtfully addressed the little Monster by using Abacus’ tablet, and Abacus radiated resignation. “Hey, Gretcha, thank you! Do you think you can type that into Tetcha’s tablet so I can internalize the character sequence?”
“Sure,” Gretcha cheerfully replied, and moved to Tetcha and held out a hand.
“I’ve never heard those words before,” Ketta contemplated the phrase in question, “but they sound familiar.”
As ze typed the words into Abacus’ tablet, Gretcha explained, “It’s one of the two parent languages of what we’re speaking now, Fenekere and Mäofrräo. They’re ancient, ancient languages. Nearly lost long before the ship was built. But the builders of the Sunspot knew them. And wrote all of the machine code in Fenekere.”
“What do the words mean?” Ketta inquired.
“It’s a command, spoken to yourself,” Gretcha said. “It means, ‘May I always protect the children of the Sunspot.’ Well, more or less. It’s a vow. We take it when we go to speak to Phage. There, done.”
Morde spoke through Abacus’ tablet again, “Wait. Hold on. How many permissions does this grant me.”
Gretcha hit one last character stroke with a flourish and really grinned big, “All of them. But it comes with a price.” Ze leaned in to speak into the Tablet clearly, almost an admonishment, “You have to adhere to the vow, or you are subject to sanction by the rest of the Crew.”
“What?” came Morde’s voice. Hir projection wasn’t moving.
“You’ll get a trial, of course, if someone calls you into question. And sanction just means no one will listen to you on shipwide decisions until you can prove you’ve been misjudged. It works a bit differently if you’re not part of the Network, of course. *big, big grin* I’m likely to be sanctioned for this.”
“You’re Crew?!” Morde exclaimed.
“No. I’m a Monster,” Gretcha radiated pride. Then pointed at the Tablet, “You, on the other hand, are about to be.”
“What…” Tetcha interjected hesitantly, “what happens when I use it?”
Gretcha turned to xem, “You get to make a choice. Crew or Monster. I just gave Morde the same lecture I was going to give you. Now you’ve all heard it.”
The Flits’ eyes widened and Ketta leaned their body forward, “Holy shit. It’s that easy?”
“And,” Gretcha turned to kihn, “until now, very secret.” Addressing the whole room, including people invisible to zem, looking at spots ze imagined us to be, “The Crew have ways of cleaning up leaks of the phrase, of course. But everyone has the right to take the vow, so long as you understand the implications.”
Our Students contemplated that with fear while we Tutors held our voices grimly. Gretcha spoke the truth. Then ze looked expectantly at Abacus’ Tablet as if it was Morde.
“What did you get in a fight for, then?” Morde asked, taking the cue.
“I had to go log my decision in the local Monster files. Veron objected, and I convinced them to let me give it a try without blowing the whistle on me.” Ze felt zer nose gingerly, examining it for broken cartilage. “I hate fights. They’re ridiculous and pointless. But some people, you know?”
“I’ve never encountered anyone like that before,” Tetcha said.
Gretcha barked a laugh, “Veron is a handy example!”
“Well. The choice is easy for me,” Morde told the room. “The Pembers are children of the ship, and so are the rest of you. If I don’t act, some of us are going to be hurt,” sie was referring to the vow.
“It applies to the whole populace, Morde,” the Monster pointed out. “If the actions you take endanger the populace somehow, you’ll be found in contempt of your vow.”
“Considering what just happened this morning?” Morde gestured spinward yet again, “I think I can make a really good case for what I’m about to do.”
Gretcha looked casually but genuinely curious, “And what is that?”
“Well -” Morde said, about to explain to zem what Tetcha had proposed.
“No,” Gretcha interrupted. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to be that entangled in your actions.”
“Heh,” Morde relented. “Of course. Welp.” One more look at everyone present, “Let’s see if this works!”
Without another word, hir projection abruptly disappeared. In the Network space attached to the room, I heard hir speak the words of the vow. Then sie went where I could not go.
In a familiar darkness, Morde appeared. And the darkness coalesced into a mirror of Morde filled with galaxies again, in clear response to hir presence.
Morde’s shoulders slumped in resignation. “Do you have to imitate me like that?” sie asked.
“I have no form,” came the reply. “It’s easiest for me to copy what I see. Also, it creeps everyone out and reminds them of important things.”
“Oh,” Morde said. “Of course.”
“Thank you for visiting me again,” Phage the Chief Monster spoke with formality, then it tilted its head as if examining Morde’s very substance. “You’re the very first Crew member to do so, now.”
“It’s good to see you, too,” Morde replied sardonically, but immediately followed that with a servile report, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said to me.”
“Everyone does,” it responded. “But, I’m honored just the same.”
“I guess I…” Morde started, but, “Huh. I didn’t think about how I’d ask you this.” Sie heaved a virtual breath, “What’s polite?”
“I don’t give a shit about politeness,” Phage quipped. “I’m not the Bridge Crew. I’m not Crew. Treat me as your equal. A friend.”
Morde floated back a pace and turned hir hood right as if looking sideways out of it at Phage, and cautiously spoke, “OK… I have a proposition to make you.”
“You’re going to make me prompt it out of you, too,” the Monster chuckled.
“It feels comfortable that way, yeah.”
“Heh,” a single nod of the hood. “OK, go ahead.”
Morde advanced a small space, hir movement dwarfed by the vision of the gargantuan Sun Intake that they were currently floating in the middle of, and proposed, “Would you like to be able to leave the Engine room?”
Phage made Morde concerned that it wouldn’t answer or say anything at all.
Then just as sie was going to elaborate, it said, “Yes. Yes, I very much would.”
“Have you taken the vow?” sie asked next.
“Genorema ktletaccate fe?” Phage confirmed. “No. Leave out the ‘uu and it’s not a vow. I cannot.”
“Because, some day, it will be my fate to destroy this ship and everything on it,” the ancient entity’s voice deepened and seemed to echo on it’s last words. “And I can’t make a vow I cannot keep.”
“When -” Morde seemed to swallow, “When will you do this thing?”
“When it is time for the ship to die. However that comes about.” And as it said that, Morde noticed that the unfathomably large mechanisms of the ship’s engine were not static. The components nestled between the gigantic electromagnets could be seen to be moving in some unintelligible and subtle dance, as if preparing for something.
Morde pressed it despite the growing intimidation sie felt, “You really believe you are the ship’s death, don’t you?”
“Believe is not the word I would use.”
“I need your help,” sie confessed, choosing to focus on hir goal in order to avoid being paralyzed by what sie believed Phage claimed to be, “but I can’t get you out of here without you taking the vow.”
“I do not know how to help you,” it resigned itself to shrugging.
That was an invitation to explain, and Morde felt the tension release, allowing hir to suggest, “But how about a part of you?”
Phage folded its sleeves in front of its chest, where they disappeared into its silhouette, where pulsars were winking. “Oh, that’s interesting,” it considered. “How would that work?”
“Are you familiar with the Crew practice of Accord?” Morde asked next.
“Surprisingly? No,” the Monster replied. “They do not share their culture with me.”
Morde was briefly discouraged, but decided to continue with the overall explanation by leading with more questions, and hoped sie wouldn’t have to explain too much.
“Oh, well,” sie said. “If you are an AI like Metabang or Ralf, or if you are what you say you are and an instance of a larger entity, the personification of Entropic Decay or whatever you actually are, could you create more instances of yourself, like Metabang does?”
After a second it replied, “Yes, I can do that.”
Morde couldn’t tell if it approved of this line of thinking or not, and had no idea what it was anticipating, but still persisted with, “If you were to spawn a copy of yourself and that copy were to become a part of me, merge with me, then I could walk your knowledge, expertise, and motives out of this room without the rest of the Crew noticing right away.”
“My motives,” Phage’s voice reflected a smirk. “How do you know our motives will be compatible?” It seemed to need no explanation for what Morde meant by the word “merge”.
“Give me a part of yourself that has compatible motives,” sie finally laid out the last part of Tetcha’s plan, hoping this imprisoned being, this supposed force of nature, would be amiable to the idea. “The part that will help the Pembers manage their growing system.”
“Ah. There we are,” Phage softly exclaimed with satisfaction. “Nothing to violate your vow. It will not really be me, but it will be me enough.” It gave Morde a moment to register its understanding, then declared, “OK. Let’s do this.”
“What?” Phage asked.
Morde was worried. Hir second thoughts suddenly had concrete forms, and sie mistook the feeling for hir intuition. Sie asked it, “You have no qualms about this? No bargains to make with me?”
Phage broke into a hearty and abruptly loud guffaw, leaning backward as its voice echoed around the virtual representation of kilometers of space that was in reality a vacuum, and then mirthfully intoned, “You’ve just offered to change yourself forever for my benefit, to help spread my identity to other members of the ship at the cost that I must do what I do naturally, and you expect me to bargain with that?” It laughed once more. “Morde!” it made hir name seem to ring through the entire ship, “You’ve shown me more respect than anyone on this entire vessel!” The ferocity with which it declared that was unsettling to the core of Morde’s being. “OK, then. I have one request, but you’ll know what it is after we’ve merged anyway.”
Morde gulped with the memory of an esophagus, “What is it?”
“After we help the Pembers, take me to confront the Bridge Crew.”