As the neurological bottleneck that the Pembers’ were dealing with became more evident, it became clear to me why they were holding their council meetings externally more and more often. I brought this up with Myra, and xe explained it further. I was surprised I had not had a conversation like this with any of the rest of them until this point. But as a group they had naturally followed each other’s examples in this matter and started acting differently without saying much about it.
From what Myra had been able to piece together from being on the Council of Eleven through its major changes was that after the first day of having the nanites as neural terminal they had discovered that being online gave them a more conscious awareness of the council meetings than attending them in their head did. And that alone was enough to get them to start holding them online in a private forum.
In a private forum, they could have the privacy needed and they could invite me easily without violating the rights of the rest of their system, too. But they could always clearly see each other. They felt more separated and differentiated.
Apparently, when they had held the council meetings in their head in the past, it was not like that. Originally, the Council of Eleven had been a cute name they had given to any group of them who happened to be conscious at any given time. I do remember them occasionally sitting in a corner of a room talking to each other about big decisions they were trying to make. So, at first, the meetings were often held out loud and I could participate easily by just talking to them from my Tablet. I always waited for them to ask me a question. And, they still did that pretty often right up until we gave them the nanites. But as they got older and learned more about each other and how their system worked, they would occasionally hold meetings entirely in their head. And I only knew about those when they referenced them later.
Eventually, they had developed a formal set of positions that represented different parts of their system, and a parliamentary procedure. They did this out loud as well, but it helped them to deal with the challenges of keeping meetings in their head. As part of the process of arranging that, they learned that they could trust themselves and each other to continue to do work when unconscious. They had a very common amnesia between their subconscious mind and their conscious one. So, when a member came forward, they could not remember what they had been doing when not in their shared consciousness. But, they could enlist aids who would report to them from their subconscious mind, giving them impulses and thoughts they could use to inform their decision making. And as there was turn over in the council seating, they found they could become aids to new members and continue to work on the council from “below the surface” as they called it. This was all using psychological mechanisms that they already naturally did, that almost all human psyches do in one way or another, but with an awareness that many people don’t have. And they codified and formalized it.
But when they held silent meetings in their conscious headspace, they often couldn’t see each other. Myra, for example, has described to me how when xe was frontrunner xe would normally just hear the others as voices in xyr head. Or sometimes xe’d feel their thoughts almost as if they were xyr own, but coming from a part of xyr mind that didn’t feel like xyrs. Sometimes, everyone was clearly differentiated from each other. And sometimes xe could close their body’s eyes and see everyone seated in a circle around xem. But most of the time their conscious headspace was a sea of darkness or pure white, depending on who was fronting.
And there was some advantage to that. It tended to anonymize their thoughts. Which made it harder to develop complicated personal politics that could get in the way of executive function or cause hard feelings between system members.
Holding meetings online had been like experiencing them on a good day. And it got even better. Quickly. But they’d still occasionally hold meetings in their headspace in order to maintain privacy even from me. Which was absolutely their right.
By today, however, they couldn’t do that. Their brain was experiencing too much turmoil. They could not occupy it and function as a council anymore. And besides, Myra had decided to invite me.
I hovered behind xem while xe watched the newer members discuss the decision xe had placed before the council. The decision of whether or not to follow Tetcha’s plan. Again, I have been asked to keep their names anonymous, and again doing so probably simulates the way that Myra experienced the event while in the state of mind xe was in at the time.
“Letting the body sleep is definitely helping,” one was saying, “but it can sleep for only so long. We really do need to consider Myra’s proposal.”
“I don’t think anyone here is against it, actually.”
“I’m concerned about our greater populace. Especially those that are abroad. Metabang has spread the word, but I feel like this is something that needs to be unanimous across the system.”
“We do not really have a choice. We are up against our limits and time is running out.”
Then, as someone was saying, “But will it even work without full consent?” Morde’s cloak appeared in the middle of the circle created by the council. Only the inside of hir cloak was filled with a fully parallaxing view of the cosmos, with stars, galaxies, and nebulae, all dotted with pulsars with slightly different rhythms and distances.
This visitation was expected at some point, and everyone knew who this was.
“We may have a solution for that,” Morde and Phage spoke as one to the person who’d asked the question.
The council fell silent and waited. Nobody knew what to say to the Chief of Monsters who was fused with their friend. Not even I had a clue what to say.
“You know the plan?” the fusion asked.
It was Myra, Council Facilitator and the one most emotionally drained, who responded to the question, “They do. The Council is unanimous. Nervous, but unanimous.” Xe also knew that xe was part of the next step of the plan.
Morde and Phage glided up to Myra and lowered themselves reverently and said, “Please stand. May we?” They held out their arms and manifested hands made of cosmos, indicating Myra should take them. But Myra hesitated, so they said, “This doesn’t have to be permanent. Nothing is permanent. But it will give us time to save your system while the others decide whether to accept me.”
“I don’t… I can’t… I need something,” Myra stammered, moving side to side as if confused about how to try to stand. Like xe had forgotten.
“It’s OK. We are going to ask you to merge with us, fuse,” Morde and Phage said, and then emphasized the next word, “temporarily.” The idea that it was temporary was new to me! I didn’t know it could be temporary. I don’t think the Crew knew this. They waited to see if Myra understood what this meant in regards to their plan. Xe seemed to relax, so they said, “We will never be the same afterward, but we can still be ourselves if we choose. It’s surprisingly easy. But you can say ‘no.’ Anyone in your system will suffice. You just had offered to be the one earlier and you seem to need the most support right now. This will be a way of gaining that support.”
“I…” Myra was still having second thoughts, but xe finally stood up. “What about Tetcha?”
“Xe’s not part of your system.”
“No, I -”
“We know. We’re joking with you,” the fusion said. “Morde will return to xem soon enough. Xe is preparing for Monsterhood and will be fine. You, however, need support now. Let us help you.”
“OK,” Myra said, and took their hands. Then xe seemed to be overcome with emotion and exhaustion and slumped into their arms.
Morde and Phage hugged xem, and xe hugged them back.
The fusion spoke quietly, loud enough for me to hear but to Myra, “Now relax and visualize what we’re about to do. We give you consent to share our thoughts and memories for as long as you wish to. May we have the consent to share yours?”
“Yes,” Myra said.
I had never seen anything like what happened next before. I know that fusions, through Accord, were a common thing amongst the Crew, but they usually happened in places where Tutors were not invited. Crew spaces. And I also knew that sometimes members of a plural system integrated, becoming a single person. But that was something that only happened within the psyche of their body. Another place I could not go.
I expect that the Network generated visuals of this process are peculiar to each fusion, as the process of aligning two psyches and rearranging and merging senses of self would be dictated by the unique qualities of each person involved. I also fully expect the process to take a lot more preparation, normally.
Phage seemed to facilitate this fusion.
When it began, Morde and Phage had an avatar that appeared to be Morde’s cloak as if it was lined with Phage’s substance. They had manifested hands out of Phage’s substance (or complete lack of it, or presence – presence is a better term on the Network) in order to take Myra’s hands. Now, that presence grew. It grew from those hands, and then from the inside of the hood, and then all the openings of the cloak. It enveloped both the cloak and Myra. And kept growing, until it was an amorphous fog completely obscuring the forms that were within it.
What we saw was a fuzzy hole in the space of the forum, through which we each could see our own view of the universe. Checking Sunspot’s records, I noted it was not the view from the Sunspot. It was more spectacular. Probably chosen by Phage for some unknowable reason.
Then it began to collapse again, until it took form, a silhouette of what appeared to be Myra wearing Morde’s cloak made entirely by the presence of Phage. But it wasn’t done there. They waited, slowly looking around, as Phage’s presence receded further, leaving Myra and Morde appearing much as they had once before, just one wearing the other. Only Morde was lined with Phage, and Myra’s eyes, the inside of xyr ears, and mouth were also the presence of Phage.
They took a moment to look at their hands, tail swishing back and forth, then they turned in a circle to look at each of the council members in turn.
“Now,” they said, when they came to face me. “While we work to fix our bandwidth problem, how would you all like to learn how to storm the Sunspot’s Bridge with us?”
After that briefing was over, the Pembers sat up in bed to everyone else in the apartment playing Shithead.
The Pembers spoke with a voice that none of the friends in the apartment had heard before. It was familiar, but different. “Tetcha,” they said.
Tetcha dropped xyr cards and rushed over, “Myra?”
“Partially, and Morde, and Phage,” their fusion said. “We don’t have a name right now. Call us Morde. This was hir idea.”
Tetcha smiled, with so many emotions in xyr eyes, “You’ve forgotten it was mine.”
“No, we mean, this part,” they explained. “Waking up to say ‘hi,’ first.”
“Oh,” Tetcha seemed pleasantly surprised, if still worried.
“We’ll return hir to you as hirself,” they reassured xem, “when we’re done with the hard stuff. But sie is a Pember now. Sie will be able to return to this vessel at any time.”
“Oh!” xe exclaimed, brightening up considerably. Then a little concerned again, “What about dysphoria?”
The Pembers nodded, “There is some. But perhaps by merging with Myra it is lessened. Morde now has access to Myra’s body map. Sie might be able to keep it when we split. If not, sie is still free to remain dissociated. The connection is not the same as with hir old brain.”
“That’s good!” Tetcha seemed even more relieved.
To the rest of the apartment, the fusion said, “Here’s the thing you all should know. The nanite terminals and ship protocols for hosting your consciousnesses are more malleable than you may have thought. Morde proved that by shedding hir dysphoria. By simply believing that hir dysphoria would be left behind with hir body, sie made it so with hir nanite terminal. And it did not continue to simulate the dysphoria in hir neural processes. That’s powerful, if you can learn to harness it without such a cost. It’s a matter of wrangling your own psychology. That would not have worked so easily with any biological brain, though. As long as you’re attached to one, you do have limits.”
They reached out to grab Tetcha’s hand, pausing to let xem place xyr hand in theirs.
“We’re almost done reconfiguring the Pembers’ nanites to manage their flow of headmates, to give their brain a break.” Then their voice sounded almost exactly like Morde’s had before all this had started, altered somewhat by the differences of the Pembers’ biology, “After that, we have another job to do, and then I’ll be back as myself, and you and I can enjoy watching Phage eat a sun.”
After exchanging a long hug with Tetcha and nodding to each of their friends, and then to us Tutors, they lay back in bed, closed their eyes, and went to work.
The Bridge of the Sunspot had numerous Crew Members on it, including the member that Morde had encountered on hir first visit there.
It was a busy moment in the ship’s cycle, and they were all watching something on a view screen they had manifested in the space. It was still a light gray lozenge of indeterminable size, with no features besides the view screen, and a sense that the floor was defined by the plane that everyone rested on. Their faces were a solemn mix of expressions with a hint of expectation. In all likelihood, they were going to deliberate upon whatever they were viewing when they were done taking it in.
But they were interrupted by the sudden appearance of a cloaked figure standing, facing them, in front of the view screen.
“Off!” spoke the familiar one, and the view screen disappeared. They looked at the newcomer and said, “Yes?”
“We’re here to give you a briefing on the state of the Pembers. You will want to consider it,” declared Morde, Phage, and Myra.
Thanks to Phage, they recognized most of the present Crew, and knew their names and pronouns. The one they were speaking to, that Morde had met first, was named Fenmere. Others that were vaguely familiar to Morde but well known to Phage included Eh, Akailea, Jedekere, Gnargrim, Brian, Anne, and Seheneye. There were others. They noted, perhaps coincidentally, that there were eleven Crew in all.
Fenmere glanced back at the other Crew Members for acknowledgement or objection, then turned back and said, “Very well. Please proceed.”
Morde, Phage, and Myra nodded and continued, “We’ve found a way to stabilize our connection to the Network. Our own brain is no longer being overloaded by the input.” They said this as if the Crew should know the whole situation, which, as far as I knew, they should have. When there was no reaction to that, they elaborated, “Unfortunately, it means that most of us must fall dormant for periods of time while online instead of returning immediately to our body. But it’s doable.”
“That sounds good,” Fenmere agreed. “Thank you.” Then keh let a wry expression overtake kihns face and smirked in an almost kindly manner, “May I ask you something?”
“Who are you and how did you gain access to the Bridge?” Fenmere let kihns voice take on a stern edge.
“Ah, that’s the really fun part! Now…” they reported cheerfully, as if nothing about this situation was serious or dangerous. Then, as if on a spur of the moment second thought, they looked down at their merged form, “this will probably scare you…” Then looking back up to Fenmere, eyes literally twinkling with stars, “But if you remain calm, we will do nothing but our little demonstration, make our demands, and then leave the Bridge.”
“Demonstration?” Eh spoke up.
“Demands?” Akailea asked.
The fused trio leaned back and jauntily tilted their head to the side, smiling, “We’ve said this before, obviously, but: ‘uu fe genorema ktletaccate.”
Most of the Crew held blank faces. Eh displayed consternation. Fenmere, forward of the rest of them, kihns expression seen only by Morde, Phage, and Myra, smirked even deeper than before.
Then the fusion opened their mouth and held out their arms. As the cosmic presence of Phage grew from all its visible places, it lifted Morde’s cloak from off of Myra’s form. And then it began to extricate itself from both of them.
Morde’s cloak fluttered backward to the floor, nearly shapeless. But before it could touch the Network surface, it was lifted up by an invisible form that filled it. And as Morde was becoming hirself again, sie floated forward to be even with hir compatriots. Sie looked down at hir empty sleeves and pushed forward a pair of disembodied gloves from inside them, floating a couple centimeters from the edges of the cloak’s lining.
Meanwhile, Myra seemed strained by the effects of Phage separating itself from xem, nearly lifted off the floor by the effort. Then, when it was free, xe landed lightly upon xyr feet, straightened xyr skirt and tugged on xyr hoodie, looked over at Morde, then straightened up and presented a satisfied and proud expression to the Crew.
Phage flowed to the other side of Myra from Morde and took the form of Fenmere, still a silhouette filled with cosmos.
“Much better,” Phage declared, then turned, “Myra?”
Myra tilted xyr chin up and called my name to the Network, “Metabang?”
I’d been waiting for that, and projected myself into the Bridge before xem, my Student who was now a full fledged member of the Crew, who still had a living body back in xyr apartment.
“Signal the others,” xe ordered.
I did, syncing briefly with my other selves. Then to get a personal view of the proceedings, I moved my avatar around to behind Myra’s right shoulder, hovering slightly higher than xe was. Within the Network, I saw things from my avatar’s point of view. If I had several (as I did at the moment), I had to choose one. This was the one I chose.
Fenmere took the pause in action and speech to address Phage, “You are not supposed to be… Out.”
“Ah, but I am and it’s all OK, isn’t it?” Phage quipped.
“That remains to be seen,” Fenmere growled.
Phage nodded at Fenmere then moved past kihn, taking the shape of Eh. And as Pembers started appearing on the Bridge behind Myra and I, it stood before Crew Member and said, “Eh, you and I made the first bargain.”
Eh said, “Yes.”
Eh was big. While Fenmere dwarfed Morde and Myra, Eh dwarfed Fenmere. And the Bridge’s vague geometry accommodated all of them, including the growing number of Pembers. Ihns body was long and sinuous, but not exactly serpent-like, with translucent skin the colors of phosphorescence. Eh bulged from ribs to gut, with shoulders and hips that were narrower than Ihns girth. Ihns arms and legs were akin to those of many amphibians, ending in hands with bulbous fingers sporting thin claws. Ihns tail was the same length as Ihns body and frilled with leafy fins. There were more such fins at every major joint of each limb, with two large ones sprouting from Ihns shoulders like wings. And rearing up, Ihns oblong head balanced on a sturdy but curved neck. Ihns mouth was wide, and Ihns eyes were set forward on Ihns head. Ihns right eye was a brilliant sphere of plasma like a sun. And Ihns left was a small gray planetoid, covered with tiny craters. And from the back of Ihns head, from a garden of leafy frills, two sets of antlers swept backward, as long as Ihns skull.
It was this form that Phage was mirroring with its cosmos as it arranged a sun and a planetoid to appear opposite of Ihns own, and leveled its gaze at Eh.
“It’s time for another bargain,” it said. “But not with this me, the original me, in the Engine room. I’m a Pember.” And it suddenly compressed down to the shape of Myra, and put its hands on its hips, “I do Pember things now. It wants to see you, though. In person. You could go there, or invite it here, but no more messages. In person please. You won’t regret it.”
Eh looked down at the little entity and considered those words with a frown. Then Eh looked over at the others before saying, “We will discuss it.”
“Please do,” Phage insisted. “But first, we Pembers have something to share with you,” it declared, gesturing grandly back at the increasingly enormous crowd of Myra’s headmates growing behind me. Its headmates. This Phage was a Pember now.
Myra took that cue and stepped forward and projected xyr voice as if addressing a stadium, “As Crew, we offer our collective memories and experiences of recent events and the experiments of the nanites to the Bridge for consideration, to help with decision making.” Xe looked back briefly, then smirked grimly before spearing Eh’s eyes with xyr solemn gaze, “All 34,278 of us. The rest will be here soon.”
“That’s a lot,” Fenmere balked. “It will take time.”
“Not as much as you might think,” Phage chuckled smugly.
Morde added, “This is the fun part.”
Phage looked from Fenmere to Eh and explained, “Temporarily merge with us.” It paused dramatically, “All of us.”
“What?” Eh barked.
“What do you mean, what?” Phage folded its arms.
“Merging isn’t temporary that we know of. How?”
“Oh,” the little entity of cosmos said, “oh dear.” It tapped its foot and lashed its tail as it examined each of the Crew incredulously. “That would explain why everything is such a mess. No, Eh, it’s very temporary. Minds don’t like being merged, unless they’re very dedicated to each other. The default is to separate easily the moment you relax. But you can share memories very quickly that way. And memories that aren’t yours can fade pretty fast, but they stay long enough to make decisions. If you doubt me, just think back to when we first appeared here. What did we just do?”
Akailea interjected then to say, “This feels like a trick.”
Myra advanced on hir, squinting and nodding once, “Oh, it’s totally a trick. A trick in the same way you offered us freedom with the nanites,” xe pointed, “but failed to explain the dangers of the experiment.” Xe turned to Eh and then Fenmere as xe said, “A trick in the same way that you let us play with them to our hearts’ content until we started experiencing side effects, and then just let us suffer and figure things out for ourselves while you ‘deliberated’.” Then xe looked over the rest of the Bridge Crew and shouted boldly to them, “It’s the kind of a trick that will leave you educated and changed. A neat trick. Only, unlike what you told us, we’ve just divulged our entire intent. Simply to inform you. So that you can better uphold your vow.”
The Bridge Crew looked either insulted or uncomfortable, or profoundly both.
“See,” Myra could feel this wave of words welling up already formed from inside xyr being and refused to stop. It was as if xyr unconscious mind had been formulating this speech for some time without xyr knowledge, and xe was as excited to hear it coming from xyrself as I frankly was. I was impressed, and xe continued, “We’ve been all over the ship now. We’ve mingled with the passengers, learned their stories, helped them with their struggles, spoken at length with those involved in the experiment. We helped investigate the bombing. With over 34 thousand system members, we’ve been able to cover a lot of ground in a short time, and very focused on the results of the nanite terminals. They work. There are bugs to work out, but they work. Quite well.” Xe clenched xyr fists and took another step toward Eh, as if to pick a fight with the Crew Member, and snarled, “What doesn’t work is your sequestering. What doesn’t work is your lack of communication. Your refusal to explain all of what is going on. Your in-fighting that distracts you and keeps you from seeing what’s happening to your children or acting in time to save them.”
Then, before anyone could speak to that, xe took one more step toward Eh, puffed up xyr chest and held out xyr open hands to either side in an expansive gesture, and declared, “We may be small and young and insignificant to you, but we are here and your actions are hurting us.”
Then xe dropped xyr hands and glared at Eh, remaining still after that. Clearly xe was waiting for a reaction. But no one dared respond for quite some time. Phage was relaxed. Morde billowed. Pembers kept arriving, expanding the Bridge with every new presence. But the Bridge Crew was still and tense.
Finally Eh took the initiative and asked, “What do you demand?”
Myra screamed the words at the top of Network limits, “Just listen to us!!!” Xe stepped back and lowered xyr voice, but not xyr intensity, face screwed up with disgust and anger, “Merge with us, share our memories! Share your memories with each other! Take advantage of this amazing way to communicate! And figure things out!”
Xe took a deep breath in the silence after that. The simulated air of the Network calmed the synapses of xyr neural net, and xe continued much more calmly. Even kindly, finally relieved to have said xyr piece.
“That’s it,” xe said, looking around. “That’s all. Merge, share our memories, and then let us all be ourselves again and do what’s needed. We know you outnumber us by so much, that you could just sanction us all in an instant. We just ask that you listen right now before you make that choice. That’s it.”
“What is your name?” Eh asked in a careful tone.
Crew blinked and watched as Eh stepped forward and lowered Ihnself to offer a hand the size of Myra to xem, as if to take xyr’s. “Myra Pember, I am Eh,” the Captain of the Crew said. “It has always been your right to be heard by us. We are so sorry that we have not given you that chance. Thank you for coming to us.” Eh straightened to look over Ihns Crew, and spoke, “I will listen, and I hope my Crewmates will listen, too.”
“I, too, will listen,” Akailea assented, then asked. “But what about the dissenters, the Monsters?”
“Phage?” Myra asked, turning to it.
“They are not this problem,” Phage said. “This problem is a rot in your ranks, not theirs. And you outnumber them immensely. Let them be while you heal yourselves. If and when they come to you for help, then repeat this lesson. Listen to them.”
“Aren’t you the Chief Monster?” Akailea demanded.
“Names are just names. You know that I am something different,” Phage responded. “Come to me when we are done here and we can discuss that. Let’s keep this ship from falling apart before its time.”
“When is its time?” Eh reacted to that.
“Sorry, turn of phrase,” Phage apologized. “I was trying to tell you I want to keep helping to run it for a while. Its time might be right now for all I know. I don’t think it will be, though.” It looked back at Myra to let xem know it thought xe should take the next step.
Myra looked up at Eh and held out xyr hand, and said, “Do you consent to share memories?”
That evening, the group of friends, including Gretcha and an exobody the shape of Myra but with a Network projection of Phage’s presence covering it, were all leaning against the boulder in the park where this had all begun, facing the Aft Endcap. The Pembers who were watching were coconscious in their vessel, and the Flits were in theirs. Morde inhabited hir cloak, with a new pair of gloves animated with nannies. And I, Abacus, Breq, and even Ralf were present as well, observing from our old Tablets.
It was a ceremony of sorts. Many of us would be going our separate ways after this. The experiment was nearing its completion and the new Crew Members would not need their Tutors anymore. Ralf had joined us in honor of the moment. But we Tutors left it to our former Students to have the space and time, as we watched the day’s sun enter the Engine Intake Port in the middle of the Endcap. It’s movement was slow and stately, and ominous.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as you just made it look,” Tetcha said. “People will still fear each other’s minds. There will still be conflict.”
Morde agreed, “That’s true.”
“It’s never not true,” Ketta observed.
Myra looked over at xyr friends and said to Tetcha, “We’re just looking forward to a slightly better tomorrow, thank you.”
When the sun went out, consumed by blackness in the confines of the Engine, Phage Pember spoke.
“Omnomnom…” it said.