2.03 Ni’a, Student of Phage

of Ni’a

There was a moment one morning when Emala’s four children had all fallen asleep at the same time, so xe took that opportunity to bathe.  Having freshly oiled and dried xyr fur, xe was adjusting xyr garments while stepping out of the bathing chamber. Which is when xe looked up to see Phage’s Network projection hovering in the middle of the room, again.

It was doting on its student, of course.

“You are not an AI,” Emala stated over xyr terminal so as not to wake xyr children.

Phage turned, “The ship records say that I am.”

“I think they are wrong,” Emala declared as xe went to the kitchen to make something for xyrself. Anything. Some kind of solid food. “The Monsters say you are not. The Pembers say you are not. Most people think you are not. And after working with you for three years, I have come to the conclusion that you are definitely not one of the AI. You are also not Crew.”

“Technically, I am.”

“Banana pudding! And you know it.”

“Well, I mean, that’s one way to put it.”

Emala tapped the end of xyr chin with a stirring spoon that xe was deciding not to use after all, “you behave like an adolescent.”

Phage smirked, “Some do call me the Chief Monster.”

“And that’s a stray pea in the banana pudding,” Emala put the spoon down and grabbed a gigantic apple from a bowl and sank xyr canines into it, tearing off a huge chunk. Xe took several moments to masticate it vigorously before swallowing. “Interesting, but incorrect.”

Phage moved over to its student’s bed and looked down. While it was a Network presence, this was nothing more than for show. Phage was communicating by providing body language. But it could keep an eye on its child from anywhere on the ship. It didn’t have to monopolize a sensor like it had the day of their conception. It could just stream a copy of the feed, which it doubtlessly was doing now.

“Emala,” Phage said, “Evolutionary development is kind of funny. Even when it is removed from typical external forces like a planet’s ecosystem, coddled away in a computer simulation to accelerate it and produce new and unique forms, it tends to duplicate things with a regularity.

“For instance, you look a lot like the combination of a couple of animals that once existed in another time and space, far removed from the Sunspot.  You won’t find them in any records here.  One was very large, larger than you, and adapted for a wooded mountainous region much like what’s above our heads right now. It was omnivorous and the apex predator of its region. The other was for a warmer, drier climate and almost entirely herbivorous, and fairly slow moving. A creature much smaller than you, but with a pouch just like yours. You’re almost completely unrelated to either of them.”

“You don’t talk like an adolescent,” Emala observed, “but you sure do pose like one.”

“Are you maybe starting to think I am what I’ve told you I am?”

“Ha! No! I like you, but I’m not buying that story.”

“Oh? What do you think I am?” Phage turned back to look at xem.

“Something else,” Emala nodded firmly.

“Mm. Well! I’m excited to learn what name my child will pick for themselves. But, I’d like to let you do the honors of guiding them through it. I’ve been helping you raise them these last three years, but I’d like to withdraw my influence a little for their name. See what happens. I have a hunch.”

Emala appreciated that Phage was talkative. Xe could finish xyr apple while it blabbered on.  Swallowing xyr last bite, xe said, “Oh course! I’d love to.”

“Thank you!”

“Why did you tell me that story about why I look the way I do?”

“Two reasons. One, I’m still trying to understand why my child looks the way they do. Everyone on this ship has always ever looked at most like a combination of creatures that have existed at some other space/time. Often like the fauna in the Garden of this ship. Usually like nothing ever seen before. My child is, so far, the only one created by the Evolutionary Engine that looks exactly like another creature that has lived before, a specific individual,” Phage gestured at the smooth skinned child with a button nose and soft hair at the top of their sleeping head. “I think there is a reason for that.

“And, two,” it continued, “if I’m not what I say I am, or something very much like it, I don’t think I should know these things. Eh invited me aboard this ship two generations into its travel. I have not personally been in contact with the Sunspot or the people who made it until that time. The ship has no existing records of any ship or planet before its creation, in accordance with specifications and protocols. And while Eh and a few other Crewmates are older than the ship, their memories do not predate the ship they came from. And yet, I do know these things.”

“You could be just making them up to impress me,” Emala pointed out.

“You are not the one I’m trying to convince,” Phage said. “And thank you. You’re wonderful and I appreciate being part of your family. Shall I make them all breakfast?”

“Please.”

“Do you want some?”

“No thank you, the apple was enough for now.”

All living units now had a nanite bin full of dormant nanites and construction materials embedded in the wall, so that a Network entity such as Phage could manifest a body when needed. Which it did now, taking on the form it had been projecting into Network space, a copy of Emala’s body. Only, instead of a galaxy filled shadow, Phage now moved around in a graphene colored recreation of muscle and fur, with a similarly colored robe.

“Why not take the form of your child?” Emala asked aloud quietly, sitting down to watch.

“I can’t reach things when I’m that small,” Phage quipped, still over Network channels.  It could devise a way to create sound with the nanites, or use the room’s com to speak out loud, but it preferred the discretion and comfort of its native mode of communication.

“Do you have your own form, shapeshifter?” Emala prodded, not at all for the first time.

Phage just smirked and went about making breakfast, slowly and with obvious pleasure.  The children weren’t due to wake up all that soon.

Emala turned and looked at them. In most quarters, beds were inset into the walls. But in nursery quarters, they were free standing in the room. Xyr own bed was in the middle of the sleeping area, with the children’s cribs lined up on one side, easily and quickly accessible. Dressers lived opposite the cribs, on the other side of Emala’s bed.  And xyr chair was against the wall between the sleeping area and the kitchen. Phage’s student was sleeping in the one second over from where xe was sitting now.

Being a caretaker was a lot of work, of course, but if you were one you had up to five other coparents.  Your own AI tutor, plus each of the childrens’ tutors.  And the tutors took up a lot of the burden. As much as you needed, typically, since you were the one still nursing your own physical body as well as the children’s.  To the AIs and the Crew, you were also a child, if an older one.

Emala thought about the diversity of people as xe looked over xyr charges.  

The one in the farthest crib, Student of Vine, was fur covered, like xe was, but skinnier, grey colored, and with a rounder head and a long tail. Next, Student of Chalkboard, was clearly amphibious in development, with a stubby tail that was shrinking, and needed regular moisturizing treatments for areas of their skin not covered by their special garments. Then there was Student of Phage, who had no tail, was awkward on their feet still, and whose face was extremely expressive. And finally, in the last crib, Student of Charlie also had fur, tan, with a triangular face, pointed ears, nubs of horns, and a very fluffy tail.  There were so many other unique adaptive traits that each of them had, that they already used when playing with each other.  And these were just the observable physical traits.

And every single one of them was painfully adorable to Emala.

Besides food preferences, each one also had such different personalities and needs. Both Student of Phage and Student of Charlie were extremely cuddly, for instance.  Student of Chalkboard was resentful of touch, but always wanted to sit where they could watch everyone. And Student of Vine was fiercely independent and kept running off to explore everything three or four times repeatedly, as if to look for any possible changes or new ways they could interact with something.

As for their future names and pronouns, Emala and their tutors were already reading or telling them stories, some historical and some fictional, filled with descriptions of all sorts of people.  Student of Phage, Phage’s child, was the most attentive to the story telling, so Emala had no fear that they would identify with a name soon. Student of Charlie had already tried on several pronouns, but was so erratic with them that Emala couldn’t keep up. Charlie had no problem, though and would use the current one for its Student unerringly. This frantic exploration was a possible early sign that Student of Charlie might be plural.  It was still too early to know, though.

At some point soon, they’d all start encouraging the children to make their first choice of name.  A person could change their name and pronouns any time they like, of course.  And some people preferred to simply be called “Student of Abacus” or whatever their tutor’s name was. But, on average, three years old was when people’s brains would start to integrate their consciousness and various neural schemas into a more consistent identity, and they’d be drawn to a name. Sometimes it was as late as five years. Though, if a person was plural like Student of Charlie seemed to be, that process was very different.

Plural systems only made up about three percent of the population, and Emala had never raised one before. Xe had met a couple, though, and was actually hopeful to have the honor of being caretaker to one.  The Pembers and the Flits were two of the more prominent plural systems in recent history, central to the advent of the Nanite Innovation which had resulted in the practice of using the old construction nanites as neural interfaces and exobodies. Emala had seen one of the Pembers walking around in an exobody when xe was a child.  Apparently, Phage knew them personally, and had an echo of itself in their system. The idea of having multiple consciousnesses sharing your own brain was a little exciting to Emala, but xe figured it wasn’t all that different from growing up with your tutor and your friends available over the Network.  

The big difference would be having to share one body, and knowing someone else could be using it when you were not. And that that other person would have just as much right to consent and autonomy within and over that body as you. The Sunspot had laws and policies to help manage that, and the tutors were well versed in helping to raise systems healthfully to be cooperative with themselves. But Emala was grateful not to have to deal with a neural twin, or quintuplets, or however many xe might have been born with if xe hadn’t been a singlet.

Probably subconsciously sensing the presence of their tutor, Student of Phage stirred and made a noise, then sat up and watched with bleary eyes while their parent milled about in the kitchen.

Emala got up and moved over to their crib, “would you like to get up, little one?”

Phage’s child raised a hand with fingers outstretched, still propped up on the other one. More and more, Emala saw signs that this child was left handed. Just another incidental detail of childhood development that sparked xyr interest, really.

Emala picked them up and carried them back to the chair, to sit with them in xyr lap, “I suppose the others will wake up soon, but I think you should stay with me until you’re more awake and Phage is done doing interesting things in the kitchen. Or do you need to go potty?”

Student of Phage nodded.

“OK, let’s do that instead,” Emala put Student of Phage down and held their hand as they walked to the bathing room. Halfway there, the child gained their wakefulness, let go of Emala’s hand and ran to the toilet.

Emala turned to Phage at the doorway, to give them some privacy while still remaining present in case xe was needed, and said, “how’s it going?”

“I want pancakes!” declared the child from atop the toilet.

“Fortunately, I’m making pancakes,” Phage said aloud.

“Yay!” came from the toilet.

One of the other children stirred and Vine pulled itself from the nanite bin, stating, “I will greet them.”

Most AI tutors were pretty funny in their sense of self. Some would pick names that were words for inanimate objects or abstract concepts, while others would choose odd names no one could remember hearing before. And then, their projected forms and exobodies would be equally eclectic. 

Vine always looked like a giant wooden doll made of basic shapes. It also chose to use the Network channels to project the perception of color and texture over its exobody when it formed one, so that each block that it was made of had the look of natural wood grain painted with primary colors. Its torso was a cube, with the letters V, I, N, and E on each of the sides, painted in red. The top and bottom of the cube had the numbers 0 and 1.  Its head was a green sphere. Its hands and feet were blue. Everything else was colored a creamy tan.

Emala’s own nanite terminal took the Network signals that Vine was projecting and told xyr visual cortex to interpret them as if they were signals from xyr eyes, and xyr brain obliged. It really looked like Vine was that colorful. But, xe also just knew it was a projection. Xe had always been able to identify Network projections on sight, no matter how natural they were. According to xyr tutor, Doorway, that was also a signal from xyr nanite terminal, interpreted by xyr brain as an intuition.

Phage never bothered to decorate its nanite exobody, which looked and moved like it was made out of an electromagnetically charged clay. Which was a very simplified way of describing exactly what a nanite exobody was.

After making sure Student of Phage washed their hands, Emala went and quietly moved the dining table away from the wall by picking it entirely up and setting it down carefully. Then xe arranged chairs and stools around it as Vine picked up its child, talking to them in hushed nanite vibrations. And another child stirred.

The rest of the morning, and day, proceeded like this, unremarkable from any other recent day. And the conversation between Caretaker and tutors was usually kept to practical concerns while they focused on their childrens’ needs and interests.

When not cooking, Phage did take the form of whomever it was talking to. So most of the time, it was a graphene clay copy of its own child, who seemed totally at ease and delighted by their tutors’ antics.

They took a trip to the park, and spent time talking about the animals and plants they could see there, and met other children and their caretakers and tutors. And then it started to rain, so they stopped at an eatery before going back home.

There was an afternoon nap after that. And evening time was spent with dinner and then stories.

Phage found a way to just quietly disengage when story time started, a knowing look cast in Emala’s direction before returning its exobody to the bin. Emala rolled xyr eyes and picked up Student of Phage to tell them a story.

Almost as if Phage had orchestrated it, though, part way through the story, Student of Phage said, “I want a name.”

“Oh?” Emala said, and then with a gentle leading tone, asked “and why would you like a name?”

“They’re pretty!” the child declared.

“This is true,” Emala agreed.

“And I want one.”

“OK!” Emala cheerfully relented.  Once one of the children picked a name, the others would usually follow suit pretty quickly. “What name would you like?”

“I don’t know,” came the reply.

“Would you like to hear names until one sounds like it belongs to you?”

“Yeah! And then more story?”

“Yes, we’ll pick a name for you and then I will call you that name and we can finish the story.”

“OK!” said the child who then waited expectantly, looking into the space in front of Emala where xe usually projected story book images. They gave Emala a quick hug as if to prompt xem.

And so Emala had xyr own tutor, Doorway, randomly present names, written large in a dark brown on a cream background, with their meanings listed under them.

Student of Phage kept saying “no,” or shaking their head through the first few names, and started getting impatient.

“You can also just make up a name, if you like,” Emala suggested. “Or you can use a name from a story.”

Student of Phage pursed their lips and shook their head, “no. More.”

“OK,” Emala said, “How about this one? Ni’a! It means ‘the chaos of a living thing’. Weird. Doorway? Where did that come from?”

“I like it!” the child nearly shouted.

“Do you know what chaos is?” Emala asked.

“No. But it sounds fun!”

Emala said to Vine, who was across the room with an already sleeping child draped across its shoulder, “of course it does.”

Vine chuckled.

“The ship records do not contain name origins, as you know,” Doorway reported, “except for names in Fenekere, the command language of the Sunspot. There are other similar names, such as Niea, that do not have the glottal stop and that mean very different things. Linguists are intrigued by the meanings of names, but continue to be frustrated by their lack of history. Of all beings on the ship, Phage and Eh are the two most likely to have relevant memories. Perhaps also Fenemere.”

“Thank you, Doorway. No need to bother the Crew over a simple curiosity. I’m sure Phage will be smug about it and prattle on, anyway,” Emala replied. “So,” xe turned back to xyr child, “Because you asked, chaos is the unpredictable messiness that occurs in nature. Like, how you can never tell just how big the next wave will be at the sea shore until you see it. Would you still like to be called Ni’a?”

Ni’a nodded, smiling, eyes glinting as they looked at the page with their name on it.

“OK, Ni’a, where were we in our story?”

Ni’a just hugged Emala and said, “I love you!”

And that is pretty typical of how children are named aboard the Sunspot.  It is a special occasion, but not overly celebrated.  The new name is adopted immediately by everyone, and if the child finds that they don’t like it, they are always free to pick another one. Some go through several before settling down with one they identify with. Sometimes people change their names at every major turning point in their life. But most usually end up keeping their favorite name for centuries, finding that it reminds them of who they are and grounds them to their past. 

Most people just have the one name, and the name of their tutor. Spoken like “Ni’a, Student of Phage.” Members of a plural system are usually known to have a first and second name. Their second name being their system name.  For example, there is Ketta Flit, who was the first person to create an exobody using nanites and material from the sea shore, whose system is the Flits, close friends of the Pembers, and the singlets Morde and Tetcha.

Their story happened to be the story that Emala was telling Ni’a that night. Because it was an important part of history. And because it was about the day that Phage was released from its confinement in the Engine Room.

It’s also the story of how my former student, Tetcha, became a Monster.

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