2.04 Monster games

of Ni’a

Bashiketa was playing a game with their caretaker, Fredge, who was one of the Monsters. Bashiketa also thought of themselves as a Monster. They were only three years old, but everyone they had known, their entire family, were Monsters and regularly talked about themselves as being Monsters. To Bashiketa, for the time being, Monster was just the word for other beings that could walk and talk.

Mostly, though, they played with toy animals and talked about colors and numbers, and sometimes made up stories about them.  Fredge would ask simple questions about what the different animals wanted and then would play act their antics with Bashiketa after Bashiketa answered.

Then, at lunch, while they were just eating their food and smiling at each other, Fredge asked, “Bashiketa, do you remember before you were born?”

Bashiketa puzzled over the question for a moment, remembering darkness at first. They couldn’t remember being born. They couldn’t remember much about being really young. But they remembered darkness. And then they remembered something else they would not be able to describe for several years, but being asked made it stick in their head. They would revisit this question regularly for the rest of their life. Another thing that would eventually lead to unearthing the conspiracy of their birth.

Bashiketa nodded.

“Can you tell me anything about it?” asked Fredge.

The child shook their head and said, “It’s dark.”

“Yeah, that makes sense. That’s kind of like what I remember, too,” Fredge said reassuringly. “It’s interesting, isn’t it?”

Bashiketa nodded very knowingly. It was interesting.

Fredge wrote all about this exchange in one of their paper journals later that day, when Bashiketa was napping.

—–

Tetcha and Morde were walking through a surface level art bazaar. This one had a high number of beverage artisans, seemingly one on every corner, with indoor and outdoor spaces for people to enjoy their drinks while they talked, or even worked on their own projects at a table. 

As they passed one, Tetcha’s eye was caught by an illustrated story one person was working on. Pieces of lovingly illustrated paper littering their table top in a loose order as they sipped their drink, frowning. Drawing tools were scattered atop an unfinished piece. The story seemed to take place on a ship with wildly different flora and fauna than the Sunspot’s. And there was one panel depicting the outer hull of that ship with shuttles of some sort traveling to and from it. A speculative fiction. No one knew for sure if there even were other ships, or what they looked like, though it was pretty well accepted they probably existed. So people liked to dream and tell stories about the possibilities.

Tetcha loved that kind of thing more than most. Xyr mind would surge with the details, piecing them together and extrapolating the missing parts to tell an even greater story.  Sometimes xe would guess pretty accurately what the author was intending. Most of the time, xe would have corrections to make and wild elaborations to suggest. Morde regularly urged xem to write xyr own stories, but Tetcha said xe would rather spend xyr time reading them.

Morde paused easily in hir stride to accommodate Tetcha’s gawking. Sie always knew hir partner’s rhythms and patterns intuitively, but sie wasn’t so interested in the comic being made. Tetcha would tell hir all about it anyway. Instead, sie languidly looked around the street they were on, taking in the general movements and sounds of people.

Of course, like Phage, Morde’s body language was almost purely for show. Except unlike Phage, it was due to habit not careful pretense. Morde was Crew, and no longer had a biological form. Hir presence was Netbound and sie was used to using feeds from all of the sensors in an area sie was focusing on.  But when sie had an exobody formed, such as today, sie would habitually focus through it, and treat it as if it was hir old physical form. Though, what sie did to create it was to take an actual beautiful satin cloak and imbue it with enough nanites to lift it into the air and animate it. It appeared as if there was an invisible person wearing the cloak and moving around with it. Tetcha was used to this. Other people tended to mistake Morde for an AI tutor.

Morde had been born with severe physical dysphoria. Due to some developmental quirk that occurs in a tiny percentage of the population, hir brain’s neurology did not match hir body’s biology.  Hir neural body map had been off, but also so were several other more subtle aspects of hir development, including hormones and possibly even hir metabolism itself. This had resulted in so much trauma that no medical procedures at the time could relieve hir agony, and sie had no intuitive knowledge of what hir ideal body might look like. It didn’t matter that there were others who had bodies similar to hirs who didn’t have dysphoria. It wasn’t hir body that was bad. It was hir connection to it that hurt hir.

When Morde was given hir nanite terminal during the Nanite Innovation, sie almost immediately chose to use the nanites to ascend and live entirely without a body. Instead of creating a new one from hir imagination, sie chose the one physical thing sie ever related to, the cloak sie had used to hide hir body from sight.

Tetcha had taken the opposite path, using xyr right to autonomy to reject xyr nanites, and taking the oath to become a Monster. In the process, xe had released xyr tutor from duty just as Morde had done by ascending.

Morde’s tutor, Ralf, was halfway around the ship, teaching a new student.  This kept it very busy, but Morde kept in touch with it out of mutual respect and affection.

Tetcha’s tutor finds itself writing this book. It is not at all resentful of this task, since it still cares about Tetcha and the purpose of writing the book has caused their paths to cross again and given them reason to maintain intimacy. However, it might be detecting a little bit of uncharacteristic sarcasm about something as it writes this paragraph, though, and will have to think about that.

In any case, just as Tetcha was dragging xyr attention away from the artwork and making a comment about how whether an author included Monsters in their story or not was really telling of something, Morde caught sight of someone reacting strangely to their presence.

Most people who knew who Morde and Tetcha were tended to react as one would a celebrity. Delight, typically. Sometimes careful, restrained excitement. Sometimes with extreme awkwardness.  Sometimes with no self awareness at all.  Those that recognized Morde knew that sie was Crew but Not Like Crew, a person, someone trustworthy.  And the rest, the vast majority of people didn’t recognize them or didn’t care, and tended to treat them as just a person and their tutor out for a stroll.

This person flinched at the sight of Morde, and immediately stepped behind another person and tried to match their pace as nonchalantly as possible. Then when they had a building between themselves and Morde, they took off running. By then, Morde was already watching them from a myriad of other sensors originally only available to tutors and Crew.  They were now available to anyone with a nanite terminal, but most people were not yet used to using or thinking about them.

Morde could also tell, thanks to ship’s channels and protocols, that this person was a Monster. Which meant that sie was supposed to give them the benefit of the doubt and let them go about their business. But, again, Morde was not like the rest of the Crew and felt inclined to bend the rules as much as sie could without drawing sanction. So, sie stopped tracking the person actively after hir initial curiosity was sated and decided to rely on hir intuition, which was famously formidable.

“Someone just ran at the sight of us,” Morde told Tetcha.

“Why?” asked Tetcha.

“I don’t know, but they were a Monster,” Morde replied, then asked, “should we follow them to find out?”

“You are not the one who asks that kind of question, Morde!” Tetcha shot back, “Usually, you answer it. Do we?”

“I have to leave it up to you,” Morde calmly stated, “Since they’re a Monster, until they hurt someone it’s Monster business. Your business. If you want to see why they’re afraid of us, I’ll use my resources to help you do that.”

“Oh, OK! Of course,” Tetcha started walking, “Now that I’m painfully curious about it, please lead the way!”

“I think we should go this way,” Morde said and drifted down an alley, Tetcha swerving to follow.

—–

Laal had long springy legs built for running, so of course hen ran, a newly acquired Fluffy Fauna clutched in both of hens short strong arms. Hens ears bounced behind hens head with each stride.

Two blocks into the flight, Laal thought about it. That was Morde hen had seen. No mistaking that empty cloak. Not after seeing it in that graphic novel Metabang had distributed to the Monsters. And that meant the Operation’s days were seriously numbered. No chance it was coincidence Laal had seen hir here. Morde’s subconscious was credited for the biggest upheavals of the Nanite Innovation. Hir subconscious had caught the scent and sie would lead Crew to Bashiketa soon.

So discretion was less important than speed. So Laal kept running.

Down a ramp. Through a below decks neighborhood, children playing in the corridors. A quick sharp left, with easy strides pacing for a long run, Laal weaved hen’s way toward an express transit tube. Hen was easily the tallest person in any hallway, leaping over the smallest without even disturbing them. Hen’s agile tail was extremely helpful for shifting direction quickly.

Laal loved the popular colors of this region. Muted dark greyish blues with gold and tan accents decorated the bulk of the corridor walls, with a rubbery semigloss stone colored floor created a dour backdrop that made people’s brightly colored garments and domicile decorations really pop. It was both easy on hen’s eyes and interesting to see, cheerful in a way.

The express transit tube station was colored predominantly in cream colored tiles, with the blue, gold, and tan of the region carried through in directional stripes and signage.

Hen had timed it just right by chance, a tube car pulling up and opening its doors to let out passengers just conveniently enough that Laal didn’t break stride until hen was sitting down.

Laal took a moment to scan the car and corridors hen had come from. No sign of Morde or Tetcha. Then hen relaxed, barely even panting.

Long legs pushing hen’s knees up to lower ribs, tail sticking straight out into the aisle of the car from between hen’s legs, Laal placed the Fluffy Fauna on hen’s legs to rest and look at it.

A rainbow colored mountain cat.  Selected from the portfolio of an equally colorful artist who was so pleased to hear it was for a worthy three year old. Bashiketa would almost certainly love it. This toy was clearly a good luck charm. If Laal hadn’t taken the extra time to search for just the right thing in that art bazaar, hen would not have caught sight of Morde, and they would not be forewarned.

Maybe there was a way to distract and waylay Morde, though.

So maybe Laal wouldn’t return directly to Fredge and Bashiketa. Maybe it was time to visit their benefactor first. So getting off at the next stop was in order.

—–

It may be appropriate to insert a personal tangent here.  I should keep these to a minimum, but writing about this part has me thinking about the relationships between Children, Monsters, Crew, and the AI tutors such as myself.  This relationship is currently in upheaval, and knowing some of its history may inform how one would interpret this whole story.

As I have explained, the Crew are Children who have ascended upon the death of their biological bodies, and the Monsters are Children who have decided to reject their connection to the Network.

When the Sunspot was created and its culture set in motion, it was determined for some reason that the Crew should not raise the Children, so they sequestered themselves and created the AI tutors to do that work. I am as old as the Sunspot and if I focus I can remember my first assignment. But although everyone calls me an AI, I find my thinking and memories get fuzzy with time just as they do for the Children, Monsters, and Crew.

We’ll come back to the Monsters in a bit.

When one is an AI Tutor, one has to face an uncomfortable reality that is difficult to navigate. We were created to serve a governmental function to influence the population from infancy. After many generations, there are people in all populations of the ship who are critical of our role, including many of us Tutors ourselves.  And this growing dissent is developing a distrust, which threatens the stability of the system.

It doesn’t help that we Tutors are actually no more “artificial” than anyone else aboard the ship. Although we were all generated by the very same evolutionary engine that was used to spawn every single soul aboard the Sunspot, only just without a biological body, we represent a system that some people resent. And though you can compare my neural waves to that of anyone else of the population and be utterly unable to tell who is the Tutor and who is not, I am in the position of having taught and influenced a member of every generation of Children and Crew aboard the Sunspot except for the Eldest. The Tutors as a whole have a great deal of influence.

And just as you, even if you are an Outsider, have right to consent and autonomy, so do I. So what is keeping me from rejecting my station aboard the Sunspot and requesting a different job, or even acting in rebellion? Legally, nothing. But, so far, to a Tutor, none of us want to. And that’s creepy.

When I think about this conundrum, and entertain the idea of working to dismantle the system I’m in, I am struck with the reality that all of my best skills and experiences are in working with Children as a Tutor. I can effect the greatest influence toward change by raising them right, according to my own ideals.

But is that really my own experiences and circumstances talking, or have I been bred to keep coming back to that conclusion? Is there a difference?

And now, here I am, due to circumstances outside of my control, not teaching an individual student but personally investigating events as they occur and writing a history document instead. A task usually performed by Children and Crew. Metabang wrote a graphic novel, yes, but did not spend an entire Child’s first life just observing everything it could. It was busy with an entire plural system’s education!

I am doing something other than what I was bred and trained for. And I must say that I like it.

I am the first of my kind aboard the Sunspot to be assigned an alternative task.

But since this document is written by me, a Tutor, is it trustworthy?  Most of the populace has been successfully raised to take it for granted that because I wrote it they can assume it is. That should be questioned.

Which brings us to why the Monsters are important, dangerous, necessary, and a whole bunch of other similar qualitative values.

The Monsters only have a handful of things in common with each other.  To become a Monster, one must exercise one’s rights to consent and autonomy to disconnect from the system entirely. At this stage in history, this means rejecting and removing the nanite terminal from your body and releasing your Tutor from duty, should you choose to do this. And, furthermore, you are given the power to do this by taking the oath of the Crew.  All Monsters are technically Crew members, though they are also all officially In Dissent.  This also means that when a Monster dies, they do not ascend to the Network and their consciousness ends.

There are not many Monsters.

Also, they do maintain their own physical networks of communication.  Though some do use old modified tablets to access the Network, most of them record their thoughts and observations on paper, which they store in hidden and secure libraries all around the ship.

Furthermore, due to their vulnerability and the disability of not being neurologically connected to the Network, the Monsters are a protected class, and are given Special Dispensation, which includes clearance to access fallow ship decks and Crew restricted Network channels.  We want them to survive and to communicate with us.

See, the whole point of allowing the Monsters to be who they are, besides simply recognizing and protecting their human rights, is to maintain an outside set of perspectives on our system in an attempt to catch ways in which we are hurting ourselves or each other that we might otherwise be unaware of.

In any case, despite the above commonalities, each Monster chooses their path for their own personal reasons, and they have wildly different political concerns, philosophies, and activities.

So, although Tetcha is a Monster, and so is Laal, they are not necessarily in communication with each other, let alone working in any sort of harmony or sharing any goals what-so-ever.

And while many Monsters are indeed distrustful of us AI Tutors, and even wish that we didn’t exist, at the time that we are about to return to in this story, neither Tetcha nor Laal were among that number.

Laal thought hen’s project was too dependent on the system as it was to criticize the Tutors’ role in it, believe it or not.

And though Tetcha has always been a bit of a wild conspiracy theorist, xe had decided for the time being to believe in me, and therefore in the rest of the Tutors by extension.

And then there was Morde, the unconventional Crew member, cavorting amongst the population of Children as if sie had never ascended, easily mistaken for Tetcha’s tutor by the ignorant.

Morde loved hir old tutor, Ralf, and respected me on behalf of Tetcha, and had decent relationships with Phage and even Eh and Fenemere (two of the Eldest), but hated the Crew as a whole and the entire system that they had built in the beginning, and was blatantly and openly working to change everything.

But sie didn’t have a plan for it. Sie was entirely following hir intuition.

At least that’s what sie would tell anyone who asked hir. Or hir magic, as Tetcha still insisted on calling it.

—–

Laal held the Fluffy Fawna under hens right arm as hen marched down one of the fallow hallways deep in the hull of the Sunspot.  There was a library near here, where a desk terminal could be used to converse securely with the benefactor.

Laal had no idea how much time there was before Morde caught up, but it would already be better if sie tracked hen here instead of the stronghold where Bashiketa lived. So hen was feeling a lot more relaxed already.

The base colors of the region’s hallways were dour and foreboding without the contrasting colors of inhabitants, though. And Laal’s footsteps were the only noise that could be heard throughout all the corridors.The lights and vents were so well designed that even Laal’s highly sensitive ears could not pick up the little sound they did give off. Also, the angles and materials of the hallways were designed to dampen acoustics a bit, reducing echoes. At least, the geometry of the acoustic dampening made the walls and ceiling interesting to look at, even after having grown up in this environment.

There really wasn’t any notable smell, which would have disturbed anyone but a Monster who had grown up down here.  The lack of ambient odors meant that visitors’ fragrances and aromas stood out to anyone with a sensitive nose. A useful state to keep the place in.

There were legends among the Monsters of ghosts, unidentified creatures, or rogue AIs that were said to haunt the fallow decks, but Laal had never, ever heard or seen anything that didn’t turn out to be another Monster or a member of the Crew there to communicate with the Monsters who hid down here. Nonetheless, perhaps because of lingering adrenaline from running from Morde, Laal found henself having to actively dismiss those fears.

Nothing unusual happened between the Crew hatch Laal had used to descend to this level and the library, though. And every step forward brought more calmness. This was home.

Upon Laal entering the broad open archway of the Library, the dormant community resource began to light up.

There were actual books here, kept by the Monsters, but the shelves were sparse. One level up and several hallways over, there was another library in use by the regional populace. Its shelves were crammed full of books, lovingly created by hand by the regional and visiting artisans alike.  For most Children, books were an art, a form of self expression, like paintings or clothes.  For the Monsters, they were a form of record keeping and administration for their mostly anarchist society. And a tool for education and passing on important knowledge once one was disconnected from the Network and one’s Tutor was released from duty. Still, some work was put into making their covers distinctive and fun to look at.

Laal walked around a central pavilion of holoterminals and logged into one positioned such that hen could keep an eye on the library entrance, placing the Fluffy Fauna on the desk space next to it.  Laal had selected one of the standing desks only in part because hen found most stools and chairs to be awkward, but mostly because hen wanted to be able to bolt at the slightest hint of discovery.

A text prompt immediately appeared in the hooded holoprojector and displayed the message, “Hello, Laal. Thank you for coming directly here. I’ve been watching your situation and Morde is nowhere near you yet.” There was no signature. None was needed. This was routine. Well, routine for Laal. Apparently the benefactor had not actively participated in the project until recently. Not for the first time, Laal had the thought that hen was participating in something historic that was about to happen.

Laal let out a long breath and relaxed even further, then typed “OK, thank you! What’s the next step?”

“Your gift to Bashiketa will have to go to someone else, and you will have to excuse yourself from this project for the time being. Fortunately, we’ve been planning for this eventuality. At some point, if things go well, you may return. Until then, you will be needed elsewhere. Not just to misdirect Morde, but to contribute significantly to another, equally important project. One that may actually benefit from Morde’s attention. It will not keep hir away forever, unfortunately, but we need as much extra time as possible before sie or anyone else uncovers what we’re doing here.”

Laal typed, “Damn. OK. Understood. I will miss Bashiketa, but anything for their safety. What’s my next assignment?”

“You will find it recorded in the third book from this end of the nearest middle shelf. Look for the entry with the name Jenifer,” came the reply.

 As soon as Laal nodded understanding, the holoterminal reset, so hen took that as a cue to get going.

The book in question was hand bound in highly fibrous colorful paper with imprints of leaves and ferns on it. Laal held the purple, orange, green, and yellow tome in hen’s hands gingerly and let it fall open somewhere toward the middle. Which turned out to be not too far from where the ledger ended.  The last line was a hastily written name and address with a note appended, clearly put there by another Monster at the Benefactor’s instruction, “Jenifer – ‘ID, Fairport, Happy Valley, 2206 Red – strong potential”. (Author’s note: this address was left out of the original document for this book. There is a memorial there now, and upon its construction, we have added the address to it for all subsequent editions.)

So, just a few express stops spinward, then. It seemed awfully close for comfort, but also made sense that Laal wouldn’t travel half the circumference of the Sunspot just to buy a toy.

“Strong potential” was a term used to indicate the likelihood a child would choose to be a Monster, but Laal strongly suspected there was way more to this case than that. Strong potentials were pretty rare, but the subject of a project of equal importance to Bashiketa would have to be someone profoundly special. But it did mean this child was most likely being raised by a regular Tutor and Caretaker. Especially with a surface level street address, literally right out in the open.

Laal took a deep breath and tried to emotionally prepare for an extreme shift in lifestyle and a whole new set of dangers. Fredge would likely be receiving an update right now. Laal was just a courier for them, and Bashiketa wouldn’t miss hen much. But hen would miss them.

Most Monsters didn’t live such a regimented and structured life as Laal and Fredge did, but these projects were Important.

Laal left the book in its place on the shelf, carefully pushing it until the spine perfectly aligned with the other two books, picked up the Fluffy Fauna, and took off toward the express station in an easy lope.

—–

Tetcha ran xyr hand along the wall of the corridor they were in, letting xyr fingers bounce on the acoustic ribbing. They had meandered through surface level neighborhoods for quite some time before finally taking a ramp to belowdecks. All mostly in silence to let Morde focus on hir intuition. And Morde had indicated no need for hurry, so Tetcha had allowed xemself to become lost in the details of their surroundings.

Children ran by, playing tag and screaming. Tetcha didn’t pay them much attention, but xe did notice that nearly half of them didn’t have tails. And xe thumped xyr own tail lightly against the wall and smiled.

Everyone, every person, was so different. Intense diversity was a trait of humanity that Tetcha never took for granted. Xe couldn’t. Xyr closest childhood friends were both plural systems, and xyr partner Morde had been born with severe physical dysphoria, while xyr own neurology had rejected the nanite terminal, giving Tetcha constant headaches while it had been installed. In the face of such life impacting neurodiversity, especially ever since Morde had dissoluted hir own body with the nanites to relieve hir dysphoria, Tetcha reflexively found solace in observing people naturally accepting their own very different physical traits and habitually using them to go about life.

Of course, everything aboard the Sunspot was designed to accommodate the variety of life. Chairs and stools could be constructed in all sorts of shapes using makers whenever needed, some models even reconfigured easily after the fact, as just one example. And, of course, there was never a dearth of artisans to design, build, make, or alter any tool or garment for anyone’s needs.

Some people lived belowdecks, others in the Garden, always in the cities unless you were a Monster. Monsters could live anywhere. But the cities were even laid out to accommodate various needs. People who needed crowds and ample social opportunities could live in densely packed clusters, while those who needed solitude could live in the more secluded outskirts. This even worked belowdecks. And, there were even a few cities in the Aft Sea, and at the bottoms of several lakes, to accommodate people of various aquatic phenotypes.

Morde’s old body had been amphibious and rather spectacular. Very few people had seen it, as sie had kept it obscured with a cloak due to hir dysphoria. Tetcha tried not to dwell on it or its loss, because it had brought Morde so much agony and was not what made Morde Morde. But any time Tetcha’s thoughts wandered to the diversity of humanity, xe couldn’t help but think of Morde and what Tetcha had had the honor to experience and embrace as a partner.

Like all people, Morde had had a skull, spinal cord, and four bony limbs, with all of the organs one might expect, at least according to hir medical records. But hir body was small, half the size of hir head. Hir arms were proportionally appropriate for hir head, well within the average of the remarkable variety displayed by the population at large. However, hir legs and feet had been a short set of flippers, hardly even useful for swimming, that typically had dangled a few feet above the ground, hidden by hir cloak. What Morde had walked on were a set of eight squidlike arms that grew from hir face, surrounding a beak, below very squidlike eyes. Hir eyesight had not been great. Sie had also had two longer tentacles, ending in suction cup adorned pads, that sie had used mostly to hold hir cloak tightly around hir form. Most people only ever saw hir face and hands. The ends of the arms she walked on were technically part of hir face, and sie had reported perceiving them that way.

And now, having ascended, Morde’s body was a cloak, a pair of gloves sie had just picked up from an artist a couple neighborhoods back, and a clasp with a speaker embedded in it, all propped up and animated by an infusion of countless nanites. Technological cells, essentially, that could reproduce and reconfigure themselves as needed, so long as enough energy and matter was provided to them by the Sunspot’s systems. Tetcha didn’t understand them, but xe didn’t need to in order to acknowledge that Morde did indeed live in them, and really, truly live. 

Morde lived in the nanites in a way sie had never really lived before. Sie was more alive, more animated, more hirself than ever.

And what was befuddling to Tetcha, a curious mystery really, was how other people with bodies similar to what Morde had been born with did not feel Morde’s dysphoria. They gracefully inhabited their bodies in a way similar to how Tetcha revelled in xyrs, when xe was feeling healthy and energized. And likewise, there had been cases of people who more closely resembled Tetcha who had had physical dysphoria themselves.

This dysphoria, this feeling that something was dreadfully wrong, apparently was just something a tiny percentage of all people were born with. A problem of brains that mismatched their bodies. A problem humanity had supposedly faced even before the evolutionary engines. And the advent of the nanite integration had been an attempt to treat it. A fairly successful attempt.

But, Tetcha did occasionally miss the warm physical contact of Morde’s old form. Occasionally.

“What do you think we’re going to find when we catch up to this person?” Tetcha finally blurted out.

“You know my intuition doesn’t tell me that kind of thing,” Morde replied.

“I’m not asking about your intuition. I’m asking what you think? What do you speculate?”

“Oh, sorry,” Morde said, “I’ve been so focused. Um… I don’t know. They were holding a Fluffy Fauna when they bolted, so I think they’re a Caretaker, or friends with one. It feels kind of synyster to see suspicious behavior from someone carrying a child’s toy.”

“I have a collection of Fluffy Fauna. They could have picked it up for themselves.” Tetcha pointed out.

“Maybe,” said Morde. “I still feel like young children are involved. That’s not the kind of directional guidance my intuition usually gives me, so I might be wrong, but it’s the sense I’m getting.”

“I thought I might be able to tease that out of you,” Tetcha smirked, “Morde, I might know how your intuition works better than you do. We just have to provide it with options and it picks the more likely one, just as if it’s a direction.”

“Yes,” conceded Morde, “But cardinal directions are still much more reliable.”

“That’s so weird.”

“Is it, though?” Morde asked. “I practice making decisions regarding cardinal directs with every single movement of my…” Sie looked down at hir cloak, “self.” Sie looked back at Tetch, aiming the emptiness of hir cloak at Tetcha’s eyes for the first time in a couple hours, “So, those are the neuropathways I reinforce the most. I am hardly even aware I am following my intuition when I turn a particular direction or reach out my hand to do something, I just do it and often wonder why later. Though there are plenty of moments when I purposefully feel for that tugging sensation of the right way to go. But, no, you’re right. We can tap into it in other ways. Thank you.”

“I’ve watched you do it without me, too, you know,” Tetcha said, and then gestured at Morde’s cloak, “You’ve made non-directional decisions based on your intuition all on your own.”

“That -” Morde stammered, “This was more complicated than that. You know what kind of torturous experimenting I had to do to figure out how to… do this, or that it was even the thing to do!”

“Well, anyway,” Tetcha deflected, “I feel like I’m following you in the dark here, without a light, and I’m getting a little nervous about what we’re going to encounter.”

“Ah. That’s not good,” Morde said, looking around. “Listen. I think we’re going to be getting onto an express tram in a bit, and heading to… a library? Do you still want to do that?”

Tetcha stopped walking and just looked askance at Morde, “How do you know that?”

Morde replied, hardly thinking about it, “I don’t know.”

“You’re cheating,” Tetcha decided. “You used your senses as a member of the Crew, checked records to track this person.”

Morde turned to Tetcha, “Not consciously. Perhaps that’s helping me now, but I am very carefully, very deliberately not accessing those channels by any direct, conscious route. I do not want to leave a trail of abusing my privileges.”

“If your subconscious mind accesses those channels somehow, won’t it still leave a record?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I could look into that. But for now, I’d rather not even do that. Later, when we’re not in the middle of being naughty.”

“OK! OK. Let’s do this,” Tetcha gestured forward. Then xe smiled warmly, letting other strong emotions take over, “I do really love you so deeply.”

Morde paused to look at Tetcha for a moment, “You’re an amazing and powerful person, Tetcha, and I love you and I’m so proud to be your partner. Come on, let’s go this way.”

Morde led them through just three more corridors before they reached the express tram sie promised. They actually spent their brief time riding the tram holding hands and leaning on each others’ shoulders. Then Morde led them off at the next stop and two more corridors to a library. It felt so much more direct and swift than the first part of their hunt for their quarry.

At the entrance to the library, Tetcha preferred to stop in the doorway and keep half an eye out down the corridors, to let Morde do hir thing. Which Morde did.

Sie wandered into the middle of the room, looking down at a holoterminal as sie passed it. Sie made a small grunting noise, then looked around. Hir empty hood settled in the direction of a set of shelves. Then sie turned to look forward, toward the ship’s fore ice caps. Then spinaftward, which was near the direction of that bookshelf but just enough off that Tetcha could tell sie was focusing on something different. Then sie pointed in that direction.

“They went that way, toward Fairport,” Morde said. “But, there’s something important that way, in the mountains,” sie turned and pointed forward. “I personally would like to investigate both, but this whole thing is now definitely getting bigger than we might have suspected. So, I’m going to leave it to you. What should we do next?”

Tetcha smirked, sighed, and shook xyr head gently at Morde, “let’s just follow our suspicious Furry Fauna for now.”

Morde nodded, “OK, then we can probably learn something by…” and then sie walked over to the bookshelf and held hir finger briefly over each book until as if by magnetism it fell forward to tap one of the volumes, “looking in here, apparently.”

“Does it feel like you can do that better and easier now that you’re fully Crew?” Tetcha asked.

“Yep!” Morde quipped cheerfully, “Definitely. Which just supports my theory that my ‘magic’ as you’ve called it is just an intuition attuned to all of my senses and the pattern matching center of my mind. And I have no reason to think it won’t just keep getting better as I practice and train the Sunspot’s systems to let me use more power.”

“Or it could be confirmation bias, and you’ve always been this unbelievable.”

“Oh, Tetcha.”

“Because I’ve seen you do this before, when you didn’t have neural access to anything on the Network, when you were a child. You’ve just gleaned information that you couldn’t possibly get without accessing the ship’s records, and you have absolutely done that before.”

Morde’s voice reflected charmed amusement more than exasperation, “You just won’t let this subject drop, ever, will you?”

“No, actually. Because every analysis I ever run, whether it’s in my own head or using a hacked tablet, tells me that you are fundamentally weird. And since you are a weirdness that likes me, I feel like I get to take pleasure in trying to figure you out!”

“Ha! OK, then. Well, let’s give you some more data to work with!” Sie opened the book and put the index finger of hir glove on the last line of the page sie opened it to. “Starting with this address.”
“Some day, you’re going to get something wrong, and it will be a disaster,” Tetcha murmured.

“Most likely,” Morde replied.

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