2.08 A lesson from Aphlebia

of Ni’a

Several years passed.

I could be precise about it and tell you the exact number. It is easy to look at the events I describe in this chapter and then look up the dates. But that would be a distraction and would not tell anybody anything important.

Laal never approached hen’s assignment, and wasn’t admonished for it. It apparently wasn’t necessary for hen to actually make contact, and hen was encouraged to go on extended sabbatical from the cluster of projects entirely. Laal was really confused by this, but was more or less happy to oblige for the time being. However, hen did resolve to ask a lot of questions eventually.

Bashiketa met new friends of Fredge’s, but was otherwise raised an only child in a world of adults. As they grew in size and strength, they began to go on hikes with Fredge in the mountains around their subterranean compound, and enjoyed learning the ways of wilderness survival and how to identify and live with the various fauna that inhabited the area. Soon, though, Fredge began talking to them about exploring the rest of the Sunspot and visiting some of the other Monster enclaves. This was the next big thing that would ultimately lead to Bashiketa’s discovery.

Tetcha and Morde were sufficiently distracted by their new friendship with Illyen and Jenifer that they didn’t pursue their curiosity further. Morde’s intuition didn’t even draw them away. They found quarters in Fairport, moved in, and spent a considerable amount of time exploring the city and surrounding area, with Jenifer leading everyone about. 

Besides insisting that xyr doll was a depiction of xem, Jenifer exhibited no signs of dysphoria. Which interested the Crew intensely, but they observed in quiet. All in all, xe seemed to be a healthy, happy child, if nowhere near neurotypical. And though xe was an only child, xe made friends with other children who lived in xyr neighborhood, and spent most afternoons playing with them in a wooded lot behind xyr house, where there was a stream, brambles, and lots of small, jumping amphibians.

Meanwhile, Ni’a’s social life grew richer. Their peers chose names and pronouns, and began to exhibit a variety of interests in the arts. Ni’a did indeed encounter Bri again, and Bri inserted zemself into Ni’a’s life shamelessly, and Ni’a didn’t object. The two families, Ni’a’s and Bri’s, ended up mingling at the local parks, maker spaces, and libraries often. And though Bri seemed to see their friendship as more of a close knit partnership, a notion which Ni’a never did anything to disabuse zem of, Ni’a seemed to naturally give all of their peers equal attention effortlessly. Both Phage and Emala grew proud of this.

Students of Charlie’s plurality became more evident.

—–

Ni’a was there when Student of Chalkboard chose a name. In fact, they were the only one present at the moment, besides their tutors, and clearly their peer felt they could trust Ni’a with this honor.

Student of Chalkboard had chosen to speak using sign. There were several options open to someone who couldn’t or didn’t want to use their voice to communicate, and everyone started learning sign language as a toddler. Most people let it slip pretty early in their childhoods, though, leaning on tutors to interpret for those who choose to use it, or opting for other technological tools to communicate. But Student of Chalkboard’s cohort, including Bri’s family, were all quite fluent by now. Still, while Student of Chalkboard could sign, they were far more comfortable simply using expressions, simple gestures, and actions to communicate their intents and needs. But communicating their name did require at least a little bit of signing.

“I have a name now,” Student of Chalkboard told Ni’a, as they sat together in the crossroads of hollowed out pathways in the middle of a clump of bushes and brambles near the center of their favorite park.

The pathways were tunnels through the leaves and branches, snaking between the trunks of the bushes and clusters of brambles. Most of the tunnels were between three and four feet high, so they’d had to duck as they had run through the little complex of them, exploring all the places they could go. Student of Chalkboard had finally chosen a place to sit that was most protected from the sun, with no rays of light breaking through the canopy above. There was also a tree towering over this part of the bushes, contributing its shadow to the coverage.

It was a popular place for children to play, but they had it to themselves for the time being.

Their peers were busy playing in the nearby playground, and Emala wasn’t worried about the two of them because Phage and Chalkboard were available to either at an instant’s notice. But their tutors were affording them relative privacy at the moment, because they obviously wanted it.

“You chose a name?” Ni’a prompted back in sign.

Student of Chalkboard nodded and spelled out “Aphlebia.” Then grinned, blinking as they swallowed nervously.


Ni’a reflexively put each letter into the headspace of their nanite terminal and sent it to a network glossary to look up the pronunciation and definition, as Phage had showed them how to do a few years ago. It wasn’t a typical name. Actually, it was a botanical term meaning “imperfect or irregular leaf endings commonly found on ferns.”

Leaf endings.

Leaf.

Ni’a tilted their head quizzically at Aphlebia and smiled, signing, “did you… do you remember when I blew a leaf to you in the pond, when we were kids?” Nevermind that they were still kids, they both knew what Ni’a meant.

Aphlebia nodded again.

Ni’a let themself display all their happiness, with an open jawed grin and quietly flailing arms, leaning back and beaming at their peer. Then they asked, “So you’ve been thinking about leaves ever since?”

Aphlebia pursed their lips, squinted, and sort of swayed back and forth, their head trailing the movement of their shoulders. A kind of non-commital, thinking gesture. Then they frowned at Ni’a for a little while before finally signing, “You can talk.”

Ni’a signed back, “I am talking.”

Aphlebia twisted their pursed lips to the side and took a deep breath and let it out sharply through their nose. “This is not talking,” Aphlebia signed emphatically but ever more slowly than before. Ni’a realized that they always signed slowly. Ni’a tended to sign more quickly than Aphlebia did. Everyone did.

“I don’t understand,” Ni’a replied out loud, guessing that that’s what Aphlebia wanted.

This was met with a short shake of the head and a single signed word, “Watch.”

Aphlebia then stood up and tilted their head in the direction of one of the trails, looking expectantly at Ni’a. Then they walked down that trail, occasionally looking backward.

Ni’a naturally followed. It was very clear that Aphlebia wanted them to, and they were curious to see what their peer would do next.

There was a clump of ferns beneath a tree, near the edge of the bushes that they’d been hiding in, right where the trail emerged. 

Ahplebia absently grabbed a frond of that, tore it loose, and didn’t even look at it. Holding it listlessly, they looked back at Ni’a once more, then half-ran half-skipped across the main field of the park toward a line of trees where a small stream passed by. They took glances at the other children as they lazily bounced over the ground. And as Ni’a kept pace, they realized that Aphlebia was slowing down ever so slightly every time they glanced at their peers. So Ni’a looked too, just in time to meet eyes with Bri who instantly grinned, shouted something, and came running over. Ni’a waved back, and looked at Aphlebia who absently gestured in the direction of Bri with the fern frond.

By the time they reached the line of trees, which towered over them, the darkness under the trees beckoning with trails riddling the undergrowth there, Bri had caught up and the other children were close behind.

Aphlebia turned and gave Bri the torn off fern frond. Then they turned to more ferns that were there and tore off more fronds, one from each cluster. They were all the same type of fern, though. And they handed a frond to each peer as they arrived. There were enough of them there that Aphlebia had to move further into the wooded area to find more fresh ferns. Finally, when everyone had a fern frond except Aphlebia and Ni’a, they smiled knowingly at Ni’a, turned, and led the way deeper into the wood, toward the creak.

Ni’a looked at the others, who were amused but bewildered, and followed. But they took a moment to look closely at the ferns that Aphlebia had selected samples from. They were a typical kind of fern, as far as Ni’a could tell. Nothing unusual about them. And the leaves were all the same shape and tapered gracefully in length of the whole frond. Ni’a couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be able to see aphlebia, irregular leaf edges, on these ferns or not. And, figuring that Aphlebia would demonstrate in a moment, Ni’a continued on.

They thought they understood what this game was about. Aphlebia was talking to them, like Phage had described several years ago, without words at all. Or had Ni’a explained it to Phage? Memory was unreliable. Specifically, Aphlebia was trying to show that Ni’a could understand what they were saying and maybe could figure out how to talk back. But Ni’a had their doubts about that. So far they were confused.

Coming around a corner in the trail and up and over a small berm in the ground, Ni’a found Aphlebia standing next to the running water, beside a cluster of something that looked like ferns but were very different. As soon as Ni’a made eye contact with them, Aphlebia tore off two fronds from that plant and solemnly and carefully handed one of them to Ni’a, then nodded and looked demonstratively at the frond they were holding. 

Ni’a looked down at the piece of plant in their own hand and saw immediately what they were holding. This was aphlebia. There was a central stalk that looked a lot like the other ferns, but each leaf was a completely different length, coming out of the stock or even out of another leaf at a different angle.  They were all in the same flat plane of growth, but they created a chaotic network of thin, flat leaves that spread out from the stock like veins, but without any actual veins.

But why did Aphlebia give all the other students regular ferns? And then, why did they take two of the aphlebia ferns, one for themselves and one for Ni’a? There was meaning in that.

When the other children stopped in a growing cluster to watch the two of them, Aphlebia looked at Ni’a and nodded once, subtly, leaning forward just a little with the gesture. Ni’a understood that.

They turned to the others and said out loud, “Bri, Candril, Whorlies, everyone? This is Aphlebia! They just told me their name and wanted me to say it out loud to you.” And as they said that, they felt like they understood everything Aphlebia had been telling to them since they stopped signing. And then they had an impulse, an idea for how to respond. Tilting their head with inquiry, they turned to catch Aphlebia’s eyes. Then they held up the aphlebia fern frond that was theirs for Aphlebia to see, and bowed their head once. And then they put the frond in their mouth and ate it.

Aphlebia’s eye’s grew wide as they watched Ni’a methodically masticate the plant matter and then deliberately swallow it. It did not taste good in any way. It was grassy with a dark, powdery bitterness. But it didn’t make them gag or choke, or even grimace much. Ni’a was afraid that they had mistakenly said the wrong thing to Aphlebia, but then Aphlebia’s mouth opened and they tilted their head and relaxed backward into a settled stance, and slowly fell into their standard observing pose that everyone was so familiar with by now. Surprise, wonder, and then acceptance.

Later, when Bri asked Ni’a what that had been all about, Ni’a translated, “Aphlebia was using the ferns to tell me they and I are like leaves of chaos, and everyone else is more normal. Normal’s not the right word. I don’t know. But, I knew it was all wrong. Close, but not right. So I ate my fern. To tell them I’m an eater of chaos.”

Bri looked startled, “You’re what?”

“An eater of chaos. I don’t know. I made it up, but it felt right,” Ni’a shrugged. “I think they got it.”

“What does that mean?”

“I think Phage can explain it better than me.”

“Your tutor is kind of creepy. I like it. Creepy in a fun way. But it scares me.”

“It’s my parent.”

“What’s a leaf of chaos?”

Ni’a was getting a little frustrated that no one seemed to respond to statements that Phage was their parent. It’s like the word had no meaning to anyone. But they answered Bri’s question, “Someone who is different. Chaos makes differences.”

Bri thought about this for a while as they walked back to their neighborhood, listening to the other students talk amongst themselves. It still didn’t make sense to hir, “So, are you saying you eat people like Aphlebia.”

“Ew, no!” Ni’a exclaimed. “I think I eat the thing that makes people different. I eat chaos.”

“Doesn’t your name mean chaos?”

“Yeah! In a way. Neat, right?”

Bri smirked, “You’re weird! I wish you made sense. But I’ll figure it out. Anyway, I think Aphlebia is wrong. I think I’m also a leaf of chaos.”

Ni’a looked Bri up and down and, thinking about what they knew of hir, had to agree. “Yeah, you are,” they said. “And I’m glad you’re my friend, too.”

—–

Candril was smackering their food again, and Ni’a had to close their eyes to make the sound less sharp. It was so hard to bear. They felt their hands flail, momentarily useless for eating. But that was OK. When they were like this from a sound, they couldn’t eat anyway. Their throat wouldn’t swallow properly. But they did wonder how anyone else could stand to keep eating with that sound going on.

Candril’s eating habits didn’t always do this to Ni’a, but for some reason it was particularly bothersome tonight. And Candril, student of Vine, didn’t seem to notice at all.

“Stop it,” Afrim Whorlie, Student of Charlie, told Candril.

Candril swallowed then asked, “Stop what?”

Aphlebia, who was seated next to Ni’a, put their left hand down on the table next to Ni’a’s plate, palm down. It was clearly a gesture and an offering of reassurance, so Ni’a placed their own hand on top of it, and curled their fingers around Aphlebia’s palm.

As the tension started to leave Ni’a’s system, they thought, so Aphlebia could be an eater of chaos, too. In a way.

Aphlebia looked sideways at them and grinned.

“Candril?” Emala interjected. “Can you eat with your mouth closed? The sound of chewing with your mouth open is causing some of your peers pain.”

“I’m sorry,” Candril said. “It’s really hard! My mouth doesn’t work like that!”

“Hmmm,” Emala said. “Conflicting needs. We’ll need to think of good accommodations for all of you.” Xe tapped xyr chin for a moment and then asked, “who would like to eat in the other room tonight?”

Everyone was afraid to answer, except Aphlebia, who tugged at Ni’a’s hand twice. Ni’a felt even more relief and decided to speak up.

“Aphlebia and I will do that!” they declared.

“Oh, but I want to!” Candril whined.

“Then you really should have spoken up first,” Emala told zem. “But, OK. Let me ask for you. Ni’a and Aphlebia? Do you mind if Candril eats in the other room while you stay here?”

Ni’a looked between Emala and Candril and frowned, thinking about it. Aphlebia just sat and waited.

“No, sorry. Nevermind. I’ll stay,” Candril relented. “I like the table.”

Ni’a had one thought while carrying their dish to the other room with Aphlebia. Aphlebia was right. Ni’a could talk like them, and people understood. The frown had been simple, but it had worked.

It felt powerful.

—–

Lying in bed, pretty sure that the other students had fallen asleep, Ni’a called up their nanite terminal’s headspace to ping Phage. It was already there, waiting for them. Which happened a lot.

“Aphlebia – I mean, Student of Chalkboard finally picked a name today!” Ni’a blurted out upon seeing their parent. “They called themselves Aphlebia.”

“I saw this,” Phage said.

“Then they taught me how to speak their language, or, I think I already could. Everyone does, they just don’t know it,” Ni’a babbled a bit more, trying to remember what they really wanted to talk about.

“Yes, but Aphlebia is more fluent with it, aren’t they?” Phage prompted.

“Yeah,” Ni’a nodded. “Um. So. I don’t know how to say it. But, OK, I think Aphlebia was saying that they and I are children of chaos. And then when I was talking to Bri about it, I noticed that sie is too. At least, in the same way that Aphlebia meant. But I don’t know what that means. And how did Aphlebia see that?”

“Ah,” Phage said, and then sat down in the Network space and allowed its avatar to lose shape. It did this sometimes, when it wanted to relax around Ni’a and to really be itself. At least, that’s what it felt like to Ni’a. It would transform from a cosmos filled silhouette of Ni’a into a growing amorphous fog of darkness filled with galaxies, nebulae and stars. It only did this when they were alone in a Network forum, though. Ni’a knew that it meant that Phage was thinking about how to explain something difficult and important. But they might have to prompt it before it would speak. In any case, it was a comforting sight.

“But, you’re chaos, right?” Ni’a asked. “But they aren’t your children, too, are they?”

“Oh, those are harder questions to answer, I’m afraid,” Phage intoned. “The answers to both are, depending on how you look at me, the being that is your parent, closer to ‘no’. But, not exactly. There is a yessiness to both of them, too. Kinda. May I answer your first question first?”

“OK,” Ni’a replied, scowling a little in confusion.

“I’m going to start with a question. What do you remember about what chaos is? What have I taught you so far?”

Ni’a had the words for this, and felt like they had an intuitive sense of what they meant, so they just blurted them out, “Chaos is the unpredictable nature of complexity. When there are enough things going on, the way cause and effect happens is kind of random, and it’s hard for almost anybody to keep track of. But you and I can. Or, you can, and I can feel it.”

“Do you remember what I’ve told you about complex systems?” Phage asked next.

“Yeah,” Ni’a replied. “It’s a place where you can find chaos. Like, the weather is a complex system. And so is the human brain. And the whole ecosystem. And then there are smaller complex systems, like, uh, stress in a Safety Patrol mech. But those are more stable.”

“And you can feel them. The shape of them. Right?”

“Yeah.”

“So, when you looked at Aphlebia and Bri, you noticed that their complex systems, and I mean their whole beings, are different than everyone else’s but yours, right?”

“Yes,” Ni’a said, “But what does that mean?”

“I’ll get to that very shortly,” Phage reassured them, and seemed to settle a bit more, as if the simulated gravity of the Network space was affecting their substance. “Can you describe how their complex systems felt different?”

“Kind of? So, everyone else is like a rainy and windy day,” Ni’a struggled to find the right words, but had to settle on just comparing what they had seen to other systems they knew about, “but we’re like storms.”

“But not just any storm,” Phage said.

“Yeah, no. Like the storms that sometimes happen that aren’t planned by the ship. The really dangerous ones.”

Phage parallaxed its cosmic diorama up and down a couple times as a form of nod. Then it tightened up its edges and became a little smaller and denser, before explaining, “so, what you were seeing is something that some people call ‘fibrillation’. It is when chaos becomes so energetic that it cannot be contained or controlled, that it starts to affect every little tiny thing that happens within a complex system. Does that make sense?”

“I… think so?”

Phage nodded again, just once, “Now, even though you are the result of my existence on the Sunspot and share a connection to me that no one else has, you have a human body. And a thing that happens to some humans, but not most humans, is that occasionally one will be conceived into a state of fibrillation. This even happens to other animals, but it’s harder to notice because humans don’t share their cultures. Now, a human being’s development is a complex system. And, it’s usually a fairly stable complex system, with low chaos. The chaos just throws a little unpredictability in here and there, but most of that human being’s growth will proceed along a predictable path. But yours doesn’t, because you’re fibrillating. And the same with Aphlebia. And the same with Bri. Also a few others you might meet soon.”

“Oh. Why does this happen?” Ni’a asked.

“Mostly, because it can. Things just come together in such a way that it pushes someone’s development into chaos like that. And it makes it so that they maybe see things more vividly, or smells are louder, and their gut might not work quite right, or any number of other wildly variant traits show up. And each exceptional trait throws off the development of other traits, and it affects the whole system of the person, mind, body, future, social presence. So, once it starts, it never stops.”

“Is that why I have to flap my hands when Candril eats sometimes, but not always?”

“Yes, exactly. Yes. And now that Emala and I are aware of that, we’ll work with you all to figure out a good way around it all, so Candril can eat the way they need to and you can avoid being hurt by it when it overwhelms you.” Phage paused for a brief moment and Ni’a thought it might be done, but it continued on the previous topic, “So, the reason that you are in fibrillation is because you are my child. That was inevitable. But with Aphlebia and Bri, it’s for the typical reasons. They’re just part of the percentage of the population that are hit with the right influences to push them into it.”

“Can anything be done to stop it from happening?” Ni’a asked.

“Nope,” Phage replied. “Not without my specific intervention, and I don’t want to spend my focus on doing that.” It considered what to say next, then added, “And it wouldn’t be good to do so. It’s a natural element of evolution. Even though the human beings of the Sunspot are no longer taking a typical path of evolution, the Crew consider it to be a healthy element. And they use the data collected from fibrillating children to fine tune their evolutionary engines. Though, it also definitely increases the frequency of dysphoria. But they think they can fix the latter without eradicating the former. In fact, they hope that the extra data they get from instances of fibrillation will help them do so.”

“Um, OK.” Ni’a was getting sleepy and could feel their body struggling to stay alert. “I don’t know if I understood that.” 

Usually, this topic of conversation would excite them, and their mind would be racing with possibilities, keeping them awake. But now it felt like they were trying to grasp something that was just a little too big for them. Phage had used a bunch of new words, though. Which might be part of it. It explained them pretty well in some cases, and the rest Ni’a felt they could get from context. Maybe. But it was getting harder to string thoughts together.

“You should get some sleep,” Phage told them. “Let your brain process all of this. You’ll understand it better in the morning, and I can always explain later. But, there’s one more thing I want to tell you.”

“Yeah?”

“There are two other students who you will need to meet at some point who are also fibrillating,” Phage said.

“Huh?” Ni’a mumbled.

“More importantly, their fibrillation is linked with yours. You’re entangled. It is impossible to say which caused what, but there are things happening with you that are because of things happening with either of them.”

That was such a weird and exciting idea that it briefly woke Ni’a up more. But then they just remembered one more question they wanted to ask Phage.

“If Aphlebia isn’t like your or me and can’t sense chaos like we can, how could they tell that we were both were in fribulation.”

“It’s fibrillation,” Phage gently and clearly corrected them. “And I think it is because fibrillating people tend to recognize other fibrillating people. There’s sort of a feeling of recognition and kinship. And they caught onto the idea of chaos from your name. I don’t know how much they fully understand what’s going on, though Chalkboard may have told them as much as I’ve told you.”

“Oh,” Ni’a said. “That makes sense.” And then they fell out of the Network forum and into sleep, their body not even giving them a chance to say goodnight.

—–

At first, it was like a light had been turned on that was so blinding that vision took time to adjust, and everything was washed out in an iridescent field of chromatic variations of brightness, slowly shifting as everything darkened ever so slowly. Soon, imperceptibly tiny specks began to form in the field of everything. They appeared in pairs, the counterparts of which zipped off in opposite directions. Usually they spiralled back into each other and were annihilated by the impact. But in the brighter areas another process began, in which the density of light there coalesced and created little knots of space/time, creating similar specks to what was being produced by the ambient field, the balance started to shift. Annihilations produced energy that sped up the process of creating speks from light itself, and many speks were left over, untouched. And eventually they began to clump together forming ever more complex matrices that spun and danced all around.

And for a time, all the light faded entirely and was eaten up by clouds of these matrices and specks.

But then a single point of light flared, illuminating the colorful cloud around it, brilliant colors that had never been seen before.

And that point was joined by others, a myriad of others. Their numbers grew and grew, all around. And it became clear that these were not just single points in space/time, but massive spheres of plasma that fused and fissioned and grew and breathed through individual lifespans of varying length. And some of them became caught in whirlpools of something else, things very massive and dark that had grown in the densest parts of the field. And those that were caught were torn about and consumed messily in spinning blades of plasma, their remains sprayed across eternity.

Eventually, these massive invisible monsters, the balls of plasma, and the clouds that they had formed from all joined a variety of spiraling dances, stately collections of matter.

And it became evident, from the individual balls of plasma nearby, and that patterns that they formed, that the view of all of this was from inside one of these prominades. And there were undoubtedly unseen events going on around each point of light, involving matter that was too dark and too small to see at this distance. The way the lights wobbled was a telltale sign that more was going on.

And coming from a particularly yellow source of light there was a swiftly growing speck. Not like the very first specks, but a speck in comparison to all that existed now. Barely perceptible, but none-the-less the focus of vision. The vision of the consciousness that was perceiving all of this. And as that speck neared, it’s apparent velocity continued to increase, and details of its features began to become discernible.

At first it looked like a silvery X with a corona of eerie light around it. But the center of the X glowed. Or there was a blinding light behind it that caused that portion of the X to be cast in silhouette. And then suddenly it was all upon the observer, filling their entire field of vision, and there was a moment of blackness.

This was such a shock that Ni’a came to their senses, half awoke and realized that they were dreaming. Quickly drifting back into the visions, they watched as a much smaller ball of plasma began to form within a tube of magnetized metal where they themselves floated bodilessly.

And, like clockwork, as they’d seen happen before from a different vantage point, when the Sunspot’s new sun was done forming, it was released into the habitat cylinder, and Ni’a followed it.

Only from this perspective in the dream, perhaps after having experienced the intricacies of the formation of the Universe itself, Ni’a was aware of every quantum of detail of the machinery and life around them as it was illuminated by the sun.

Not only could they see the blotchy land masses and sparkling bodies of water illuminated by the new day sun, but they could also see with a vision free of the constraint of eyes the individual nanites that inhabited the soil. They could also see each life from, from microbe to tree to megafauna that inhabited the little world. They could see the people, and the clouds of colonial eukaryotes and bacteria that the people were comprised of. The electromagnetic fields that surrounded their nervous systems fluctuated in response to the firing of those nerves, trading information back and forth between the two systems, one a system of waves, another a system of biological switches and chemical reactions. Nia could see their conscious psyches, and watch as some of them merged with the systems of the ship itself and remain fluctuating and vibrant even after their bodies ceased to function and support them, starting the biological processes of death. They saw some who were not connected to the ship’s Network die with their bodies. And yet they also saw the ripples of those brief existences still affecting the whole ship, population, ecosystems, and machinery alike.

Ni’a watched all of this in wonder as they followed the sun. And they realized something as the sun intake of the aft endcap began to embrace that sun with its magnetic fields.

They loved the ship and everything on it. Watching all of this, they felt loved by it, supported by it. They could see their own place within it, and felt that they could understand everything. They were filled with such excitement and euphoria that it brought them to tears, and they loved it all back with their entire being.

But the sun was now being consumed by a cloud of darkness that itself was filled with a view of the cosmos without. It was like a hole in reality, a window to the outside, with pseudopods that formed and writhed of their own accord. And as they enveloped the sun, some of them reached out for Ni’a. And they felt a different kind of love and yearning come from them. One that they were not ready for yet.

They turned from this fate, and tried to pull away from it as they felt inevitably pulled toward it. They felt a calming promise of nothingness from that direction, a relief from all thought and perception, that they didn’t want just now.

Panic filled their body, and they felt their blood flowing in their veins, oxygen permeating every cell, heart pumping. They felt their lungs fill with breath as they reached their arms out in hopes of grabbing something, anything, maybe everything, to hold onto, to keep from being pulled back into their parent, Phage.

It was in that moment that they noticed something about the Sunspot.

It was like them.

It was like their friend, Aphlebia.

It was, the entire ship, in a state of constant fibrillation, right on the edge of vibrating apart.

And they awoke right then with the urgency to stop that from happening, to fix it, to save their peers. To save everyone.

They were so scared, they wanted to jump up right then and make things happen! But what?

However, as they lay in bed, the sounds of their peers’ breathing around them softening the darkness, they found they could not remember key details of the dream. They couldn’t remember the entirety of who and what they were as they had seen themselves in the dream. They couldn’t put to words the meaning of their place in the system of the Sunspot.

They hoped that what they had seen wasn’t real, but they knew it was. So, then they hoped that the ultimate fate that it described would be something that would happen far off, not soon. And they resolved that it would. As if they had the power through sheer will to make it so.

Like in the dream, though, they sensed their family around them with more than just their ears. They could feel their metabolisms and their psyches processing energies and information as they slept. And Ni’a could pick out where Chandril and Aphlebia lay. Emalia was over there. And the Whorlies, the whole group of them, sparred in their dreams, overlapping each other in a shifting play, running a scenario in their dream where they dealt with Chandril’s capricious attentions, and envisioned Bri inserting hirself into their lives.

Lying in bed, in the darkness of early morning, while Phage was doubtlessly just monitoring their vital signs like the other tutors do, Ni’a decided that they wanted nothing more than to be part of their family. Always. But to really, truly be a part of them. To be engaged in their lives, to attend to their whims and needs. To live through the other students and Emala as much as through their own body.

And they smiled in the dark and became calm with that knowledge.

And they drifted back to sleep.

In the morning, over breakfast, Ni’a asked, “Phage, is the Sunspot like me, Bri, and Aphlebia because you are on it? Or, are you on the Sunspot because it’s fribu… fi-brill-ating like me, Bri, and Aphlebia?”

Emala frowned in concern at the sudden question, and the other students blinked in confusion. Ni’a realized then they’d unthinkingly asked the question out loud.

“Yes,” replied Phage, for everyone to hear. “As in, the answer to both questions is yes. Cause and effect are not discernable in this case. But, if I had not been invited aboard the Sunspot, it would not exist today. It would have failed generations ago.”


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