Bashiketa stopped once again to look up at the city looming above them.
Fredge had mercifully decided that they should take a tram from near their home to a station just outside the city. And there, they used Crew restricted lifts and shafts to work their way up to the surface. And they’d been hiking through the surrounding coniferous rain forest toward the city ever since, with Fredge pointing out the differences in the local biome from their home region.
They weren’t that far from the city to start, though, just out enough to get a taste of the forest, and then the trees parted to reveal the structures and buildings of the towering city that they’d had only glimpses of through the treetops for the past half an hour.
They’d been following a footpath maintained by the larger fauna of the area, which stopped at the treeline. And between them and the city was a narrow swath of cultivated parkland that surrounded the whole thing, dividing the city from forest.
Agaricales was a more typical city than Fairport, which Bashiketa hadn’t seen or heard of yet, but it was spectacular to them yet. They hadn’t seen any city in person before.
The foundations of the buildings have been shaped out of stone using the nanites to carve and form them. The city had been built with a large, low hill in the center of it, and all of the foundations were capped at the same altitude, meaning that the buildings near the outer edges of the city were taller than those near the center. The shortest, on the top of the hill, were a single storey tall. On the outskirts, the foundations towered above the trees of the forest surrounding the city. And all of the buildings had entrances built into the foundations.
Like the quarters and rooms of belowdecks, the foundations were shaped based on a scutoid, a shape commonly taken by skin cells in most animals that is irregular and fits together particularly well on complexly curved surfaces. It wasn’t really necessary for everything to be built that way, least of all the foundations of Agaricales’ buildings, but someone had decided during the Sunspot’s construction that it was going to be the philosophy of its architecture. Which meant that most dwellings and spaces had very few right angles, unlike Fairport which was almost all boxes.
Fredge had explained that most cities on the Sunspot had foundations like this, but some were built in valleys and or on plateaus, and the heights of the foundations were sometimes all one storey. In other cities, they varied in height, with different patterns of that variation from city to city. The foundations of each city had been constructed with the aesthetics and climatic necessities of the area that it was built in, according to the sensibilities of some ancient group of Crew.
Atop each foundation, though, was built a temporary structure out of more malleable, sometimes organic, materials. There were greenhouses, dwelling complexes, libraries, studios, observatories, parks, gardens, galleries, kitchens with all sorts of dining accommodations around them, and a small handful of government buildings. All of varying sizes depending on what the foundation of that building or set of buildings would allow. And each structure had been designed by the individual or group of people currently in custody of the space. Some had used nanites to shape the materials, but most had been built by hand and by Safety Patrol exosuit, either by the custodians themselves or at their direction. And each one had its own set of colors, contrasting with the gray-brown of the foundations.
And at the top level, between the buildings, there were causeways, skyways, and bridges connecting them all.
When a space for building changed hands, sometimes due to generational turnover and sometimes due to custodial whim, the new custodians would often remodel or completely rebuild the structure that was there to suit their own purposes. Creativity and adaptation is generally prized above tradition and history on the Sunspot when it comes to buildings and tools. And while some cities, like Fairport, have a theme and cultivate some kind of tradition and continuity for those that need that, Agaricales was not one of those cities. It was constantly in a state of slow flux, with new projects blooming atop its forest-like foundational trunks, with a weaving network of bridges between them. While the grounds between the foundations were nearly wild with lightly cultivated plant growth cut with groomed trails.
Most of the buildings didn’t actually look like flowers, but Bashiketa couldn’t help but think of them that way upon getting a good full view of them.
Fredge, who had been grilling Bashiketa about mycelium networks and how trees communicate with each other through them, came to an easy stop beside them and fell silent with them. And they both stood there for a while, taking the sight in. Birds and insects could be heard all around them, and the fragrances of the park, with its bushes, flowering plants, and deciduous trees began to overcome the pungent and familiar odors of the forest.
Not too far in the distance, but from out of immediate sight, came noises that Bashiketa didn’t immediately recognize. They sounded something like a combination of animals squabbling and the kinds of calls that Fredge used when trying to get Bashiketa’s attention from a distance, mixed with snippets of conversation.
They looked up at Fredge, who looked down, smiling, and said, “children playing.”
Bashiketa had not seen another child, except in movies and illustrations, in their entire life. And they were an adolescent now. But they hadn’t actually ever wondered what it would be like to be around peers or anyone of their own age, let alone anyone younger, for some reason. And the thought of encountering such people made them suddenly nervous. They didn’t know what to expect, and they didn’t know what would be expected of them.
Adults they could handle.
“Can we go somewhere else?” Bashiketa tugged at Fredge’s hand.
“We have learning to do in Agaricales,” was Fredge’s reply.
“No, I mean, a different way,” Bashiketa said.
“Oh,” Fredge looked down at them. “You want to avoid the other children?”
“OK,” Fredge reassured them. “Part of the point of this trip is to get you used to being amongst other people, but we can absolutely do that at your own pace.”
It took Bashiketa a moment of intensified worry before they realized they could nod to that, too. “At your own pace.” It meant that if they were never ready to meet other people, they wouldn’t have to. Ever. They could agree to that. But, maybe another person. Or two. But no more than that. And hopefully not another child. They seemed too wild already.
But then Fredge said, “One of the things I’d like to show you here is an upcoming festival of sorts. It happens on the anniversary of an explosion, but it commemorates the changes in Crew policy toward the Sunspots’ Children that came from that event. Changes that a group of Children called the Pembers helped to bring about.”
However, as Fredge spoke and led them around the area where the playing children were, toward one of the towering city foundations, the screaming and arguing grew louder and a break in the bushes and trees made them visible. And just then the ground fell out from under Bashiketa and they suddenly found themself in a world of terror and chaos.
With their next step it was clearly another one of their episodes, with the vision superimposed on the reality around them. When they blinked or closed their eyes, they were fully immersed in the nightmare, body pressed amongst a crowd of foul smelling people. Wildly conflicting fragrances and body odors mixed to catch in their throat. Alien fabric pressed against skin that Bashiketa was used to being covered with fur. And everyone was as small as Bashiketa and all looked bizarrely alike. With naked shoulders and elbows, naked faces, tufts of a hair atop their heads, and clothes that showed no creativity, the yammering crowd overwhelmed them and they drew their hands to their face. Clawless, naked hands.
They stumbled and fell, and opened their eyes in time to see the ground tilting upward toward their vision. And their fur covered arms shot out, with claws extended, to plant the pads of their hands on the dirt of the trail. And Fredge caught them.
“Woah there! Are you ok? What’s wrong” Fredge’s words poured over them, cutting through the cacophony of their inner vision.
But Bashiketa was too panicked to form words and, as Fredge lifted them upright, they wrapped their arms around their torso and held their own shoulders, trembling, looking down but doing everything they could not to close their eyes.
In the periphery of their sight, where the darkness of their own skull lay, they could still see, feel, and hear that phantom crowd. A room full of scared children. Alien children.
Fredge knelt in front of them and looked into their eyes, and spoke more slowly, “take a moment. We don’t have to move. I’m here.” Then Fredge looked around as if to check for other people, then back at Bashiketa, “When you are ready, when you can speak again, please tell me what is happening.”
Since that nightmare when they were three, these episodes happened with increasing frequency. At first they’d happened once every season or two. But now they were happening closer to every ten days or so. Although Fredge still reflexively blurted out useless, distracting things whenever they noticed Bashiketa going through this, they had both developed a routine. Fredge knew that Bashiketa wouldn’t be able to talk for some time, and Bashiketa knew that Fredge knew this and was trying to help. And that talking about it afterward did feel like it helped.
Knowing that Fredge was there, right in front of them, and thinking of this routine, Bashiketa decided to relax and focus on what was happening. And they closed their eyes again.
This was the first time they were getting full visuals. Before it had always been a sense of what was around them, like a watercolor filled wireframe in their mind’s eye that didn’t even really have color or detail, labeled with thoughts. This time, they could make out words on the garments of the children around them. And though they did not recognize the language, they knew what the words meant. Some were funny jokes, others were names. They could see expressions on faces. They could see how bright the lights above them were. And they could hear the low timbre of an adult’s voice speaking out above the chattering of uneasy children.
Again, they could hear the sounds and remember what they sounded like well enough to repeat a phrase or two, but they did not sound like words they knew. And still, the words flooded their mind with meaning. For their safety, they were being told to stand still and remain calm.
Always, there was a sense of danger with these visions. There was a distress or an urgency combined with confusion and learning that some adult was there for them. So far, they had not felt alone.
Sometimes the episodes happened at night, while they were sleeping. Most of the time, they seemed to be triggered by something happening in the real world. Or should it be called the outer world? This world. Bashiketa’s world. But as their frequency increased, so did the times they just came out of the blue. And the fact that this one was triggered was a reassuring thing that helped Bashiketa remain calm enough to pay attention.
As the children began to calm down while the adult explained things, the vision began to fade. But Bashiketa caught enough to really pique their curiosity and imagination.
Some kind of civil unrest had broken out on the ship, a ship, a different ship than the Sunspot, the ship where these children were. Their parents – parents? – would come to get them when it was safe enough to do so.
And before the last vestiges of these alien sensations left their psyche, Bashiketa was reporting excitedly to Fredge what they’d seen and heard.
When they were done, they asked, not for the first time, “What is happening to me?”
Instead of the usual answer of nightmares, which always seemed inadequate, Fredge took some time to think, eyes unfocused, and then nodded and said, “Maybe.”
It wasn’t the beginning of a thought, it was a statement. Like they were answering a different question.
“Maybe what?” Bashiketa asked.
Fredge looked a little startled and confused and then came back to the moment, and said, “Come. Let’s head toward some place quiet, and I will begin to tell you on the way.”
“OK,” Bashiketa said. But they weren’t exactly OK themself. This time, as they became more distant from their vision, they began to feel uncomfortable in a way they found hard to describe. And though they realized they’d felt this before too, it was as if they were noticing it for the first time. They became lost in their own thoughts, only half listening to Fredge.
They resumed their path and Fredge continued, “You know that you are special. I’ve been teaching you a little about why you were conceived, right? That you are part of a plan set in motion when the Sunspot was created.” These were things that Bashiketa was very familiar with, yes. And they were used to a discussion about knowledge and history, and learning more about how the universe works following these prompts. Every time it was the same with Fredge, but with a few more details. But this time, Fredge asked, “Do you remember long ago when I asked you if you could remember what it was like before your birth?”
Bashiketa looked up at them, “Yeah. Yeah, I do.” They kicked a rock ahead of them on the path. “I keep thinking about it. I feel like I can remember it better. But I still can’t say what it’s like.”
“Interesting,” Fredge nodded. “It was a trick question, you know.”
“What do you mean,” Bashiketa asked.
“It’s a prompt, to get you to look at a part of your psyche that feels like a memory of before you were born, but isn’t. A lot of people do notice it and keep poking at it. But I needed you to really examine it a lot. You did good.”
“OK?” Bashiketa frowned.
“We all think that, at some point, you should be able to trigger one of your visions on purpose by going there.” Fredge looked away from Bashiketa, as if to stare at something on the horizon, and Bashiketa watched their ear twitch.
Bashiketa’s discomfort grew stronger before they could respond to that. Their middle felt wrong, tense and leaden, and their arms and legs felt like they were too short and stubby, with tiny useless paws. It was like the world around them ballooned in size and it was taking longer to traverse the same distance of ground than it took moments before. Like everything around them moved by at a slower speed for an even greater effort of moving their legs. “Urgh…” they choked down a noise.
Fredge’s head snapped back in their direction, concern pinching their face, “Are you having another one?”
“No,” Bashiketa said. “I just feel weird. Everything is too big!”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know! It’s weird! I’m dizzy!” It was also like they were looking down a long tunnel to their eyes, and they could feel their body moving and talking as if by its own accord, but they couldn’t bring the words all the way to their mouth to describe it.
“OK, stop then. Stand still,” Fredge stopped walking and stood calmly by them. “Do your grounding exercises. Count five things you can see…”
Bashiketa followed their directions, nodding, and slowly came back to themselves as they counted down through their five outer senses. Four things they could hear. Three things they could feel. Two things they could smell. One thing they could taste, their own saliva. It had a flavor, just one that they normally ignored, had grown used to. But they could notice it if they tried. It was like water from certain streams, with a very faint electric tang. And they felt better, but not good. Back in their body, but their body still felt wrong, like it actually always had.
Bashiketa folded their arms and held their elbows, hunched over, tail low, ears swept back.
“Are you still feeling off? What’s wrong?” Fredge asked, not yet moving.
Bashiketa looked up at them, brow knitted with worry, and said, “I’m not supposed to be like this.”
“Oh,” Fredge said. “Oh, no.” Then, after a moment they asked, “Can I give you a hug?”
Bashiketa simply nodded and then leaned into Fredge as they hugged them.
“Does it feel like your body should be different?”
Bashiketa nodded again, this time into their shoulder.
“How long have you felt this way?”
“Always,” Bashiketa mumbled, “I think. It’s getting worse.”
“That’s unmistakable. Physical dysphoria. Oh, Bashiketa, I am so sorry.”
“Why am I feeling it?” Bashiketa asked.
“I don’t know. Nobody does. It’s a thing that happens to just a few people, but no one’s been able to stop it from happening,” Fredge explained.
Stepping back, free from the hug, “What does it mean?”
“What does it feel like it means?” Fredge asked back.
“Like,” Bashiketa shook their hands in front of their torso briefly. “Like my body is wrong. Like I’m wrong. Like I’m not supposed to be this way!”
Fredge leaned forward and looked them right in the eyes again, something Bashiketa didn’t actually like but put up with silently, and said, “then that’s exactly what it means. Can you tell me what shape you should have?”
Bashiketa shook their head. They had no idea. They had never seen anything else that felt right, like what they should be. But everything was off. No. Wait. Maybe. Maybe, they just had. But they were hesitant to mention it.
“OK. Different tactic for now, then,” Fredge declared. “Let’s talk about something else entirely. It’ll help. Come, keep walking. Now, do you remember what this city is named after?”
“Yes! And what’s special about that fungus?”
“It – It’s the fungus that helps trees talk to each other and helps process nutrients for them.”
“Yep, that one!” Fredge picked up their pace, forcing Bashiketa to put some of their focus on where their feet were going, then prompted, “tell me everything you know about it. Give me one of your infodumps, and then I’ll tell you why this city is named after it!”
Once Bashiketa got started, the information came to them without thinking, and their mouth rambled on about the fungus agaricales and how important it was to the forest ecosystem. But Fredge was wrong, this didn’t help. They still felt all wrong. Intensely. They were just doing something they loved at the same time.
Atop a hill, near the middle of Fairport, there was a playground on the edge of a great library’s campus. On the tallest structure of that playground, Jenfer stood, clutching xyr doll, staring spinward at a spot on the rising wall of the Sunspot. The spot was obscured by whisps of clouds that were passing over it, way over there. Locally, the sky was clear. Ansel hovered just to Jenifer’s left.
Tetcha had glanced in the direction where Jenifer was stare, but couldn’t pick out anything worth the attention. So xe was now watching Ansel again, while Ilyen and Morde talked. There were no other children in this playground. Jenifer had insisted on stopping here during their walk, and the quiet was actually kind of pleasant. It gave a contemplative atmosphere to the whole scene.
Ansel was as strange as any other tutor, Tetcha was thinking. It was using a small swarm of nanites to simulate a rotating hypercube in three dimensions as it’s avatar. When it spoke, it would shoot spikes like soundwaves out from its center in time to its voice. In contrast, Ilyen’s tutor, Badly Fitting Brachyform chose to represent itself with the shape of a glove that seemed to float and dance like a leaf on an often non-existent wind. As xe watched Ansel, who was remaining as silent as its student, Tetcha’s thoughts turned to xyr own tutor, myself, who xe had finally dismissed a little over a decade and a half ago. We had been a special case.
Tetcha had rejected xyr nanite terminal less than a year after being fitted for them, complaining of headaches. But xe had not yet quite reached the age that an old style neural terminal would have been surgically implanted, so there was some legal precedent for me to remain xyr tutor, which I did. I did this despite Tetcha’s stated plan to become a Monster. Xe had requested it. Furthermore, rejecting her nanites was something of an experiment in and of itself. No one had done it before. Tetcha was the first. And there had been a choice for xem to make, and my continued assistance would help in monitoring the after affects of that choice.
As by design, as they do for everyone, the nanites had given Tetcha an extension of xyr consciousness. First, they monitored the behavior of her neurons and the electromagnetic field that they created, and they began to interact with the field, duplicating the behavior of the neurons in Network space. This created a Network backup of xyr long term memories and a simulation of xyr subconscious mind. It wasn’t perfect. The longer the nanites remained connected to xyr, the better the mimicry. This, then, would act as a kind of bridge for when xyr EM field was echoed within the Network’s quantum processors. Not an actual EM field, but a simulation of one that interacted with xyr simulated neurons just as they were also interacting with xyr actual brain’s EM field along with xyr actual neurons. And, so long as xyr body was alive, these two systems would remain entangled and in sync. But to reach out into the Network and experience its spaces and connections, Tetcha’s Network neurons would be stimulated with simulated sensory neurons that interpreted data as if xyr body might be experiencing it all. And that is how even the old implanted neural terminals worked, if not quite as seamlessly.
When Tetcha rejected xyr nanites, xe had the choice of retracting her consciousness entirely from the Network, shutting down the simulated EM field and then deprecating the simulated neurons. Or xe could leave them there, splitting from xyr Network self and essentially becoming two people. Xe would walk away, disconnected, to begin xyr path to Monsterhood, while xyr Network self could choose to become Crew as if xyr body had just died.
Tetcha was reflecting on this and on why xe and I had finally parted ways when Morde interrupted xyr thoughts.
“Tetcha?” xyr partner buzzed from hir cloak’s clasp, “I’m feeling a very strong tugging. We’ve got somewhere we need to go. And we all should go.” Sie looked at Ilyen then at Jenifer.
“Yeah,” said Jenifer, pointing off at where xe was staring.
Morde’s hood shifted as if hir invisible head had been tilted within it.
Tetcha took a deep breath and whipped xyr tail back and forth, “then we’d better do that.”
“What’s over there, Jenifer?” Ilyen asked.
“Something fun,” came the reply.
Ni’a was engrossed in the tactile experience of molding a lump of clay as it spun on its wheel in front of them, trying to follow the Artist’s instructions as they worked with their peers in a surface level makerspace. They could feel the sharp grains of harder clay pass quickly and repeatedly under their fingers as the soft muddy body of it begrudgingly shifted under their guidance. They and their peers had been instructed to ignore their nanites and do this all manually, and to focus on their natural senses, but Ni’a followed this to the letter rather than the spirit of the directive.
Ni’a could also feel every molecule of atmosphere surrounding them as they tracked the molecules and forces of stress within the clay using senses that were natural only to them and their parent. And though they were only using the force of their muscles as applied through their hands to shape the pot they were attempting to throw, their consciousness nearly filled the entire room.
And Phage stood in a statue of nanites, looking over their right shoulder, smirking.
Emala was saying something to the space’s Artist that Ni’a was utterly ignoring when there was a subtle, nearly imperceptible shift in everything. Ni’a would have never noticed it if they hadn’t been consciously tracking the movements of countless subatomic particles and the forces they applied to each other. Ni’a would not have been able to do that at all if they had not been the child of Phage. As it was, Phage itself didn’t immediately notice.
Ni’a let go of the clay and lifted their foot from the peddle, sitting up straight. They turned their head to the right and squinted. It looked like they were listening to something.
“What is it?” Phage asked.
“You didn’t feel it?” Ni’a looked back at it. “I bet you did and didn’t notice. It was almost not there, but I can’t believe you really missed it.”
“You’ll have to tell me what to look for.”
Ni’a absently ran a muddy hand through curly hair, making an utter mess of it, and thought for a moment. “I think it was a change in the chances of things happening.” They turned their body to look Phage more squarely in the face. “Does that make sense?”
Phage nodded a little, then let its focus expand to its greater self and took stock. “Ah,” it rumbled. “Emala?”
“Yes?” Ni’a’s caretaker trundled over.
“The Agaricales’ Memorial Celebration is happening in a couple days.”
“Yes. I was just thinking that our children are all about the right age to see that. Do you think it would be a good idea to go this year?”
Looking down at Ni’a, who raised an eyebrow, Phage replied, “It would be an excellent idea, yes.”
A few decades ago, a portion of Agaricales had been leveled to the ground, foundations and all, by the Sunspot’s first ever bombing. At the time, Agaricales had had a lower population than typical, and the casualties of the event had been minimal, but it had shaken the entire ship and the social shockwaves of the event were still reverberating throughout the populace and Crew. A deeply distressed child who had been partaking in the nanite experiment had used their nanites to modify their body to naturally produce a highly volatile substance, somehow without raising the suspicions of their tutor or the Crew. Then they had discharged a neighborhood capacitor into their body, causing it to catastrophically combust. In so doing, they not only had erased themselves from physical existence but also from the Network as well. There had been no one to interrogate, and no substantial clues as to why they had done it.
This event had motivated Morde and the Pembers to work together, with their friends Tetcha and the Flits, to confront the Crew, discover the Crew’s true nature as ancestors of all the living Children aboard the ship, and then to push for shipwide reform.
The ruins of Agaricales’ warehouse district had long since been cleared of rubble and converted into a memorial park, filled with pathways, garden beds full of flowers and other plants, and trees. It was a large space, and surrounded by buildings that were three to four storeys tall.
Once they had reached the top level of the city by taking a lift, Fredge led Bashiketa to a walkway overlooking this park, where they stood now.
The whole time they had walked, Bashiketa had been talking about the means by which the fungus for which the city had been named would transfer nutrients and information between the trees of a forest, allowing trees that might be suffering some injury or sickness to alert and warn other trees that were kilometers away. Or, more regularly, it allowed saplings that were too sheltered from the sun by their neighboring ancestors to receive the nutrients from their parents that they needed to grow. Bahiketa even took the time to cover some of the more intricate details they’d picked up from their reading, naming chemicals and some of the physics involved.
Despite still feeling painfully dysphoric, they were very proud of their knowledge about this. Fredge nodded as they came to the end of what they knew and had trailed off.
“So, OK.” Fredge gestured at the memorial park below them, “The event that resulted in this park happened long after Agaricales the city got its name, but it’s relevant.”
Bashiketa stepped away from Fredge to lean on that foot, while they watched Fredge’s mouth form their words. It was a little easier for Bashiketa to focus on what Fredge was saying and understand them when they were outside where there were a lot of ambient sounds. Indoors, Bashiketa would typically gaze off into a corner of the room while listening.
“When the bomb exploded, the shockwave could be felt and heard through most of the aft half of the Sunspot’s Garden. It traveled quite a distance belowdecks as well, but it didn’t reach the entire ship. The people directly opposite us from the Sunpath had no immediate idea anything had happened. They neither heard nor felt anything, and they couldn’t see the debris cloud through the glare of the sun. And those forward of the mountains were likewise shielded from the effects of the blast. But,” Fredge took a moment to enjoy a smug grin, only slightly downward at the growing Bashiketa, “of course, word of the explosion spread throughout the ship via the Network at nearly lightning speed. In fact, there were people some distance away whose Tutors or friends told them about it before the soundwave had reached them.”
Bashiketa squinted their eyes, and briefly glanced at Fredge’s eyes. That last bit sounded hard to believe.
“Anyway,” Fredge continued. “The founders of the Sunspot, who were the people who first built all the cities, knew the potential of the ship’s Network and the role it would play in society. So they thought they would poetically make references to it in the names of the places they built, to prompt future generations to think about it and give us things to talk about. And Agaricales is one of those places. This city has been built in the middle of a forest where the fungus is extant, and the name and its history serve as the introduction of lessons for tutors and caretakers who are talking to and teaching their children who live here.”
Bashiketa slowly nodded their head to indicate that they were trying to find this more profound than it was. They’d actually think about it, of course, but right now they felt more like they were humoring Fredge so as not to make the discussion drag on too long. They were getting tired.
Fredge probably noticed this, because they said, “Ah, let’s go find some quarters to use. It’s time to eat and rest. If you see anything you like, let me know. Food, clothes, anything anyone makes here. The Artisans here make things to be enjoyed and used, but there are courtesies to observe when requesting their work. I’ll show you how it’s done so you can script it.”
Realizing they were suddenly dizzy with exhaustion, Bashiketa said, “Thank you. I’d like that.”
“That episode really took it out of you, didn’t it?” Fredge asked.
“Seriously,” said Bashiketa. After several breaths, steadying themselves on the walkway railing, they asked Fredge, “Are these episodes the reason why I was raised a Monster? What would happen if I had a nanite terminal?”
Well crap, thought Fredge. They’d been hoping Bashiketa would ask that question somewhat differently.