The words, “This child is mine. I am their parent. Please let me raise them,” were finally spoken for the first time in any public record.
And so it came to pass that, after generations of flawless operation, the Auditor threw an error.
The Bridge was alerted immediately, of course, but the Bridge Crew were momentarily confused by it. They’d never dealt with such a signal before. The Captain ihnself jumped on it to ferret out what was wrong with the ship, the Sunspot.
It did not take long. A simple glance at the Auditor’s logs sufficed. The anomaly stood out like a quasar against the microwave background of the Auditor’s continuing population count and tutor assignments.
Phage, the Chief Engineer, had applied to be a tutor for a specific conception.
There were no protocols for such a request. Ai tutors were assigned randomly and had been for hundreds of years, since the Sunspot’s creation. Since before it. And Phage was not an AI. At least, Captain Eh didn’t think it was.
So, of course the Auditor threw an error. It didn’t know what the command meant.
There was a note appended to the request.
Eh scanned it.
It said, “This child is mine. I am their parent. Please let me raise them.”
A lot had happened during the last generation. Life aboard the Sunspot worked very differently now because of those events, but not that differently.
Eh felt a surge of confusion, curiosity, amusement, frustration, fear, excitement, and a whole bunch of other emotions that probably weren’t strictly inhs own. So Eh glanced around the Bridge and saw that everyone was looking at ihn. The drift of the Bridge had synced their attention and thoughts again, which was part of the whole point of being on the Bridge of course. Eh decided to break the drift by speaking up.
“What should we do?” Eh asked.
It was too bad that neither Benejede nor Morde were on the Bridge. Either one would have had a trustworthy, strong intuitive sense of the best course of action. As it was, the current pilot, Fenemere provided a condescending frown and spoke up.
“Talk to Phage,” keh admonished. “Invite it to the Bridge, of course, so we can all get a sense of its thoughts.”
Eh checked ihns own analysis and realized this was the obvious course of action. Dismissing further rumination Eh activated Phage’s com.
“Phage to the Bridge, please.”
“Can’t. Busy,” came the reply.
“Dammit,” Eh scowled and left the Bridge.
The Sunspot is not a military vessel. It is, in fact, a small, 400km long, cylindrical, inside out planet, rotating for centripetal force, embedded in a drive system that looks something like a gigantic grappling hook. It is one of numerous such vessels making their way across interstellar space. Every now and then, one of them collects enough mass to create a new one and populate it with seed DNA and Crew Members. We know this because our records say so. We are not in contact with the other vessels.
No one knows where we all started, but there are stories, passed by word from the eldest Crew Members, of a planet left behind. Some of the Crew predate the Sunspot and tell of their lives led before it was created, before they ascended to become Crew. Their stories are strange and tell of cultures alien to the Sunspot. As per regulation, their stories are not part of our records. To preserve the new culture of the Sunspot. The original Crew agreed to this, and they all live amongst us still.
The Sunspot’s governance is a loose balance between raw democracy and anarchy. The Captain is chosen at any given moment by whomever is willing to sit in that chair, and they can be deposed by a vote from the Bridge Crew at any time. It is not a position of any particular power, but does afford the ability to set the tone of Bridge operations and the speed with which executive decisions are made.
This is all made possible by the fact that the Crew are a population of ascended consciousnesses hosted by the Sunspot’s Network. And a kind of telepathy is possible between Members. There is still disagreement and deliberation, but information can travel fast amongst the Crew. Especially if they come to the Bridge to confer.
Which Phage was not doing.
Phage was not in the Engine Room, either.
Both the Bridge and the Engine Room are Network spaces, channels of consciousness and protocol where Crew Members can interact with the ship’s systems.
The Bridge tends to look like an off white nearly featureless lozenge, with a view screen projected on one of the walls. Individual Crew Members can manifest control systems in whatever shape they need to make sense of them or even entertain themselves. Sometimes the Bridge looks like the bridge of a sea going vessel with a swamp growing in the port half of it, and a kitchen in the forward starboard corner. Sometimes it looks like a child’s playroom, or any number of chaotic chimerical places. Most of the time it’s that white lozenge with no discernible features except a handful of Crew floating in their spots, focused on the view screen.
Phage usually keeps the Engine room a featureless black fog where not even other Crew are visible. But when someone is visiting it will often render it to look like the inside of the sun intake.
That’s what it looked like when Eh arrived. A gargantuan piece of machinery built to generate electromagnetic forces powerful enough to channel one of the Sunspot’s daily suns into the engine. There were pseudophages scattered about, tending to various tasks. A quick glance confirmed to Eh that none of them were the actual Phage, just pale copies of itself set to do its duties. A reasonable arrangement, but clearly set up to make it obvious that Phage was gone for the moment.
Phage had a tendency to appear as a galaxy filled silhouette of blackness in the shape of whomever it was talking to. These pseudophages all looked like a particular new Crew Member who’d been central to the last generation’s upheaval, Myra Pember.
It was probably a message that said, “We are changing the culture of the Sunspot again.”
Eh squinted at the scene then ran through all of the possibilities of where Phage might be.
Eh was a very thorough thinker, and liked to consider even the most unlikely scenarios before settling on the best one to evaluate or test first. Phage would not be found wandering a random Art Collective in a temporary nanite body, for instance, though that was possible. Nor would it be poking around in the Bussard collectors, which it could do from the Engine Room. Actually running through all the possibilities wasn’t important in this case, though, since Phage had made it clear what its motives were. It just felt like the right thing to do.
Eh then looked up which nursery the child Phage claimed to be its own had been conceived in, and went there.
And that’s where Phage was, watching one of the tubes full of goo through every possible sensor in the room.
“You’re interfering with the gestation processes by doing that,” Eh said.
Phage pulled out from all but one of the sensors. It didn’t have a particular form right now. Just a presence of starry shadows scattered throughout the nursery’s Network control room, which more or less resembled the nursery itself. The shadows contracted from where the sensors were located.
“Hi,” it said, not really looking at Eh.
“What is going on?” Eh asked, tilting ihns head. Eh was keeping ihns voice casual and amiable as best as Eh could tell. Eh wanted to be chummy with Phage, but was generally very bad at that sort of thing when in unusual circumstances. And these circumstances were unusual.
Phage finally looked up at Eh, taking on ihns form. Eh presented as a large gangly creature with a bulbous head, a thick, finned tail, antlers, frills at the jaw line and various joints, and a shiny lure on the end of a whip coming out of ihns forehead. Phage made its version of that lure glow with a tiny red giant. It didn’t bother representing eyes with anything.
“That’s my child and I would like to raise them myself,” Phage responded, “Nothing like this has happened before, and I feel responsible and I want to experience being a parent. To my child specifically.”
Eh looked at the tube then back to Phage, “But how? The conception algorhythms don’t work that way. They draw the genetic code from the ship’s evolutionary engine to produce a unique biology. There’s no protocol for anyone to make choices there, and you don’t even have genes. You never have. How? Did you tamper with the system?”
“No,” said Phage. “That all worked like it always has. Except, you forget what I am.”
“I don’t really know what you are,” snapped Eh. “No one does.”
“I am the very process of Entropic Decay itself. I’m the force in the universe by which complex energies become simpler. I am the Death of Everything. And therefore also the source of chaos and life itself,” Phage rattled off, seeming to roll its eyes despite not having any.
“But that’s not what the ship’s records say, and if you were –”
“– I wouldn’t be a localized consciousness restricted to existing on the Sunspot.” Phage grinned, a crescent star nursery of a nebula, then gestured at the tube, “and yet, that child’s genes are a product of my presence aboard the ship, and the memes that are already forming in the synapses of what few nerves they have are a reflection of me as well. I know this the same way that I know what I am. That knowledge is the very fabric of my being.”
“That fetus doesn’t even have one nerve cell yet,” Eh countered.
Phage smiled warmly, looking at the tube, “It will. Soon enough. I can already see it firing in the near distance.” It looked back at Eh, “Please grant me this request. It is important to me.”
“We don’t have the protocols for this.”
“Make them,” Phage actually put its hand on ihns shoulder, then visibly glanced at it, realizing it hadn’t asked consent for physical contact. Then it realized it had never, ever touched one of the Crew before, and wondered where it got the impulse to make that gesture.
Eh looked at Phage’s hand quizzically. Consent was one of the two human rights aboard the Sunspot, upon which all other rights were derived. Human. That word was only ever used to describe the course of sentient life dictated by the evolutionary engines, and the inherent rights that life was considered to have. The fauna of the Garden, which reproduced naturally, actually had more rights, collectively, as far as the Crew were concerned, but weren’t aware of them nor afforded them to each other. And, of course, being part of the ecosystem, that wasn’t expected of them. But for the Crew, consent in all things was an ideal that was striven for but never fully achieved at all times. Aside from the ethical dilemmas that crop up in daily life that required compromise, things like exchanging physical touch called for verbal consent. But Eh found that Phage’s touch was welcome anyway.
Phage slowly withdrew its hand, “When you invited me aboard the Sunspot to take control of the Engine Room and its related systems, you had to have some sense of what I was.” It turned back to look at the tube where its child was growing. “We keep having this conversation, over and over, each taking a different side.
“My memories of my time before boarding the Sunspot are bizarre and untranslatable by the circuits of the ship that house us. It’s given me a consciousness I don’t think I’ve ever had before, but in the process it has also compressed my being into a flat composite full of artifacts. Double image upon double image of the dimensions I once was. I don’t know how you found or contacted me, and I can’t accurately describe what I am in your language or even the raw thoughts available to me in this vessel’s system. But I know what I am, and what this child is.”
Eh smirked a little bit, then deliberately put ihns hand on Phage’s shoulder. Phage actually flinched. A vulnerability Eh didn’t realize it could have. It was ihns turn to withdraw ihns hand.
“I give you consent to touch me like that whenever you feel the impulse,” Eh said.
Phage remained silent, looking at the tube.
Eh continued, “I wasn’t the one that contacted you. It was on my order that you were searched for and found. We were having trouble with the entire ship’s systems, as you know. I asked Benejede to look for a solution. Keh described the shape of what that might be to Gesetele. And Gesetele did something with the ship’s communications arrays that I don’t understand to contact you and invite you aboard. I have been all over what keh did, with the help of Gelesere, and it might as well be magic. It shouldn’t have worked. But then you came aboard and threw a fit, and we locked you in the Engine Room out of desperation, convinced we were all going to die as a result. But then somehow that allowed you to focus and remember what Gesetele had said to you? So then you got to work?”
“I’m sorry we kept you in there for so long. You ran the Engines beautifully, and solved the worst of our systemic problems from there. But things have been even better since we let you out,” Eh said. “I consider you family, whatever you are. You can raise this child. Please forgive me.”
Phage glanced at Eh and asked matter-of-factly, “May I hug you?”
In the midst of their hug, Eh said, “Can you please come to the Bridge and brief the rest of the Crew?”
“OK,” said Phage.
“What was it you agreed to get in return for helping us again?” Eh asked.
Phage pulled back, formed two swirling galaxies in its darkness so that it could look Eh right in the eyes with them, and said, “I don’t remember.”