2.10 Pathfinders and Protectors

of Ni’a

Everyone watched as Jenifer scampered headfirst down the play equipment, xyr doll clutched in one hand, and then jumped to the ground when xe was only halfway down. Xe reveled in the touch of the cool moss as it squished between the pads of her clawed hand and feet, and closed xyr eyes for a moment to just feel the movements of xyr body as xe bounded toward the others on only three limbs. But xe opened them wide in time to pull up in front of them and look up at their faces.

“Are we going to go on a trip?” Jenifer asked. “Like, right now?”

Tetcha, arms akimbo and eyes squinting, asked back, “How do you know about where Morde thinks we should go?” Xe looked over at xyr partner, “Morde, I get. Sie has this mysterious intuition that no one knows how it works. But it does, and we know that. Do you have that, too?”

Jenifer’s parent, Illyen, opened vyr mouth but hesitated, apparently stumped. Jenifer saw that out of the corner of xyr eye, and decided xe had a moment to think about it. It wasn’t really something xe had considered. And xe looked up at Morde’s empty cloak and furrowed xyr brow.

Morde didn’t offer any comment.

“I think…” Jenifer tugged at xyr lip with xyr claw then let go, “I just knew it? Like, I got a vision, like a memory. But, maybe it was a message over the Network? Sometimes it feels like there’s a difference.”

Tetcha blinked, “What?”

Jenifer sat upright and back on xyr haunches and grabbed xyr juvenile antlers with xyr hands and sort of tugged on them. Another of xyr nervous thinking habits. “Well, OK, so it was more like I was seeing something from the Network. Like I was looking at the Network space for this playground, but not. It was for that city over there,” xe pointed again. “But I didn’t purposefully look, I just… remembered it? Like, when I happened to glance that way. There it was. And I saw some people, and a park, and got this feeling that something fun happened.”

Tetcha looked at Ansel, who had once again settled to the right of Jenifer’s head, and asked it, “do you know anything about this?”

“I don’t monitor my student’s Network activities that closely unless xe asks me to,” Ansel replied. “And I would ask xem for permission before sharing my findings.”

“Ooh,” Jenifer looked over at Ansel. “But, you could, right?”

“Certainly.”

“Would you be able to see my online thoughts, or see if they are messages from somewhere else?”

“Not your thoughts,” Ansel affected a quick side to side rotation of its entire avatar as if it was shaking its head. “We would have to merge to do that. But I might be able to see if you are receiving messages. It depends on what protocols they are using. I can also monitor your brainwaves and see if anything unusual happens when you receive these memories, but I would not necessarily be able to interpret them.”

“OK!” Jenifer chirped. “Do that until I tell you to stop!” Then xe smiled up at Tetcha, Morde, and xyr mom. Xe liked this idea. Knowing how xyr own thinking might look to someone watching xem was such a fun idea, even if it wasn’t anything very deep. But then xe thought about that scene again and tried to look at it once more. And it was easy.

This time, there was no accompanying emotion, though, and while xe got a clear image of the park and the overlooking walkways, as if viewed from someone standing on the roof of a nearby building, xe didn’t recognize any of the people that were there now. Those who had been there before had left.

“Ansel?” Jenifer asked.

“You are currently accessing a public camera in the city of Agaricales. Nothing unusual,” reported the tutor.

Jenifer shrugged, once more glanced at everyone, “So, that’s where we’re going, I guess. Right?”

“Yep,” said Morde. Then sie looked over at Ilyen. “Any reason to stop by your place before we head over there?”

“Not that I can think of,” Illyen said. “Let’s grab some food on the way to the tram, though.”

“I’d love that,” said Tetcha.

“I want a cinnamon funnel!” Jenifer declared.

“Oh, those are messy!” Tetcha said. “I want one too.”

“OK,” Ilyan assented. “This way.” And ve began to lead them in the direction where ve knew of a bakery.

Later, on the tram, cinnamon funnels in hands and being nibbled on, and a selection of wrapped sandwiches in Tetcha’s satchel, Jenifer was looking at Morde and thinking about hir again.

Morde was a legend.

Jenifer’s friends had grown up hearing about hir in a story that hardly sounded real. But then here sie was, one of Jenifer’s three caretakers, looking like nothing more than Tetcha’s tutor, if one didn’t know Tetcha was a Monster and had no tutor. Sie didn’t speak as much as Tetcha, and usually kept hir thoughts to hirself, but sie was easy to play with. Morde was always happy to do weird, mysterious, or dramatic things with hir cloak in the service of a game. And anytime Jenifer or one of xyr friends needed something, sie was happy to provide it if sie could, leaving Tetcha and Illyen to talk as they watched.

So when xyr friends met Morde, it had often taken them a while to make the connection between this weird, quiet, attentive “tutor” and the myth they’d come to know from bedtime stories told by their own tutors.

And that intuition of Morde’s, the one that had led hir to uncover the secrets of the Crew, didn’t have much to it in day to day life. Sie was often where people might need hir assistance, and she frequently led the way on family outings, but these were choices that could easily have come from experience or confidence. It was only in games of pure chance where sie had a hard to believe or understand edge over everyone else. Sie didn’t always win, but cards and dice were definitely hir friends, especially if sie had to guess what the results would be as part of the rules. 

But that moment, just before Jenifer had caught a glimpse of the park in Agaricales, when Morde spoke up about the need to go there, had given Jenifer the chills. Xe’d been listening to the adults while enjoying the view, so Morde’s words had been clear and understandable. And they’d triggered some sort of understanding in Jenifer’s mind, something xe didn’t quite grasp, that felt almost as if someone else was at work. And in the next moment, xe had felt xyrself drawn to look in that direction.

And now, on the tram that could only follow its own tunnel, Morde was merely that inscrutable animated set of cloak and gloves, holding Tetcha’s hand.

And unbeknownst to the group of them, I was watching in that moment.

Well, Morde may have known, but I didn’t catch hir looking.

No one was expecting me. Nor my companion, though at any given time Tetcha or Morde may have guessed correctly that xe was there.

Xe had taken the name Ktleteccete, which was the full name that Tetcha had been derived from as a nickname centuries ago. It was from the ancient language of Fenekere, the one used to program the Sunspot’s systems, and it meant “the Child”. An arrogant name to choose, but so fitting. And xe had called me there to observe xyr parent’s movements.

“So. Still no headache since you split?” I asked.

“None. It’s wonderful,” Ktleteccete replied. “No one’s been able to figure out what that was about, either, as you know. We’ve still been going over the data, even after all these years, just in case someone can find something. But as far as we can tell, it was somatic. Perhaps Tetcha was just too stressed out by the idea of having the nanites in xyr body.”

I bobbed my avatar in acknowledgement.

“I’ve been studying Morde very closely, too,” xe continued. “With hir permission of course, and with all of Ralf’s notes on hand. When sie uses hir intuition, we cannot sense anything unusual in hir Network activity. Neither in hir neural net nor in hir shipwide communications. I’ve had longer to study this than Ralf ever did, and more resources as a Crewmember, but however sie does it, it’s very, very subtle. Or we just don’t know what to look for.”

“I’d expect as much,” I said. “So, why did you call me here?”

“Well, it’s Jenifer. We did pick up a signal from xem that we would have expected from Morde.” Ktleteccete shook xyr head. “In all this time of observing xem to see where xe might have gained xyr strange and precocious knowledge, and why xe picked xyr name, this was the first clue that something is actually going on. And it reminds me of some of your notes about Phage and Ni’a.”

I bobbed another nod. “Go on.”

Ktleteccete watched Morde and Tetcha talk to each other in low tones about revisiting Aggaricales, and whether or not they were ready. Then xe looked at Jenifer and then back at me before answering, “A bit earlier, when they were all in a park, Morde mentioned something about hir intuition. Sie said that it was time to go somewhere. And when Jenifer heard that, xyr terminal echo sent a signal out to the Network which was then answered nearly a second later. Then xe reflexively looked at Agaricales through Network channels. It’s that signal. That ping. Phage and Ni’a don’t do that, but they’ve told you about what they do experience? It’s something similar?”

“You have been reading my notes, yes,” I responded. If I had not been speaking to Crew, I would have withheld much of the following at the time, but Ktleteccete was Crew. I still hesitated. “For the purposes of my assignment, they both agreed to divulge what they know about themselves. I am interviewing Ni’a more than I am interviewing Phage, as their childlike perspective lends itself to less cryptic descriptions, believe it or not. Also, it’s Ni’a’s story I’ve been tasked to chronicle. In any case, you know as much as I do from reading those notes. The Sunspot does not have sensors capable of detecting what those two do, just the effects they have on the ship’s systems when they have such effects. But Ni’a says it is like contacting a greater self out in the Universe.”

“Do you think Morde works in a similar way to Ni’a?”

“You’d have a better idea about that than I could. But that would be my best guess, yes.”

“OK,” Ktletecete nodded. “Our prevailing theory regarding Jenifer is now this: She’s an echo of the original Jenifer, in a similar way that I’m an echo of Tetcha. A child. And the original Jenifer may actually be awake and watching over xem and perhaps giving xem some direction.”

“Wasn’t that the Crew’s original suspicion?” I asked.

“One of three. The other theories were: one, that xe is the original Jenifer; or two, that this is all a coincidence,” xe explained.

“And you don’t think it was a coincidence that this Jenifer was conceived shortly after Ni’a was?”

“With Phage’s history? Not in the slightest.”

I marveled at this conversation. I had maintained a relationship with Ktleteccete ever since xe had parted from Tetcha those decades ago, but tens of years is nothing to be a being who has been conscious for hundreds. And I’m still used to a time when tutors didn’t converse face to face with Crew. 

Before the Nanite Innovation, we only communicated with Crew through a tight and very terse text-only channel. We knew some truths about who and what they were, but we never learned their characters, their individuality, their motives. Not beyond the handful of students we each taught, at least. But, after all this time, the Crew outnumber the Children of the Sunspot by billions to millions, thousands to one. The exact ratio is not something I can readily attain.

This bothers me. I prefer to give precise figures and data. But the Crew do not keep track of their numbers, and with Ascension and Accord those numbers are constantly in flux.

Things have changed so much. Crew, Children, and tutors freely mix in the public channels and Netspaces. Sometimes even in the physical corridors of the Sunspot, you’ll find Crew inhabiting nanite exobodies, just like tutors now do, or Children exploring the world while their natal bodies rest. But still, the vast majority of the Crew are reclusive, remaining in Crew-only netspace, usually their own personal quarters or worlds. So, even with this new open interaction, in a Child’s lifetime they might interact with four or five Crew members before they become Crew themselves, and perhaps develop a lasting relationship with one, if that.

We have a ways to go. Laws may change quickly, but culture has inertia.

It should also be noted somewhere in this book that as far as Children are concerned, the Sunspot is dramatically underpopulated. And with Tetcha, Morde, Illyen, and Jenifer traveling between Regions, this is a great spot to emphasize this. The tram they were on could hold a hundred people. They were the only ones on it.

The ship’s hull and resources are designed to accommodate somewhat more than 40 billion living human bodies. There are currently only 3.6 million. The bulk of the lower decks remain fallow, and people tend to cluster in and under the surface cities. Some of the cities can feel quite crowded, simply because the people who live there seem to like the proximity to each other. Most are very quiet in comparison.

Reviewing our documents, I have noticed that both Metabang and I have failed to convey this character of the ship. And the reason is that this is what we are used to. And if you live here, it is what you are used to. We have had nothing else to compare the state of the Sunspot to.

And I suppose I am choosing to come back and insert this trivia here as a sort of foreshadowing of what we were all traveling toward.

Ktleteccete and I had no clue, no idea, at the time. But with all that we had seen and catalogued up to that point, we were on edge. When weird things start happening on the Sunspot, something big is coming.

And so we sat and watched our loved ones closely as they traveled at speed through empty fallow decks toward the city where the Sunspot’s first bomb in history had been exploded.

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