Listen. I know that the title of this chapter is utter nonsense, and there’s really no action in all of space/time that can come close to it besides passing the event horizon of a black hole, and even then there’s argument about whether or not that’s possible, but Fenemere, the Poet, suggested the title and I’m going with it.
Eh asked Benejede what was going to happen next and what “a child outside of the Sunspot” could mean.
Eh had to visit kihn in kihn’s own Netspace, as keh would not leave it for some reason. It was made to look like a single room cabin high on a cliff, with a porch overlooking a strange bay and the Aft endcap of a ship that was clearly not the Sunspot. Eh remembered those panel patterns better than Eh had expected.
Benejede took the form of an overly large heron with antlers, with human hands for feet, and a whip-like tail, and stood perched on the porch’s railing. Keh didn’t bother to look at ihn, and simply said, “Go to Agaricales and be prepared for our experiment to end. Figure out how to wrap things up.”
Sometimes warnings don’t come in time.
Bashiketa generally needed a certain amount of room in their schedule to adjust to potential changes, and sometimes that just could not be accommodated. Especially when there were more people involved than usual.
It was a very small thing to Fredge, but the tram they were going to use that morning to ride to the center of Agaricales, to the memorial park where the festivities would take place, was absolutely crammed with people and they had to wait for the next one.
Fredge had not anticipated that there would be so many people in Agaricales even on this day, but had started to get a sense of it when they both left their quarters to walk to the tram. They’d told Bashiketa to expect the Tram to be really crowded while they were on their way there.
Bashiketa had already been spending their energy working up the courage and willpower to endure crowded hallways and other similar spaces. They didn’t really have the wherewithal to do more than nod at Fredge’s words. And they were feeling proud of their progress so far.
So when Bashiketa beheld the sight of a tram, with absolutely no room left in it, closing its doors with still countless other people on the platform, waiting for a ride, and then leaving the station, they lost it entirely.
Fredge was already considering the contingency plan of dropping down to a fallow deck to use the tram there in quiet, but ended up kicking themself for not choosing that path to begin with. Bashiketa was in no state to even hear of the idea. Their meltdown was too intense.
This was a situation that neither of them, Monsters who had spent most of their lives living alone under a mountain, had ever experienced before. Fredge had been among throngs of other people, but never with a Bashiketa experiencing full sensory overload and emotional dysregulation. And for Bashiketa, every aspect of this was new and terrifying and utterly discombobulating.
Fortunately, almost everyone around them knew what to do. And those that didn’t were instructed by others.
While Bashiketa sank to the floor, pounding and raking their claws across their own thighs and any other surface around them, screeching and wailing, the crowd fell silent and parted, people just going about their business around them more slowly and softly, giving them ample space. Fredge had to take a couple steps back to avoid being injured by Bashiketa’s attacks, and sank to a kneeling position themself to wait attentively. They gave some of the strangers around them thankful nods as they passed by.
No undue attention was paid to Bashiketa, and everyone did their best to minimize the noise and bustle that contributed to their overload. And no one complained, not for the nearly fifteen minutes it took for the poor child to begin to regain control. Nor for any length of time after that, for that matter.
Some credit could be given to attentive tutors informing people of what was going on and reminding their students of what to do. But the general culture of the Sunspot, which had been cultivated for centuries, already gave everyone a nearly intuitive sense of how to treat someone who is prone to experiencing meltdowns.
If you, the reader, are an Outsider, you may find this informative, which is one of the reasons I include the account.
Fredge waited until Bashiketa reached for them. That was the signal these days that the meltdown was coming under control, at which point Fredge moved forward, put their head on top of Bashiketa’s head and started rumbling. Bashiketa started purring back.
Bashiketa was maybe halfway to fully grown. It was getting hard to pick them up, but Fredge asked if they wanted it anyway. To which Bashiketa shook their head and slowly tried to stand up. But the scratches they had made in their upper legs made that too painful. Some were quite deep. There was blood on the floor where they’d knelt. So Fredge picked them up anyway, apologizing, and began to walk back to their temporary quarters.
Someone’s tutor, probably that of a Safety Patrol volunteer, appeared above the blood stains on the floor and started directing people around them while cleaning nanites began to work on the mess.
“We’re going to have to treat and bandage your scratches,” Fredge told Bashiketa as they carried them. Bahiketa knew the drill, though. This had happened before. Fredge continued, “We don’t have to see the festival in person. We can view it on a screen if you want. Or skip it altogether.”
Bashiketa shook their head.
“Would you like to use a chair to get to the festival?” Fredge asked.
A nod. A chair would also feel like armor, something to keep between themself and the crowds, Bashiketa thought. They definitely liked the sound of riding in a chair.
Fredge strode on for a while, thinking about something, then said, “You know. We could just do the usual and manufacture your default design at a maker unit, out of typical materials, or…” They seemed to be looking for some good words before they continued, “we could make you a nanite clay chair much faster. There’s a control program for that on the MonsterNet we could use. You’d control either one with your tablet, but the nanite chair would be more adaptive. Your call.”
Bashiketa thought about that for a bit. It reminded them of a daydream that they regularly had. One that they had not mentioned to Fredge since they were very small, but just could not let go of. Around five years of age, when Bashiketa had asked Fredge if they could get a nanite terminal, after learning the differences between the Monsters and the Children, Fredge had fallen quiet for a time. They’d picked up their tablet, frowning, not looking at Bashiketa, to type something into its surface. And then they had slumped and sighed at whatever it was that they’d read there. The answer had been “no”. It was too dangerous for Bashiketa to interface with the Network via any sort of neural terminal. But that didn’t stop them from daydreaming about it. They’d learned that nanites gave Children some sort of control over their own bodies, how they grew and healed. And Bashiketa wanted that so badly. They also wanted to play with a nanite exobody.
They used nanite infused bandages to help them heal scratches and injuries before, but those nanites were instructed not to make an interface and to withdraw from Bashiketa’s body when they were done. Healing nanites were a tool used by and for Monsters, on the basis of consent and autonomy. But for some reason, denying Bashiketa the consent to cease being a Monster was a matter of Bashiketa’s own safety.
“I wish I could have a terminal,” Bashiketa mumbled.
Fredge paused a step and looked at them, then said, “I am so sorry. Maybe we’ll find a way. But not today.” After several steps, they growled, “we have to do something for you, dammit.”
They touched the door to their quarters, which dilated open. And Laal was on the other side, clutching a Fluffy Fauna and pacing back and forth.
“Laal!” Fredge exclaimed and ducked inside to let the door close. But then they stood with Bashiketa in their arms and looked askance at their old friend.
Laal was momentarily transfixed by the sight of Bashiketa, and worked hen’s mouth as if trying to say something.
“Sit,” Fredge said in a friendly tone. “Bashiketa and I have to take care of something, and then we’re going to the festival. How have you been?”
Laal plopped down on a stool near the table, and sighed, “I have so many questions. So fucking many questions. This, by the way,” hen held up the well worn but still very colorful toy wild cat and said, “is for you, Bashiketa. But, if you don’t want them, I’d be happy to keep them myself. We’ve kind of become good friends.”
Fredge sat Bashiketa down on another stool, across the table from Laal, and Bashiketa held out their hand to take the Fluffy Fauna. They held the toy in their hands while Fredge went to the health bin to get bandages, a scanner, and some antiseptic. Bashiketa petted the plush animal’s head and looked into their glass eyes, frowning.
“I have questions, too,” Fredge said to Laal. “And most of them not for you. But I suspect I’ve been kept better informed for the past few years than you have. I’m assuming it’s safe for you to be with us here, now, but I’m not sure if I care if it isn’t. You first.”
Bashiketa turned to see as Laal looked at Fredge and Fredge met hens gaze with an old expression. It was the same expression Fredge gave Bashiketa when Bashiketa discovered something unfortunate and pointed it out. It was the same expression that Fredge had given Bashiketa when they’d mentioned how awful they always felt, or when they’d mentioned the nanites just now. And Laal apparently found that expression very reassuring.
Bashiketa saw tears in Laal’s eyes, so they held out the Fluffy Fauna for Laal to take them back, which hen did gratefully, hugging the cat.
“Where do I even fucking start?” Laal asked.
“Excellent question,” Fredge replied, kneeling down next to Bashiteta. They just glanced at Bashiketa’s face, and Bashiketa knew what they meant, so Bashiketa nodded. Getting to work on cleaning the wounds, Fredge glanced briefly up at Laal, “that’s a practice question, though, still your turn.”
Laal put hen’s forehead in hen’s hand, elbow on table, and started working their long ears up and down, alternating expressions or just stretching those muscles. “What…” hen started a thought and chewed on it for a moment. “… has this all been for, really? I mean, I know what we’ve been told. But when I was cut loose for your safety, it was done in such a way. I can’t even fully describe it, but the way I was suddenly no longer given any explanations was really weird. So I’ve started asking, what has this all been for, really?”
The pain of the slashes in their legs was giving Bashiketa something to focus on, to ground themselves with, as they were paying rapt attention to what Fredge was doing. They were no stranger to wound care, but never got tired of watching how it worked. And this all occupied just enough of their mind they were able to also focus on Laal’s words. And Bashiketa had a thought come to them that they did not expect: Maybe Fredge and Laal were on their side.
Side? Side of what?
Bashiketa v.s. the Monsters? They were all Monsters here. Bashiketa v.s. agony, maybe. Bashiketa v.s. nightmares. Bashiketa v.s. their own mind. Bashiketa v.s. Fredge’s tablet. Bashiketa v.s. the unknown authority that Fredge and Laal were obliquely referring to. Bashiketa v.s. the Sunspot.
“I can’t tell you that, Laal, because that’s my question, too,” Fredge snarled.
Bashiketa, Fredge, and Laal v.s. reality itself.
“Can we talk this out in front of Bashiketa?” Laal asked.
Fredge looked at Bashiketa and said, “This is about you. You have every right to know what we know, and to have known it. I’ve been teaching you slowly, to make sure you had the foundations to understand it, but I think you should have known more sooner. And Laal here is asking if we can dump it all on you now. You can nix this entire conversation and we won’t have it, if you want. Right Laal?”
Laal scowled, but nodded. Fredge nodded back at hen.
Bashiketa was feeling excited about all of this. Finally they might have answers to questions they’d been afraid to even ask, or didn’t even know the words to! Another part of them felt resentment for being kept ignorant about their own life, but Fredge and Laal were family. Even if they barely remembered Laal, they knew hen’d been part of the center of their life when they were very small, and they felt like something they’d been missing dearly had returned to them. The air felt safer.
So, when Fredge asked Bashiketa, “Can we talk about your life with you? We’ll miss the opening ceremony, but we both think you should be in on this fully. Well, as fully as we can make it.” Bashiketa nodded firmly and said, “yes.”
“OK, so, here’s what I know,” Laal said, still clutching the Fluffy Fauna in one arm, while stabbing the table with a finger. “The Operation, as we’ve been calling it, has been geared to conceive of Bashiketa since the Sunspot was first built. Your name, Bashiketa, means ‘an Outsider’, and that’s relevant. And it took all these centuries because we had to run numerous experiments that were, initially, constrained by relativity. Communication through the Tunnel had to be verified multiple times before we could trust it…”
“The Tunnel,” Fredge explained to Bashiketa, “is a device for communicating over vast distances. It uses quantum entanglement and tunneling to transfer information instantaneously between terminals. It works faster than light. But we had to check its function via radio, secretly.”
“With the Sunspot’s parent ship,” Laal said.
Bashiketa felt their mouth drop open. “Is that who you’ve been talking to on your tablet?” they asked Fredge.
“No,” Fredge said. “That was our Crew-side benefactor. Our ‘ally’ who has been helping us do this in secret. Neither I nor Laal have used the Tunnel, actually. Our colleagues have, as well as have our predecessors. We’re in charge of taking care of you. But…”
“Wait,” Laal hissed, leaning forward eagerly, eyes very wide. “Did it work?”
Fredge nodded, “It looks like it.”
Bashiketa felt confused and tingly. A voice in their head said, “Oh, that’s what’s going on!” Well, it wasn’t exactly a voice. It was a wordless thought that felt like it was coming from the part of their mind that sometimes had a mind of its own, that Bashiketa then reflexively translated to words. But Bashiketa hadn’t puzzled everything out, yet, themself. “What’s going on?” they asked.
“You use the Tunnel,” Fredge told Bashiketa. “You were born to use it. That’s what your nightmares and flashbacks have been.”
“And,” Laal said, “we were raised to believe that you were going to be the first in a new kind of human being. Something we could all strive to be. Maybe, even, that if we could figure out how it worked for you, we could figure out how to give it to those of us who were born without it. But dammit! You’ve been having nightmares? Of course you have!”
Bashiketa zoned out at that point. It felt like they were being pulled away from their body, distanced from everything it felt and sensed, even though they still experienced all of it. And though they could hear Fredge and Laal talking, and hear their own voice answering back, they could not remember the words that were said.
At some point they consented to building the nanite clay chair and trying it out, and soon they were rolling through the corridors to a Crew shaft to go down to a fallow deck to avoid the throngs of people. And there, under Fredge’s instructions, their nanite clay chair adapted itself to climbing down a ladder.
Fredge and Laal kept talking as they traveled to the city center.
The next time Bashiketa felt fully awake and fully in control, they came to at a moment when it seemed like the Sunspot itself was having a meltdown.