Thirty-nine years previously, the first explosion the Sunspot had ever experienced had destroyed nine buildings near the center of Agaricales. The central building had been utterly leveled. The eight surrounding buildings had each partially collapsed.
The explosion had been a bomb and a case of suicide. The bomber, in a fit of existential despair, had used their nanites to secretly collect and process a set of highly volatile substances in their own body, and then they had used the building’s capacitor to discharge a shock of high voltage electricity into their body to ignite the explosive. Just prior to enacting this, they’d withdrawn their consciousness entirely from the Network, erasing themself in the process. Their tutor was, of course, thoroughly questioned.
Ten people in all had been killed in the blast, only one had not ascended as a result. 38 other people had been trapped in the rubble but made it out alive. And there had been no one but the Crew themselves to bear the burden of responsibility for it. Which they did.
Sunspot law decreed that events such as this be treated as tragedies first and foremost. In almost every case, it was believed that violence could be traced to a systemic or cultural error. But especially in a case where permanent suicide was involved. This is, by the way, directly related to the position that the Monsters hold in Sunspot culture. Permanent death bewilders and scares the Crew.
Yes, someone choosing to commit violence must be negotiated with and taught how to not make that choice again in the future, and must bear the responsibility of making reparations for the damages they have done. However, society, in having created the circumstances where that choice presented itself in the first place, was beholden to find the accommodations necessary to relieve that pressure and prevent it from happening again. Not through restriction, but permission and support.
Still, until all the necessary changes and reparations could be made and trust rebuilt, those responsible were often put under sanction. Sanction meant temporary restrictions to Network access and participation in all levels of government, along with some further restrictions particular to each case. Safety Patrol volunteers could not continue their volunteer work if their transgression had involved physical violence, for instance.
Several of the Crew had voluntarily sanctioned themselves after the Agaricales blast. Benejede was the only remaining member of that group who had not yet had their sanctions lifted. Benejede had been offered a lifting of kihn’s sanction multiple times, but keh had refused. Keh explained that kihn’s ability to extrapolate possible future events needed to be understood better and refined before it could be used in service of the public again. At this point, most other Crew considered kihn to be throwing a performative and melodramatic fit, but nobody could do anything about it.
That Benejede had said as much as kihn had in response to Eh certainly said something about the whole affair. But no one yet present at the Memorial Festival had any clue about that. Only one person there had even heard Benejede’s words, and it wasn’t Jenifer, Tetcha, Morde, or Illyen.
The four of them stood on one of the skyways that surrounded Memorial park, and watched as Safety Patrol volunteers used their exosuits to finish construction of the stage near the central obelisk, where the speaker and performers would do their work.
The park was large, taking up the space of all nine buildings that had been destroyed. The foundations of the outer ring of buildings had been left partially intact, carefully reinforced or selectively deconstructed until they were safe to explore as ruins. They were all still lower than any of the skyways and inhabited floors of the buildings surrounding the park, so everyone there had a good view of the proceedings.
So, both Tetcha and Morde were able to see the familiar figure striding amongst the throngs of people near the stage. The shape of the figure wasn’t familiar, but its presentation was unmistakable. A black silhouette of a person filled with stars, holding the hand of a smaller person of a similar shape. And watching the two of them for a bit, it became clear that they were accompanying another adult and three other children, and their Tutors (only two of which were materially present at the moment).
“Ah, my nemesis!” Morde joked.
Tetcha looked around to see if xe could see anyone else xe recognized and immediately caught sight of several exobodies of the Pembers. None xe recognized personally, so Myra and the old Council of Eleven were either off doing something else, or just not in line of sight. Xe suddenly deeply missed the Flits and made a note to xemself to go visit them soon. It was actually pretty unusual to have so much of the old friends group here at this event. Most of them had been during one year or another, but it was a highly emotional place and time for them, and even Tetcha had debated with xemself about actually going to the park on this trip. But, both Morde and Jenifer had said it was important. Maybe the others had received similar messages. Maybe Morde had told them.
“I’m going to go talk to it,” Morde declared. “I’ll be back!” Then sie lifted up and floated off the side of the skyway, drifting directly down in the direction of Phage and its new family.
Tetcha leaned down to Jenifer and pointed in the direction Morde was going, “I don’t know if you can recognize it, but that dark figure down there is Phage, the Chief Monster.”
“I know it,” Jenifer said. “It’s a friend.”
Both Tetcha and Illyen leaned a bit away from Jenifer at that, then looked at each other. Jenifer didn’t seem to notice. Xe was busy mumbling to xyr doll.
“Well,” Illyen said. “I have read Jenifer your story several times, of course.” But the phrasing and emphasis of Jenifer’s words had strongly indicated a personal familiarity, and Tetcha could see Illyen was as unconvinced by vyr own words as xe was.
Jenifer had heard that and decided to clarify, “It also knows me.”
Tetcha looked down at xem and asked, “Is Phage one of the people who’ve checked in on you since you were born?”
“No,” Jenifer said, glancing back. “I know it from before. We’re staying away from each other right now, because we agreed to. But I think we can stop. It might not recognize me today, though. That’s why I have the doll.”
“What-” Tetcha stammered.
“Jenifer, can you tell us more about this, please?” Illyen asked, sitting on vyr haunches and facing Jenifer, to show ve were listening and to pay attention fully to vyr child.
Without looking at either of them, eyes still on Phage, who was now talking to Morde, Jenifer nodded and explained, “I was the officer in charge of managing the construction nanites while the Sunspot was being built, and what to do with them after we were done. We had a whole crew of us to work on that, of course, but I was given executive control of the whole proceedings. We all thought it went very smoothly, but we were implementing some new design specs to accommodate our Crew’s goals, and those introduced a whole new set of variables that affected the ship’s function after we launched.”
“Are you,” Illyen interrupted. “Are you saying that you’re the original Jenifer?”
“No,” Jenifer said. “I was named after my grandmother. The mother of my mother before you,” Jenifer glanced over at Illyen before looking back at Phage. “But I’m the Jenifer that built this ship with the help of Eh. I’ve been born twice now. I don’t recommend it.”
Tetcha noticed that they weren’t the only ones staring at Jenifer and listening to her. Everyone around them was. This was fascinating and more than a little chilling.
“How did you do that?” Illyen asked in vyr loving and supportive parental manner. Ve was doing a phenomenal job of keeping any sort of fear from vyr voice, but ve was shaking just a little bit.
“The nanites,” Jenifer said. “They were here in this body since its conception. And I know all the backdoors to all the systems of the Sunspot. You know? I might be the only person on the Sunspot who has consented to be born. Maybe in the whole history of humanity.”
The preparation of the stage below was completed and both Morde and Phage waved at Tetcha when xe glanced their direction. Phage’s child waved, too. Jenifer waved back, but Tetcha was too stunned by what Jenifer had been saying to think to raise xyr hand.
The opening statements would be presented any moment now, but no one in earshot of Jenifer seemed to care or even be ready to divert their attention from the talking child.
Losing interest in everything below xem, Jenifer turned to xyr own little crowd, apparently fully aware of them already, and started talking to all of them, and xe gestured broadly at the sky, the entire Garden of the Sunspot, “This whole thing is such a mess, you know. Those of us who decided to build it and set sail had our plans. We were trying to get away from the tyrannies of our parent ship, and we had some really good ideas about how to do that. But no matter how hard you try, you can never fully erase the trauma of your ancestors. It’s an ongoing process. And then there’s the problem that a whole world like this is a thing of precarious balance.”
Nobody had anything to say to that.
“Humanity has had so many ships before the Sunspot to get the design right,” Jenifer continued. “I was first born on the last one and I ascended there. I don’t even know where we all come from. Who knows how many disasters our oldest ancestors survived in order to create more? But the basic design of this vessel is highly refined and still fragile. And we mucked with it, adding a new layer of complexity. So, for two generations, we limped away from our parent ship, learning the error of our hubris with every new bump and shake. And the time it took to communicate with our elders grew longer and longer as the distance increased. And we didn’t want to talk to them, even if they could have helped. We had to do this on our own.
“But we couldn’t!” Jenifer sneered. A voice boomed out, amplified from below, but Jenifer just spoke louder, and everyone nearby paid attention to xem over the ceremony. “And I took it personally! Being in charge of its construction, I felt it had been my responsibility. And at first, I tried to handle it all myself, which is absolutely ridiculous!” Xe pointed at everyone in a sweeping gesture, “Don’t you ever! Never make my mistake! We’re all on this vessel together, and it’s on all of us to help it survive! Together! As a team!
“But even if you’re working on a small community project, never take full responsibility for it. Human beings weren’t built for that!” Xe nodded to xemself and settled a bit, but continued projecting xyr voice over the Master of Ceremonies. “I wasn’t. I began to fall apart. I began to panic. I was utterly useless by the time Eh stepped in with the weight of the ship’s council behind ihn. And that’s when they all summoned Phage somehow, to take over the job I’d made for myself.” At which, xe pointed down at it, and declared, “It has been doing an inhuman job, keeping this ship alive, and we should all be grateful!”
Apparently done with xyr crowd, Jenifer glanced at Tetcha and then turned to Illyen and broke into soft tears to say, shrugging a little, “I sanctioned myself after that, in shame. A lot like what Benejede is doing right now. It was as much for me to heal as anything else. But, then there was the Nanite Innovation and Phage had its sanction lifted, and Ni’a was born, and I needed… You were…”
“How long have you known all this?” Illyen asked.
“Always,” Jenifer replied, “But I didn’t remember most of it until I saw Phage just now.”
Illyen looked away to blink vyr eyes and swallow, then took a deep breath and said, “I’m confused, and scared, but I think I’m also… honored? Why did you choose me to be your parent?”
Jenifer looked embarrassed, “I needed to be born the way that I’m used to. Not in a vat. Or, at least, I thought I did. Also, I related to you. I wanted to be your family. Also, dysphoria.”
“What do you mean?”
Jenifer held up xyr doll, just as Morde was returning from talking to Phage, to say, “I used to look like this. And this wasn’t right.”
“That’s Ni’a,” Morde said.
“What?” Tetcha snapped back to the moment.
“Jenifer’s doll looks just like Ni’a,” Morde stated.
Jenifer whirled to peer down at Phage’s child, squinting, claws gripping the railing, doll fallen to the ground, and hissed, “Hailing Scales, they do!”
“You’ve never seen Ni’a before? You never looked in on them?” Tetcha asked.
“I’ve been respecting their privacy!” Jenifer said.
Morde realized something had been going on up here, and asked Tetcha, “have I missed something big?”
But Jenifer answered, “I’ll tell you more about it later. Though you can check Sunspot records, I had it recorded and broadcast.”
“To the Crew?” Morde asked.
“No,” Jenifer said. “They knew all that. I broadcasted it to all the tutors, to show their students.”
“I’m Crew and I’m pretty sure I’m ignorant.”
“What about the Monsters?” Tetcha asked.
“Monsters?” Jenifer repeated. “What? Oh!” Xe put xyr foreclaw over xyr mouth, “Right. Thank you. I’ll have to find a way for them to know about it all. I forgot they exist!”
“So many people do,” said a voice.
“Ah!” Jenifer said, turning to the owner of the voice. “I was hoping to meet you here!”
“Strange, considering what you just said. I thought you’d forgotten about us,” Fredge replied. “Also considering that we’ve never met.”
Laal was also there, of course, and leaned over to tell Fredge, “They’re the ones I’d been assigned to meet, to talk about Jenifer maybe joining the Monsters. Maybe-”
“No,” Jenifer said. “I saw you,” pointing at Fredge and then Bashiketa, who was in their chair, “two days ago, through Network cameras. I don’t know who you are, but I was watching Agaricales for people I might know, and something about you caught my eye. You had a fit of some sort, and I was worried about you. Then Morde said we should come here, too, so I figured you were important.” (Author’s note: there are discrepancies between what Jenifer said here and my accounts in Chapter 10. These discrepancies should be considered data points that indicate what actually happened. The records of the words spoken and actions taken at each time confirm my writing.)
“Hm. How did you know we’d come to this spot?” Fredge asked.
“I didn’t,” Jenifer said. “Morde led the way here.”
Bashiketa was tilting their head, looking at Jenifer’s doll lying by xyr feet, when a commotion started from the area of the stage.
The people around them had been murmuring with each other louder and louder, and Tetcha felt like one of them might ask a question, but the new noise from below got everyone’s attention.
Dancers had taken the stage and the crowd below was cheering. And the cheer spread to the crowded building tops all around.
Bashiketa put their hands over their ears, smooshing them flat back against their head, and squeezed their eyes shut, snarling in pain.
Then there was a single, shrill scream from below, and everything, the ground and all the buildings, felt like it dropped about half a meter, staggering everyone. And that was followed by a weird, structural groaning sound coming from everywhere.
Down in the middle of the crowd in front of the stage, right next to where the scream had come from, Emala saw Phage staring down at its stricken child and uttering the strange words, “Oh boy,” just before disappearing.
It took a few seconds before anyone realized something was wrong with the stage.