“I expect this to be very temporary,” Eh said. “However, the Bridge Crew were all watching these events carefully, and we have examined all the records. It is clear that a force emanated from Ni’a that collapsed the stage, cracked the memorial obelisk, and sent a shock wave throughout the whole ship. We have pinpointed the wave to their body. This force killed Aphlebia, causing them to ascend involuntarily. Our law dictates sanction until we can ascertain what happened. For safety.” I thought Eh was done talking and stole myself to respond with all the passion I felt, when Eh added, “Also, we cannot find Phage. At all.”
All I could say was, “what?”
“You’ve been working closely with it and Ni’a and their family, interviewing them,” Eh said. “If you can offer us any clue as to where it may have gone or what it may be doing, we would appreciate it.”
I know the protocols well. I have lived them for centuries. They were a kind of habit one doesn’t just break consciously. But maybe something had been shifting in me during the past few decades. Or maybe it was just the pressure of this particular moment. But I felt utterly free of them. I was supposed to cooperate with Eh and do anything and everything Eh asked me to do in service of the Bridge Crew and the Sunspot Council in this particular crisis, in service to the safety of the ship, but I just didn’t care. I felt I knew what was right, and this was not it.
“Yeah, burn that,” I heard myself say.
It was ihn’s turn to ask, “What?”
“What happened here is obvious!” I actually shouted at ihn, turning my avatar to face ihn finally. “It was a failure to accommodate! Ni’a clearly has a highly sensitive system, prone to overload, and with all the control and cultural pressure you have exerted on the populace over the centuries, you failed to account for the immediate impact that a cheering crowd can have on someone like them! With anyone else, it might not have been this disastrous to others and the ship, but that’s not Ni’a’s fault! It is entirely yours!”
I was momentarily proud of how nuanced I was. How much care I’d put into my words, though I’d cut my point short at the end there to just get to it. Unfortunately, when I’d said “yours” I’d meant the whole Crew. Eh did not take it that way.
“Abacus,” Eh growled. “This isn’t about fault or responsibility. It’s about safety.”
I thought about the speech Jenifer had just given, just a flash of thought, with Phage in the center of it, and sniped, “No it isn’t, and you damn well know it!”
“Please step lightly, Abacus,” Eh warned. “I understand your feelings. And you have every right to speak your mind right now. However, the rest of the Crew is on a hair trigger regarding everything about this. And they are watching.”
Right then, as if to emphasize ihn’s words, the groaning stopped, filling the Sunspot with the crushing silence of its absence and suddenly I felt like everyone was watching us.
That point in space/time was unbearably tense.
“Ni’a is a child and needs connection,” I said. “Phage has disappeared, and we don’t know when or if it will be back. And when Ni’a wakes up, they are going to need to know that they are still part of a family and part of this ship. Applying a sanction right now would be extraordinarily dangerous.”
Feeling like I had successfully taken that unbearable tension and turned it on Eh, I waited for ihn’s response.
“I agree with you,” Eh relented after a moment. But said nothing more, ihn’s expression and posture remaining still and stern.
I gathered from all of that that the problem was our audience, the rest of the Crew, and maybe Eh was waiting for them to deliberate, or waiting for me to capitulate to them.
“Here’s a problem I’m having with you and the rest of the Crew,” I pushed. “Actually, it’s a problem we all have, as a ship. There are so many of you, and so few of the rest of us. You outnumber us, Children and Tutors together, by an uncounted magnitude, billions to millions. And though you have been saying that you’ve crafted the systems of the Sunspot for the benefit of the Children, and you’ve agreed to no longer sequester yourselves, you still keep your deliberations secret.”
“If your Council meetings are public,” I interrupted, “you do not announce them, you do not publish the channels by which people can participate, and no Child nor Tutor holds a place on that Council. If the key to the Sunspot’s health and survival is that we listen to each other, as you agreed 39 years ago, then listen now. That is a huge problem.”
The people around us were watching, I noticed. Emala, who was holding both Candril and the Whorlies, an impossible feat for anyone smaller than xem, was staring at me. The remaining dancers and Safety Patrol volunteers had paused in what they were all doing to hear what we were saying. Up on the skyway, Morde, Tetcha, Jenifer and the Monsters with them were leaning over the railing to behold Eh’s great bulk as ihn faced my expressionless bead. Morde and Jenifer were doubtlessly listening in to our conversation via Network channels and conveying what was said to the others. More and more of the rest of the quickly dispersing crowd were stopping to look, too.
Eh also noticed.
“Pride is going to be the death of us all,” Eh growled, just loud enough for me to hear.
For a split second, I was terrified Eh was referring to me. But that it turned out that Eh was referring to the Council’s pride was worse news. Except that it now tells me that Eh was truly on my side.
Sensing something was about to happen, I took stock of what I knew in that moment. It certainly wasn’t everything you’ve read up until this point. I’ve been going back and adding accounts to fill things in as I’ve learned them. Which at least tells you something about my current state. In any case, it’s probably easier to list here what I didn’t know. While I’d witnessed Jenifer’s speech and xyr following interactions with the Monsters, I did not know who Fredge and Bashiketa were. That was the first time I’d seen them and I didn’t even know their names yet. And I did not know whether or not Eh knew about them. Laal, I recognized and knew about from Morde and Tetcha’s conversations. I didn’t know where Phage was and, even though their vessel lay in the nanite and dirt cradle of Aphlebia’s care, I really didn’t know where Ni’a was. However, I did have an idea of what Ni’a was capable of, and that without Phage to temper their actions, they could accidentally cripple or even destroy the Sunspot. But I also knew that Ni’a didn’t want to do that.
We needed Ni’a awake and coherent. So I pinged them. I sent a signal to their nanite terminal, asking permission to talk, and I sent a message to their queue, telling them that they should wake up and speak to me.
Eh sat back and relaxed ihn’s frame and telegraphed a deep breath and sigh. “Abacus,” Eh said. “I regret to inform you that you have been sanctioned.”
By that point, I at least subconsciously knew that was coming, but that didn’t stop the chill and panic that washed through my being at the sound of those words.
“By decree of the Council and, by extension, the Crew, you are hereby sanctioned, Tutor Abacus of the Sunspot,” Eh declared. “Your access to ship systems is to be severely limited. You cannot be excised from this nanite exobody against your will, but once you leave it, you will not be allowed to form another or otherwise access the nanites until the end of your sanction. The Bridge, the Engine Room, and private Network spaces are off limits to you unless express permission is given to you to enter them. No government body will hear your words unless they pertain directly to your predicament, again, until your sanction is lifted. And, furthermore…” Eh closed ihn’s nanite clay eyes and tensed up. Through clenched teeth, not that such a gesture altered ihn’s speech, Eh continued, “Since your transgressions pertain to Ni’a and their family and the project of writing a journal that has been assigned to you, you are to refrain from communicating with anyone you have interviewed in the process of working on your book, including Ni’a and Phage. An itemized list will be sent to you. Any such individual who is not sanctioned themselves, of course, may choose to contact you, at which time you are allowed to interact for the duration of that encounter. And the entirety of the populace will be informed of this decision.” A pause, then, “End of decree.” Eh scowled, and appeared to glance backward, as if the Council was physically behind ihn.
Sometimes a good argument is worthless.
It struck me as informative that Morde had gotten more traction when sie had faced the Crew thirty-nine years ago, when they were still secluded, than I did now. Apparently, I’d just dug myself deeper into my own hole. Hir being a Child and me being a Tutor likely played the biggest role in all of that, but they weren’t the only factors. And, ethically, ideally, according to the laws of the Sunspot, they should not have been factors at all.
“I think, for decorum, you should leave this place right now,” Eh said as gently as Eh could. “I will be in contact with you shortly, myself. I will also continue to speak on your behalf. I will also help Emala tend to Ni’a.”
Without anything left I could legally do there, I departed.