I could write an entire treatise on justice, restoration, accountability, and safety aboard an isolated generational starship, and I could write a mere three sentences on the whole thing, and both would mean the same thing and be just as useful and informative here. Both approaches would equally fail to convey the nuance of the situation I found myself in. Besides, I have spent my existence lecturing people and it got me here. It is time to simply report.
I kept my nanite exobody as long as I could. I wasn’t allowed to add to it or alter it. I was stuck in the form of a decorated bead. Not very useful for manipulating things, but I could at least provide a physical presence to anyone I might talk to. That felt important. With my Network access curtailed, I would have more freedom in the halls and Garden of the Sunspot as long as I kept my exobody.
Exobody. That’s a term coined by the Flits, if I recall. It makes sense in the context of a Child forming a nanite clay body outside of their natural vessel to walk around in. For us tutors, I suppose the “exo” part would refer to being “outside of the Network”. I’ll keep using it for now, but at this point, my nanite body felt like my only tether to reality itself.
Feeling belligerent and still dedicated to my project, I considered my options as carefully as I could.
I might still be able to talk to the Monsters that had confronted Jenifer. But Jenifer, Illyen, Tetcha, and Morde were out, unless they approached me. And talking to the Monsters right there in Agaricales would draw attention. No direct legal repercussions, but certainly further arguments needed to lift my sanction when it came time to do that.
I’d have to track them down later.
There was one person I could think of that was remotely linked to all of this whom I had not interviewed directly, nor even spent much time around. Bri.
Bri was roughly Ni’a’s age and still living with zyr caretaker, whose name I did not yet know. Approaching zem was going to be delicate and the potential benefits scarce. But maybe I could at least get some anecdotes about Ni’a that from zyr perspective that I could add to this book. I would at least be doing something.
Although, continuing to work on this project was definitely not in the spirit of my sanction. But I think you can see by this point in this chapter that I wasn’t prepared to stop.
Instead of taking a tram back to Ni’a’s home city, or discarding my nanite body and traveling via Network channels, I flew directly. Which isn’t all that direct, since weighted nanite forms required a certain proximity to the bulk of the rest of the ship’s nanites in order to hover, which meant being relatively near the ground. I could, however, skim most buildings and tree tops. This took extra time, but I wanted to be alone for a bit and I wanted to think.
Less than halfway there, I received the document legally defining my sanction.
I didn’t want to scan it, but I did so anyway. It explained a bit more clearly why I was being sanctioned, and it listed the people who were considered off limits to me. My sanction, as I thought, was contingent on Ni’a’s, on the grounds that my activity and communication endangered the chances that they could safely have their sanction evaluated properly and lifted, in the eyes of the Council. Utter nonsense, from my perspective. I felt this was patently counter to Ni’a’s interests, in fact. But, clearly the Council disagreed with me and that’s why they’d imposed my sentence. And the list of people I could not contact did not include Bri or the Monsters I’d seen with Jenifer. As Eh had said, only those I’d directly interviewed were forbidden. That was excellent.
I wondered if Eh could have had a hand in that. It was likely an oversight, since if their names had been mentioned they’d have ended up on the list. But, if Eh had been following my notes for this book, which I’m sure was the case, Eh could have held ihn’s tongue.
Since then, I have come to believe this was true, but at the time I was in a very bad mood and decided not to give Eh the benefit of the doubt.
I’m sorry, I’d describe the passage from Agaricales to my destination, and the beauty of the landscape and the weather on the way there, but I was paying absolutely no attention to it.
I was brooding and exploring the insides of my own psyche in a way I have not done in a long, long time.
I realized I had spent most of my life focused on other people. It was my job, and centuries of doing it had ingrained deep habits. Of course, in my early days, when I was picking my own name and deciding on my avatar, I had done quite a bit of introspection, but I hadn’t had a lot of experience or knowledge with which to compare that to. And by the time I’d read Systems’ Out! I had spent so much of my life reacting to and molding my students that Metabang’s passages of introspection baffled me.
Of course, it would have the impetus to do that, being in charge at the time of a massively large plural system and finding itself in a state of quazi-plurality. And also having been put in charge of its own world shifting experiment only to witness first hand its repercussions, it certainly had to stop and think about it for a bit. But I couldn’t relate at that time 39 years ago. Now, I had a glimmer of what it had gone through.
Which brought me to the realization that I could enlist the help of the Pembers and possibly even the Flits. The Pembers had been there at what I decided to call “The Screaming”, and maybe the Flits had been as well. In either case, both systems were Crew that were entangled in the events leading up to today’s disasters, but were not on my list and were likely to have connections and resources that could be useful to me. And they knew me.
I was not doing very well at this self introspection thing. My mind kept wandering to other people.
This was about the point where I started thinking about what I told you earlier in this book, about the nature of Tutors and our relationships to both the Children of the Sunspot and the Crew. And my mind kept slipping to thinking about it all in terms of how Metabang, Ralf, Breq, Door, Chalkboard, Vine, and Charlie went about things. And I also compared their behavior to Phage’s. For a long time, many people had thought Phage was a rogue Tutor. It was definitely not.
As Phage was raising Ni’a, it had been far more hands-on about everything than my peers.
We tutors are usually quite passive, waiting for our Students to express a need or to stray close enough to danger to warrant a comment. And the idea behind that was to afford our students as much autonomy as possible, and to let them learn at their own pace through exploration.
Contrary to that, Phage had taken on many of the roles of Caretaker, and not only for Ni’a but also for Ni’a’s peers, cooking their food, playing with them, and asking them if they wanted lessons. And while watching it do this, I could see the relief that Emala had clearly felt. Phage’s initiative had taken a great deal of weight off of Emala’s shoulders, and xe had grown to rely on it in a way the xe did not with the other Tutors. They were not just friends by today, they were like partners.
But Vine, Chalkboard, and Charlie had not stepped up to imitate Phage. It hadn’t even occurred to them. Probably because Phage wasn’t a Tutor, so they didn’t reflexively think of it as an example. And maybe because they were telling themselves that Phage’s behavior was full of pitfalls.
I think we Tutors might also maintain a distance from our Students because if we grow too close it becomes harder when they ascend and we are given new assignments. And before the Nanite Innovation, which was very recent, it was all the more hard because back then once someone became Crew we were not to communicate directly with them.
What a fucking messed up system this had all been.
I sent an invitation to Metabang, Ralf, and Breq to meet and discuss Tutor politics at some point. No priority. Metabang, who was still Tutor to the Pembers despite them being Crew, responded immediately with interest and the words “any time”. To which I suggested I’d notify it when the other two had replied, but maybe sooner. And that was OK by it.
I then took note of my eta at Bri’s place and sent zyr Tutor, Craqueleur, a request for audience to talk about Bri’s relationship with Ni’a and to collect information that I might hand over to the Crew to help them help Ni’a, when they come to ask me about it. That should skirt the precepts of my sanction well enough to get an affirmative. As a standard and appropriate courtesy, I also notified Bri’s caretaker and their Tutor about that request.
And by the time I arrived, they were ready to open their door and entertain me.
There’s not much to report about that conversation, and I’d like to maintain the privacy of the people involved in it. Bri could only provide me with a character study of Ni’a, which largely matched my own observations. That was helpful, but doesn’t need to be repeated here. Ze also agreed with me that these sanctions were unfair, and promised to do whatever ze could to support Ni’a in Phage’s absence, if ze was even allowed to do so.
Ni’a’s sanction had not yet been declared, however.
That really pissed me off. My own sanction was contingent on another sanction that had not yet been made official. It had only been a few hours, but it left me feeling like I had no recourse for my persecution.
So my next stop was the park where Ni’a had first learned to manipulate leaves in the wind, to wander and think. Hopefully the surroundings there would stimulate associations I could use.
I considered connecting with Metabang. Ralf and Breq hadn’t replied yet, but I didn’t expect them to, as they were both busy with Students. But as I hovered near the pond, I saw the ground ripple and thought that was very strange, and familiar.
It rippled again, starting from underneath me and moving in a direction across the park.
Only one person I knew communicated like that, so I followed the ripple.
And sure enough, the ripples led me to a clump of bushes and brambles with paths running through them, left there by playing children. I lowered my bead to pass under the arching brambles and made my way to the center of them, where there was a small clearing yet still covered by the bows of a tree. It was fairly private. The only cameras or mics near here would be those composed of nanites, which I assumed would be tuned to me anyway. I don’t know if Aphlebia thought of that, but if this is where they were more comfortable talking to me then I was happy to accommodate.
They crawled out of the ground in an exobody roughly the same shape as their original vessel had been. I was not surprised they seemed happy and comfortable with it. Honestly, as common as dysphoria seems in my book and Metabang’s, the vast majority of the populace doesn’t experience it.
Aphlebia nodded at me, and then held their hand palm up, out at about shoulder level. And a replica of me, about half the size of their head, rose out of the ground, leaving an appropriately sized divot like their exobody had behind them.
I tilted my avatar to the side to indicate that I was watching with curiosity.
They gestured with their other finger, indicating that what happened next was what they wanted me to consider. Then they tilted their head down and the replica of me floated toward it and began to merge with them fluidly. And when it was done, they were slightly larger than they were before. Then they looked at me again with a questioning expression.
I bobbed a little lower and tilted the eyehole of my bead toward the ground, but I had to talk out loud, because what I had to say was too complicated for me to communicate physically as a bead. At least, as far as I could figure out how.
“That won’t help,” I said. “You’re thinking of what Phage and Morde did, right?”
“Phage created a lesser child of itself to merge with Morde. That child lacked the qualities that caused Phage to be sanctioned at the time. I’m not sure that I could do that, and if I could I’m not sure what that would accomplish,” I explained. “Also, if you merged with me as I am, I could not take on extra nanites or alter my form. You’d be stuck with my sanction and you’d be stuck in this bead form with me. And you might be stuck with my sanction even after we separate, if we do.”
Aphlebia frowned, then signed back, “Still.”
“No.” I said flatly. “There are more reasons not to. The biggest of which is our difference in age. I’m sorry, I can’t consent to this in any way. It’s too dangerous for both of us, but mostly you. You stand to gain a lot from sharing our memories. I totally understand why you’d want to do it. But you have to understand, Phage is not human and it does not do human things. It has powers of control neither of us can fully imagine. It was able to facilitate all of the mergings of the Nanite Innovation to make sure they were done safely and respectfully for all parties involved. And, even though it was what the ship needed, it still probably shouldn’t have done it.”
Aphlebia’s scowl deepened.
“The difference between my centuries of experience and your handful of years means that you could easily be subsumed, even if I tried not to subsume you. You’d lose yourself in my memories. And that’s even if we could achieve accord in the first place.”
I watched as the new Crew member began to look more and more deflated, their face relaxing.
“I’m so sorry. You’ve approached this with a good heart, and I’m still going to help you as best as I can, but this is just something we cannot do.”
I decided to give them time to digest all of that and choose what to do next, so I simply waited as they wilted a little more. For a moment, it looked like they would run, and if they did I would have let them. They needed all the space they could have.
They looked up after a bit and gestured, “Phage.” Their signs actually said, “The one called Eat.”
“I don’t think-” I started to say, but they waved me to stop. So I did and assumed they were on a different topic now entirely.
Then they signed out, “The one called Eat of the P-E-M-B-E-R-S.” (I’m going to translate figuratively again from here on out)
“Oh,” I said. “Are you thinking I could talk to it without breaking my sanction?”
Aphlebia nodded vigorously.
“I wonder if it’s even still part of the system,” I pondered.
Aphlebia shrugged and signed, “I want to talk to it, too. Maybe it doesn’t know Ni’a, but I have to try. Maybe it knows how to wake them.”
“I’ve already asked Metabang for a meeting, this should be easy to arrange,” I told them. “We could even probably meet them right here.”
Aphlebia pouted, “I thought communicating would be easier once I was Crew.”
“Well,” I said. “We could just send each other thoughts via the regular Network channels.”
They looked so embarrassed for not thinking of that.
“It’s OK,” I reassured them. “We’re both in the habits of how we communicated before. There’s something human and real about talking out in the air, anyway. Is Chalkboard here?”
“Did it know what you were going to ask me?”
“OK. No worries. You’ve got a good Tutor.” And they would have Chalkboard with them for a few more years as they acclimated to being Crew.
Exobodies crowded that little clearing. We could have all met in the Netspace, but everyone was accommodating me, and I really appreciated it. But, we had all agreed to use Network channels to communicate. We had Aphlebia, me, Metabang, all three Flits in one exobody, and Phage Pember. And not only that, we were also honored with Myra Pember’s presence as well. Everyone but me had chosen smaller versions of their exobodies just to fit more comfortably in the space. We all sat or hovered in a circle. Chalkboard chose to remain in the background in the Network.
“Where’s your vessel?” I asked the Flits.
“Sleeping,” Hetty replied.
“A lot like what Ni’a’s body is apparently doing,” Phage Pember said. “According to your reports.”
“Yes,” I said. “What do you think we can do about it?”
“Wait for them to wake up?” it replied.
“What if,” I postulated, “they don’t?”
Metabang answered that, “Their body is going to atrophy, and even if given life support it will eventually die. Maybe a long time from now. If they don’t return to it.” I knew exactly what experience that was coming from. One of Metabang’s former students had ascended in a very similar way.
Phage Pember said, “OK, look.”
So we all looked at it.
It took a long time to continue speaking, though. It obviously had something important to say, but was calculating something first. Then it shook its head quickly, “Yeah, my parent isn’t on the ship at all. When it’s here, I don’t have its powers or responsibilities. It keeps them all to itself, and I’m nothing more than a pseudophage, a Pember with its name. But…”
“But, what?” I asked.
“If I say anything more about this in any recordable way,” it said, pausing again to consider its words very carefully. “No. I just can’t help you that way. And I won’t say why not. But I can tell you one other thing.”
It looked around at all of us, probably hoping one of us would prompt it to say more. We didn’t, but it gave in anyway.
“When Phage is gone like this, Ni’a takes over. Completely,” it explained. “And… that is not… the reason they appear to be asleep. And I think that much is still enough to get me sanctioned under the circumstances, but now you know it.”
Myra leaned forward, “Phage. You know as well as I do that we are all risking sanction for being here. Our hope is to be able to act effectively even after that happens, and you may hold the key to that.”
“We.” Lil’e said, somehow conveying vyr halting speech patterns over the channel. “Flits. Are. Here. In solidarity. A Statement.”
“I’ll fight,” Ketta declared.
“I’m seriously just a Pember now and I do Pember things,” the little Phage muttered. “Which means, OK. More information. Just a second.” And it zoned out for a while, before coming back to say, “Ni’a and the big me probably left through the hole in the ship. I fully expect they’ll be back. They are both dedicated to the Sunspot.”
“What. Hole. In the. Ship?” Lil’e asked.
Phage pointed at me, “I’m pretty sure it has a lead to that. There’s three other people you need to talk to still, yes, Abacus?”
“Then I’d better do that soon,” I said, suddenly visualizing just who I thought it was talking about.
“Don’t waste time,” Phage said. “You don’t have much of it.”
“Oh,” Myra said. “We can take care of that. Abacus can stay here while we interview them right now.” Xe turned to me, “Who is it?”
“It sounds like Phage knows exactly where they are right now,” I replied. “I don’t. I just know their faces, and the less said the better.”
Myra nodded at Phage and it grimaced back. But then it disappeared, its exobody crumbling.
Myra turned to the rest of us and said, “It’s returned to our vessel to communicate with the other Pembers in private. We’ll have a secure channel, as secure as we can make it, open to your leads, shortly. In the meantime, we’re already talking to others, since we’re not sanctioned yet. I don’t think the Crew understand just how important they are.”
“It’s so funny how you say that, considering we’re all Crew now,” Ketta said.
“Crew with living bodies,” Hetty interjected.
“Un. usual.” Lil’e added.
“Give me a minute,” Myra said. “We’re still putting together a report.”
“Metabang,” I turned to it with an edge of humor to my voice. “What’s it like to be Tutor to a few thousand Crew members? I would have expected you to move on by now.”
“The thing about the Pembers, Abacus,” Metabang responded, “is that there are always more of them, so long as they have their body. And the new ones still need tutoring.”
In case you don’t remember from Systems’ Out! or you have not read the book, the Pembers and the Flits became Crew by taking the vow of the Crew while not yet ascended. This was highly irregular, but once they knew the words of the vow they could not be legally stopped. And while there have been a few more examples of this since then, it is a practice that is not regularly done yet. Though, I was starting to think that it should be.
And the Pembers had a system that generated something they called “Liaisons”, system members that seemed like a copy of anyone their vessel caught sight of. At least, to begin with. In time, they grew to be their own person, especially if they never learned much about their source. They were called liaisons because of the role they usually played in their system when they got to know someone, storing memories of that person. The Pembers could bring them up to speed quickly by temporarily merging with each other, but new Liaisons would still legally be Children. Neat trick.
“How are you doing?” I asked Aphlebia.
“OK,” they responded. “I like listening.”
I turned to the Flits, “Is Breq still -”
“No,” said Hetty.
“You are weirdly agitated,” Metabang observed of me. “And you are not talking like yourself, Abacus. Normally, you’re more…”
“I know,” I said. ”Working on this book has refocused me, I think. I tend to need to ask more questions than to answer them, in order to write it. But this sanction has filled me with, well, it’s not adrenaline, but it might as well be.” Something else may have snapped in me as well. I literally didn’t feel like the same person I had been a couple days ago. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that figured out, though.
“Got it,” Myra blurted out. Xe turned to me, “Our sources, whom you know but who need not be named, are reporting that they have yet to be interviewed by the Crew. They are, in fact, staying with your leads, apparently, and Phage Pember is there with them right now. They’ll pass on their advice through that channel, once it’s open.”
With all this information and interaction pouring in, I was starting to feel like my sanction meant nothing, except that I still felt like it would clamp shut on all of us at any moment.
“And here we go,” Myra then said. “I’ll be relay. This should be good for the whole conversation unless we’re happened upon by chance. Ask me questions as if you are talking to Phage and telling it what to ask. Don’t say names.”
“OK,” I said, gathering my words in the right order. “Ask them if they know what ‘the hole in the ship’ is.”
“They call it ‘the Tunnel’,” came the reply.
“Could. Be. quantum tunnel,” Lil’e said.
“How would Phage have gone through it?” I asked.
“Easily,” they answered.
I looked at everyone else and said, “I assume it was Phage Pember who said that.” Then I asked, “What is it for?”
“Secure instantaneous communication with our parent ship.”
“Ask where it is,” I said. “Can it be shut down or controlled?” I was thinking about what the Crew might want to do with it, which would be to shut it down or control it.
“It resides in the psyches of two children. One a Monster aboard the Sunspot, the other aboard our parent ship.”
I was utterly appalled and horrified at that. I’m pretty sure everyone else in the conversation was as well. The lapse in ethical judgment to do that involved deliberately violating every interpretation of human rights that I could possibly enumerate. And all presumably to protect a connection that the Crew of the Sunspot, according to Jenifer, would consider anathema to its very existence. If the tunnel was tied to human lives, at least the laws of the Sunspot would make the Crew think twice before doing much about it. Those poor children.
I was beginning to get an idea of what kind of culture the Old Crew had intentionally left behind and tried to erase.
An epithet I’d recently heard came to mind, and I had to ask, “I know this is a non-sequitur, but what does ‘Hailing Scales’ mean?”