“None of that matches any model of physics any scientist I know of has ever entertained,” remarked Metabang.
“Right?” said Myra.
“It. is. ob. viously. a myth.” Lil’e said. Every time Lil’e spoke, Aphlebia watched the Flits with curiosity. Everyone communicates in their own way, and everyone else’s method is a curiosity.
Sorry. Lecture time again. But this is relevant, I think.
The command language of the Sunspot is Fenekere. The language we speak is a development of a combination of Fenekere and another language called Mäofrräo. But personal names seem to be either made up of random phonemes that sound good together to someone, or they come from other languages that humanity has spoken throughout the ages. But, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, we don’t have records or even the names of those languages aboard the Sunspot. Not even of Mäofrräo. Just for Fenekere, because it’s the command language. Either our parent ship had them, and our Crew deliberately destroyed those records. Or they were lost to the ages already. (Jenifer had been telling me some of this during this conversation through the Pembers.)
A big question I had after hearing this story, and also upon learning that we were in contact with our parent ship, and that Jenifer was born on that ship, was what language did they speak on that ship?
So I asked that, and apparently the language is an earlier version of the one we speak now, which we don’t have a name for, because Jenifer and Eh and the rest of the original Crew thought it best to erase that. We call it “speaking”. Our parent ship calls it Inmararräo. The word “Inmararräo” comes directly from Mäofrräo and means, figuratively, “The Speech of the Great Alliance”.
At this point, I knew it was Jenifer telling me all of this. I also theorized that xe could speak fairly well with our Monster child’s counterpart on the other end of the Tunnel, somehow. I did not have evidence of this, only suspicions, but it would help explain why the Monsters were working with xem and staying in xyr company despite the antagonism of the last exchange of words I’d heard between them.
Anyway, between that story and what little history of our languages I knew, my mind was reeling and drawing all sorts of associations, which prompted so many more questions. And I was starting to feel even more anxious about the Crew coming down on us all for violating my sanction.
So the first thing I did was ask if the Monsters would be willing to meet personally somewhere soon for an interview. I told them I wanted to record their own personal stories, in their own words, to be included in my book. And I told them that in trade, they could interview a rogue Tutor for their own records.
This went over very well, with the only obstacle being how to meet and when and how to do it with as little oversight as possible. On analysis, it was agreed that speed was the only factor we could control. The sooner we met, the better. Plans were made.
Then I asked Jenifer and the rest of them two more questions, skipping a lot of preamble and explanation. And I was absolutely thinking about Tetcha’s pet obsession with Outsiders when I did.
The first question I asked had an answer I realized I could look up for myself upon asking it, “Is the Fenekere word for ‘Outsider’ the same as our modern Inmararräo word for it?” As a tutor, I have access to the non-critical vocabulary for Fenekere and can learn to speak it if I want. So I was in the process of discovering that the answer was “no” when the answer was returned to me from Jenifer.
Oh, well, that might get everyone else thinking along the same lines as I was.
“One more thing,” I said. “Is Phage an Outsider?”
Nobody reacted. It was like I hadn’t said a thing.
I suddenly felt like I had a gut that could sink and had just done so. I’m pretty sure most people reading this can imagine what that’d feel like, even if they haven’t felt it for centuries, but it remains a very strange feeling for me every time I have it. I would think that, in never having had a gut, my psyche would interpret that sensation differently, but nope. This is one of the reasons I have no trouble calling myself human.
I repeated my words.
The others started giving me glances to see if I would say something next, and they were just out of sync with my attempts to communicate that I got the sense they were not hearing me.
Then the Flits clearly attempted to speak out loud, mouthing their words very carefully. Others shook their heads.
Aphlebia’s eyes got really wide. Then they gestured broadly at everyone. And when we were all looking they signed, “Sanction.” They pointed at me, and then just left. Walking up one of the trails, the one vaguely in the direction of where I’d need to go to meet the Monsters. Which was clear to me that they intended to act as interpreter somehow.
When everyone looked at me, I bobbed my avatar and followed. It wasn’t like I could sign back at them.
I got an update on my Sanction document. A number of names were added to the list, including the names Fredge, Laal, and Bashiketa. Bashiketa, meaning “an act of an Outsider”. That would be the child with the Tunnel. They would be able to speak out loud for me, because the Crew could not cut their channels of communication like they had just done to the rest of us. But I would not be able to talk to them unless they were not sanctioned and they asked me a direct question.
At least Aphlebia knew what I wanted to know from them, more or less. Hopefully, these Monsters had learned sign language.
I thought we would take the tram, for Aphlebia’s sake, but they had already figured out how to fly. Presumably, since they had just been put under sanction as well, they were unable to alter or leave their exobody without abandoning it until the end of their sanction. But getting around in it would be an acceptable accommodation of their autonomy.
I hope you read the sarcasm I put into that last sentence.
I have a hard time imagining what other ways we might be able to come up with for arbitrating disputes and managing things while we right wrongs, but I absolutely hate the institution of sanction. I have never seen it last terribly long, but I have also never seen it applied so liberally as it was being done to us.
Come to think of it, I believe I’m the first Tutor to be sanctioned.
For how old it is, the Sunspot has been having a lot of nasty firsts lately. I feel like that’s not exactly a good thing. Maybe it really is, but it didn’t feel like it then, and I’m still not convinced.
In any case, when we got to where we needed to be, a spot near a landmark just outside of Agaricales that I’m not going to write down here, both Aphlebia and I knew what we needed to do to meet our Monsters. So there was a bit of silent no-after-you-ing between us as we made our way through the wilderness access portal to the lower levels.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much information and emotion I could convey just by bobbing and weaving my avatar.
I guess I’ve had a lot of practice over the centuries, but I wasn’t thinking much about it when I could also use words in one way or another.
There weren’t very many bottlenecks in our passage, though, so I only got to practice this three times before we met Fredge, Laal, and Bashiketa in a set of quarters on a fallow deck.
Aphlebia immediately signed to them that we’d both been sanctioned and were not allowed to speak to them, and I had a thought.
Why weren’t the Crew preventing Aphlebia’s body from signing? That surely could be done. Was that an oversight? A gray area between the law and human rights? The work of someone looking out for us? Or was Aphlebia actually sanctioned? They had not spoken much at our meeting. And they were very new at this Crew thing. They might have been spared and might not have known that they needed to receive an official Notice of Sanction document before suffering the consequences.
I didn’t have enough information at the time to make an adequate guess.
You’d think I would, being a Tutor, but we were in a lot of new territory here.
Aphlebia explained that my communication was severely limited, and that they’d be asking the questions, but that the Monsters were invited to just ramble about what they felt I needed to hear.
So, we sat down to talk. And a lot of what they’ve told me has made it into this book, as you’ve read it now. I wish I could have conveyed to them that “Bashiketa” didn’t mean “an Outsider” but rather “an act of an Outsider”, but I had no means. Eventually, they’ll read my work, in any case.
After getting caught up, I really wanted to grill Jenifer, but there was no way I was going to be able to do that in any reasonable way.
Oh, and then we ran into the problem that I couldn’t answer the Monsters’ questions about myself. Aphlebia apologized for me.
“That’s OK,” Fredge replied. “We can finish this business later, after your sanction has been lifted. Or, wait… Can you really not answer my direct questions? Like this one?”
I realized we hadn’t tried, just assumed, so I did. I mean, I tried. They couldn’t hear me.
I shook my bead like a head, no.
“Ah, well we can do yes or no,” Fredge pointed out.
I bobbed assent. OK, so maybe sanction is mostly meant to be a pain in the ass, but not a complete impairment. Still hated it.
“Are you a type of Crew?” Bashiketa asked.
“How do we – “ Bashiketa stopped themself, and gestured to the others to wait and let them think, then asked, “Are you happy?”
Oh, hell no. I shook my bead again, side to side.
Laal stepped in, “Are you contented with your job of Tutoring Children?”
I started to shake, then stopped, nodded clearly, then shook my bead again, then tilted it obliquely, the back going up a bit. And when Laal squinted and then nodded, I settled back to my default position.
Laal restated for the others, questioning for me to confirm “Yes, but not about all of it? And certainly not at the moment?”
“Do you really think your book will help things, even though the Crew asked you to do it?” hen asked.
“Are you loyal to the Crew?”
I tilted my bead 35 degrees clockwise and tilted the front tip to the side and up, a questioning gesture, then shook it side to side and settled.
I certainly wasn’t loyal to them while I was pissed, but I also realized that I had never thought about my relationship to them or to the Sunspot as a whole in terms of loyalty before. It’s just not a topic that has ever come up. Perhaps some of the Monsters talk about that sort of thing, I imagine now, but it’s really not part of the Sunspot’s culture. We don’t really have factions and hierarchy isn’t… No, there is a hierarchy. It isn’t the center of any conversations using the term “hierarchy”, nor in terms of loyalty or obedience. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, just that people aren’t used to talking about it.
Furthermore, I would describe the governance of the Sunspot differently now than I did at the beginning of this book. I’m leaving those earlier words intact, however, to document my growth as a person.
I tilted the front of my bead down a bit and then shook side to side more vigorously.
“Heh,” Fredge chuckled. “Hit a nerve there. Understandable.”
Laal then asked, “Do you approve of what we’re doing?”
That gave me pause. I didn’t think they’d like my answer, but I didn’t want to lie to them. It wasn’t like they could hurt me personally, though. I wanted them to be cooperative, in case I needed to work with them to help Ni’a, but I also couldn’t think of what I could do to help them anyway. So I took the risk of telling the truth, after telegraphing my hesitancy.
I shook, no.
I got slow approving nods from Fredge and Laal, and Bashiketa visibly relaxed. And that explained a lot of things to me.
In fact, Fredge went ahead and confirmed my suspicions by saying, “Neither do we.”
I looked at Aphlebia, and they smiled and winked.
A room full of disloyalists, we were.
Some of the tone of their previous story to me made more sense. They’d been reticent to reveal too much about themselves in a lot of ways, but now I knew how to better interpret what they’d told me. Also, we were planning on talking more, later.
“We,” Fredge continued, “don’t know how to close the Tunnel now that it’s literally part of Bashiketa. It will go away if they… don’t ascend. However, they didn’t ask to be a Monster and as you now know, they have dysphoria. Pretty severe dysphoria. Whether it’s… a product of their entanglement with their counterpart, or something that can only be treated with a union with the nanites, either way, we want to find a way to close the Tunnel while they’re still alive. I don’t expect you to, but can you think of a way to do that?”
I immediately started to shake for “no” when Aphlebia signed, “Ni’a”.
We all looked at them, and they widened their eyes and nodded once, then signed, “Or Phage, of course.”
“Of course,” said Fredge with a tone of resignation.
Neither Ni’a or Phage could help while they were gone. And as far as anyone had guessed so far, they’d gone through the Tunnel somehow.
Oh, damn, I thought at this point. I had a complicated question I really wanted to ask, but couldn’t figure out a way to do so. I turned my bead to look at Aphlebia and tilted it in the inquisitive way I’d been doing. And they titled their head in a mimic of that. Then I titled quickly in the direction of Bashiketa, indicating that I had a thought about them. Hopefully, Aphlebia understood I had a question for them. And Aphlebia did nod back.
Aphlebia signed, “You have a question for Bashiketa?”
“Is it about the Tunnel?”
Aphlebia frowned while trying to guess what specifically I might be interested in, then signed, “About Ni’a and Phage?”
Another hesitation and then, “About the other ship?”
I gave a hesitant nod, hopefully indicating more refinement was needed.
Aphlebia outright scowled and looked around at the room, and then settled their eyes on Bashiketa and apparently looked so angry to Bashiketa that they looked worried in response. It was like Aphlebia was trying to look through them to the other side. And then they recalled the one other subject that had briefly come up in all of our discussions about this matter, and their face lit up.
They held a finger up at me, and then turned back to Bashiketa and asked, “Can you tell us about your counterpart?”
I swooped down in front of Aphlebia and nodded once, and then shook three times, hopefully meaning, “Not quite!” Then I swooped to the middle of the room and rose up sharply, in a “watch me” gesture, then left the room, turned around just outside the now open door and with a flourish proceeded to enter the room at a stately pace with a little bit of a sway and wobble, like the head of someone walking.
Aphlebia gave me a happy “ah-ha” expression and turned back to Bashiketa to sign, “Can you…” they paused, looking for the word, “switch with your counterpart? Bring them through the Tunnel?”
“What would that accomplish?” Laal asked.
Aphlebia squinted at hen and then looked at me with a sardonic half smile, and slowly gestured their hands in my direction and shrugged.
I made the bead look up, like rolling my eye, I guess. And I kept looking up while I tried to figure out how to answer a question that wasn’t a yes or a no. I’d sort of just done so already for a different implied question, so maybe I could think of another way. But I couldn’t.
“I imagine you want to ask their counterpart questions,” Fredge said.
I directed my bead eye right at Fredge, and then nodded.
“How are you going to do that?” they asked, pointedly.
I tilted and turned a bit toward Aphlebia, bobbing a little bit. And when Aphlebia saw that, they gave a really exaggerated sigh, and then turned their palms up and outward and bobbed their head in return. At which point I turned back to Fredge.
Fredge grunted, then turned to Bashiketa to ask, “Are you OK with trying to contact them?”
And then I had a scary realization.
This whole thing was huge. Bigger and scarier than we’d been treating it. Which is to say that, yes, we’d been treating it as big and scary because two beings of unfathomable power that had supposedly been keeping the Sunspot from falling apart had unexpectedly departed through a quantum tunnel connection that was entangled in the psyches of two children and the human rights of those children and several people had been violated, and we were all sanctioned, but there was more. And that more was dangerous.
Fredge, Laal, and Bashiketa were talking with each other about whether or not to contact Bashiketa’s counterpart while I thought about this, and I wasn’t paying them much attention.
The Tunnel had been built and kept secret aboard the Sunspot since the Sunspot was constructed, and most of the Crew had no clue it existed. That was a big feat, and one performed with a lot of dedication and passion. The people behind it would not be very happy with its purpose being in jeopardy and possibly thwarted, even though they had got it to the point where we were stymied in trying to stop it. And at least one of those people was a member of the Crew. But then…
If any of the Crew were learning about this through observing our communications or reading the notes for my book, or just pouring over ship records in response to The Screaming to try to figure out what was going on and luckily piecing together the information for themselves, they would have unpredictable but very passionate responses to that realization as well. One type of person might panic and do something very rash. Or another might take it before the Council and inform even more Crew of what was going on. It might divide the ship on a number of political fault lines that had not really been tested before.
So, I started to panic.
Fortunately, I thought in the moment, it wasn’t in my nature to express my emotions through my avatar. Not only had I picked an inanimate object, but it seems to be a trait of us tutors to usually have a rather flat affect. It takes a deliberate and conscious effort to emote for us. I was good at it, yes, but I still had to do it on purpose. So I wasn’t shaking.
But as Fredge and Bashiketa were coming to the conclusion that Bashiketa was willing to try to contact their counterpart and that it should probably work, I asked myself the question, “What would an impassioned Crew member do if they wanted to stop this conversation from happening and would anyone be likely to stop them from doing it?”
And there was only one way I could think of to convey the urgency and gravity of the potential danger, and I did it as quickly and as dramatically as I could.
And I did it in the worst way possible.
I reflexively dropped my nanite avatar and went completely into the Network. Which is where I saw the lovely visual effects of my sanction from there.
The visual renderings of Fredge, Laal, Bashiketa, and Aphlebia were all blurred out and indecipherable, with the red Fenekere letters for “Sanctioned” stamped over them.