It took three days before Ni’a returned to the Sunspot, and that’s when we learned the name of our parent ship.
I want to give you a story about how I bravely and cleverly broke the shackles of my sanction, but I can’t do that. It’s not what happened. I am not the hero of this story. In fact, there are no heroes.
In fact, there were only people making mistakes, tiny and huge, and the truth, Ni’a. The chaos of a living thing. Which happens to share the name of a Child of the Sunspot.
Sanction also remains a problem to this day, though I am no longer under it. I strongly disagree with it, and feel that it causes far more problems than it solves while being prone to gross misuse. And a lot of people agree with me. But safely altering the laws of the Sunspot to remove sanction as an option for “justice” is proving to be a long term project.
What this story is about is how we all narrowly avoided a final disaster while learning a bit more about where we came from. As if you can take a bunch of events that happen between points in space/time and neatly call it a story.
Aphlebia’s sanction was mild, especially compared to mine. Not that that made it acceptable.
They were barred from communicating with me, of course, and everyone else who had participated in our escapades to contact and communicate with Jenifer and Bashiketa. Although Chalkboard was there, it had done its duty as a Tutor and had advised Aphlebia not to participate, therefore Aphlebia’s sanction did not include it. They were also allowed to return to their family, which was the more important thing, for their health and that of their peers.
Emala, Candril, and the Whorlies each took this differently, while Ni’a was still unconscious and in the care of Emala and Doorway.
But, maybe I should back up a little bit more here.
Aphlebia was focusing on Bashiketa when they saw my nanite exobody start to crumble and drift to the floor out of the corner of their eye. And they turned in time to see the last clump of it lose buoyancy and fall to the floor all at once, making a soft “ploomph.”
“What happened to it?” asked Fredge.
Aphlebia turned to them and shrugged, calling upon Chalkboard with a wordless thought.
“Abacus fled to the Netspace of this room, and it appears confused,” Chalkboard reported through a speaker in the room for everyone’s convenience. “You are all in flagrant violation of it and Aphlebia’s sanctions. I must advise that you cease this conversation and disperse immediately.” Then it added, “And it has now left.”
Aphlebia was very confused by this. Abacus had trusted them and been relying on them to get the information they were possibly about to receive. It took them a moment to grasp why it would just suddenly leave like that. It did not seem characteristic of Abacus to do that, unless it had been compelled by someone or something. Then it hit them. Abacus was communicating something.
“We are in danger,” Aphlebia signed to the others, and then left. Out the door. Without looking back.
As they went, they asked Chalkboard to direct them to the surface. Aphlebia didn’t know whether or not they could reconnect with the Monsters later, but they were terrified of what might happen if they stayed. They didn’t have the knowledge to imagine what might happen, but the lack of knowledge scared them more than anything.
They hoped that as long as the Monsters went their own way and didn’t follow, they would all be OK. And when they got to the surface, they looked back to check, and they had not been followed.
They fell backward into a sitting position on the ground. The wilderness hatch to belowdecks was at their feet, closing of its own accord. Centuries old trees around them reached sunward. They could see, between the branches, scraps of sky, increasingly gray with late afternoon clouds.
Now they had time to feel disappointment and despair.
It had been hard to leave Ni’a to follow Abacus, but after witnessing the argument between Abacus and Eh, Aphlebia was determined that it was the right thing to do for Ni’a. Emala and the others were there to tend to their peer. And to follow Abacus, they had made a point of forming an exobody from the ground and bursting forth to fly after it. They’d hoped their family would see that and know they were OK.
Except that they weren’t.
Dying was not what they had wanted to do. And it had been so unexpected and so sudden. It had been a great big noisy pain and a sickening pop. And then they were floating in Netspace, momentarily free of all sensation and emotion while Chalkboard was telling them what happened and what would happen next.
It had all made instant sense to them, and they had decided to return to the park and really put themself into the nanites in the ground there to help their family. They didn’t think much about it, they had just done what they felt they needed to do. And much of what they did from there on worked easily, as if the interface for the nanites and the Network and every other part of the ship had been designed to accommodate them.
Chalkboard prattled on as they were doing what they felt was needed, but mostly it was talking about the social and psychological ramifications of transitioning to Crewhood. They’d stopped listening when they’d left to follow Abacus and Chalkboard started chiding and warning them. And they lost themselves in the moment.
They’d had some time to contemplate things when Abacus had stopped to talk to Bri, but they’d spent it planning on how to make their proposal to the Tutor.
Which, now that they’d lost contact with it, they were suddenly, sharply reminded of their embarrassment over that whole affair. And then the impact of their death hit them.
It was as if their mind split in two. First, they descended into overwhelming anger and grief, thoughts running through everything they had lost, all the hopes they’d had, the things they’d felt that they could not feel now, the utter joy they’d had in being alive and breathing, and being equals with their peers. And as those feelings took over their exobody and made it thrash about and tear at the ground, keening with screeches and howls of rage, another part of them noticed everything they could feel now. Very quickly, Aphlebia was observing with interest as the rest of their psyche tore at itself and the world, and actually took some pleasure in noticing just what their exobody was capable of sensing.
They could feel the moss, twigs, and the pebbles of the forest floor to a degree of detail they’d never experienced before. They could feel the air as their limbs passed through it. And they could feel their emotions tearing at their guts as if they actually had them. They could sense something that felt like blood pumping through veins as what must have been a simulated heart beat at an accelerated pace. They didn’t know if the nanites bothered to replicate all of these things, or if some of them were just sensations created in their psyche by the Network protocols. They even felt something like tears in their eyes.
As their meltdown began to subside, they found themself lying rigidly on their back, grasping the dirt with their hands and screaming at the sky. Simulated breaths helped them to scream in a rhythm, which was itself soothing. Between that and their heartbeat, they were able to slowly regain calmness. They then noticed they could smell the forest.
Chalkboard had shut up. Aphlebia was grateful for that. It had spent so much of their life being quietly attendant. Its recent, post death lecture had been really frustrating.
Anger flaring at having to think of words, Aphlebia signed into the air, “Chalkboard.” They could have just sent wordless thoughts, like they usually did for it, but they were making an effort in order to emphasize their frustration.
“Yes, Aphlebia?” it responded.
“Do better,” they signed. Then punctuated that gesture with an intense broadcast of the raw meaning of that into their immediate Netspace.
Later, as they walked back toward Agaricales, they played around with their senses. When their heartbeat became too loud and annoying, like it often had when they’d actually had a heart, they tried turning it off by tuning it out. It worked, too. They sent inquiries about this to Chalkboard and got nice, wordless answers in return. They radiated gratitude every time it did this.
They recalled then that their sanction meant that if they dropped their exobody and entered the Network completely, they wouldn’t be able to make one again until the sanction was lifted. They’d been sticking with it all this time out of the habit of having a body, and they were so glad they had. They meant to keep this up until their sanction ended.
It had been hours now, since they’d died. So when they arrived at the Memorial Park, they found that their family had already left. They thought they hadn’t expected them to be there, but it was still jarring. And everything had been repaired and thoroughly cleaned.
They found the spot where their body had been crushed. There was no blood, no mark, nothing to indicate that it had happened. The local nanites had cleaned up what the Safety Patrol could not. But Aphlebia knew it was exactly there. They’d been just aware enough of it right before and right afterward to know its relation to the central obelisk, and besides, their emotions intensified when they got to it. Their subconscious knew.
They sat down cross legged in the spot and practiced breathing for a while, watching the world around them.
People were avoiding the park altogether, but some people were walking by on the skyways above. And some of them were looking down at Aphlebia as they passed. Which was OK. Aphlebia wanted to be seen. It helped them feel real.
After some time, still before Sunset, they felt the need to find their family, so they went to the quarters they’d used upon their first arrival in Agaricales. But Emala and the others weren’t there. It seemed they’d already packed and headed home.
Aphlebia wondered how Ni’a was doing.
So, then they took the tram, and made their way back to their home.
And that’s where they faced the conundrum of how to approach their own door.
They wanted to just walk right in the door and run right to Emala’s arms, to then sit down and eat with their family, and cry in their bed. But they were afraid of what their family’s reactions might be. Good or bad, they were afraid they could not bear the intensity of their emotions.
Another option was to not return home. To spend the night in the park, and decide to do something else, go somewhere else for the rest of their life. But that idea made them feel cold and hurt, and they knew it wasn’t viable.
They stood between those two options for a long time, right outside their door.
Emala was making the easiest dinner xe could think of, which happened to be Candril’s favorite. Xe hardly had to spend any effort on it at all, which was important. Xe could have had the kitchen maker make it, in fact. But chose not to, because xe did need a few moments of work to feel like xe had done something important successfully today. But xe could not handle a knife, nor could xe trust xemself to measure anything accurately. However, xe found xe could use timers and heat and have Doorway help xyr measure the ingredients to put together hot pasta and cheese.
Vine was telling Candril and the Whorlies a story, while Charlie attended to Ni’a, who was lying in their bed. The story was an old favorite and a fiction. And Ni’a was receiving dinner in the form of a nutrition patch.
The twitching of Ni’a’s legs and arms continued, but were not significant enough to cause any problems. In fact, it was possible that they would help their muscles to keep tone if they were unconscious for very long. It was similar to a nanite program that would be used for such a thing, but it couldn’t be determined if it was Ni’a’s nanites doing the work, or something else.
If Emala thought about that too much, though, xe would find xyrself at Ni’a’s side, not making dinner. Or just outside the door, pointlessly looking up and down the corridor for Aphlebia, who might just appear in the middle of the room someday, actually, hopefully.
They’d all seen them emerge from the ground near Ni’a to pursue Abacus when it fled from Agaricales. Aphlebia would not be OK, but they were still here, aboard the Sunspot, and that was what was important. No. No, what was important was that Aphlebia had just been hurt in one of the worst possible ways for a person to be hurt, and Emala’s thoughts wanted to flip back and forth from them to Ni’a.
It then occurred to Emala, staring down at the bubbling cheese and pasta with the spoon static in the mixture, paused mid stir, that xe hadn’t actually had to cook all that often.
Phage usually did the cooking.
“Chalkboard announces that Aphlebia has returned,” Doorway said to the room.
Tears burst from Emala’s eyes and xe nearly fell to the floor. Turning the heat off, xe stirred the pasta one last time, then turned to the door to approach it, “Tell them that they can come in, Doorway! Please!”
Xe rushed across the room just in time to get to the door as it opened. Candril and the Whorlies were not far behind xem. But Aphlebia didn’t step into their home, and just stood on the other side, arms listlessly by their side. Emala didn’t even pause, xe came right through the door and swept Aphlebia’s nanite exobody up in a hug, and to carry them back into their quarters.
Nanite clay can take on a variety of densities. At its most compact, it is very similar to wet pottery clay in weight per liter. But it can maintain a tough, even rigid form at a density light enough for flight, and since Aphlebia had originally formed their exobody for the purpose of flight, they were quite easy to pick up. And they relaxed and let Emala move them, wrapping their arms around xyr shoulders, and burying their face into xyr furry neck to cry. No actual tears, but Aphlebia felt them anyway. To Emala, Aphlebia’s exobody felt distinctly different than they used to, but that didn’t matter. Emala knew this was Aphlebia.
While the Whorlies attempted to hug both Emala and Aphlebia, with Candril following suit, Emala tried to say several words, but in the end could only manage, “Come.” And then xe walked everyone over to xyr chair, which was just big enough for them all to cuddle in, Candril and the Whorlies perched on the arms. After a while, Emala said, “I have made dinner. It should be ready now.”
Everyone was silent and still for a while longer, though.
“Oh!” Candril suddenly exclaimed. “Whorlies! Show Aphlebia your thing!”
“Really?” asked Gaghil, who was currently fronting.
“Yeah!” Candril encouraged vin, tears still in eyes but cheering up quickly. “They’ll like it!”
Emala turned to Gaghil and said, “You should, if you want. I think it will help Aphlebia feel at home again. Tell them what you can do first, though.”
“We split up to try to find you this afternoon,” Gaghil said to Aphlebia, who then slowly looked up at vin. Looking briefly over at Ni’a, Gaghil said, “we followed Ni’a’s advice about controlling the nanites, and it was easy. And we did it all at once! But we don’t know how to fly yet, so we couldn’t keep up.”
Aphlebia wided their eyes and tilted their head.
“OK,” Gaghil said, “Watch this!” Then ve hopped up and went to sit in the Whorlies’ chair to relax and close their vessel’s eyes.
Then the room’s nanite bin exuded a Whorlie sized clump of nanite clay which formed itself into a Gaghil. Gaghil stepped forward and posed with a grin, as another Whorlie started to extract themself from the bin.
“I love this!” Candril said. “I can see all of you!”
Aphlebia watched for a bit, and then moved to extract themselves from Emala’s grasp. Which Emala let them do. And Emala watched them as they walked over to the growing group of Whorlies. Afrim, Firas, Gaghil, Charl, and Brenam were the ones who were awake enough to extract themselves from the bin, leaving their vessel meditating in their chair. Aphlebia held out their hand, palm outward, fingers splayed, at shoulder height for the others to touch it, which they all did in turn. Then Aphlebia turned to Emala and signed, “food!” excitedly, pantomiming a deep breath as if to enjoy the aroma.
“You can eat?” Emala asked.
Aphlebia shrugged, but then gestured to all the Whorlies’ exobodies and grinned.
Emala’s heart still hurt from the day, and xe felt utterly drained, but seeing Aphlebia here and so animated was helping so much. Fortunately, xe’d made a lot of cheesy pasta, planning on putting some of it into the food preserver for later. Xe got up and dished up food for every body in the room, including the Tutors. Xe didn’t think they’d do anything with it, but if Aphlebia had figured something out, maybe they’d like to try anyway.
Aphlebia gestured to the Whorlie’s that they could smell things, and then walked boldly over to a bowl of pasta, picked it up and scooped a spoonful of it up and brought it to their nose and took a big sniff. And then they smiled and nodded vigorously, looking at everyone else. And then they put the spoon in their mouth and ate the pasta, a look of surprise lighting up their face.
It is, after all, an elementary part of their function for nanites to break matter down and reconfigure it. The pasta that Aphlebia ate was dismantled at a molecular level and distributed throughout their exobody to fuel the nanites and add to its overall mass. But before that happened, Aphlebia was able to push the pasta around in their toothless mouth, mashing it against their palate and gum ridges, savoring the flavor and texture in a way they’d never experienced before. Someone on the Crew had spent the last four decades refining the sensory functions of the nanites and interfacing them with the human psyche in as natural a way as they could devise.
The Whorlies’ eyes all bugged out, and they collectively dashed for their own bowls. Candril dove in to get zir bowl as if the chance to grab one was in jeopardy from the crowd, even though there were more than enough to go around.
“Doorway,” Emala said. “Have you ever tried eating before?”
Xyr Tutor replied, “I haven’t. That is a fascinating idea.”
“I served up bowls for all the Tutors,” Emala told it. “You can have one. We won’t have any food left, but you all can. I think maybe you should.”
“I will pass,” Chalkboard said.
But Doorway, Vine, and Charlie each came forward and retrieved a bowl after the children were done with the space. The table wasn’t big enough for all of them, so most of the Whorlie’s remained standing, and were exclaiming to each other as they tried the food.
Vine was the first Tutor to form a crude, lipless mouth on its face in order to try the food, and when it did, it exclaimed, “Amazing! Interesting! Why am I doing this?”
Charlie, usually taking the shape of a curved magnet not much larger than someone’s hand, just absorbed a couple pieces of pasta through one of the “feet” of its shape. It didn’t seem impressed until Doorway pointed out the idea was to taste the food. So it activated its olfactory senses and said, “Oh!”
Doorway is one of those rare tutors who has chosen an avatar based off of one of the fauna. In its case, a cuttlecrab. Cuttlecrabs cannot fly, but Doorway, of course, can. And when it had finished advising Charlie of what to do, it alighted on one of the remaining bowls to lift it up off the counter with tentacles and pointy legs gripping it, to carry it to the center of the table to eat with some of the children. It already had a mouth as part of its design, which it used in the manner of a cuttlecrab.
Doorway paused in eating to tell Emala, “I like it.”
“Oh!” Candril nearly shouted, jumping up from zir chair. “I should try eating it with my exobody!”
“That’s a good idea, but your living body needs the food more, Candril,” Emala said. “Chalkboard has left a bowl you can have as seconds with your exobody. Sound good?” And xe waited just long enough to see zem nod. “Which reminds me, there’s an extra bowl here for you Whorlies. One of you gets to eat it with your vessel as well. Your body needs the food.”
It was good to have the family mostly back together again, and doing something that was apparently fun. Emala had no idea what Aphlebia was going through. Xe hadn’t expected any of xyr children to experience ascension before xe did, and xe could only imagine the mix of emotions xe’d feel on the day xe’d ascend. Xe hoped to do it a century or so from now. But, at least they were still family.
Xe watched the children eat, slowly partaking in the food xemself, but xyr eyes wandered over to Ni’a eventually, and xe frowned in thought and worry.
Xyr thoughts were interrupted with the ping of a message received over the Network. It was from Aphlebia. When Emala opened it, xe found a wordless thought that her psyche translated as, “Phage Pember is looking for them.”
Xe looked over the heads of xyr children to see Aphlebia looking back at xem. And when xe made eye contact with them, Aphlebia nodded solemnly.
So adult-like for a 9 year old.
Xe decided not to talk to Aphlebia about their sanction unless they brought it up. There was no need. Chalkboard would do that, of course, and probably already had done so. What Aphlebia needed was safety and a home.
Bashiketa watched with confusion as Aphlebia dashed out the door of the fallow quarters.
“We are in danger,” the young Crew member had signed, before leaving. And Bashiketa could not imagine from what.
“Shit!” said Laal.
“Come on,” Fredge said. “Follow me.” And then led the way out and down the hallway in the opposite direction that Aphlebia had run. But, at a more relaxed pace. Bashiketa’s chair would not have had trouble keeping up at any pace. However, Fredge apparently refused to leave in a panic.
Bashiketa’s legs still ached where they’d gouged them, and probably would for several days. But they were tingling, too, which meant that they were already healing. They’d been distracted by them on and off all afternoon, and they couldn’t help but hate themselves a little for losing control like that again. Fredge kept saying that it was OK, but it didn’t feel OK. They always felt like they could remember someone scolding them for it, but couldn’t actually pull up the memory clearly. Weird.
“Fredge,” Bashiketa said, pulling even with their Caretaker. “Should I still try to get my counterpart?”
“Yes, but later,” Fredge replied. “We all need to talk about this first, and before that, we need to go somewhere that’s ours. Give our Benefactor time to get any tails off our backs.”
“I wish I knew how that worked,” Laal said.
“Me, too,” growled Fredge.
“They say our rights as Monsters are a big help, but I just don’t trust them!” Laal whined.
“Neither do I,” said Fredge. “But what else is there to do?”
Fredge and Laal continued on like this as they went, and it just felt inconsequential to Bashiketa, especially once they figured out they were headed home through a circuitous route. So they lost themselves in thinking about what had happened over the course of the day, and what it might all mean.
There was this period of time between the conversation after their meltdown in the tram station and when the Sunspot itself was having a meltdown that Bashiketa just could not recall. They couldn’t even clearly piece together how they’d found Laal. There was just a moment when they were talking to Laal in their temporary quarters, then leaving that room, and then it was like they’d fallen asleep for a while only to be woken up by cacophony and pandemonium. They’d had the sense that they’d been dreaming during that time, but couldn’t figure out a way to provoke memories of that dream to the surface. It had felt like they didn’t just have a word on the tip of their tongue, but a whole world. And, then, later, they learned that they literally did!
It was funny, though, thinking about what happened after that. When their own mind or body was in crisis, they could not control what was happening and it just got worse and worse until it sort of burned itself out. They were able to recover faster if the world around them was calm and quiet and dark. Even too much light could sustain a meltdown. And all of that could be triggered by anything unexpected or especially loud and chaotic. But there seemed to be a threshold of external danger past which they suddenly had utter control over themselves. It was like their emotions shut off, and all chaos in their mind ceased, allowing them to parse their senses almost perfectly. And the chaos they’d woken up to had apparently triggered that.
There had been a child there named Jenifer, and the famous Morde and Tetcha, and the child’s caretaker, Illyen. Bashiketa had not been in a position to clearly see what was happening below the skyway, so they’d had to pick up bits and pieces of that as people saw it and exclaimed, or as the others talked about it later. But they had been in an excellent frame of mind to do that.
The crowd had cheered the emergence of a dancing troop, and a child named Ni’a, who had been near the front of the stage, had had a meltdown that had somehow shaken the entire world, collapsing the stage and injuring many people. Then a senior Crew member had publicly had an argument with a Tutor over an unconscious Ni’a. And that had come back to haunt Bashiketa later, too. It had been the same mute Tutor they’d just tried conversing with moments ago, Abacus.
But, back on the skyway, Tetcha had said to Fredge, “We should stick together for a bit, right, Morde?”
To which Morde had nodded and added the question, “Our quarters or yours? My intuition has a suggestion, but I’d rather we follow your lead.”
A suspicious Fredge had felt rushed and clearly uncomfortable with the idea, and narrowed their eyes before opening their mouth to speak. But Bashiketa had seen this as an opportunity to learn more about what was going on, so they had leaned forward and said, “Please, Fredge? Tetcha is one of my heroes!”
Tetcha had looked flummoxed and pleased by that.
And after a brief consultation between Fredge and Laal, they’d chosen to go to Tetcha and Morde’s quarters, where they had sat and talked and more formally introduced each other. Fredge had quietly signaled to Bashiketa and Laal not to reveal Bashiketa’s story, which at the time would not have been easy for Bashiketa to do anyway, as their memories of a critical conversation hadn’t come back yet.
But, then, when a friend of Morde and Tetcha’s, named Phage Pember, had come to visit, extracting itself from the room’s nanite clay bin after asking permission to do so, the conversation abruptly changed from shallow personal histories to Bashiketa’s very nature and it all had come flooding back in a dizzying way.
Phage’s exobody had stood maybe a decameter taller than Bashiketa would if they were standing, and it had large rounded ears, what looked like a ploom of fur on the top of its head, a couple of large movable feathers just behind its ears, a pointy snout, and a long, prehensile tail.
“I’m here on behalf of the rest of the Pembers, the Flits, Metabang, and Abacus to help them figure out something that’s happening,” Phage Pember had said. “Morde? Jenifer? You may each be of particular help. I’m going to ask some questions, and either of you may answer even if I don’t ask you directly. But if it’s OK, I’d like to speak to this one here,” it had gestured at Bashiketa. Then it had stepped forward with a little bow. “I am Phage Pember. My pronouns are it/its, for now. May I make your acquaintance?”
Fredge had not looked happy about this, but it was Bashiketa’s prerogative to answer. Of course, Bashiketa recognized Phage Pember from Metabang’s graphic novel, which Fredge had introduced them to as part of their education about the Sunspot at large.
“I know who you are,” Bashiketa had responded, awe in their voice. “My name is Bashiketa. My pronouns are they/them. Why do you want to talk to me?”
“Did you know that you have within your psyche a complex quantum entanglement with someone else far, far away from here?” it had asked. And, of course it had sensed that! It was a Phage!
Everyone else had seemed surprised by its mention of that fact. But also, reminded of its power and status about the Sunspot, everyone cooperated with it. Unfortunately, Bashiketa had not had many answers for it, and Fredge, Jenifer, and Morde had ended up filling in with their knowledge.
And when Jenifer had talked at length, Bashiketa began to get the sense there was much more to xem than there appeared. Besides taking on a spookily adult voice when talking about what xe knew, and the content of what xe knew being nigh unbelievable, xe treated Phage Pember as an equal or even a child. Xe was the only person in the room with the gall to do so.
Through that whole conversation, too, xe had been clutching this doll that xe had picked up on the skyway. Presumably xe had dropped it earlier. And the doll looked familiar.
And now that Bashiketa was thinking about all of this, and remembering the doll, they remembered some of their nightmares. The doll looked like one of the alien people that populated them!
Was that what their counterpart looked like?
Yes, but no, a thought made itself heard as they were boarding a tram with Fredge and Laal to head home. That doll looks like a girl, and I’m a boy.
It felt like Bashiketa had thought that thought themself, in a way. But the idea of it was totally alien to them, and the timbre of it was almost audial and didn’t quite sound like Bashiketa’s own voice.
“What is a boy?” Bashiketa asked the thought, realizing they’d done so out loud when Fredge and Laal looked over at them.
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard that word before,” Fredge replied.
But Bashiketa was distracted from Fredge’s response by a sudden impression of what a boy apparently was. It was like the sensations of another body were superimposed over their own, and they felt a bunch of anatomy that was at once both alien and now familiar from the nightmares. There was at the same time, a sort of focus on certain features and a state of mind, just sort of a sense of knowing, “I am a boy.” Aside from occasionally overlapping and mixing with this person mentally, Bashiketa’s body and psyche had almost nothing in common with them. And in this particular moment, their feelings went from revulsion at the sensations of the boy form to revulsion at the sensations of their own body.
And then a pressure on their mind disappeared and the illusion vanished, leaving them with relief. But they gasped and doubled over at the intensity of it.
“Are you ok?” Fredge asked.
Bashiketa took several breaths, panting, before they could respond, but Fredge waited patiently.
“Maybe?” Bashiketa whimpered.
Laal asked, “What was that?”
“Bashiketa seems to have dysphoria,” Fredge replied.
“It’s gone,” Bashiketa added.
Fredge’s head snapped back to look at Bashiketa with intrigue marking their face, “I thought you felt it all the time?”
“I don’t know,” Bashiketa said. “Maybe I don’t? I don’t feel it now. It got really bad. And then it went away.”
“Was that -” Fredge started, then frowned it off and asked, “When you asked what a boy was, were you even talking to us?”
Bashiketa felt taken aback by that question, but then remembered that of course Fredge knew about all this, and said, “I was asking a thought in my head, and then I think it answered.”
“Can you describe what that felt like?” Fredge asked.
Bashiketa tried, but wasn’t at all satisfied with what they said, and kept rambling about it, trying to use different words to describe the same thing over and over. They trailed off after the third iteration, but Fredge and Laal remained silent for a bit.
Laal finally said quietly, “That sounds like a system. I know one personally, and they’ve described experiences a lot like that.”
“Yeah,” Fredge said, casting a concerned look over at Bashiketa. “And that would make so much sense, considering.” Then they added, “Bashiketa, that was probably your counterpart.”
“I know,” Bashiketa heard themself say, and realized that they had come to that conclusion too. They had a brief thought, were there more than two people in here? There was no immediate answer to that. But, if they had understood some of those earlier conversations with Jenifer and Phage Pember, it’s possible Phage’s child Ni’a was sharing their psyche right now, too. And maybe even Phage itself.
Bashiketa’s eyes bugged out at that idea. They hadn’t given them permission to do that! But, then, they hadn’t been able to give permission to Fredge and Laal and their colleagues to put a Tunnel in their head!
They stared intensely at Fredge for several cycles of tram tube noise, and Fredge returned their look with an expression of concern and worry.
“If I could take back what we all did to you, I would, in an instant,” Fredge finally said softly.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do when we get home,” Bashiketa said. “I have a lot of feelings and they aren’t good.”
Jenifer watched Fredge, Laal and Bashiketa leave xyr temporary quarters in Agaricales after Phage Pember couldn’t continue due to being slapped with a saction. Plans had been made for the trio to meet with Abacus later, and they were hoping that might still happen despite the sanctions. The Monsters could be sanctioned as well, but it was harder to enforce since they were not connected to the Network in any way and typically did not interact directly with any ship government but their own. But, then, nobody else in that room had been sanctioned, just Phage Pember. And it had frowned and stated its connection had been severed by it, then explained that Abacus could probably still converse with the Monsters in person.
Morde had suggested they part ways, saying that hir intuition was pointing in a different direction for hirself, Tetcha, Illyen and Jenifer.
And when the Monsters were gone, Morde turned to the others and said, “We should go to our place, and probably soon. I don’t know why, but it feels urgent.”
“What’s wrong?” Jenifer said, then closer xyr eyes and shook xyr had. “Sorry, you just said you don’t know. I – “ Xe looked over at Illyen, suddenly unable to talk.
Illyen shrugged and said to Morde, “It would be nice to see your place after all this. Let’s go.”
Jenifer was concerned that xyr relationship with Illyen was going to change for the worse now that xe’d remembered who xe was, but Illyen’s manner didn’t seem to indicate that at the moment. Ve gave Jenifer a little wink and smile after speaking to Morde.
“It’s not as nice as your house,” Tetcha said. “But I have been decorating the walls! I’ve been wanting to show both of you!”
“Ooh, that sounds wonderful,” Illyen said.
“Thank you,” Tetcha replied.
Jenifer was occasionally beset by the loss of voice. It happened more frequently than anyone realized, but was usually short enough that xe could pass it off as thinking or just looking for the right word. Illyen knew xe had this trouble, though, and happily covered for when it was worse than usual.
And that is exactly what had happened here, but now Jenifer was also troubled over something else going on in xyr head. Sometimes xe fully felt like who xe was and had all of xyr memories, and sometimes xe didn’t. And it seemed to fluctuate randomly, like xyr access to words. Maybe it was in conjunction with that. And sometimes xe could articulate what xe thought was happening, and sometimes xe couldn’t. And right now, xe couldn’t.
Xe wondered if xe should tell the others, or just Illyen. And decided not just yet.
It didn’t take much to pack up and reset the quarters to unoccupied status before leaving, though, and xe didn’t have much time to think during that work. Which was a nice relief, really. Just doing things and feeling how xyr body worked and seemed to know what to do was a real joy.
It was amazing! Xe would not have picked this form for xemself if the birth hadn’t matched xyr hopes in the other critical ways. Xe might have taken a form closer to Eh’s, actually.
Oh! There I am, xe thought to xemself, as they walked out the door into the mostly empty hallway and headed toward a tram station.
Anyway, this body was always such a natural feeling thing to xem. It felt like it had always belonged to xem, like it defined who xe was as much as any of xyr past did. Such an amazing contrast to how xe had felt before xyr first ascension.
Not for the first time, xe did wonder what this body’s puberty would feel like. Would it be the right one? Would the change in, well, everything make that irrelevant? Had xyr dysphoria before not been gender related? Had it been, for want of a better word, a species dysphoria?
Actually, Eh had once postulated that categorizing dysphoria by gender, sex, species, or other such social constructs wasn’t the most accurate way to talk about it. Some people were dysphoric about, say, gender, certainly. In all sorts of different ways. But it was clear that some people were dysphoric only about certain physical traits, regardless of what gender they’d been assigned or later identified with.
And sure enough, they’d built a society as free of gender as could possibly be, giving people the freedom to arbitrarily categorize themselves throughout their lives as they grew and changed, and while that had statistically relieved a lot of the dysphoria found in the populace, it hadn’t caught it all.
So much else had also been shown to be true, or false, as well. Of course, much of it had been proven wrongheaded with their parent ship’s own failed efforts using highly controlled genetic engineering. That Crew had set out to abolish dysphoria, developmental fibrillation, and other neurotypes with a systematic purification of the gene pool. The evolutionary engines of the Sunspot had been an attempt to step away from that draconian eugenics program, reintroduce diversity into humanity’s experiences, if in an extreme way, and at the same time continue searching for an understanding of these things. If not to eradicate them, then to give people more personal control over their lives, and reduce suffering as quickly after birth as possible. And also, to let people celebrate those traits and experiences they found they were proud of.
Mistakes had absolutely been made. Jenifer xemself was not OK with all of the decisions made, successful or unsuccessful. Those differences had contributed to xyr burnout, too. But it looked like the Crew were now working on undoing the worst of it. As best as could be done, anyway.
How long had humanity strayed from its evolutionary past? Eons at this point. Nobody could remember what their original home had been, or how many ships lay between that point and now. The only clues they had were the common recommended tolerances for the Garden environment, gravity, sun, and moon. On some ancestral ships, the flora and fauna may have been tampered with, too, and nobody had clear records of that.
Records could have been kept. Meticulously. The technology to store that much information was there. But so many conflicts like the one that had driven the Sunspot’s Crew to start their own project must have happened before. And the need to start afresh, clean of their parents’ and grandparents’ sins, seemed to be a massive driving force for humanity now.
Jenifer scowled in thought about this, clutching xyr doll while riding the tram to Morde and Tetcha’s place. Xe’d argued against much of what xyr Crewmates had chosen to leave behind. And xe had supported Fenmere’s efforts to preserve a number of mostly frivolous, cosmetic things. Confusing things, in many cases.
But now, after centuries of being in stasis on the Sunspot, xe looked around and felt like xe was in a whole new world, not even the one xe had helped create so long ago. And xe realized xe was no longer in a position to judge any of it. Not culturally speaking, anyway. Xe could only marvel in what xyr descendants were doing, and help them figure out how to be kinder to each other, if possible.
Xe looked over at Morde and thought about hir again.
Xe’d spent the majority of xyr current life growing up with Morde around. Xe barely remembered those couple of years before Morde and Tetcha had showed up and become part of xyr family. So, Morde’s intuition at once felt like something xe’d taken for granted for as long as xe could remember, and something astounding and new.
Extrasensory perception was nothing new to humanity, as far as Jenifer understood. Xe’d read documentation of it before, and met and befriended several people who had had wild and unusual experiences. Usually it was some kind of empathy, aura perception, or prediction abilities. And Morde’s fell within those norms just fine. But it appeared to be so unerringly reliable that sie trusted it with nearly everything sie did.
That was remarkable.
“What are you thinking about?” Tetcha asked Jenifer.
Jenifer looked at xem with a head tilt and a light smirk, and said, “Everything!”
Tetcha chuckled, “I tend to think about everything when I look at Morde, too.” And then Tetcha nudged Morde, who nudged xem back.
“Oh, well,” Jenifer said. “Thinking about everything made me look at Morde. And then I thought about Morde’s magic.”
“Ah,” said Morde, sounding uncharacteristically tense.
“What’s wrong?” Tetcha asked hir.
“It’s been intensifying,” Morde replied. “Sharply.”
“What do you mean?” asked Illyen.
“It’s starting to feel like deja vus. The kind with a sense of impending doom,” Morde explained hesitantly. “I’ve been trying to steer us on the path that feels less dangerous, but everything is shifting so quickly, and now I feel like I’m getting clear images of what happens when these doors open at our destination.”
Jenifer felt xyr gut drop and grow cold, “what happens?”
“I said it felt like clear images, not that they were clear,” Moder said. “Just quick flashes that I recognize in the moment, but forget the details of once they’re gone.”
“What are they like?”
“Violence,” Morde whispered.
And the tram started to slow as it came near the station.
Solemnly, Jenifer declared, “We should prepare for it.”
“Agreed,” Morde said. “But I have no idea how. We are cornered in this tram car, and if it’s a crowd of people we could easily be overwhelmed.”
They were all silent for a long breath and three heartbeats, then Tetcha said, “I have an idea.”
“What is it?” Jenifer asked.
“Morde, contact Phage Pember and ask for eyes on the scene and cover,” Tetcha said quickly. “It’s sanctioned, but we’re not, so we can contact it. And it has resources we don’t.”
“Oh, I can be eyes on the scene,” Morde said. “I can do a lot, as Crew, to create a distraction or discourage the violence, too, now that you mention it! But, yeah, Phage, if it will even help, would be amazing.” Sie titled hir hood up just a little bit, and droned, “On it.”
“Why haven’t we been sanctioned?” Illyen asked in the following pause in conversation.
“The Council of the Sunspot are afraid of me,” Jenifer said. “With this body, they can’t restrict me in the ways they might really want to, and sanctioning any of you might incur my wrath.”
And then the doors opened.
“Why didn’t you just make the tram go past this station?” Tetcha asked Morde.
“We need to go through this, or worse things happen later,” Morde intoned ominously, and then stepped out of the tram and bellowed, “We do not consent to interact with any of you!”
“Why?!” came a shout.
“Too bad!” came quickly on its heels, as Tetcha was stepping out on the platform to join xyr partner.
Jenifer reflexively took a moment to peer at the platform through ship cameras. There were small crowds of people clogging each of the exits to the station. They looked agitated, and all of them were focused on Morde and Tetcha and the open door of the tram. Three of them were present in nanite exobodies, one per exit. This was organized. Organized very quickly.
Morde sent Jenifer a Network message, “If you don’t come out here and talk to your Children, I don’t know what will happen, but it will be worse later.”
With that, Jenifer could see what Morde was trying to do, too. By being stand-off-ish and adversarial, sie had given Jenifer the opportunity to step out and overrider hir in order to talk to the people. It might help. Either way, xe trusted Morde’s overall judgment.
“I have to go out there,” xe said to Illyen.
Illyen looked hurt and confused and almost said something, but crumpled and nodded instead. Something in Jenfier’s face and tone must have made it clear who was talking. Ve followed xem as xe walked out onto the platform.
Both of them minced across the space on all fours, their most comfortable stance. Jenifer was in front, with Illyen close behind and slightly to xyr right as they passed Morde and Tetcha.
“I am Jenefere, the Dreamer, of the Elder Crew,” shouted the smaller of the two of them. “I choose to answer to you!”
Immediately, a cord of nanite clay lashed out across the platform from one of the exits in an attempt to catch Jenifer and perhaps smack xem or worse. It was so fast, hardly anybody had time to flinch before it failed, every nanite of the cord that came within a meter of Jenifer losing coherency and departing from its collective shape. A spray of graphene dust exploded around the Crew-Child.
Breathing in the nanites and incorporating them into xyr own collection, Jenifer stood and pointed at the angry and alarmed Child and declared loudly, “You will not be sanctioned for that! I understand your anger and you did no harm. Please! Talk!”
Tetcha and Illyen, who both flanked Jenifer, were trying not to breathe the nanite dust, but it wouldn’t have harmed them. Totally inert graphene dust could have done damage to their lungs, but these were merely reset nanites, ready to adapt to whatever system they found themselves in.
One of the Crew’s safety protocols had just taken effect. And the way that affected the crowd’s demeanor was possibly the thing that tilted this encounter in Jenifer’s immediate favor. It would not be enough to mollify everyone, however. And for good reason.
A person in a colorful dress, with even more colorful feathers and long ears like Laal’s stepped forward from the middle exit to speak, their voice deeper but somehow weaker than Jenifer’s, though they tried to match xyr tone of command, “We need to understand! Why?! Why have you robbed us of natural reproduction like the fauna enjoy? Why are we all so different?! It feels wrong, when you say that on our parent ship humans are all alike and can breed!”
The crowds roared with jeering and shouts of protest. And everyone became acutely aware that those with natal bodies still had the power to harm others.
Had I said that? Jenifer thought to xemself. But immediately knew that xe had. It had been a quick and subtle reference in xyr speech back on the skyway in Agaricales, but xe had gone and recorded it and sent it to every Child on the ship. Some people were going to pick up on that. Had, in fact.
And xe didn’t exactly regret that xe had done that. They did need to know it. Xe felt it was everyone’s right. In fact, xe realized xe’d had the fleeting thought at the time that xe hoped something like this would be the reaction. Xe just hadn’t quite imagined the anger would be directed at xemself.
But, of course it would.
But, this action had been so well organized for how quickly it had formed and tracked xem down. Was there a member of the Crew behind this?
Jenifer sat down on xyr haunches and puffed out xyr chest to project once again, “That is a wrong, a crime, that we Crew are working to undo!” And xe noticed xyr voice boomed about the hall as if it was amplified, easily overpowering the voices still shouting. Xe heard it at xyr typical shouting volume through xyr inner ears, but it hit xyr outer ear canals much louder as xe gestured to xyr right at Illyen, “My parent, Illyen, is only the first to bear a child naturally aboard the Sunspot! If you will it, we will find other ways for that to happen, for any of you! It is your right!”
“It’s not right!”
“You stole that from us!”
“How will you pay?!”
And while thirty some other voices echoed those sentiments in even less friendly terms, Jenifer found xemself dissociating from it all and becoming even more calm. Xe slumped as xe withdrew inward to figure out how to address this properly, a part of xem also worried xe wasn’t acting swiftly or decisively enough. Detachment could be the wrong thing, but xe needed a moment to figure out how to do this right. But when, out of the corner of xyr eye xe noticed the crowd had started advancing, xe lifted xyr eyes to their colorful leader and shouted, voice amplified even more, “STOP!”
That much amplification startled everyone to silence, even Jenifer. Xe could not figure out how that was happening. Xe’d take it, but it was as distracting as dysphoria itself at the same time.
Still, xe recovered faster than anyone else and said, softly, leaning on the amplification to be heard, and deciding to record this as well, “We all have the same problem. Our ancestors made so many mistakes. Many were terrible people. The Crew of our parent ship, the one that the Sunspot came from, had a compulsive breeding program. We had no choice. We were assigned a number of children to have, one to three, depending on factors we did not understand. And it was not natural.”
Xe looked around at everyone to see how they were taking it and saw the same confusion and anger that was there before, but they were not moving now, so xe continued, “They tried to eradicate everything that they thought was a disease, including development fibrillation, dysphoria, deafness, blindness, sensory processing differences, executive dysfunction, any body part that didn’t match their morphological criteria, plurality, any diversity. But, with many of those things, you can’t stop them from happening! It’s not all about genetics. It’s not all about the environment of natal development. The human system is so complex, chaos will always find a way to seep in and find ways to diversify us. But what they did was also just wrong!”
This time, when xe paused, xe looked up at Morde, who could have no expression, then said, “There’s so much more to tell, so many wrongs we fought against on top of that. And you need, you deserve, to hear this from the rest of the Crew. But when we had the chance to take over the project to create the Sunspot, we acted and succeeded. And maybe, I hope, you can understand we didn’t want the Sunspot to be anything like that ship. We couldn’t let it be. We had to prove them wrong.
“And I think we did!” Xe swung our pointer finger across the crowd, “I imagine many of you have experienced dysphoria. I bet it’s part of what drew you here to act, to question, and to seek answers. It’s a thing I once experienced! In my body before this one! The body you suspect is a ‘true human form’! Did you know that the entire Elder Crew of the Sunspot experienced it before, in our former lives as supposedly true humans? Those bodies our ancestors intended to be the perfect specimens of humanity! It’s what brought us together to do this in the first place! But go home and ask your neighbors, do they experience it? Or do they experience the joy of their diversity and the unique identities inherent in their own bodies? Ask them that, and listen! Dysphoria is no more or less prevalent aboard this vessel as aboard the other.”
Some of them looked ready to consider that. But others looked like they were even more ready to fight.
“Still!” Jenifer raised xyr voice again. “We did you wrong. We have made a big deal of your consent and autonomy, and yet we failed to truly give it to you! In so many ways we failed you. The changes of the Nanite Innovation were the first steps in recognizing that and correcting it. We don’t intend to stop.”
The one who had spoken first shouted back in Jenifer’s next pause, “Why now, though? After so many centuries, why did it take so long? What has changed?”
Jenifer smiled and replied, “You outnumber us. The Elder Crew number 900,000. But as you ascend, you become the new generation of Crew and add your experiences and wisdom to ours in the billions. The Sunspot is and will be yours. So, you and the New Crew can answer that question better than I can.” Xe held up a claw to forestall any more quick answers, “But I have a suggestion!”
“What?” the lead Child asked.
“Talk to us!” Jenifer said.
“Talk to us! You know us. You have family amongst the Crew. You are in contact with us. Tell us all what is wrong. Use your Tutors if you have no one else to talk to. It’s their job to convey your needs to us. Let us know what changes you need! Illyen did, and we listened,” Jenifer said.
The people in the crowds looked at each other and started mumbling in response to that. Many were not satisfied, but so many more were hesitant or had been won over, at least momentarily, by Jenifer’s words. The tram had long since left the station, and hardly anyone had noticed it leaving, they’d been so intent on this confrontation. But the underlying tension seemed to have broken, and all it would take is direction from the right source to disperse the crowd.
Tetcha stepped forward and asked, voice amplified just as Jenifer’s had been, “Can we just all go home now?”
And that’s how that speech became a part of the Sunspot’s history.
It was forwarded to everyone, and since Jenifer had made no promises that the Crew had not already made, it was deemed politically sound by the Council. But, while a good speech can sway a crowd in the moment, and turn the tides of those present to hear it, it’s not the speech itself that makes the changes. And it’s rare that just one speech will reach all the hearts that are hurting or be the balm they actually need.
And sometimes such speeches have consequences that the speaker did not foresee.
As people started to mill about and decide what to do next, Illyen leaned down to whisper in Jenifer’s ear, “You used me.”
The next two days saw actions that the Sunspot was not adequately prepared for.
“Use your Tutors if you have no one else to talk to. It’s their job…”
I had been in the middle of arguing with my own detractors when those words were uttered. Speaking to Benejede, I believe. But when I had given myself a moment to review the speech and hear those words, I had then spoken to Fenmere and I was finally in a frame of mind where they stung. And I wondered how many other Tutors might have felt the way I did about them. Metabang, I suspected, at least. I hoped that more did than I feared might.
The Child’s question, “Why did it take so long?” also echoed in my mind. I have since been over the course of events that led to all these social changes. Even through the hundreds of generations before the Nanite Innovation where things had remained static and status quo aboard the Sunspot there were countless moments when someone must have realized what was going on and that something needed fixing. Over and over, and nothing took. There were even times when the Council of the Crew ratified a statement to the effect that they needed to do things differently in some profound way, that the seclusion they’d created for themselves was wrong or that they were not truly respecting their Children’s rights to autonomy and consent. But nothing happened.
But, while Crew and Tutors have the perspective of multiple lifetimes each, the Children and Monsters have only a handful of decades. There’s a reason that the Monsters in particular are a protected class and we purport to listen to them. But we’ve got to try to truly understand that they don’t have the luxury of waiting for the Council to decide to enact change the way the rest of us do. And the literature they write and pass down to each other reflects their frustrations with us regarding that.
Their lives are too short and their numbers too small for them to give us any quarter.
On the other side of the coin, maybe it’s become evident in this book that the Crew are not a monolith, and there are disagreements among them. But the degree to which that’s the case isn’t really appreciated fully by anyone, in my estimation. They’ve been so secluded and insular and self contained throughout our history that outside of the Council meetings on the Bridge, no one really knows what everyone else amongst the Crew believes and cares about.
Anyway, the actions that occurred in the two days following the 39th annual Agaricales Memorial Celebration and The Screaming, could be broken down into a few categories:
- Small to medium groups of Children supported by a Monster or group of Monsters protesting the rule of the Crew over the Sunspot, usually by focusing on a single grievance. These were the most common and most visible, and seemed scary, but resulted in very few injuries, and mostly involved a lot of yelling and chanting.
- Large groups of Children supported by a Crew member or Crew faction, that overtook a city center or two, and whose events and speeches were recorded and broadcast to the entire ship. There were three of these, and while each one started out with some sort of a focus, they developed into supposed listening sessions where multiple opposing views were aired, and they petered out around meal or bed time.
- Random instances of large groups of panicked people trying to run from something that is still unidentified. These are where most of the injuries and deaths/ascensions occurred. Everyone who has attempted to investigate and analyze these events have walked away baffled and deeply concerned.
- Attempts, successful and unsuccessful, at sabotaging the Sunspot’s systems in some way. The successful ones were carried out by tiny teams composed of a mix of Crew, Monster, and Children of some aligned goal, and were absolutely terrifying.
You will, if you were on the Sunspot of course, remember that on the first day after The Screaming, someone figured out how to reprogram the sun. Fortunately, it was just a demonstration of power, and not an attempt to hurt anyone, simply turning it a foreboding dark red for the day. Unfortunately, it probably still resulted in injuries and deaths from the panic it caused. The other actions that took place that day had a heightened sense of urgency because of it. The Council of the Crew, or the entire Crew, were blamed for it by most of the Children and Monsters, but the Crew were just as terrified of it as everyone else. But once the red sun had been formed and launched, there was nothing to be done about it until the next day.
An unscheduled, but clearly manipulated storm hit Fairport on the second day after The Screaming. It was strong enough to damage numerous buildings in the city, as well as in most of the rest of the region.
Midday, on the second day after The Screaming, the third day of my sanction, two unoccupied trams collided at full velocity deep in the fallow decks of the least populated forward region. No one was hurt as far as anyone can tell, but the damage was incredible. If it had occurred one deck lower, it might have breached the hull of the Sunspot.
And finally, that night, someone managed to create the illusion of an impossibly large nanite exobody striding through the Midship Mountain Range using a very thinly spread out collection of nanites overlaid with a Network projection. It was walking Antispinward. This was so systemically and environmentally harmless that it went on for quite some time before Crew realized it was rattling everyone who saw it and put protocols in place to stop it and prevent it happening again. The figure had looked a lot like Ni’a.
In each of these cases, including the numerous unsuccessful ones, some people involved were identified and sanctions were placed upon them, and investigations carried out. I don’t feel the need to make their lives more difficult by naming them in yet another document, however. And I don’t think all actors were fairly credited for these events in any case.
From this description, it may sound like the entire ship was in the grips of chaos. And relatively speaking, it was.
But, aside from the Red Sun, I managed to miss all of it, myself. And I did not spend all of my time secluded in my own Netspace, either. When I wasn’t studying Fenekere and trying to figure out how to take similar actions on my own, I was going for walks in different communities and interacting with the people there. I did this simply to give my subconscious time to digest my studies, and to be with people.
Most people knew what was going on, and took moments here and there through their day to talk about it, but continued to live their lives as they had been. Many felt a duty to do so, in fact, for some reason. Not to the ship, mind you, but to themselves and the people they loved. Or to their art.
My favorite outing during that time was to the Forward desert region of AN, where the land that would normally have been allotted to a city was turned into a gigantic park where people could just play in the wilderness landscape without worrying too much about environmental impact. Pheromone cues and other types of nanite controlled barriers kept all of the fauna out of the area. It was very common there to construct various kinds of vehicles and devise games that groups of people could play with them.
Under the afternoon of the Red Sun, I rode in a two person dune buggy piloted by a gold furred, felid featured Child, while discussing the untapped potentials of two dimensional illustration with them, and throwing head sized, air filled balls at other vehicle pilots in a dance of meham and boinging noises. I didn’t throw the balls, of course, because I didn’t have a nanite exobody due to my sanction. I projected a miniature Network avatar of myself perched on the dashboard, while the passenger, an orange haired, lanky limbed individual with no tail, caught and tossed the balls that were flying about.
That was just plain fun. We also talked a lot about what it felt like to be a Tutor with no Student, and the Tutors of the two of them both had questions for me regarding that. It was nothing I have not already written about here, though.
When we were done, we all agreed to meet and do it again soon.
I suggest to the Tutors that they should actually play, too. Hopefully I would have access to the nanites again by then, and I fully intended to toss some balls with everyone else.
That evening, I took an invisible walk along a shoreline, through cuttlecrab habitat, and listened to them chatter during the sunset. They are excellent mimics and have their own culture of sorts. Snippets of words and phrases they’d have to have heard from humans visiting seaside parks halfway around the cylinder had made their way into the cuttlecrab lexicon where I was visiting.
This sort of thing is already documented and studied by the Crew, but everyone is instructed to be as hands off as possible because, being fauna, the cuttlecrabs must not be disturbed in any way.
There are a couple of other species of fauna with similar curiosities to afford us. But we’re all trying to let them evolve as naturally as possible, and such evolution seems to take much, much longer than the Sunspot has been around.
Some might say that it would be better if all our fauna had a planet to live on. Presumably, their ancestry still does. And we assume there are a myriad of other planets out there with life as well.
The assumption of ships like the Sunspot is that our contribution to life existing in the universe is good as well. But everyone continues to debate it anyway.
The next morning, after yet another night of countless others proving that Tutors need sleep too, I visited a community kitchen that was part of one of the biggest art exchanges of the Sunspot, located in the island city of Gopra Pyle.
I didn’t actually eat or drink anything, of course, but I was able to order up an artist’s Network recreation of the breakfast being made that day, which I did get to enjoy. The sensory experiences of it were sublime. I look forward to going back there with an exobody to enjoy the real food when I can.
I shared a table with another author, a Child who had been inspired by Metabang’s work, in fact. And we discussed the evolution of culture aboard the Sunspot, trying to think of the emergence of trends and what seemed to be totally new concepts. We speculated about the true origins of these things, and noted that even our language did change over the centuries.
They posited that the presence of nigh immortal Tutors teaching each generation how to speak probably slowed that process down. And I pointed out my own experience with that, sharing that I and my peers, following the precepts of autonomy and consent, usually let our students lead and teach us how to speak once they’d mastered the basics. My counterpart’s Tutor agreed with my assessment as well. But, without the control case of a Tutorless population, we couldn’t really know. And the Monsters are not removed enough from the rest of the population to serve as that.
And that conversation led me to use my afternoon outing to flit from artist collective to maker space to creative square, taking brief but personal views of work of Children all around the Sunspot.
At first, it was just a mission of personal enrichment spurred by the kind of curiosity that writing a book like this cultivates. But I started to feel passionate about it, spent far more time taking the tour than I’d intended, and by the end I was convinced that I should recommend the Crew and the other Tutors do the same thing on a regular basis. For all I knew, others were doing something similar occasionally, but I’ve never heard anyone talking about it.
And by the time I’d returned to my Netspace to buckle down for another round of Fenekere, I had reignited my love for all of the Children I’d taught, and their peers, and the Children I might yet meet in the future. And I was so distracted that I instead decided to make something of my own.
I had already created quite the work of art by decorating my Netspace with a natural landscape that I could explore and enjoy to its full sensory glory. But I had never before created something that one might immediately recognize as an artifact of humanity upon seeing it. And I set out to do that.
Maybe I could have done better, but this pleased me in the moment and that’s what mattered.
I created a live model of the Sunspot emerging straight up out of my largest pond. The one with the waterfall. The tip of the Sunspot’s long fusion spire was just touching the water’s surface. And the whole thing rose five meters into the air, making it about four meters across, from tip of bussard spire to tip of bussard spire.
However, instead of the usual fractal looking pattern of shipyards lining the outer hull of the habitat cylinder, I essentially turned the cylinder inside out. I put a highly detailed topographical map of the inside Garden on the outside of the model, which rotated at the same speed as the real ship did itself. This rotation is what made it “live”.
Then, departing further from a simulation and more toward a work of art that maybe could have been constructed out of corporeal materials in a city square in the actual Garden, I used fountains of water to recreate the bussard corona and fusion trail of the drive. This showered the central fifth of the pond with a constant stream of water, adding to the music of the waterfall, and I felt it was so glorious that I floated there and just watched it for a couple of hours before deciding it was time to sleep.
I know there are artists out there who have put far more effort into their work. And I know that I took a symbol ubiquitous to everyone’s lives and just tweaked it in a couple of simple ways. But, in the moment, it felt like it had an important meaning to me that I still can’t quite articulate.
The Garden on the outside of the ship, in particular, felt like my subconscious was trying to say something.
And I’m still proud of it.
The morning of the third day after The Screaming, Aphlebia was awoken by the bed shifting as Ni’a sat up.
Aphlebia had spent each night since returning home sleeping next to Ni’a, instructing their body’s nanites to use that evening’s dinner to create warmth for Ni’a to feel. It was Emala’s suggestion to do that with the heat, and Chalkboard helped Aphlebia figure out how to do it. But Aphlebia had been the one to insist on sharing the bed.
They wanted to know the moment that Ni’a returned, and it worked out that way.
Aphlebia remained reposed and just shifted away from Ni’a a little bit as they rolled over to look at them, giving Ni’a some room. Ni’a, apparently unsurprised by Aphlebia’s presence, looked down at them and smiled, saying, “Thank you.”
Emala roused at the sound of that, and soon everyone else was awake as well, and running to Ni’a to hug them and tell them how glad they were to have them back.
Aphlebia watched from the bed for a time as Ni’a simply responded to questions by nodding or shaking their head, or sometimes shrugging.
Fairly quickly, though, Emala realized they had just awoken and needed routine. Ni’a, for their part, was up and walking around as if they had not just spent nearly 42 hours unconscious. And soon they were seated at the table, with Candril and the Whorlies to either side of them, while Emala started making breakfast.
Ni’a looked back at Aphlebia. It was a clear invitation to join them at the table, so Aphlebia got up and did that.
Sitting down, Aphlebia tilted their head while holding Ni’a’s gaze. Tell me what happened?
Ni’a tightened their lips just a little, enough for Aphlebia to catch it. Later, it meant.
Aphlebia nodded and then put their hand in the middle of the table, palm up and fingers relaxed. Ni’a, knowing what that meant, immediately put their hand on top of it to hold hands. Candril’s brow furrowed at the sight of this, while the Whorlies were busy studying Ni’a’s face. It was hard to tell who was fronting for the Whorlies yet, and really might be for several hours anyway. So Aphlebia lightly slapped the table with their other hand to get everyone’s attention, then patted the top of Ni’a’s hand with it when they were looking. Twice. You too, both of you, it meant.
Candril was the first to move, and then the Whorlies followed suit. Aphlebia rewarded them by putting their free hand on top of the sandwich of hands and squeezing lightly. And Candril started to blink away tears.
Emala noticed this from the kitchen and dropped everything to come and hug each of the children again in turn. And after that attention, they were all a little overwhelmed and looking down at the floor, or over at what Emala returned to doing in the kitchen.
Without looking to see if anyone was paying attention, Aphlebia signed, “I’m hurt, but I’m happy and I’m OK. I think.”
They received a wordless thought via the Network from Ni’a that translated to, “I know. I am so, so sorry, still.”
Using that channel, Aphlebia sent back their memory of lying on the forest floor, crying in rage, and feeling the ground and smelling everything so vividly.
They looked up to see Ni’a’s mouth had dropped wide open in a deliberate expression of surprise.
“I can still eat,” Aphlebia signed, grinning.
And over breakfast, which was fruit, cheese, and toasted bread, they all slowly and carefully caught Ni’a up on what they had missed over the past couple of days.
Mostly, they talked about what the family had done, and how they had worked to take care of Ni’a, but also how they all had been discovering and exploring what they could do with their nanite exobodies. They glossed over the violence occurring elsewhere in the Sunspot. It scared them all, after all, but Ni’a appeared unsurprised by any mention of it and gestured for them to move on.
When Ni’a was asked by Candril what it was like to be unconscious, they turned and said out loud, “I dreamt and I saw all of you.” And would not elaborate.
Eh, thankfully, graciously waited until well after breakfast to pay a visit to inform Ni’a about their sanction. When I heard that Eh had paid the visit at all, it angered me. Especially due to the way I was informed about it.
The children were collaboratively playing with blocks, trying to build the tallest, most elaborate building they could balance. Candril, aware that zir clumsiness would tend to knock it over, was carefully pointing to different parts of the structure, naming them, and describing what people would do there. The others were taking it as a game to challenge Candril’s imagination with the shapes they called up from the nanite bin to put in place. They were still fairly simple shapes, chosen from a menu, so that they could stack easily, but they put together the most esoteric ones they could find before long.
Emala had finished cleaning up the kitchen and was sitting in xyr chair and chatting with Door about life in general when Door got the notification that Eh was calling.
“Everyone?” Emala said, “One of the Crew, Eh, would like to visit to speak with us. They’d like to talk with Ni’a, but to all of us as well.” Then xe emphasized the next question in a friendly but pointed manner, to indicate that they could say “no” if they wanted to, “Are you all OK with this? May Eh visit this morning?”
Startled expressions one by one turned into worried or eager nods. Ni’a was the only one who had an even expression, looking up to smile and gesture, “I am ready.”
When Eh made a point of bringing a smaller version of ihns avatar as a nanite exobody through the front door, Ni’a, kneeling on the other side of a spectacular block construction that obscured ihn’s view of them, said, “I saw you coming three days ago.”
“I am Eh, Elder Crew member of the Sunspot,” Eh said as a matter of politeness. “My pronouns are eh/ihn/ihns. May I talk to you about what you’ve experienced?”
Emala opened xyr mouth to say something, but Ni’a spoke up faster, “Yes.” Then they gestured at their peer, “This is Aphlebia. They are my friend and sibling.” Then they turned to Candril and the Whorlies and said in a lower voice, “And so are you two. But,” then turning back to stare right at ihns eyes, “I’m pointing something out.”
Eh sat on the floor and closed ihns eyes to sigh and think, or perhaps to gesture to Ni’a that Eh was conceding the point.
“Why is Aphlebia sanctioned?” Ni’a asked.
“They assisted another sanctioned individual in circumventing its sanction,” Eh replied.
“I saw that,” Ni’a responded swiftly, then sat breathing steadily at Eh, a stern look on their face.
“If it’s OK, I’d really like to know how you were able to,” Eh said softly, genuine curiosity in ihns voice.
“No. Why?” NI’a demanded, expression unchanging.
To Eh’s credit, Eh did not flinch or look away under that emotional onslaught, though Eh dearly wished to.
“OK,” Eh said, placing ihns palms together in front of ihnself before proceeding carefully. “The Council of the Crew deemed it necessary, purely for the safety of the Sunspot, to place a sanction on Abacus. Abacus strenuously objected to this sanction and followed its statement of intent with several actions that the Council felt would continue to put the Sunspot in danger. Aphlebia, who I might add has not yet taken the Vow of the Crew, took it upon themself to directly assist Abacus in these endeavors. And to put a stop to this behavior, the Council was forced to place sanctions on everyone participating in Abacus’ actions.”
The whole family was so silent as this exchange was unfolding. Even Candril, who usually constantly fidgeted, was stone still.
“I mean,” Ni’a said slowly. “Was it because of fear?”
“Ah,” Eh said. “Yes. Fear. Definitely.”
“Are you all still afraid of Aphlebia?” Ni’a asked.
Eh shook ihns head, “No. No we are not. What we feared is now happening anyway.”
“No one needs to fear Aphlebia,” Ni’a stated, then looking over at their peer. “Unless they want you to.”
Aphlebia really didn’t know how to feel about all of this. Their body was awash with so many roiling emotions but, like the rest of their family seemed to feel, they felt like they were present at the clashing of two primordial forces and didn’t want to bring attention to themself in the midst of it.
Eh turned to them and said, “I am so sorry. I will have this fixed very shortly, I promise.”
Aphlebia was startled to find themself thumbing their nose and sticking out their tongue out at ihn. Which Eh took in solemn stride by nodding and turning back to Ni’a.
“There’s a hole in the ship, and we need to decide what to do with it,” Ni’a said, startling everyone. “I’ve been to the Terra Supreme and know what’s there. Phage is addressing them now.”
In the silence that followed that statement, Emala managed to squeak out, “What is the Terra Supreme!”
“It’s the name of our parent ship, where I and the Elder Crew came from before we built the Sunspot,” Eh replied.
“That name sounds pompous,” Emala declared. Xe recalled seeing the first part of that name before, back when helping xyr children pick theirs, but couldn’t remember its definition. “What does ‘Terra’ mean?”
“Well, it’s an old name,” Eh explained. “Our records no longer say what language it comes from, as you know. That information was purged long ago by someone who wanted to erase parts of history. But we know it means either ‘the world’ or ‘fertile dirt’.”
“I know they meant the other definition,” Emala said. “But I like that one. I think I’ll stick with it.”
“It’s what all us Elders do,” Eh responded.
Candril laughed at that, falling into a little, jiggling giggle fit.
Ni’a watched zem with a smile, then turned back to Eh and said, “they need so much help over there. Phage may not be back for a long time, and Phage Pember is overwhelmed. It wasn’t made for helping the Sunspot like this.”
“That’s…” Eh started to say.
“If you put a sanction on me, like you’re planning, I won’t help you,” Ni’a interrupted ihn.
Very shortly after that statement, my sanction was lifted. And almost immediately after, so was every sanction contingent on mine. And I flew into a fucking rage.
Ni’a looked over at Aphlebia again, and said to Eh and any Council listening, “Thank you.”