2.25 Protector

Bashiketa sat quietly and watched as Fredge and Laal attempted to brief the person who was obviously the Benefactor of their project. The Benefactor sat down opposite them to listen for a few sentences, then put their hand on the book again and pushed it in Fredge’s direction. Removing their hand, they tilted their head down to look at Fredge through their eyebrows.

Everyone was silent as Fredge picked up the book and started to flip through it. It was maybe a little more than 150 pages long, counting both sides of each sheet. A large format, paper bound. Clearly done hastily with a Library maker. But Fredge was hesitant to read much of it. They clearly felt like it would take too long with everyone silently watching them do so. But after seeing some carefully highlighted passages, and scanning the chapter titles and content of them, Fredge put the book back down again.

“How many people have seen this?” Fredge asked.

“So far, it can only be found in Monster libraries,” replied the Benefactor. “And then, only the ones that are in the fallow decks. That’s a lot, you know, but it’s only been a couple days. But some Monsters have been showing it to some Children, and some Children have shown it to a Crew member or two. It’s spreading.”

“Ah,” Fredge said.

“The amount that you have cooperated with Abacus and contributed to this book is concerning,” the Benefactor said.

“I would imagine so,” replied Fredge.

“May I ask a question of all of you?” the Benefactor prodded and then waited for their answers.

Fredge responded to that with fragile and stern care, “You may ask it of me.”

The Benefactor looked over at Laal, who grimaced and then said, “I’ll answer as well.”

The Benefactor then turned their solid gray eyes upon Benejede and told them, “I would like you to answer as well, but you may choose whether or not to, after you hear what your caretakers have to say. I won’t hold that decision or anything you say against you.”

Bashiketa felt themself nodding demurely and hunching in their chair. They wanted to start throwing things, actually. They were having that feeling again. And watching their body do one thing while feeling another was an interesting experience.

Looking over them all, the Benefactor then said, “When you said that you did not agree with what we were doing, did you disagree with the methods or the purpose?”

Fredge dropped their clawed hand on the table next to the book with a thump and said, “both.”

Laal pointed at Fredge and said, “that.”

Bashiketa boggled with fear as they heard their mouth mumble, “Why do I even exist?”

They sensed both Laal and Fredge glancing their way, but didn’t see their expressions. They were too focused on their hands just below the edge of the table, where they worked their retractable claws in and out while they fought their unidentifiable feelings. And they barely heard the Benefactor’s response to their question.

“To carry the Tunnel and preserve it against the efforts of those who would close it,” the Benefactor said. “It’s part of the order of all things, and must be maintained, at any cost.”

Fredge swept the book off the table with a fluttering clatter and shouted, “Damn you! Damn you and this project and what it has done to all of us! But especially what it has done to them!” Fredge gestured in Bashiketa’s direction.

“Hm,” said the Benefactor, standing up. They reached for the fallen book, which was halfway across the room. They did this by holding their arm out in its direction, and then extending it like an amorphous pseudopod, which then engulfed the book and apparently dissolved it. The blob at the end of the pseudopod of nanites fell flat and then the whole mass retracted from the spot to reform their arm and hand without any lump sufficiently large enough to contain the book in the process. “That is discouraging,” they said. “But let me explain to you why and how it is discouraging, so that you may make more informed decisions about it in the future.”

It was at that point that Bashiketa blacked out.

They felt like they dreamt while they were unconscious, but they could not remember anything of it.

When they came to they were still seated, Fredge and Laal lay beside their chairs, having fallen out of them, and the entire room and everything in it was covered in a thin film of nanite clay dust.

In the dust on the table, there were some unusual characters written as if by an expressive brush that had smeared the nanites into streaks of varying thickness.

Bashiketa understood it, even though they had not yet studied Fenekere.

It read, “ge ‘afija’o.”

“You are a work of Phage.”

Bashiketa realized that they were breathing nanites and wondered what would happen.

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