2.27 A Carefully Engineered Confrontation

As I debriefed Eh, also reiterating my grievances in new, more polite terms, elaborating on them and then showed ihn some of the sights I’d seen while recently exploring the ship, and while I later spoke with Ni’a and their family to catch up on my notes, the Sunspot became notably quieter that day.

This is where it is hard for me to decide what to record in detail.

Do I record all the conversations I’ve had with various Crew members where I elaborate on my own brilliance and wisdom? Do I tell you how I feel like what I said to them really showed them the error of their ways? Only then to learn that they’d “already thought of that”?

Like, for instance, I suggested that instead of sanctions being arbitrated by the Council, and being generally restrictive to anything the individual being sanctioned might do, that maybe they should be something individuals could put on others that they disagree with and don’t want to see again, and be much more tight in scope. So, like, I could sanction Eh, for example, and then Eh would not be able to talk to me unless I talked to them first, and it wouldn’t be much more than that.

That mechanism was already in place and being used. In conjunction with Council imposed sanctions.

Why I did not know this, as a Tutor, is another matter. I could tell you all about that, and why it was wrong.

Or do I write about the revelation that when Eh is not on the Bridge, Eh is the eyes and ears of the council, who collectively watch through the view screen? Or do I instead spend more focus on the subtle trends of change occurring in the populace of the Sunspot’s children? Or maybe enumerate some of the conspiracies that were relayed to me by the Council through Eh, that they were tracking?

I know what they want me to record, but I ask myself, what is most important for future readers of this?

Is it what I, a displaced Tutor of the Sunspot, have to say?

I certainly would love to brag about how snarky I was with Eh, while also demonstrating the kinds of polite discourse were necessary to get to the point where I could let loose like that. It was great.

But I’ve decided that this book is going to be titled “Ni’a”, and that sets up some expectations, I imagine. And Ni’a taking over for Phage was, as I said before, an event that everyone noticed even if they didn’t understand it.

I’ve programmed my hands to allow me to crack my knuckles, by the way. Imagine that I’m doing that right now.

So.

First, although things were getting notably quieter, even as I was ushering Eh into my Netspace and directing ihn to marvel at my artistic endeavors, a pressure was building up elsewhere that Ni’a could not quell or redirect, but we’ll get back to that later.

“You’ve been busy,” Eh remarked upon seeing my Netspace.

“Oh this?” I gestured at a torn up tree. “Five minutes max on that one. Four or so to design it, ten seconds to tear it up.”

“Nice,” Eh said. “But you’ve been exploring the potential of your new avatar, I see. That’s good to see.”

I decided to relax and let Eh say things like that without becoming further irritated with ihn for it. Getting more angry wasn’t going to get me anywhere. And, besides, I thought I saw a better way of going about things.

So I climbed up onto my favorite sunning rock and lay down with my chin on my crossed arms and said, “please make yourself comfortable, or explore a little bit. I’m pretty proud of my art, but not so much that I won’t take suggestions. If you’ve got some ideas, I’d love to hear them.”

Eh walked to the edge of the water to examine my model of the Sunspot, with its inside-out habitat cylinder. Eh didn’t talk about it, though. Instead, Eh said, “I am, honestly, very sorry for how your sanction played out. That could not have been easy. I did what I could.”

“I know you did,” I said, frowning. “Eh. Can you tell me how many other Tutors have decorated their personal spaces?”

“No,” they said, their back still to me. “These spaces are private and we do not even get statistics on them without explicit permission. I’ve only seen the few I’ve been invited to. Yours is the first that looks anything like this. All the others were plain white.”

“I’m,” I lifted my head to scowl. “I’m appalled!

“If there’s one thing that the Sunspot has done well over the centuries, it is stasis,” Eh said. “We’ve got true privacy here, by the way. The Council could not follow me here without you explicitly inviting them, too.”

That confirmed a couple of my suspicions rather neatly, if I took ihns word for it. Of course, I could actually access the Sunspot’s laws and confirm it, which I did. We do that a lot for our Students, but we take so much for granted for ourselves. It’s amazing what we Tutors miss.

Of course, also, a lot of things had been kept from us. Until the Nanite Innovation and the lifting of the Crew Seclusion, we’d had no need to know if a Crew member visiting our Netspace could have the Crew Council tag along. Because that kind of interaction just never happened.

“Your performance in the library was terrifying,” I said then. “How much damage could you do with the nanites?”

“If I caught everyone by surprise?” Eh asked, looking over ihns shoulder at me.

“Yes.”

Eh looked away again, “Phage would stop me from crippling or destroying the ship, even so. But when it wasn’t here…” Eh left that to trail off so that I could assume the worst.

“And every Elder Crew member has that ability,” I said.

“Oh, yes,” Eh confirmed. “It’s all about a balance of permissions.”

“Was it like that aboard our predecessor ship?” I asked.

Eh shrugged, “I don’t know. I can only speculate. But I think so. It’s the default arrangement for a new ship. Though, mind you, as far as I know we’re the first to implement nanite exobodies. We probably aren’t, but the first in our known history.”

I’d imagined all of this, but a chill ran through my entire being anyway. “So,” I crawled down off my rock to go stand next to Eh and looked out at my artwork as well. “If I were to take the vow of the Crew, I would not get those permissions.”

“No, you wouldn’t. Only Senior Crew get them.”

I looked up that ihn and asked, “What if I found a way to take a Fenekere name, such as, excuse me for this… ‘ebekese?”

Eh snorted. And then broke out laughing. Then looked over and down at me while still chuckling and chortled out, “Oh, that’s an unfortunate name!”

“You don’t think that by taking it I’d taint the Crew roster?” I asked.

“Abacus!” shouted Ktleteccete, stepping out from around the back of my sunning rock. “Do not talk to the Captain that way!”

Eh did an amazing job of not registering ihns surprise. I, however, jumped. I’d forgotten I’d left Ktleteccete here with only the words, “One moment!” And somehow, in that one moment while I was gone, xe had hidden xemself to such a degree that I had not been pinged by xyr presence in my Netpace. And I suspect, neither had ihn. Surprises like that are a rarity when almost everyone is raised carefully by tutors to respect each other’s consent and autonomy. And on a ship like the Sunspot, one comes to expect that it’s impossible on the Network, because we all become used to protocols that alert us to the presence of everyone within a Netspace whether we can see or hear their avatars upon entering it. But Ktleteccete had found a way to bypass that mechanism, and apparently had chosen demonstration as a method for telling me about it. With Eh there.

“That was a very neat and scary trick, Ktleteccete,” Eh said. “And the height of rudeness.”

“I forgot xe was visiting when I came to see you,” I told Eh.

Eh tilted ihns head, “How did you hide from us like that?”

Ktleteccete leaned xyr back against the rock and folded xyr arms and smirked, “I’m literally not going to tell you that. Neither of you. At least, not the details.”

Struggling to regain my composure, I gestured at Ktleteccete and asked Eh, “So, even if you learned how to do that, Phage would be able to act fast enough to stop you?”

Eh nodded, “It does have its vulnerabilities, which is how we successfully sanctioned it, but speed is not one of them.”

“Then – and I’m still very upset by this, mind you,” I gestured with both hands at Ktletaccete again, “how did Ni’a’s overload take it by such surprise? You’ve presumably read its explanations of how it can restrict what they can do, right?”

“I think that anybody who wants to know that will have to ask it,” Eh replied.

“Abacus asked if taking on a Fenekere name would confer more permissions,” Ktleteccete interjected regarding the current situation. “Just before it went to get you, we were talking about that, and we were going to get into the finer details of permissions and workarounds. I’ve been studying with Gelesere.”

“Oh, OK,” Eh said. “That is a suitable explanation, thank you.” Then back to me, “Abacus, are you actually trying to gain access to Senior Crew permissions, or is this conversation about something else?”

“Why aren’t you more flustered and upset about what Ktleteccete just pulled?” I asked, seizing an opportunity that my friend had just handed me to illustrate something directly related to that question.

Eh frowned, “I’m not afraid of xem, honestly. It was a childish prank, but not very dangerous to me. And I’ve been alive nearly twice as long as you have, Abacus, and, just, so much longer than xe has.” Eh scratched briefly at ihns ear pad, and said, “When you have eight-hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine counterparts that each have the power to destroy the spaceship that you all inhabit together, and you’ve lived with them for as long as I have, you learn to keep your composure around the most alarming things. It’s a critical survival tactic.”

“And by your estimate, based on your knowledge of xem and Gelesere’s knowledge to impart to xem, you don’t deem xem much of a threat to you or the ship,” I prompted.

“No, I do not.”

“That’s a pretty ridiculous imbalance of power,” I concluded.

“I agree with you on that, and have seen it myself,” Eh said. “You needn’t have gone to such great lengths to point it out.”

“Call it a critical survival tactic,” I said.

“Ah, yes. OK,” Eh conceded.

“I’m also beginning to understand that negotiating these things with you, or even the Crew Council, and even pointing out solutions you haven’t tried yet won’t actually change things,” I pointed out.

“Where are you going with that observation?” Eh asked.

“Where are you afraid I’m going with it?” I countered. I didn’t pause long enough to let ihn answer, though, “I am, with the project you’ve given me, collecting a growing list of things that need to be fixed aboard the Sunspot. Not to keep the ship more safe, as you know. But to correct hypocrisies. As I’m sure you’re aware.”

Eh just nodded at that. Ktleteccete nodded as well.

“What I’m asking you, then, is what leverage do we need in order to make these changes?” I asked. “And not someday, but tomorrow. Yesterday, even. As soon as Phagely possible.”

“I’ve been asking that for the past 39 years, ever since Morde, Myra, and Phage successfully broke us out of our torpor. And the conclusion I’ve come to is that changes are going to happen whether we want them to or not. All we can do is try to steer them in what we think are the right directions. Which is one of the reasons you’ve been asked to write your book. It’s one of the tools we have for that.”

“I don’t think my book is going to save us,” I argued. “What we released already has had some massively chaotic effects. People have been forced to ascend.”

“I’m not convinced it’s had all that much effect yet, actually. The violence of the past two days probably had more to do with Ni’a’s event and the story that Jenifer sent to everyone.” Eh replied. “We may yet be surprised at the work your book is capable of doing.”

I hung my head for a moment, while thinking. Then said, “OK, different tactic. I’ve got some things to show you and the Council, if you’ll let me. You might know all this, but in case you don’t…”

“Please,” Eh said.

“My I tag along?” Ktleteccete ask.

“I’m good with that,” I replied.

Eh squinted at xem and said, “You do know that you can be part of the Council simply by attending a meeting, right, Ktleteccete?” And then Eh smirked in my direction, “Or did your Tutor neglect to inform you of that?”

“Oh, it told me,” Ktleteccete chuckled. “I’m just being extra polite after what I just pulled.”

“OK,” I said. “First, I’d just like to start this off by inviting the Council here. Since I’m not Crew, I feel that making an exception for me to visit the Bridge is not called for. But I would like the Council to see what I’ve created and think about the symbology of it while we go on our little tour. So, I hereby give the Council my consent to visit my Netspace.”

“Very well,” Eh replied. “To do that properly, I’ll need to return to the Bridge and then come back here. It will only be a moment.”

I nodded and gestured my assent.

“If you want to join the Council, you should probably go to the Bridge,” I told Ktleteccete.

“What? No,” Ktleteccete said. “I’ll join the council the day you take your vow as Crew, and no sooner.”

“Where did that come from?” I asked. I didn’t remember talking to xem about my refusal to take the vow, and I couldn’t remember if I’d included my reasoning for it in the copy of the book I’d printed. I might have, but then, how did xe get a copy? I did mention that it was an option to me offhand while talking to Eh in front of xem, but I didn’t explain my refusal then, did I? Had Ktleteccete talked to Fenmere? 

But xe was shrugging as Eh reappeared, and I didn’t get an actual answer.

Oh, wait, xe could just be reading my public notes online. I wondered how many Crew were taking advantage of that. No, nevermind, those had been sanctioned for the past three days. Hm.

“We’re all here,” Eh said. “We currently have Fenmere, Akailea, Jural Pember, Gnargrim, Seheneye, Vilgen, Pexil, Tektlexege, Jenesede, The Flits, and Jedekere. Eight of us, including myself, are Senior Crew, but we are thankful to have the others participating.”

So, there were two other Elder Crew bedsides Fenmere who had taken more colloquial names. I’d have to check records if I wanted to know who, but I couldn’t be certain. Presumably they’d keep their Fenekere names, and be using these colloquial ones as nicknames, but maybe not. In any case, it was a complete surprise to learn I had four recent friends and allies right there on the Council. I didn’t feel like I needed to prove anything to Jural or the Flits, but I felt a bit better having them there.

Still, I had expected a much bigger roster. I didn’t know what to think about this, and put the observation aside for later examination and possibly mention.

“Thank you for coming,” I said. “I am Abacus, the Tutor, and my pronouns are it/its. As you know, this is my Netspace, which I have decorated in the last three days. It’s not what I wanted to show you, but I am proud of it, since I’ve spent over two millennia with a blank white space.” (OK, later in the book, I say a different number to someone, and there’s a reason for that. Please refer to the Afterward for an explanation.)

Eh simply nodded.

I decided to make no effort to excuse or explain the damage I’d done to some of the scenery in my rage over how my sanction had been handled. It was still a gorgeous place, but the Council just didn’t deserve to know. Instead, I brought them right over to my sculpture, “This was really simple to make, of course, but I was struck by the idea after spending some time watching the Children of the Sunspot working together to make their arts in some of the various collectives around the Garden. I felt the need to put something in here that was an obvious artifact of my self expression. Of course, everything here is,” I gestured broadly around. “But, this sculpture is clearly a focal point of human design, instead of an imitation of nature.”

“Substituting the plasma with a water fountain is a nice touch,” Eh spoke with someone else’s voice. I didn’t recognize it, but I was informed over the Network that it was Jedekere.

Jedekere, the Diplomat.

“Thank you,” I said.

Fenmere asked through Eh, “Why is the habitat cylinder inside out? If you don’t mind answering.”

“Ah, I am glad you noticed and asked,” I pointed, imagining that Fenmere was just to the right of ihns left eye. “I don’t really know. But it felt really meaningful. It felt like it needed to be done. Partly to make it an actual work of art, but also to say something. I felt my subconscious was driving me to do this specifically, and so I let it. And I’ve been puzzling about it ever since. I do feel like it relates to things I’ve seen and written about, though, which is why I’m showing it to you.”

“You might try writing poetry,” Fenmere said.

I held up my finger and said, “I might do that. Thank you. I’m honored you’d suggest it.”

“Not at all,” replied Fenmere.

“OK, if any of you have more questions right now, I’d like to answer them before we proceed,” I said.

After a little bit of time, Eh said, “I think we have all read your book notes as they currently stand, and feel like we each have some sort of idea where you’re taking this. There are no more questions at this time.”

“Oh, nice. Thank you,” I said. Then a thought struck me, and I just had to prod about it, “Wait. Are you here to watch me more than you are to see what I have to show you?”

“What do you mean?” asked Tektlexege.

“Yes,” said Akailea.

“I believe what Abacus is asking, Tektlexege,” Jedekere interjected, “is whether or not we are more concerned about its development as a conscious being and a Tutor while it has been assigned to the unorthodox task of writing its book during these remarkable events. Is that not correct, Abacus?”

“Correct,” I said.

“And that is why I am here,” Akailea said, evenly.

“We. are here. to. see. its demonstra. tion,” Lil’e said.

“I am here, of course, to facilitate discussion, either way,” Jedekere declared. “But, I think it is safe to assume, Abacus, that you are on the spot and that this is an opportunity for you to show us what you care about. And I think that only good can come of it, whatever you do.”

That was not at all as reassuring as I think it was meant to sound. Was Jedekere telling me something? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask someday.

“If it’s OK, then,” I decided to take a change of tactics, “I’d like to ask you some questions first, to maybe get some notes for my book. I think it would help me to create a better historical context for what I’m writing about, for any readers that may come across it. And it might also help me decide whether to consume more of your time by taking you on a tour that might not be necessary.”

“Time isn’t really of an essence right now,” Eh said. “Please, do ask your questions.”

“So. If you will pardon me, it has become clear to me that there are some major divisions between factions of the Crew. May I know what some of these factions are, and perhaps how many have representatives present in this Council? I am interested in all possible answers, but understand if you must keep some secret.”

“I am a representative of the Order of the Guardians,” said Jedekere.

“As am I,” said Gnargrim.

“You know that I represent the Pembers,” Jural said, a friendly smirk audible.

“My concern is solely with the health of the Tutors,” Akailea spoke up. “I generally do not have a quarrel with anyone, so long as you are doing well.”

“Thank you,” I said, but noting to myself that I did not know what Akailea considered “healthy” or “doing well” for a Tutor.

“I am,” Fenmere said slowly, “doing my best to remain neutral to all factions, though I might be considered a faction of my own.”

“My friends don’t have a name for what we stand for,” Tektlexege said. “We all just tend to agree about certain things regarding how the ship should be run. Mostly, we want to vet all changes carefully before they are made.”

There was a bit of a pause where Eh waited for anyone else to speak up. And when they didn’t, Eh finished off by saying, “And I, Eh, am Senior Captain of the Bridge Crew and have been serving the Council since its original formation. As such, I try to be amenable and friendly to all who take part in the Council.”

“Thank you all,” I said. “Two… no, three more questions, if you don’t mind.”

Eh nodded.

“What is the Order of the Guardians?” I asked.

“We formed specifically to address the presence of Phage aboard the ship,” Jedekere explained. “Our concern is to keep an eye on it, to see to its needs so that it is not left wanting, and to also make sure that its actions and presence are not a threat to the people of the vessel itself. We were instrumental in originally sanctioning it, and we were central to the effort to relieve that sanction when it came time to do so. We also become involved in other sanctions, in an attempt to make sure they are just and fair, and not abused.”

I opened my mouth, and then carefully closed it and took a deep breath through my nose and said, “thank you.”

“You will note that your sanction was one of the shortest in the history of the Sunspot,” Jedekere added. Which did not make me feel any better about it. Not one bit. Maybe I am overreacting somewhat, but if such a short sanction hurt me as much as it did, what would it do to someone under a longer sanction?

I chose not to say that. Instead I asked next, “Are there any factions you can tell me about that are missing from the Council today?”

Eh replied, “Most of them do not have names. Most are like Tektlexege’s friends and have specific differences in opinion about one subject or another, or how quickly we should change things or experiment. I would say, in my experience, that each of those factions likes to send a representative to most meetings, and that those who are not present today must not feel that this meeting is relevant to their interests. And those that have names would rather not be listed without a representative present. I believe there are many we do not know about, though.”

That was an extremely disturbing answer. I wasn’t expecting a full map of the political landscape of the Sunspot, but what Eh had said was tantamount to an admission of ignorance. And so shortly after telling me just how many individuals had the power to destroy everything. And this was to go on record, with my opinions to follow it, as they know I’ve been doing. My Netspace and the Bridge have both recorded this discussion, and you can check them. This is the official word of the Council.

I know that you likely now have a bunch of questions that you wish I had asked following that. And I definitely had those questions, too. But consider that if the Council had been willing to answer those questions, Eh would not have been so vague.

Eh was communicating far more to me than just those words. And I felt very concerned and distracted by that, and will have to spend a lot of time reviewing this dialogue in the future to understand all of it.

I was actually so scared that I wasn’t thinking as I proceeded through my last question. I just rattled off the words I’d already composed earlier, “Early in my book, Eh, you described to me that the governance of the Sunspot was ‘a loose balance between raw democracy and anarchy. The Captain is chosen at any given moment by whomever is willing to sit in that chair, and they can be deposed by a vote from the Bridge Crew at any time.’ So, I am curious, Eh – and I’m sorry for putting you on the spot here – but for the sake of everybody who may read this book, what percentage of time, roughly, have you spent acting as Captain for the Sunspot since its establishment?”

Eh took on a grim expression as Eh nodded, then said, “I’d have to check the records to be sure, but my own estimate would fall somewhere between sixty and eighty percent. Far too much, if you ask me.”

“Oh, wow,” Ktleteccete said.

It is my reflex to end a chapter on a revelation like that, but that’s not what happens here. I did, however, stand there staring at ihn for a good long time to let the whole Council know what I thought of that. I let them try to read my mind. I think it might have worked. They didn’t say anything, and neither did Eh.

Finally, I broke the silence by saying, “Anyway, I think that any time you are doing something such as serving a sanction in the future, you should introduce the names of the entire Council that is present at that time to the individual receiving the sanction. That you don’t do that is rather appalling and a gross abuse of power. And when you introduced yourselves today, that was rather pleasant and useful. Thank you.” I waited for precisely a beat of my qbit heart and then said, “Now! Shall we go look at some art in production?”

Eh took a long breath, keeping an eye on me for the duration of it, then said, “Thank you for that note, Abacus. I believe it is being taken in better spirits than you fear, and that change will be made post haste. I also believe there will be further discussions regarding similar errors and oversights. Again, thank you.”

“I have so many more opinions like it, if you would like to hear them someday,” I offered.

“I do believe you have been encouraged to take the Vow of the Crew so that you may join the Council,” Eh said. “It would be a good way for you to contribute in that way.”

Oh, that was definitely a prompt if I’ve ever heard one! I absolutely took it. I replied, “Fenmere has heard this before, but I happily repeat myself. Why should anyone have to take a vow in order to gain their full rights as a human being?”

Before Eh could even open ihns mouth, I pointed.

“Don’t even answer that, please. Just think about it as I show you what I want to show you,” I said.

And then I took them to the great art collective of Gopra Pyle, where a phenomenally large number of people were working together to create the largest piece of work I have ever seen that wasn’t a building.

I took them to the edge of the city, in fact, so that they could see it towering over the skyline, and began walking toward the center, where the base of it lay, and where the main square of the collective was.

I suggested, for politeness sake, that we take nanite exobodies, so that even Monsters would know that we were present. And after my previous admonishment about representing themselves, the Council decided to be fully present in that way, each of them taking their own exobody.

I gestured at the work, “When was the last time you have participated in a project like this?” 

I figured they had to know it was there. This kind of activity, on this scale, should have gotten the attention of the Council, or numerous Crew Members. Certainly, most of the population of the Children had at least heard of it. I wasn’t trying to show them something they hadn’t seen before, but trying to get them to evaluate it with something closer to my own vision and perspective. Or at least something new from how they were used to seeing it.

“What is that?” asked Tektlexege.

It was the Great Tree of Lanterns. Which is, if you are not familiar with it, entirely handmade. No nanites. No exosuits. No makers. All done by hand. Every centimeter of it. This thing that towered over several blocks of five storey buildings. To give the precise measurement of it is pointless, because it’s still growing, still being built. With people climbing up the trunk and out onto the branches to add more material to it or more lanterns.

I whirled on the Council, and said, “OK. Those of you who knew that this was here, or who have even just heard of the Great Tree of Lanterns, just raise your hand.”

Only Jural and the Flits raised their hands.

“OK, that. That right there is the problem with this ship,” I said. “This thing has been built for generations, and those of you who bother to be on the Council have no clue that something like this is going on.” I watched their reactions for several seconds and then added, “What really appalls me is that I didn’t know it was there until I finally revisited Gopra Pyle this century. Like, the last time I was here, before that, it had to have been in the process of being constructed already, but I was so focused on the well being of my Student that I somehow had missed it.”

Eh looked like Eh was going to fall over from dizzying self-disgust. The others were in various states of frowning.

“Now,” I continued. “The whole city isn’t working on this. It’s just a big project a lot of people are participating in. But, all the usual things you find in a city are also still going on. There are libraries, food artisans, people who make clothing, a local government, Tutors and Students, all of that. But there’s something else even better underneath it all. How many of you have heard about the school here?”

This time everyone raised their hands but Jural and the Flits.

“Oh, that’s interesting!” I said. “Let me guess, though. It’s the Tutors. Our reports refer to it when our Students are involved, right? But not the tree.”

“Correct,” said Eh.

“Let’s go take a tour of it all, though,” I suggested, and started leading them further toward the city center. “Because, what I’m thinking is that Tutor reports of anything is just not going to be enough. Not on a regular basis. Not when we’re all missing important aspects of the culture of our own world.”

“I think what you are not taking into account, Abacus,” Fenmere said, “is the full ship records. This is all in there. Yes, Tutor reports come directly to the Auditor to be processed and then sent to the Bridge. But all of the ship’s sensors are recording everything that’s going on. Anything that’s in public space or that has been flagged for public access is readable by anyone. Also, there are people of many types who are compiling books and reports like yours. You are only the second Tutor to do so, which is significant, but the Monsters especially are busy recording and commenting on everything they see. And whenever someone needs to know about something, they look it up, including the Council. We don’t need to know this stuff on a day to day basis, we have the Sunspot’s memory.”

“Are you pointing that out so that I put it into my book?” I asked. “Or are you trying to get a rise out of me? Or are you justifying your complacency to yourself? Because I know by the expression you just had that you realized how bad it was that you didn’t know about the Great Tree of Lanterns.” I wheeled on them all again, “This is not really about any of us learning anything new, or gaining new wisdom. We’re all either centuries or millennia old, or we’re going to be someday. It’s about changing habits that we now recognize are bad. Please, just follow me.”

After walking a little further, past children playing and Children working on projects together or enjoying a mid day meal, I said over my shoulder, “What I want you to realize is how fun this is.” 

Then I walked up to a drink artisan who had a couple of large drums of liquid and numerous bottles of other things, and racks of spices all arranged on a couple of tables, and waited for them to finish talking to their friend. The artisan was a big, round person, with barrel-like legs, strong arms, and chubby fingers. They had round, articulate ears, and a big black nose, with a bifurcated upper lip, and beautifully expressive jowls. And they were mostly covered in large, thick, hard scales, with two ridges of them running from the back of their head down to the tip of their big, triangular tail. But their chest was covered in this gorgeous, thick, red fur.

“Hello friend,” they said to me. “My name is Berrick. Sie/hir. Pleased to meet you!”

“Hi! I’m Abacus, it/its,” I responded. “I’m sorry to just go right to your artwork, but I have a group of friends here with me, all of us with nanite exobodies, whom I think should try your concoctions. Believe it or not, these things can taste the most amazing things!”

“Really!” Berrick said, grabbing a handmade ceramic cup. “My Tutor hadn’t told me that yet. That is something I am really pleased to hear! What would you like?”

“Well, I personally want your favorite drink,” I said. “I’m going to offer sips to them, to see if they want to try anything else you like making. So a bigger cup than that might be nice.”

“OK, no problem!” Berrick exclaimed, grabbing the largest mug there. And then sie started getting to work. “So, if you’ll pardon me observing, you’re not a typical Tutor. I’ve never seen one with a form like yours, and I don’t see your student. Do you have a story about that you’re willing to share?”

“Oh, sure!” I said. Some of the Council were starting to gather around me, while the others were poking at other things, or talking to other people. They seemed to be getting the idea already. I turned to Fenmere, “Exactly who was it that suggested I write my book, anyway?”

Fenmere grinned and said, “It was me, actually. Hi, Berrick. My name is Fenmere, keh/kihn. I’m a big fan of crafted beverages, and I’m eager to try one of yours.”

“Wonderful! Pleased to meet you! Oh, you’re Crew?”

“Everyone here with Abacus is Crew, as you can see,” Fenmere gestured around at the others.

Berrick’s eyes bugged out, “that’s more of you than I’ve seen in my life!”

“My hope,” I said. “Is that you will start to see a lot more of them, more often, in the future. Though, ancient habits are particularly hard to break.”

“This is true,” Fenmere said.

I turned to Fenmere again, “So, if I’m not mistaken, now that I’m thinking about what’s happening here, is that in lieu of my original assignment, Ni’a, who was assigned to their parent, Phage, to be tutored, I am now… Tutor to the Crew Council?”

“Mmm.” Fenmere grunted. “Not in the sense that you’d be the only Tutor working with us for the rest of foreseeable time. We need as many perspectives as possible. But that was part of my idea, yes.”

“So, yes, OK,” I turned back to Berrick. “After my last assignment ascended and no longer needed my counsel,” I gestured to Ktleteccete, “I was automatically assigned to another Student who had just been conceived, who eventually named themself Ni’a. But, before they were born, the Chief Engineer of the Sunspot, Phage -”

“Phage? The Chief Monster?” Berrick asked, clearly having read Metabang’s book.

“The very same,” I replied and gave hir a moment to process that.

“I am in awe that I get to learn this story from you,” Berrick said, placing my drink in front of me.

“That’s the thing,” I said. “We really shouldn’t be in a place where people like the Crew or Phage inspire that awe. Though, in the case of Phage…”

Berrick tilted a look at me that said, I’ve got you there.

“Anyway, Phage claimed that Ni’a was its child, and that it wanted to raise them,” I continued with my story. “The Council, being in awe of Phage, and recently willing to try new things anyway, acquiesced. And then, instead of letting me be assigned to yet another Student, Fenmere here suggested that I focus on writing a book about Phage attempting to raise a child, and everything has sort of developed from there. And at a certain point, I realized that my old form wasn’t pleasing to me anymore, so I changed it. Then I discovered I could taste things!” And I took a sip of the drink.

It was a warm, formula based fruit drink, where the formula had been frothed to a creamy foam, with just a hint of mulling spices carefully applied to not overpower the base flavors. Of course, I could taste every ingredient and focus on its chemical profile individually, and I took a moment to do that, but the real joy of it was in the harmony of flavors and the aroma as well. And the way that it hit my pallet as my nanites worked to create a naturalized intake of simulated breath before the liquid passed my lips. And also the way that the flavors faded differently with time, the chemical elements being processed differently. I am certain the experience is not at all the same as having a biological mouth. I don’t have saliva, and that should affect things. But, presumably my nanite protocols are designed to emulate the average mouth as best they can as they interface with my psyche.

“Oh, that makes me feel so much better,” I said. Then I passed the drink to Fenmere, and said, “You should try this and pass it around.”

“Absolutely. Thank you,” said Fenmere.

“Huh,” I thought. “Something is occurring to me.”

“What is it?” asked Berrick.

“Well,” I looked slightly over at Fenmere, and then at Eh, then decided to go forward with it. “The Elder Crew can do this thing with nanites that is forbidden to everyone else. They are capable of using them to disassemble nearly any piece of matter that they like. I am not sure if there are any actual limits. But neither you nor I can do that. However, we can eat and drink food with them, taste the flavors of what we consume, and our nanites break that matter down and use it as energy and material resources anyway. I’m wondering what the difference is.”

“Nuance,” said Fenmere.

I turned to kihn and asked, “Can I eat a rock?”

“Not in the same way you can eat a piece of fruit,” keh replied. “You could taste it. And you could hide it in your body. But it won’t dissolve.”

“Nuance,” I gestured to Fenmere while looking at Berrick, who looked fairly taken aback. Then I said to Fenmere, “I’d like to talk to you more about this in detail later.”

“OK, but the closer you get to the asymptote, the less that nuance will do for you,” Fenmere replied cryptically. Keh had passed the drink on at that point, and was leaning forward to read the labels on things. “Berrick, if you were to create a drink inspired by the word ‘asymptote’, that is what I would like today.”

That was not hard for me to interpret. When it came to giving or revoking permissions to either create or destroy a ship, when 900,000 different individuals who didn’t agree with each other about everything have those permissions, nuance is all you have. Every move you make is already the tiniest of nuance. Maybe, even, the best thing to do is have nobody move. I’d already figured this out, really. But maybe I hadn’t really internalized it, since I was bringing it up again and again. Time to move on again.

“Berrick,” I said, “thank you so much. If you ever need a good story, for whatever reason, I’m always happy to tell you something. Just let me know. I’m going to go hunt down my drink, and let the others chat with you. And a good day to your Tutor, too. If it hasn’t tried one of your drinks, yet, it really should!”

“It’s been an honor,” Berrick said. “I’ll make one special for it.”

Then I went to retrieve my drink from Jedekere, who was the last to try it.

“Going to try one for yourself?” I asked.

“No, this was good and I get the point,” keh said. “I’m more interested in what the rest of this city has to show me.”

“Fair,” I said, diplomatically.

Keh smirked at me.

And, really, we all went on like this for a couple hours. We had conversations with various Children and their Tutors. We poked our heads into workshops, and tried on clothing, or admired sculpture, or put things in baskets. And we talked about the lines of cooperation and collaboration that we could see weaving throughout the city toward the making of the Great Tree of Lanterns. But, we didn’t make it to the school, which I am still upset about.

We were, actually, I think, having so much fun. Just as I’d hoped. It seemed that way. Fenmere and Jedekere were, at least, talking about how to get other Crew Councils in the habit of doing this kind of thing regularly, which is exactly what I was going for. Eh told me that I should offer tours like this to other Crew members, and maybe even groups of Tutors who are between assignments. Jural and the Flits seemed the least impressed, but still suitably engaged. But that was understandable as they both were very young, still had biological bodies, and were closer to this world. They were still of it. But they were watching their Elders with an intense curiosity and speaking secretly to each other about them, learning in their own ways.

And then Tektlexege found an oddity when we were almost directly under the Tree, and called Fenmere over to look at it.

“Is this an artifact of Fairport?” Keh asked, pointing at it.

“No,” siad Fenmere, picking up the bowl in question. “We don’t have this kind of iconography there. And only one person on the Sunspot has a handprint like this, and their hand is too small.” 

It was a serving bowl with a large, long fingered handprint in the middle of it. It looked like Ni’a’s hand, but several times bigger. It was wooden and on a table full of other decorated wooden dishes.

The two Crew members looked around in concerned curiosity. The artist was nowhere in sight. But then Fenmere saw something else.

“Oh, that’s not good,” keh grumbled as keh waddled over to a game set. It had a checkered surface on the top of a box, with an array of sixteen game pieces on either side of it, arranged for some sort of two player conflict. Each of the figures was shaped like a finely sculpted person. And they all looked very similar, different clothing and implements, but with the same phenotypes as Ni’a. Fenmere said a bit louder, “What is going on here?”

“Look at that!” Ktleteccete exclaimed, pointing at a small sculpture at the end of a far table. It was the figure of a person, again, of the similar phenotypes as Ni’a, but an adult, with heavy breasts and a full belly, looking down at themselves in some sort of emotional thought.

Eh had been watching this exchange from the beginning, and stepped nearer the trio and said, “Do you think it could be inspired by Jenifer’s speeches or some of the content of Abacus’ books?”

Fenmere replied, shaking kihn’s head, “The detail of each figure is too good, too much like each one is modeled off of a different person. I was thinking this might be a subconscious bleed through from the Tunnel and maybe Phage’s presence on the ship. Like, what would happen if the Bashiketa was infused with nanites, and their visions could somehow make it across the Network to other artists. But I’d think it would take longer to happen.”

“I am very concerned about this painting!” Gnargrim said, stepping out from a booth across the street, holding an illustration of a person in an exosuit that was rigged with heavy equipment of unidentifiable use. The background was a ruinous landscape with bodies and the wreckage of exosuits scattered about.

“I think we’re being sent a message,” Fenmere said.

Jedekere was stepping forward from another booth full of clothing, holding a dress with the words, “It’s a boy!” printed across the belly when keh noticed a wall scroll hung next to Gnargrim that had beautifully scrawled words saying, “May my son know peace in his lifetime.” 

And keh was pointing it out when Jural said, “Something’s wrong.”

“Definitely,” said Fenmere.

“No, it’s the Brid-” Hetty Flit was saying when ter nanite exobody collapsed and crumbled to the ground.

Almost simultaneously, everyone else’s exobodies followed suit, except for me, Ktleteccete, and Eh.

Eh looked very confused, and took a step toward me and Ktleteccete, as we happened to be near each other. But as ihns foot landed on the ground, parts of ihns exobody fell away in clumps to the ground, and what was left transformed into the shape of a person of similar appearance to Ni’a, but taller, with straighter hair and clothing that was covered in external pockets. And ihns presence in the Network space of the street disappeared, just as the others had, but this time to be instantly replaced with that of another.

As the disowned clumps of nanite clay began to slowly ooze toward nearby storm drains, Gesetele, the Hunter, stood before me, looking me right in my eyes, and said, “Abacus, I invite you to the Bridge of the Sunspot to converse with me.”

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