2.28 A Very Small Ethical Dilemma

As Ni’a slowly pulled themself away from the near mindlessness of fine tuning their shipwide autonomic functions, and were just beginning to feel the nerves of their body again, they noticed Phage briefly pushing into the space of the Sunspot and doing something quick and violent. It removed itself so swiftly again, retreating back through the Tunnel to the Terra Supreme, that Ni’a didn’t have a chance to ask it what had happened.

They decided to investigate where it had occurred. It had been a very localized event, almost certainly within the immediate vicinity of Bashiketa. Right in the middle of a mountain.

The rooms there were almost entirely devoid of Sunspot sensors. No lone cameras, no sensor suites, just a partially disabled holoterminal and a couple of heavily modified tablets. The inputs for these devices were purely manual. And the Network protocols for the devices had been heavily obfuscated with layers of permission requirements and channel spoofing. The code wasn’t something Ni’a understood intellectually, but they could see the shape of it by looking at it with their true senses.

Which is what it appeared they had to do to get a vision of the rest of the scene. There was no further investigation possible via ship systems, except maybe from regional sensors that would pick up a wide area sweep of data that just happened to cover this mountain. Looking at it from that angle, using the technology at hand, was more restrictive than looking at the Sunspot as a whole with their true senses as they had been moments ago.

But, wait. The immediate room, the one where Bashiketa and their tunnel were located, was covered in a thin film of nanites. There was no nanite bin there, but someone had delivered nanites to the suite. There were also small traces of nanites in the medical bin, but those would be programmed specifically to work in bandages and disconnected from the Network in this case.

Ni’a dove into those that filled the room, and they stopped their slow creep toward the door. They didn’t form an exobody. Or rather, they kept the form of their new exobody a shapeless smear, covering everything. This allowed them to perceive the health status of the three people in the room as ship read data.

Fredge and Laal were unconscious but unharmed, and Bashiketa was just coming to, from a dissociative fugue state. Whatever Phage had done, it had neutralized and dispersed the nanites, probably after it had dropped the three people into various states of unconsciousness.

They were also able to see that Phage had left some writing on the table, “ge ‘afija’o.” Bashiketa was just reading it at that point.

Ni’a used their true senses to check all of the energy states of the room to look for traces of what had happened. All they could find was clear evidence that a nanite exobody had walked down the hallway to the room and entered the door. So they traced the exobody’s trail up the hallway to where it had originated from. And this led them to a lift shaft, which only went down. But it went all the way down to the fallow decks below, and the trail ended in a nearby room where the nanite bin registered a use and a refill from the ship’s systems. The ID on that command had been erased somehow.

At that point, they decided to return to Bashiketa to talk to them and check on their caretakers.

There were more nanites there than needed to form a replica of their living vessel, even at their highest density, so as they were working on drawing them together for an exobody they thought about what to do with the extras. A vision came to them from their deep subconscious of a lizard-like being with seven limbs, four legs, a tail, and a pair of wings, with a long neck, and horns coming out of the back of the head. It was weird. But also familiar and enticing. This sort of vision seemed to be something Phage experienced frequently, so Ni’a thought maybe they’d inherited it. Which kind of felt nice. They decided to just use the wings from the vision, and attach those to their own body. It wouldn’t make any sense anatomically in a biological form, but these being nanites, that didn’t matter. They even had them coming out through the “fabric” of the simulated shirt they included with that body.

There was no point in a Network projection, since Bashiketa wouldn’t be able to see that.

They stood a meter behind the chair that was opposite from Bashiketa at the table where they sat, and said, “Bashiketa, my name is Ni’a. My pronouns are they/them. Are you OK?”

“I think I breathed some nanites,” Bashiketa said, looking confused and still not quite all there.

“Ah, I took those from your body. They were already coming out on their own,” Ni’a replied. “You have to give them consent before they’ll do anything for you.”

“I think I want them,” Bashiketa said.

Ni’a gestured at the empty seat, “May I sit with you? I’m sorry I didn’t ask if I could visit, but I thought this might be an emergency.”

“OK,” Bashiketa murmured.

The chair was made for people with tails, but it was OK. And as Ni’a sat themselves down, carefully maneuvering their wings, and skooched it in, they said, “Some neat things would happen if you took the nanites. I think some people are scared of you doing that, though. And I don’t think I can stop them from doing bad things to you, or to the Sunspot. Phage might be able to, though.”

“Can you give me some?” Bashiketa asked.

“Yes,” Ni’a said. “But I would like to know some things first.”

“What about Fredge and Laal?”

“They are OK, and will probably wake up soon. Can you tell me about yourself?”

“Um. This is where I grew up? My name is Bashiketa. My pronouns are they/them. And I have a hole in my mind that other people can go through. And I have a counterpart.”

“Thank you. I know all that. Do you know your counterpart’s name yet?”

“No.”

“It’s Thomas. He is nice, but not all nice. His world is cruel to him. And I think you should talk to him more. He’d like that.”

“Oh.”

Ni’a started to trace something on the now clean table, leaving a trail of nanite clay on it, using their finger like a pencil. They weren’t fully aware of what it was they were drawing, but they said, “I want to know more about this place. Do you know who visited you and brought you these nanites?”

“Our Benefactor,” Bashiketa replied. “They’re Crew, I think.”

Fredge groaned and Bashiketa looked down at them.

Ni’a kept drawing and asked, “Have you been to the rooms below this one?”

“No,” said Bashiketa.

“I think you came from them, actually. I want to see them. I think you should, too.” Ni’a was finishing up the drawing. It was a cutaway diagram of what must be the complex they were in. The suite of quarters where they were right now were at the top of the map, near where Ni’a was seated. The bottom of the map was closer to Bashiketa, so that down was logical to their perspective. Ni’a let their subconscious start to label the rooms and wrote the words in, upside down to themself, right side up to Bashiketa. Then they pointed at a room two storeys below this one, and said, “The original Tunnel is there. It’s not open right now, but it can be. I think that seeing how it works will tell us a lot.”

“I’m not supposed to go there,” Bashiketa said. “The people there haven’t given me consent.”

“Hmm…” Ni’a pursed their lips. Then they nudged the psyches of Fredge and Laal more toward consciousness. It was a simple matter of adjusting the flow of entropy through their systems, so things happened faster in a natural way. Ni’a told themself it wasn’t a violation of their consent, because it was simply as if time moved faster for them and they still experienced what they’d experience. They also knew that justifying it that way was right on the thin edge of going too far, and resolved not to cross that line.

However, what Phage had done here today certainly did not involve the Benefactor’s consent. And they were trying to figure out what they thought of that when both Fredge and Laal started to prop themselves up and notice their surroundings. Actually, Phage had likely violated their consents as well.

Ni’a spoke next more for the adults’ benefit than Bashiketa’s, but they addressed the Monster child, “Bashiketa, do you think Fredge and Laal will be able to help us to access the labs below?”

“I don’t know,” Bashiketa said.

Fredge pulled themself up into their chair, claws on the edge of the table. When their eyes were just above the level of the table and they caught sight of Ni’a, they asked, “Who are you?” 

“My name is Ni’a. My pronouns are they/them. I am Phage’s child, and I’m doing its job right now. How are you?” Ni’a replied and asked.

“My name is Fredge – “

“Sorry, I asked ‘how’, not who,” Ni’a gently interrupted them. “Sorry, that was rude. But I care about you.”

“Why?” asked Fredge, as Laal was getting seated on the other side of Bashiketa. “What happened to the Benefactor?”

“Well, Phage happened to the Benefactor,” Ni’a smirked. “And I care about you because you live on the Sunspot, which makes you my family. You being here makes my life happier. But if you are suffering, that isn’t good.”

“What’s this?” Laal asked, pointing at the map on the table.

“Your home,” Ni’a said, and then pointed at the rooms near the top of the drawing. “We are here, where you live.”

“OK,” Fredge said. “We know about the person you say you are. Phage Pember, Morde, and Aphlebia all told us about them. But how do we know that you are them? How do we know you are not the Benefactor putting on an act?”

“They’d do that?” Ni’a asked.

“I don’t think so?” Fredge replied. “But since we have no way of checking your identity, you could be anyone trying to impress or fool us”

With tight lips, Ni’a twisted their mouth up and said, “Hmm…” again. “There is a thing that nanites cannot do. Do you have some fruit?”

Fredge asked Laal to get a banana from the food preserver. Which hen did, bringing it back and plunking it down in the middle of the table before taking hens seat again.

“Oh, I wish it wasn’t a banana,” Ni’a said.

“Why not?” asked Laal.

“Because I hate the smell.” Then Ni’a frowned at the Banana and accelerated all of its energy flow, which involved also carefully altering the passage of energy in the table and the air around most of the room, and doing so with just a gentle touch that it didn’t affect anything else in the room. They had become quite good at this in the past three days. It was nothing compared to preserving a gigantic generational starship in the throws of fibrillation and keeping it from hurting its own populace.

The life support systems of the quarters switched to an audible setting to compensate, and then the banana rotted right in front of everyone. Several days of decay set in in a matter of seconds. It made a mess. And the smell was atrocious.

“It gets bad,” Ni’a said, “because it all comes out at once instead of slowly, like usual.”

“Shit buckets!” Laal exclaimed, then looked horrified at Ni’a. “Can you do that to a person?”

Ni’a gave Laal a steady and stern look, and said, “I will not. Ever.” They did their best to make that “ever” sound like a law of space/time, since as far as they were concerned it was.

“That was faster than an avocado,” Fredge mumbled. Then they said, “That convinces me. You’re either Phage or Ni’a. And I don’t see why either of you would lie to us. It’s an honor to meet you, Ni’a.”

“It is an honor to meet you, Fredge,” Ni’a replied.

“Can you do something about that smell and mess?” Fredge asked.

“Oh, sorry. Yeah,” Ni’a said, and then put the banana in stasis while using manipulated air currents to usher the odor particles to the air filter faster. Then they explained, “I can’t use the nanites to break it down, though. I don’t have permission.”

They all could already breathe easier, though.

“I’ll clean it up,” Laal said.

“Thank you,” Fredge told hen.

“Oh, wait,” Ni’a said, a thought occurring to them from their memories of earlier that morning. “I think I can eat it!”

“Oh, please don’t do that,” Fredge said. “I don’t think I could stand to watch.”

Bashiketa just shook their head in horror at the idea.

“Instead,” Fredge said. “Could you tell us what we can do for you? You were asking for help? What can we do to help a being as powerful as you?”

“I’d like you and Bashiketa to see the first Tunnel with me,” Ni’a said. “I think it would be good. It should be right under the banana.”

“But you could just walk in there yourself, right?” Fredge asked.

“I really don’t like violating consent,” Ni’a said. “I need you to ask the people you know down there if we can visit.”

“Really?” Fredge was incredulous. “What about knocking us out cold and making the Benefactor go away? I’m assuming that’s what happened, considering the results.”

“Phage did that. It doesn’t care about consent as much as I do.”

“Why did it do that?”

“It cares about Bashiketa. I think it thought they were going to get hurt.”

“OK,” said Fredge. “Unfortunately, I think we’re going to have to circumvent our colleagues’ consent anyway, though. They might let Laal and I in, and they might even let Bashiketa in. But if they know who you are, they probably won’t let you in.”

Ni’a frowned and said, “Poop.”

Fredge put their hand on the table, partway toward Ni’a and offered a thought, “There are cases where it is OK to break consent in order to save people’s lives, right?”

Ni’a thought about that and considered what they had just done by appearing in these quarters to check on Bashiketa and the others, and tentatively uttered, “yes. I hope so.”

“This might be that kind of case,” Fredge said.

“How do you tell what the right thing to do is?” Ni’a asked.

“Well, you kinda can’t,” Fredge said. “Unless you have perfect knowledge, where you know exactly what’s going to happen in every little change of what you do, and what the consequences will be, you have to just make a guess and hope you did right. In this case, we’re weighing the interests of my colleagues and my Benefactor against whatever it is you need to gain.” Fredge looked over at Bashiketa and Laal and then asked Ni’a, “Can you tell us why we need to look at this Tunnel machinery? What problem are you trying to solve by learning about it?”

“Oh. If I know how it works, I can help Bashiketa in a better way, I think,” Ni’a said. Then they thought about what they had been feeling while trying to stabilize the ship’s social systems. “But also, this Tunnel is a big secret that is hurting the Sunspot. I can tell, because a lot of the really big waves feel like they come from it. If I can be the one to reveal the secret, I may be able to stop a lot of pain.”

“Hmm,” Fredge scratched the underside of their chin, ears flipping back, eyes half closed. “What do you think Phage did to our Benefactor?”

“It probably didn’t hurt them, just scared them and made them leave their nanites and the room,” Ni’a answered. Having seen what Phage was doing on Terra Supreme to try to stabilize things there, Ni’a felt pretty confident in this answer. It absolutely could kill someone, or seriously injure them, or change them in permanent ways, but it seemed to be very carefully choosing not to, even when that left a bad actor loose who would just do something undesirable again. It would just counteract that person’s actions as many times as it needed to, repeatedly telling them to do better.

“I don’t know much about Crew ways,” Fredge said. “But they seemed really upset and on the verge of doing something desperate and hurtful. If you think you can really help Bashiketa and the Sunspot by seeing the original Tunnel and having us see it too, we should probably act fast.”

“What should we do?” Ni’a asked.

“I see two options,” Fredge replied. “Either you sneak in while we gain consent for ourselves, or you pull rank.”

“Pull rank?”

“You basically walk up to the front door as you are now and introduce yourself. Make another banana rot, or something like that. And then tell them why it is time to reveal the Tunnel to the whole Sunspot and to let you be the one to do it,” Fredge said.

By this date, most of the doors on inhabited buildings and quarters on the Sunspot had been replaced with nanite clay membranes, which could open and close and do a variety of things in ways that were customizable by anyone with permissions to do so. If the door belonged to your own quarters, you could set it up to always open and close in a particular way, for instance, except for when someone had a custom program for their own accommodations. Or you could set up the door to accept all custom programs, as directed by anyone using it. A lot of people have been having a great deal of fun with this.

In contrast, almost all of the doors of the Fallow Decks, such as Bashiketa’s quarters, have the old technology, which is a simple sliding panel of memory material that rolls into the wall.

The door to the labs, however, was a big, heavy, swinging affair that was a quarter of a meter thick and had a panel in the middle of it that could be switched between transparent, opaque, and one way mirror settings. And this door was hidden behind a regular sliding door that could only be opened by a modified tablet.

Bashiketa watched from their traditional wheelchair as Laal opened the outer door with hens tablet, and then waved everyone into the hall between the doors. Once everyone was inside, the sliding door closed. Then Laal used hens tablet to signal Melik that hens family wanted to visit. Fredge then told Ni’a to stand front and center, facing the currently opaque panel in the big door. Which they did, being sure to fold their wings enough that the rest of them could be seen clearly by anyone looking.

Laal’s tablet beeped, indicating a received message. And Laal looked at it and said, “OK.”

Bashiketa felt very worried that this was all going to backfire in an embarrassing way.

Then the opaque panel became a mirrored surface, and a speaker near the door said, “Who are you?” Bashiketa knew the voice as Melik’s.

“My name is Ni’a, Student of Phage, and my pronouns are they/them. I am with Bashiketa, Fredge, and Laal to ask for a tour of your labs,” Ni’a said.

“It’s true,” added Laal. “We need to do this.”

“Why should we let someone who calls themself Ni’a in, even if they are the actual Ni’a?” Melik’s voice asked. How did Melik know about Ni’a? Abacus’ book?

Bashiketa felt so tense about this exchange that their stomach started aching, and they started rocking in their chair and pushing it forward and backward to soothe themselves. It was sort of an offset rhythm – rock, rock, forward, rock rock, backward, etc. It helped, but not really enough.

Ni’a didn’t seem the slightest bit nervous. And they replied, “I can show you who I am. And then I can tell you why I need to see the Tunnel. Is that OK?”

There was a long pause, during which Bashiketa involuntarily started whining. Fredge offered them a hand to hold, but Bashiketa shook their head and continued stimming with their chair. Holding Fredge’s hand would make that impossible, and the stimming was important.

“What’s the demonstration?” Melik asked.

“You don’t have any nanites in there,” Ni’a observed.

“Not yet. And preferably not ever.”

“OK,” Ni’a responded to that, drawing it out as if they were thinking. “Do you have a piece of fruit that is fresh and that I can ruin? We have one here, but I think you will be more impressed if I do this through the door.”

“What are you going to do?” Melik sounded very concerned and maybe alarmed.

“I can make it rot really fast, but nanites can’t do that. And I can do it through the door,” Ni’a explained. “I won’t hurt you. Ever,” they added. “I just want to show you what I am. It’s a neat trick, too!”

“OK, we are placing an orange in a sealed glass jar, on a table in front of the door. If you can rot that, we will listen to you,” Melik replied after another worrisome pause.

“Ooh! Good choice,” Ni’a said. “Give me a moment to feel where it is. This won’t take long,” they were closing their nanite eyes while they said this. “And then, there! How’s that?”

There was silence for such a long time that Bashiketa yelped.

“That is utterly terrifying,” Melik said finally. “We have to take your word that that is not a threat, and that is hard to do.”

“I know,” Ni’a said sadly. “I can’t help that. I am scary. I killed my sibling’s body during a fit, and forced them to ascend very early. Phage, who likes to be called my mother, taught me how to not do that again, but I still feel very guilty about it. Have you read Systems’ Out!?”

“Yes,” replied Melik.

“Then you know what Phage says it is. But, Phage doesn’t really know what it is, only what it can do. And I can do those things too. Especially when it’s not here,” Ni’a explained. “We think it came from the Tunnel, and if we can find out how the Tunnel works, maybe we can know if that’s true. And the original Tunnel equipment on the Terra Supreme is destroyed. Only Bashiketa and Thomas remain for that connection.”

“Interesting.”

“I’m not done,” Ni’a said. “This is important. The Tunnel is not a secret anymore. But what it is and how it works still is. People are scared. I need to unscare them. If I can tell them what it is, I can do that in the right way.”

“Melik,” Fredge interjected. “Have you seen what’s been happening for the past three days? Ni’a can stop that. With Phage not here on the Sunspot, it is their job. This is a matter of the ship’s safety, and the Sunspot’s Chief Monster has left its child in charge. We need to help them. But they are asking politely because they would rather leave you alone and risk their ability to help the ship than to violate your consent.”

“Will you go away and not bother us again, if I tell you ‘no’?” Melik asked.

“Yes, definitely,” Ni’a said. “And I will still do my best to protect the ship and keep you safe.”

The mirrored panel suddenly became clear. On the other side of it was Melik, who Bashiketa recognized immediately. Te was a person with a wide, rounded face, with a very wide mouth, comma shaped nostrils, eyes nearly on the sides of ter head, with fluted, very mobile ears high on ter head. Te was holding a sealed bell jar up that was frosted with condensation. And within it was a desiccated, discolored orange. Ter expression was very grim.

“Don’t do this again,” te said. “My name is Melik, and my pronouns are te/ter/tem. You can come in.”

Melik stepped aside, and the door started to slowly swing inward. The table that had presumably been in the way of the door had also been moved aside, and Melik placed the jar with the orange on it carefully. Melik was just a couple centimeters shorter than Fredge.

“I imagine the Benefactor is not going to be happy with any of this,” Melik said. “If they don’t already know about it. But, as far as I am concerned, you are the Monster’s child and they are Crew. You are central to everything I believe in, and they are not. Please, please follow me.”

As Melik led them further into the lab, everything started to feel more relaxed, and Bashiketa’s mind was free enough from worry that they began to think about trying to talk to their counterpart, Thomas.

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