“I don’t understand this maneuver,” I told Gesetele once we appeared on the Bridge. It was empty besides the two of us.
“I need an advocate, and I need it to be you,” Gesetele replied. And because of the drift of the Bridge, I knew this to be what keh genuinely believed. At least on the surface.
I’m not used to the drift. I’m not entirely sure how it works. It at least makes it easier to share surface thoughts, almost reflexive. You have to work to not do so. But I don’t know if you can truly hide things from each other. I don’t know the cues to look for, or the tricks to doing so. Gesetele presumably had the advantage.
“Does the Bridge record more than just the words we speak to each other?” I asked.
“Yes,” Gesetele answered. “Our surface thoughts are recorded as well, especially the ones we share.”
“Ah, so that’s why you chose this place,” I observed.
For someone doing something desperate and highly illegal, likely to get kihn slapped with a severe sanction with what looked like some of the greatest stakes aboard the Sunspot on the line, Gesetele was being remarkably calm and patient with me. That made me feel nervous. Like I was being stalked or played with.
But I’d been fighting with the entire Council lately, and I’d started developing some interesting reactions to nervousness and threats.
As keh watched me, I manifested a copy of my sunning rock in the middle of the Bridge and then climbed up on top of it, stretching out, resting my chin on my arms, and looking back down at Gesetele. I lazily slapped the spike of my tail against the rock, making a clacking noise. Hailing Scales, as Jenefere would say, I love that thing.
“OK,” I said. “I’m ready to hear your story.”
“It’s really simple,” Gesetele said. “So ridiculously simple. I wouldn’t have to do this if there weren’t so many layers of fear and interpersonal politics in the way of communicating with the others.”
“I believe you,” I said. “Also, most of them aren’t even listening or paying attention. Doing something dramatic increases the chances they’ll look up and see what you have to say.”
“I sure hope so,” Gesetele responded. “But at least now I know it will be on record in multiple ways.”
“I got slapped with a sanction so fast when I accidentally got close to your secret,” I said. “I’m not sure any Council that convenes after this will hear what I have to say. Some may, others might not. I can’t imagine I’m favored. Especially after I really pushed things the way I did.”
“Your book notes were a stunningly bad idea,” Gesetele said. “You have no idea how the different groups of Monsters will react to the incomplete writing. And they have yet to digest and act on it.”
“Then why do you trust me?” I asked.
“Because I read your writing.”
“Oh, you flatter me!”
“I really don’t,” Gesetele corrected. Keh didn’t elaborate, but I got the message through the drift. I apparently lack guile.
“Ah,” I said.
“You are,” Gesetele explained, “in the position of, what we used to call on the other ship, a journalist.”
I suddenly knew what keh meant by that, even though I didn’t have the background for it, but I responded with snarky ignorance anyway, “well, my book is a journal.”
“Are you ignoring the drift on purpose?” Gesetele asked.
“No, I am sassing you,” I said. A journalist, by the way, is sort of a cross between what I am doing now and a Monster. At least, that’s the ideal. I have no idea if the real journalists were actually held in that regard.
“OK,” keh said. “Do that. Moving along, then.”
“I’m listening.” And keh knew I meant it.
“There is an ancient tradition, older than anyone can possibly remember, except maybe Phage, called the Order of the Hunter,” Gesetele began. “As the taker of the title Gesetele, I am the Order of the Hunter aboard the Sunspot. There aren’t any others, officially, though Benejede has been an ally. And clearly Jenefere knows something about it. But as far as I know, all the others have remained ignorant to my purpose. So, when they learn snippets of what I do, they become terrified.”
“You make the Tunnel and then keep it open,” I said.
“Exactly,” Gesetele gestured assent toward me. “But there’s more. How the Tunnel works and what its purpose is. It wasn’t just some experiment to keep the Sunspot in contact with the Terra Supreme. In fact, the original Tunnel construction on the Terra Supreme was recently destroyed. Which is why we had to generate Bashiketa and their counterpart, to preserve the Tunnel. We got wind of what was going to happen, and took that desperate measure.”
That was not what I had expected. I’d thought it was political pressure aboard the Sunspot that had driven that move. “Really,” I said. “You weren’t afraid it would be discovered and shut down here?”
“No,” Gesetele dismissed. “Not with the relative stasis of this ship.”
“I find it interesting that you describe the Sunspot as being in any sort of stasis, when both Phage and Ni’a have called it a product of chaos that is beset with constant fibrillation.”
Gesetele smirked, “And yet you saw what started to happen when both Phage and Ni’a left the Sunspot, almost immediately, and how it grew in those three days.”
“I had chalked that up to the bombshells that Jenefere and I had released, and the events of Aphlebia’s ascension,” I said.
“The Nanite Innovation was arguably more controversial on a ship that had less open communication than today, less trust and more fear just below the surface, overturning all of our society, and yet it didn’t have nearly the same amount of violence as a result,” Gesetele said. “And you really should be able to remember the first two generations before Phage was invited aboard.”
I raised my head, eyes widening, lure rising higher, and ruffling my frills. I did remember. Something about the drift of the Bridge made it phenomenally easy to connect the associations necessary to bring those memories forward. Of course, at the time, I had not been privy to anything the Crew had been doing. I had not even been aware of what Phage was or of its presence when it finally came about. All of that had been obfuscated by the Crew’s sequestering. But the chaos and fear of that first century just ended one day, and the Crew had simply claimed credit for it. How had I forgotten that until now? I was very disturbed.
“I wouldn’t blame anyone for you forgetting that, Abacus,” Gesetele said. “It’s been such a long time, and so much was kept from you in the beginning, it just wasn’t relevant history after that. It probably never came up in your lessons. Especially with previous generations becoming Crew and sequestering themselves. The human psyche was never meant to remember more than a few decades, anyway. We’ve improved it, but not by that much.”
“OK,” I said, letting that calm me down. I could review the thoughts later. “You were saying that there was more.”
Right then, the Bridge sort of glitched.
It’s a radio, came the words to Ni’a’s conscious mind upon seeing it, even though they didn’t know what that meant. Fully connecting to the heritage that Phage had given them had resulted in this happening. It took some getting used to.
The central piece of Tunnel equipment was a brushed metal box with polished wood panels on either side of it, apparently purely for aesthetics. There was a black polymer material that was used for the trim, the feet of the box, and the grips of the dials that dotted the front surface of the box. There was a glass panel with a black sheet behind it that had various sliding pointers aimed at points along a horizontal line. The glass panel was wide, and all the pointers, markings, and the line were lit with an amber light. It was obvious that if you turned a dial, one or more of the pointers would move. There were a number of pointers along the bottom of the line, and a big one coming down from the top. Looking at it, Ni’a decided it was likely that the biggest dial would move the top pointer, and the smaller dials would change the arrangement and relationships of the smaller pointers. The smaller pointers were also clearly arranged in a sort of asymptotic curve. The pointers to the right were progressively closer together than the ones to the left. And the line had two markings on it. The first smaller pointer on the left was not lit up like the others. On the left, where the big pointer was stationed, there was a zero. On the right, there was an infinity symbol.
Above and behind this box was a fully operational holoterminal, but it wasn’t connected to any part of the ship, only to the Tunnel. In a pull out tray in the table that all this sat on, below the Tunnel, there was a keyboard with Fenekere markings on it.
“How does it work?” Laal asked.
“Each of the markers along the bottom represent one of our ancestor ships,” Melik said. Te pointed at the dark one, and said, “That one is the Terra Supreme. We can now only talk to the Terra Supreme by going through you, Bashiketa. They broke their Tunnel on the other end, and your counterpart is our only connection to them now. Anyway, you line up the pointer on the top with one of the indicators, by turning this dial, and wait for the operator of that ship to press their equivalent of this button here. And then you talk.” After a short pause to make sure everyone seemed to understand it, Melik then said, “And if one of the indicators turns green, you press that button. It automatically adjusts everything to align with the nearest green indicator, if more than one of them is green. If you press it again, it goes to the next green indicator.”
Fredge asked, “What happens when you turn the big dial all the way to the right?”
“Oh, I bet that’s a fun thing to do,” Laal said.
“We’re not ever supposed to do that,” Melik said.
Ni’a looked at tem with a warm smile, and asked, “But you did, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t, no,” Melik said. “I wasn’t alive yet.”
“But someone in this lab did that, right?” Ni’a pressed.
Melik pushed ter lips up in a kind of appreciative pout and nodded twice swiftly. Then teh walked over to the bookcase, and kept walking past it and several other bookcases that lined the wall, to almost the very end, and pulled down one of the books. When teh came back and opened it up, it displayed a ledger of sorts.
Each page had column upon column of pairs of numbers. It was pretty easy to read if you guessed what it was. On the right of each column was a timestamp, and the time stamps grew increasingly larger. And on the left, corresponding to each timestamp was a single digit number. Melik had opened the book to a page marked with a makeshift tab, and on that page was a heavily underlined entry amongst two full pages of entries. It was a single timestamp and the infinity symbol.
“If you enter a timestamp into our other system, over there,” Melik said, pointing to the other side of the room where there was another holoterminal and a large featureless box next to it. “You can get a recording of the communication corresponding to it. These hardbound books are redundant, but a tradition we continue anyway. The whole system may have been different on the first two ships that did this. There are some tricks to get ships beyond the thirty-one that are easily accessible through the dial interface,” Fenekere’s numeral system is base thirty-one, and there were thirty-one smaller pointers, “but we just generally don’t go that far back without doing relay work. Actually, we generally don’t communicate with other ships at all beyond very terse status updates.”
“Why is it controlled by such simple and limited technology?” Fredge asked.
“Durability and backward compatibility,” Melik said.
Laal pointed at the underlined entry, “And that’s when you set it to infinity,”
“Again, I did not,” Melik insisted. “But, yes. And if you enter that date into the record viewer, you get a white screen.”
“Is that all that happened?” Laal asked.
“No,” Ni’a stated somewhat more forcefully than they intended.
Melik glanced at them and added, “Not in the slightest.”
“That’s where Phage came from,” Ni’a said.
When the big heavy door to the lab opened and they all stepped through, Bashiketa realized that they had been expecting to enter a big room full of weird things they’d never seen before. But it was a wide hallway with three doors on either side and another door at the end. The first door on the left was open, revealing some living quarters, and the table that had been used in Ni’a’s demonstration was pushed halfway through it. Melik had used “we” a couple times, but no one else was in sight, yet. As far as Bashiketa knew, Melik was not a system, so the others must be in other rooms.
And as they approached the end of the hallway, Melik pointed at the third door on the right and said, “You were born in that room, Bashiketa! We can take a look at it later if you’d like.”
And it was the door on the end of the hallway that opened up to a room that was full of things Bashiketa had never seen before. Only, they were all pretty boring things that were like other things Bashiketa had seen. Mostly work benches with nothing on them, and a few holoterminals here and there. And maps and diagrams on the walls. On the far end of the room, in the center of the wall was a desk with a metal box on it and a holoterminal behind it. To the left of it were a row of bookshelves. To the right, there were more bookshelves. And Melik was talking to everyone about every piece of equipment in the room, as they were clearly headed toward the desk with the metal box.
Bashiketa again thought of Thomas. They had a name for him, now. And pronouns. Weird pronouns. Bashiketa had been through the list of pronouns used on the Sunspot in order to pick their own, but he/his/him was not on that list. It must be related to that thing about being a boy. It was a thing that intrigued Bashiketa but also simultaneously repulsed them. There was something about Thomas that wasn’t fully compatible with Bashiketa, and it wasn’t just their different bodies. But it was confusing, because sometimes it felt like Bashiketa was seeing and feeling things as if they were Thomas. Actually, maybe a lot of the time it had felt that way.
Thomas? Can you hear my thoughts? Bashiketa asked in their head.
Yeah, actually. Came the reply.
Do you know my name?
It’s Bashiketa. My pronouns are they/them.
Is there more than one of you?
Not that I know of, Bahiketa replied before even puzzling why Thomas would ask that. They figured it was because the two of them were already sharing consciousness, it kind of felt like there might be others. Do you ever feel like sometimes you’re me?
All the time. But not since I met Phage.
Phage is there?
Yes! You know it?
I know about it. I am friends with its child.
Ni’a is good.
Bashiketa watched Ni’a as they bent over to examine the metal box, as if the eyes of their nanite exobody worked like typical human eyes. I like them. They feel like calm.
They do. I wish we could see each other.
Me too. Do you think that Phage is keeping us from mixing together?
It actually said it is.
Oh, neat! Can you talk to it?
It’s not actually right here. It’s busy keeping the Terra Supreme from blowing up.
Oh. I was thinking we could try something with mirrors, but we’d need it to let us do it. I think.
Oh! Oh, that’s a cool idea! We’ll have to try it later, I think.
Just a sec. I need to –
And that was the last Bashiketa heard from Thomas for what felt like too long. And they worried about him.
“What if we set the dial to infinity again?” Bashiketa heard Ni’a asking.
“I tried to crack the Bridge myself before I came here,” Ktleteccete said.
“Gesetele has been studying with me far longer than you have, unfortunately,” Gelesere replied. Gelesere’s preferred avatar was a small, pointy nosed furry creature about the size of someone’s hand, with a naked tail. Keh also liked to float at about eye level with everyone else, as if someone was holding kihn by the scruff of kihns neck. You could watch kihns tiny mouth form the words when keh talked. The whole effect was disconcertingly silly.
Tetcha found xemself thinking about how the diversity of Crew bodies was even more wide and varied than those of the Children and Monsters. Biological bodies just could not match the variety of Crew forms. It was clearly physiologically impossible. And Tetcha wondered how they seemed to come to these shapes. Were they what these people had always felt like they should be, or had that changed over time? And then, of course, compare that to the Tutors, who all had very strange avatars that were often inanimate objects. But Tetcha couldn’t figure out which was more alien, Abacus’ bead or this little floating rodent. What was it like to have a tiny body like that?
Of course, for Tetcha, both Gelesere and Ktleteccete were the metallic gray of nanite clay. They’d taken the time to form exobodies to continue this discussion, as it seemed it would take more time than Ktleteccete had hoped.
“Well, I feel like I almost got in!” Ktleteccete bragged.
“But you didn’t.”
“What’s our goal?” Metabang asked. It had a nanite exoform, too, a graphene ball with a thin cloud of nanites in the air below it, faintly sparkling in the lights of the room. Did it ever want to be something else?
“Help Abacus,” Ktleteccete said. Xe was literally a carbon copy of Tetcha in shape and form. And Tetcha found this rather affirming. Xe was right when xe said xe didn’t have any dysphoria. But, over the centuries, would that shift and would Ktleteccete explore new forms? Tetcha would probably never learn that. Xe hoped to live three centuries, if possible, but you never knew for sure when that would come to an end. Xe knew of a Monster who was at least four centuries old, but that was apparently very rare. And after Tetcha’s death, Ktleteccete might live thousands of years, and become anything. And for some reason, that made Tetcha feel very calm and happy.
“But, what is its goal?” Metabang countered. “For that matter, what is Gesetele’s goal? These things matter.”
Morga Pember, leaning forward in the Pembers’ vessel, said, “The way that the Sunspot’s Bridge has been set up and managed all this time is clearly a problem. Whatever Gesetele’s goal is, it has highlighted this vulnerability. The Crew that have been sanctioned in this act were locked away by the whim of one person, Gesetele. Meanwhile, Abacus followed kihn to the Bridge of its own accord. Or was it under threat, Ktleteccete?”
“Well, yeah,” Ktleteccete said. “If there was a threat, it was implied. I don’t know what it was thinking.”
“Perhaps it was simply willing to talk,” Morga offered. “It is working on its book, and Jen says that Gesetele is the one that created the Tunnel, which now resides in Bashiketa. Gesetele is the one that the Crew under Eh seemed most afraid of, and the reason why they had placed a sanction on Abacus. Or at least, that’s what it was strongly hinting in the book notes we read. This would be an opportunity for it to learn more. Let Gesetele tell kihns side of the story. In fact, that might simply be Gesetele’s goal here.”
“What Gesetele just did is going to result in a massive and brutal sanction, though!” Ktleteccete countered. “Can telling kihns side of the story really be worth it?”
Tetcha nodded and gestured in agreement with that, then added, “Abacus has not been acting like itself since this book assignment.”
“I think that’s because it’s finally discovering itself,” Metabang said. “I know my journey has appeared slower, but the same thing has been happening to me since I wrote my book. Though, the Pembers themselves may have something to do with it as well. And, you and Morde. And the Flits.”
“We want to free Jural and the Flits,” Morga said. “Everything else is secondary to that for us, at the moment. Sorry.”
“I mean, fortunately, it’s all part of the same plan,” Ktleteccete said.
“Ahem,” Gelesere cleared kihns throat pointedly. Then when everyone was looking at kihn, keh said, “We have two actions we are obligated to take on behalf of the Sunspot. The first is to contact the rest of the Crew and let them know what is happening and what we are doing about it. The second is to try to wrest control of the Bridge from Gesetele. Everything else comes from doing that. The sanctioned members can be freed from the Bridge. Gesetele can be judged from the Bridge. And Abacus can be freed from the Bridge. If Abacus needs more story from Gesetele, it will have the freedom to seek it, if it itself hasn’t done anything to draw more sanction. Anyway, I can help you get the Bridge back. And I have an interesting idea for how to do that.”
“I’ll alert the Crew,” Metabang offered. “With my multitudes, I can do that marginally faster and with considerably less effort than Ansel or Badly Fitting Brachy-form. Also, my name may draw some extra attention. I will, of course, with everyone’s consent, credit all of us.”
“I’m not going to be much help in this,” Tetcha said, genuinely feeling left out. “But you can put my name in there.”
“I’ll keep you up to date on all of our progress, and you can be the Monster eyes on the project,” Morde said, placing a glove on Tetcha’s hand. Tetcha smiled back.
Everyone else nodded in some way.
“OK, then,” Gelesere said. “Who wants to help me build a second Bridge?”
“What?!” shouted Jen.
“We don’t have much time now,” Gesetele said.
I simply nodded.
“The Tunnel goes all the way back to our origins,” Gesetele said.
I stared at Gesetele, waiting for more. I knew there was more. The drift was telling me there was more. I was, in fact, learning what that more was.
Gesetele stared back at me. I could not tell why Gesetele wasn’t speaking.
“If you want this on record, you’re going to have to talk,” I said.
“When we don’t talk, the drift records our surface thoughts more thoroughly,” Gesetele replied. “I wanted a few moments of that for clarity when others go over this.”
“It’s my duty to preserve that connection. It’s our lifeline to existence itself,” Gesetele explained. “When the Crew of the Sunspot first gathered aboard the Terra Supreme to create our new vessel, there was such a drive to cut ourselves off from the culture of that ship, I had to operate in secret. Fortunately, the Order of the Hunter was already a secret aboard the Terra Supreme, for other reasons. That helped. It is a whole story that I want to tell sometime, but we can’t make room for that right now. For the first few centuries, I maintained the Tunnel with the help of any Monsters that would help, without anyone noticing.”
“That must have been harrowing, under duress from the turmoil of those years,” I said.
“It was,” Gesetele agreed. “Then the order from Eh to Benejede to find something, anything, that could help came down. Benejede did not know what my role was or what I had access to. But keh works a lot like Morde, but with more clarity. Keh came directly to me, and agreed to keep my secret and make a cover story for me if I used my resource. And keh told me exactly what I had to do, too. Which was to violate one of the most ancient warnings of the Order of the Hunter.”
“Talk to the origin,” I supplied the answer. It was recorded in the drift, after all.
“Yes,” Gesetele said. “Except, with the way the Tunnel works, I’m not sure that setting is the origin of the first Tunnel, or if it’s further back. The curve of the dial is asymptotic. To get further and further back in the chain of connections, you have to make more and more fine adjustments. And each Tunnel node has only 31 past connections available on the dial. So, beyond that, you have to relay through other ships. And many of the nodes beyond the 31st from our position are dark. We can access 30 of those originally available to us, which is apparently phenomenal. The Terra Supreme has gone dark. We can only access them through Beshiketa. And because of Beshiketa and their counterpart, we are the only ship the Terra Supreme can currently access.”
“OK,” I said. “What about the origin, though?”
“I’m sorry, the situation is distracting. The Terra Supreme, as horrid as their Crew is, needs help. The people there, the children, deserve it,” Gesetele replied. “But, there are two ways to get to what might be the origin. Either you relay back through all the ships until you get to the very first one, and nobody has ever been able to find it. Or you turn the dial all the way to the right, past the asymptote. And the oldest law of the Order of the Hunter is that you do not do that.”
“And you did that.”
“And that’s where Phage came from?”
Gesetele just nodded.
“Do you think it might actually be human?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” the Hunter said. “But that is a distinct possibility. Or, its ancestors might have been. Either way, it is clear that coming through the Tunnel from that long ago has scrambled its oldest memories. Or, it was created specifically to come to us. Or… It is exactly what it says it is, and the Tunnel lets us talk to, what? The universe itself?”
“Who named it Phage?”
“In our tradition. Mm. I imagine Jenifer likely learned about your role by interacting with Phage during those first days it spent on the Sunspot,” I guessed.
“Probably,” Gesetele said. “I don’t know all of that story myself. I made the bargain with it. Help us run our ship and keep it from flying apart and, in return, it could live amongst us and call the Sunspot home. That’s all it wanted. But it took a while for all of us to learn how to do these things for each other.”
“Wow, OK,” I said.
“We’d have to get the Bridge Crew from that time back together to compare notes and put that whole story together correctly. I offer myself to be part of that now.”
“I’d like to be there when you all do that,” I said.
“If we do,” Gesetele corrected.
“So, here’s my big question,” I said, then waited.
“Go ahead,” Gesetele assented.
“You’ve talked to older ships, right? Are the humans aboard the Terra Supreme like the humans of the oldest ships you’ve talked to? Or any of them? Or are they as different as we are to each other? Because there are an awful lot of us, here on the Sunspot, who look kind of like this,” I gestured at my own body. “And that vision or memory has got to have come from somewhere. And Fenekere has some weird clues in it.”
Gesetele started to formulate an answer.
I could feel kihns memories surfacing and arranging themselves and I got a glimpse of what keh was about to say when the Bridge did something really weird.