Ni’a’s fingers were three centimeters away from the large dial of the Tunnel when the ship rippled.
Nobody else in the room seemed to have noticed it, so it wasn’t a physical or psychological event.
Ni’a stood upright, turned to face their new friends, and said, “I am so sorry, I have to go now. I’ll clean this up later, if you don’t.” And they left their nanite body to collapse right there in the lab in order to return to their own vessel.
Ni’a wasn’t there anymore to notice, but Melik was very relieved, actually. Even with the large clump of nanite clay oozing on the floor.
Something was poking them in the arm uncomfortably when Ni’a began to reconnect with their nervous system again. They were just going to roll over onto their back and attempt to go to find the epicenter of that ripple, but this prodding was irritating enough that they propped themselves up on their other arm and moved the one that was being poked away from the source of it. It was Candril.
“Are you OK?” their sibling asked in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.
Ni’a looked around the room to see what everyone else was up to. They’d each been in the middle of something that had been occupying them, apparently, but had stopped to watch as Candril had gone to check on Ni’a. Emala had been reading a story and was looking over from the holoprojection of the latest page. Some of the Whorlies had been using exobodies to play a simple card game with each other. And it looked like Aphlebia was in the kitchen cooking. They were the only one that kept moving at that point.
By now, Ni’a knew that if Aphlebia appeared to be ignoring you while everyone else thought you might be hurt, it was because Aphlebia wanted you to know that they thought you were so amazing they figured you were OK. It was a compliment. Otherwise, they were usually more attentive than the others.
“Yeah,” Ni’a said to Candril. “I need to eat. And get up. And then leave again for a bit.”
“Oh,” Candril said. “Why?”
“Big things are happening,” they replied, trying to figure out what else to say. “Thank you for waking me.”
“I think you should let the bigger people handle this right now,” Emala suggested to Ni’a.
Ni’a sat further up to look at Emala with a worried and hurt face, and said, “Until Phage comes back, I’m the biggest person on the Sunspot.”
Emala looked horrified and deeply concerned, but simply said, “but your body is so small, and it needs for you to take care of it.”
“I know,” Ni’a said. “I need help. But I don’t want to say what will happen if I don’t go.”
During those words, Aphlebia had walked right over from the kitchen with a tray full of sliced apple, which they then put on Ni’a’s bed.
“Thank you, Aphlebia,” Ni’a said, as they picked up a slice of apple. Feeling the pull of an ongoing emergency, Ni’a bit into the apple and it tasted so good. Stuffing the rest of the slice in their mouth, they decided to get up and offer Candril a hug, which Candril gladly accepted.
Then they went around the room to each of their family members to give them a hug.
When they came to Emala, they said, “I’m going to eat all of my apple, then I have to go. I’ll be OK.”
Emala didn’t speak and just looked at them with hurt eyes.
Ni’a felt their own face crumple up, tears almost ready to fall from their eyes.
Emala was the one to offer them a hug.
“I don’t want to be a grown up right now!” Ni’a cried, before diving into xyr arms.
Emala rocked them for a while, in xyr big chair, soft fur covered arms engulfing them. This was, really, their favorite place to be in all the universe. And they didn’t want to leave. But that ripple, it had been scary and weird, and their sense of where it had started was fading.
“I have to,” they managed to say before returning to what they were beginning to think of as their Phage-state. They wanted a better term for it, but didn’t have one.
Oh, the problem was on the Bridge. And around it. Something like stress fractures in the Network. But, once again, they were social.
Phage, when it was in this state, tended to lose a lot of its humanity, or its connection to experience being a consciousness. It cared less about individuals or small events, and its own short term goals. It had explained this to Ni’a as something to look out for, and careful balance to keep.
But Ni’a had no such problem.
Perhaps by having a physiological anchor for their consciousness, they could remain relatively focused more easily.
The trade off for Ni’a, however, was that their personal feelings did have a tendency to get in the way of what needed to be done. Or, at least, they were distracting.
It helped that they cared so much about the entire Sunspot, as if it was their own parent itself. A living being that needed love and attention to keep it alive. And in this state, it was actually more like their own body. They were the Sunspot and it was them. And it also helped that when they did expand their consciousness like this, they had more to draw on than their nine year old brain and its experiences to inform their feelings and decisions. There was that strange, greater, Phagely subconscious and its weird memories and intuition.
Ni’a briefly had the thought that it would be really neat if their siblings could experience this. And Emala, too. Maybe…
But, there were these stress fractures slowly growing before them, so they paid attention to them. They created standing waves of influence to counter the worst of the gyrations they felt there. Or something akin to that, but which really words fail to describe adequately. And it slowed the growing influence significantly.
They knew they should have kept working on it from that angle. However, Abacus was on the Bridge and the center of attention and they felt the overwhelming need to stand between it and whatever was happening. But, not being Crew, they did not have the permission to manifest a Network presence on the Bridge without an invitation.
Fortunately, Phage Pember was there. It was Crew and Ni’a didn’t have to use the Network to communicate with it. Which they could have done if they went back to their vessel and used their nanite terminal to send the message, but they were in a hurry.
Of course, when they finally manifested an avatar on the Bridge, they’d essentially be returning to their body briefly to do so, but whatever. They were in a hurry.
“I’d like to join the Bridge. I need an invite,” Ni’a sent it. “Sent” is kind of the wrong word here, though, apparently. It is more like Ni’a thought the words in its mind. Ni’a briefly localized their presence in conjunction with Phage Pember’s location and left the words there.
“Sent,” it thought back.
“Thank you!” Ni’a then did the procedure to manifest their avatar on the Bridge, and projected their consciousness into it.
The space was huge. It was full of Pembers and a growing number of Elder Crew, and as each new person joined the space, the space seemed to get bigger to accommodate them. Or, it was more like there was the visual sense that there was a floor, a ceiling and a surrounding elliptical wall around everyone that defined the space, but the only thing anyone ever touched was the floor. You didn’t actually see the Bridge growing, or get any sort of indication that it had, other than that there were more people in it and they fit, no matter how far they roamed from the center.
To Ni’a’s right was a sloped boulder with Abacus on it.
In front of Ni’a and Abacus were Gesetele, Jenefere, Metabang, Morga Pember, Phage Pember, Ktleteccete, the Flits, Fenmere, Nevegere, and Eh. And immediately beyond that group, there were so many more people.
“I didn’t know we still had the Nursery,” Nevegere was saying. “Nobody I know ever talks about it. I’m troubled that we still cling to it.”
“It is easy to forget that we live in a spaceship, isn’t it,” Eh noted dryly.
“I am saying that if we didn’t have the Nursery, this whole affair would not have happened,” Nevegere insisted. Thanks to the drift of the Bridge, Ni’a understood that “the Nursery” referred to the evolutionary engine and the entire population of Children.
“I know the flaw in Nevegere’s understanding there,” Morde said, “but…” and then sie turned demonstrably toward everyone listening in the conversation and held both gloves out toward Nevegere as if dramatically presenting kihn.
Ni’a realized, looking around then, that most Elder Crew members used keh/kihn/kihns for their pronouns for some reason. It was pretty rare amongst the Children, but some people did take it, such as Ketta Flit. They wondered what the reason for that was.
Eh shook ihns head, “I personally would rather we didn’t put that up for debate right now, as there are more pressing matters at hand, and it is a highly contentious subject.” There was a flood of assent over the drift of the Bridge at that statement. A lot of people were listening in, apparently.
“I think it is relevant to assessing the severity of Gesetele’s transgressions,” Nevegere countered. There was some agreement to that as well, but it was slower and not as strong.
“OK, then I suggest that the existence of the question itself, of whether or not we continue the Nursery program, be a mitigating factor. Meaning we don’t have to answer the question in order to take it into consideration,” Eh offered. And the emotional response to that was generally favorable. Minor debates about it could be felt coming from the periphery, but the consensus was that proceedings could continue on that note.
There was one very clear and strong objection to tabling the matter for later, and that was Morde. Sie emanated frustration at not being able to speak hir views on the matter right then. But sie remained silent.
From the discussion going on, and the feelings surrounding it, it didn’t seem like Abacus was the center of attention, after all. But from the outside view using Phage-sense, it was. Ni’a began to worry that they’d made the wrong decision in having come to the Bridge and that they’d be better able to help from above it all. On the other hand, they were learning details of what was going on by listening in.
Nevegere nodded at ihns suggestion and the general assent to move on, and stepped back, slightly behind Gesetele.
Gesetele sighed and said, “Again. I’ve done everything according to my conscience, and I knew that by doing so I would lose the trust of the Counsel. To regain that trust, I’ll do whatever you deem needed. I’ve said my piece. It’s on record and with a witness.” And then keh gestured at Abacus, who tensed up.
Abacus raised its head and looked around, then said, “I’m suddenly hyperaware that I am one of three people on the Bridge right now who are not Crew.” Which did not make much of an impact on people’s emotions on the Bridge, other than a small hint of confusion, which seemed to disappoint the Tutor. “OK, I know that sounds like a non-sequitur, and it sort of is. But consider this, you all have had a huge problem. You started to fix it with the changes made during the Nanite Innovation, but then you let it get worse. And now it has exploded. Your lack of communication with each other is a big deal. And as Nevegere’s point illustrates, your lack of communication with the Children and the Tutors is part of that problem. There are massively festering past grievances that you have never addressed because of this, but there are also new ones developing under your very feet. I think the Bridge should be way more active than it has been, and I think it should be opened up to everyone. It should have been a long time ago. But as to what to do about Gesetele, I don’t actually care.”
Ni’a felt the need to yell at Abacus for that last statement. It sounded unnecessarily hurtful, and they were surprised for it. But before they could snap at it, it clarified itself.
“Correction. I am equally frustrated with kihn as I am with the rest of the Crew, and how you decide to react to each other is secondary to what I do care about,” Abacus stood up on its hind legs, and raised its voice, “Sanction should be abolished.”
Ni’a’s initial reaction to that statement was their own agreement with it, which was then suddenly overwhelmed by the collective reaction from thousands of people echoing the same word in thought, “How?!”
Abacus rolled its eyes and said, “Just stop doing it.” It threw up its hands in disgust, “Keep personal sanctions if you have to, allow yourselves to block each other. Maybe give the Council power to remove a personal sanction if needed for arbitration. But just stop governmental sanctions altogether. They are too easily misused. And that’s all I’m saying about this entire subject.” Then it walked off its rock, which subsequently disappeared, and came over to face Ni’a. “I’m glad you showed up,” it said to them. “I was about to do something far worse than that speech, but seeing you helped me focus. How are you?”
Ni’a felt a storm of discussion erupt all around them, but everyone was ignoring Abacus now. It had revoked its consent to further participation and they were respecting it. “I’m overwhelmed,” Ni’a said, realizing it was a fact.
“Oh, I will step away if you need me to,” Abacus replied to that.
Ni’a shook their head, “I miss Phage and I don’t know when it will be back. I have to keep the Sunspot together while it’s gone.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“OK, I’ll let you do your thing, but I’ll stay with you in case you need my help. Does that sound good?”
“Yeah,” Ni’a said. They decided they should look at the whole of the ship again to see if things had changed, so they did, keeping their avatar present on the Bridge. It was a little extra effort to do so, but not much. They found that the stress in the area did seem to be dissipating despite the sudden heightened discussions. And Ni’a had this weird moment where they felt like they were both learning something important about their own world and that it all had always made sense at the same time. “Oh,” they said. “I can go home now.”