2.33 A Respite Between the Finite and Infinity

After that day, Ni’a fell into a routine that seemed to be OK with Emala and their siblings. The Sunspot was quiet and seemed to have returned to normal for most people. Though, by talking to Abacus or occasionally watching the Net traffic with their Phage-sense, they knew that the Crew was experiencing a lot of turmoil. But it seemed to be good, productive turmoil, even if Abacus was grumpy about a lot of it (oh, I will write another book about that, I assure you). And as Ni’a took a short “nap” every morning and afternoon, and then did the bulk of their work just before going to sleep at night, everyone else in their family got used to it and scheduled their time around that. And that seemed to be enough to stabilize the Sunspot after their meltdown on Memorial Day had sent things out of control.

Not that the Sunspot was ever really in control. But there were ways of soothing the notable storms, and Ni’a was learning how to do that, applying the experience they’d had on the Terra Supreme.

They seriously missed Phage, though. 

Abacus seemed to be stepping in somewhat to offer support that Phage had been there for, but it was really out of its element. And it was also still focused on writing its book.

Ni’a occasionally reached out to ask Phage how it was doing and when it thought it might return. And the first time they did this, they remembered that they’d left a large lump of nanite clay on the floor of the lab, so they also asked Bashiketa if they were OK. Bashiketa seemed to be doing fine and the clay had been cleaned up. And then Phage kept answering, “I don’t know.”

Phage was infinitely patient and never sounded irritated, but Ni’a started to feel like that patience was the actual problem. It didn’t realize that, even though Ni’a was made from the same stuff as it, they were only nine years old and to them a day felt like an eon sometimes.

But over all, things seemed stable and getting better.

There were times, however, when Ni’a and Aphlebia found themselves in a corner alone, foreheads pressed together, holding each other’s shoulders and crying quietly.

Sometimes the normality of the others in their family was just too much for the two of them. They both were forever different now, and that change had happened in the same horrible moment. 

And for Aphlebia’s part, Chalkboard was proving unequipped for this. 

It turns out that sometimes Tutors encounter situations they aren’t very experienced or skilled with, and don’t have any natural talent for.

When Abacus heard about this from Ni’a, it suggested that the two of them occasionally spend time with it, doing new things together. 

It seemed to love exploring the Sunspot, especially the places where Children were creating new things, but also some of the deepest, darkest places in the Fallow Decks and the Network. Somehow in the days since The Screaming, it had gained a real taste for that, and the boldness to seek it out. Its thinking, however, was that since these kinds of outings were something it had encouraged the Crew to start doing, to remain connected to the rest of humanity, it might also be a good thing for anybody struggling with things bigger than their own life.

To set this up, though, it explained, “We are going to do things at your pace. I’m only going to suggest ideas if you can’t think of any place to explore first. And we will have others with us. People we know. Emala’s Tutor, Doorway has been a parent to you even more than I have. It will come with us, too, as will Chalkboard. They will both check in on you periodically, and act as Tutors typically act. And if you need their assistance in anything, you can call on either of them. After all, while we will be going to see things we have not yet seen, and maybe even the abnormal, we still need to keep some normality and familiarity. Some safety we can go to when needed.” 

Abacus let that sit for a moment with a calm and serious face, then added, “And I have also asked Akailea, the Elder Crew member who turns out to be my parent, the one in charge of overseeing the Tutor project, to personally supervise this as well. Sie understands that this is mostly for your benefit, to give you opportunities to play and explore safely some of the wilder things you may have missed about the world before the harder things happened. But sie is there mostly to watch me, as I’ve been through some very unusual and difficult things as well. If sie is uncomfortable with how I am doing, we may end up letting Doorway lead these field trips. Sie will introduce hirself to you, and you can also go to hir if anything scares you that I can’t help with. But Doorway or Chalkboard can be your first call. It’s your choice, always. Are you comfortable with that?”

It was a lot, and both Ni’a and Aphlebia had questions, some of which Doorway was ready to answer. But in the end, they eagerly agreed to it all, somewhat mollified by Abacus’ serious tones.

Akailea was interesting to meet. 

Sie was one of the few Elder Crew who did not have keh/kihn/kihns for a pronoun, and hir avatar looked like it might have been the same body sie had been born with on the Terra Supreme, before sie had ascended. Though, based on everything they had learned about the Elder Crew, that was likely not the case. Sie had voluminous, illustrated robes, and long, wild gray hair. And sie repeated a lot of what Abacus had told them.

But sie added, “I hope your tutors explained this to you already when you were younger and often after, but I want to emphasize that your privacy is also a matter of your autonomy and consent. If you need time on your own, or you need to not talk about anything, you let whomever you are with know that.” Sie looked around at everyone in the room, “And though we cannot turn off the Sunspot’s recording protocols, you can sanction anything that is recorded of you, controlling who can look at it, at any time before or after the fact. And only the Council can collectively override those sanctions, informing you that they are doing so, for matters of dire safety.” Sie looked back at Aphlebia and Ni’a, “I’m sorry. That’s a lot. It’s actually more complicated than that, but in your favor. Ask me anything you need to, any time, even when we’re not doing these trips, OK?”

They made it a once every five days thing, to allow time for them to keep doing things with their family and keep that normality. But it also gave the rest of the family inspiration and drive to do their own exploring as well. Sometimes with Ni’a and Aphlebia, and sometimes on their own when the two were off with Abacus.

More places that had been marked as Crew only were being opened up, which Abacus insisted was a good sign. Akailea provided a list of those, and Doorway and Chalkboard reviewed it first before allowing the children to choose their favorite picks.

Ni’a specifically wanted to see outside of the ship somehow, to look at space with their own eyes. And Aphlebia was also curious about it once it was mentioned.

So one of the sites that they visited was one of the shipyards that line the outer hull.

This was one of the trips where Akailea was visibly present the whole time. It turned out that sie wanted to see the site personally as well, but Ni’a could tell that sie was also deliberately making hir presence known. They did find it reassuring. They kind of liked Akailea.

It took a long trip via lift to get there. The shipyard was about two kilometers directly below their home to get to one of the control rooms and the adjacent observatory. And these biological accommodations weren’t even necessary for the operation of the shipyard, as the fully ascended Crew would usually operate it from the Network. But it was due to tradition and accessibility that the rooms were built and fully functional.

The shipyards of the Sunspot are unbelievably gargantuan makers driven mostly by the construction nanites. When a new ship was to be built, masses of nanites would be manipulated out and around chunks of nearby mass, asteroids and such, using the configurable magnetic fields of the Bussard spires. And most of the new ship would be built out in the near depth of space. But specialized components that needed gravitational forces to be built right were done within the shipyards. Also, there were stores of mass that the Sunspot had been collecting for centuries during its travel that could be extruded into components in the shipyards as well. In fact, many of the shipyards were already being used as storage space for that mass. Presumably. Abacus hadn’t thought to check that data, and is kind of afraid to do so now. What if it isn’t there?

This one happened to be empty and openable. 

It was half a kilometer deep, and they were in a room near its rim, on the last outer deck of the hull. Out the window of the control room and just below their feet was the hatch for it. Directly across from them, a three kilometer walk on the hatch, was another control room. The length of the shipyard was six kilometers. And this was one of the small ones. Numbers don’t really describe what it was like to see it, but Ni’a knew them instantly upon looking. Numbers were starting to come intuitively to them in everything they touched and felt.

All three of them stood with their hands and faces pressed against the pane of the window to get as good a view of it all as they could, and Ni’a could feel Aphlebia vibrating with awe and excitement through the glass, their nanite body shivering in its own way to their emotions. Even Abacus’ body was doing the same, just to a slightly different frequency.

A wave of smugness came from Aphlebia as they sent the code to open the hatch. It would hurt no one to do so, so they had permission.

“You are the first people since the building of the Sunspot to do this,” Akailea reminded them.

“I’m thinking the Crew themselves need to take time to come down and see this occasionally,” Abacus said. “But the rest of the populace must be allowed and encouraged to especially.” It just couldn’t stop thinking about its pet projects.

Akailea nodded, but remained a few steps back.

How does an 18 square kilometer hatch open? How long does it take?

The four very atypical people watching it didn’t really care about the time. They’d watch it close shut afterward, too, they were in so much awe of the sight. But it seemed very, very slow.

It was made of the same memory material as the old doors found throughout the Fallow Decks, and it rolled into compartments located just behind the array of control rooms and observatories. So, the hatch itself was sliding underneath the floor that they were standing on, and they could feel the rumble. Ni’a could feel it in their bones, including powerful subsonic frequencies. But it wasn’t so loud that it hurt anything or anyone.

Abacus turned off the lighting of the shipyard so that they could better see the stars of space that were beginning to be visible along the sliver of opening that ran the center length of the hatch.

One moment they were beholding this geographically large box of stone colored metal in which you could have fit a city of nearly a million people, and the next it was pitch black with an increasingly widening line of stars stretching beyond their field of vision to the right and left. 

Ni’a’s eyes were just not built to take it all in at once from this vantage. Aphlebia’s might have been, and who knew if they’d altered their field of view with their nanites now? And Abacus was just a mystery to them in that regard.

So Ni’a asked, and they all discussed it for a while. And it turned out that both Aphlebia and Abacus were indeed taking advantage of their configurable exobodies. Of course, Ni’a could also see things in a way neither of the other two could even imagine. And they tried to describe that to them as well.

They ended up talking about a lot of things while the hatch was opening. Including speculation about whether or not the Sunspot would ever spawn another ship. Abacus certainly felt that it should strive to at some point. And Ni’a was ambivalent about it. They could see how it would relieve stress, but at the same time they really didn’t like the idea of losing half their greater family. But then, there were the Tunnels, so maybe that wouldn’t hurt so much. They decided it depended on whether or not the ships parted ways amicably or under duress like the Sunspot had done with the Terra Supreme.

Aphlebia was just listening when it came to that topic.

All three of them agreed that the name of their predecessor ship really needed to be changed. It was an awful name, “the best dirt.” Ni’a insisted that it was not the best dirt. But they wouldn’t elaborate.

“It is their right to tell us about themselves,” Ni’a said. “Not mine. But I think they are very different now than they were when the Elder Crew left in the Sunspot.”

“Sometimes you sound older than you are,” Aphlebia observed with wordless thoughts. They were starting to use those more now instead of signing. It was easier for them. They still preferred to do most of their communication through expression and action, though. But complex thoughts had to be sent to be understood clearly.

“I am older than I am,” Ni’a said. “And so are you.”

Quiet agreement came from Aphlebia.

Abacus looked down at both of them, then sat on the floor, curling its tail around its feet, leaning its forehead against the glass again and thought for a bit. Then it leaned back and addressed them, “You may feel older, because you have both been through things no child should experience. And you are still both experiencing things no child should experience. Not at your ages. But it happens. Sometimes it can’t be stopped or prevented. You are also both very wise for your ages, because you’ve been raised and taught well, and you’re exceptional people. But, and I mean this in the kindest way possible, neither of you are somewhat over a thousand years old.” Looking back at Akailea, “Or even two or three thousand years old. But you will be some day, if you so choose. I get what you mean when you say that you’re older than you are. But, one of the reasons we are doing things like this is so that you can figure out how to be nine years old, so that when you’re ten, you don’t regret missing out.”

Ni’a looked up at Abacus for a while, really thinking about what it was saying there. They could easily imagine having lived even a million years. Well, part of them could. They’d literally seen about 15 billion years of the universe developing. Or, part of them had. 

“Abacus,” Akailea said. “You’re 130,298 years old. The same age as the Sunspot. I’m only a little older than that.”

Ni’a watched Abacus as its eyes dilated and its frills and lure fell while contemplating how off it had been about its own age. Between being only 9 years old and having 15 billion years of experience as a Law of Nature, the difference between one thousand years old and 130,298 didn’t seem that significant to Ni’a. They couldn’t really comprehend what that meant to Abacus. But clearly, it was horrified. It didn’t say anything in response to that clarification. 

When it regained its composure, it took a deep simulated breath and said, “Being a child is an important stage in life. It’s good to experience it, if you can. With safety, wonder, and joy, if possible.”

Aphlebia sat with them, then thought at them about how the stars that they could see didn’t look at all like any of Phage’s Network projections of spacescapes.

“Phage is melodramatic,” NI’a said.

“Where did you learn that word?” Abacus asked.

“You,” Ni’a said, smirking at it.

The thing about the stars they were seeing is that they were constantly moving. Over the time it took for the hatch to open, they were getting a view of quite the swath of spacescape as the habitat cylinder rotated. And they were all just a bunch of white looking dots.

Ni’a, if they didn’t use their eyes, could see the entire spectrum of each star, of course. But that vision didn’t make quite the impact on their actual neurons as what their eyes saw. They had to think about a star’s spectrum in detail for some time to make it stick in their memory, and even then their memory of it was more like data read on a page than an experience.

They suddenly wanted to look at all of this through nanite senses. 

And that could be arranged. 

And then they had what felt like a naughty idea.

“I want to go outside,” they said.

Abacus and Aphlebia both snapped their heads over to look at them.

“I bet no one will stop us,” they said. “And I’ll make sure it’s safe.”

“Ahem,” Akailea interjected, reminding them that sie was there. “It is safe. Mostly. The psychological impact, however, is big. The Council will revoke their consent for you to use the nanites for this if you show signs of duress, and we will slowly and safely reel you back in. Also, you can turn back at any point. That’s OK.”

Ni’a looked at Akailea for several seconds before they realized that they had just officially been cleared to leave the ship by the Crew Council itself.

“The Crew Council just said it’s OK to go out there?” Ni’a asked. They thought of the huge mass of people arguing heatedly with each other that they’d left on the Bridge.

“Yes,” Akailea said. “Though, they are somewhat afraid to try to stop you in particular, Ni’a. But you should consider them your resource and a guide in this.”

“Are they watching right now?” Ni’a asked.

“No,” Akailea replied. “But they’d like to, with your consent. Otherwise, I am their liaison.”

“I like you, not them. You can stay,” Ni’a said. To which Akailea nodded

They were getting absolutely no argument from their cohorts. The others were both too stunned by the thought to communicate much of anything for several seconds longer.

“I’m going to do it,” Ni’a resolved. “You can come with me.”

After a pause, Abacus shook its head. “I’m not ready for that,” it said. “Doorway will be with you in the way that Phage usually has been, but not in its own exobody, just via the Network. I’m… I need time before I go out there myself. You can tell me about it afterward, if you like.”

Aphlebia looked hurt or consolatory and gave them a wan smile, and then signed, “Next time.” The private thought from them to Ni’a meant, “I want to go out there, but I think this is for you alone right now. I think I need to go alone as well. I will be here.”

They used one of the nozzles near the hatch to spray a sufficient cloud of nanites into the space of the shipyard, 3.35 kilometers from where they sat. Then they used the Network to project themself into that cloud to form an exobody there. Then they used the flight protocols of the nanites to lower themself through the surprisingly enormous gap in the hatch and out onto the outer hull of the Sunspot, clinging to it with magnetic force and momentum.

The centrifugal force of their rotation with the cylinder made the direction of outward feel like downward the whole time. And Ni’a left that sense active for the awe of it and for proprioception.

From the moment they formed eyes in the darkness of the shipyard, looking down and outward, the whole experience reminded them of a dream they’d forgotten they’d had. 

And they chose at that moment to retain the simulation of their biological eyes, and the rest of their senses, so that it would seem that they had taken their actual body outside the ship. So, most of what they were looking at nearby filled their field of vision, wherever they turned.

Almost pitch blackness was above them, the interior of the shipyard, growing faintly brighter in the glow of the Bussard corona, as the hatch continued to open. And nothing but a field of stars and that corona below them, slowly moving counter to the spin of the ship. 

They were a couple meters from the nozzle, which was really a grate in the wall, a circle five meters in diameter. And that was on the wall directly facing the light of the Bussard corona, which was still a fairly faint source. It was easy to adjust their vision to pick up the details though, but still within the parameters of their natural optics left back in the control room.

Since it was disorienting to look anywhere else as they moved, they focused on the nearest surface, and clung to it, moving closer. The nozzle, where the holes in the grate were a decimeter wide. This is where they’d return these nanites when they were done. Then the rim of the nozzle, and the wall of the shipyard. Then the lip of the rail for the hatch. It was like lowering themself down to a ledge on a cliff, with a sky directly below that instead of more cliff or water. The ledge was a meter and a half wide.

Doorway checked in here, just before they took that leap, which was appropriate considering its name. It then also said, “Akailea wants you to know that Jenefere and Eh have each done this themselves, and that they deem it safe and are with you in spirit, if you like. It is also OK for you to abandon your nanites out there. We can retrieve them without you.” Ni’a thanked it and kept going.

They floated off the edge of the ledge and down into space.

To call open space a “sky” was a metaphor that could not do it justice. Ni’a had a framework for it from their dreams, which were replaying in the back of their mind as they experienced this, but their body was used to seeing geography and city lights whenever they looked up. That was the sky for them, and had been their whole life. Also, the stars were below them right now.

They had climbed down to the very bottom of their world and found themself on the Outside of it. And when Ni’a picked a star to look at, they knew just how far away it was, how long it took the light to have gotten to them, and the size and composition of it. Intuitively. And they still didn’t understand what they were seeing. Their brain just couldn’t make sense of it, even backed up and simulated by the Sunspot’s Network as it was.

It was easier to look laterally, to keep part of the Sunspot in view, but still with the Sunspot above their head because of their sense of the simulated gravity telling them where down was. The Sunspot would always feel like it was above them, even if they put their feet on the hull, and they didn’t want to feel like they were hanging upside down.

That’s part of what made this so intense, though. The pull of the stars and the empty void, trying to take them from the world they knew. But, fortunately, they also felt the strength and surety of the forces that kept them within a couple meters of the hull, rock steady and unmoving unless they wanted to move. It was scary, but it was not terrifying. It was strange and familiar at the same time.

When they had lowered themself down into this, their feet dangling into empty space, they were facing aft.

They were far enough forward that the hull of the habitat cylinder almost completely blocked the view of the fusion spike. All they could see was a faint amber corona beyond the horizon of the hull that stretched maybe ten degrees downward into their view of space. They knew that if they had been closer to the edge, and had looked upon the drive with their human eyes, they would have been blinded permanently. It didn’t even occur to them that other children their age might not have known that without being told.

It was profoundly weird to see an horizon that was convex rather than concave, when they thought about what they were looking at. They couldn’t quite see the curve visually while looking directly aft, but it was strikingly there anyway.

So then they turned to face forward. And as they turned, the curve of the cylinder became much more clearly visible and it would have made them dizzy if their feet had been on the hull and they’d had their sense of gravitational pull turned off or reversed. All it did in this case was create the illusion that the Sunspot was the sky, and the starry void of space was the ground on which they were standing, and it was an amazing feeling.

Their timing was perfect to catch one of the Bussard spires rotating into view directly in front of them when they faced forward.

At the base, the spire was as wide as the habitat cylinder. And from where they were floating, they had to look downward at an eighty-six degree angle to see the tip of it, lit by the fusion drive but still dark against the stars and the Bussard corona that started there, and that corona filled about a sixth of the sky, the way it curved outward and forward. The spire was about twice as long from its base to tip as the length of the habitat cylinder. And Ni’a knew it was almost entirely hollow, designed to contain the gasses it collected as fuel and building material. It was big enough it could contain another world full of people itself.

By the time they had managed to look downward at the tip of the spire, it had already rotated a couple of degrees anti-spinward. Or rather, Ni’a had rotated away from alignment with it along with the shipyard in the habitat cylinder.

And the corona rippled in greens and blues.

Where the drive of the ship illuminated the Bussard spires, the hull of the Sunspot was a softly mottled brownish gray. The rest, the base of the spires and the habitat cylinder itself were cast in a dark, dark shadow.

Some of the stars and galaxies that were visible were thicker in some areas of space than in others. There was, in fact, a ribbon of nearby denser matter that ringed their vision, and the path of the Sunspot seemed to be in alignment with it, so it intersected with the fore and aft horizons at all times, sometimes half blotted out by a Bussard spire. It was, of course, the galaxy that they were in. Then, in some spaces, far away from that ribbon, there seemed to be only blackness, though Ni’a intuitively knew what matter was there, too.

They felt like they were losing their breath to it all. And they didn’t want to leave it.

The longer they stayed out there, the more it made sense, and the calmer they got.

Everything going on inside the Sunspot seemed like nothing more than the pumping of their own blood.

Aphlebia also ventured out on their own spacewalk, after Ni’a had returned. I did not.

I think I decided that I would go out there with my next tour with the Crew Council, hopefully to take a group of younger Crew with me, and maybe some furloughed Tutors. Or I would go alone with no one else around. I guess I hadn’t decided. But I wanted this particular trip to be about Aphlebia and Ni’a, so that they could share something positive just between them.

And I think it may have helped.

After some time in the observatory next to the control room, spent to unwind and think about it alone, Ni’a said that it was unfair that the rest of their family had not come along, and that they wanted to bring them down here sometime.

Aphlebia concurred with that idea, when they heard about it.

I am, by the way, not including anything in this story that either of the children have not consented to share. Aphlebia wanted to keep their experience to themself, so I’ve not written about it. 

They did indicate that it had rattled them, but that they are glad they did it, and they seemed to stand more confidently afterward.

Furthermore, the next time I saw them holding each other’s arms and crying, they were also both smiling.

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