3.01 Outsider

137 days after I dropped a big blob of nanite clay on the floor of Melik’s lab, right in front of Bashiketa, in order to go make sure that the Sunspot Council didn’t tear the ship apart, Phage returned.

It was 48 days away from my 10th birthday.

Abacus, Emala, Candril, the Whorlies, Aphlebia and I were having lunch in a park. It was just on the other side of the Garden from our home, so when the sun wasn’t there we could look straight up and see our home city blinking on the shoreline of the Aft Sea. But it was midday, so the sun was there and we didn’t look up.

It was a park that was placed in the middle of wilderness, nowhere near any city, just for the purpose of looking up at our home. A lot of the cities in the Sunspot have parks like this. From there you could take a lift down to Below Decks, where there were lots of quarters where people could live, but no one was living there now, so they were called Fallow Decks. And, just, like, 32 days earlier the Crew had opened the Fallow Decks to everyone with the caveat, “Don’t bother the Monsters or mess with their libraries.”

I’ll explain a few of those things later if you need a refresher.

Candril was throwing bread at Aphlebia. And Aphlebia was catching the bread in different ways with their nanite body. And then eating it.

The Whorlies were having a four way discussion with Emala about the kind of insects they’d found in the park before lunch. It was Afrim, Garghil, and Charl fighting for their front to brag about different bugs, or different things they’d noticed about the same bug.

I remember thinking that they could have just separated into their own nanite bodies so they could all talk at once, but I guess they liked sharing the front like that. Firas once told me that they sort of share thoughts that way, and that sounds fun, really. Probably similar to how Aphlebia and I talk, but different because it’s in one brain. Or maybe it’s like being on the Bridge of the Sunspot.

And then Abacus was holding a big political discussion with the other Tutors in the Netspace of the Park, their avatars visible to us. But they kept their conversation in a Network channel so that it wouldn’t disturb the rest of us. But, like, any of us could join it any time. Abacus had made sure to invite us to do so, if we wanted.

I was eating my sandwich and looking at the trees.

Trees are just so beautiful. I’ll never get tired of looking at them. But back then, I was studying their intricacies. Like how each tree grew just slightly differently than the others because of where it was and what the other trees around it were doing. And like, how a rock in just the right place under a tree would alter its whole growth pattern subtly. And, of course, like human beings, each tree is a record of everything that has happened to it over the centuries.

I was a kid and my brain was new to all of this, and details in everything always caught my attention. I could have stared at the table we were eating on for hours and told you all about it. But there were trees.

And I was just about to let myself flood through the surrounding forest to really feel it all when the whole world got warmer and darker and easier to be in. And then I noticed that there was a muscle in the middle of my back, right between my shoulder blades, that stopped constantly hurting. I hadn’t realized it had been hurting until it unclenched and gave me a little rush of happier pain, then relief, and my shoulders fell about two centimeters as I sighed.

I looked up and over at my family and declared softly, “Phage is back!”

The Tutors stopped talking before the others. But everyone looked at me with curious and hopeful eyes.

And then I felt myself start crying. My body reacted before I did. I had to settle into it and really feel my tears and sobs before I knew what my emotions were about and why.

I wanted my mother back with me right then. There, with me, to hug me and to get some nanites from the ground and learn what eating food was like, because it had missed that! I wanted to lean on it. I want to hear its deep voice again. I wanted to see its melodramatic, overly colorful Network projection of stars and nebulae filling the silhouette of its body. I wanted to see the glorious event horizon of its conscious mind next to mine. I’d missed Phage so much in its absence I was suddenly feeling how much it had hurt to have it gone, now that it was back but not here.

Candril, who was sitting next to me, offered me a hug and I just sort of automatically accepted it. Candril was wearing a shirt, so my bare arms mostly touched that, but I could feel zyr soft, dense fur against my cheek and the side of my neck. Hugging Candril is always good. Ze has an average of 27,496 strands of fur per square centimeter of skin, and the biggest feelings of our family. Ze also knew just how much to squeeze me to help me regain focus.

“Ni’a,” Phage rumbled from behind me, and I jumped into Network space and hugged it there while simultaneously hugging Candril with my body. And I think that’s when and how I reminded it that it was my mother, because it stopped what it was about to say to just hug me back for a while.

In case you don’t have the Network, or something like it, hugging on the Network feels just like hugging with your actual body. And getting two hugs at the same time, one with your real body and one in the Network, feels really good.

I didn’t want to let go of either of them, but Candril got tired and uncomfortable, so I released zem. And to do that, I had to shift my focus from my mom, and so it took that as a signal to let go of me.

So I stood up and turned around to face it and shouted, “A hundred and thirty-seven days! A hundred and thirty seven days, five hours, forty-eight minutes and three seconds!” I timed it so that on the last phoneme of “seconds” it was an accurate number.

“I’m sorry,” it said.

“I know,” I replied. “But it hurt!

“You did really, really well,” it said.

“I missed you!” I cried.

“I was there.”

“You were one million, seven hundred ninety-three thousand, one hundred and eighty-seven lightyears away,” I said. It was the amount of time a signal or light or radio would take to reach the Terra Supreme if it was sent from the Sunspot right then, accounting for the relative velocities of the two ships.

Rattling off the exact numbers as they entered my head calmed me down, even though they’d be wrong by the time I got done speaking them. Rounding them off helps a little to cover the discrepancy, but my psyche will continue to update me for a few moments afterward even if I cut myself off. And it feels good when it does that, too. I try to only do this with Phage, though, because it distresses everyone else. It’s not a fair conversation tactic with anyone else.

I may not have sounded calm, but if I hadn’t rattled off the numbers I wouldn’t have even been able to speak.

Phage walked around to the other side of the table to sit in the empty space beside Aphlebia, to face me, lean across the table and hold my hands. As it went, it collected nanites and duff from the ground it walked on to create a body it could inhabit, so that we could physically touch each other. This left a long, human volume divot in the ground that the nanites in the soil immediately started to repair. Um, eighty-three point five six liters.

It’s OK to make nanite clay from the ground if you do it in public parks, and not the wilderness, and you put it back when you’re done. The nanites do a pretty good job of repairing the damage, but it’s best not to disturb the wilderness at all. Emergencies can be mitigating circumstances, of course. But, just in case you visit the Sunspot, this is an important thing to know. And it’s way better to take your clay from the bins in the quarters and maker spaces. Like, it’s better clay and it’s more polite.

Feeling grumpy and heavy with other emotions, I sat back down, scowling, and took Phage’s hands. I could feel all the little pine needles, twigs, and pebbles that were worked into its nanite driven body, but that felt nice to me. It was a bit like I was holding hands with my spaceship. And in a way I actually was, because Phage had taken over managing the chaos in the physics of the Sunspot for me. It had been its job before, since 129,840.5 years previously, which it had given to me briefly when I returned from the Terra Supreme, and, oh. OK, I’m so sorry to meander like this so early in this book, but I need to.

I want to be telling you about Thomas, but I do need to make sure you know or remember who I am and how I got to meet Thomas in the first place.

Phage is my mother. It identifies with the word and concept of “mother”, and I came from it in a vaguely similar way to what most people have meant when they use that word. My body was born in the Nursery incubators and its genetic code was nearly randomly generated by the Sunspot’s Evolutionary Engine. But, because Phage was basically the Sunspot itself at the time that happened, and its subconscious had decided it was time to have a child, I came out the way I did. And unlike anyone else aboard the ship, I can do a lot of what it can do. Except, unlike it, I have a physical, biological body that is aging like a typical body does. And I’ve learned I’m also the spitting image of someone who lived a long time ago, named Jenefere (who still exists in the Network today as one of the Senior Crew). And I’m a near clone of Thomas, and no one can explain that, except by pointing at Phage. And Phage will shrug.

Apparently, Bashiketa should have been the clone of Thomas. They were both created using the same quantumly entangled system that had been isolated from the systems of their respective ships. They had been born to preserve the Tunnel connection between the Terra Supreme and the Sunspot. The Terra Supreme is the Sunspot’s parent ship, and it is going through huge social turmoil in the far future, according to time measured by light speed. And during that turmoil, the original Tunnel equipment will have been destroyed. But thanks to the Tunnel itself, we know about that now, and basically that turmoil is happening now, and has been for a while.

Another writer in another part of space/time, while just daydreaming about something like the Tunnel, called it “an Ansible”. In the simplest and most inadequate terms, it involves the use of quantum entanglement and quantum tunneling to communicate instantly across space/time, no matter how far apart the ends of the Tunnel are. And, I think Phage and I both have something like this going on within our own psyches, allowing us to draw upon knowledge and information from nearly anywhere in the universe. Only, because our conscious minds are embedded in the systems of the Sunspot and modeled after human psyches (or are human psyches), this happens through association and is kind of random and unreliable.

Anyway, 541.5 years into its journey at near light speed away from its parent ship, the Sunspot had so much trouble managing itself that the Crew sent out a desperate cry for help using the Tunnel. They turned the big dial on it all the way to the right, which meant tuning the machine into a realm of connection that was past an asymptotic limit. On the dial, it’s marked with an infinity symbol, and the people in charge of managing the Tunnel on every ship ever made since anyone can remember are told, “Don’t do that.” I mean, the option was built into the machine, so obviously it’s meant to be done sometimes, and I think the reason not to was forgotten after a while.

Under its default configuration, the further to the right you turn the dial, the further back in the line of ancestor ships you go. At a certain point, you have to start relaying between ships to keep going. And here’s a number I can’t actually see. I don’t know how many ships there have been. To get to the very first ship, you have to keep relaying connections and nobody has succeeded.

Somebody got really desperate, turned the dial all the way up, and asked for help. And instead of getting instructions or a “hello” or any sort of usable data, they got Phage. And Phage helped. It had only one request in return, and that was to feel what it was like to think like a human.

So, the word “human” here. Some people, upon getting this document, are going to translate it into their own equivalent word. In case your translator is doing that, when I write “human” I am referring to the kind of people who built and made the line of generational starships that the Sunspot is part of. And humans didn’t always look like me.

We’ve evolved a lot, and we’ve been futzing with our appearance and makeup a lot throughout the eons. And that’s important to know for context, because the Terra Supreme is a ship that embraced some sort of ideal of perfection and tried to make all its humans fit a certain mold, and that’s what my body is mimicking. And that’s what produced Thomas.

But if you look at Abacus or Eh, as they currently present themselves, that’s kind of what humans looked like when they devised Fenekere, which is the command language of the Sunspot and most other ships that we know about. Which, there are wings, and tails, and horns involved, among other things. And I get a vision of it when I ask my greater subconscious, “what does a human look like?”

If you are someone who is not from this line of starships, there is a non-zero chance that I look a lot like your own species. It’s a tiny chance. It’s extremely unlikely. But it’s not zero and it’s possible.

Anyway, in contrast to the Terra Supreme, the Crew of the Sunspot decided that diversity was the ideal, and configured their breeding program to reflect that with as little human input as possible, except for attempts to correct for certain agonizing diseases and physical dysphoria. It’s still a deeply questionable thing to do, ethically speaking. But my friend Morde will tell you, so is creating a new consciousness in the first place, especially with the possibility they will experience something like severe physical dysphoria.

The culture of the Sunspot also favors consent and autonomy over nearly everything else, which the Terra Supreme does not. And these were the things that originally led to the schism that ended up spawning the Sunspot. So the Crew of the Sunspot has been doing its best to erase all traces of culture from the Terra Supreme. This included altering the language and banning certain words. And, of course, the languages diverged even further after that.

And then Phage goes around calling itself my “mom”. “Mother” and “mom” are terms that were originally derived from references to “the child bearing parent” but, again, over the eons have come to mean a whole lot of other things. And if anything ever was my child bearing parent, it was the Sunspot itself. But, again, when Phage takes charge of subduing the fibrillations of the ship, the Sunspot basically is its body.

And, also, if there’s one thing that Phage just does naturally, it’s break down barriers and spread things around evenly over time.

So, anyway, after all of that, you’ll maybe understand just how big a deal it is that the Networks of the two ships got entangled through a Tunnel because of Bashiketa and Thomas’ shenanigans. Which Phage let them do. And, actually, I was largely responsible for it myself. I think, on purpose. It’s hard to say, because I wasn’t thinking very much about anything when it happened. I had been reacting.

By the time Phage had sat down to hold my hands and talk to me at that park table, I knew exactly what had happened, but I wasn’t allowing myself to be consciously aware of it.

“Do you remember when you told Bashiketa that ‘neat things’ would happen if they took the nanites for a neural terminal?” Phage asked.

I nodded, because I did remember that. And I was right, neat things happened.

“Well, now that I’ve come back, I’ve sent the council a brief on the matter, and I do have to meet with them soon to talk about it,” it said. “But I have a little bit of time right now to spend with you. And we don’t need to talk about it, because I’ve got you covered. I just wanted you to know.”

“Oh,” I said, in my most nine year old voice. Uh, oh, I thought.

“Did you know you can eat food, Phage?!” Candril asked, butting in.

“Did you know that’s what my name means, Candril?” Phage asked, without breaking mental stride.

“But,” Candril stammered. “Somebody on the Crew programmed the nanites so that they can make you taste what you eat!”

“Really,” it said. “Thank you! I hadn’t been paying attention to that.” It looked over at Emala while reaching for a peach, and asked, “May I?”

“You should,” Emala replied.

But while it was taking a bite of the peach, I asked it, “What’s going to happen?”

It didn’t need to open its mouth to talk. Like me, it had four other ways of communicating, and it chose vibrating its nanites like a speaker through a different part of its body, while its mouth was full of peach, “Not much, if the Council listens to me. I’ve placed a Gatekeeper over the Tunnel. It’s basically just me, but separate. I’ve also left another copy of myself on the Terra Supreme to help them resolve their conflicts without destroying each other.” It stopped chewing to say the next part, “I should have done that from the beginning, when I followed you through the Tunnel. I was as panicked as you were, so I didn’t think of that, and I am very sorry.”

Abacus had been working with me and Aphlebia, with the help of some others, to work us through our trauma from that day. My sibling, Aphlebia, had lost their life during that event, and it had been because I’d lost control of myself. They had ascended and were Crew now in all but Vow, but like me they were still a child, and we both needed a lot of work. We still do. But we’re helping each other get through it.

The thing that had caught everyone by surprise that day had been that when my body had become overwhelmed by sensory overload, my outlash had startled and overpowered Phage itself, causing damage to the ship and collapsing the stage that Aphlebia had been hiding under. It was the first indication that I was not just a child of Phage, but its potential equal. Something it had not even considered.

During that episode, I’d noticed that there was this sort of a “hole in the ship”. Which turned out to be the Tunnel. And it was embedded in Bashiketa’s psyche. And I guess I maybe dove through it in order to get away from the mess and noise I’d created.

Phage’s mention of my panic brought that all back like I was experiencing it again. But it was ready this time and cushioned the blow, bleeding my sudden burst of energy out through the drive of the ship. Mind you, back on the Terra Supreme, when it had followed me, it had taught me how to do that myself, and I’d been doing it since. But it was nice to not have to make the effort.

“And Thomas is here,” it said, once it was sure I was safe again. “With Bashiketa.”

So, when we were done with lunch, and Phage had gone to its meeting with the Council, I asked Emala if I could go visit Bashiketa and Thomas via the Network. It was my right to just go, if they’d have me over there, but I’d be imposing the care of my body to Emala and the Tutors of our family, so I asked. Even though I’d really just be sleeping in my bed in our temporary quarters for maybe an hour or two. Still, after the turmoil of my episode, I had begun asking.

Of course, Emala said, “yes.”

And Aphlebia wanted to go, too, which I liked. So we sent Bashiketa and their family the request to visit, and got back a “yes” from them, and then went. Actually, on Abacus’ suggestion, I asked a bunch of things in that request and got some directions and then we went.

Pulling a nanite clay body from a nanite bin is great! You can do it two ways. Both are fun. 

The way you are first taught, because it’s more polite, is to make a Network projection of yourself in the room where you want the nanite body to form, and then you call the nanites to you. There is a tingling sensation as they each find their place and synchronize with your Network senses. At first, you are standing in the Netspace of the room, sensing the room through Network protocols. And someone with a neural terminal can look at where you are standing or floating and see you there. Then a tendril of nanite clay comes from the open bin and starts to just sort of fill in the space that you occupy, and they sync to you, and when it’s all done you’re actually feeling the real room through the nanites.

That’s never not utterly fascinating to me.

But Aphlebia and I were drawing our nanites from a bin in a Fallow quarters, so we did it the other way. Giggling the whole time.

The other way involves commanding the bin to open, and then treating it like a gateway between the Network and the corporeal world. So, you sort of enter the Netspace of the nanites in the bin and put them on there, and then physically climb out of the bin. This is basically the same method that the Flits and the Pembers used when they first figured out how to make exobodies, but they did it in a park, climbing out of the ground. Which is also fun.

But, what it feels like is swimming up into a block of sand, and becoming the sand with this huge tingling sensation over all of your body, and then reaching up with your hands that are now made of sand and gripping the lip of the bin and pulling yourself out of the rest of the sand and stepping onto the floor. And you can feel every little tactile sensation of moving through the remaining nanite clay, feeling the air on your ninite clay skin, touching the bin and the floor. And as you form your nanite eyes, it’s like opening them from a dream, and you can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear things as if you’re in the body you were originally born with.

Except, you also know that while you’re doing this, if you’re someone like me, your body is back home sleeping and dreaming all of this as you’re experiencing it. Clinically speaking.

It’s so hard to really give it justice in words.

So, I let Aphlebia go first. And then waited for the bin to refill from the supply tube before taking my turn. Abacus followed me, because it had asked to act as my Tutor but also just wanted to see Bashiketa and their family, too, and wanted to be polite about it. Chalkboard, Aphlebia’s Tutor, remained in the Network.

“That is a really fun way of doing that, isn’t it?” Abacus asked, looking back at the bin.

I shrugged and Aphlebia wrinkled their face in a cute little smirk.

Abacus had climbed out of the bin the exact same way we had. And it preened itself and then stretched as if it had muscles that needed it. It even yawned and flexed a simulation of retractable claws. It took the shape of a lanky limbed, intricately frilled amphibian with a lure on its head, and a long, whiplike tail that ended in a spike. Which is a shape it had taken very recently and was clearly still enjoying it for all that it could do. It wasn’t showing off so much as appreciating all the sensations we had just experienced, too. It had spent the majority of its life as a floating bead, not experiencing what a body was like. It had taken this form only 139 days ago, and was still feeling it out and making adjustments. I felt I understood, but I probably didn’t.

I could sense Chalkboard doing the Tutorial equivalent of rolling eyes it didn’t have in its Network space, though. Chalkboard is still a traditionalist, retaining its inanimate avatar of a floating tablet. Of course, back then, that was true of most Tutors.

Aphlebia and I just sort of looked the other way and talked about Thomas a little bit, while Abacus did its stretching.

I’d met Thomas when I’d gone to the Terra Supreme to hide. I had visited him, while he was sleeping, on my way back home. We’d talked long through the night, but I wasn’t sure how much of that dream he’d remember. So, what I was telling Aphlebia was that he looked a lot like me, only a little different, and that he considered himself to be something called a “boy”. And also that he might not even be using a nanite body right now, and might just be Bashiketa’s headmate, more or less. We wouldn’t know until we got there.

“Ready?” Abacus asked when it was done adjusting its nanites.

“As if we aren’t already going,” I joked with it, taking a step towards the door.

Aphlebia stuck their tongue out.

We crossed the hallway to the lift on the other side, which had the same kind of old fashioned memory plastic door as the quarters we’d just walked out of. The Crew had installed nanite bins in every living space in the Fallow Decks, but were holding off on the doors until someone moved in. I didn’t really think about it back then, but it sure looked like signs of some sort of plan.

The lift took us up about a quarter kilometer to the compound in the mountain where the Tunnel was kept and where Bashiketa lived with Laal and Fredge. At the very top of its shaft, it opened onto Bashiketa’s level and let us out into a short hallway with a single old fashioned door at the end. There was a Crew access panel halfway down the hallway, hidden from sight with microscopic seams, and openable only by Network command. But that was it, no other doors. A very unusual place in the Sunspot.

I’d been here once before, so I knew what to expect, but it still felt special and strange.

We walked up to the door as I sent them the greeting and notice that we’d arrived. And by the time we’d reached it, the door curled open.

Bashiketa was standing right on the other side of the door to usher us in, with Fredge standing in the middle of the room attentively, and Laal in the kitchen making something with boiling water. Upon entering, I smelled tea.

And there was Thomas, sitting in one of the chairs at the table. There were two new chairs there since the last time I’d visited, both made to fit Thomas and I. The other four were designed to accommodate tails and were of slightly varying dimensions.

“Aphlebia,” Fredge said. “Do you have chair specs? I can have our maker spit one out for you right now.”

Aphlebia grinned and nodded and sent the specs to Fredge’s tablet. And Fredge walked over to the maker and set it to work.

“I like that we’re all just visiting,” Bashiketa said as the door closed behind Abacus. “You know, instead of doing something big and scary.”

“Well,” Abacus commented. “This is probably big and scary for Thomas. But yes, we’re just here to catch up and be hospitable! Welcome to the Sunspot, Thomas!”

Thomas gave a little worried grimace and a small wave. He did seem very relieved to see me. His nanite eyes were still expressive enough to show recognition and hope when he looked my way. 

So I walked over to sit down with him, and said, “Hi.” I looked around at everyone and said, “pretty weird, huh?”

“Yeah,” he gulped. “I never thought I’d see you in person and for real.” He grimaced again, “It doesn’t feel real, though. You look even more like me than I realized. It’s like looking in a mirror! Only your hair and clothes are strange.”

I sighed and smiled.

Thomas had created a nanite exobody for himself, probably from the bulk of nanites I’d left Bashiketa. This room didn’t have a nanite clay bin, but there was a large drum in the corner and I could sense it had some nanite clay in it. Not enough for a typical adult body, but maybe a small child or two small Tutor avatars.

I wanted to peek through the Tunnel to see how Thomas’ vessel was doing on the other side, but the Guardian was there, feeling very much like Phage but not like my mother, and it wouldn’t let me through. And, if Thomas was here under those conditions, that maybe meant something bad had happened to him on the Terra Supreme.

So, here he was, in a spacious Monsters’ quarters on the Sunspot in his own nanite body for the first time, surrounded by alien people. Bashiketa, he had grown up with, visiting them in dreams, flashbacks, and blendy dissociative episodes. But all from the perspective of being Bashiketa, and feeling dysphoric about it. Until Bashiketa visited him and then they had whatever adventures they’d had that lead to Thomas being here and Phage placing the Guardian in the way.

Maybe Thomas had met Fredge and Laal by that time, but I didn’t know and decided to assume they were new to him. 

So, Bashiketa was about my height, same as Thomas’. But there, all similarities ended. Where Thomas and I have tufts of curly hair on the tops of our head and bare skin almost everywhere else, Bashiketa was covered in fur, with stripes on their head and tail. Thomas and I have flat, scale-like claws useful for prying open nuts. Bashiketa’s are conical and curved, like most people’s on the Sunspot, and capable of doing severe damage to a person if used carelessly. Where our ears are round, wrinkled things on the sides of our head, Bashiketa’s were parabolic and mounted high and quite expressive. Bashiketa also had a snout and a big black nose, and that wonderful bushy little tail. And teeth made for puncturing, gripping, and tearing. If we were all fauna, we’d be mistaken for different species, but our brains and our genes were actually remarkably similar. We were all human.

But to Thomas, he was in a world of what must have looked to him like Beasts!

Fredge had chestnut colored fur, with large pointed ears and a longer and sharper snout than Bashiketa. They also had dark gray, leathery layers of hide down the front of their abdomen, imitating the belly scales of a snake. And their tail was long and fluffy, with a white ring near the tip. They usually wore a simple robe with a slit in the back for their tail.

Laal was easily the tallest in the room, with two long legs built for leaping, sprinting, and kicking with what must have been an incredible force. Hen also had a long, heavy, but fairly flexible tail for balance and maneuverability when running. And short arms with hands that somewhat resembled mine, but with more bulbous pads on the tips of hens fingers, and little black claws. Hen had a short, rounded snout, with slits for nostrils, and two big, long ears that were more expressive than anyone’s in the room.

And then in had walked Aphlebia and Abacus with me. Where everyone else resembled mammals, whether marsupials, mustelids, canids, or primates, Aphlebia and Abacus looked like amphibians. And even in their nanite bodies, the simulation of their natural movements and expressions was so complete and subtle that these forms were who and what they were.

Aphlebia looked like one of the jumping amphibians of the marshes and streams, only proportioned to stand on hind legs and just a couple centimeters shorter than me. They still adorned their avatar with the form fitting clothes they’d worn before their ascension, though constructed entirely with nanites.

I can only imagine how strange and scary that must have been to Thomas.

On the other hand, I’d visited his ship and seen the uncanny similarity of all the humans there, and it had unsettled me deeply, especially because they all looked so much like me. Things like their hair color and texture, skin tone and color, or their height, was different, but not much else. Though, I could look at them in a way that Thomas could not, and also see what was working systemically to make them all so similar, not just in the society of the ship but within each body as well. If you ever find yourself starting your own generational starship, don’t make it like that. Please. And, there, I’ve said more than I intended about them, but this feels like an important point.

What I want everyone to understand is that although that ship’s culture is unbalanced and unstable, with things we’d consider to be cruelties worked into its fabric and history, it is also always changing, in constant flux, reinventing itself. It’s not the same ship the Sunspot left a couple hundred millennia ago. And there are good people there, with long ancestries, who deserve our empathy and respect. And when one of them, such as Thomas, comes to us to tell their story, we should listen to them without judgment.

But Thomas wasn’t here to tell his story. He was here for respite. So, I tried to focus on what he was talking about, and reacted to that.

“Yeah, I like my hair a little shorter than you do,” I said. “And we have a lot of different clothes here. You could go get some and wear them over your exobody, if you want. It might help you feel better, actually. To feel real fabric, right?”

“I don’t know if I’m ready to go out,” Thomas said.

Then I noticed everyone was looking at us strangely and realized Thomas and I were speaking in his dialect of Inmararräo, the parent language of our own ship. Bashiketa seemed used to it. But everyone else was having trouble understanding what we were saying. And they were all surprised I had fallen into it like it was my natural language.

“The maker here can probably make you clothes,” I offered. Then I turned to Bashiketa and asked, “Can you speak like this, too?”

They shook their head briefly. Meaning, they understood my words at least enough to answer the question, but couldn’t respond in the same dialect.

I looked at Abacus. I thought I knew what was going on, but I didn’t quite have the words for it. It took the prompt and figured it all out on its own. It’s a very old, very wise dragon shaped Tutor.

“Did you have this problem when you were visiting the Terra Supreme, Bashiketa?” Abacus asked. And then, when Bashiketa nodded, it asked, “What did you do there to solve it?”

“When we weren’t sharing the same body, we gestured and signed at each other,” Bashiketa answered. “It was hard. But when we were… together? We could understand each other’s thoughts.”

Aphlebia opened their mouth and held up a finger, and then sent everyone the concept of wordless thoughts. Which, of course, Fredge and Laal could not receive, being Monsters.

Monsters are people who have used their right to autonomy to revoke their consent to a neural terminal, whether one composed of nanites or one of the old fashioned ones that were surgically implanted not long ago. Monsters cannot ascend when they die, and are not connected to the rest of the ship like everyone else is, so they are given more explicit protections and considerations by the Crew to balance those disabilities. Bashiketa had been born a Monster, but had accepted a nanite terminal recently, after I’d told them how. Fredge and Laal were still committed to their choice.

Bashiketa looked very disappointed in themself for not thinking of wordless thoughts. But if you have a mind that tends to put everything into words, it’s really not likely to occur to you, or even be intuitive. Aphlebia finds it hard to use words, and so it was natural for them to provide an example.

Thomas perked right up and let everyone with a Net connection know that he got it. Then he suggested Bashiketa act as a translator for him. He’d send Bashiketa thoughts, and Bashiketa could either say them out loud or send word back to him. It was extra work, but since the dialects were still essentially the same language, he figured he’d learn pretty quick and they wouldn’t have to do it for very long. Or, at least, he seemed interested in trying.

A lot of that is my own interpretation of his thoughts, so I might be putting more into it than he’d intended.

Bashiketa frowned and then nodded to Thomas.

So then, just before Thomas spoke next, both he and Bashiketa took on almost the same expression, and then Thomas said, haltingly, using Bashiketa’s words for his thoughts, “I’m sorry. You all look like scary, untrustworthy creatures to me, but I know you are good people. I think I would like some real clothes.”

“That’s pretty good!” I said. Then I pulled at my shirt, “Clothes like mine?”

“No. Different,” he said. Then scowled at his next words, “Those are too… girly?”

I’d seen the people he called “girls” on his ship, and while I liked their clothes, I really didn’t see how mine resembled them. But that was his perspective. The others in the room were confused by the word “girly”, though. That had been his own word, not Bashiketa’s.

I turned to everyone who had a confused look and said, “Girly is a kind of style on the Terra Supreme that Thomas doesn’t like for himself.” I apologized to Fredge and Laal for leaving them out of the next thing I did, and then I created a Network projection of different styles of clothes in my size and shape to hover above the table. It was a standard maker menu, nothing creative on my part. And it was stuff I’d worn throughout my life, updated for my size, and filtered for what I thought Thomas’ tastes might be. I hoped he’d like something there. I like to experiment with my clothing a lot, so I thought there was a good chance of it.

The Network projection was just enough different from what he’d experienced on his ship that I did have to give him a few simple instructions, but he took to it pretty quickly. “It’s a lot like the menus for the nanites!” he declared.

The others sat down around the table, Fredge bringing Aphlebia’s chair over from the maker, and Laal serving tea, while Thomas flipped through the selections. Fredge and Laal exchanged amused glances over watching Thomas wave his hand in the air at something they couldn’t see.

Then Thomas pointed at a shirt and said, “That, but gray.” And then at a pair of shorts, “That, but black.” And then a pair of shoes, “And these.”

I went ahead and activated them for him, but showed him how to do it, in case he didn’t know. But I think he just didn’t feel like he had permission to activate the maker himself, so I said, “You can literally do that any time you want. It doesn’t cost anything. And when you’re done with anything, you can put it in the maker and tell it to unmake it.”

He looked dumbfounded.

I leaned forward, with my elbows on the table, to look him in the eyes briefly, which it turned out both of us found uncomfortable so I looked down at his chin immediately, and said, “I bet Bashiketa already told you this, but nothing costs anything here. We don’t have money like the Terra Supreme does. You don’t even have to do anything to earn anything. You can just do. Eat. Talk with us. Explore the ship! Abacus loves giving tours! You can even go to one of the shipyards and look outside!”

Woops.

Thomas looked like he’d been stricken in the gut with a sharp tree branch, slumping back in his chair, eyes wide, mouth slack, and then his nanite exobody collapsed and Bashiketa suddenly threw up.

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