When I went back home to my body, I’d forgotten that we were still in our temporary quarters, halfway around the habitat cylinder from our actual home. Which is unusual for me, due to my innate sense of being and place in the universe. But I guess I was consciously distracted.
But I woke up with the Whorlies napping on one side of me, and Candril on the other, in the single large bed that was there, and it came back to me where we were.
Emala was reading in the other room, and the Tutors were actually playing a card game that Abacus had taught them. I don’t recall ever having seen Tutors play solely amongst themselves until that day. But I was only nine years old, and the Sunspot had been around so much longer than me, so it may have happened. And I wasn’t exactly seeing any of that from the bed, but I could hear it and otherwise sense it all.
I decided to not disturb my peers, and just continued lying in bed for a while. Aphlebia appeared at the foot of our bed, just a Network projection, and waved. I waved back, and they disappeared. I guessed that they had some energy to work off and knew I’d be OK where I was.
I pinged Phage over the Network.
“Just finishing up my meeting with the Crew,” it replied. “I’ll be there very soon.”
“Can I come to the Bridge?” I asked.
“That would be irregular, but I can make the case,” came the response to that. “Why would you like to come to the Bridge?”
“I’d like to see everyone and see how they’re doing,” I sent. And then added, “I want to see what it’s like when it’s normal.”
I could feel its single short laugh at that before it sent me, “OK.”
I probably should have napped for real instead, but I was feeling almost as feisty as Abacus usually is.
I had the nearly-ten-year-old-who-is-used-to-helping-people kind of notion that I maybe knew better than the Council about something. And that was made worse because of how the last time I’d visited the Bridge it was to use my Phage-like abilities to sooth the conflicts that were happening there to prevent some kind of war between factions of the Crew from breaking out, so I had sort of parental feelings toward them. Even if they weren’t the same people there today as back then.
The Bridge of the Sunspot is not a physical place. It’s a Network space. And, actually, there are two of them now, sort of mooshed into one. So, when you go there, you have to choose which side of the Bridge you want to be part of.
Phage was on one side, and most of the rest of the Council was on the other. But there were security attendants on both sides to make sure that neither half of the Bridge could be controlled solely by one faction of the Crew. The whole dual Bridge thing, along with the attendants, was a result of the one time that happened.
The Bridge also has this protocol that’s part of it called “the drift”. The drift facilitates the sharing of surface thoughts and emotions between anyone who is on the Bridge. It does not automatically work between the two halves of the Bridge, however, and must be consciously established as links between Crew members on either side. But, once a link is established, it functions automatically until one or the other party severs it. Everyone on one side or the other, however, must consciously desync their thoughts from everyone else in order to keep anything private.
This is all part of an effort to improve communication and to break down disagreements and misunderstandings that had been plaguing the Sunspot for centuries. It wasn’t exactly adequate at doing that, but seemed to work better than whatever they did before, I’m told. I got the impression that having a singular Bridge with the drift active actually drove Crew to stop coming to the Bridge. The dual Bridge did seem to help with that to some degree.
Also, at the time I visited, only Crew were allowed to enter the Bridge uninvited. Abacus was working with a couple Elder Crew members to have that changed, but they were stalled over how to accommodate Monsters who might want to visit the Bridge, and also whether or not to officially recognize anyone who wasn’t Crew as part of the Council if they did appear on the Bridge. At the time, only Crew who entered the Bridge were part of the Council, and being on the Bridge was the means of attending the Council.
Although Phage was nearly as old as the Sunspot itself and was considered Chief Engineer, it had never taken the Vow of the Crew and said that it could not do so and remain true to itself. But, as part of their contract with it, the Crew had extended it a standing invite to join the Bridge at any time. And since it was in good favor with the majority of most Councils, it apparently could convince them to extend me an invite on occasion. Such as now.
But, in retrospect, I’m fairly certain that my appearance on the Bridge signaled the official end of the Council’s session. I was, after all, not only a Child but a literal child. But maybe especially because I was the child of Phage and they didn’t want to distress me so much I might lose control.
“Hello, Ni’a,” said Akailea, probably my favorite Crew member. Sie was the parent of all the Liaisons aboard the Sunspot, and had been accompanying Aphlebia, Abacus, and I on a series of therapeutic tours of the Sunspot that Abacus was leading for us. Sie had been there when I’d taken my space walk. There were a number of other Crew there that I sort of recognized, but Akailea appeared to be acting captain. Sie continued hir greeting with, “We have been given word by Abacus that you have volunteered to act as peer guide to Bashiketa and our guest, Thomas. We understand that you can speak Thomas’ language?”
I had sort of hoped to be the first to say, “hi!” So it took me a couple moments to alter course and figure out how to answer a yes or no question. In those moments, I noticed that the Bridge was its usually mostly featureless off white lozenge shape of indeterminate size. However, rows of off white desks and chairs had been added for people to sit in. And they were arranged in a semicircle with Phage and I standing on a dais in the locus of it.
“I, um, yeah. I guess so,” I finally said. “I don’t really notice when I’m doing it, though. Um, hi!” I waved awkwardly.
Fenmere waved back.
“Of course, we will gladly offer you all the assistance guidance you need to carry out this task,” Akailea said. “Please send me any messages, questions, or requests for help you might have at any time. But, since Phage is your parent, it will be there for you as always, too. Did you have any other questions for us?”
I was starting to realize that the Bridge was the one place on the Sunspot where I lost all of my confidence. I felt out of place there, and I could feel the authority of the Council bearing down on me like an increased gravitational force. And I’d forgotten everything I’d hoped to say there. I found myself feeling really embarrassed.
But I managed to croak out, “How are things going here? Is it better?” And Phage just grinned at them.
“Actually, yes!” Fenmere replied. “Thank you so much for your assistance in that, too. Phage informs us you were instrumental in quelling the chaos of our last upheaval! We are, in fact, lucky to have you.”
There were, however, some expressions on some of the faces I didn’t recognize behind kihn that didn’t seem to agree with that assessment. But I also couldn’t feel their emotions or thoughts across the divide of the Bridge, since they weren’t sharing.
Akailea was sharing with Phage, apparently, and I could feel Phage’s reactions. And Phage was radiating a calm smugness back at everyone. I’m not sure that was very diplomatic of it, but when I’d set out to visit the Bridge just then I wasn’t exactly intending to be diplomatic either. Not that I had any enmity toward anyone, I had just been feeling childishly brash and wanted to show off or something, and pretend to be an adult.
But now I was getting compliments and feeling how childish I had actually been, and it didn’t feel as good as it felt like it should have been.
And since I like Akailea, I didn’t even think to blame hir for that. I mostly just blamed myself.
I felt like hiding behind Phage until I could return home and play with my siblings instead. I felt like I was two.
Except that when I was two I think I was even more bold and shameless than I am now. Somewhere between two and nine, I’d learned at least a little bit of self-consciousness.
If I’d retreated to my Phage-state and viewed the Bridge from there, conceptually aloft, my perspective and feelings would have changed and I could have told them all sorts of things they might be doing wrong. But I didn’t think to do that because it wasn’t at all the reason I was there. I realized I just mostly wanted to see the Bridge in action now, to see how it was, and how it was working, and what the Council was like, and to show them that I was a nice, grown up nine year old.
So, I just stepped closer to Phage and said, “I’m OK.” And cringed.
After some pleasantries between Phage and Akailea and some apparently official closing comments, we went home.
Sometimes when you set out to do things, you actually get what you want, but it’s not what you wanted, and you feel really dissatisfied and bad about it. And sometimes that’s a lesson. And sometimes you don’t learn what the lesson was right away.
When we got back, Phage and I convened in our own private Netspace while my vessel slept, before I actually took a real nap.
“That went really well, I think,” Phage said. “But you seemed embarrassed. Do you want to talk about it?”
“It’s OK, if you don’t,” it said. “But, do you actually feel up to helping Thomas around?”
“Oh, yeah!” I said, relieved to change what I thought was the topic. “I’m really good with him, and with Bashiketa!”
“Good!” my mom replied. “I think that tomorrow we should take a tram to visit them, so that you can take care of your vessel properly. What do you think?”
I made a show of thinking about it, scrunching up my face. I really liked playing with the nanites, and I thought I wanted to be on equal terms with Thomas, too. But I really wasn’t on equal terms with anyone, and taking a nanite body did add a layer of complexity to everything. Also, he might like to see me for real. So I ended up nodding and saying, “yeah, OK. That’s a good idea.”
And then I remembered again that we still weren’t home home, yet. We were still out on our family outing to that counter-park for our city.
“Can we just go home for real first, before we do that?” I asked.
“Oh, of course,” Phage said. It didn’t know that that was actually the plan for after our afternoon naps.
Emala was already considering getting back to our home quarters before dinner. So, at least that all worked out.
But, before that, I had a dream.
I was on the Bridge. I was the Bridge. There was only a field of white, and nothing else, no people, no Crew, no furniture, not even me.
And then there was a number.
I was both the number and the one evaluating the number. I might have been the Auditor. I’m not sure.
The number was the only identity in existence and it kept changing.
Changing very quickly, smoothly, going up and then down and then back up. The peaks and the valleys of its value kept changing, too. Sometimes it was very high or very low, sometimes it didn’t go very far at all before changing direction. But the speed at which it was changing was ever increasing.
And then there were three more numbers accompanying it, also constantly changing, but this time in a very orderly and predictable way. One kept decreasing from a very, very high value, while the other two cycled in sine wave patterns.
And this was all so very curious and confusing, so I focused really hard on it, trying to understand with sheer force of will. Which didn’t work. I started to become frustrated.
But then, just before I woke up, something snapped. A solution just suddenly started happening and there was beautiful, sublime relief.
I started reflecting the number back to wherever it was coming from.
That night, on the tram ride home, I told Phage about my dream.
“That’s really interesting,” it said. “I still wish I could dream.”
Of course we’d talked about dreams before, because I kept having them. It didn’t. It didn’t sleep. It was, in fact, the only entity on the ship that didn’t sleep. Even the Crew and the Tutors slept. It’s possible that whenever it shifted focus from a localized instance of itself to its greater being, that was the equivalent of sleeping, but it didn’t involve dreaming, and what it did during those times was not only lucid but had very real effects on the Sunspot. But it may have satisfied its human-like psyche’s requirements for sleep by doing that.
Or, it could be that no one else had bothered to configure their psyche’s to dispense with the need for sleep once they’d become Crew. Maybe they liked it too much. Or maybe someone had done it, and just hadn’t reported it and none of the rest of us knew about it.
“That’s the first dream where I was a number,” I said. “I think.”
“Was it very different from when you become the physics of the Sunspot?” Phage asked.
At first, that was a really weird question to me. I had some trouble understanding the comparison. I almost said, “no.” I knew what it meant by “become the physics of the Sunspot,” but I didn’t feel like that was the same. But then I remembered what Phage said about how doing that felt like to it. And I think I realized for the first time that it didn’t comprehend how I usually kept my own sense of self so strongly when I became the ship, or entered what I’d been calling my “Phage-state”. I’d finally experienced something in my dream that it had only ever been able to describe to me! So, instead, I said, “Sorta. Yeah. But, more like how you say it is.”
“What do you mean?” it asked.
“Mom!” I said, “I keep telling you I don’t ‘lose myself,’ like you keep warning me about!”
“Oh,” it said, looking off into space while it thought. “But you did lose your sense of self in your dream?”
“Ni’a, have you noticed how you seem to have different kinds of dreams?” it asked.
“I think so,” I said, wrinkling my nose.
“What kind of dreams have you noticed that you have?”
“Well, this is a new one,” I said.
“I don’t think it is, actually,” Phage turned more toward me. We were seated on the same bench in the Tram. “You have described weird, nonsensical dreams that might be metaphorical or just fun for your brain to have. You have described dreams where you seem to be working out some kind of anxiety or worry. And a lot of people seem to have dreams like both of those kinds.”
“And then there are these dreams you have where it seems like you are visualizing your place in the universe. Like the one you were able to recount to Abacus for its book about you.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, remembering it again. “I’ve had that one a few times’
“Well, I think this was a dream like that one,” Phage said.
“Really?” I squinted up at it.
“Yes,” it replied. “Only this one was more focused. How many numbers did you say there were again?”
“Three,” I mumbled. “No, four! The first number, and then the other three. But I didn’t really see them. I kinda more felt them.”
“Can you recall them? Remember how they felt and maybe feel them again?” It asked.
We were communicating via a private channel, but I took a moment to look around at the rest of my family, playing with each other in the tram car. The Whorlies were trying out the different kinds of seats that were there, while Emala, Candril and their two Tutors were playing the same card game the Tutors had been playing earlier. Aphlebia was outright arguing heatedly with Chalkboard. It wasn’t going well for Chalkboard.
Then I tried to put myself back in the dream, and it came really easily. Talking about it hadn’t triggered it. But purposefully focusing on it brought it right back. And the one number that had been simply decreasing was now much lower than it had been before, and was still decreasing. But now I was myself, focusing on it.
“Wait,” I said. “I think this is in my own Netspace now! Go there! Look!”
It looked into my Netspace without actually fully entering it. Then it turned its nanite exobody’s head to stare off in a particular direction, and I watched its head continue to turn slowly as if it was tracking something. Both the movement of the tram and the rotation of the Sunspot itself were vectors inherent in Phage’s shifting gaze, but the point it was looking at was apparently so distant that these movements were subtle and probably only I could pick up on them.
But now it all clicked! Phage was looking almost directly forward, at a point that the Sunspot was moving closer to. Following its gaze while perceiving my number feed, I was able to pick out the point as well, and really look at it.
It was an electromagnetic signal, and it was not nearly as blueshifted as everything else coming from that direction. It also had a complex pattern that had some repeating themes in it. No, after a while, I realized it was completely repeating.
“Uh, Ni’a?” Phage asked.
“Did you know that the Sunspot’s Bussard collector has been configured to send a mirror of that signal right back at it?” It knew I had picked up on what it was seeing simply by my change in posture and thought waves.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I think you gave the Sunspot a command in your sleep,” Phage said. “And you had the brilliant idea, apparently, to use the Bussard collector as a transmitter.”
“I think so, yeah.” It nodded. ‘I don’t know yet if it’s going to work, but we’ve got a while before anybody finds out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the signal. Do you see how long it’s going to be before we pass the source?”
“Oh, that number keeps changing, so I can’t actually say it.” I reported. “It’s different every second.”
Aphlebia had caught sight of our weird body language and was trying to look in the direction we were looking, which was at the wall of the tram. They were very confused and kept looking back at us. Then they tilted their head and squinted, having some sort of suspicion, or just warning me that they were about to ask questions.
“The Sunspot is constantly accelerating,” Phage said. “But the source of that signal is maneuvering.”
“What do we do now?” I asked, not quite making sense of that, but figuring that it was our responsibility or something. I mean, I kinda knew exactly what it meant, but I wasn’t fully grasping it, and I think I was worried about something more close to home.
“Tell the Crew about it,” Phage replied.
And I suddenly felt anxious again. “Do we tell them about the Bussard collector?” I asked.
“We’re going to have to, yes,” Phage said. “They’ll find out about it if anybody looks, anyway. The Auditor might even report it. It’s more responsible of us to let them know ourselves. They need to know.”
“I keep changing things,” I whispered, in a bit of shock.
“Ni’a,” Phage said, looking back down at me. Since deciding that it was my mother, it had started taking a shape that looked like how I might look when I was older, but it still used its Network projection to fill that shape with a silhouette full of stars, galaxies and nebulae. It offered to hold my hand, and I let it. And it gently admonished me, “you are change.”
I fell quiet for a while, but I gave Aphlebia a wide eye grimace. They got the idea from that and the rest of my body language that I didn’t want to talk about it just yet, but that I would later. We’d gotten really good at communicating without words to each other.
Later, after we’d gotten home and had dinner, while I was lying in my own bed, I asked Phage about the Council and what they really thought of me.
“They are really scared of both of us,” Phage said. “They’re afraid to do anything to punish either of us for anything we might do, or to restrict us in any way. Some of them trust us implicitly. Some of them never will. And you and I are both in the position of deciding whether or not we continue to try to earn their trust, that which is given and that which isn’t.”
“Oh,” I said.
“If we keep showing ourselves to be trustworthy, then those who will never trust us are less likely to do something rash and dangerous out of desperation or fear.”
“But I keep making mistakes,” I confessed.
Phage looked at me, and asked, “Do you?”
“Yeah!” I wailed. “I gave the Sunspot a meltdown. Then I gave Bashiketa nanites. And I sent a signal to a signal using the Bussard collectors.”
“And in the first two cases, the Sunspot has ended up more stable, more secure, and all around better off as a result,” Phage pointed out. “And, also, in the first two cases, I was just as culpable as you. In a lot of ways.”
“That’s not how it works,” I heard myself say. I was starting to get drowsy and I was pessimistic about everything, so I think my subconscious parroted an argument I’d heard. I didn’t fully grasp where my mouth was going with this.
“What do you mean?” it asked me.
“I don’t think you know how people work very well,” I murmured.
“Huh,” it grunted. “OK. You might be right.”
“I know,” I apparently said, just before falling asleep.
There was a dance to be done. It was important to dance. A dance could be recognized, seen, understood.
It was a dance with an end, but it could be an endless dance if need be.
It was slow and stately and beautiful and very, very deliberate.
It used as little extra fuel as possible to do it, collecting what it needed as it went.
It used the curvature of time itself to amplify everything it did.
It wove a pattern through space in hopes of an audience and didn’t know yet that it finally had one.
There was a candidate coming almost right for it, but it wasn’t certain about it.
So it was bold.
It was brash.
It was reckless.
It had begun to attempt to match speed and signal its intelligence for all it was worth.
And maybe that had paid off.
It felt hope in any case.
Fredge insisted on playing Shithead with us. But Laal and Phage sat out and were talking about cooking. Aphlebia had said they might join us later, but wanted to play games with Candril and the Whorlies for a while, so they were back at home. So, that made four players. Fredge, Bashiketa, Thomas, and me.
I don’t remember where our family learned the rules for this game, but it was Candril’s favorite and worked pretty well with four players. If you had more, you needed to add another deck of cards, or change the rules a bit, and it got clunky. Sometimes the Whorlies would play their own game of it off to the side. The Tutors, when they played cards, usually played something more complicated.
I was thinking about my dreams as I was dealing and trying to explain the rules, so I had to redo things a few times, and apologized for it every time. But once everything was set up, it was pretty easy for me to just play.
Fortunately, it turned out that Fredge also knew the game. They’d just let me do the teaching because I’d brought the cards and had suggested it.
Actually, Emala had suggested it as an easy and fun thing we could do with Thomas that we could also laugh about.
It’s kind of a mean little game that has earned its name. But if you don’t take it very seriously, it’s also pretty even handed. It is reasonably random. Enough that someone who’s really good at the strategy isn’t going to win every time. But there’s still enough strategy to be interesting.
I don’t play to win. I play to watch the patterns of cards and ways they get played.
Bashiketa seemed to have a similar attitude, once they got the hang of it.
Fredge was being quiet and aloof, but offering friendly reminders of how to play whenever I didn’t do so.
Thomas immediately wanted to win.
So, after letting the first game be a chaotic mess, I started manipulating the shuffling and deals so that Thomas had an edge. Which is something I only did once with my family when I was younger, and Phage had told me to stop doing. This time, however, Phage gave me a little smile every time I did it, and no one else noticed.
But my mind kept going back to that last feeling of that dream I’d had just before waking up that morning.
I’d had an emotion, a thought, from the source of the signal. And, not only that, I felt like I had a sense of the shape of its hull. If I was right, it was shaped like a nut.
I’d mentioned it to Phage on the tram ride to the Bashiketa’s place. And Phage had replied to that with, “Wow.”
“Why ‘wow’?” I’d asked.
“I can’t reach that distance without losing my sense of self completely,” Phage had replied. “I might be able to come back, but I wouldn’t have memories of it.”
So, every time I dealt a card to Thomas, or looked at him for any reason, I thought about how he’d come a much further distance via the Tunnel. And how Phage and I had been through that Tunnel as well. And my brain wanted to do something with that knowledge, but didn’t know how.