3.04 Anticipation

“Thank you for standing before the Council, again, Ni’a,” Nevegere, Acting Captain, said. “We’ve reviewed your report, and thank you for your thorough description of what you experienced and did. Before we continue, we’d like you to know that we are beyond satisfied that you consciously acted in the best interests of the Sunspot, even if your subconscious actions may present us with a dilemma. You yourself are not being reviewed here. So please feel free to relax. We’d just like to allow you to participate in our discussions of what to do about it. You may bow out at any time, including now. Are you OK with this?”

I used a Network trick that Phage had shown me to record what Nevegere had said and review it in my own memory more clearly. It was an old accessibility device programmed into the Sunspot long ago, and I hardly even noticed it doing its job. It was just easier to think about everything in a long speech, even if my attention wandered in the middle of it. And I was now thinking about Thomas, so that was useful.

“Um, yes,” I said. “Thank you for inviting me.”

“And I, as well,” Phage said, as it stood next to me.

Nevegere nodded, and then Akailea stepped forward.

“After we’re done with that, I personally would like to hear how Thomas is doing,” Akailea said.

“Oh, yeah!” I replied. “Please!” I was starting to get a little more comfortable being on the Bridge, but it still rattled me a bit. All my life, I had been interviewed by my elders, many of whom are not part of my family. That didn’t bother me, and I knew how to say things politely. I had scripts for that. It’s just, like I said before, the Bridge is extra scary. But I was determined to overcome that fear. “Um…” I trailed off.

“Yes?” Akailea prompted.

“May I connect with the drift?” I asked. “I mean, to everyone?”

“Oh,” Nevegere said. “We weren’t going to ask you, but it would be beneficial, I think. Does everyone else agree?”

I could already feel the minds of everyone on my side of the Bridge. Phage’s was the strongest presence, but the attendants over here were also part of our collective psyche. So adding another hundred and thirty-two people to the mix, it was a big Council session, didn’t seem like too much of a deal to me, and I wanted them to be able to trust me. I worried about that.

After Nevegere received unanimous consent on kihn’s side of the Bridge, the connection was extended to me. It was a slow and gentle increase of awareness, emotion, and thought. I found it to feel a lot like when I entered my Phage-state, but where I got thoughts instead of physics.

Phage abstained from the connection, not wishing to drown me out with its presence, and the Council demurred to that notion. I could still feel it, but the Council could not, and it could not feel the Council. Not through the drift, anyway.

Standing next to Phage is a lot like standing next to a singularity. If you want to know what standing next to a singularity is like, stand next to Phage. Well, it probably helps to have my senses, but anyway.

There were a bunch of nods from the Council as our connection became comfortable to everyone. But I felt worry coming from a number of them. Others were burning with curiosity. I felt no abject fear. This calmed me down quite a bit. But maybe it shouldn’t have. If there wasn’t anyone there who truly feared me, then those among the Crew who did were not there to learn that they didn’t need to.

But now they could also all feel how I was preoccupied with trying to figure out how to get Thomas to go outside.

“Ni’a,” Akailea said. “Jedekere and I have some ideas that might help you with Thomas, which we can go over later.” And I could tell sie was being genuine about that. I also got a glimpse of hir visualization of talking to me later, and that made it easier for me to plan and shift gears, too.

“Oh, OK. Thank you!” I said.

“So, what we are concerned with today,” Nevegere began, “is the origin of a signal of curious origin that appears to lie in the near path of the Sunspot’s travel. To review. This signal is repeating a complex pattern, with a quality to it that can be described as musical, and it is shifting its relative position to the Sunspot’s path in an equally complex but predictable way. In their sleep, unaware that what they were doing had real world impact, Ni’a somehow configured the Sunspot to track this signal and to beam back a reflection of it to its general location. And what we would like to do here, with this Council session, is to propose possible actions that we may want to take in response to this.”

“If I may,” came a voice from the back of the Council, someone named Metelexe, “I’d like to review what’s at stake first.”

There was a round of assent.

“In all of our records and experience, we have yet to encounter something like this outside of the Sunspot,” keh said. “Many of us feel that this signal represents the presence and influence of some sort of life outside of the line of Ships that have spawned the Sunspot. It’s hard to imagine that it might be anything not produced by life, but we also know that the dispersal pattern of our ships has always been programmed such that we will not intersect with each other. Also, it’s not behaving in a way that the Sunspot itself could behave. If it came from a sister ship, it would have to be a new kind of device or spacecraft with a design that we ourselves have yet to devise. Correct?”

More general assent. These formalized words for speaking to the Council were just a little overwhelming to me, though. Kinda fun, but also more than I felt I could do myself.

Metelexe continued, “Either we’re going to find that the source of this signal is an unheard of complex non-life signal, in which case we may relatively safely study it as we pass by. Or we’ll find that it’s a product of life, in which case it may be extra unpredictable, and we’ll have to plan on contingencies we may not be able to imagine.”

“It has feelings,” I interjected.

Almost the whole Council asked “what?” mentally.

“Can you elaborate on that?” Nevegere said.

“Uh, it, well,” I stammered. Then I looked down and mumbled, “I had another dream, and it had feelings.” Phage and I had sent our report before bed last night, so last night’s dream hadn’t been part of it.

“What kind of feelings,” Nevegere asked.

“It felt proud of its dancing,” I replied. “Like it’s an artist that dances. And it was hoping someone can see it.”

There was a murmuring of thoughts from all over the council in response to that. Most of the members were Elder Crew and they’d learned how to control their thoughts in subtle ways over the years, so I didn’t get much more than a few words here and there. That didn’t seem fair to me, and I was tempted to slip partially into my Phage-state to… do something. I didn’t have a plan.

Phage looked down at me in concern, and I didn’t do anything.

“That sounds like a product of life, as far as we can tell, then,” Metelexe said.

“We should assume it is, at least,” someone named Eegil added.

As they each talked, I could feel tendrils of wordless thought level communication between the Council members, feeling out consent to speak and prioritizing who should go next or first. They’d only had the drift in the Bridge for nearly 40 years, and they were already very skilled at using it. And I knew I couldn’t do what they were doing, but I could watch and learn. It was really fascinating!

It’s possible that they’d all done that before the drift, now that I think about it. It just would have taken more conscious effort to use the regular Network channels. Anyway.

They talked about whether or not it would be hostile. And then they talked about whether or not it would be dangerous even if it wasn’t hostile. And then they talked about how its behavior might change once our signal reached it, and whether or not it had the ability to intercept and match our course when it did. The conclusions to all of those discussions were that no one really knew, and more observation was needed.

What was known was that it was only 217 light years away, by our relative velocities. Which meant it would take some time longer than that to reach it. I could give a precise number at any given moment, but it keeps changing. So, like, you, the reader, might be this thing! And by the time you translate and read this book, we might be just about to pass you by within a few years or decades of that! But, as you know, I did try to reach out to you long before that. At least once. I look forward to seeing you in person, if that’s possible.

In the midst of all that conversation, a Crew member by the name of Ascal stopped talking and just looked at me in thought. It was such quiet thought that I didn’t notice at first. And then I got the sense that they wanted to ask me a question.

Then some others noticed, and looked at Ascal and then at me. One by one. Most of those who’d stopped conversing kept their eyes on Ascal, patiently. Others looked around at their fellow Council members, waiting for them to catch on. Then Ascal made a sound like clearing their throat.

Ascal had features similar to a savanna ungulate, complete with ribbed horns that swept straight back. Their tail was more like that of a river reptile, and they had two sets of striped barbels that arose from their back like wings.

“Ni’a,” Ascal addressed me. “How were you able to read its feelings or thoughts from so far away?”

Everyone stopped talking at that question.

I shrugged. “It was a dream,” I said. “Phage thinks I visited it.”

Phage nodded in concurrence with my statement.

“Yes,” Ascal said. “But how?

I looked up at Phage, because I didn’t know how to explain that in words. I just knew I could do it.

Phage made a gesture out of scratching its head before answering with the question, “You are aware of how the Tunnel works, yes?”

Ascal nodded, and so did most of the rest of the Council, eerily at the same time because of the drift. In fact, I felt the impulse to nod as well, but I was busy watching Phage.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Phage said. “But pretend that it does. Pretend that there are a bunch of subatomic particles distributed throughout the universe that were entangled during something like the Big Bang and that they’re still there and Ni’a and I can communicate with other parts of the universe through them. It’s not even close to how it works. But it’s the closest analog I can give you with the words available in any language I know.”

Ascal blinked indignantly.

“I’m sorry,” Phage said. “I just really can’t explain it better than that. But what it feels like is… I have a large self. That larger self encompasses everything. It even exists within you, within every q-bit that contains your psyche, within even your psyche itself. And then there is me, this conscious being right here. And when I connect with and become a larger part of my greater self, it is like I add senses to the ones I have here in the Network, and my awareness expands. But, as that happens, I have fewer and fewer conscious thoughts and act more through reaction. Then, if I want to, I can refocus my consciousness in a new spot entirely, somewhere within the radius of my somewhat greater awareness.”

It watched them digest that. I could see by faces which of them had read Metabang’s or Abacus’ books and which had not. It was kind of funny to me.

When Phage was satisfied they’d internalized that, it continued, “Ni’a has that same ability. However, for some reason I do not fully grasp myself, they can expand their awareness to a greater distance than I can without losing their sense of self or consciousness. They may, however, have some limitations that I do not.”

Thinking about that, I could not imagine doing that thing to go somewhere where life didn’t already exist. I felt like I could focus on life, but not on things without it. But also, I couldn’t imagine going to the Terra Supreme without using the Tunnel. Maybe I could, but it felt impossible in the moment.

I let myself think those things while Phage was talking, so that the Council would know how I perceived it all.

I felt awe and confusion come from most of them. Disbelief from only a few.

“Gods walk amongst us,” someone named Vibural muttered.

Phage leaned forward as if to speak into something that wasn’t there, and made its voice somewhat louder, “Oh, that word.” It leaned back again, looking down at me and then back at the Council, “Please do not think of Ni’a and me as gods, deities, demons, spirits, or any of the other forgotten words from the old language you left on the Terra Supreme. Those words carry moral implications that do not apply to us. But also, we are closer to your equals than you suspect.”

“What are you?” someone named Keshetheke asked.

“You should know by now that I will never answer that question directly,” Phage replied. “I know what I can do, and I know what my sense of identity tells me. But the actual explanations of why, how, and just exactly what elude me just as much as they elude you about yourselves. Unless you really think you know what you are, in which case I’ve got a slight upper hand.”

“In forty-seven days it’s my tenth birthday,” I said. I had picked up on Phage’s mood and it had essentially pulled that bit of knowledge out of my memory and presented it as the best thing to say in the moment.

Akailea stood up and addressed the rest of the Council, “I think that this would be a good time to adjourn this session and return to our friends and factions to discuss what we’ve talked about so far. There’s a lot of time for us to figure this out, and what seems to be more important is that as much of the Crew as possible is allowed to deliberate.” Sie took a moment to look around at everyone, and then asked, “Shall we meet again tomorrow?”

“Before you do,” Phage said. “I’ve been thinking about a proposal I’d like to offer everyone.”

It stopped. I could tell it was actually worried about stating more. It was torn between presenting the proposal right then and never presenting it at all, ever. And it was leaning toward the latter.

“Yes?” prompted Nevegere.

“I don’t think I can propose it right now,” Phage relented. “But I’d like everyone’s consent to do so at a later date. It concerns many of the problems the Council is tackling regarding imbalance of power, ethical dilemmas of consent and autonomy aboard the Sunspot, and self governance. Call it a risky solution. And I can’t tell you exactly what is at risk, except that it would fundamentally change the Sunspot forever after in some way. But it would preserve your lives.”

Stunned looks from the Council were followed by the question, “Why are you telling this to us now?

“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Phage. “And, it may also equip you to handle the source of that signal in a nuanced way. Though, remember that I am here and will do everything in my power to protect you either way.”

As everyone was trying to digest that, I felt like I had an inkling of what it was going to propose, and I did everything I could not to think about it, because I could tell that mattered to Phage.

“Just,” Phage said, “ask everyone, even the Monsters, if they even want to hear about it. I don’t expect unanimity. But responses will help me gauge if it’s even a good idea to talk about it further.”

“I feel like even this much will cause a lot of turmoil,” Akailea said.

“It will,” Phage concurred. “Part of what I’m doing is giving you, the Council, control over how that turmoil plays out.”

“That’s” Nevegere stated, “a lot.”

“It’s a test,” Phage said, and then shifted its posture in a way to indicate it wouldn’t say more.

“Just like a god,” said Vibural.

Phage simply snorted.

So, I’m telling you all of this because it’s the context, the state of change that the Sunspot was in when Thomas came aboard. And I was also very distracted by it all, myself.

At the end of the session, the drift between the two sides of the Bridge was revoked, and Akailea and Jedekere came over to our side. After talking to a few others, Nevegere joined us as well.

“I don’t really have anything to add to this next conversation,” Nevegere said. “But since I seem to be Captain today, I’d like to witness it, if you don’t mind.”

I shrugged, and everyone else agreed to it.

“Thank you,” Nevegere said.

Akailea manifested a table and some seats around it, and suggested that we sit, so we did.

“So, how’s Thomas?” Akailea asked.

I felt like starting with the worst of it, so I found myself saying, “He died. And that makes it hard.”

Both Akailea and Jedekere nodded, and Jedekere said, “Phage has told us all about his journey here. So we understand where he’s coming from. But you’ve spent some time with him here, and maybe you can tell us more about what he’s like, from your perspective?”

So, I told them about my afternoon with Thomas, after we’d finished playing cards. I was good at this kind of thing after my nearly ten years of a lifetime of talking to Abacus.

As I was playing my last card and winning the final round of Shithead, despite cheating at the game in Thomas’ favor, I noticed Thomas looking at me intensely again. He’d been doing that on and off all morning, and I’d kind of expected it.

But finally I smiled at him and asked, “What?”

“You really, really, really look like I did,” he said.

“You still look like that,” said Bashiketa.

“I know. Right,” Thomas replied. “But I mean…” and he trailed off because it was hard to say. His eyes watered.

“Hey,” Fredge said, putting their open hand on the table, in much the same way Aphlebia usually did for me, to offer to Thomas to hold his. “We can figure these things out together. OK?”

Thomas looked at Fredge’s palm like he didn’t know what it meant. And maybe he didn’t. And he leaned away from it and said, “I just don’t feel real sometimes.”

I wasn’t quite sure if his reaction was because he didn’t even know about holding hands, or if it was because Fredge’s hand was so different from what he was used to. Fredge’s hand was half covered with fur, and had those conical, curved claws instead of Thomas’ flat ones. So after studying him for a couple of seconds, I decided to offer him mine.

“Would holding my hand help?” I asked him as softly as I could.

He looked at it like he was seeing a cuttlecrab for the first time. But he was definitely thinking about it. And then he started to reach out, but his hand stopped short. He moved it haltingly closer a couple times.

He was in his nanite body and had a Network projection over it that made it look like his original, natural body that he’d left just outside the Terra Supreme, but alive and healthy. And he was wearing actual clothing over that. And I knew from experience that this nanite body would give him almost all the same sensations as his old one, the way his psyche would expect. The only significant difference was sense of taste, but it was really close too.

But, I also knew that he knew

His original body just couldn’t be here. He was surrounded by strange people that looked like creatures to him. And every miniscule discrepancy between this nanite body and his old one was amplified by all of this, and probably giving him a kind of dysphoria. Nothing as bad as when he was coconscious with Bashiketa in Bashiketa’s body, but enough to cause him to dissociate, obviously.

Then he shook his head and withdrew his hand, and said, sad dismissal in his voice, “Holding hands is a girl thing to do.” Oh, but he definitely had wanted to do it.

Bashiketa scowled in confusion and asked, “What does that have to do with it?”

Bashiketa and I had both spent enough time aboard the Terra Supreme to know what a girl was. And so had Phage. And we’d seen some of the weird cultural things around girls and boys over there, but definitely not all of them. Fredge and Laal had both heard of what girls were by this point, but had no experiential reference for this conversation. Still, none of us really grasped what this meant to Thomas.

“If I -” he started. “I can’t… I’m… It doesn’t feel right.”

“What if,” I said, thinking that he was looking for some sort of loophole in his personal rules, “we all held hands? Maybe in a circle. So I’ll hold Bashiketa’s, Bashiketa will hold Fredge’s. Fredge will hold yours. And you’ll hold mine? Would that be OK? Like a game in one of your schools.”

“Oh. OK?” he said very tentatively.

So I offered one hand to Bashiketa and one to Thomas, and then waited as we each slowly connected the circle. And Thomas was, of course, the last one to finish it. But he put his hand in Fredge’s first before mine. My hand was the more important connection to him.

I found myself wondering in that moment if even our fingerprints had been similar. No. There were other differences in our bodies that were greater than that. We were effectively clones, almost exactly the same age, if relative velocities and distances were ignored. But there were a couple significant anatomical differences in our bodies, and I knew that my puberty was going to be really different from what he would have experienced.

There’s a reason he thought of me as a girl, even though I knew I wasn’t one.

And one of the many, many non-genetic things that affected fingerprints was the type of developmental hormones that were released during fetal development, and when they were released. Even a subtle shift in timing could have wildly different results.

And I knew all that because I’d simply asked myself the question. That was another thing different between us. At least, for the time being.

I watched him with all of my senses as his hand settled into mine. I wanted to know if this was helping him more than hurting him, so I was looking at every minute change in his system and trying to judge if it was traumatic or soothing.

His Network hosted heartbeat sped up as his hand neared mine, then dropped off to a slow and stately pace once connection was made. Muscles in his avatar that had been clenching unnecessarily did relax, too. His brainwaves really churned about it all, but I couldn’t read those without the connection of the drift on the Bridge.

My intuition told me it was definitely one of the things he needed, though.

I remembered a simple little game we used to play while holding hands like this when my siblings and I were three or four years old. Emala usually led it. Now that I look back on it, it wasn’t really a game so much as an exercise, but Emala made it out to be a game, and felt like one at the time.

“Can I tell you all what my three favorite things are?” I asked.

“Sure,” Fredge said, while Bashiketa thought about it and nodded, and Thomas shrugged and nodded.

I checked my feelings to see if they were the same three things as I said last time, and decided to make a small edit for Thomas’ sake. One of my favorite things was going for a space walk, but I didn’t need to say that. It was slightly less favorite now, anyway, now that I knew the subject would hurt him.

“My three favorite things are,” I said, “people, tea, and numbers.” I nodded. That seemed good, but I explained, “I like people because everyone I meet is really just trying to find things that make them happy, and for every person it’s a different thing, and it becomes a fun game of helping them figure out how to do it. I like tea because it is all about flavor and smell. You just put things in water and it makes the water taste and smell kind of like the thing, and you mix it all together, and then drink it, and it’s all about enjoying it. And I like numbers because they feel good. Whenever I know the numbers of something, I know where it is and what it’s doing and I know how to respect it.”

I looked around at everyone to see whether they were OK with the little speech I made. So far, so good. Fredge seemed to be considering what I’d said. Thomas was still mostly dazed looking. And Bashiketa looked like they wanted to talk.

So, I said the next bit of the script, “But you don’t have to like what I like. That’s OK. What are your favorite things?” And then I turned to Bashiketa, because it seemed like they wanted to go next.

“Do I have to explain why I like my things?” Bashiketa asked.

“Only if you want to,” I said. “You don’t even have to say anything at all.”

“OK. My favorite things are popover pancakes, Fluffy Fauna, and fungus,” Bashiketa said. “Actually, fungus is my very favorite thing. It’s so cool, and I can tell you way more about it than you want to know. If you want.”

Fredge grinned to hear that, and Bashiketa smiled back at them.

“So,” Fredge said next. “My three favorite things are… Music, because, like Ni’a’s numbers, it soothes me. In fact, it is numbers, but it’s numbers I don’t have to think about, I can just feel. And,” grinning some more, “Bashiketa, because their passion for their favorite things reminds me of what’s good about being alive, and also because they bring other important things into my world.” Fredge glanced over at Thomas, but didn’t make too big of a thing of the implication. Then they said, “And my very favorite thing is arguing for hours with Laal about completely unimportant stuff.”

“Ha!” Laal barked. “We haven’t done that in way too long!”

“That’s because everything has been too important lately,” Fredge said.

“Right?!”

I looked at Thomas and said, “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want. I just thought it might be nice if you heard some more about the rest of us. You know, to get to know us better.”

Thomas just sort of absently nodded, still holding hands with me and Fredge.

Laal spoke up, though, and said, “My favorite things are cooking for other people. Running. Running is really good. And… Winning my arguments with Fredge about completely unimportant stuff.” And then hen stuck hen’s tongue out at Fredge.

Phage chuckled softly at all this and watched Thomas for his reactions. When it looked like Thomas might take a while to add to the conversation, if at all, it decided to speak up as well, “I’ve played this game with Ni’a and the rest of our family many times. My answers are always the same. They’re very generic, but that just means they can include many things. They are relief, discovery, and assistance. And I can explain those things to you, if you want,” but then it smirked and drew out a bit of tension before saying, “But, if there is something specific that is my favorite thing right now, it’s cuttlecrabs. And you’re all going to find out why relatively soon.”

Laal scowled at Phage and said, “You can’t say something like that without elaborating!”

“I rather think I can,” Phage replied. “But Ni’a might already be able to see what I’m talking about.”

Cuttlecrabs are part of the ship’s fauna, found in the Garden, the wilderness that lines the inner hull of the Sunspot’s habitat cylinder. The Garden includes several rivers and a saltwater sea that is deep enough to sustain some megafauna that dwarf most of the land fauna. And the cuttlecrabs live along almost all of the shoreline of the Sunspot’s Garden. They are technically mollusks, with ten arms and two tentacles. But six of their arms have evolved to sport pieces of shell, along with their body. This rudimentary exoskeleton gives them the structure necessary to scuttle around on land. Also, they have a lung, and the ability to mimic complex noises with vocal chords.

We are all taught from a very young age to leave the fauna alone. If we see them in passing, we can enjoy their beauty, but we are not to enter their habitats or seek them out or do anything that might impact their ability to thrive on their own terms. People do occasionally violate these restrictions, which are really just projections of the fauna’s rights, usually due to personal curiosity. And the people who do are usually pretty careful about it, though they still make mistakes and need to be corrected. Many of the Elder Crew are dedicated to watching over the fauna, using the nanites to attempt to repair any damages done to the land or the ecosystem, and to communicate with interlopers and tell them to turn back.

However, there are many seaside parks, especially as parts of the few cities that are right on the shoreline. And the cuttlecrabs do not know they are supposed to be left alone, so they do not leave park-goers alone. Parks usually are lined with various kinds of innocuous deterrents to keep most fauna from entering them, but these have to be fairly gentle so as not to injure any fauna, and it’s just never perfect anyway. And cuttlecrabs are clever.

So, when Phage said this, at least everyone else in the room knew that there have been instances where cuttlecrabs have seemed to heckle park-goers with words and phrases they must have heard somewhere else. Also, Abacus has reported in its book that it found cuttlecrabs repeating some of these phrases and words in their habitats deep into the wilderness of the Garden, well away from any humans.

Because of my upbringing, I hadn’t been paying them any attention.

So, I frowned at Phage and was just about to take a look at the cuttlecrabs while in a Phage-state, when Thomas asked, “What are cuttlecrabs?”

“Oh!” Bashiketa exclaimed, and then went on to explain in great detail everything I just wrote above. And then added that there was a kind of parasitic fungus typically found on their shells that wasn’t particularly harmful to the cuttlecrabs, but seemed to give them distinctive markings as a result of its presence, and went into its life cycle.

We eventually let go of each others’ hands, and Laal got up to make us some food, while Bashiketa continued to talk about their favorite thing. Thomas started asking more questions about the cuttlecrabs and their fungus, and eventually, Bashiketa had to start looking things up on their tablet to get the answers. And Phage leaned back in its chair and folded its arms in pleased smugness.

It wasn’t until we were halfway through eating our meal, a gigantic popover pancake with filling to share amongst us all, that Thomas said, “I don’t know if I have any favorite things. I’ve only had things I hate or that scare me.” He pushed his food around on his plate. He’d tried it and said it was good, but didn’t seem to want any more of it. His nanite body didn’t really need it, in any case. Then he said, “Hell is weirder than I thought. The things I hate the most aren’t here. Just weird things.”

“What’s hell?” Bashiketa asked.

Thomas looked at them like he couldn’t believe Bashiketa had never heard of it. None of us had, though. “Hell is where you go when you die,” he explained.

“No it isn’t,” said Phage. “There’s no such place. If there is anything that is hell, it is a state where there is no relief, discovery, or assistance.”

“Then where am I?” asked Thomas.

Phage put a juicy, greasy pastry wrapped piece of fruit into its nanite clay mouth and chewed, closing its eyes momentarily, then said, “my home. The Sunspot. And as weird to you as it might be, I am happy to give you relief, discovery, and assistance, and I think so is everyone else here.”

“Can I be alive again?” Thomas asked.

Phage didn’t bother clarifying that Thomas was alive, just not with a biological body. It knew what he meant and it knew better to poke at that sore unnecessarily. Instead it said, “Somebody is working on it. So, someday, yes.”

Everything that had been tense about Thomas suddenly relaxed so much that it seemed like he was hanging entirely upon hope to keep himself upright. He leaned forward just a little to say just the one word, so softly and tentatively, his voice shaking, “When?”

“In your future,” Phage replied, gently but firmly.

Thomas collapsed in his chair, head bowed, eyes squeezed shut, and started sobbing. He stayed in his nanite body, though, and I could see he wasn’t distressed so much as letting himself feel all of his feelings. I felt like crying with him. In part because I could see how much this mattered to him, and I cared about him. But also because it reminded me of what I’d done to Aphlebia. And that would always ache.

I could see that this would be a thing with us, now. The subject would keep coming up. And we’d all three, Thomas, Aphlebia, and I, have to just be there for each other afterward every time. If we could.

“How would that work?” Laal asked Phage.

“Remember Jenifer?” Phage asked back.

“Yeah.”

“Better than that.”

“Oh.”

Fredge offered Thomas a hug, and after some hesitation, Thomas accepted it. When Fredge started to rumble, Bashiketa started to purr, and I smiled at them and started to cry. There was no point in holding it in.

So, of course, we figured out a way to go see the cuttlecrabs. Since Phage and I met with Akailea and Jedekere after that visit, the two of them had suggestions for that endeavor as well, which we followed. And that was the first outing we managed to get Thomas to agree to. It took a while to get him used to the methods we would have to use to visit them, but it was worth it.

But, when I got to the part where Phage talked about the possibility for a new body for Thomas, Jedekere fixed it with a stern and confused expression and asked, “Why did you promise him something we haven’t even deliberated on, yet?”

“Are you sure you haven’t?” Phage replied.

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