Aphlebia came along, because they were not going to miss out on this. But that left Candril and the Whorlies feeling left out. However, we didn’t want to overwhelm Thomas with our entire family, so we had to arrange it for Emala and their tutors to take them on a simultaneous outing with the same goal, to see the cuttlecrabs.
We really did need to introduce Thomas to the rest of my family, though. And maybe playing cards with them all after visiting the cuttlecrabs would work out all right. Everyone would have something safe to talk about.
Fredge and Laal could come to the park where we’d decided to start our endeavor, but because they were Monsters without neural terminals, they couldn’t actually tour the shoreline like we were about to do.
“We’ll just eat icecream and argue about something trivial,” Fredge said. “While we watch over you.”
“Yeah, I’m good with that,” Laal agreed.
This park had a few public nanite clay bins so that people didn’t have to take any from the grounds. That was starting to happen more often. So when Aphlebia and Thomas abandoned their nanite bodies, their nanites naturally returned to that bin, and they’d retrieve them when we were done.
We did come out at night time, when there were fewer people and less light to overstimulate Thomas. But, also, the cuttlecrabs are more active at night.
Thomas made a point of not looking at anyone but those of us he knew. I hoped he’d get over that, but I thought I understood.
He did look up at one point and say, “I’ve always loved the moon.”
“Could that be one of your favorite things?” Phage asked.
“Yeah, maybe,” Thomas said. But he didn’t smile. He was too preoccupied with everything else.
So what we did was follow Abacus’ example. We took a stroll along the beach using only Network projected avatars. These were still technically nanite exobodies, because we needed just enough of them floating around head height to provide for our senses of hearing, smell, and sight. But they were so thin that anyone looking at us without the aid of a neural terminal might see a couple twinkles of dust motes in the moonlight, but nothing else.
The illusion of tactile sensations of our feet on the sand and rocks, and the breeze on our skin or fur, were created entirely within the Netspace of the Garden. We left no footprints.
“It feels no different than before!” Thomas exclaimed.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Bashiketa agreed.
Aphlebia grinned at both of them.
Phage glanced at me with a cautioning look, but I’d already decided not to ask about their time aboard the Terra Supreme, when they were using the nanites and the Network there. I could guess from this that they’d maintained nanite bodies after the incident. And when they had traveled through the Network, it was quickly, to pass through the Tunnel and retreat to Bashiketa’s psyche on the Sunspot. No time to discover the wonder of it.
Also, the Network of the Terra Supreme might be configured differently. I didn’t play in it when I was there. I’d existed in a different way.
Even before setting out from the park, we could hear them. Or what we assumed were the cuttelcrabs. They sounded like all the other fauna of the shoreline. Only, birds and mammals that would have been active during the day were supposedly speaking up now. It wasn’t a constant cacophony, but a lazy continuation of the usual amount of noise. A call here. An answer there. Sometimes a burst of noise from a group of creatures. And sometimes, interspersed amongst all that was a word.
“Waves!” someone said, from somewhere up the beach, where no one should be standing.
A little while later, someone answered, “shoes!”
Bashiketa, of course, kept translating for Thomas, even for the words that the cuttlecrabs mimicked.
And since our network projections never felt physical fatigue, we kept walking, hoping we’d catch sight of them. But for the longest time, the only signs were their noises.
I was beginning to wonder if they could somehow sense us, when one ran right through my feet, dashing from a bunch of reeds high on the shore, down toward the surf. And just before it was overcome by a wave that utterly dwarfed it, it screeched, “ice creeeeaaam!!!”
This sent Aphlebia dancing with glee.
Thomas was so startled, he fell over laughing. In the Network, his weight compressed the sand and left gouges in it, and he doubtlessly felt each grain as he came to his hands and knees and started to stand back up. But the gouges faded quickly, and it was obvious he had actually touched nothing in the Garden itself.
And he took the time to marvel at that, and we explained it.
I think that was the first time I’d heard him laugh, too! It had washed through my being, relieving so much tension just at the sound of it.
Once he was standing, though, Thomas looked at Bashiketa and then at me, his mouth still showing a hesitant and haunted smile, but a smile. And then he took off running ahead of us, throwing his head back and howling at the moon.
“Ha!” I shouted at Bashiketa, and took off after Thomas. There was nothing we were doing that would hurt anything, so why not?
Bashiketa was better at running than me, though, and passed by me fairly quick, working their way to catch up to Thomas.
None of us had noticed that Aphlebia had stayed behind to walk with Phage, though.
And we ran and ran and ran, until we realized we were tromping through a field of cuttlecrabs. The Network didn’t give us tactile sensations of touching them, only the sand, so it took a moment before we saw their movement and stopped to gawk at them. And there we saw how they really communicate.
Again, this wasn’t new knowledge to anyone but Thomas, but seeing it is still way more amazing than hearing about it. But also, now that I was beholding it with my own senses, I could see things that the Crew observers had missed, or could never have seen. This is the point where I took a Phage-state and looked at the whole populace of cuttlecrabs.
Each individual cuttlecrab communicates with a whole set of signals. Noise is really just a small fraction of how they speak to each other.
To begin with, they dance! They step and change their posture in different patterns. And also, while doing this, they gesture with their feeding arms and tentacles. They have a very complex set of expressions they can make by doing this, and it would be enough to fascinate any student of fauna psychology.
But then, also, they flash with colors! Not only can they change the color and texture of their skin, even the skin that covers their shell, very quickly, but they employ bioluminescence! So at night, little sacks of light in their bellies are shuttered and released in patterns of flashes that also help to show off their colors and their dancing.
Again, none of this is a surprise to anyone living on the Sunspot. Cuttlecrabs are a common topic of discussion in our nurseries. All Children are fascinated by them. And I’ve since learned that some Crew have created simulations of them in the Network just to interact with their beauty and wonder without actually hurting them.
But here I saw the full extent to which they communicated with each other. I could see the patterns, not just in the flashes that spread as waves across the shoreline, echoed by chirps and stray words like “Shoes!” Not only in how their dancing looked as choreographed as any artisan’s production. But also I saw it in their very nerves!
There was a chaos to the complexity of it beyond a certain point that may have been hidden to the eyes of any typical human, even backed up by the power of the Sunspot’s processors and Network algorithms. I could see through that chaos to another pattern beneath it, hidden and subtle. Though, of course, just like looking at the biological system of any human, I could not read the thoughts that were there, I could just see that they existed, humming in the field of cuttlecrabs just like how thoughts hum in the EM field of a human psyche.
The finale to all this was when I stole a glimpse at the whole of the cuttle crab population and found that that humming was, at times, unified across the entire circumference of the shoreline.
My nearly-ten-year-old mind was absolutely stunned and I fell back onto my butt in the Network sand and just stared above and around me in awe. Cuttlecrabs continued to dance and flash, intersecting with my hands, feet, and body where I met the ground, as if I wasn’t even there.
Bashiketa saw me fall, and laughed, asking, “Are you ok?”
“Yes!” I cried. “Yes! They are just so amazing!”
Thomas was stomping around and bending over to look at individual cuttlecrabs and to study their shapes and movements as close as he could get his eyes. Which meant that he was often on his hands and knees, the side of his head pressed to the sand, with a cuttlecrab in his face.
“Ah! I thought you knew about these like I did,” Bashiketa exclaimed. “They’re so neat in person.”
“Oh, I knew about them,” I said, just staring straight up. “But I’ve never looked at them like this!”
“You’re not even looking at them!”
“Oh, yes I am!”
Thomas had heard the conversation and propped himself up to watch us, a cuttlecrab dancing through his right hand, unnoticed.
“Oh,” I said, coming back down to deck. Still sitting on my butt, though. “OK. You both know how I’m the child of Phage, right? I’ve told you both about this.”
Thomas got up on his heels and rested his hands on his knees and shook his head.
Bashiketa said, “No, I don’t think you have.” I think Bashiketa was playing ignorant for Thomas’ sake, but that’s OK. I appreciate it in retrospect.
“I thought I did,” I replied. So I pulled my knees up and together, then wrapped my arms around them to relax while I explained, “You both know I’m the child of Phage and I can do things. Maybe I didn’t tell you about this. OK.” I let go of my knees for long enough to shake my hands as I thought about it. I looked back down the beach from where we came and saw Phage just sort of moseying along, with no hurry to catch up, looking out over the water at the Aft Endcap as it walked. I continued, while staring at it, “I want a better word for this, but right now I call it my Phage-state. It’s a lot like entering the Network, except it’s the Network of everything. The Network of atoms. Of quarks. Of photons, electrons, muons, and all the waves inside and in-between them…”
“What are muons?” Thomas asked.
Bashiketa’s expression was questioning as well. They failed to recognize several of my words.
“Very, very small things,” I said. “You’ll never be able to see one yourself, at least not right now. But I can. Because I’m the child of Phage. And I can also see individual cuttlecrabs from across the Garden, up there.” I pointed. “I can see them all at once. And I can see them thinking.”
“Is this like…” Thomas looked suspicious. “Is this like how you helped me the one time in Bashiketa’s room? Can you read minds?”
“Yes, and no.” I sighed. “It’s like how I helped you. I can’t read minds. I can just see them in a detail that others can’t, and all at once. It’s like if you took an active MRI of the entire ship all at once.”
That didn’t make sense to either of them either. But at least it kind of got the idea across. I was starting to feel weird about getting random bits of information popping into my head to use. Like, it’s always happened to me, but always around other people who are used to it. Neither Bashiketa nor Thomas had grown up with me and Phage in their lives.
Thomas stared at the ground for a bit, then said, “Wait, but. How did you visit me in my head on the Tera Supreme? I didn’t have nanites back then, and neither did Bashiketa. Wasn’t that like mind reading?”
“Oh. Hmm,” I didn’t have a ready answer to that.
I wasn’t even sure how I’d done it, just that by using the Tunnel I could treat their psyches like I was entering the Network. And the first time I’d gone through, I didn’t touch them at all, so they hadn’t noticed. But Phage had instructed me to get permission from Thomas before I came back through, so I’d visited him then.
Could I just do that with anybody, or was the Tunnel necessary? I hadn’t thought about it. I’d just done it all on reflex.
Then there was the time I’d localized myself in Phage Pember to give it a thought and make a request. But I thought that had worked because it was essentially my sibling, another child of Phage, if more limited.
But I didn’t want to experiment with anybody. Not without asking.
I shouted at Phage across the Netspace of the shore and asked it, “Hey, Mom. Can I read minds?”
It looked at me and then blinked closer so that it could be part of our conversation amongst the cuttlecrabs, and said, “No. But you can connect to them. Somewhat better than I can, even.”
Thomas was looking at Phage with an ashen expression, terrified of that strange Network movement it had just done. With its form a silhouette filled with stars and nebulae, it had probably been like something out of a nightmare or horror story. Again, something I’d grown up with and had been used to.
“Oh, Thomas, I’m sorry,” said Phage, sitting down cross legged and making itself as unthreatening as possible. “I didn’t think moving like that would startle you.”
“It kinda really scared me, too,” Bashiketa said. “But I know you from your stories. You’re a good thing.”
“Thank you,” Phage said. “Thomas. Some day I need to apologize to you properly. When you’re ready to hear it. It involves a lot of your pain, so I’ll wait until you tell me it’s OK to talk about it. OK?”
Thomas just nodded.
“I also intend to make it up to you as best as I can,” Phage elaborated. “Mostly, I think that will be by making your life as best as it can be here on the Sunspot. But if you ever want to go back to the Terra Supreme, I’ll figure out how to make that happen, too. Or, even, if you want to go somewhere else entirely. There are ways.”
That surprised even me, so I asked, “What do you mean?”
Phage smiled and said, “I wouldn’t recommend it, but one of the ways of traveling somewhere else is to make a one person interstellar spacecraft and leave the Sunspot. It wouldn’t take very much matter to make it, especially if that person resided solely in the craft’s Network, and we could spare more than enough for it.” It looked down at the sand, “It’s better to travel with others, though. But… there’s also the Tunnel network.”
“But, that’s not connected to the Sunspot’s Network,” Bashiketa objected. “How would Thomas go through it from here?”
“It doesn’t have to be not connected,” Phage pointed out. “We’d just have to convince Gesetele to allow it for the transfer.”
“What about the ships on the other end?” Bashiketa asked.
“We’d have to ask them,” Phage said. “But that could be done. We could ask.”
“So, no one is stuck on the Sunspot?”
“No, not at all.”
“Well, the cuttlecrabs might be,” I said.
“Not for long,” Phage replied.
We all just stared at it for a while. It was smiling down at the cuttlecrab dancing and flashing right in front of it.
“Where’s Aphlebia?” I asked Phage after a bit.
“They went to see how Candril and the Whorlies were doing,” Phage replied. “They felt bad for them, and also thought you needed some space here to be with Thomas and Bashiketa.”