3.07 The Gift

That had been a long night, and Phage and I spent some time talking in a park, watching the moondeath before I went to sleep, both of us in Network projections while my body was in bed already.

The details of the conversation aren’t important. It’s that we had it. And that we’ve kept having conversations like that ever since. Not every night, but frequently, and definitely after really hard days.

And, also, the days generally did get better from there. We all fell into new routines, and our families spent much more time together.

Abacus and Akailea had been taking me and Aphlebia on tours of the more spectacular and surprising places in the Sunspot to help us feel special and to fill us with wonder and endorphins to help us heal from our trauma. After integrating Thomas and Bashiketa into our family, Aphlebia and I agreed that we didn’t want to make those trips exclusive to us anymore. Everyone should get to go.

There were so many of us, then, and we naturally ended up dividing into two groups anyway. Me, Thomas, and Bashiketa in one group, most of the time. Aphlebia, Candril, and the Whorlies in another. The two groups would go places together, but there was sort of a default split there when some lagged behind, or we had multiple conversations.

But then, sometimes Thomas, Bashiketa, and the Whorlies would split off and talk system stuff, which was so good for all of them. Then Aphlebia and I would take Candril off to the side and play with nanites, showing each other new tricks. And Candril would ask me to show zem some of my Phage-state tricks, so I would, and then explain them as best as I could.

Of my siblings, the Whorlies always remained the most distant, just out of circumstance. Which still makes me feel sad. But watching them light up and fight over their front while talking to Thomas about the nuances of dissociation and weird system shenanigans really made me happy, too.

And, just as Akailea and Abacus had said, the Sunspot itself seemed to settle. Especially now that Phage was back.

Abacus was no longer interviewing me for its book. It apparently had become too busy working on other things to continue it. 

But when we went on our tours every five days, it would fill me in on what it was working on, and how things were going, as if I was an Elder member of the Crew. And I think it might have been doing this because of how it had accepted Aphlebia’s assistance in trying to put a proposal in front of the Crew to overhaul the whole caste system of the Sunspot.

I pointed out that it should also include Monsters in its work, and it agreed. I was thinking of Fredge and Laal specifically, but it turned out that Abacus was already working with Tetcha and a few others. But, it did take my suggestion and contacted Bashiketa’s parents.

When my mom and I talked about all this, it approved. I told it that I felt a little self conscious being a child involved in ship politics. But Phage then said that it was watching over me all the time and that I was doing very well, and that it had my back. If anybody pushed me too far, or tried to use me for their own ends, they’d have to face it.

Then we talked about what to look out for and a set of signals we could use to communicate with each other whenever I was worried or stressed out. Which we both agreed we should have had before.

I then took that idea to Aphlebia and elaborated on our already tight communication to include those signals for each other. Then Aphlebia said, “I’m sharing this with Candril.”

Pretty soon, our whole family was bonding over having each other’s backs in case of emergency or distress, even if one of us was just really sad. We decided on new, less distressing ways of checking in when in crisis.

And sometimes, they actually came in handy.

And in the middle of those conversations, my mind kept going back to what I’d seen when I’d looked at the cuttlecrabs. Phage had said something was going to happen with them, and I was becoming excited to see what it was. I felt I could guess.

And then I had my birthday!

So, we were all very close to the same age. Candril’s birthday was thirteen days after mine. The Whorlies fifty-nine days after that. And Aphlebia’s twenty-seven days after that. All within the same year.

Celebrating birthdays is something of a hold-over from back when the Crew secluded themselves and the Children (then called “Passengers”) had not known that they would ascend to Crewhood upon death of their body. And it was less of a thing for the Crew, and they still don’t really celebrate them.

On the Terra Supreme, giving gifts to the birthday child has been really common, so it was what Thomas expected. But we don’t do that on the Sunspot. The very concept of gifts is kind of strange for us, because we can all get or make anything we want at almost no cost. Sometimes a person would make a personal work of handmade art for someone they sensed would appreciate it, but the Sunspot had left the Terra Supreme’s artificially created concept of wealth 130,299 years in the past. 521 generations have passed without it.

So, on the Sunspot, the birthday child thinks of some sort of group activity they’d like to do most with everyone they care about, and they invite that group of people to participate on their day. And then, throughout the day, the birthday child will go from friend to friend and family member to family member and thank them personally for being in their life.

It’s always been one of my favorite rituals we have here on the Sunspot, and I’d been thinking long and hard what kind of activity I wanted to do that would also be most inclusive of everyone I knew.

So, when I went up to Thomas and Bashiketa to tell them, “My birthday is in five days, and I want to invite you to go flying with me,” they were both so stunned they didn’t say anything for a bit longer than I could stand. So I put my hand over my mouth and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“That’s our birthday, too,” Bashiketa whispered. “Both of ours.”

Oh, right! I’d known this. I’d read Abacus’ book over and over as it wrote it about me and the people who revolved around my life. And in the second chapter, it talked about how we’d been conceived at very nearly the same time (I could give precise time differences, but you probably don’t want that, right?), and it was just an easy assumption, with the gestation equipment of the time, to assume we’d been born on the same day.

Just, because being born on the same day wasn’t written down explicitly anywhere, I had never thought about it consciously, that I could remember.

“Oh!” I said. “Did you want to do something else on that day?”

“Flying is good!” Thomas exclaimed.

Bashiketa shrugged and said, “We’ve been kinda arguing about it, because we couldn’t agree. But, yeah, flying is good!”

“But, we should do what you want to do, too!” I said.

Bashiketa looked down at the ground and mumbled, “Well, I usually go mushroom hunting with Fredge. And now that Laal is here, I was hoping hen would come too.”

“Well, I think we can – “ I started to say.

“Birthdays are about cake and presents,” Thomas said.

“Presents?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Thomas said. “You know. Boxes with cool things in them that people give you because it’s your birthday? Wrapped boxes that are fun to open?”

Fortunately, my greater self flashed a vision of a present to me then, like it was my own memory of opening it up, and I got what he was saying.

“Oh!” I said. “Well, we can do that too! I don’t need presents, but I think you should have some definitely, Thomas. Why don’t we go mushroom hunting in the morning, flying in the afternoon, and give Thomas presents at home when we’re done?”

It was a long day, but that’s what we ended up doing.

I guess I’m going to explain these three activities, because they’re each neat in their own way. I’m not going to go over all of the thank yous, though, because there were a lot.

Between the three of us, I was the one with the most friends and family, so I made it pretty clear to everyone I knew that I considered the whole day my birthday, all three activities were for me as well as for Thomas and Bashiketa. So, they could come and go as they pleased, but to not choose flying just because they associated it with me. They should do what seemed like the most fun to them.

And that seemed to work pretty well.

My friend Bri, for instance, came for the cake and presents, because that seemed really weird to zem, but ze was afraid of heights and liked sleeping in. Also ze wanted to meet Thomas when ze learned who he was. Bri and I had kind of grown apart of late, and it was really nice to see zem in any case.

Emala was interested in the mushroom hunting and the food in the evening, but had no interest in flying. While most of the rest of my family wanted to do all three things. The Whorlies agreed to take turns, they each had different interests. Aphlebia was probably the most excited of anyone to go mushroom hunting, and Bashiketa was very pleased by that.

Abacus tried to goad the other Tutors into participating as well, and managed to get them to agree to at least one of the activities each.

And Fredge and Laal bowed out of flying.

On a whim, I’d also invited Akailea, and was utterly surprised to have hir show up for all three activities.

My mom, of course, did everything I did.

Now, Mushroom hunting was kind of tricky, because only Monsters were afforded the opportunity to really delve into the wilderness areas of the Garden, where Bashiketa was used to going. There are so few of them that their impact is minimal, and it was part of their special dispensation for being official dissenters and “mortally disabled”. And we could have done the same thing we’d done to visit the cuttlecrabs, but Bashiketa insisted on going somewhere where everyone could go and be seen properly by Fredge and Laal, who couldn’t see Network projections. Because they were Monsters.

So we picked a park that was known to have decent crops of craterellus and hydnum mushrooms this time of year. But since it was a park, there were likely other mushroom hunters who’d visit and maybe taken some or all of the crop. We just had to hope we were lucky.

Bashiketa wasn’t so interested in collecting them for food, though. They just wanted to find them, see them, examine them, and talk about them. There were, after all, also mushroom farms below decks for most food purposes.

Bashiketa and Fredge were not familiar with this park, either, so they didn’t know where the good spots usually were, but fortunately, Charlie, the Whorlie’s tutor, happened to have had a previous Student who was into mushrooms and rose to the occasion. It found a reliable map that it presented to Bashiketa to use to guide us through the woods of the park, with known mycelium growths marked.

Those of us who were planning on flying later had had a big breakfast, so that we would be done digesting it and full of energy by the time we did that. I was feeling kind of sluggish from that and from not really being able to sleep well the night before.

Aphlebia was right there next to Bashiketa, signing with them furiously between listening to everything Bashiketa had to say about fungus and looking at whatever they pointed at. And watching that kept me awake, at least.

Even though it was a park, we were all still very careful wherever we stepped and with whatever we touched. I know some people are a lot more carefree in the parks, there’s always a spectrum of behavior. But most of us were the more respectful types to begin with, and we were all following Bashiketa’s lead, and Bashiketa was used to mincing through the wilderness and leaving as little of a trace as possible. And it made the whole activity feel special, too.

I think the thing I liked the most about this outing, though, was that it was really easy for me to spend a good amount of time with each person who was there.

I still remember the time I spent with Emala there, walking quietly beside xem, and listening to xem talk about xyr own childhood. I heard things about xem I’d never heard before, and learned about why I’d never heard of any of xyr siblings. I had thought xe didn’t even have any. But it turned out that they had all grown apart over the years due to a combination of old, unsettled disagreements and diverging interests. Apparently, Emala had been the only one who was interested in being a Caretaker. Xyr observation was that my peers and I had just been through a series of events that were much more difficult and even more shocking than anything xe had lived through with xyr own counterparts, but that we were more closely knit. Emala thought we had a better chance of being friends throughout our lives.

After talking to xem about that, I spent some time alone just wallowing in the hope that had given me.

It was just beautiful, too. There was a bit of a fog in the morning, but it was light enough that we could see a nearby lake through the trees, from up on the small gradual hill that we’d climbed. And I watched a flock of birds take off from the lake’s surface. And there were tree rodents nearby, chattering.

I decided to walk over to Phage and thank it out loud for being my mom, after that. And Thomas happened to be conversing with it, the both of them talking gingerly about the Terra Supreme and what Phage had done to try to help the ship and also to help Thomas. It was an important conversation that I didn’t want to interrupt, but as soon as Thomas saw me, he waved me over, and haltingly thanked me for being his friend. Again, he kept it light, avoiding the heavier topics between us, but I could tell he wanted to thank me for all of it. And I sniffed and wiped a tear from my eye.

So, I thanked him back for letting me be his friend and for listening to me talk for hours that first night we’d met, even if he didn’t remember most of it, since it had been in a dream. And he smiled at that.

Then I turned to Phage and said, “Mom?”

And before Phage could respond, Thomas was going, “Wait, what?”

Phage and I both just stopped mid interaction and looked curiously at Thomas.

“Phage is you mom?” he asked.

“I thought I’d told you that,” I said to him.

He looked confused and shook his head a little, “No? I don’t remember you saying that.”

I could feel Phage’s amusement radiating from it.

“I can never really remember what I’ve told people and what I haven’t. Conversations are so complicated!” I said.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Thomas agreed. “But, I knew it was your parent, that you came from it somehow, but how is it your mom? It doesn’t sound or look like a mom. I thought Emala was your mom!”

“Really?”

“Yeah, Phage is more like your dad, right?”

“I don’t know what a dad is, Thomas,” I said.

“I am not a father,” Phage interjected.

I sighed and explained patiently, “We don’t really use words like ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ here on the Sunspot. They were erased centuries ago. We have Caretakers and Tutors. And we are not born from other people, like on your old ship. But Phage likes being called my mother or ‘Mom’, so I do that. I don’t really know what it means, though.”

“Weird!” Thomas breathed. Then he turned to Phage and said, “So, you’re the only mother on the Sunspot?”

“That’s correct,” Phage said. “For now, at least.”

“Weird!”

“I agree,” Phage said. “I’m not really sure what to think of being a mother.”

“Why do you call yourself a mom, then?” Thomas asked.

“Because, it just turns out that’s what I am,” Phage said. “When I think about what my relationship to Ni’a is, that is the word that fits the best for me. It makes me happy when I hear it. And I figure I should be happy, so it’s what I tell everybody now.”

Thomas looked Phage up and down. It was currently taking its favorite shape of what might be an older me, and using a Network projection to turn that into a silhouette filled with the void of space, but if Thomas wanted he could turn off his ability to see Network projections and see the details of Phage’s nanite exobody.

“But you’re not a girl,” Thomas said.

“Ouch,” Phage replied. “Interesting. I hadn’t expected that feeling. Thomas, can you humor me and try calling me a girl?”

“Why?”

“I want to see how it feels.”

“Oh, OK. You’re a girl, Phage,” Thomas said, amiably.

“Interesting!” Phage exclaimed calmly. “Apparently, I am a girl. At least for now.”

“What? How?” Thomas scowled, trying to figure that out.

Phage sat cross legged right in the path, facing Thomas. It picked up a twig and starting feeling it between its fingers, and said, “I’m not quite sure what you’ve been taught on the Terra Supreme, and I’m pretty sure you won’t find anyone here but Elder Crew or me who will understand what a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ is in any sort of way. But… What do you think a girl is, Thomas?”

“A girl is someone who can have babies when they’re older,” Thomas replied.

Phage shook its head, “It turns out that’s not true. Humanity is too complex for that definition. I have a pointed question for you that might hurt, but it will illustrate what I’m saying very well. It concerns who and what you are right now. May I ask it?”

Thomas folded his arms and considered that with a frown on his face, but said, “Yeah.”

“OK. I don’t mean this to hurt you or to imply you are not what you are,” Phage said. “I just want you to think about this a bit. Is what you are now, a boy, defined by your body or by your sense of who and what you are?”

There was a flash of pain on Thomas’ face at the word “body”, but he tilted his head and furrowed his brow, blinking a few times.

“Because, right now, Thomas,” Phage said, “you could change your body into whatever you want it to be. Would that change the fact that you’re a boy?”

“I think so,” Thomas said.

“Are you sure,” Phage asked.

“No,” he replied.

“You should try it sometime, and see how it feels, I think,” Phage suggested. “At least, it’s a power you now have, and something you can play with just for the fun of it. You could try seeing what it’s like to have the body of a mountain cat, or a bird, even. But if you did that, would it change how you think?”

“No, I don’t think it would?” Thomas said experimentally.

“No, actually, sorry, it would,” Phage corrected itself. “But in a really subtle way. You’d get a different set of senses and sensations from your body, and those would technically be part of your thoughts. But, the core of who and what you are wouldn’t necessarily change unless you let it. And I know this because I’ve seen so many people do it already. Sometimes changing their form makes them unhappy and they change back, and sometimes it makes them happier and they stay that way.”

Thomas nodded along with that, and said, “OK. Yeah. That makes sense.”

“So, let’s say you changed your form into that of an ursine, I think you’d call it ‘a bear’, and it made you happier. So happy that you didn’t want to change back,” Phage suggested. “What would that mean? Would it mean that you have actually become a bear? Or, perhaps, does it mean that you’ve always been a bear and you’ve found your correct shape? Or, are you a human boy that just likes being bear shaped?”

“But, I don’t get it, because some bears are boys and some are girls,” Thomas said.

“OK, that’s true enough I won’t quibble,” Phage said. “At least, for the moment. We’ll get back to the boy and girl thing in a bit, I promise. Just think about whether or not you’d think of yourself as a bear or a human shaped like a bear?”

“Well,” Thomas looked like he had a gotcha for Phage, and said, “I could be a human and a bear at the same time, a bear human.”

“Excellent,” Phage took that in stride. “Are you a bear human right now?”

“No.”

“OK, so that would be a change for you. You’d change from human to bear human,” Phage said. “Now, do you think you’d try that out sometime to see what it’s like?”

It didn’t take very long for Thomas to say, “Yeah! I think that would be cool.”

“Alright,” Phage said. “What if it wasn’t, though? What if you thought it would be cool, but once you tried it you found it to be very uncomfortable? Remember, I know people who have experienced both these things. They’ve changed their shape and liked it, or changed their shape and didn’t like it. So, these are real possibilities for you. If you changed your shape to bear human and didn’t like it, would you have considered yourself to have actually been a bear human during that time?”

Thomas looked kind of glum and confused, trying to figure out what his response would be.

“It’s OK,” Phage said. “Sometimes you won’t know until you try it, and the way you are right now, you can change back. You actually have the ability. But think about this. Would you then say that you had actually been a bear human, or would you have been a human boy that was just in the shape of a bear human?”

Hearing the alternative seemed to help things click and Thomas said, “A human boy in the shape of a bear human, I think.”

“OK, so look at me,” Phage said. “I’m a shapeshifter. I have no actual form that I feel like is me. I used to take on the shape of whomever I was talking to, but lately I’ve decided to take on the shape of what Ni’a here might look like when they’re older, if they decide to look like this.”

“Oh,” Thomas looked at Phage and then at me and then at Phage again. “Oh, yeah.”

“But, right now, I feel like I’m a girl,” Phage said. “I’m a girl who is in the shape of an older Ni’a, who is, if I recall correctly, not a girl.”

“Yeah, nope,” I said cheerfully.

“But, then, doesn’t that feel wrong?” Thomas asked.

“Nope!” Phage said, “Because, while for Ni’a this isn’t the shape of a girl, for me it is. Because girls can come in all sorts of different shapes, including girl bears. And so can not-girls, and sometimes it can be the same shape.”

“Huh.”

“You know how when you share Bashiketa’s body, you both feel extremely wrong? Even sick to your stomach?” Phage asked.

“Yeah?”

“That’s what we’re talking about. That happens because you are not what Bashiketa is,” Phage explained. “I think it happens both because Bashiketa’s shape is wrong for you, and also because Bashiketa is not a boy and when you’re coconscious it makes it worse. You’re not compatible.”

“Yeah,” Thomas nodded. “That’s what Bashiketa was saying.”

“But you’d know more about it if you took Bashiketa’s shape in your nanite exobody,” Phage suggested. “That way, you’d still be you, but you’d have Bashiketa’s shape. Then you’d know if their shape was what was causing it for you, or if it was their sense of self that’s incompatible. Does that make sense?”

“I think so. Yeah.”

“Ask them before you take their shape, though. Make sure it’s ok with them,” Phage reminded him.

“OK, but. If there aren’t any boys or girls on the Sunspot besides me and you, why is that?” Thomas asked.

Phage smiled, “Because we haven’t had the words. Our Elder Crew erased them from the language before anyone new was born, and just let everyone pick their own names and pronouns. Because they felt things would be better that way.”

“Are they?” Thomas asked.

“Well, there’s a lot less dysphoria on the Sunspot than on the Terra Supreme, but there’s still some, because it’s not all about gender. Some of it is about shape,” Phage said. “But! People still group up by similarity. They pick and change pronouns based on how they feel those pronouns fit, which means they categorize other people by pronouns. So, instead of boys and girls, you have sies and ves and xes and hens, and so many others. But, now that you are here, there may end up being some other boys in the future. Or, at least people taking ‘he’ for a pronoun.”

“Really?” asked Thomas, perking up a little bit.

“Yep. In fact, I think you can probably count on it,” Phage replied, standing up and tossing its twig into the brush. “We should probably catch up to the others, and get ready to go flying.”

“Wait,” Thomas said. “Is Ni’a really going to grow up to look like you are now?”

Phage grinned and said, “Only if they want to.”

“And if I get a new body, what will it be like?” Thomas asked.

“Someday, when that’s available. Anything you want.”

OK, so flying!

If you’re on the Sunspot, especially if you were born here and lucky about it, you have a few different ways you can fly under your own power.

Some people are born into flying, with bodies that develop flight muscles, hollow bones, and wings capable of enough lift to get them into the air. And there are some cities that are designed specifically to accommodate avians, with different kinds of places to take off from and land, and specially cultivated fields to create updrafts and everything like that.

Alternatively, if you have access to a nanite exobody, you can create a lightweight enough version of your favorite form that you can use the nanites’ ability to hover 50 or so meters above any other nanite infused surface or the hull of the ship in order to approximate flight. The physics are quite a bit different, but it is safer and a heck of a lot of fun.

If you use a disincorporated cloud of free floating nanites, you can go a lot higher, but you’re also likely to be caught by the wind and end up places you weren’t expecting.

Or, you can create a nanite exobody that is designed for winged flight and works just like a bird’s. If that doesn’t make you dysphoric.

Finally, if you are really daring, you can go to the Playground in the AN Region, and try out a flight suit. This is the only option available to Monsters who are not avians. A flight suit is an extremely lightweight exosuit that augments your own muscle power for a set of wings, tail, and ruddered helmet. They are custom made for each person’s anatomy when you arrive, and they can be tailored to various different kinds of flight. However, they are dangerous.

Fortunately, people with nanite exobodies can do various things to help someone who is having trouble in a flight suit, and in the AN Region, there are individuals who have made catching falling people their personal art. If you stay within the Playground, you’ll be pretty safe. However, if you stray outside of its limits, it will reduce the likelihood that you’ll be caught the further away you go, if you fall. So, don’t do that.

Aphlebia had requested a flight day at the Playground as one of our first tours with Abacus and it was so fun I’d been thinking about it ever since. Landing was really the hardest thing, and again, there were lots of people happy to help you do that.

So, for our birthdays, we went there and spent several hours souring, swooping, diving, spiraling, rising on thermals, and chasing each other.

I was bold enough to try a flight suit that was made for quick maneuverability, because I was small enough to pull that off, and because I could cheat. And, with Phage’s vouchsafe and approval, I used every skill and trick I had learned to keep myself aloft and at the exact angle and attitude I wanted to be. But unlike flying by using the nanite hovering ability, I could feel every buffet of wind and pull of gravity as I twisted, looped, and rolled.

It was so exhilarating I suddenly found myself with the desire to see how high I could go. But my suit wasn’t optimized for soaring. All the wing suits could soar, but mine had traded a certain amount of lift for maneuverability. So I knew I wouldn’t be able to go quite as high as if I’d had a suit designed for it. But I thought that with my abilities I could certainly go higher than anybody else. Which I then started to feel guilty about. I wanted to take all my friends with me. But someone should get to see the world from that high!

So I went ahead and started circling and manipulating physics itself to start gaining altitude fast. I told myself I would do this for anybody else who asked, just not right now. I needed to try it out first to see how it worked.

And what I found was that I had to stop when I noticed I was short of breath. And even then, I could probably have kept pushing it, adjusting my metabolism to handle the altitude. But my heart was beating so fast and hard from the excitement of what I was seeing that I decided this was as high as I could safely go. Or as high as I even needed to. I’d already fulfilled my emotional desire.

I didn’t even get all that much higher than a typical mountain, honestly. I looked down at my apogee and clocked my highest altitude instantly at 3813.621 meters.

But what I really saw was that as I got higher, the curvature of the Garden became more and more evident.

When you stand on the ground of the Garden, there is an horizon defined by the highest hills around you. Even in the forward regions, which are relatively flat, the land still rolls and dips and rises. And spinward and antispinward, there are an outer rim of hills that are still just big enough for you to see them and mark them out against an ever more gray-blue background. And, yes, if you look upward, you can see the details of the landmasses above you before the sun blots them out with its glare, but they’re rather faint in the atmosphere of the Sunspot, if they are not completely obscured by clouds. To the fore and aft, you can see the Endcaps, clearly visible as they reflect the sunlight more strongly than the land and sea around them. And the Endcaps are circular. But the horizon, the edge of what you can see clearly as part of the land you’re standing on, doesn’t seem curved in comparison to that. Beyond a certain point, your brain (or at least my brain) just classifies what it’s seeing as “the rest of the ship”.

Take to flight, and that illusion starts to break down. Your horizon starts to get wider and wider, and then it just sort of blends in with the rest of the Sunspot, and there’s no horizon any more. And from the An region, you can see the Ring Mountains where they separate you from the aft regions where the sea is, and you start to see how they curve in echo with the Endcaps. Which, of course they do! They circle the entire circumference of the Garden!

And I got myself high enough I could start seeing the sea on the other side of the Ring Mountains, where it met the Aft Endcap.

And yet, the nearest of the 40 spokes of the Garden rose up from the center of the An Region to my left and disappeared into the glare of the sun, 88.046 kilometers above me. I could see the spokes of the surrounding regions rising up to converge on adjacent sections of the sun rings, the giant magnets that guided the sun from one end of the ship to the other.

And I’m at a loss of words as to how to describe that to someone who hasn’t grown up on a ship like the Sunspot. How do I compare that to anything you might have seen. I only hope some day I get to show it to you in person.

But while I was there, I had a few thoughts.

The first was just how familiar the sight was to me. I felt like if I kept going higher, it would get even closer to a vision I’d seen before. Like, if I were to somehow ride the sunpath, right down the center of the habitat cylinder, I’d be seeing the Sunspot the way I always truly saw it. The way I should see it. But that I could actually return to that place at any time without trying to fly my body there itself.

My second thought was that this view was the counterpart to the experience I had on my spacewalk with Aphlebia and Abacus. And because of that, it felt like I should have some sort of profound emotional break or realization, a shifting of perspective that would forever after change me. But it didn’t, because all I felt was that I was closer to being at home than ever before.

But, I did think about that, because if I looked down below me I could see my family and friends circling in flight so, so far below me. Such tiny specks against the ground that I didn’t so much see them with my eyes as simply know just where each one of them was with my Phage-sense. They were roughly 50 meters or so from the ground, at most. I was 3675.248 and falling quickly. I’d decided to return already.

I hadn’t realized just how quickly I’d gained altitude. That must have looked downright bizarre to anyone who’d been able to watch, and everyone must be wondering where I’d gone.

And in all of this, it occurred to me that I did indeed experience something like a loss of self, like Phage did, when I changed my perspectives. It was more subtle, but maybe just as impactful.

The more people I kept track of, or the broader my perspective, the more that I looked at the Sunspot itself as my very being and my body, the less I remembered the impact of my actions on individuals. And the less I remembered that I had family.

Through my body and its sensations wherever I left it, I was still tethered to everyone around it in some way, so it was easy to return, or to receive signals if anyone needed help. But this time I’d taken my body with me.

And then I wanted to get back to my family as fast as possible.

I paused my descent for a moment to focus. While I was there, I claimed the air around me for an even meter in every direction from the surface of my skin and flightsuit, and sort of anchored it to me so that it would have my momentum and fall with me. I would feel no wind, and I could breathe freely for a time. This, of course, meant that the air around my wings was no longer moving relative to them and no longer providing lift. My moment kept me going in the direction I’d been going, but the Coriolis effect of the rotating habitat cylinder began to have more and more of an affect on my vectors as I was no longer compensating for it with my airfoils or any sort of direction at all, and I did start to fall.

My air bubble did increase my surface area in a way, until I pulled my wings to my sides and arranged myself to start diving headfirst. Then there was less surface area than before, when I’d had no air bubble and my wings were outspread. And the bubble didn’t work like the surface of my suit or skin. The air around it slid past with much less turbulence or friction. Especially because I willed it to be that way.

I dropped like a rock in near vacuum. I had a terminal velocity, it was just very, very high.

The trick was figuring out how to stay within the bounds of the Playground. I was already well outside of it by the time I realized that. The rotation of the Sunspot was leaving me to fall further and further antispinward. It was subtle, but from the height I’d attained it added up faster than I’d noticed it.

I decided that it didn’t matter.

At the speed I was falling, I’d need a lot of time to slow down. I could use that time to fly back to the safe zone.

Which I did.

Like I said, landing is the hardest thing to do when flying. And though I was plummeting to the ground, I was still so far away from doing that.

I kept an eye on my velocity, my acceleration, my rapidly decreasing altitude, and the increasing lateral distance between me and the Playground, and let my feel for flying and my intuition guide my actions. I could almost visually see my ideal flight path before me, curving off into the direction of my family the closer I got to the ground.

And then, when it felt like the right moment, I extended my wings and spread my feet apart to widen my tail flap, and then slowly began to let my air bubble alter shape and disintegrate. And I subtly curved my body just enough to begin pulling up.

That’s when I realized that the second hardest part of flying, for someone like me, would sometimes be staying conscious. The harder I pulled up, the more I could feel my blood pooling to the front of me, and not circulating properly through my brain. I noticed how bad that was when my vision began to tunnel, so I then had to adjust my body’s autonomic functions to compensate in a way it hadn’t evolved to do.

And then I realized an easier thing for me to do would be to alter my inertia itself. I could just change the direction of travel of all of my atoms fluidly to follow the path I’d intended, and my blood would stop trying to go straight down while my body tried to follow the lift of my airframe. It would all just go where I needed it to go.

I could do that.

I did it.

What else could I do? Maybe it’s a good thing it just doesn’t occur to me to do all that many things with my abilities. I’m still not quite sure why it doesn’t. I could tear the Sunspot in half like a leaf if it was my reflex to do so, I realized. And it’s not. Ever. I thought at the time.

I had a brief moment where I wondered what, say, Candril would do with my power. Or, Thomas? Both of them would mean well, but would they be as naturally reserved as I seemed to be?

And then I remembered I did also have to exert a considerable amount of control to avoid destroying the ship when I had a meltdown, using Phage’s trick to shunt that burst out the drive.

Such a small amount of energy from my meltdowns, comparatively. In fact, it usually wasn’t my energy, so much as whatever I’d soaked up from the chaotic vibrations of the ship itself to the point it overwhelmed me. But it was usually just enough, released in such a frenzied burst, that it could hit the wrong harmonics and warp the massive forces that were already at work on the ship. And shunting it out the drive always proved to be such a small, nearly unnoticeable blip, it wasn’t even comical.

I intuitively understood it. But the more human portions of my mind kept telling the rest of me that it was absurd.

And in a way, it felt a bit like I was doing a similar thing with my body, converting one energy to another and altering my trajectory as if I’d warped space/time itself to change which way was down for me.

I hit my marks perfectly, and suddenly I was shooting past Candril and the Whorlies at 35.756 meters altitude and bringing myself into a stately wheel around Aphlebia at 43.971 meters high, halfway across the Playground.

Aphlebia’s mouth opened in a big, melodramatic “O”.

I was so full of adrenaline and euphoria when we were done, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep that night. I sure didn’t want to.

I didn’t talk to anyone about what I’d been thinking about. That didn’t occur to me, either.

Those of us doing thank yous had to get them in before and after we took to the air, of course.

And, afterward, I was distracted by another thought. Could I, or Phage, change the trajectory and the velocity of the Sunspot itself like I’d just done for myself?

For dinner, cake, and presents for Thomas, we met at Bashiketa and Thomas’ place.

Dinner was a salad and stuffed roasted mushrooms. Like, big mushrooms stuffed with a mixture of nuts, diced smaller mushrooms, and herbs and spices. They were really good.

And then there were three cakes, made by Fredge, Laal, and Emala. Which turned out to be way more than anybody needed, but it made Thomas ecstatic, and he had to have a slice of each. One was a fruit cake, another was a cheesecake, and the last was a frosted chocolate cake.

I could only eat the cheesecake. It had the most consistent texture and flavor, and though the flavor was strong, it wasn’t alarming and I liked it.

It was the presents I was most worried about.

Those of us who’d been flying were utterly exhausted, for one. Either physically, or mentally, depending on what kind of flight we did. Though, dinner and cake did tend to perk some of us up.

But also, none of us really knew what Thomas expected of his presents. He was so worn out from the day, maybe it didn’t matter, though. His reactions weren’t overjoyed, and sometimes he was perplexed, but he was clearly having fun and constantly reaching for the next one. Even as it looked like he was about to fall over from sleepiness, he was asking if there were any more after the last one had been opened.

Since I had insisted to him that he could have his presents, I had felt obliged to direct everyone else how to go about making and getting them. The vision I’d had of what a present should look like was more of a guide than anybody else had, unless they asked Thomas. And all he would say was that they should be a surprise.

So, we’d needed boxes and wrapping paper, and things to put in the boxes. The boxes and wrapping paper were easy, since makers could spit those out to spec on demand. But the things that went in the boxes, the actual gifts, really needed to be something special.

So, I suggest we go get handmade artifacts from art collectives and individual artisans from around the Sunspot, including toys, dishes, clothes, and even paintings or sculptures. Things he could use or decorate his space with. And, if he didn’t like them, at least it was like getting a tour of the Sunspot without actually going anywhere himself.

Bri, for instance, had gotten him a beautifully colored, woven hemp poncho. And as he was going about opening it, ze took that as a cue to talk to the rest of us.

“My Caretaker’s Caretaker made this!” ze bragged. “Your families are so weird and small, I thought it would be neat if Thomas could have something from someone old.”

“I’m pretty old,” Phage said.

“Yeah, but you know what I mean!” Bri retorted. “Someone still alive.”

Bri was careless in zer typical sparring with Phage, and that comment could have hurt Thomas to hear. But he was too tired to pay any attention, and too busy unwrapping the poncho and then trying to figure out what it was.

Phage snorted, “I’ll have you know, I was never alive.”

“I know!” Bri said. “Anyway, I’m my Caretaker, Gagna’s only child, but Gagna still lives on the same block as ver Caretaker, Vicnor, and all ver siblings. Sometimes we take down the walls between our quarters and just have one big room for a while. And my Caretaker’s Caretaker’s Caretaker, Mifley, lives with all of us and moves from quarters to quarters, and I just thought Thomas might like to hear about that, because your families are weird and small. It’s a poncho, Thomas.”

Thomas’ face lit up, once he understood. “I’m so tired, I thought it was a blanket with a hole in it! But this is great! Thank you!” And he put it on, with some struggle.

Maybe ze sounds a little rude to you. I don’t know about your culture, I assume nothing, considering where this book might end up. But I really missed having Bri around, and by the end of the night, I made sure to let zem know that. And Phage was softly giggling and shaking its head during that whole exchange. I’m pretty sure it loves Bri, too.

The last gift was from Phage, and it took Thomas taking a second look at it, after searching for the next gift, to realize the significance of what it was. It was, after all, a book, and Thomas was tired. He was starting to get the hang of our language differences, but reading still took extra energy.

The book was, at first glance, hand written, and titled “Hail, Dragons!”. It has since been published around the Sunspot on its own, separately from my book. But I’m going to include it here in its entirety because I think it should be spread further, and it fits the title and theme of my book. It’s really part of my story here, too.

Phage was irradiating us with lethal doses of smugness the whole time Thomas was trying to make sense of it by reading the first few paragraphs out loud, and it was donning on the rest of us what had just been unwrapped in these Monster quarters on our trio’s collective birthday.

And some of us found ourselves asking, “Had we been there while this was first transpiring?”

Phage interjected as if we’d said those words out loud, “This has been in the works far longer than it might look. And you haven’t heard about it yet because many people have been very, very careful to keep it quiet. Which is about to change.”

Akailea nodded solemnly in agreement.

It was not, it turns out, hand written.

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