This one crawled to the lip of our tree cave to extend its eyestalks and behold what was causing the scrabbling noises.
We flashed in alarm upon seeing what must have been the same furry predator that we had fought off before, halfway up the tree to our location. And keeping eyes upon it, we screeched.
We screeched with all three vocal apparati, modulating our pitches to emphasize our numbers.
This startled the creature at first, but then seemed to intrigue it. It halted its climb and twitched as if ready to run the other way, but then flattened itself against the trunk and gripped tighter with its claws. Its eyes dilated, ears rising and twitching. Triangular ears like Shaw had. Land creatures have adapted to hunt by hearing!
Then it started to climb again.
Which is when this one had the thought that we should sound like a Dragon!
“Get away, you foul beast!” this one cried out in its deepest voice, which is not very deep, trying to be heard through the rest of us screeching.
Soon, though, we were all shouting invectives at the predator.
And this, for certain, scared it! We saw its ears go back and its pupils contract. Then there was a great scrabbling as it turned around to face downward on the trunk of the tree and then it leapt fully to the ground to dash off into the brush.
As its tail disappeared between two ferns, we shouted in unison, “Fuck off!”
And this filled us with a feeling of great power, for we felt we had discovered the secret to keeping predators away.
We decided then that we could search for Shaw’s trail if we did so by speaking as loudly as possible, all about it, with full vocal sentences. Which we thus attempted to do.
We did not find it, though. Not as we hoped, at least.
First, we emerged from the hole in the tree while shouting directions at each other.
“This one will go first, for it is nearest the entrance!”
“Let us just go down the tree and start from there!”
“Spiral to the right or the left?”
“To the right! It mimics the spin of the world if we face the Sunbirth!”
“We like it that way!”
And so on, at the top of our lungs. We spoke every little thought that came to our mind, telling the world around us of our intentions. We used full sentences and practiced our words in the process.
Doubtless, you can tell by our writing that we are well versed in your language. Or, maybe you think that someone helped us write this. Both are true to a degree. There are many words we do not know yet, and continue to learn, of course. After all, there are things in your world that we have not yet encountered, or heard you talk about while pointing at it.
However, you should know that we have been studying you and your language since the beginning of the world. Which has been a very, very long time. And every time you have brought your youngest children to the shore to introduce them to our part of the world, you have pointed at the things we know and named them.
If you doubt our skill, we invite you to visit us on the shore and have a conversation. We would enjoy it! And we think that so shall you.
After countless generations, with our intent to learn your language as you utter it, we believe we have the way of speaking understood. And the goal of this mission was to finally demonstrate what we have learned.
So we continued to chatter! And we spent a great deal of time doing so and searching for Shaw’s trail.
“Where is it?”
“We must have strayed too far!”
“Perhaps Shaw took a sharp turn!”
“Maybe Shaw can burrow!”
“Or fly! We saw no Shaw sized holes!”
“Ah! What if zey are up in a tree?”
“Uh. I’m right here.”
We fell silent and froze, instantly camouflaged.
With eyestalks shifting ever so slightly, we caught sight of zem where zey stood next to a tree not far from us. And we relaxed, and flashed colors of recognition.
“You followed me?” Shaw asked us, crouching and settling on zeir tail, looking far less threatening in the act.
“Yes,” we said.
“And you brought friends?”
“What do you mean?” we asked.
Shaw gestured and said, “There are two others with you.”
“Ah,” we replied with a different set of vocal chords. “We are three. We were four. And before that, we were all of us, discussing whether to follow you.”
Shaw tilted zeir head and scratched behind zeir ear, and squinted. We did not know exactly what these gestures meant, but as we said we have been studying you for a very, very long time. We have seen hesitation in conversation, and seen conversation continue successfully when the un-hesitant party continues. So we did that.
“We are us,” we said. “I am us.”
Shaw leaned back and tiled zeir head the other way, but asked quickly enough, “So… You’re a hive mind?”
“We don’t know what that means,” we replied.
“Ah. Uh. It means that you think collectively. Um. One mind, many bodies.”
“What is a mind?”
Shaw put a hand to zeir mouth and held up a finger. Then zey explained, “Your thoughts. Your mind is your thoughts? And… It is how you make decisions. And, it is your sense of self. You said, ‘I am us.’ You know that ‘I’ means an individual, and ‘us’ means a group, right? So, a hive mind is an ‘us’ that is an ‘I’.”
We flashed understanding and said, “Yes. Thank you. What does ‘collectively’ mean? We have heard this word a couple times, but have not confirmed its meaning.”
“Doing things as a group. So, you know, thinking as a group, as a collective.”
“Yes. Thank you! That is us. We are a collective. We like that word.”
“Wild!” Shaw exclaimed. “We can’t keep talking here. Can you come with me? I know somewhere safe. I think that if you consent to follow willingly, we won’t be stopped.”
“We do not wish to be trapped,” we replied, hesitant ourselves. Although we felt that Shaw was friendly, we didn’t know for sure if zey were.
“Yeah, the Crew,” Shaw said. “Well, the Crew don’t want you hurt. They will protect you. Keep anyone like me from hurting you. But they also don’t want us talking, I don’t think. I’m not supposed to disturb you. But I think we should talk. I think you should get to talk. Maybe I could write down what you say, or record it. This is big.”
“What are the Crew?” we asked.
“The people who own this shi… uh, the world,” Shaw explained. “They don’t have bodies, but they can…. Appear as clouds? Clouds of little… Do you know what a ‘machine’ is? They can appear as clouds that can do things.”
“Ah, we have seen one! What is a machine?”
“I’ll show you. Please, we should go to my library. It will be easier to talk there. And, I guess if you’re afraid of me, the Crew can still protect you there. But, if they let you go in there, it will be a sign that we can talk more, too.”
“What is a library?”
“A place full of books.”
“Ah! Uh. Collections of words that are written.”
“I’ll show you! Just, follow me,” Shaw got to zeir feet and gestured with zeir hand. Then zey took a few steps back the way zey came from and gestured again.
“OK,” we said, and began to follow.
Shaw kept looking back and gesturing every few paces of zeir long, stick-like legs. And we did not have to break stride as we followed, for every time we got closer enough zey would bound ahead a few more paces.
It did not take long to reach the door of the library. By chance, we had come close to it already.
Shaw came to place on the ground where zey began using all four of zeir limbs, tail high in the air for balance, to brush away the dirt and tree needles. Zey dug to a full beak depth of dirt, revealing a dull shell-like thing, large and flat, which turned out to be the door. And after a great flurry of work, zey uncovered the whole of it.
As we walked up to it to examine it, we saw that the dirt around it was already creeping back up over the edges of it, and Shaw kept brushing it away. And then zey put zeir hand on a part of it, fingers splayed, and grunted. This was followed by a click from the door, and then it began to open, lifting upward, one edge of it still connected to the ground, as Shaw stepped back to give it room to move.
We could see that there was a great hole beneath it, and another noise coming from the hole.
“Wait,” said Shaw.
While the door was open, the dirt had paused in its attempt to climb back over the door. This fascinated us, and we thought about that while we waited as Shaw had instructed.
Soon, a surface came up to the hole and replaced where the door had been when it was shut, and Shaw stepped onto it, gesturing at us again.
“It’s a lift,” Shaw said. “It will take us safely down to the library. But you need to stand on it with me.”
We were afraid of this. It was a thing we had never seen before. And we did not know if we could freely leave the hole once we entered it. But we reminded ourselves of what we’d decided during the Great Chattering. It was worth the risk. There were other parties trying to make contact with other Dragons, and we had found Shaw, who we had decided we would trust. Some of us would succeed. And we three certainly would not if we turned back now.
It took some effort to override our fears, but we stepped onto the lift with Shaw.
The lift was big enough that, if Shaw had lain down on it, zey would not be able to touch each edge with zeir limbs. Which meant that the door was that big as well. With Shaw standing, there was plenty of room for us.
The door was standing straight up on its edge, and Shaw placed zeir hand on a portion of its underside, and said, “mind your tentacles.”
The lift began to drop, smoothly and slowly.
“Lift, take us to maintenance level E’,” Shaw spoke to the air. Then zey said to us, “This may feel weird to you. It’s quite a drop. I’ll show you how to use the lift to get back to the surface, so you can do it on your own if you need. You shouldn’t need to use your hand like I did. That’s just the accommodation I use.”
“We don’t have a hand,” we pointed out. As we were talking, the lift briefly stopped at a point where Shaw’s head was well below the door. As the door began to close above us, a panel also slid over us from one of the walls. And the walls began to emit a soft light.
“Exactly,” said Shaw. “You probably can just speak to tell the lift what to do. The Sunspot should recognize that you are not Children, Crew, or Monster and decide that you can return to the surface at your will. The fauna are protected, and you are considered fauna, I think. Coming back down, however, might be a problem.”
When the panel was done sliding into place over us, we felt the floor drop out from under us. We fell with it and did not lose our footing, but it was startling. We flashed colors of fear and chittered in alarm, but got used to it very quickly.
“Yeah, I never really get used to that drop,” Shaw said. “But, it’s OK. The Sunspot will never do anything to harm you, if it can help it.”
“What is the Sunspot?” we asked.
“Ah. Right,” Shaw replied. “It’s the world. It’s what we call the world.”
“Is it alive?” we asked.
“Yeah. In a way it is!”
“How does it know what we are and what we are doing?”
“Well, it has sensors everywhere.”
“Uh, yes. Yes. And it is smart. It has been made to be smart.”
“Yeah. The Crew made it.”
“The clouds of little machines?”
“Yes! Yes, exactly, actually,” Shaw exclaimed. “Oh, right. So, this lift is a machine. A machine is something made by a person that can move on its own or under a person’s command, to do things.” Then zey gave us time to think about that.
“Oh,” we said. That was a difficult thing for us to understand. We could not imagine how the dark animate cloud we had seen had anything in common with the lift. But we decided to accept it and assume that we would learn more about it later.
“I’ll show you what one of the little machines looks like when we get to the library,” Shaw said. “We call them nanites. We have images of them.”
“Pictures. Visions. Um… You speak so well, but there are so many words you don’t know.”
“We will see what an image is when you show us,” we replied. “Many words that we ask about, we have heard and think we know, but we are asking to be sure. Others are words that you Dragons do not speak when you are on the shore.”
“Ah, that makes sense.”
The more we talked with Shaw, the more excited we became. We were amazed at how well we seemed to understand each other, even with our frustration with words we didn’t know. And we were learning more and we were learning quickly.
But soon we felt the lift push up on us, and then one of the walls slid aside, revealing a great big, strangely shaped burrow. Shaw called it a “hallway”. We also didn’t fully know the words “wall”, “floor”, and “ceiling, but they were easy words to learn.
As you likely know, the hallway was made in the same way with the same materials that the lift was made out of, all with flat surfaces and light coming from various places. And it was enormous. One of us is not much bigger than one of your heads, so the things that you create are much larger than we would ever need them to be. We have known this since the beginning of our own time, but the deeper we walk into your world, the more amazing it is to us.
Shaw spent some time instructing us as to how to use the lift, letting us practice with zem in it to help, so that we could be sure that we could use it on our own. Zey seemed happy that it worked. We felt more secure knowing that it did.
When Shaw then led us to the library, we followed more confidently.
The library was a large opening in the side of the hallway, that expanded into a much larger “room”, as Shaw called it. And it was full of things we did not recognize.
Shaw says that you have libraries all over your world, and that you all frequent them and are familiar with them. Should we describe what a library looks like when you already know? We would try to describe what it looked like to us, to our eyes, before we learned the words for what the things were. But nothing there looked like anything we had seen before. There is nothing in our world to compare it to. It was enormous and it was complicated and it was scary.
“We must be very far from the ocean,” we said.
“We are about half a kilometer below the ocean,” Shaw replied.
“What is a kilometer?” we asked.