It turned out that the Network was designed to simulate appropriate aging in the avatars of anyone who has ascended before they intended to. So, unless they explicitly revoked their consent to age, both Thomas and Aphlebia got to experience their Network bodies growing and maturing along with the rest of us. The nanites had collected enough biometric and genetic information to make this possible. Which meant that Thomas and I got to learn how much we were different.
By the time I was twelve years old, I had grown to my full height. And I’d grown slightly faster than Thomas for those two years, so he was shorter than me by a few centimeters. But he had definitely grown as well.
Mind you, I had also made some personal choices in my growth. Certain changes in my body had alarmed me, and I’d taken measures to suppress them. Typical Sunspot Children would do this through the use of their nanites. However, I was able to do so through direct conscious control of my body’s systems. I simply altered the levels of certain hormones so that they had more or less of an effect on me.
Still, my body was not all that in danger of looking like a typical adult from the Terra Supreme. I am what they consider to be intersex, and sterile, and I was destined to have a mixed puberty to begin with. But there were still traits I’d begun developing that I didn’t want.
There were, as a result, subtle differences between how I actually grew up, and how Phage had been predicting my growth with its own Avatar. Perhaps I’d been influenced by the shape it had chosen, but that didn’t matter to me. I had avoided discomfort, and had been well informed about it.
It kept the appearance it had been predicting for my older self, because now it looked like a different person than me. Like it was actually my mom. Someone related to me, but not me. Not that many people on the Sunspot would know the significance of that, or even see us as very different.
Thomas commented on it, though.
Thomas had been educated enough in his own body on the Terra Supreme to know some of what to expect, which was that he probably wouldn’t see much of a metamorphosis until he was twelve or older. He expected to be much taller and hairier than me, and it would turn out that he was right. But that’s getting ahead of this part of my story.
Aphlebia, on the other hand, had actually experienced most of their metamorphosis already, losing the tail they had been born with by the time they were six, and then growing up and filling out even more in the following years. Since their ascension, their avatar did continue to grow and change, but it was very subtle, and they seemed very OK with that.
At eleven years old, the Whorlies began to grow full sized antlers, similar to what Jenifer and Illyen had. And as a result they began to sleep on their stomach all the time. Their body remained relatively small, though.
And while the rest of us seemed to change in proportions as well as height, Candril just got bigger, maintaining the same proportions ze had gained by five years old. But ze looked like ze was not going to stop growing when I did. Ze made it clear ze didn’t want to, in any case. Ze bragged about how big ze hoped ze’d get. At least twice the size of Thomas, however big he got, was zyr goal.
Of course, if zyr body wasn’t already destined to do that naturally, zyr nanites and Sunspot medicine could probably make it happen.
“I could ride on your back!” Thomas exclaimed when he first heard about that.
“You can do that already!” Candril retorted. “Just make yourself small enough!”
So, then they’d both tried it out. And after capering around a park for an afternoon, with Thomas shouting and laughing from Candril’s shoulders, and Candril tirelessly bounding around with glee, Thomas then spent the evening in an even smaller exobody, staring at wonder at everything that was now gigantic to him, such as one of Emala’s favorite large apples.
When he was done, though, he said, “I don’t need to be that small. Much.”
At Phage’s earlier suggestion, Thomas also tried out various shapes of avatar, including a bear. He didn’t stay in each form for very long, though. He said they made him feel weird, like he was dreaming. But he kept doing it for fun every now and then, trying a different shape every time. He never tried being what he called a girl, though.
Then, there was Bashiketa.
Bashiketa started to grow to be broad shouldered and began to walk on all fours more often, like Candril often did. Their fur also began to lose its softness, and shifted from mostly black and white to include more browns.
And then, one day, they came up to Phage and said, “You left a message for me, back when you defended me from the Hunter.”
“Yes,” Phage said.
“But those weren’t normal words,” Bashiketa said. “How did I understand it?”
“I was there. I helped. I translated it for you.”
Phage shrugged, “it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”
“How do you say that word, the one you called me?” Bashiketa asked.
“Do you mean ‘afija’o?”
“Ah. It doesn’t sound as nice as I thought,” Bashiketa seemed disappointed. The word had been written in Fenekere script in a film of nanites on Bashiketa’s table when they had come to after blacking out. I had also seen the words before using the nanites to make an exobody I could use to talk to Bashiketa with.
“Why do you ask?” Phage inquired.
“I feel like I need a different name, and I thought that one would be good. I liked its meaning,” Bashiketa replied. “I mean, are you an Outsider? Because my name means ‘an act of an Outsider,’ I guess.” Phage’s message had translated to, “You are a work of Phage.” I thought I could see what Bashiketa was looking for here.
“I don’t really know what an Outsider is,” said Phage. “There are so many possible definitions. Which one do you mean?”
“Oh. Well, I was thinking, you know. Not a human?”
“Ah. I’m human right now, but I wasn’t before, I don’t think,” Phage replied.
“So, my name could still fit,” Bashiketa said, glumly.
Abacus, who had been listening in, suggested, “There are some Fenekere derivatives of ‘efeje’e that mean something close to ‘afija’o that might sound better to you. Perhaps, such as ‘afije’a? Same vowels as your current name, but Phage’s root.”
Bashiketa thought about it and said, “Maybe.”
“Try ‘afeje’a,” Phage suggested. “It means ‘a true act of Phage’.”
“Really?” Bashiketa looked up. “Am I really that?”
“I wouldn’t suggest it if it were otherwise,” Phage stated solemnly.
The only people in the room who weren’t flabbergasted at that whole exchange were Phage, Abacus, and me.
Abacus and I knew how Phage thinks. Abacus because it’s been writing about Phage for quite some time, and has talked to it a lot. And me, because I’m its child.
Maybe there was something special about Bashiketa that Phage was referring to still, but it could have said that about anybody and stayed true to its sense of self and place in the universe. If Phage was Entropy Itself, or Entropic Decay, or some mechanism of it, a law of physics personified somehow, then everything was an act of Phage. But, it didn’t offer that name to anyone but ‘afeje’a, and ‘afeje’a accepted it.
I did ask Phage about it later and it said, “I didn’t do it consciously, and I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I know that it is my fault that ‘afeje’a does not have your genetics. And I could see clearly that they needed a new name that was their choice and that was more meaningful to them. It was the right thing to do.”
I smiled and hugged it.
“Aren’t you going to say something like, ‘you’re learning’?” Phage asked.
“Why would I?” I frowned at it.
“You once told me that I didn’t know people as well as you do,” It said.
“I did?” I asked.
I smirked and said, “Oh, well. I’m not Abacus, and I’m not you. I don’t do that sort of thing.”
The weather was overcast with a misty drizzle that was actually very pleasant, and the park we went to was so crowded and loud.
It had been a while since we’d gone to the beach. It was really popular now. But we’d decided to make it a full family outing, to join the throngs of people conversing with the Collective.
People still were strongly discouraged from entering the wilderness areas of the shoreline, and we had generations of honoring that worked into all of us. So, the nearest marine park was overloaded with people. But the fauna-deterrents that were specifically designed for the cuttlecrabs had been deactivated. And protocols for interactions had been released to everyone, sent to Tutors, sent to everyone with a neuroterminal or a tablet, to Crew, and printed at all of the libraries. The default screens of the holoterminals at the entrances to the parks displayed it.
The Collective (known colloquially as the cuttlecrabs) is still considered fauna, and retain all of the rights of fauna.
However, they are now not to be discouraged from freely exploring human populated areas of the Sunspot. Please afford them the same courtesies you would extend to any other person, on top of respecting their status as fauna.
As a result, Children, Tutors, and Crew may find these guidelines useful:
- Do not initiate engagement. Let the Collective decide when to visit and interact with you.
- You may signal that you are interested in interaction by visiting any seaside park. There is a good chance you will be met there by a member of the Collective, or several. Further signals of interest are being discussed and have not been settled on yet.
- You do not have to open your quarters’ door to the Collective or interact should they try to engage with you. You are not obliged to give them your consent. However, it is polite to let them know verbally that you do not consent, if you are capable of doing so. The Collective has been informed that they should respect our privacy as well.
- If any number of members of the Collective do violate your consent or attempt to hinder your autonomy, please contact the Crew Council immediately, and we will intercede on your behalf. Conversely, if you violate the Collective’s consent or attempt to hinder their autonomy within the Rights of the Sunspot as laid out by Council Law, you can expect to be visited by us as well.
- Within the considerations outlined above, you are encouraged to interact with them however you see fit, and please, do enjoy our newfound contact and get to know each other.
The Crew Council of the Sunspot
Apparently, these kinds of notices had begun with the Nanite Innovation, the first one being the introduction of the Crew Council of the Sunspot to the populace and their formal apology for their seclusion. That had been an incredibly important document and very carefully written and distributed. If you are part of the human populace of the Sunspot, you have almost certainly read it, or had it read to you. Following notices have been slow to come, but apparently released at a steady pace. Once every couple of years. Some of them have been for big things, others for very small things.
“Council Law” really just refers to the Council’s interpretations and recommendations for how to negotiate the Rights of the Sunspot, autonomy and consent, wherever violations happen or ethical dilemmas arise. And sanctions.
Anyway, that’s getting into some politics that you’ll need to know about to understand some things later, but on that day we all just walked past the holoterminals displaying that notice, which we’d all already read. And only a small few of us were reminded of other political concerns we might have had on our minds.
As we walked up the ramp into the evening sundeath casting everything in reds and glows, we saw through the shoulders of the people in front of us that the boardwalk of the park was lined with artisans who’d set up booths and makeshift studio spaces. And a fair number of them were sculptures, illustrators, and painters, all sharing their materials with anybody else who wanted to make something, including any cuttlecrabs who happened to walk up with feeding arms outstretched.
But the crab buggies were the best thing.
This had all been going on for over a year now, and we knew about a lot of this, but seeing the newest model of crab buggy go by with four cuttlecrabs piloting it was just too wonderful.
“Howdy!” one of them said to me, waving a tentacle, as they passed.
“Hi!” I chirped, waving back.
It kept waving as the buggy wove between people on its way down the ramp. The machine came up to about my hip. I was too busy wondering if it had remembered me from somewhere to measure the buggy’s dimensions. But it was designed to be tall enough for the average person to see, but bottom heavy, with its motors and batteries in the base of it. The buggy’s cupola, where the cuttlecrabs controlled the thing, was ringed with footholds to make climbing up and down it easier. The back was slanted more than the front, to provide a safe slide a cuttle crab could use to quickly escape the vehicle, if necessary. The main controls were simple levers that up to four crabs could use, but it also had a network tablet and holoterminal built into the top of it as well, and could be put on automatic pilot, among other things.
Anyone could instruct a maker to build one of these buggies, including a cuttlecrab.
Because Phage was my mother, and the Collective knew that Thomas had been gifted the original copy of their book, we’d been visited by a crab buggy with four Collective members almost as soon as protocols for public interaction had been drafted.
Maybe the one who had waved at me had been one of those who’d visited. I didn’t get a very good look at it because I was somewhat overwhelmed by the crowd and distracted, but my subconscious was telling me it was.
We’d come down to this park for so many reasons. In large part to see the Collective interacting with the rest of the populace in person. But also as part of our continuing effort to acclimate Thomas to the culture of the Sunspot. It had been two years, but like ‘afeje’a, Aphlebia, and I, Thomas was easily overwhelmed, tended to dissociate when around a lot of people, and was comforted by familiarity. And we were all four of us working on techniques to accommodate our impairments and find more things to be familiar with. We’d been slowly incorporating larger and larger crowds into our family field trips.
Thomas and Aphlebia had an advantage in that they could each retreat to their own Netspaces when approaching overload. Dropping a nanite exobody on the ground was a mild inconvenience to everyone around it, but understandable, and it would clean itself up and could be easily retrieved or recreated again.
‘afeje’a and I also could use our Netspaces like that, but we had the disadvantage of needing to find a place to safely park our vessels. Which we’d been living with our whole lives so far, and we were privileged to have them still, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. And we had our signals with the rest of our family to get help doing that if we needed.
Candril was already bounding and dodging ahead of us, yapping with zyr Tutor, Vine, about what kind of snack ze could find at the park today.
The Whorlies turned to Emala and said, “We’d like to split up and explore. We want to try something! Firas will stay here with our vessel, OK?”
“Oh, Firas can explore too,” Emala said. “I don’t mind.”
“I don’t want to,” Firas said.
Phage and Emala were walking side by side, talking about caretaking and families, and I know I heard them talking a bit about the roles of Tutors earlier as well. Phage had reminded Emala that it wasn’t a Tutor, and Emala had said that xe knew that already, and had known that for over twelve years now.
It looked like Firas was listening in, intently.
Fredge and Laal were off somewhere entirely else, on a date. It was an anniversary of theirs of some sort. They didn’t talk much about it in specifics, but they had talked a lot about it obliquely for the past month. Loudly and with lots of subtext that none of the rest of us were party to.
That left ‘afeje’a, Thomas, Aphlebia, and I to decide what we wanted to do, and whether or not we wanted to do it together. The Fibrillators, as Aphlebia had named us. Also, we were the Tutorless.
Aphlebia, who had still not taken the Crew Vow, gave the other three of us A Look, and then led the way to a less crowded corner of the park.
It was further away from the water, and somewhat shrouded by short trees and a couple of bushes, and there was a table there with a couple benches that nobody was sitting on. It seemed that everyone else had assumed they wouldn’t be approached by cuttlecrabs if they remained in that spot, and no one else was currently in need of quiet. So, it was actually perfect for us.
We could sit there and talk, and hear each other, and watch people pretty clearly from our seats.
But Aphlebia climbed up on the table and stood on it, looking around expectantly.
So, I watched Thomas glance at ‘afeje’a and then run up to the table and leap up onto it in one fluid motion as well, to stand right next to Aphlebia. Thomas had really gotten to know his nanites well, and was constantly pushing them to exceed the performance his old body would have had, if it had lived as long as he did.
‘afeje’a huffed and chortled at me, then ambled over to join the two of them.
But I guess I just decided to sit right on the ground and watch. I suddenly didn’t need to be there with my siblings to be with them, and I felt like having a moment to myself and to see what Aphlebia was up to from a bit of a distance.
It was pretty clear to the rest of us that Aphlebia’s plan was to attract members of the Collective. They figured that the Collective was very observant and aware of everything in the park, and that they’d see a small group of people standing on a table in a secluded section of the park, looking around expectantly, as a very clear invitation to talk.
“You are Ni’a?” a voice said behind me.
I turned around to see a single cuttlecrab about a meter away from me. I understood that was unusual. They like to have a minimum of four per party, to feel calm and think more clearly.
“You are easy to recognize,” it said, turning a light blue.
I heard Thomas say, “Hi!” behind me. The other three cuttlecrabs had apparently approached my siblings. I glanced over my shoulder to confirm it, but then turned back to smile at my counterpart. I could see, just looking at it, that it was a cuttlecrab I had not seen before.
“Neat!” I said. “Did you know that I can tell you apart from each other, too?”
“It doesn’t matter to us if you can,” it replied. “But, how do you do it?”
“My sibling, ‘afeje’a, has talked about how the fungus on your shells creates unique markings, so a lot of people would use that,” I said. “But I just know. You each have your own number, and I see it when I look at you. Actually, it’s a bunch of numbers, but that’s really the same thing as one number.” I shrugged.
“Neat!” the cuttlecrab said, almost a perfect imitation of my own exclamation.
“Why are you separate from your party?” I asked.
“Because you are separate from yours,” it replied.
It seemed to be waiting for me to ask it questions, so I kept thinking of questions to ask it. Which took a moment, but I then asked, “What is this like for you?”
“What is what like?” it shot back quickly.
“Talking to us Dragons for the past year and a half?”
It bobbed its eyestalks and washed its tentacles, which I think was a gesture that meant it was thinking about the question. They normally talk with their tentacles more than with their vocal sacks, so this felt intuitive to me. Then it said, “It is a conversation that never stops. The Collective has become constant, always awake, always thinking. Because Dragons do not stop, we do not stop. You are also part of the Collective now.”
I wanted to think about that last statement before I responded to it. I think, of all the people on the Sunspot, I might have been one of two that really understood what it was saying there, but I wasn’t sure. “You must be asked that a lot,” I observed.
“Why did you have to think about it then?” I asked, keeping my voice light and gentle. I think I got this habit of questioning from Emala, to be honest. I admired xem and had always felt like I should emulate xem, and I felt really good when I thought I was doing a good job of it. I don’t think that the Collective has the same emotional reactions to human – or rather – Dragon social subtext that we do, though. I think they respond to all questions from us at face value. Which is extremely refreshing to me.
“We wanted to give you a more complete answer,” it said in answer to me.
“Oh,” I said. “Me specifically?”
“Yes,” it said.
“You are the Phage’s child. We want to be in deeper trust with you.”
“Oh!” I flapped my hands in happy surprise. Then asked, “OK, so, what did you mean ‘You are also part of the Collective now’?”
“Dragons are always talking to us. You, meaning ‘you Dragons’, think with us, as part of the Collective. You are chaotic and strange, but you are also whole.”
That’s what I had thought, “Like we are our own Collective?”
“Yes,” it responded.
“Ok, but, so… OK. You said that it doesn’t matter to you if I can tell you apart.”
“But I think it matters to some of you,” I pointed out. “One of you that had seen me before made a point of waving at me earlier!”
There was that bobbing of eyestalks and washing of tentacles again, “Yes. Yes, that happens. Yes.”
“Does that worry you?” I asked.
“Maybe,” it said. “We don’t know if our worry is the same as your worry.”
“Oh, hmm,” I said. “Is it, like, new? Like, has it been happening more often lately?”
“No,” it said. “It… has always been a thing.”
I nodded, and then said, “They are your Fibrillators.” I then heard ‘afeje’a exclaim something loudly behind me, but they sounded cheerful, so I didn’t pay it any attention.
“Our Fibrillators?” my cuttlecrab asked.
“Sorry, my sibling calls the four of us ‘the Fibrillators’,” I explained. “We are more different from the rest of the Dragons, even more different from each other than any other Dragon is. We’re…. the Dragons of Dragons. And it is because we experience something my mom, Phage, calls ‘developmental fibrillation’. We’re different. Chaotic. And we make chaos where we go. Though, now that I think about it, Candril does too…”
“Some of that made sense,” the cuttlecrab said.
And that’s when I realized something. During this whole conversation, the cuttlecrab had been gesturing and flashing and dancing just like it would have if talking to the rest of its collective. They all tend to do that when talking to anybody. They can’t help it. But I hadn’t noticed right away that it was using fewer and fewer vocal words.
I have written this whole conversation as if it was all vocalized, but it wasn’t. And when the cuttlecrab had said “Some of that made sense,” it prompted me to think about what I’d just explained, to see if I could put it into better words, and that’s when I realized I hadn’t said more than five actual words vocally. I had been gesturing with my hands as if they were a pair of cuttlecrab tentacles, and I had subconsciously called up a cloud of nanites and configured them to flash colored light near my belly in imitation of the Collectives typical form of speech.
I was suddenly speechless. Which was unfortunate, because I felt I should say my whole explanation out loud, all in vocal words, because maybe I’d screwed up the gestures or color flashes or something. But I was also trying to figure out how I’d learned how to do all that. And more importantly, how I’d programmed the nanites to work for me in that way without realizing it.
“We have a question,” the cuttlecrab said.
I just nodded, still agog at my own realization.
“When will we get to join the Network?”
I pulled my head back, blinked a couple of times, and found myself washing my hands. Then I put my hands onto the moss that I was sitting on and pressed down, and concentrated on saying things entirely with words, out loud, “I don’t know. I am not part of the Council. I am just a child, and I am not told things like that. I don’t help make that kind of decision. I’m sorry.”
“But you do help make that kind of decision,” it said.
“You do. The Collective of Cuttlecrabs and Dragons has come to the conclusion that you should be asked this question. We do not expect the answer to come from you, however,” it explained. “But, by asking you the question, we think an answer may come faster than if we don’t ask you.”
“But, I don’t know how I could help,” I responded.
“We do not, either.”
“Then why did you think asking me would be a good idea?”
“Intuition. The suggestion keeps presenting itself, with no explanation, and won’t stop. We have been waiting for you to present yourself.”
I suddenly didn’t like being special. In fact, I started to feel panicky. I didn’t exactly put together why, but I felt like the Sunspot was falling on me.
“I think,” I said, standing up and shaking my hands in a very distressed way. “I need to go.”
“That is OK,” the Collective said, and watched me turn and walk right out of the park into the nearby wilderness.
I sent some quick signals to my family over the Network that meant, “I need some alone time, I’ll be reachable in an emergency and I’ll signal when I’m OK.”
And then I started venting little bursts of chaos out the fusion cone of the Sunspot.