3.15 Eh

“This is a difficult to understand subject,” Eh said. “And it directly concerns the Crew. But since many of you are trying to decide whether or not you want to be Crew some day, I guess it would be good for you to know.”

I’d had to make a hard choice. I knew some of what this was about, and I thought I knew that missing people could be a hard subject. And I had felt obligated to invite Thomas and Aphlebia, since I’d involved them in reading ihn’s reply to my request. And it felt wrong not to bring the rest of my family, but I wasn’t sure that it was appropriate to do so, either. I didn’t really know how Emala, Candril, or the Whorlies would react to this. I had a better feeling for the Fibrillators, so I’d invited ‘afeje’a as well, which meant bringing Laal and Fredge into it. Phage was my mom and acting parent for Aphlebia and ‘afeje’a as well.

Abacus was there, of course, as were Akailea, Tetcha, Morde, Metabang, the Pembers, and the Flits. Breq, Tutor for the Flits, was probably there too, but wasn’t making its presence known.

“Ni’a,” Eh turned to me. “Since you called this meeting, do you want to lead me with the questions I believe you have, at your own pace? Or would you like to hand it off to someone else? I’d be happy to just ease into it myself, honestly, but I want to give you control if you want it.”

Now that I was here, I felt like I’d already asked my question, so I shrugged and frowned. Aphlebia saw a moment of confusion in ihns face and translated for me in sign, “Ni’a doesn’t want to ask the questions.”

I nudged them with my elbow, and smiled, nodding.

“OK!” Eh said, “I think I should lay out a couple ground rules before I get into it and establish first of all that I suggested we meet here because this is expressly not a meeting of the Council. We are not here to solve the ship’s problems or to decide policy. I’m personally done with that for a while, in any case. But I consider you all friends and am aware that many of you are involved with Council affairs, or are planning to be, and also either Ni’a or Abacus thought you should be filled in on this before it becomes more public, if it should become more public. Anyway, this is informal, and you can butt in and ask me any question anytime you like. I’m planning on rambling while I figure out how to get around to the meat of it gently.”

Ihn’s house was in Agaricales and on the edge of Memorial Park, which cannot have been any sort of coincidence. I knew just by looking that Eh had been there for the past year and a half, so it wasn’t an impromptu message, but the choice had to be related to the conversation we were about to have, and that kind of filled me with dread. I already didn’t like the place because of what had happened here between myself and Aphlebia (and the rest of the Sunspot). But it was a pleasant house to be in.

It was atop one of the narrower foundations of the city, and it was one big room made entirely of windows and a roof. There was a ramp to the top floor of the foundation right below it, where more accommodations had been constructed, such as the washroom. There was no bedroom, or sleeping area, since Eh did not need that. Eh would simply return ihns nanites to a bin and sleep in ihns personal Netspace, like any other Crew. But the room we were in, the very top room with all the windows, was tall and spacious and filled with all kinds of cushioned seating, with a heater in the middle. And near the ramp, acting as one of the railings for it, was a kitchenette. And Eh had prepared a variety of foods for us to choose from for our lunches.

So, we were all arrayed around in chairs that seemed to fit our bodies best, except for Tetcha, who had picked the most unlikely piece of furniture and perched atop it cross-legged next to Morde, who was sitting in a chair that looked reasonably well suited for someone like me. And we all had food or a drink, or both. Though it turned out that Morde was just holding extra food for Tetcha.

Eh, whose body measures 5.48 meters in length from tip of nose to tip of tail, was sitting upright on ihns haunches in the middle of a pile of cushions, leaning forward on ihns hands, a pose similar to that of a relaxed but alert mountain cat.

Us Fibrillators were squeezed into a sofa, all four of us. ‘afeje’a’s tail must have been wedged between the cushions, but it probably wasn’t all that uncomfortable.

“I screwed up,” Eh said. “I think a lot of us Senior Crew members did in the early days, and kept screwing up, but I’m not going to talk about what anybody else did. I’m responsible for me. I had all sorts of ideas about how to best build and run a vessel like the Sunspot, and I was one of the people most strongly gunning for the type of government we started out with. And that’s why I have my name. But, recent events and many of you have shown me, at least, all sorts of places where we went wrong. So, I’ve stepped aside as Captain and as Council member for a while, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to just live life. Have neighbors, enjoy food, develop my own art, that sort of thing.

“The problem is,” Eh looked around at everything, eyes passing from friend to furniture to view of Memorial Park and the horizon, “I’m screwing that up, too.”

I smirked because I had called it. Eh didn’t seem to notice.

Eh took a huge breath and sighed long and hard, then continued, “a thing that I’m proud of, at least, is that I’m making more friends. But it doesn’t come easy, and I’m doing it by going to places that even Abacus hasn’t thought of for any of its tours. Places where maybe only one person is dwelling, if even that. Neglected places. Places where people are hiding. There is a lot of empty space on this ship, far more of it than space that’s used for anything, and most of it isn’t of any interest to anybody. But there are certain spots, like a Monster library, that attract people who need something meaningful and quiet and forgotten that they can commune with or something.

“And these people aren’t all Monsters, though a lot of them are. And not all of these places are physical. Some are in the Network and are sought out by lonely Crew members. But something that all of these people have in common, Child, Crew, Tutor, or Monster, is that they’re hurting, and that I can’t help them,” Eh frowned. “And I don’t think they’re the exception. Being alive for any length of time just hurts.”

Morde nodded.

“I can make their day a little brighter by giving them quiet company or by listening to something they have to say. Or by being someone to yell at. I’ve let quite a few people vent their anger by physically attacking me with all their might, flinching out of respect for their blows, and retreating when they make it clear they don’t want me there,” Eh said grimly. “It’s not really that many people who are like that, but it is way more of them than I would have liked to imagine at any time during my service to the ship.”

I tried to imagine that. I knew that I’d been struggling, that us four Fibrillators had been seriously struggling with pain and distress from the horrible things we’d faced as younger children, just a couple of years ago. And sometimes even I felt that as a desperate and righteous rage that I couldn’t figure out how to satisfy, and it usually just came out as tears. But everyone else I seemed to see going about the world looked so happy about what they were doing, so engaged in the moment, or so enwrapped in a dream they were exploring, that it was hard to imagine that they’d been experiencing anything that caused them the kind of pain Eh was describing.

On the other hand, if I remembered what the Sunspot looked like when I viewed it from my Phage-state, there were those stress fractures and rogue waves always tearing through the social fabric of the ship. Always present, no matter how vibrant and peaceful the populace otherwise seemed to be. Like Eh said, it wasn’t much. It was a manageable amount of pain there, which I hadn’t ever really thought of as belonging to any given person until now. But it was definitely more than I ever wanted. I’d always wished I could make it all go away.

But, I was lying to myself. When Phage and I had left the ship, it had gotten so much worse. Our presence calmed it. And, maybe that wasn’t such a good thing? In any case, changes need to happen to accommodate that pain.

“Unfortunately, like Abacus,” Eh was saying, “I’ve been ignoring the numbers. The Auditor keeps track of everything, or so I thought, and I never really needed to look directly at its numbers, or so I thought. So, I didn’t notice this discrepancy that Abacus has found, until I ran across a case of it personally. And again, I want to say, this isn’t necessarily a problem to be fixed. It really isn’t that clear. The problem is, I don’t have permission to tell this specific story, and I feel the need to respect that.”

Eh looked down and scratched ihns chin bobble for a while, apparently contemplating how to proceed after that. We all let ihn do that without disturbance. Tetcha even slowed down xyr eating.

“I met a Crew member,” Eh finally said. “I met a Crew member in a physical part of the ship just before they left, and they told me why they were leaving. And they left in a way that did not alert the Auditor. And what they told me gave me the impression that a lot of people had been leaving in that manner, or in a similar manner, and hardly anybody knew about it.”

Eh looked sad. Ihns voice had even cracked while saying that. And it looked like it was hard for ihn to go on.

“What does ‘left’ mean?” Thomas asked.

Eh looked at Thomas with grieving but kind eyes and said, “They left the Sunspot.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, and then gasped. Several others were nodding or shaking their heads. And Aphlebia squeezed my hand.

‘afeje’a said, “Oh,” very softly.

“I don’t think most human beings have adapted very well to living forever in the same community, no matter how big that community is,” Eh said. “Or in the same place. Or in the same state of existence. And I think even all the different states of consciousness we can experience all get old after a while. Even though our Network provides a nigh infinite amount of space within it, and a remarkably variety of ways of being, allowing people to avoid those they have quarrels with, and live either peaceful or exciting lives full of fulfillment and joy and wonder, it still has its boundaries. It’s still just part of the Sunspot, and there is all the rest of the universe out there. And maybe ways of existing that we haven’t even imagined.” Eh looked specifically at Phage when Eh said that.

Phage nodded.

“So, people have been…. leaving,” Eh said, keeping eye contact with Phage through each word. “Without taking anything with them, so that the Auditor doesn’t notice.”

Phage let the following silence hang for a long, long time. Eh’s expression made it clear to the rest of us that Eh was expecting some kind of word from it, but my mother gave no indication that it was going to speak. Yet just as I was feeling the need to fill the emptiness with something, as I’m sure most everyone else was, Phage finally said in its deep, rumbling voice, “That’s not something I need to help with for anyone to do, but if anyone asks me, I will help them. It has always been something any life can do, if it wills it strongly enough. It’s a matter of consent and autonomy.”

Eh tightened ihns lips and nodded.

Tetcha noisily dropped a chip xe had been about to eat back into xyr bowl, and said, “Wait. You’re talking about dying. You’re talking about Crew dying? Crew?”

I felt a chill wash through my body, and suddenly I was in my Phage-state, as large as the Sunspot itself and looking at the whole of it, and I felt weird specialness, a mix of sorrow and relief that I could not make any sense of, as I watched it.

And I saw – I was lucky to see – one of the tiny specks of complexity that I knew to be a Crew member just cease to be. There was no body, so there wasn’t the usual transference of energies that I could typically see of a body dying and beginning to become part of the background of the universe. The person had been a Network entity, and the q-bits that had been containing their patterns of consciousness and thought were just suddenly empty. A whole person’s worth of information and knowledge just disappeared. And I didn’t see where any of it went!

So, I waited for the next one to disappear, hoping I’d get a better glimpse of it, hoping I’d be looking more closely at it, at the process, when it happened again. But I had no idea which one of the tens of billions of people was going to be next, or when they were going to be next. And it didn’t happen again by the time I was pulled back into my body.

I certainly didn’t choose to return, and I still don’t know what yanked me back, but suddenly I found myself in the middle of a tear stained sentence, saying, “-so many people I never got a chance to meet!” Which was not a sentence I had felt like saying, though it felt vaguely familiar, like it was kind of something I might say. 

Then I looked startled at Aphlebia, and then over at Abacus, and then Akailea, as I realized something really, really strange had just happened to me. I felt the need to search for someone I knew who’d been concerned with my health, who might have some insight or advice, but I didn’t think I could explain what had just happened to anyone present, not even my mom, except…

I turned my gaze a hundred and seventy-three degrees to look over at the Pembers and the Flits.

Yeah, a thought formed to the left of me. Talk to them. Or the Whorlies.

“Ni’a, are you OK?” ‘afeje’a asked.

Or talk to them!

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