Later, we talked to Abacus about this.
When we’d returned home, Phage had just come over and hugged us and didn’t say anything. It had seen us hugging before. So it just knew.
But we remembered that Abacus had described some similar feelings that it had had when writing its book, and we wanted to know if it might be plural, too, or if it had ever suspected we were developing that way. So, just after dinner and before our usual evening moonwatching with Phage, we contacted Abacus and it happily came to visit. And while Phage and Aphlebia filled the rest of our family in on what had been revealed by Eh at ihns house, what must have been a solemn and careful conversion, Abacus and I strolled through the park, talking. Dinner conversation had been all about our plurality, along with all the conversations before it.
Abacus was pretty strongly convinced it was not plural. It had experienced some dissociation, for sure. But also just like the one of us who had remained in our body had experienced their subconscious going on automatic but there didn’t appear to be a fourth Ni’a, it turns out that a lot of singlets describe the same kind of thing. There seems to be a certain kind of pseudo-plurality inherent in all human – or, rather – dragon psychology, even in the psyches of individual system members. It seems to just be needed for our kind of consciousness. But it doesn’t necessarily make everyone plural in the way that we were.
“And then, when it came to you,” Abacus said, “what you’ve read in my book is just what I thought. I really hadn’t considered it. You didn’t necessarily show any signs. Thomas and ‘afeje’a and the Whorlies were all much more distractingly obvious. And for that matter, so were Jen and Jenifer.”
“That makes sense,” Purple said. Pink smiled, enjoying the sensation of another talking. Green was thinking of something else.
“But, if I’d ever thought about it,” Abacus continued, “I might have discounted the possibility because you were the child of Phage – well, the children of Phage, really – and I might have figured your heightened level of consciousness and connection to the universe might have given you some kind of psychic glue? I don’t know.” It scoffed and shook its head at the ground as it walked, “A silly idea, anyway, considering that Phage has Phage Pember and its pseudophages. And now it has created two other versions of itself. Hailing Scales, if you and Phage can become the Sunspot itself when you need to, it’s like the whole ship is plural.”
“With the way the Bridge works, yeah,” Green agreed. “We’re all just systems within systems.”
“I’m sure there are other parallels,” Abacus nodded. “People are pretty good at seeing parallels where they want to, too.”
“Do you think we should write a book?” Green asked out of the blue.
“You know?” Abacus said, stopping and stepping back to look at us. “Benejede told me to try to convince you to. Keh had implied my book would need finishing.”
“It,” we said. “It’s pronoun is ‘it’ now.”
“I’d wondered if it would switch to it! Neat!”
“It just told us we were going to write a book,” Green said. “Like it was going to just happen.”
“Gosh, this still feels amazing!” Pink exclaimed right after that.
“Heh, I bet,” came from Abacus.
And Purple added, “I don’t feel like we can write a whole book. We’re just kids and we’ve never really written much of anything!”
“Also, we’re kinda having too much fun playing right now,” Green said.
“Good! That’s good!” Abacus said. “Eventually, if you write a book, it’ll be because writing will have become a kind of playing for you. Seriously, I’d love to read what you have to write, but don’t sweat it at all.”
“Do you still play?” Green asked.
“Sometimes I think everything I do is a kind of play,” Abacus said. “But I think that’s wrong. It’s not a bad way to think a lot of the time, but it’s good to see that sometimes stuff gets really serious. Sometimes a game you were playing with yourself or the rest of the world gets serious and important, and then you should treat it as if it is as important as playing. Deadly important. But when that happens, you’ve gotta find another way of playing, to explore, let off steam, and work things out. Or just to entertain yourself.”
“Yeah,” Purple said. “Suddenly, everything in our life got serious. And we couldn’t figure out how to keep playing. We forgot to.”
“Even when we could play during the last two years, it didn’t feel like playing,” Green said.
“So, what’s different now?” Abacus asked.
We smirked up at it in disbelief at how it could miss the obvious and said, “Us!”
A smile just insisted on insinuating itself across Abacus’ face, and its eyes filled with watery joy and it said, “that is just so good.”
Green took over to give us a serious and solemn expression and said, “I think we still feel like we should figure out what to do about the Discrepancy.” Even before we’d left ihns house, that had started to become the word amongst everyone there or the missing people. A euphemism in reference to numbers that didn’t add up, to make it easier to talk about.
“You don’t need to do anything about it,” Abacus said as gently as it could.
We knew that was the stance of all the adults, that we children shouldn’t concern ourselves with such big matters. But the thing is, the Sunspot is our family and our very body. Everyone that lives on it, or who has lived on it, matters to us in a way we can’t adequately explain. And if we wanted to help, they really couldn’t stop us from doing so. Especially us&, Ni’a. All they could do was try to explain to us why we should hold back.
Considering everything we’d been through, though, we were beginning to see the wisdom in taking things slowly. As long as lives weren’t on the line.
The thing was, lives were on the line, here.
“Crew are dying, Abacus,” Purple said. “And they’re our family.”
“I know,” Abacus said. It, more than anyone besides Phage, seemed to understand our feelings about this. “But it’s their choice. Their autonomy and their consent.”
“But we feel like we’re failing them if they choose that,” we said.
“How do you know?” Abacus replied. “Look, I don’t really like bringing up your age, honestly, but it really makes a difference here. These are mostly people who have lived tens of thousands of years. And you are only twelve right now. Until you’ve lived as long as they have, you can’t really know what leads them to make that decision, or even if it’s really a sad or regrettable thing for them.”
“It still feels like something should be done, though.”
“All we can do is take some time to find out who they were, somehow.”
“Oh,” Pink said. “Like talk to people they knew?”
“Yeah,” Abacus said. “Exactly. And maybe write some of it down for others to read about.”
“Ah,” said Green.
Our moonwatching with Phage was spent in silence, but it was a full conversation anyway.
We took our vessel out there, with Phage in its nanites, and leaned into it while we sat on the bench. It held us and radiated its pride in us, and it felt soft and warm and like home, and we just kept smiling and smiling.
And our dreams that night were so wild and fun.
Over the following years, we had ongoing conversations with Abacus and Akailea about learning to live with trauma and reteaching our body to be more reasonable about things in general. And they were indeed also working with Thomas, ‘afeje’a, and Aphlebia. And occasionally we all met together to share our thoughts and progress on that.
And those conversations inevitably turned toward questions of the nature of consciousness, personhood, and then equality aboard the Sunspot.
A question that kept coming up was whether or not Thomas or Aphlebia would take the Vow of the Crew. Akailea would mention it almost offhand, supposedly to check in on how everyone was feeling, and then Abacus, Thomas, and Aphlebia would all three reiterate why they three wouldn’t do it. Because, the option had been posed to Abacus as well, and its stance was that it shouldn’t have to. And Aphlebia wouldn’t take the Vow until Abacus did, and Thomas kept shaking his head and saying, “I don’t really belong here.”
To which everyone would say, “Yes, you do!” And then we’d spend hours discussing what it meant to be human, and that Thomas had every much the same rights to leave his mark on the Sunspot by living amongst us as any of the rest of the population.
We didn’t talk much about anyone being reborn in a new body. That technology was still hard to get a handle on, and the older we got the more it presented the problem that whoever did it would have to spend life as an infant all over again. I thought it might relieve those who were compelled to be part of the Discrepancy. But to those of us in these particular meetings, the important part was that Thomas had decided to put it off until he was very, very old and ready to start some things over.
His Network avatar was becoming as real to him as anything he’d ever experienced before. In fact, he started saying that his life on the Terra Supreme was what didn’t feel real. And his ability to change how he looked and what he could do was just too important to him to give up.
Abacus had nodded knowingly when he’d mentioned that.
Eventually, the conversations between human beings and the Collective started to slow down. Or rather, the parks that had been designated meeting grounds began to lighten up, and sometimes become as empty as they had been before first contact between us. Part of the reason for that was that members of the Collective were starting to explore the ship in more earnest and with more confidence, taking Crab Buggies all over the place. And they just became less novel to the rest of us.
And that’s when we& started talking to them more ourselves. We would go down to the beach in a park and wait crouching there with our arms resting on our knees until a cuttlecrab ambled over to talk.
The first time we did this, we smiled and gestured at our chest and said, “I’m a collective, too!”
“What do you mean?” asked the Collective, guessing we were saying something new or special.
“Have you heard the term ‘plural system’?” we asked.
“Oh, yes. Yes, of course. We know many plural systems now,” the Collective replied. “Congratulations, yes?”
“Yes! Thank you! We figured it out shortly after we last talked to you. I think you helped us a little bit, in a way.”
“We are pleased.”
“Did you get a better answer to the question you asked us?”
“Yes, but it is still in the works. Our ‘citizenship’,” they said that word carefully for emphasis, “is a matter of ongoing discussion. But we are more actively involved. It is more of a negotiation for our accommodations and us learning how to better respect you as well. As we explore your world and get to know more of you, we get closer to the day it is no longer a discussion but a reality.”
“Maybe,” said Green, “it should always be a discussion, even after it’s real. So nothing is taken for granted or forgotten.”
And while Pink was surprised at the astuteness of that, Purple said, “Oh, Abacus is going to love that observation.”
“It has said something like that to us already,” the Collective said.
“I guess adults do sometimes know what they’re doing,” Pink snarked.
And we sat there smirking at our own humor while the Collective watched us.
Not long after that conversation, the Children of the Sunspot started calling themselves “Dragons” instead of “humans” because the Collective had made it that popular. It just made it easier to talk to the Collective anyway, since they insisted on calling all of us Dragons. The Tutors picked it up from the Children, and by the time it had spread through most of their population, the Crew Council adopted the new terminology officially.
Language does evolve on the Sunspot, and contact with the Collective also caused people to start more broadly adopting the language of plural systems to differentiate better between groups of people. The convention is currently to only use the plural system pronoun at the point where you’re talking that you have to make it clear you’re only talking about a system, or an exclusive group of people, and until you say something like “we all” after that, it’s assumed you’re talking about yourselves as that exclusive group. That kind of thing.
On our twentieth birthday, we took a moment to talk to Thomas alone, to once again thank him for being in our life. We’d exchanged so many thank yous before by now, but this time we’d remembered something.
We looked up at him and his beard and twinkling eyes and said, “A little over ten years ago, nevermind the number of days, you thanked us through the bathroom door when we were crying in there, and we never acknowledge that.”
“Ah, that’s OK,” he said.
“Well, you said that we were ‘good’ and you thanked us for that. And we think you were trying to say that you were glad we had helped you escape the Terra Supreme. Is that what you meant?”
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “But it’s been more than that. Always. I think I meant this back then, too. I don’t remember it terribly well. But I really didn’t want to live anymore at that point. Everything had been too much for so long, and then to escape all that chaos and pain so suddenly and involuntarily… To find myself here? I felt like it would be better to just not experience anything anymore, because it was just too much, too weird, and too confusing.” He rubbed tears from his eyes, and I did the same for mine. Then he said, “I remember that day as the day I’d decided to stay, and I was trying to thank you for that.”
“How? Why?” Pink asked.
“Because, even though I can’t do anything that you can do, when I watched how you interacted with your family and the world around you, I realized that you were doing things the way I wanted to do them. You’re the kind of person, or people, I’ve always felt I should be.” He chuckled, “Only, as a boy, you know.” He smirked, then said, “And the way you’d just accepted me and ‘afeje’a into your family and treated us like any of your other siblings while still showing me around the Sunspot. I still don’t feel like this is home, exactly, even though I know it is. But I know I have family now, and that was the day it first hit me I might be able to have one.”
We shook our head and Green said, “We don’t know why you think we’re so good, but we are so grateful.”
“You’re cheerful, and gentle, and hopeful, and you& just do things, good things, Ni’a. But, even if you didn’t do any of the stuff I’ve seen since I came here, it’s how you talked to me in the dream on my old ship. You were there, you’d seen the violence of my life, some of it. But you maybe didn’t see how it shaped me, how it forced me to act, the kind of decisions I’d had to make, or how much of myself I’d had to hide. And when I looked at you in that dream, it was like I was looking at my inner self. And it kind of hurt, but in a good way. Like I was seeing my own possibilities.”
Purple smirked in a kindly way back at Thomas and said, “Can we say something?”
“Yeah, of course,” he sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“You’re good too,” we started. “You are so good, such a good person, despite everything you’ve been through, you’ve been our focus. The whole time we have been doing anything since you got here, we have been thinking of you. About how you’ve persisted and how you’ve reached out in your distress to learn new things. About how you survived what you did, and how you let new routines become your home and let us, our whole family, Fredge, Laal, and ‘afeje’a included, actually be there for you. And also just how you enjoyed the simple things in life, like playing cards to win or riding on Candril’s back, we saw that in you from the very beginning and it helped us survive, too. We weren’t ideating like you were, but we sure were pushing ourselves toward oblivion in our own way. I mean, in the end, we saved ourselves, but so did you and that’s a huge part of what helped. And thank you for that. Thank you so much for that.”
After a few seconds of trying to figure out whether he could say anything back, Thomas smiled through a snotty sniff and said, “Happy Birthday, sibs?”
“Happy twentieth Birthday, brother!”
“Should we, uh… Should we go make ‘afeje’a cry now, too?”
“They’d better. They have a lot of catching up to do.”
There are a lot of reasons we& wanted you to read about those conversations. Part of it is to help finish the story we’ve all been telling, Metabang, Abacus, and us Ni’as. Just to make sure the important loose ends are wrapped up.
But it also maybe tells you what’s important to us&. And what that means, should you get to meet us and our greater family, the Sunspot.
The thing is, there’s more. An important more.
Conversations keep happening, keep going on. Many of which we& are not party to, but which shape this world and its peoples. We wanted to give you a sense of what is going on here, so that when we cross paths, you are not too surprised, so that you could acclimate yourselves to the possibilities. But we could really only tell our story, and as powerful as we& are here, we are not the people of the Sunspot, and they are who shape it.
So we’re hoping that all three books give you a start, a few different perspectives. But there are hopefully going to be more stories to come. We, the writers of the Sunspot, the Chroniclers, are trying to get more people to join us, to tell their perspectives. And maybe you’ll get to read those too.
And if you’re what we’ve been calling the Source, our first true Outsider to cross our path, there’s going to be about two hundred years, depending on just how you dance and what happens over here, before we meet. You’ll get these stories sometime shortly before we meet. I’d have to consult Benejede in order to calculate the exact numbers there, but it might not cooperate, and it doesn’t really matter. More history will have happened by then. Some amount of it.
And this book is just a collection of its punctuation.
There are two more exclamation points to add.
On Memorial Day during our& twenty fourth year, shortly before we began writing this book, Abacus gave a speech before the entire population of the Sunspot.
Like we said, it was an exclamation point. Not a turning point. Not a beginning, nor an ending. It was simply a mark in our story that says, “pay attention to this.”
My fellow people,
My name is Abacus, and I am addressing everyone aboard the Sunspot today in order to put a proposal in front of the Council of the Crew for consideration on your behalf.
This proposal has been the culmination of the work of many groups and individuals collected and processed over the course of the last couple of decades. Though, in truth, the seeds of it were sewn when the Sunspot itself was first built. And the call to pursue it was clearly made during the Nanite Innovation.
We, the people of the Sunspot, particularly those of us who have been working on this proposal, hereby request that the Council of the Crew become the Council of the People, and to open up seats within the Council, and therefore also access to the Bridge, to any sentient living being that resides on the ship. Furthermore, all collections of votes that would have required participation of the entire Crew should be made to include the entire population at large, including everyone who would be eligible to stand on the Council.
Accommodations must be made for those who do not have neural terminal access to the Network, such as the Monsters and anyone else of similar disability. But we would like to point out that every moment that we delay approval of this proposal, we fail to meet the mission that the Sunspot was built to fulfill.
Senior Crew Members Jenefere, Eh, Benejede, Jedekere, ‘ekele’e, Gesetele, and Fenemere are personally willing to attest that upon creation of the Sunspot and its culture, the Senior Crew agreed to not only uphold the core human rights, autonomy and consent, but also to do so with the express aim to prevent any suffering that is preventable and to treat any suffering that is treatable. But to do that within the constraints of the individual to consent and to maintain their autonomy.
All Senior Crew Members should remember this. And if you do not, it is written in Fenekere into the base code of the Sunspot, to be read by anybody who endeavors to learn how to operate this vessel.
It is inherent to the Vow that you take as Crew: ‘uu ktletaccate genorema fe. “May I always protect the Children of the Sunspot.”
There, I guess I have finally said it in full, out loud. But I did so in order to be most clear, not to gain its privileges.
I understand that we present this proposal to you in the midst of numerous proceedings of shipwide importance, including questions of how to recognize the request of the Collective, how to modify or even mothball our own breeding program in light of the ethical dilemmas that have been found with it, whether to modify or abolish our practice of sanctions, how to address the existence of the Tunnel now connecting the Network of the Sunspot to the Network of the Terra Supreme, whether or not we are worthy to assist the people of Terra Supreme in their struggles to regain the human rights we deem sacred, whether or not to hear Phage’s proposal, and how to approach the Outsider source of what is clearly music that lies approximately two centuries in the future of our travel.
I present to you that it is critical that we accept and ratify this proposal without delay, before these matters are resolved.
For, currently, the most vulnerable of us have no say in the policies that shape our lives and our futures. We do not even have access to the ability to witness the deliberations. And that is in clear violation of our mission.
I’d like to add that it is my personal contention that the requirement to take the Vow of the Crew in order to stand upon the Bridge and have a voice in the Council is in stark opposition to this proposal, and must be done away with. It may be a useful tool for vetting access to critical ship systems, but it should not stand in the way of anyone having a voice in their own future.
That is all.
My name is Abacus, my pronouns are it/its, and I am grateful that you have listened.
After listening to that speech, while sitting outside in a park under that night’s moon, we asked our mother, Phage, why it had never taken the Vow itself.
“If I took the Vow, it would ethically require me to destroy the Sunspot and every being aboard it immediately and as swiftly as possible, to end and prevent suffering,” it said. “But, recently, I have come across a better idea. And if everyone accepts it, then I can take the Vow. But, then, I won’t need to.”
“What idea is that?” we asked.
Phage smiled, “Ask Candril.”
That was when we remembered Candril’s request, so long ago, made on the express tram to Agaricales, the day before we nearly destroyed the Sunspot with our own sensory overload.
Candril had asked, “Why don’t you give us permission to do what Ni’a can do?”
So we asked Phage now, “What about the Terra Supreme, and all the people there?”
“They get the same deal. If enough people think it’s a good idea, then those that consent to become one of us will, and those that don’t will be given time to keep making that decision and the grace to continue saying no.”
This troubled us. We began to argue amongst ourselves internally about the potential of that. About what people would do with that power, whether they could control it like we could, and whether that would result in joy and relief, or utter chaos. We did feel it was only fair, actually. To give people all the accommodations available to make their lives better, just as Abacus had demanded of the Crew. But we were scared of what we could lose and just how much our world would change. Knowing just how dangerous we were, while we had grown up with these abilities and under Phage’s motherhood, we worried what would happen if fifty-three billion or so people suddenly had these powers, too. How would Phage teach them all how to use them responsibly?
And in the midst of that, Purple asked, “What made you think that was a good idea?”
“You&,” Phage said, squeezing our hand and looking up at the moon. “You were born. Then you began to grow and learn. And now I see what is possible.”
So, you see, dear Dancing Source of Music, Our Outsider, what might be coming your way.
Hopefully this is warning enough.
You might encounter a ship full of people under the protection of Phage and its three children, with open arms and a populace struggling to figure out how to be fair to itself and to lift up its most unfortunate.
Or you might encounter something else. Maybe just a wash of photons and other subatomic particles, whizzing by with strange waves amongst them. Or a mass of indescribable, terrible chaos. Or something amazing that will change your entire existence.
And hopefully you’ll be able to translate all of this in time to understand why.