“I’m here because we need to talk about the Tutors,” Akailea said.
It was the same thing sie’d said to Penekede.
We were having the same conversation with every enclave of the Founding Crew we could find. For every Founding Crewmember we found, we typically encountered a hundred to thousands of other Crew. But, as I’d mentioned before to Abacus, the Founding Crew had access to Fenekere commands that no one else could ever have, commands that could destroy the ship if we were not countered effectively by other Founding Crew before we did so. And I cannot say that that did not factor into our reasoning. We just didn’t really even bother to think about that.
We had slightly more political reasons for it.
Veqehene scowled and yanked on the wheel of the great tallship, then wrapped a rope around one of its pegs and turned to us, “The Tutors are your responsibility.”
Deckhands scrambled to do things that I didn’t really understand. This vessel was not something I had ever seen before, and I have seen sailing vessels. It had sails, at least, and I did understand that. This one was as… creative… as the sea that it was riding upon.
There were other completely different looking vessels around us that appeared to be racing this one.
Akailea leaned hir hip against a railing and folded hir arms, gowns blowing in the wind, and squinted back, “They are people, and it is well past time that we acknowledge that. The trouble is figuring out how to adapt to the need to let them exercise their rights fully.”
“You mean, if they quit en masse.”
“Make more. I don’t see what this has to do with me,” Veqehene made a wave of dismissal and moved to take the wheel again.
“I think it would be better if you had someone take over for you,” I suggested.
Kihn’s scowl deepened when keh looked up at me.
“That is not an acceptable solution,” Akailea said. “We essentially recreated gender assignment when we made them, and everyone has known this since day one. It is time to own up to it.”
“I still don’t see -”
“It would go a long way toward reparations if every Founding Crew member voted to recognize their emancipation,” I said.
“I thought you just got done saying I don’t have to vote,” keh retorted.
“You don’t,” I emphasized. “We are just asking you to. We’re asking you to examine your conscience and let it guide you. But, also, we’re collecting advice.”
Veqehene sighed, “And the other votes?”
“Harder, honestly,” Akailea said.
“You really should check your messages,” I told Veqehene.
The whole time we were having this conversation, the deck was bucking and falling, and we all had to adjust our footing to remain facing each other. Veqehene eventually did wave someone to take over, and beckoned us to follow kihn belowdecks to kihns cabin, where we sat around a table.
I had to adjust my avatar to fit.
“Eventually,” Veqehene said as we were sitting down. “You’re going to encounter someone who doesn’t talk. They’ll attack you on sight.”
“What?” I asked, freezing in my movement and fixating kihn with a perplexed glare.
“You’re going around to all of us, right?” keh asked.
“We all had enemies amongst us long before we started this thing, and those rifts have only gotten deeper,” Veqehene explained. “Now we’re all used to living in our own little worlds and pretending the others don’t exist. Some of us don’t care much anymore and are curious to hear from the outside. But I would not at all be surprised if some have been laying layers and layers of traps. And you, Eh, have been Captain.”
And really, by the time keh had started saying all that, keh didn’t need to. But it was good to hear it from a peer.
We could have, probably, had most of this conversation just by flashing expressions at each other and saying the occasional single word. But, we also knew that by spelling things out it felt like we made them more real, and it would help us remember it all later.
There was, for us Founding Crew, a politeness in having conversations that were at least a little like those of the Children.
In some way, though, I suppose I might be fleshing this all out more verbally for this story than how it actually took place.
After a couple moments, and after I’d settled in, Veqehene tapped the table a couple times and said, “You know, I don’t remember much about all the arguments we had building this place. I could extrapolate and speculate everything I likely said back then. And I can reason out why we did what we did, and even what was wrong with it. But, I cannot say for sure that I even existed back then. Does that make sense?”
“I don’t think any of us were meant to live longer than a couple centuries,” Akailea said.
Veqehene pointed, “that, I already knew.”
“Veqehene,” I said, “Do you remember the Experience Recorder on the Magnificent Dirt?”
“Oh, that thing.”
“Never implemented it here.”
“Too much of a risk.”
“Of course,” I said, “We could have done it differently. We could do it differently. Instead of a separate Network protocol that records our thoughts outside of our beings, we could -”
“Change who and what we are,” Veqehene finished for me.
Akailea nodded gravely.
“I think some people have already done that,” Veqehene said.
“I’m talking about us,” I said.
“Have you looked into how many of the Departed had done that to themselves?” keh asked.
Which, I knew keh was going to ask that. “The Departed” is what we’ve all taken to calling those of us who’ve given up existing. The population of Crew on the Sunspot does keep growing, roughly 2.6 million souls per generation. Abacus had, in its book, done a calculation for how many Crew there should be now, and had found a rather large discrepancy. Over 920 billion Crew members have gone missing since the founding of the ship.
And, to give you an idea of what our culture is like in the Network, you’d think we’d all have noticed that many missing. But until Abacus investigated, we hadn’t. That’s how much we keep to ourselves and our own.
It’s utterly perplexing and scary.
But I discovered where they were going.
At some point or another, a person just chooses to stop experiencing. No matter what they’ve been through, no matter how many memories and friends they have, there gets to be a point when they’re done. And they just… stop.
At this point, I figured that that would happen to me someday, too. But it didn’t feel like it would be… You know, I just don’t know. There is a part of me that’s ready. But I at least want to meet the Dancer, the Outsider we’re headed for. I want to see what they are, and that, I think, will take me through the next 200 years or so.
And no, I had not investigated to see how many of the Departed had given themselves perfect memory.
In answer to Veqehene’s question, I bit my lip and narrowed my eyes, letting my index claw lie tilted on the table. It was sort of a gesture of concession.
It would make sense if it was a contributing factor to their ultimate decision.
By allowing ourselves to forget things, we remained flawed. And in remaining flawed, we could experience new things, in a way.
I could explain all of that, but I don’t want to. You’ll figure it out yourself in time, if you haven’t already.
Could this be how Benejede is able to predict the future so well. Could it have given itself perfect memory? Had it kept the Experience Recorder?
Hailing Scales! That maniac!
With perfect hindsight comes perfect foresight! Or damn near!
Not even Phage has a memory like that.
But. That would not explain Morde’s ability to intuit the future. Morde, who you might remember, confronted us on the Bridge in cooperation with Phage to initiate all this political upheaval to begin with. Sie works differently and did so well before becoming Crew. So, it might be possible that it’s not how Benejede does things either.
Still, the possibility made me want to talk to it again. Have a nice long hard conversation, instead of the quick bullshit it usually foisted off on me.
Now, tangentially, Morde might hold some clues as to who and what Phage is, if hir ability is at all related to its powers.
I opened my mouth to say something more when the cabin door slammed open.
A person that I would describe as a literal drowned rat (if you know what a rat is), stood wearing a yellow poncho in the doorway, hand against the door, and gasped, “Invaders!”
“What?” shouted Veqehene back.
“They come flying o’er the sea, and they bring a storm with them!” the rat managed to roar back, hoarsely.
“Is that part of your game here?” I asked.
Veqehene fixed me with wild, dilated eyes and snapped, “No.”
Then keh clambered out of kihns seat and made for the door, the crewmember who had alerted kihn already turning to tend the ship on deck.
I turned to Akailea and said, “We should observe this.”
Sie nodded solemnly, and we both rose to follow.
The sea was as red as a tree’s bark, despite a sky of slate gray storm clouds.
The clouds let loose a torrent of clean, clear water which began to pool between the swells. Clearly, whatever the sea was composed of was much denser than water, and it moved sluggishly as well.
There were creatures in the sea. Large ones that never showed their entire bulks, but who did dance and play along with the ships that raced across the surface. And, just as I have done countless times before, I wondered if they were simple algorithms or actual life forms, and I specifically didn’t check. I could have.
I knew instantly that they weren’t fellow Crew members, or at least that, if they were, they were hiding their identities like Ktleteccete and Penekede had done. There are certain things that the Network does automatically, when Crew are involved.
We had set it up to do so. We should have been more thorough. And I’ve been making a list of changes I’d like made. But making them required consent of the Council, and that was why Akailea and I were doing all this in the first place.
One of the horizons was closer than all the others, a vertical bank of roiling clouds and dense precipitation charging toward the racing ships. And as Akailea and I hung in the air a hundred meters above our hosts, we watched a horde of gigantic eyeless creatures emerge from that wall of angry mist, maws gaping and barbed tentacles reaching forward eagerly.
Each one was marked by the Network as a Crew member.
The first emotions I felt, absurdly, were horror and fear. I normally take up a lot of space, and just like anybody else I can grow my form to any size within the Network, but momentarily these creatures were so much bigger than I was. One could accidentally inhale me as if I was a gnat, and the ships below would not be that much more trouble for it.
But as soon as I remembered the rules of this universe I’d helped create, that fell away and I shared a look of annoyance and exhaustion with Akailea.
Through the power of Fenekere, I can change who and what I am so thoroughly that I would cease to exist. Strangely, the Departed don’t do their thing using Fenekere. They just simply cease all neural processes and somehow that erases them. So, in a way, they don’t count when I say that most of us don’t change ourselves that deeply. What I really mean, though, is that those of us who choose to continue experiencing things seem to want to keep a kernel of ourselves consistent, and I’m no different.
I wasn’t annoyed at my own reaction to the sight of the enormous, threatening creatures. I was irritated that they were invading Veqehene’s Netspace.
It was a thing that was not supposed to be happening, but that clearly happened anyway. And probably with more frequency than I was previously aware of.
What unfolded was so pointless.
Even more insulting is that they came for us, too. Me and Akailea, I mean.
As the flying leviathans converged on the racing fleet, one of them veered upward toward us. Which it wouldn’t have had to do if we weren’t rapidly lifting ourselves upward, parting the cloud cover to preserve our view. But we were doing that because we didn’t want to be involved, but wanted to witness the bullshit.
It was toothless, and somehow that made it more repulsive and horrifying. Its circular maw became like a maelstrom of flesh slowly rising to engulf us as it majestically twisted its body in flight.
It quickly blocked our view of the skirmish below. But I knew that despite the differences in size and threatening postures, it would be a stalemate.
The damage had already been done, one gang of Crew had interrupted the activity of another. And more damage would be done by prolonging it, really. And that was clearly the goal.
If I could find a way to bring this to an end quickly, Veqehene would likely be grateful. But I wasn’t really sure how to do so.
In the grand scheme of things, it was just an irritation. However, when irritations are the highest form of injury and can be carried out indefinitely, it’s hell.
Once we were above the cloud cover, I looked around. We had found ourselves within an infinite tube of clouds.
When creating a world with gravity and surface of some sort in their Netspace, people tend to fall into three camps depending on what they feel they need. Sometimes it’s an infinitely flat plane, like Penekede’s arctic glacier. Sometimes it’s an attempt at simulating what a planet might be like, and there are so many variations of that because none of us have actually been on a planet. We just kind of know they exist from a combination of math, science, and mythology. Or they’re like this one, some variation of the world we grew up in.
Veqehene and kihns friends or family had decided to do away with the endcaps of a vessel like the Sunspot and implement a version of infinity. Infinity’s a theme.
“I’ll distract this one,” Akailea said. “You go finish our conversation with Veqehene.” Or, sie looked at me in a way that said all that.
I nodded, and then closed my eyes and edited my coordinates in the Netspace to put myself right next to the owner of the Netspace.
Kihns ship had already been swallowed, and the deckhands were all working in concert to maintain a bubble of atmosphere around the ship as it was being flushed down the gullet of the invading Crew’s creature-form.
Veqehene rolled kihns eyes at my arrival when I opened mine to take this all in, and said, “I don’t really see much point in fighting this. We’ll just endure it until they stop.”
“How often does this happen to you?” I asked.
“Daily, for the past I don’t care anymore how long,” kihn growled.
“What?” I asked.
For those who don’t know, when we Crew use the term “daily” for anything that happens on the Network, we don’t mean every sun cycle like the Children do. We mean simply cyclically. The cycle would be any period of time, really. Our perceptions of time are what you should expect for anyone who lives beyond a couple of centuries. So, when we talk about things that keep happening, we use terms of personal irritation instead of actual measurements of time, usually. Anyway, the kind of relentless persistence that Veqehene just described was intolerable and, frankly, criminal.
Veqehene shrugged, and then said, “If you were unaware that this kind of thing is going on, then you really have spent too much time on the Council.”
“You’re saying this is widespread,” I responded.
Kihn simply nodded a patient confirmation. The particular twitch of muscles meant, “extremely widespread.”
I’m not completely inexperienced. I’ve been swallowed involuntarily before. Nothing that was happening around me was remotely new to me, but the scope of its recurrence was news. So it was pretty easy to ignore the gargantuan anatomy pulsating around us, and hyperfocus on Veqehene’s expressions.
“Which is why the Council has been so small and the votes so pathetic,” I needlessly said.
A tiny tightening of lips by Veqehene betrayed kihns agreement with that statement.
It was obvious.
An ancient pall of hopelessness began to grip me from the center of my being.
The fight for freedom from enmity never ends. You just get lucky enough to ignore it for a time, sometimes.
I felt I was being ignorant about something more, however. My subconscious was putting it together before the words left my mouth, but I couldn’t stop myself from speaking anyway. It felt like something that had to be said, recorded by space and time if not by the Network itself.
“You could put a stop to this by issuing a personal Sanction, right?” I uttered, almost regretting the words as they came out of my mouth.
Veqehene grinned nastily and said, “Sanction can be broken like wet tissue paper when you’re Founding Crew.”
Of course this was a conflict between Founding Crew. Of course people weren’t playing by the rules.
Which also meant that I was in actual personal danger unless I was quick on my feet.