Violence on the Network was a terrible and harrowing thing. Possibly much worse than in the natural world, because there was a hierarchy of who could do what to whom that was programmed into the fabric of the Network itself.
Father `e could delete anyone he wanted with a snap.
Founding Crew members were the next tier, and could do the same with anyone who was not Founding Crew. They could also threaten each other’s existence, but it was a more equal struggle. Usually the fastest to wrangle the necessary Fenekere code won out. And since countermeasures could be constructed, there was an ancient arms race going since the founding of the Terra Supreme.
Below that there were a myriad of tiers constructed around the favor of Father `e and/or various Founding Crew. Some of those tiers were considered general Crew, and the rest were not.
But instant death was not always in vogue for transgressors. People who were merely inconvenient disappeared and were replaced, but those marked as traitors had all of their permissions and rank revoked and then tortured. Sometimes seemingly forever.
Now, where the Resistance didn’t overlap with that structure, things were different.
There were enough critical Founding Crew among the Resistance to hide and protect everyone in hiding with all but the very top permissions available. Otherwise, the Resistance wouldn’t have existed. But they were divided up into cells that didn’t communicate with each other at all, so that if one of them fell, the others wouldn’t be at risk.
Within each cell, everyone was given equal access to the full permissions of the Founding Crew. But not those of Father `e, because that could not be done. A new cell member would have to earn their permissions through safety training and the development of trust, but it was achieved quickly, within three decades of their adoption by the cell. And then they were all taught how to support and protect each other, creating a web of Fenekere commands to ward against a future breach.
If a cell was compromised or fell, there was a signal that would be sent to all other cells. One of the spin states of a monitored but anonymous q-bit somewhere on the Network would be flipped. There were as many of these q-bit states as there were cells, so once one was discovered the others weren’t at risk. And it was hoped that the monitoring system couldn’t itself be tracked.
One morning, q-bit after q-bit started to flip.
Yenfiri’s latest dream was interrupted by a short klaxon. And then, a few minutes later, another one. And then another. And another.
They were having what had started as a naked school dream where they’d found themselves in their old body and dysphoric about it, while no one around them seemed to notice they weren’t wearing any clothes. Their bullies didn’t even bother them. Because the dream was lucid, they decided to solve this problem by, instead of putting on their clothes, transforming into their true self image, which everyone recognized as a kind of dragon, which didn’t need clothes. And then they’d crawled up onto the roof of the school to bask in the sun.
The klaxons started then and became part of the dream, because obviously Yenfiri was a disaster to their entire home town. And Gendarms began to arrive in their exosuits armed with heavy weaponry, which they started aiming at Yenfiri.
Whenever a new barrel leveled itself at Yenfiri’s brow, a klaxon pulsed. But nobody fired.
This was the first time in a long, long time that a nightmare kept getting worse after Yenfiri took control of it, and it was starting to get frustrating and worrisome.
They tried to banish the klaxons, but that didn’t work.
And they were just about to banish the entire dream when Ikri pinged them from outside it.
“Don’t bother visiting, I’ll come out there,” Yenfiri sent, and then banished the dream and stepped into their cell’s world, out onto a rocky beach full of panicking, yammering cuttlecrabs in the darkness of the early morning. Flashes and screeching surrounded them.
They took a deep breath to experience wakefulness fully, before kneeling to watch the little creatures.
Another klaxon went off, and that’s when Yenfiri understood what was happening.
Ikri appeared and stepped up to stand beside them and marvel at the activity of the cuttlecrabs, and then she shouted over them, “They’re decimating the Resistance!”
A wave of coordinated light spread out along the shoreline from where she stood, as the cuttlecrabs reacted to her voice. And very soon after that, waves of light came racing back, accompanied with random imitated words and squeals.
It was an amazing sight, and not for the first time Yenfiri wondered just how much the cuttlecrabs understood. They never spoke in full Inmararräo sentences though. And since these were Network programs, if they had spoken coherently, Yenfiri wasn’t sure they’d be an accurate reflection of what the real cuttlecrabs could do.
Actually, it could be the other way around. These cuttlecrabs could be less complex and less sapient than the real ones. Who could know?
Ikri pushed on their left shoulder with both hands and yelped at them, “Yenfiri! We could be next!”
“I’m ready,” they said, looking over at their sister. They were crouched, and she was standing upright, and their eyes were level with each other. They were usually both comfortable with this size difference, but that push had felt kind of like an indictment of some sort. But maybe it was their calm and slow demeanor that was bothering her. “I’m sorry. I’ve been in crisis mode since I started dreaming. I am incapable of panicking at the moment. This is bad and scary, though.”
Ikri huffed and plopped to the ground, looking up at the world around them, then said, “Yeah. What can we do? It’s going so fast, anyway. I’m worried that no one else has messaged me, though. What’s happening?”
As if keh had heard her, a general message from `eshemeke hit both their in-boxes at the same time, “Hold tight. Stay where you are and be alert. Remember your drills. Double check your channels and connections.”
Yenfiri immediately started following those orders. And out of the corner of their awareness, they could tell that Ikri was doing likewise.
Another klaxon went off. How many Ristance cells were there? How many could possibly be left?
That information was not shared. The Founding Crew amongst the resistance probably knew, but kept it to themselves. Probably for security purposes.
Yenfiri closed their eyes and took another deep breath, filling their nose with the rotten, briny scent of the bay. It always seemed more pungent when the cuttlecrabs were out.
They’d been watching them a lot lately, and noting their behavior, but when the cuttlecrabs noticed that they were being watched, their behavior changed. They became more cautious and slow, and less likely to do the interesting things. And they watched back. But not tonight. Tonight they were in a serious panic and reacting to every little movement or word from Ikri and Yenfiri.
But the cuttlecrabs also weren’t swarming them. They seemed to know that the two people were not a threat. That they could be trusted, and that the klaxons were something else.
The cuttlecrabs had not been the only animals who behaved differently when Yenfiri was present, of course. So, they’d taken to using Network commands to hide their presence.
One of the things they’d seen when they had done that was how the cuttlecrabs dealt with their typical predators.
Sometimes a single cuttlecrab would seem to be the only thing moving along the rocky beach, feeling around with its tentacles, looking for something to eat. And usually, this would attract some birds.
At some point, Yenfiri got to witness a single bird attack one such cuttlecrab. Almost immediately upon the bird’s talons grasping the legs of the vulnerable cuttlecrab, several of the surrounding rocks somehow leapt into the air, springing legs and tentacles and changing color, flashing lights rapidly.
And they caught the bird, and pinned it to the ground, and ate it.
Cuttlecrabs could change the colors and textures of their shells to communicate. And they could also do it for camouflage.
It seemed that most of the different types of birds along the shoreline knew this, and were cautious when cuttlecrabs were visible. And most left even a single cuttlecrab alone. But occasionally the temptation was too great, apparently, and one would risk it.
But then, there was this other time when the cuttlecrab who was bate was not protected by its fellows. Not immediately.
The attacking bird had glanced off its shell and flown away to a tree to recover from its shock of not experiencing a counter attack. It was almost as if its own sudden fear and realizing what danger it was in had thrown off its aim. And the cuttlecrab kept ambling about, after waving its tentacles threateningly.
The other nearby birds had seen this, and decided to give it a try. But the two who were bold enough for this timed it poorly and nearly collided with each other as well as the first bird, who had jumped in when it saw that its lunch was going to be snagged by someone else.
At this point, Yenfiri could identify a few cuttlecrabs who were disguising themselves as rocks. And they hadn’t moved or even twitched during the first attack, and remained hunkered down through the ordeal.
The designated bate started to stumble and scramble toward the treeline of the shore, while the birds swooped and dove and screeched, fighting with each other but still making for the cuttlecrab.
Yenfiri thought they could hear that cuttlecrab imitating the cries of the birds occasionally, like it was either taunting or trying to scare them.
And just before the cuttlecrab made it to the cover of the bushes just below the trees, the original bird tried to make one last attempt at its life, followed by three other birds.
Cuttlecrabs leapt from the bushes and fell from the trees in an attempt to catch the birds.
The lead bird became lunch. But the others escaped.
One of the other birds went to land in a nearby tree, though, and was immediately attacked by cuttlecrabs waiting for it there, and they all fell to the ground with a crunching thud.
Apparently, one of the cuttlecrabs had been injured by that maneuver. But, as Yenfiri watched from the safety of invisibility and perfect silence, the other cuttlecrabs did what they could to assist it and make sure it could eat. They brought it pieces of food, and then carried it to safety to rest and heal afterward.
And this had all been simulated in the Network using Network programs that were just shy of conscious to create a believable ecosystem they could practice living with, for a day where they might live on and maintain their own Exodus ship.
And, it seemed that `eshemeke had insisted on training them for the eventuality that Father `e would order the construction of a new vessel, and then the Resistance would attempt to infiltrate its creation, building a new Resistance there.
During this morning of klaxons, when Resistance world after Resistance world fell to the state and thousands upon thousands of people were being captured or dying at a rate that suggested the latter, while beholding and thinking about the behavior of the cuttlecrabs, Yenfiri decided Ninshai’s attitude was the correct one.
Yenfiri met the terror of possibly being the next to die with the conviction that they would have to be the next to act. That the right thing to do was somehow seize control of the shipyards, and create a whole new Resistance only Exodus Ship.
And when the deaths were over and they had survived, they mentioned this to Ikri, and Ikri immediately agreed.
And then the adrenaline of that hour caught up with them, and the grief and terror of all the losses followed, and they fell apart for several days.
It took years for everyone to recover. And, in a way, they never really did.
They wouldn’t have survived if they had.
Centuries later, when another round of breaches began again, Yenfiri’s cell world was the first to be hit. And that’s how they learned just what the state was doing when they found an entire Resistance cell.
Planning a mutiny and takeover of the shipyards turned out to be too large of a task to arrange with any expediency. As much as Yenfiri, Ikri, and Ninshai pushed for such a plan, and as much as `eshemeke had started to warm up to the idea, all they could really do was take on more recruits as they came, and then split the cell.
Yenfiri, Ikri, and Ninshai stuck together, and were assigned to create and run an entire cell on their own. To lead it.
That had happened over two hundred years ago, and now they had a few thousand well trained people aboard, and were training more every day.
They never saw `eshemeke again, severing all ties for security, of course. And there were no Founding Crew in their new cell, but they didn’t really need any. They had all the permissions given to them by `eshemeke, and passed them on to everyone else as they earned them.
And Ninshai was full of all the stories that `eshemeke used to tell, plus many he’d dug up from the archives himself.
The three of them had long gotten used to being the elders now, and spent many days talking to each other about how bewildering the youngsters were.
Below a certain age, that none of the three of them could agree upon, people seemed to be much more quick to react to anything. And nearly everything would seem like the end of the world to them.
Ninshai said that he noticed this change in his own perspective as early as 50 years old. He claimed he just started to get way more calm around that age. But both Ikri and Yenfiri gave him melodramatically incredulous looks when he claimed that.
He then would pretest that of course there were stages, and that as they all got older, that sense of perspective got stronger and stronger, and now that they were looking back at how he used to be, they couldn’t believe it.
Ikri would respond to that with some variation of, “Either I matured faster than you, or you’re just remembering stuff wrong, because you were never laid back to me.”
Yenfiri would just keep their mouth shut at that point.
The key point in this narrative, though, is that they’d never given up on the dream of taking enough control to build their own ship. They were just planning for a very long term. And they were a long, long way from taking the first true steps toward doing it.
But they talked to their trainees and comrades as if they might get it done tomorrow, to keep the ideas flowing, and to never discourage anyone’s bright visions.
And, yes, they also did argue about just how lenient they should be, or how strictly they should curb dangerous impulses. It wasn’t like the three of them were unified in their theories and beliefs regarding the Resistance. But, again, nothing was truly desperate and they could allow each other and everyone else to work on their own pet projects separately.
Yenfiri felt their diversity of thought would make them stronger and more likely to come up with something that would work, and the others tended to agree with them about that.
Besides, the last time the Resistance was outright attacked, they’d survived. Part of the Resistance would always survive.
So, lately, there was this youngster, a trainee who was only twelve years past their death, that Yenfiri really enjoyed working with. Rreshka. And they had the same pronouns.
They would meet at noon, most days, on the roof of a building in the one city that their world currently had, and work together for the rest of the day on their Fenekere. Yenfiri’s goal was to bring Rreshka up to full speed and permissions by the time they reached their twentieth year. While Rreshka’s goal was to find a new thing every day that Yenfiri didn’t know about. And Yenfiri loved that.
The current population growth of their cell was slow enough, they could have these one on one relationships between teacher and student, instead of holding entire classes like `eshemeke had done.
Today, however, half an hour into their studies, Rreshka distracted Yenfiri by looking up at the progress of the sun and saying, out of the blue, “Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could have chosen our own names from the beginning?”
“Do you have an idea for how that would work?” Yenfiri asked mildly. This was far from the first time they had been party to this topic, but it was always good to encourage it and participate.
“Oh, yeah. I’ve been thinking about it,” Rreshka mumbled.
Yenfiri smiled and waited.
Rreshka wasn’t even looking at their face and if they sensed Yenfiri’s smile it was probably through changes in the sound of their breathing. Rreshka leaned back on both arms, thin tail curling around one wrist, and said, “I think it’s simpler than anyone ever makes it out to be. You just name them ‘Child of…’ and then their parents’ family name, or something like that. And their pronouns start out as ‘they/them’ until they choose their own. And by the time they’re three years old, they’ll usually be able to talk enough to pick a name and pronouns. And I think that’s good enough.”
So, the same basic plan Yenfiri had settled on.
“Maybe pet names could also be OK, for their parents to address them with. Generic, genderless childhood names, like ‘Darling’ or ‘Little One’. Terms of endearment, really. But, like, once they pick a name, you go with it and stick with it until they change it again. So it’s really real. And they get rewarded for their choice with recognition,” Rreshka said. “And I think that’s even more important than having the name you want. Having your choices respected from the start. Having the ability to say what can be done and said about you the second you can open your mouth and make a noise.” Rreshka finally turned back to Yenfiri with restless passion in their eyes. “Imagine how much less pain there’d be!”
“I confess I’ve been imagining just that for a very, very long time,” Yenfiri said. “You are in very good company, here. It’s what we’re working for, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. This has got to seem elementary to you,” Rreshka replied. “I’m sort of having a hard and wonderful day, I guess.”
“Let me guess,” Yenfiri requested.
“You feel like the shock of your death wore off five or six years ago, soothed by the joy of living with people who let you be who you are, and allow you to pursue your passions at your pace. Or something like that. But, today in particular, you’re being overcome with something like gender euphoria because it has hit you that you’ve been living for twelve full years as the person you always knew you were. And you can’t help but wish that you felt this from the beginning. You see how much you are capable of today, free from the constraints of dysphoria and that damn rigid school structure, and you wonder what the Terra Supreme could be like if it was like this from the beginning. Not just of your own life, but the beginning of the ship itself.”
By the time Yenfiri was done speaking, Rreshka was looking back up at the sun again, and they took a deep, shuddering breath and let it out as a long, long sigh. And they didn’t say anything. Their head began to bow, so that soon they were looking at the city about them, and the ring of trees surrounding the city. And they started to convulse with sobs.
“Sorry,” Yenfiri said, and wiped a tear away from their own eye.
Rreshka shook their head once, and lifted their left hand up in an awkward attempt to wave at them. But their hand slapped back down on the rooftop and their shoulders shook a couple more times, followed by a gasp of breath.
“No. No,” Rreshka said. “Thank you. Thank you for going through the exact same thing and being right here for me afterward. I’ll – I’ll do the same for someone else someday.” They leaned forward enough to reach up with their right hand to push a nostril closed and snorted what sounded like a significant amount of mucus back into their head. “Gah! It’s ridiculous the Network makes it so I still experience snot!”
“Would crying be the same without it?” Yenfiri asked.
“No. No, of course not. Which is why I haven’t programmed it away. But it’s still ridiculous.”
“Tell me. Is it easier for you to cry now, or harder? Which way did it go for you?”
“Both. Does that make sense?”
“Perhaps. For me, at about three years in, if I’m remembering correctly, I was able to cry at the things I needed to cry for, without embarrassment around anyone. But I had fewer things to cry about, and I could also stop it on a breath, still. It’s slowly gotten harder for me to cry as I’ve gotten older, too. And I’m not sure why.”
“That sounds familiar enough that I wonder if I’m in for the same thing when I’m your age.”
“Well,” Yenfiri said. “If you are, you should know that I shed a tear this afternoon, and I’m thankful you helped me do so.”
“Age is such a weird thing to me now,” Yenfiri found themself saying, almost just letting their ruminations stumble out of their mouth. “I mean, our differences in experience and social power are very real things. I’m not talking about that. But, as far as sense of self goes. As far as comprehending it goes. I feel like I don’t know how to do it anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re probably already feeling it at, what, fifty-four?”
“I think I’m fifty-four. I feel twelve, though.”
“Exactly. Like, I’m five still. And seventeen, the year I died. And forty-six, the year I chose this name. But, also,” Yenfiri unwrapped their tail from around themself and then wrapped it the other way. “I’m a hundred years old, two hundred and fifty, three hundred and twenty-seven, and a myriad of other ages. All those perspectives are still in my head, like paintings someone made of each one. Frozen in time and part of my identity and how I process the world. How I learn to interact with other people. And you know how years seem to go by like days now?”
“Like hours, sometimes,” Rreshka said.
“Try that for decades,” Yenfiri said. “And I’m pretty sure that someday I’m looking forward to centuries flashing by that fast, so long as Father `e doesn’t find me and erase me.”
And suddenly, within a blink, Yenfiri was sitting on their couch stone in their quarters, their Personal Netspace, alone. And for a long time, they had no idea what had happened. They had to meticulously investigate their remaining Network connections to figure it out.