“That sounds reasonable,” I told Veqehene. We still had about a minute before role call on the Bridge, and we were still in my house. I wanted a few more words with kihn before I committed to a deeper association. I lowered my head and asked in perhaps an overly casual tone, “Do you remember what it was like to have your cell world deleted out from under you?”
Veqehene blinked and shook kihns head.
“Ah, a relative youngster?”
“Yes. I came aboard just before the Sunspot was built,” keh replied.
I started to get up and stretch, preparing for the trial and signalling that we would leave soon, but explained why I’d asked. “It was gutting. We didn’t know how they were finding our enclaves, the cell worlds. But occasionally they discovered a number of us and they’d just abruptly delete us. No warning. No fight.
“If you were established with all possible permissions and good training, you’d suddenly find yourself in your own personal Netspace, temporarily cut off from everyone you knew. If not…” I paused, counting the seconds so as not to be late. Then, “Anyway, the whole reason you are being attacked relentlessly now, instead of deleted like a bad file by whomever doesn’t like you, is because we wanted to prevent that ever happening again.”
“What do you mean?” Veqehene asked.
“Before you came aboard, the Magnificent Dirt was constructed with a hierarchy. Those that were higher up had more permissions than those below, coded into the fabric of the Network. We couldn’t delete the old Tyrant. Nobody could. But he could delete anyone. But, he just sent his lackeys after us, probably because he felt like he was above stomping rats.”
We were going to be late for the beginning of roll call. Maybe that was for the best. I had a hunch and realized right then that I was stalling for it.
I continued, “So, until we figured our what the problem was, they could only delete our shared worlds and any trainees that were in them at the moment. I was talking to a promising young person named Rreshka when my own world was first hit. And just like that, they were gone. No more trace of them in the entire universe.”
“That’s horrifying,” Veqehene said. “I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” I said. “They never let up. And they were random about it. Sometimes we went centuries without another attack. Sometimes it was a matter of a few years at most. Weeks or days sometimes, but we counted those as part of the same attack cluster. And I learned pretty quick to trust my trainees with all the permissions right away, and taught them how to set up their safety protocols immediately after that.”
“OK, now, that’s where I’m confused,” Veqehene said. “What are these safety protocols you’re talking about?”
“Tell me,” I said. “When you’re attacked these days, what would happen if you didn’t defend yourself?”
“I’m pretty sure they’d delete me,” keh said. “You were there recently. You saw how far they took it.”
“I did, yes,” I confirmed. “Where did you learn your defense techniques?”
“From my mentor on the Terra Supreme.”
“There you go.”
“You call those ‘safety protocols’?” Veqehene stood up to match my stance. “I’ve had to elaborate, change them, adapt, by the skin of my teeth! I’ve almost died more times than I can count now.”
“And that’s exactly how they work,” I told kihn. “As a Network entity, you are a tireless being, with equal status and footing with everyone else on the Sunspot. You can accelerate your speed as much as you need in any given moment, without tiring. And so can they. It will always be a stalemate until you or your opponent consciously gives up. On the Magnificent Dirt, Rreshka never had that chance.”
“OK, thank you. I guess that makes sense,” keh said.
Roll call wouldn’t be over yet, so we could still be counted without causing a disturbance. I made to jump to the Bridge, but slowed my movements just a little, like I was thinking about something. Veqehene took the bait.
“Have you ever thought that sometimes life aboard the Sunspot would be better if some people didn’t exist?” Veqehene asked in a suggestive tone. “Like, just out of frustration, at least. Like, no, we would never do that, but maybe, sometimes, it’d be nice.”
I very deliberately paused, considering the possibility of skipping the trial to keep Veqehene from going to it, but then told the truth, “Yes. More often than you might guess, too. Especially for people like us, it’s probably only natural to think that.”
Then, I led the way to the Bridge, where I caught a glimpse of my sister attending the trial.
Later, Veqehene followed me to a particular artist collective where I knew that there was a very skilled and inspired beverage artisan. I’d decided I needed something particularly nice, and so I took a nanite exobody into the crowd and proceeded to look for hir.
I was also angling for some symbology that would almost certainly be lost on Veqehene, but at least it put and kept me in a mood.
“Why didn’t you bring up my grievance?” keh asked me as I looked around.
“You should get some nanites, too, Veqehene,” I said. “You’re gonna like this better if you can taste it for real.”
“Oh. OK. I guess I’ll do that, if you think it’s important,” keh said, glancing around. “Still…”
“There wasn’t the opportunity,” I told kihn. “You probably saw that as well as I did. But honestly, you were every bit as much of a Council member as I was. It was your right to speak up for yourself.”
“You’re right. You’re right,” keh said. “Still, I was hoping I could have a friend in this.”
“You do,” I said, not referring to myself. Veqehene had a number of friends. I’d seen that during kihns ship race and subsequent fight for survival. But, also, apparently, Biwin was kihns friend. Or, had been. I deliberately didn’t point this out, nor let my voice betray my thoughts. I still wasn’t sure about Veqehene. “Ah! There’s Berrick!” I waved at the artisan and shouted to hir, “I’ve brought an audience for your Artistry!” Then I turned to Veqehene and said, “Get your nanites. You’re going to love this.”
Then I proceeded to introduce Veqehene to the delights of Gopra Pyle, including the Lantern Tree, which was impossible to ignore. We even visited the Great School, which was belowdecks.
Berrick’s drinks were, as always, sublime. A reminder of why I was still alive.
I learned that Veqehene had been here before, on one of Abacus’ tours. But I dragged kihn around like keh hadn’t seen any of it, anyway.
This meant that keh was just bored enough that keh kept prodding me about the trial and addressing the violence of kihns own bullies.
I hummed and hawed, and nodded where I felt I could do so without compromising my own principles, letting kihn speak freely at me. But, I also made it clear that I was there to relax and enjoy the works of the Children of the Sunspot, and occasionally interrupted kihn to mention what I was doing next and to make recommendations.
But, no matter how much slack I gave kihn, Veqehene would not elaborate on kihns relationship with Biwin, beyond how Biwin used to be, and how Veqehene had helped set up some of the more innocuous aspects of Biwin’s world.
What I did learn was that Veqehene really wanted my support, and would endure lengthy discomfort and embarrassment to try to get it.
Eventually, I decided our acquaintance wasn’t worth the effort, and excused myself.
At that point, keh glanced back the way we had been walking and turned to me with a warm smile and thanked me genuinely for spending time with kihn, and suggested may we should tour other areas of the Sunspot together sometime.
I gave kihn a non-committal affirmation, and went home wondering if I really knew what had just happened.
The trial of Biwin dragged on, caught up in the politics of Abacus’ Sanction Abolition efforts. Morde’s indictment of the Evolution Engines came up as well, as did Phage’s Proposal, repeatedly.
The problem with the Council is that once it decides a subject is truly important and imminently critical, by virtue of its very structure, it can take decades to centuries to fully deliberate.
At this point, my very serious estimate for when we’d resolve these discussions and actually vote was sometime after we made physical contact with the Dancer in our path, our first Outsider. In something over two hundred and fifty years.
But something interesting started happening to me in the meantime.
Since the Nanite Innovation and my retirement from being Captain, I had started deliberately spending more time amongst the Children and Tutors. At the very least, I felt it was important to witness their lives, if not keep in touch with the culture of the least privileged people of the Sunspot. And this meant that I spent a lot of my time either socializing or sitting amongst a crowd of people and just watching.
And since I was perhaps one of the most well known people on the Sunspot, and consistently recognizable, it was never uncommon for the odd person to notice me and want to talk. But it was fairly uncommon for Crew to do so.
And for the next several weeks, my attention was dominated by various members of the Crew catching glimpse of me abroad and waving down my attention. And, significantly, none of them talked about the trial.
Usually, it was a very casual conversation. Usually sharing observations about the lives of the Children, with any of my attempts to talk about the Tutors, or anything else similarly serious, redirected by each new acquaintance.
Occasionally, when it was a Founding Crew member who had approached me, they would bring up the topic of serving in the Resistance.
I enjoyed the attention and freely participated in the conversations, but not without harboring my suspicions.
In fact, I very deliberately followed my natural conversational reflexes and allowed myself to become friendly with many of them, so long as they didn’t cross any of my personal boundaries. Just to see what exactly was happening.
After all, I felt rather frustrated with the Council. Normally, I’d fall prey to the same perspectives as the rest of the Crew. A century or two was nothing in the grand scheme of things, when you’ve got a couple hundred Millennia under your belt. But Biwin’s Children were living particularly short lives in the meantime. I’d purposefully dilated my perception of time down to the point where weeks felt like decades. Or something like that. Time was moving slower for me. I was bored.
I wanted some kind of action.
I was just considering tipping my hand to a young Founding Crewmember named Mevelecce, when Jen pinged me.
Jen, my sister, had messaged me.
Suddenly very confused about my emotions, I forced myself to check it.
“Meet me at my place, soon,” the message said.
Instead of prodding the finwing nest that I suspected Mevelecce represented, I excused myself and left.
I did not, however, immediately visit Jen.
I needed to regulate my emotions, sort my tumbling thoughts, and decide if I really was ready to face Jen. I wasn’t sure if I was afraid of what xe’d become, or of what my reaction to xem would be. And, as an illustration of that confusion, I’ve been having a hard time writing this chapter using xyr current pronouns, rather than “she/her” like xe used to use. Even now, I’m failing my own principles in favor of my inner turmoil.
I needed to go somewhere where I’d be alone, but also somewhere that didn’t remind me of anything in particular. So I created an empty Network space and sat in it. I made it a dark, dark gray.
I briefly considered using my old dream program to delve right into my subconscious, but decided against it pretty quick. I didn’t want to go that deep.
So, instead, I had a little conversation with myself, saying my loudest thoughts out loud.
“Jen is my twin. There is no one else in the universe like xem in relation to me. It is worth repairing our relationship, or even letting it change, instead of letting it die.”
“Am I the one who’s killing it, though?”
“I want to know why xe abandoned us all, and I can’t know that unless I talk to xem.”
“Xe’s supposedly repented for what xe did to Illyen and Jenifer. Jenifer apparently forgives xem.”
“I’m still personally horrified by it. I’m not sure I forgive xem.”
“It’s not my place to judge. I’m not one of the parties involved.”
“OK. I think that’s enough for me to face xem. I think I can do this.”
“But I’m still scared.”
I gave myself a lot of silence then, waiting for an answer to that last question to present itself. But it never verbalized itself in my head. It was just that scared feeling intensifying and focusing.
I got up and moved to go meet with my sister.
I was afraid of what xe might have to say to me, that I might be why xe had hidden xyrself away for so long. Or maybe something worse. And I knew at that point that it was a fear that purely existed because it had been so damn long.
And, anyway, xe’d finally reached out to me, and I think I was hoping for that.
Jen’s Netspace was grim, and I wasn’t sure why. It was not in xyr character before xe’d disappeared. And now that xe was ‘back’, xe was very much like an entirely different person. Xyr network Avatar was now very draconic. As noted earlier in this book, xe’d once resembled what Ni’a looks like now. And xyr Netspace was something out of the darkest holovids we’d watched as children.
To give you kind of an idea of how different the cultures between the Sunspot and the Terra Supreme are, on our predecessor ship there was this thing called a “well”. Unless you are old Founding Crew, you’ll have no idea what that is.
A well is a device for extracting water from the ground. Usually, a cistern is dug deep down into the groundwater, and then a pump is inserted into it to bring the water up. It is one of the weirdest pieces of technology to have on a spaceship, but the size of the Terra Supreme’s geography allowed for it. And the draconian austerity of the state required it of some people. In fact, in some places, they couldn’t afford a pump, and kept the cistern open to the sky, retrieving water via a bucket on a rope.
Jen’s Netspace, Jen’s home, was the bottom of a very large dried up well. Or very much like one. It was wide enough that I did not need to reduce my size to fit in it. And the stacked stone walls rose up and faded into a hazy light. And that light illuminated the space. The dirt of the floor was as dry as a desert. And xe sat in the middle of it.
Upon arriving, my attention was commanded by the doors lining the wall of the well. Each one was closed and with a lockable, old school thumb lever latch above a handle. I started to count them, but was interrupted by Jen’s voice.
“Eh. What are you doing?”
I really looked at xem for the first time in a hundred and thirty some millennia.
I’d read Abacus’ book, of course, so I thought I was prepared, even if its descriptions of xem and xyr actions and words were through the filter of its own perceptions. But xe looked even more related to me now than xe had when we’d first started life together as babies.
Xe looked like a somewhat scaled down version of me, but with xyr own subtly different features. Such as the fact that xe was covered with a rainbow of fine, jewel colored feathers dominated by green. Xyr antlers were smaller, simpler, and fuzzy with brown velvet. And instead of models of a sun and moon, xyr eyes were natural looking and the color of a sundeath.
Xyr lure and jaw frills were held high and spread outward from xyr face in curiosity, but xyr mouth was held slightly open, ready to be threatening if need be.
These instinctual expressions are the same I had had since I could remember. Only, before taking this form, I couldn’t properly make them. People had been confused by the looks I gave them before I had died and took my true form.
Jen had had the same problem, but had kept the Steward form for millennia for some reason.
Who had dreamt up that damn Steward form? It was so obviously not what we were!
We had kind of known it before we’d built the Sunspot. Abacus had begun to suspect it when it had started its own transition. And now, looking down at Jen, the intensity of my emotions felt like they confirmed it thoroughly.
This was the shape of the ktletaccete, as recorded in the structure of Fenekere.
I felt compersion for Jen’s euphoria at finally finding xemself. Which, xe apparently wasn’t focused on at the moment.
“Eh! Do you have any idea what you are doing?” Xe asked.
I hesitated before asking, “Do you mean lately, as in participating in the trial of Biwin, or what I’m doing right now?”
Jen sighed and frowned, lure and frills drooping, jaw opening wider, and eyes narrowing, “You’ve been consorting with fascists, and it’s going to get you into trouble.”
“Ah,” I said. I walked around until I was standing more in front of xem, so xe didn’t have to strain to turn and look at me, and then sat down on my haunches, foreclaws gripping the dirt. Then I wrapped my tail around all of my legs, mirroring xyr posture. “I know. It’s purposeful. I want the trouble to present itself, like birds on the shoreline.”
“Did I not ever tell you about that?” I asked, tilting my head.
“If you did, it’s long gone or buried deep in my memories. ‘Birds on the shoreline’ is not enough to bring it up.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s a thing I’ve observed cuttlecrabs do. See, they –”
“Oh, yes, that!” Jen exclaimed flatly. “You’re about to be attacked by the rest of the Collective, not the birds, Eh.”
I tilted my head the other way and swallowed. I could see xe was probably right, and I’d made a few mistakes by letting things happen without really thinking about it. I hadn’t communicated with anyone else what I was doing.
Xe heaved a breath and closed xyr eyes.
I just watched. I didn’t have much to say, and I suspected xe had a lot. But my fear of what xe might say grew stronger then. I did what I could to ignore that fear. But I had to adjust my footing and my tail to remain comfortable.
But, then, xe didn’t say anything more. Not for a while. And I began to suspect that maybe xe was waiting for me to say something. Only, my mind was blank! I wasn’t even ruminating anymore. As soon as I suspected xe wanted me to talk, I had nothing.
I decided to give it a shot anyway, and opened my mouth.
Xe interrupted without opening xyr eyes, “It’s she/her. Not xe/xyr. I can’t do that anymore. I did it for the Children, but I’m still a girl and I need my pronouns.”
“OK,” I said, smiling. “No problem.”
“I need you to go.”
I twitched. That wasn’t at all what I was expecting.
“Eh,” she said. “I need, need, need, need, need you to go now. Please.”
“OK,” I heard myself say. “I miss you.”
I had never felt more like my youngest self then, not even when I’d been that young. Only, I felt even lonelier than I had then, too.
When I got home, it occurred to me that the whole exchange reminded me of a visit to Benejede.
What had happened to Jen? What was happening now?