“My sister has informed me that the Crew members who have been making it a point to be seen publicly with me for the past several weeks are fascists of some sort. Based on the clues I’ve heard and seen, likely associated with Biwin,” I explained to my little non-council of friends, my sub-Collective. “The first thing I’d like to do is confirm this. I’ve compiled a list of their names and sent them to each of you. Are any of you familiar with what is going on here?”
This was not the first thing I said to them this morning. There had been pleasantries enough, and food. It’s not actually customary for food to be served at a gathering on the Sunspot, unless the gathering is specifically about preparing it. It is a culture of plenty. No one starves, so it never occurs to anyone to consider food to be a part of hospitality. Unless they are Founding Crew like me. There was food.
About the only seat that was not taken was an imaginative piece I had found an artist making in Nokborga. It was a dyed and polished compressed fiber tree, designed for someone with a serpentine body to rest upon. It was a beautiful piece of work that would rarely find use. And it had a plaque on it saying, “This seat is dedicated to Molly Rocketcoil.” I’m a fan of those books, so I asked if I could use it for a while, and they were proud to give it to me.
Nearest me, arrayed on chairs, benches, stools, cushions, and stones like mine, were Akailea, Suwiil, Fenmere, Morde, Techa, Ktleteccete, Abacus, Ni’a, the Flits, and Myra Pember. More of the seats were taken up by other Pembers, and even more of their system stood around the perimeters of the room. I didn’t recognize most of them, but Myra had been the most enthusiastic to arrive, and xe’d passed my message around to the others. Presumably, those who were here had particular skills or social connections that would be relevant. Liaisons, many of them were called.
“We’ve already confirmed it,” Myra reported. “Or, at least that it is known by many factions of Crew that Veqehene and kihns associates have an unsavory set of beliefs that have brought them… violent attention. Kihns association with Biwin has become part of it, but that wasn’t actually known before. Biwin hasn’t been attacked, after all.”
“Ah!” I said.
“What?” asked Fenmere.
“I figured out the source of my own hunch about it,” I replied. “Veqehene had told me keh was being persecuted for being Biwin’s friend. It just didn’t consciously click with me that that didn’t make sense. But now I can tell a part of my mind was worrying it.”
“I am seriously dismayed about Biwin,” Fenmere said.
“Me, too,” I commiserated. I turned back to Myra and asked, “Is there anything damning? Have any of them committed any crimes according to the laws of the Sunspot, such as they are?”
Myra shrugged, as did several of the other Pembers, and said, “We only have the word of several Crew members who have found themselves in uncomfortable conversations with several of them. And one or two who claim to have been part of Veqehene’s inner circle before bowing out due to a difference in beliefs and allegiances.”
“What kind of beliefs do they seem to have that cause other Founding Crew to attack them so violently?” I asked.
“Well, we haven’t interviewed the aggressors yet. That’s next on our agenda, once we find someone comfortable with approaching them,” Myra replied.
Green Ni’a raised their hand, “I volunteer.”
“We volunteer,” Purple and Pink said simultaneously.
“I’d be happy to go do that now,” Green said.
I raised a palm and said, “Hold on. I’d like you to hear as much of what the Pembers have to report as possible before you do that.”
Green nodded, and then Myra continued.
“If you spend any amount of time with them, especially participating in their nautical races, you will see them role playing at having a strict command structure, where Veqehene is the leader of them all. And they are all ranked at several tiers below kihn. But that appears to be consensual role play, and is just not for everyone,” Myra explained. “It serves as a way of socially weeding out acquaintances who would not be good candidates for their inner circles. But, ultimately, partially based on what they claim are observations of Biwin’s experiments, they believe that some people’s souls are superior to others. And they believe that that gives them the right to determine the fates of others.”
Akailea let out a long sigh.
Fenmere turned to Myra and asked, “Is anyone aware of any plans they might be cultivating? Perhaps for future projects or some kind of political action with the Council?”
Myra gave a quick, sharp shake of xyr head and said, “No. Though, you’ll find several of them frequent the Council, and the rest are sure to cast votes in absentia, as many Crew do. They definitely influence Sunspot politics in a subtle way as best as they can.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Abacus said, “if the violence they’re meeting is keeping them alert and careful. I even wonder if that violence is specifically orchestrated to make them look like the victims. How widespread is that kind of violence anyway?”
“I’ve tried investigating that particular question,” Suwill said. “I haven’t had much time to do so, however, and I’ve found it is a difficult nut to crack. I expect all participants are reluctant to speak up and confess to it, even when they are victims, due to fear and embarrassment. But that is only speculation.”
“Ah,” Abacus acknowledged. “Eh, you said that you witnessed it first hand when you first visited Veqehene. Does it compare to anything you experienced on the Magnificent Dirt?”
“Not really, no,” I told it. “The closest it came to was the physical violence of the Gendarms when they caught living people who were considered criminals or undesirables by the state. Most violence between the Resistance and the Crew was perpetuated through pure Fenekere commands, and nearly nothing else. The Fenekere commands here were rudimentary and simple attacks, and though they were the actually dangerous element of the violence, the bulk of it was focused on surprise, terror, and pain caused by Netspace and avatar theatrics. We were attacked by flying sea monsters who swallowed us, and then they had stomachs full of smaller monsters. It turned into chaos from there, and we left quickly.”
“If these are all Founding Crew, who got their experience on the Magnificent Dirt, why the change of tactics,” Abacus asked. I really appreciated its adoption of our epithet for the Terra Supreme.
“I’ll answer that,” Fenmere said. “Of course, we need to interview them to be sure. But, we all know we can’t actually kill each other here on the Sunspot. I mean, we can, but it requires one person to make a mistake. And we are all so old, and experienced, and practiced, and tireless, and have the same access to everything, that it boils down to will. A person will essentially allow themselves to be killed when they give up.”
“They’re trying to make Veqehene’s life such a hell, that keh eventually gives up,” Akailea said. “Or, they’re trying to make it look like that.”
“That’s what I’m getting at,” Abacus said. “What if it’s all theater?”
“Then absolutely nothing illegal is being done,” I said. “And we won’t be able to get the Council to intervene. It’s pretty thin as it is, now, anyway. And the wrong side would likely be persecuted. Except…”
“Except that Veqehene’s beliefs are reviled by so many,” Akailea finished for me.
“I’m absolutely against Sanctioning anyone for anything, anyway,” Abacus said. “But, if we root out exactly what these people believe, and identify all of their sympathizers and collaborators, couldn’t we find a way of legally making that public? It would ruin their reputations and warn people away from being taken in or swayed by them.”
“Yes. I think I could orchestrate that,” Fenmere said in a foreboding and reluctant sounding tone. “But I’m thinking, if these people are essentially the Resistance of the Sunspot, if they took the lessons we learned on the Terra Supreme to heart, then they almost certainly have cells. I’m afraid that this is the tip of the iceberg.”
“Iceberg?” Abacus and several other youngsters asked in chorus.
Fenmere smirked at kihnself and explained, “The Terra Supreme managed to have a forward sea, just aft of their ice ring, and there were icebergs. Huge chunks of ice that floated in the water. With an iceberg, the visible part above the water is a tiny portion of the whole thing lurking below the surface. When sailing near them, one must be very careful. They can shift suddenly and spear your hull, or scrape it badly, upon rotating.”
“Oh, wow,” a Pember said.
“Huh,” Green said. “I wonder if active investigation is actually necessary then. Like, it could be a lot of work. Maybe there’s another way.”
“What do you mean?” Tetcha asked. Morde squeeze xyr hand.
“I think I can guess,” Ktleteccete said.
“Well,” Green said, looking at Purple and Pink. “I don’t know what it would look like beside us and Phage doing our things to shape the chaos of the ship. But it should be something people do, really. Make it more of a systemic response. Kind of like the violence that’s already happening to them, if that’s a natural response and not staged, right? But better directed. More careful. Coordinated. And maybe different.”
“I like that philosophy, at least,” Fenmere said.
I pursed my lips, “What is Phage doing right now? I invited it.”
“Asking people individually if they’ll please vote on its Proposal,” Purple replied. “It doesn’t want to divide its attention from that task.”
“Seriously,” I said.
“Yes,” Pink confirmed.
“It’s not asking everyone to vote ‘yes’, is it?” I asked, not sure if it really mattered.
Purple snorted, “No. It just wants to make sure every single consciousness aboard the Sunspot that can communicate with it will cast a vote at all.”
“That’s adorable,” Fenmere said.
“Not really the word I’d use,” Akailea said.
“That’s OK,” Fenmere responded to hir.
“Sometimes the possibility that everyone aboard the Sunspot will be able to do what Phage does scares the living shit out of me,” I said. I turned to everyone else, “Ni’a and I have had this conversation and, if you haven’t, you’re probably thinking about the subject right now. I think Phage’s theory is that if it gives us all its own abilities, which supposedly we all have the potential for, anyway?” I glanced at Purple, who nodded. “I think it thinks that if it truly equalizes everyone, we literally won’t be able to hurt each other anymore. Kind of like how two Founding Crew members having a Fenekere battle will almost always come to a draw on the Sunspot.”
“So, in theory, we could just wait until everyone votes yes and we get those powers?” Morde asked.
I wasn’t sure sie was being serious. I felt like I could see hir smirk when every single one of the present Founding Crew leaned forward in unison to say, “No.”
“Well, OK, but,” Morde said. “Even if we come up with some sort of plan, some sort of way of treating people like this that everyone should adopt, how are we going to convince fifty-three bill – no, wait –” sie tilted hir head, which manifested as hir disembodied hood shifting accordingly, “two point six quintillion people to go along with it? Incidentally, Phage’s goal still sounds impossible. It should either just do the thing, or give up. It has limits to how thin it can spread itself, anyway, right?”
Tetcha squinted really hard and asked, “How does the Network even… do that? Quintillion?”
“It’s not something that’s emergent from purely physical processes,” Purple said, as if this had always been known by everyone old enough to learn about it.
Every Founding Crew member turned to look at them. I think I’d guessed something like it long ago, but this was the first time I’d heard someone with the ability to maybe see it say something definitive about it.
Tetcha nearly stood up and turned xyr head sideways, away from Purple, looking at them out of the corner of xyr eye, “You mean, it gets its energy from outside the Sunspot?”
“No,” Purple said. “I mean it incorporates a substrate of the universe that already has the necessary energy into the fabric of the ship. In a similar way to what any living brain does.”
Tetcha glanced around at the world around xem, as if seeing it all for the first time again, and then a thought occurred to xem and xe looked at Myra Pember, who smiled back and waggled xyr eyebrows.
A number of Pembers chuckled.
“You knew this?” Tetcha asked Myra.
“No!” Myra said. “But it sure does explain how our brain has so many of us in it.”
The Pember’s body was probably still in their quarters, avoiding direct contact with other people. Seeing other people tended to cause their brain to generate new system members, which they called Liaisons. Members whose Art was to study the person they saw and learn everything they could about them. They could grow into their own people and develop other Arts, of course, but they’d always have that one Art that they did best of all.
By the time they’d accepted their neural terminal, there had already been tens of thousands of Pembers, all in one brain. And they weren’t unique in this. There have been other plural systems with numbers that rival that. Even back on the Terra Supreme. In fact, I seem to remember knowing one that had grown to nearly four million people with no neural terminal at all. No connection to the Network to help support that. I hadn’t believed it back then, but I do now.
“Not to pound on a broken table,” Morde interjected. “But, I think my question is important enough to answer. And, also, I think I see another problem. The way you all set up the system of Tutors and using them to protect the Children of the Sunspot from the poisons of your past, you’ve raised fifty-three billion people who are not experienced in fighting this kind of conflict. Sure, they may learn it when they become Crew, perhaps. But, you’ve had this extremely unified and standardized way of raising people and educating them, and you just… didn’t?”
“The idea,” I said, “was that giving everyone a taste of the best life possible would be inoculation enough against the ideas of people like Veqehene.”
“Also,” Suwiil added. “Biwin’s Children were not raised in that manner. That they were not born into physical bodies is irrelevant. They are people that we must now all live with. And the vast majority of them have seen more death than any one of us will ever hope to see personally. This has shaped them.”
“This feels hopeless,” Morde said. In a slightly more humorous voice, sie followed that with, “Maybe I need to scream at Phage some more.”
I clacked my claws against my couch stone. “We do what we can,” I said. “We start with our investigation. Then we bring it to the Council. Maybe… Maybe I’ll follow the habit of some of you here and write my own book about it. We talk to people we know. And we do what we can.”
“It could be that this is less of a problem than it looks,” Ketta Flit finally spoke up. “I mean, the Sunspot does seem like it has been peaceful and stable up until now, the Nanite Innovation and the Days of Chaos being exceptions. Right? And these are just incidents of bullying around suspicions of bad beliefs.”
“No,” Suwiil said. “Buwiil’s Children are going to take a special kind of care and attention that will shake the whole ship in a way that present company has not yet done.”
“Also,” Fenmere said. “We know from our work in the Resistance, if you tolerate the presence and behavior of people like Veqehene, they gain a foothold and begin to take over. We lost so many cell worlds that way. We also succeeded in several coups by using the same tactics of infiltration.” Keh seemed to consider that for a moment, first raised to chin, almost stroking kihns beard, then keh said, “We could Sanction them strictly when we find them, cut them entirely off, despite Abacus’ objections.” Keh held up a finger to Abacus, and added, “But that would only anger them and alienate them further, and when they break out, cause even more chaos. No. The Ni’as are correct.”
“You look like you’re forming an actual plan,” Abacus said.
“Not as such,” Fenmere said. “Just a specific tactic. A policy that the Council could adopt.”
“Which would be?”
“Place Sanctions on the beliefs and behavior, almost as we already do. If your political actions endanger the rights of the populace of the Sunspot, you cannot participate in the Council or cast votes, and you are marked as Sanctioned for this reason. But that’s it as far as legal repercussions go,” Fenmere explained. “Your Sanction is lifted if you can demonstrate that you have abandoned your beliefs that some people are inferior, and that you accept that all people are equal. The Sanction returns the second you slip. And this can be the only reason to Sanction anyone, if you need that. It’s very close to what we’re already doing, but much, much more restrained and lenient, actually. A Sanctioned individual would still be able to participate in society in every other way.”
Abacus’ narrowed eyes and tense voice indicated a high skepticism, to say the least, “That sounds like it can be abused and turned against people who don’t deserve it.”
“Yes, it can,” Fenmere said. “Every method of legal constraint, or even mob justice, can be used that way. But, perhaps, if we clearly define what we don’t want to tolerate and then use those definitions to strictly guide us, we can give future Councils ways to keep themselves accountable. And, besides, we’ll all still be there, watching, too.”
“I don’t like it, but it also sounds like only half of your plan,” Abacus growled. “Even if I accept it as necessary, it also doesn’t sound adequate.”
“I don’t like it either, Abacus,” Fenmere said. “And it is not adequate. Nothing is. We will always have to fight this. But it is a tool. But you are also correct, it’s only half of my proposed tactic.”
“What’s the other half?”
Fenmere grinned, “We welcome them into our society. Um, somewhat forcefully.” Keh heaved a sigh and leaned back on kihns haunches, whipping kihns tail back and forth. “We can’t let them isolate themselves. We have to have agents trained and dedicated to this task who work in some kind of shifts, and who are also fortified against being persuaded by the likes of Veqehene. They will need to have strong social connections outside of their subjects of attention. And they will need to know what they are doing at all times. But we use these agents to infiltrate them.”
Abacus snarled and said, “Huh.”
“We keep them close. We get to know them. We watch them. We prevent them from gaining more recruits to their cause by intervening right when it starts happening. And we work to re-educate them. Those that we find,” Fenmere said. “And those that do not cooperate are marked and shamed in front of the rest of society for holding truly violent intent towards others. And that is the only proposal I have, and I do feel sickened by it, hearing it come from my own mouth.” Keh shook kihns head sadly.
“It feels like stooping to their level, doesn’t it?” I said.
“But,” Suwiil said. “We have lived in a world that was shaped and ruled by a man who believed as Veqehene does and did as Biwil has done. And there is much to be proud of regarding the world we’ve created, and even more to protect, as flawed as it is. We can and must draw a line, to give us room to continue improving ourselves.”
“Indeed,” Fenmere said. “It feels like we’re being thought police, but we base our judgment on words and actions, not thought itself. We’ve created a society of tolerance, where we celebrate all people. And we work, however imperfectly, to insure everyone’s rights to Consent and Autonomy. But we can’t tolerate acts of intolerance or hatred or it all falls. We can’t tolerate restrictions to Consent and Autonomy that are based on what people are. But not tolerating behavior is not being intolerant of people. Violence must be met with the removal of the tools to commit that violence. And removing those tools is not violence itself. Especially since access to them can be earned again through giving up the violence. Their Autonomy is maintained. It is the prevention of violence.”
Many of the younger people in the room were staring at us with wide eyes, probably thinking all sorts of different thoughts.
Myra said, “This reminds me of all the problems we have had in managing our system. We’re not all in agreement, and we are not all good people. But, we also cannot die. I mean, before we got the neural net, the only possible death was that of our body, in which all of us would die. We had to learn how to live with each other. And we had some conversations like this.”
I looked at all of the youngsters in turn, settling on Myra, and said, “This is an ancient conversation. You’ll have it again and again and again and again.”
And, in speaking of the past like that, I suddenly found myself missing my sister so deeply it hurt.
I’d managed to lose myself in this discussion and enjoy watching it carried by my friends, old and new, and to hear some of the different aspects and positions people could take all over again. But Jen used to be a part of it. And the last time I’d seen her, she’d shouted at me to go away with no explanation.
She’d helped me. She’d reminded me of the political danger I was in. But then she’d shoved me away, and bid me leave her in that dour, horror story Network space of hers. And especially after seeing her so alive in her new form, I wanted more than anything to find the joys in life with her again. To search the world for the better things and revel in them. Or even fight the worst again, side by side.