Sharwe stopped at the opening of the hallway, pulling on `errke’s hand as rrem kept walking forward briefly.
`errke looked back with easy curiosity, no hint of concern on rrem’s face. And that was almost enough to settle Sharwe’s anxiety, but gem still felt it necessary to check in.
“This is a pretty big family event,” Sharwe said. “Are you sure you’re comfortable accompanying me?”
`errke tilted rrem’s head and gestured down the hallway, long plumed tail slowly moving from one side to the other, and said, “I kind of love people, Sharwe, and you’ve been talking about your Caretaker a lot since we met. I’ve been wanting to meet hir! This seems like a good excuse to say ‘hi’.”
Sharwe took a deep breath and looked down at gems feet, tracing the patterns of the deck plating with gems eyes, momentarily ignoring the small parade of family members entering Nitri’s quarters. It was hard to sort gems feelings about all of this, to put them into words.
`errke squeezed gems hand reassuringly.
Oh, that warmth! That rush of calmness and rightness that that brought!
Little gestures like that were always so much stronger at the beginning of a deep relationship.
If Morik had been there squeezing Sharwe’s hand, it would have been more than enough, and they would have exchanged glances without any more words, and continued on. But their partnership was old and tested, and they didn’t need to speak to communicate. It was the contrast between the frightened uncertainty of before with the surprise of reassurance from a new love that made Sharwe’s emotions so much stronger in response to `errke’s gestures.
Sharwe hoped that Morik would get to feel some of the same things as they all grew closer. Gem hoped it would all work out. Gem felt like it was important to keep hoping, even though it all seemed to be working out so far, anyway. Better not to take it for granted.
Anyway, it was that uncertainty combined with the strong emotions that made it feel like words were required here.
“Sorry, I normally wouldn’t even fret about this,” Sharwe said. “But it’s my first vessel memorial, and it’s my Caretaker who’s ascended. I guess the timing is bad, and I have a lot of weird feelings. And I wish you’d got to meet Nitri before hir body had… well, given out.”
“Ah. OK,” `errke responded. “Come on. Let’s go in, at your pace. I’ve done this before, so I know what to expect. I think. I know you know this, and Kettle’s probably already talking you through it. But you seem uncertain about me, so hearing it from me will feel good, I think.”
Kettle was Sharwe’s other parent, gems Tutor. It was the Tutor’s job to usher their Student through life’s firsts, and instruct them how to navigate the hardest things. Caretakers, like Nitri, were fellow Children, just older, who could provide their children with much needed physical contact and care. And upon the death of hir body, Nitri was now going to become Crew, a Network entity like a Tutor, but charged with governing the Sunspot as an ancestor. Sharwe had heard all this from Kettle. But `errke was right. Hearing it all from rrem did help.
“Yeah,” Sharwe drew the word out in fond acknowledgement. Gem couldn’t help smiling at `errke’s soothing confidence.
`errke was walking on fours, using the hands of rrems leg-arms as feet, slowly pulling forward. `errke was one of the rare seven limbed people, with a pair of arms, a pair of leg-arms, a pair of legs, and a tail. Covered in feathers, rrem looked a lot like a bird, except rrem couldn’t fly. Instead, rrem was an excellent swimmer and an incredible climber, and a wonder to watch in action, whether rrem was moving quickly or slowly.
Sharwe had always been more interested in the things that don’t move much, plants. But since meeting `errke, gem was starting to gain a new appreciation for animals and people. It was hard not to. `errke was infectious.
Gem stepped forward to match `errke’s pace again, and leaned gems round, white, fuzzy, vested bulk gently into rrems shoulder. It was more of a hip check than a shoulder bump, since `errke was down on fours. “Go on,” gem said. “You could talk about anything, though. Your voice is really all I need.”
“OK. So, you know that Nitri is really, truly not dead. Hir body has died, but hir psyche lives on in the Network, just the same as when we project ourselves into it, only now it’s hir home,” `errke began to explain as they walked toward Sharwe’s old home. “And even though sie is now going to be training to be Crew, sie is going to have as much time and freedom as before to visit with you and still be your parent. But, yeah, it’s still weird for everyone. Every time someone’s body dies, we all face the prospects of our own immortality. It’s going to be a topic of conversation for a while.”
“So, it was even like that with Rokesho?” Sharwe asked, looking at `errke. Rokesho was one of `errke’s siblings and had lost their vessel to one of the Sunspot’s rare incurable diseases, Biruuhakiqerlo. Part of what made Biruuhakiqerlo incurable was how quickly it acted, once expressed. Rokesho’s death had been sudden and shocking.
“Oh, yeah,” `errke responded. “I mean, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’ve been through, right? Heck, you could even ask Rokesho about it all yourself. Any time. But Nitri’s going to lead you through this, anyway. Follow hir wishes and needs, and you’ll be fine.”
Sharwe nodded and gripped `errke’s arm with affection, “Kettle did tell me all this, and so did Nitri, but it is good to get it from you. Thank you.”
Gem looked up to see Togi and Rrema approaching the door to Nitri’s quarters from the other direction. Togi, short and skinny, wearing a patterned poncho, grinned and waved. And Rrema, towering over Togi while crouched and walking on all fours, using wems wings as forelegs, nodded.
Morik had said that yem would arrive alone. Yem wanted to visit a park to think about some things on yems own, and then visit a beverage artisan on the way. Sharwe expected these were, in part, excuses to give gem and `errke some time together.
But their whole household would be there for Sharwe and Nitri, and that felt gratifying.
While people were arriving, the door to the quarters was left dilated open, a broad and tall portal that let music spill out into the hallway. They could have walked three abreast through it, but Togi gestured for Sharwe and `errke to go first.
Two of Nitri’s neighbors had agreed to open the walls between their quarters for tonight to combine their front rooms into a single open space. They could have entered through the doors on either side of Nitri’s quarters, but it was Nitri’s door that was open, of course.
And, using a nanite exobody, Nitri was in the middle of this great room, dancing to the music.
A sharp longing for gems now distant childhood pulled at Sharwe’s gut. Never again would gem feel the physical warmth of Nitri’s embrace. The Network would provide a convincing simulation of it, but real physical contact was now locked in the past. And yet, here was Nitri reveling in hir continued life with the freedom to move in ways sie could never have done with hir physical vessel.
Nitri’s oldest friends, Begana, Metra, Korrik, and Fal were arrayed in a circle around the room, while Sharwe’s siblings and their friends were either between them as part of the circle, or dancing with Nitri. Those in the circle were playing a variety of instruments, with a significant emphasis on drums.
Sharwe had always felt closer to the elders of gems family, but it was so nice to see everyone here.
The neighbors appeared to be conspiring to make food in Nitri’s kitchen, with a convention of Tutors in ninite bodies conversing separately near them. The Tutors were politely keeping their discussion audible, in case anyone else wanted to join in.
Kettle, from the Network, told Sharwe, “I’m going to go see what that conversation is about. Call if you need me.” And then it began to pull its own nanite exoform from the kitchen’s maker.
Once, long ago, Kettle would have taken the form of a floating tea kettle, its old avatar. But now it chose to look like something closer to Morik, actually. A lanky person with decidedly amphibian features. But unlike Morik, it had a frilled tail, and large fins that sprang from its shoulders like wings. Details that were beginning to be very popular amongst Tutors these days. Half the Tutors here looked very similar.
One of the amphibian Tutors had what looked like a lure on an articulated whip sprouting from its forehead, and Sharwe didn’t recognize it. Briefly, with excitement, gem wondered if it could be Abacus, the first Tutor to have taken this form. But gem dismissed the idea quickly. There would be no reason for it to be here. No one in the family knew it. And Sharwe only suspected its identity based on descriptions from its own book.
Maybe gem would get an opportunity to introduce gemself later, and learn who the Tutor was.
Oh! And Morik was already there! On the other side of Nitri from Sharwe. And yem smiled on eye contact, then gestured with yems bottle at Nitri dancing, before blowing into it some more in time to the music.
`errke stood up to put rrems arm around Sharwe’s ribs and leaned rrems head into gems shoulder, indicated Nitri, and said, “That really must be hir Art.”
Nitri’s exobody, hir Network avatar, had always looked just a bit different from hir birth vessel. In hir two hundred and fifty-seven years, sie had never managed or bothered to medically shape her body to truly match hir true self image. But, perhaps, it had been close enough. For some people, differences in forms made shifting in and out of the Network more distinct in a way that was reassuring to them. While others had other reasons. Whenever Sharwe had asked Nitri about it, Nitri had shrugged and said meaningless things about being old.
Sharwe preferred congruence, and had used gems implanted nanites to slowly and gently shift gems body more into alignment with gems inner self. It had been a long series of neurosurgeries, and gene and hormone therapy. And just micromanaging gems metabolism. Hardly noticeable as anything other than growth in just the right ways, but it had been all the right ways.
Despite this, Sharwe wasn’t very comfortable dancing. It just wasn’t gems thing.
Nitri reveled in it. Because, as `errke had observed, it was hir Art, a lifetime spent exploring physical expression with limbs and body.
Smiling at Sharwe, Nitri must have begun hollowing out hir exobody so that it grew to nearly twice its height. Then sie danced over, bowed, and held out a hand for Sharwe to take it, like sie had done so many times when Sharwe was a child. And Sharwe knew this routine and could do it, so gem nodded and obliged.
Nitri led Sharwe only a few steps out into the dancing area, and then led gem in a few twirls in place. First spinwise, then counterspinwise, and back again. Three twirls each way. Then they both curtsied to each other and backed away.
The difference in scale actually made Sharwe feel like a toddler again, and gem felt giddy about it. The tearful grin that shown from gems face must have made the room glow wherever she was looking, from the glances of the other partiers. But now gem felt like gem needed a moment to gemself.
Instead, Sharwe backed right into `errke, who promptly hugged gem, lower jaw pressed against the back of Sharwe’s neck. Which might have been awkward if `errke hadn’t been so flexible and done it deliberately.
`errke emitted a low, purry growl, and Sharwe felt gemself melt, tension flooding away.
Turning to take `errke’s hands, gem said, “Come, let’s mingle. I want to introduce you to everyone. When Nitri is done dancing, I’m sure sie will want to talk to you.”
`errke nodded, and they both looked around for the first person to make eye contact with them both. And in that way, they proceeded around the party to share names, pronouns, and stories.
When they came back around to the kitchen area to see what the neighbors were making for Nitri, Metra was leaning against the counter there, watching Nitri dance with Begani and Togi.
Gesturing at Togi and then `errke, Metra asked Sharwe, “How’s your household doing these days? Working on anything fun?”
“Ah, well,” Sharwe smirked, grasping `errke’s forearm, “I’ve got my own personal project right now, who I’d love to introduce you to. But Morik has finally got yems library kicked off, and yem is roping as many people into it as yem can. Rrema, of course, is all in. You got any good books to lend to it?”
“Well, maybe, actually,” Metra chuckled. “But tell me about your project!” Then tem turned to `errke and said, “My name is Metra. My pronoun is tem.”
“`errke, rrem,” `errke replied with a grin. “And I thought Sharwe was my project.”
“So you’re both really clicking right now, then?” Metra asked.
With even bigger grins on their faces, Sharwe and `errke nodded in unison.
“Oh, I love that!” Metra declared, hands clasped. “Tell me, `errke, what’s your Art?”
`errke, who’d been standing as tall as rrem could, dropped to fours again and scratched rrems chin, then looked slyly at Metra to say, “Well, I used to be into birdwatching, but I’m branching out into mammals. You know, I’m really interested in variations in physiology.” Rrem squeezed Sharwe’s hand briefly, then flicked eyes toward Togi and Morik, saying, “I’m probably going to take an interest in reptiles and amphibians pretty soon, too. But there’s just so much to learn from each, and, you know…”
Sharwe found gemself putting on a stoic expression and stance, but gem didn’t feel particularly self-conscious about `errke’s innuendos. It was more a way of feigning embarrassment for the bit. And `errke stuck rrem’s tongue out at Sharwe in response.
Metra glanced back and forth at them momentarily and then snickered, “OK!”
“No, but seriously,” `errke said. “And, I mean, that was serious, but I’m about to finish my third volume of recently discovered species of fauna. Probably going to put all three into Morik’s library, too. If yem’ll have them.”
Metra blinked, “All species you’ve discovered?”
“Oh, no, no! But. I have discovered two. My first is in the first book, a species of bird that looks remarkably like me, actually. It’s what got me started. I found it when I was eight years old, if you believe it. But I’ve just recently identified a pigmy sloth that’s only about the size of you. I think everyone’s been mistaking it for the juvenile form of the common sloth. That’s going in the third book.”
“Oh, so you must spend a lot of time on the trails! No wonder you two found each other.”
“Yeah…” `errke kept grinning big.
Sharwe hipchecked `errke’s shoulder again affectionately and said, “We’ve already got kind of a shared dream, too. Something we want to build together, because we think the Sunspot should have it.
“Oh, yes, yes!” `errke bobbed rrems head.
“Yes?” asked Metra.
Sharwe glanced around the room briefly, thinking about just how much gem wanted to share, then said, “We both think there could be more interaction between fauna and people. Like, curated and measured. Careful. But with the discovery of the Collective of the cuttlecrabs, we’ve both been inspired to consider what else we might all be missing. And birds in particular don’t really benefit from the deterrent devices surrounding the cities. They should have places to land in the urban areas. And the flora we grow in cities absolutely do not benefit from it. So…”
`errke jumped in, “We’re putting together a proposal for a community garden that’s open to birds and other select fauna. It might have to be on the edge of the city, at least for the prototype. And we’re thinking of putting it on the top of a building, so most ground fauna won’t have access. But, if it works out, it might help open up other parks to similar management.”
Sharwe nodded, “I know we’ve done things a certain way for millennia, and it’s been reasonably stable. But I’ve compared the health of the plants in my own personal garden with their wild counterparts, and I think we could be doing a lot better in that aspect alone.”
`errke actually jumped up and down a little bit in excitement, and it was so cute. Midclaws bouncing on the floor three times, tailing wobbling. Rrem even made a barely audible chittering sound, showing rrems teeth.
“That sounds fantastic,” Metra declared. Metra was actually a little taller than Sharwe, which was a bit unusual, mostly covered with a blue fur and a colorful robe, with a head shaped kind of like a wedge of cheese, which tem inclined briefly before asking, “So, how’s your neighbor doing? Nir, was it?”
“Ah, hmm,” Sharwe mumbled, frowning, looking down at Metra’s feet. “Don’t really know. Hem’s still painfully shy. Living alone. But `errke helped me to finally reach out to hem, and we’ve got plans to go to the beach with hem after this.”
“Oh, that’s good!” Metra replied. “That’s really good to hear. Even if nothing comes of that, at least hem will know you tried.”
Nir was seven limbed, like `errke, which was one of the reasons hem had caught `errke’s attention. But instead of a bird type person, Nir was a skinny, antlered mustelid. Furtive and skittish, Nir was one of the very few people who occupied a surface house all to hemself. Most people who had surface houses tended to live with others. In part, that was because shy, reclusive people would usually prefer to be hidden away belowdecks, out on the edges of the populated areas, but also surface houses were considerably more rare and in higher demand. Nir’s petition to occupy one must have involved some critical personal accommodations.
Anyway, what Sharwe and gems household knew about Nir was that hem was always watching them, but would look away or disappear when anyone noticed. Sharwe had actually exchanged a few short greetings with Nir, and Nir was startled at first, but had started to relax more when Sharwe was passing by hems house.
Sharwe’s theory was that Nir was socially anxious but wanted to be part of something and didn’t know how to bridge that gap. Just simple yearning. Hem had probably taken the house in Kwera because it was a denser city on the surface, and so hem could most likely be seen more often by neighbors in hopes of experiencing incidental conversations and maybe make friends that way. But, hem’d probably avoided the busier corridors of belowdecks because that might have been too much contact. Or, maybe hem was claustrophobic too?
It was hard to say, really. Not without actually talking at length to Nir, anyway.
But Rrema, who was not a live-in member of the household, but visited very frequently to collaborate with Morik and yem’s library, and to collaborate with Togi in thoroughly exploring forms of exciting physical contact, was rather put off by Nir. Nir made wem feel uneasy.
And that had been going on for a long time, so Sharwe had found gemself playing devil’s advocate, trying to keep negative speculation from getting out of control.
Sharwe, or someone, should have approached Nir long ago, but Nir was so jumpy. It was really hard to get more of a “hi” or “hello” in before hem retreated into hem’s house.
By chance, while on rrems way to visit, `errke had caught a glimpse of Nir talking at length with an envoy of the Collective in their little four-cuttlecrab buggy.
So, when the subject of Nir came up next around the kitchen maker, `errke had said rrem had an idea, and then grabbed Sharwe’s wrist and dragged gem outside.
And it had turned out that the simple question, “Hey, Nir, can we ask you about the cuttlecrabs?” was a great way to break the ice. Maybe it being Sharwe, who already sort of put Nir at ease, and `errke, who was new, had something to do with it, too.
It had still been awkward. But Nir had seemed to be able to overcome hem’s anxiety enough to agree to go to the beach later.
Sharwe gave Metra a level look, and said, “I want to like Nir, and I hope we can collectively help make hems life better. But there is a bit more friction there than hems anxiety, and with ‘errke maybe joining us, we’re kind of reaching our group’s current threshold.”
“Well, no one would fault you for keeping your boundaries,” Metra said.
“No,” Sharwe agreed. “Not commonly, no. But individually? Nir does seem to be particularly needy and hopeful. Hem yearns for someone. But hems Tutor isn’t talking for hem, either, so we really don’t know yet.”
Metra bobbed tems head and acknowledged, “You just gotta feel it out.”
“So, how about the smells this kitchen is making, huh?” Metra turned and leered cheerfully at the creations of Nitri’s neighbors, who tittered in response.
There wasn’t quite enough food to go around, if everyone wanted more than a single little bite. But that was OK. The whole point was for Nitri to eat it with hir nanite exobody. Anyone interested could taste it, too, but in all likelihood everyone had already eaten. But, if more was needed, it could be made, too!
Freshly prepared food was one of the hallmarks of an ascension day celebration, after all. Something that set it apart from most other parties, rituals, and holidays.
If someone was a cook, they might cook for everyone on their birthday, of course. And sometimes the whole point of a gathering was to collectively cook a whole mess of meals, just like a pottery convention would be about making so many pots.
But outside of a group meal or a cook’s birthday, Sharwe couldn’t remember seeing so many different dishes in one place.
Anyway, it would be rude to try any of it until Nitri had a chance, but they could all still appreciate the vision and aroma of it all.
Having just ascended, Nitri had now been cut off from ever experiencing the sensations of living tastebuds again. At least, unless sie accepted residence in someone’s plural system as a walk-in, or maybe if someone finally figured out how to create whole new living bodies specifically for Crew. But those new tastebuds would never be quite the same as the ones a person grew up with. Often, they and the nerves they were attached to were significantly different and alarmingly so. Which went for all the other senses as well.
`errke had much sharper distance vision than Sharwe, for instance, but Sharwe had extremely acute night vision. And, from comparing notes, they were pretty certain they didn’t see colors quite the same way, either.
But, Nitri’s Network avatar, and in extension hir nanite exobody, could simulate hir original tastebuds and other senses remarkably well. Not precisely the same, but close enough. So it was seen as psychologically vital to offset that feeling of loss by exercising those senses with familiar and beloved things. And food was a big part of that.
And just before Sharwe or `errke could say anything, Nitri finished hir dancing and settled in on the other side of `errke from Sharwe and leaned forward to grab a nut filled roasted mushroom. “I know these are for me,” sie said. “But – `errke, was it? – you need to eat one of these! Please! Is that OK? Can you? They are my favorite!”
“Oh, I… yeah, uh, rrem? And can I?” `errke stammered.
Handing `errke the mushroom, Nitri said to Sharwe, “You keep finding the best friends. I love rrem already!”
“Bit more than a friend, I think,” Sharwe mumbled.
`errke nearly choked on the mushroom with an intake of breath.
Sharwe gentle scratched rrem just under rrems crest, running fingers carefully between the small feathers there, then pulled gems hand back so `errke could tilt rrems head back to swallow properly.
`errke shot Sharwe and accusatory smirk.
Both Nitri and Metra watched this exchange with amusement.
“Children, huh?” Metra said to Nitri.
“Technically, you’re still a Child,” Nitri responded.
“Give it a year or two,” Metra replied.
“Hey,” Sharwe snarked at gems parent. “I saw you flirting on the dance floor, Nitri.” Then gem skewered Metra with a stare and said, “I bet even the oldest Crew hasn’t really grown up at heart. It’s not like `errke’s my first, anyway.”
“True,” Metra said. “But Nitri and I do have at least a century and a half on you, and we’ve seen the culture really change with the generations, you know.”
“Yeah, I bet that is a thing,” `errke chimed in.
“OK,” Sharwe said guardedly. Then gem tried to think of something to say to keep things light, but gems mind turned to the Tutors. The mention of generations and culture made that association inevitable. For anyone, probably.
The Tutors had seen every generation grow to Crewhood aboard the Sunspot. All but the Founding Crew, of course. But they had been created by the Founding Crew specifically to help raise the Children. It was the Tutors’ role to be the parents who tied everyone’s upbringing to the founding principles of the world ship, and to keep certain core aspects of the culture constant.
At least, as best they could.
But with the Nanite Innovation, so much was changing, including the way Children might be raised in the future.
Sharwe felt that “Nanite Innovation” was the wrong term for this historical shift, really. The nanites had been used to create the Sunspot, and to manage the Garden’s ecosystem, and to run the food makers, ever since that creation. And sure, now they were being used for neural terminals, exobodies, other types of makers, and doors, but the key shift that had happened was deeper than that.
Nitri and Metra had seen it first hand. They’d both been born long before the Innovation, and had originally been fitted with the old, clunky neural terminals. They were each over a century old before they had learned, along with the rest of the populace, just who the Crew were! That they were everyone’s ancestors. That most of the Crew had previously lived as Children in the Garden and halls of the ship.
Sharwe wouldn’t ever have to explain that to them. But instead, they’d explained it to Sharwe, over and over. And Sharwe thought gem understood it.
The social shockwaves of that revelation were still rolling through the ship.
It had to have been a spiritual shift.
Sharwe had tried many times to imagine what it would be like to live an entire life thinking of the Crew as technocratic gods. Gem really couldn’t. It was a weird and unsettling thought.
Kettle had shared records, stories, and its own personal accounts from throughout history with Sharwe to help gem visualize it, but Sharwe knew gem didn’t have anything in gems own life to emotionally attach it to.
But, intellectually, it all made sense, especially with the evidence of the shift still present in the world.
Like, for how new this Ascension Day thing felt.
There had been many Ascension Days since the Innovation, but it felt like all the people in the room, from the youngest Child to every Tutor was still trying to figure out just what to do. Compared to how birthdays were handled, at least, there was that air of it.
So, Nitri’s Tutor, Archetype, was leading the gathering of Tutors near the kitchen, and it sounded like their conversation had started out as a trading of notes for how to handle a newly Ascended Student post-Innovation. This would be Archetype’s first experience with that, while Kettle had already experienced it before taking Sharwe as an assignment.
And they kept briefly returning to that subject, but it had clearly shifted to greater Sunspot politics, and speculating what Tutor’s roles would be with not only raising new generations of Children (if there would be new generations of Children) but also how they should participate in the Council.
Right. The vote.
Sharwe’s whole household was in agreement to support emancipation of everyone, Children, Tutors, and Monsters alike. Even `errke had been part of that discussion and was on board. They all felt that all being under a century old, and only knowing life post Innovation, that they couldn’t really vote with fully informed experiences, but philosophically it should be a given.
The Sunspot had already weathered incredible social change and seemed to be surviving. It could survive this next phase. Heck, maybe it wouldn’t survive not undertaking the emancipation.
In fact, Sharwe had a hunch that in just a few decades time, or a century or so at the latest, everyone would be calling this moment in history the Emancipation instead of the Nanite Innovation.
Then Sharwe heard Kettle say, “I agree with Morde. I think that we should shut down the Evolutionary Engines and completely restructure how we have new Children.”
Gem had never heard that sentiment from it before. Not even when it had read Systems’ Out! to gem as a bedtime lesson.
Kettle continued, “The ideal can’t really happen until we figure out the Jenifer problem. How to instill a living consciousness into a fetus without inadvertently creating a system. But even our simulation of natural selection for genetic development is a kind of eugenics. I know the Founding Crew were largely in denial of that, but even Eh agrees with that sentiment now. And it has shown eugenics has failed in its goal.”
There were nods almost all around. Only a couple of the other Tutors remained utterly still, frowning.
The name ‘Jenifer problem’ came from Jenefere’s attempt, not long ago, to be reborn in a physical body. Jenefere was one of the Founding Crew. She – she had taken on her old, pre-Sunspot pronoun again, apparently – she had been in charge of instructing the Nanites on how to build the Sunspot itself. She’d also been instrumental in sanctioning Phage, after it had been invited aboard the ship, and had essentially disappeared after that scandal, sanctioning herself for as long as Phage was sanctioned, and more severely. And all of that had only been known to the Crew until the Innovation, too.
When Jenefere had been born again within a new body, she hadn’t been the only consciousness in it. She’d shared it with the new Child, who had decided to name herself Jenifer.
There were other aspects of her conception and birth that were different, too. But recent experiments had recreated the problem, apparently, even with various technological adjustments. And the ethics of continuing those experiments was extremely questionable.
The Tutor with the lure pointed at Kettle and said, “Mm. Yes. And whether we bring a new Child into existence via live conception and birth, like Jenifer or the fauna, or via the Evolutionary Engines, we still risk them being born to physical dysphoria and other agonies that no eugenics program has ever managed to stamp out, right?”
“That’s what Morde say, yes. And I agree,” Kettle responded.
Morde was a Crew member who was closer in age to Sharwe than to Nitri. And sie had been the Child who first confronted the Crew directly, face to face, to uncover who and what they were, using hir own provisionary Crew status awarded to hir upon the death of hir body to do it.
Sharwe looked at `errke to see if rrem was listening to the Tutors, too. `errke’s Tutor had been Morde’s just before all that had happened. Morde had dismissed it several decades before `errke had been born. There had been one other short lived Student between them. That had to be rough.
“Where’s Ralf?” Sharwe asked.
“It hates conversations like that,” `errke said, gesturing at the other Tutors.
“I’d imagine it might agree with Kettle at this point. If there were no more Children, no more Students…” Sharwe speculated slowly, trailing off when gem wondered if gem had overstepped.
“It’s complicated,” `errke said.
“Yeah,” Sharwe conceded.
Kettle turned to them and said, “Ralf is always welcome. We’d work to spare it the references to its trauma. But I think its wisdom and personal experience is vital to this discussion, too. Please let it know we miss its presence.”
The Tutor with the lure was the only other one that nodded to that, though.
Sharwe was too self conscious to introduce gemself to it and learn if it was Abacus, though.
“I want Ralf to eat one of these mushrooms,” Nitri said, popping a third one into hir mouth.
“I’ll let it know,” `errke said to both statements.
The sun hadn’t quite entered the sun intake of the Aft Endcap yet, but it was already turning orange.
The shadows of the rocks that littered the beach were as long as they were going to get, stark in contrast to the light of the sun and reaching about four decimeters forward up the beach.
The cuttlecrabs that were escorting them as they walked spinward with Nir were mostly visible by their shadows.
With other mobile beings present, the cuttlecrabs reflexively shifted the hide coating of their shells to mimic the sand and rocks in camouflage, and tended to remain fairly silent. But, once everyone sat down, they’d start lighting up their bellies and change their overall colors and textures as part of the Chattering.
The Chattering wasn’t really due to start for another hour or two, anyway.
Nir had said that would give them time to have a quiet discussion with them beforehand.
Nir loved the Collective, and the Collective was apparently fond, or at least particularly trusting, of Nir.
A couple of the cuttlecrabs worked to remain close to Nir, and maybe they were the ones that felt that connection the closest. The Collective was a powerful and brilliant hivemind, but many people reported that individual cuttlecrabs seemed to keep specific personal connections. A person who regularly spoke with the Collective might have one to four fans amongst them, who’d show up regularly to talk and make a point to wave upon regonition.
Sharwe found it really hard to tell the difference between any of them, unless one had sustained an injury. But apparently, some people could.
“Can either of you recognize different cuttlecrabs?” gem asked `errke and Nir.
“Um. I can tell by how they greet me,” Nir mumbled.
“They each smell different,” `errke said. “And, yeah, they have really different behaviors if you pay attention. I think I could pick them up if I watched long enough.”
“We’re not dragons like you,” the nearest cuttlecrab piped up. Ever since they’d made contact, the cuttlecrabs had been calling people ‘dragons’. It was their word for the Children of the Sunspot. “You are all so amazingly different! But we are still different from each other. But our differences aren’t important. This one holds memories the others do not hold so clearly, of course. But this one is only a tiny part of us. It can be nice if you recognize this one, but you don’t have to.”
It had rattled that off without having seemed to take a breath, even though it had been scuttling rapidly to keep up with Sharwe. They could all run even faster than that, when needed, but it still looked like a lot of physical exertion.
Sharwe knew their speaking apparatus was different than a person’s, using a speaking sack that was separate from their lung and gills. It worked a bit like a bagpipe. But it was still disconcerting to see it in action.
And such articulation from such a tiny thing.
A single cuttlecrab wasn’t much bigger than Sharwe’s two hands held together. It could probably stand in gems open palms, but barely so.
“My favorite spot isn’t much further,” Nir repeated. Hem had said that a few times now, apparently when hem had felt uncomfortable with the conversation.
This time, though, a cuttlecrab near hem spoke up, “There’s someone else near there. Is that OK?”
Nir stopped and looked down.
Sharwe and `errke stopped next. They weren’t the only ones tagging along. They’d managed to get their whole household to come along, hopefully for Nir’s benefit. Rrema even, in the very rear. Togi and Morik came next.
But the others were being particularly quiet. Maybe they didn’t want to spook Nir. Or maybe they didn’t feel they had much to say yet.
`errke had been the most vocal, with Sharwe speaking up to keep rrem from pulling all the weight.
Nir looked back at them with a very worried expression and, out of the corner of gems eye, Sharwe saw `errke shrug.
“We could stop here, if you want,” Sharwe suggested as gently as possible.
Nir frowned and made a quick shake of hems head, “I guess I’m meeting people today. It’s good. Thank you. Maybe I can face them with you here, too. Or -” Hem trailed off, looking scared.
“Hey, no pressure, right?” `errke said. “You’re showing us one of your favorite things, and we appreciate the gesture, but you don’t have to.”
“I might run,” Nir admitted very quietly.
“That would be OK,” `errke said clearly and confidently. “I understand.”
Nir broke into a fleeting, nervous smirk, then solemnly nodded, and gestured for them to follow.
“The other dragon won’t chase you, if you run,” Nir’s cuttlecrab fan said. “They are dead.”
Nir stopped again, “What?”
“We didn’t see it, but we heard a disagreement between dragons. And then it was very quiet,” the cuttlecrab explained. “When we investigated, we found the dead dragon. The smoke appeared then to tell us to leave it.” The smoke being a Crew inhabited cloud of nanites, most likely.
The Collective learned new words very quickly, but seemed to be pretty set in their ways of speaking. They knew ‘the smoke’ was a manifestation of a Crew member, and could explain that when asked. But since the Crew kept choosing to appear to them as smoke when conveying announcements and warnings, they kept calling those manifestations ‘the smoke’. It worked.
“We can show you,” the Collective said, with several voices now. “It is OK.”
“Um,” Nir said.
Morik stepped up to where Sharwe was standing, and said, “We should take you up on that.” Then yem looked at Sharwe and `errke, “Are you up for it, Loves? If this is what I think it is, it’s sort of a once in a lifetime thing. We might do some good for someone.”
Grassling, Morik’s Tutor, spoke up over the Network, “The Crew have been informed of your possible approach. You’ve all been extended an invitation to help with the investigation. If you wish to, please do not touch anything within the glowing parameter. Use your eyes, ears, and noses only. You may ask any questions and review any records.”
“Are you saying this is a murder scene?” Rrema asked from the back.
Nir twitched at wems voice.
“Yes,” Grassling replied.
“It happened last night,” the Collective added.
“I – I wasn’t here last night,” Nir murmured.
Morik was understating the rarity of that. Most people lived their 250 or more years of life without even hearing of one, let alone stumbling upon the site of one! They did happen. There were stories. But there were more fictional novels written about them than any historical records of them. Or was that popular historical records. Yeah, probably the latter.
Some people talked about murder in the same tones as most talked about Outsiders, but they weren’t that rare. They were real, at least. But still more sort of the subject of legends than gossip or official news.
On the other hand, Sharwe remembered asking Kettle about the frequency of murder back when they first talked about how to handle violations of consent, and the rate had seemed higher then gem expected.
There were, apparently, on average, 3 murders ship wide every year? Was that right?
With about 3.6 million Children and Monsters living aboard the Sunspot at any given time?
Pretty solidly rare compared to other greater violations. You’d think those three murders a year would at least generate more gossip, but apparently not.
Maybe it had something to do with the way people were coached by their Tutors to handle murders.
“What do we do?” Sharwe asked, mentally directing the question to Kettle. Gem gave `errke a worried glance.
Kettle responded from Network space, “We are informed this was an altercation between Monsters, so Monsters will be left to handle the repercussions and search for reparations. However, the observation of evidence and recording of opinions is open to all witnesses prior, during, and after the event. You may, if you wish to, participate in the investigation as outlined by Grassling.”
“I’m not sure I can handle this, Boss,” Ralf told `errke.
`errke nodded and said, “That’s OK, Kiddo. Sit it out.”
Sharwe couldn’t completely suppress a smirk on hearing that. It didn’t feel right to smirk, but the things those two called each other were funny.
Ralf had apparently kept its habit of calling its Student, `errke in this case, ‘Boss’. It was an old pre-Sunspot word that Ralf had supposedly gotten clearance to use, an honorific of some sort of respect that no one really knew the meaning of. Everyone who had read Systems’ Out! knew this now. Ralf had become kind of famous for it. But somewhere along the line, `errke had responded to that habit by calling Ralf ‘Kiddo’, and considering the direction of their extreme age difference, it was really cute and funny. Ironic at the very least. Intentionally, of course. But Ralf seemed to appreciate it. Or never complained.
`errke stood up on rrems hind legs and gestured toward Nir with all four hands, “We’re all up for this, I think, Nir.” Then, after various grunts of assent from behind and around rrem, “You don’t have to join us, but it’ll give us all something to talk about.”
That was a bit of a brash assumption on `errke’s part, being so new to the household, but it seemed everyone was on board with letting rrem make a show for Nir. Nir seemed to respond well to rrem.
Nir nodded, then listlessly turned and let the Collective lead the way to the site.
Sharwe sighed. As much to release gems own stress as in sympathy for Nir. This felt weird.
They all walked about ten more meters down the beach. It really hadn’t been all that much further. And then they turned right, forward, to climb a small set of dunes there that were lightly sprinkled with growing kevaweko fronds and a smattering of `äfgang flowers.
On the other side of the dunes, the forest there rose quickly up to 120 or so meters into the sky. Some of the largest tree trunks were maybe ten meters wide. Those were the furuuccehakego, or Great Sunspot Firs. The largest trees on the ship. They were followed in size by the Fat Tails, which ranged from 20 to 90 meters tall as adults. The Tinsel Trees were the shortest of the larger trees, and made up the bulk of the understory. There were old Fenekere names for all of these trees, of course, but Sharwe tried to tune that part of her memory out. The poetic names felt better today, for some reason.
Then there were the Hex Willows. Sharwe’s favorite trees. The rare elder Hex Willow grew big enough to help fill the upper canope of the forest, but most were part of the understory. And there weren’t that many. Their huge, hexogonal, translucent violet leaves seemed to prefer direct sunlight, so they did better in cities and clearings, or on the sides of steep slopes. Or on the edges of the forests.
And it looked like they were walking toward a small Hex Willow with a faint glow emanating from the darkness of the forest floor behind it. Spear ferns and aphlebia fronds were silhouetted by that glow. Apparently, the wide canopy of the Hex Willow had encouraged the surrounding younger trees to space themselves far enough apart for a little kind of clearing there, in its shadow. But that clearing was far enough into the forest to be surrounded by undergrowth yet.
At the top of the last dune, they could see over that undergrowth.
The ground, including the mosses and lichens there, glowed with a faint yellow light, almost like moonlight. A nanite coating set to illuminate the scene. And in the middle of it was a small, spent fire pit. And spinward of that pit, the direction they’d been walking, and slightly forward, sprawled on the ground, was a person curled around a sharp, thick piece of wood that had been shoved right through them.
That was shocking.
The ground directly under and slightly around them was dark.
They needed to get closer to really see more details than that, but the person clearly had the typical four limbs, but also a long, whiplike tail. Probably covered in scales. And they wore a sweater, which was bunched up and pushed into their torso by the stake, and a hip harness.
“Agh, I can hear the fauna deterrents,” Rrema complained.
“I can taste ‘em,” Togi said, tongue flicking out briefly. “Yeah. Ugh. Also, lots of blood.”
“Yeah, the blood is strong,” `errke agreed. “And their bowels. I only smell it, but that’s enough of a deterrent for me. You all might want to hold your breaths as we get closer. Or program your nanites to filter out the odors.”
“I’m good,” Rrema said. “But, thanks for the warning.”
Nir was grimacing intensely, but hem led the way forward, still. Down the dune and through the underbrush.
The tallest aphlebia came up to Sharwe’s chest, so halfway through it, gem could see the scene clearly again. `errke disappeared under the fronds, and had to make rrems way to the edge of the clearing to see anything. The others obviously had mixed experiences by their exclamations.
“That’s -” `errke started to say, then shook rrems head.
Sharwe really had no idea what to look for, nor how to interpret any of it. But gem was in enough shock at the scene of such violence that gems brain insisted on cataloging every detail in a quick snapshot. Every long moment after that felt like review. Almost deja vus.
Blood, shit, and ash were the strongest smells, but there was tang of something that maybe was stomach acid. And everything looked like it had happened moments ago, probably preserved by the nanites.
It kind of looked like the victim had been in the act of charging around the fire when they were impaled by the stake. Maybe. The darkened area under and around them was a pool of shit tainted blood soaked into moss and lichen of the clearing. But not far from their feet, the forest floor had been torn up. Those huge hind claws had really dug into the dirt under the moss.
Maybe the murderer had contributed to that with their own feet, but it was hard to say.
“That looks like signs of a real wrestling match,” Morik said. “I mean, Haling Scales, look at that. Probably came in from our right, antispinward, confronted the murderer. And then they met right there and had to figure out who was getting the sharp stick through their gut. I bet the murderer was bigger, to force them to dig into the ground that much with their claws. I mean, look at their right foot. It’s still half in the ground!”
“That makes sense,” `errke said. “But how do you figure all that?”
“I’m really just guessing,” Morik admitted. “But I’ve read a lot of books. And a fair number of them have been about murders. Real ones and fictional. Not exactly my favorite stories, but I can’t put them down anyway. Some of the visuals and details just stick, assuming they’re accurate.”
“Mm. Well,” `errke responded. “I’ve come across quite a few fauna kills over the years. Some frighteningly fresh. And Ralf’s helped me to analyze them. I think you may have got the story here exactly.”
This was not something that `errke had shared with Sharwe yet. Strangely, despite the horror of the moment, Sharwe felt like standing taller in pride over hearing `errke’s expertise. A good choice in partner. And rrem continued to get on well with Morik, even under stress. That was nice.
Morik gave `errke a grim smile.
“Does – hm,” Nir started and halted.
“Do the ship records have a recording of it?” Rrema almost amiably guessed at what Nir was trying to say.
Rrema’s Tutor spoke up, since wem had asked the question. It was appropriately named Answer, “Yes. If anyone would like to view it, the access code is ‘geniremo kshegekä-beshikego Shegrräo-Refka’.”
Sharwe nodded solemnly to gemself, then mentally uttered the code into gems Network interface.
“Shegrräo, you suppurating anus! My rejection of your sibling’s advances is none of your fucking business!” hissed the murder victim, probably Refka, still alive, but certainly not for long. They were brandishing the stake that would eventually make its way through their gut.
Shegrräo was bigger than them, and had six arms and legs like `errke and Nir had. Where the victim expressed mostly reptilian phenotypes, Shegrräo more closely resembled the forward grassland dogs that had a symbiotic relationship with the primates there. Only much bigger, and wearing a colorful poncho. And the dogs didn’t have six legs. Few fauna did.
Sharwe could see all this playing out, superimposed on the very real scene of the murder that was before them all. The others were possibly watching their own versions at their own paces.
“No. Pause,” Nir murmured.
Sharwe kept watching.
“I’ve made it my business,” Shegrräo’s recording growled.
“You sure the fuck have,” Refka shouted back. “And I need you to back off!”
The two stared at each other over the firepit, muscles tense and twitching. A pot that was no longer present was bubbling, placed directly in the fire. Shegrräo had a large enough bag to carry the pot, some food, and maybe a few other things. Refka appeared to be empty-handed besides the big stake, which looked like it was made from fresh wood.
People normally didn’t craft things out of actual wood. Not unless they were ceremonially honoring a recently dead tree. But there were processed laminates, epoxies, and forms of nanite clay that could very closely mimic wood, even when worked by hand. This looked like genuine wood.
Sharwe activated the recording’s annotations.
Yep, real wood, from a Sunspot Fir. Oh. Shegrräo’s pronouns were xe/xyr/xem, and Refka’s was rrem.
Hissing menacingly, Refka started to stalk rrems way into the little clearing. Cautious but threatening. Rrem already held the stake high, but rrem managed to lift it even higher before slowly lowering it and gripping it with both hands, eyes narrowed.
“You better be awfully certain of your next actions, Refka, because there’s only one ending you’re walking toward now,” Shegrräo intoned.
“I don’t know,” Refka said. “I see a couple of possibilities.”
“You must be an optimist.”
“Apologize and back off, or shut up, Shegrräo.”
Instead of the obvious quip about who was the aggressor, Shegrräo studied Refka a few seconds and then said, “You must love that stick, Refka, because I can see you humping the fuck out of it in a few seconds. It’s such a clear vision, you know?”
“Must be hallucinating.”
“Pretty sure I’m not…”
Snarling, Refka lunged to the left, then drove to the right to step around the campfire.
Shegrräo calmly watched the other Monster feint, then stepped in time with Refka right into rrems lunge, rising up on hind legs, and grappling with all four hands. Top hands went to Refka’s shoulders, lower hands to the stake to push it aside.
Refka’s enormous hind claws and surprisingly long and supple tail gave rrem considerable balance. Rrem was pushed back only a decimeter or so, and stayed stoic and upright, baring rrems teeth.
Rrem jerked rrems head to the side as Shegrräo snapped at rrems face with finger sized canines.
“You fucker,” Refka shouted in Shegrräo’s parabolic ear. Then rrem tried a downward swiping kick with rrems left foot, right foot digging further into the ground.
Shegrräo flinched at the shout, then deftly avoided the kick by holding Refka back and finally putting rrem off balance momentarily. Then, as Refka dropped rrems foot and regained rrems grounding almost immediately, xe quietly twisted the stake out of Refka’s grasp, turned the point toward rrems gut, and pulled with xyr top arms while shoving with xyr arm-legs, which gripped the stake.
In that one, swift, vice-like action, Shegrräo put the stake right through Refka’s bowls and out past the side of rrems spine as easily as skewering a mushroom.
Sharwe sympathetically exhaled, clenching gems stomach, and then felt like vomiting. A few seconds later, Togi had a similar reaction.
As xe almost gently lowered the astonished Refka to the clearing floor, Shegrräo whispered, “You walked right into your own weapon there, friend. But you sure did it with way more conviction than just about any other time you were faced with a choice. Gotta give that to you. I respect it. I’ll make sure the others know.”
Then xe calmly went about picking up xyr bag, hefting it over xyr shoulder while Refka groaned and started curling up, tail nearly touching the fire.
Shegrräo took a deep breath as if to say something, then just shook xyr head and reached down for the pot. Xe grunted, then walked steadily out of the clearing, spinward, away from the city, muttering softly about finding a better place to eat.
When most of the elements of the recording matched the scene as it currently sat, Refka’s tail only slightly off from where it was now, it stopped.
The final annotations then read, “Ultimate Consent Violation by Shegrräo the Monster. Violent Death experienced by Refka the Monster. Motive appears to be self defense after an altercation regarding irreconcilable personal differences. The Council of the Crew would recommend investigation of events leading up to this encounter, with the aim of learning how to intervene and prevent a similar level of disagreement. Monster Sovereignty takes precedence, and the Council of the Crew on this day only offers what support is requested by the regional Monster Governance, whatever form it may take. Reparations will be left up to the regional Monster Governance. For thorough record keeping, Child and Tutor annotations may follow.”
It took a while for Sharwe to read and internalize that. Written word, even on the Network, was somehow difficult to process at the moment. And before gem was done, Morik spoke up.
“Does anyone else think there’s way more to this?” yem asked.
“What do you mean?” Rrema asked back.
“Mm,” Togi said. “Yeah. I can kind of see how spurned infatuation or love could lead to this somehow. But Shegrräo’s words made it seem like xe was angry about something else. Ah! There’s so much neither of them said! They almost did, but they ignored each other.”
“That’s exactly what I’m seeing,” Morik agreed.
Sharwe looked at `errke to see how rrem was doing, and maybe guess at what rrem was thinking by looking at rrem’s face.
This wasn’t at all how gem had envisioned the day ending. Probably not how any of them had expected it. Sharwe had hoped that they’d finally be making friends with Nir, or at least peace with hem. Maybe soothe Rrema’s discomfort and give Nir less reason to lurk. And it had looked like they might all have a fun conversation with the Collective there for a few steps.
Then, after that, Sharwe had kind of hoped to find some time alone with `errke to discuss the day, decompress, and maybe turn to planning the next steps of their integrative garden project.
And then, maybe, if they both had the energy for it, and the mood had shifted enough, maybe a night spent in each other’s company.
But `errke turned to Sharwe and said, “You know? I’d never, ever hope to see this, especially on a date. But I think I’m… confident? … yeah, confident in starting this project with you,” gesturing at Refka’s body, “if you want to.”
Sharwe didn’t quite know what to say in response.