6.5 Seeking Harmony

Blood in the Duff


Nir had spent most of that day alternating between tidying hems already immaculate living space and playing the flute. Both were activities that typically calmed hem down quickly and thoroughly. Not today.

Witnessing a violent death, even if it was a recording, turned out to be a problem.

It was not something Nir had ever wanted to experience, and now hem had. And it was in hems mind, probably forever. Literally, if hem ascended like most other people. Sometime in the future, hopefully a long time from now, maybe, when hems body also… 


To make matters worse, there was a window on the Anti-spinward side of hems house that hem was now actively avoiding.

Maybe hem should get rid of it. Fill it in with wall, and then replace its presence with a hanging of some sort. An illustration from Gopra Pyle, maybe? Or a tapestry or quilt.

It looked right into the neighbors’ house. 

Which had not been the plan when adding it to the design of the structure. The idea was simply to let some natural light in on that side of the building. And it had been fine for a while. Then one of the trees between the houses had died, and the others hadn’t yet grown enough to close the gap. But they were too big now to add a new tree. And besides, most people didn’t really worry too much about windows that could look into each other, did they?

But, apparently, now it was a problem.

Nir just kept looking, and couldn’t stop.

Hem’s neighbors were always doing something interesting. Like making stuff. Interacting. Being around other people. How did people do that?

Really, originally, it had simply been the sense of movement that had caught Nir’s eyes, and hem had just zoned out while watching it, thinking about something else completely.

Then, after a while, Nir realized that it was really awkward and invasive of hem to be doing that. But, by that point, it was an unconscious habit, and hem would find hemself standing by the window staring without realizing hem was doing it. Only when someone looked at hem did it occur that hem was doing it.

When Nir was younger, Polish would have mentioned something. But that had only increased Nir’s anxiety, and at Nir’s direction, Polish was now hands off except for when someone else brought the subject up. Or it would help out when Nir asked it a question.

They’d had some discussions about medical interventions, using the nanites to alter Nir’s brain chemistry to help alleviate the anxiety, which might in turn help alleviate the need to dissociate and seek visual and other stimulation. But the idea had really bothered Nir. It felt like doing so would alter who and what hem was, and as much as life was a struggle a lot of the time Nir wasn’t ready to do that. It scared hem.

And then, also, the neighbors hadn’t complained, either. So this awkward interaction had gone on for the better part of a couple years.

Nir then had taken to sitting outside, away from the window, near hem’s front walk. And occasionally someone would walk by. And that’s how hem had started sharing greetings with Sharwe, one of the neighbors.

Then, just yesterday morning, Sharwe’s new best friend came over dragging Sharwe with rrem and asked about the cuttlecrabs.

And then the…

And there was the body, and blood, and a whole heap  of social obligations, and the Collective had been weird. And it had been a lot.

And it was clear that Sharwe and gems household were in turmoil about it, too. And Nir was just trying to relax today, and it wasn’t working.

So, hem decided to go for a walk.

Hem didn’t think about it much, hem just grabbed hems flute and walked out the door at one point, unaware even of what time of day it was, and turned left, Anti-spinward, to follow the walkway that hem usually took.

A couple dozen meters and hem would turn Aftward and head toward the shore, weaving between the neighborhoods of Kwera. Again, not really thinking about it, just going on automatic.

Nir had hems head down, flute gripped tightly at hems side, staring at the walkway half a meter in front of hems feet, walking quickly at first and then slowly down a bit to pace hemself and try to relax.

It wasn’t until after hem had taken that first right turn that hem looked up to see what the sky was doing, to see if hem could catch a glimpse of the aft Endcap. And saw Rrema.

Sharwe’s tallest, grumpiest housemate was walking ahead of Nir.

Nir thought then that it might be a good opportunity to talk to wem and try to make some peace, maybe get to know wem better. If they were walking the same direction, it was a good opportunity to do that. So, Nir picked up hems pace to get within talking distance.

Just as Nir was opening hems mouth to say some word or another, Rrema looked back and looked startled upon seeing hem. And wems expression immediately filled Nir with dread, and hems mouth clamped shut, eyes widening, before hem could override hems reflexes and call out.

Rrema looked shaken and picked up wems pace.

Nir relaxed hems pace and started to fall behind. This was no good, and hem had no idea how to fix it.

The problem wasn’t trying to figure out what to do. Logically, Nir knew what the best courses of action might be. Hem had talked to Polish at length about all sorts of difficult social situations.

The problem was that Nir had no practice doing new things, and couldn’t get hems body to do the thing.

It was, in fact, how Nir had found hemself with the whole household of neighbors staring at an impaled Monster body near hems favorite place on the beach. `errke had mentioned Nir’s relationship with the cuttlecrabs, and that had unlocked a bunch of actions that only made sense at the time, and that Nir’s body had done almost on automatic.

There had been moments of lucidity, and Nir had been so excited that things were finally working out, hem had pressed forward despite worries and intuition telling hem to do otherwise.

Now hem couldn’t even channel hems intuition to turn around and go home, or walk somewhere else.

This was hems routine. To walk to the beach and talk to the Collective until hem felt better. It was what hem needed.

And though talking to Rrema would not interrupt that routine, and would probably make things better, it was not part of that routine. And Rrema’s obvious displeasure at seeing Nir had made starting that new procedure impossible.

Maybe if Rrema turned around and talked to Nir, or sent a Network message, the prompt would help hem break out of it. A part of Nir actually hoped that would happen.

But it kept not happening. And they kept walking the same direction.

There were so many intersections between here and the beach where one of the two of them could turn off and break the tensions. Nir even thought about doing that, but just couldn’t. Each intersection hem passed became a lost opportunity that hem realized had never really been there in the first place.

There was no turning away from the routine. The need to talk to the Collective. And Nir started to panic or feel numb.

And for some reason, Rrema kept walking toward the beach, too.

It wasn’t a straight path. It wove back and forth, and sometimes didn’t look like it was ultimately headed aft. There were times where turning right or left at an intersection could still have gotten someone to that park. But those paths would have gone directly past houses and other buildings, and apparently, like Nir, Rrema was choosing to avoid those paths.

This, in this moment, felt like the biggest disaster in Nir’s life, and it was just getting worse.

It was possible some of the events of Nir’s childhood were bigger catastrophes. There were, after all, people out there that already hated Nir, undeniably. There’d been encounters that had required intensive Tutor intervention. But Nir had been young, with less experience and less training, less wisdom. It had been understandable.

This time, Nir had nearly five decades of life’s lessons with Polish’s coaching, and countless hours of introspection and resolving to do better. They’d even role played out different scenarios, in hopes that that would give Nir the skills needed to navigate life better.

But, part of the problem was that if Nir figured out how to interact with one person, hem only figured out how to interact with that one person.

Every other person was different. And so was every other situation!

The skills and training didn’t translate. And it wasn’t just that one couldn’t predict what might happen next, it was that if Nir couldn’t predict it hem couldn’t override hems own body’s reactions to whatever came up.

And so, this.

It was untenable. It was apocalyptic. It was horrifying.

Why wasn’t Rrema doing anything? Did wem have the same problem? Oh, if wem did, they could commiserate over it! If only either of them could override their own damn subconscious minds and alter the future by taking a different action!

And then, there, at the very last intersection before the walkway to the shoreline park, Rrema turned left to take the fairly straight walkway there and began galloping Anti-spinward.

Nir was so relieved, hem didn’t think to look away, and watched transfixed as a cloud of nanites arose to either side of that walkway and the leaves of the plants there started to wave in some sort of a breeze.

After about eight hops, Rrema lept as high into the air as wem could and extended wems wings, gently flapping downward to gain some lift. Two. Three. Four strokes. By the fifth stroke, Rrema was high enough in the air to make a fully powered downswing clearing the ground entirely. Within tend flaps, wem was above the shortest trees and started to swing forward.

Nir kept walking as hem watched. But when it became clear that Rrema was headed back to wems own house, Nir was able to break hems gaze and focus on hems destination.

Hem sighed explosively and then took a long shaky breath.

It felt like the Collective somehow magnetically drew hem to the beach, and it was hardly any work at all to move hems feet in time with hems movement that way. Hems body suddenly felt light and energized, instead of the increasing gravity that hems anxiety and dissociation had been heaping upon it until now.

Once hem was on that final path, hem could see all the way to the water. It was a straight walk from there, and though there were trees and then dunes to either side of the path, the walkway was flat with a steady decline to the beach.

The sky was overcast, and the distance was obscured by precipitation. The Aft Endcap was not visible. There was just the light gray of the sky, the darker gray of the sea, and the sand pockmarked by a few rocks and framed by the purple and violet trees of the surrounding forest.

And there, between the end of the walkway and the edge of the waves, skuttled the cuttlecrabs.

Once on the sand, instead of turning right to head to hems favorite spot, Nir kept moving forward as the Collective gathered around hem, dropping to all sixes and nearly scampering the last few meters. They escorted hem until hem curled up and knelt before the highest mark of the waves. It looked like the tide was on its way out, so it should be pretty safe there.

Nir waited until the individual cuttlecrabs took their places and made their identities known with waves and other gestures. Watching them compose themselves, hem focused on hems breathing and shutting out hems surroundings.

Birds screeched in the distance, avoiding the deterrents of the park, giving the Collective cover to interact with park visitors unmolested by predatory avians.

“Hail, dragon Nir!” the Collective cried with the voice of the cuttlecrab directly in front of hem.

“Hail, Collective!” Nir replied with genuinely equal cheer.

It was so easy! It was only natural to match the Collective’s energy, and in so doing Nir became as happy as they sounded to see hem again.

Nir opened hems mouth to ask the Collective a question when hem heard a footstep to hems left.

A voice spoke, “My extenuations for interrupting. I’ll move out of hear shot shortly, but since I’m also conferring with the Collective tonight, I thought I’d introduce myself, if you like. You needn’t reciprocate.”

Nir looked, moving hems eyes first as far as they’d go, then slowly turning hems head to bring the interloper into sight.

Someone in a nanite exobody stood about three meters away, one foot pointed Anti-spinward as if that was the direction they intended to walk next. They were small and stocky, with short limbs and a sort tail, their shoulders blending into their short neck with the nanite clay semblance of muscle and folds of hide from the tops of their arms to the base of their jaw. Little round ears sat at just the right spot to give their head a blunt triangular look.

Nir looked at them silently for a few seconds. Hem could see a couple cuttlecrabs wave at the newcomer. Was this a Child, a Tutor, or Crew? Something about the way they talked made Nir think Crew, and that was deeply unsettling. They used words and turns of phrases that Nir barely understood, and that sounded very formal.

Hem could only get a confirmation if hem accepted the introduction. Hem swallowed.

“Thank you, yes please,” Nir said, wary about where this might lead.

“My name is Minrrek, and my pronouns are te/tyr/tem,” Minrrek said. “I don’t come to this location often, or at all, but I do love my relationship with the Collective. However, since I am attending business in Kwera, I thought I’d visit this park, and it pleases me to see a fellow, if a Child, conferring with them as well. I couldn’t help but notice that you wield a flute.”

Minrrek was so long winded that Nir was startled when te did not continue speaking after making that last statement. It seemed like te would have something to say or ask there, but te apparently did not.

Nir held up the flute and looked at it, not sure what to say.

“Again, my extenuations,” Minrrek said, “I should not have -“ Then te tilted tyr head quizzically and set tyr mouth in a flat line for a moment. Then te said, “I’m sorry, switching gears. I’m not as old as many. But the language has changed so much since my time.”

“You’re Crew,” came out of Nir’s mouth, hems head twitching to look in tyrs direction again.

“Yes,” Minrrek replied. “And I don’t interact with the Children much. Or anybody else, really. I get around, and I do my business with others when I have to, but I have been keeping to myself and my Network space most of the time. I’m trying to break that habit. Which is why I wanted to say ‘hi’ when I saw you. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“You’re talking more normal now,” Nir observed.

“Yes. I directed the Network to translate for me and give me contemporary language. I’ve done it before, I just forget.”


Minrrek continued to stand there as if either waiting for Nir to do or say something, or as if trying to decide what to do. It was awkward, but Nir realized that hem often did the same thing to others. And hem didn’t mean to. Sometimes hem just got stuck. Without the right prompts, hem’s body, or brain itself, wouldn’t act. Maybe that’s what was happening to Minrrek right now.

If neither of them could figure out what to say next, maybe the Collective would prompt them.

But the cuttlecrabs were being silent, observing their interaction with rapt curiosity.

Finally, Minrrek blinked and shook tyr head, then gestured, “I’m still amazed at the Collective. We’ve lived with them for over a hundred and thirty one millennia and didn’t know they were people until just recently. Well, for me, it was a handful of centuries, anyway. Imagine what it must be like for them!”

“I’ve asked,” Nir perked up. “They told me.”

“We did!” the Collective said.

“A single continuous consciousness all that time, like one of the Founding Crew!” Minrrek exclaimed.

“Is this true?” several of the cuttlecrabs asked in unison.

“You do know about the Founding Crew, yes?” Minrrek asked.

“We do,” the Collective chirped. “We meant to confirm. We are conscious?”

“Well -” Minrrek started to say.

Nir looked around. It wasn’t currently the Chattering, so they were only talking to the local cuttlecrabs. They represented the whole collective. When the Chattering happened, they’d share their memories with the rest, and then people across the whole Garden could learn what was said here today if the Collective decided to share it.

“I don’t think -” Nir tried to interject, but realized hem was interrupting.

“You do have memories from the first years of the ship, correct?” Minrrek asked.

“We don’t know,” the Collective responded. “Memories are not a story, and they are not unchanging.”

“Ah, yes. I remember you telling me this now. Just like me. Or like anyone else. Sorry,” te replied. Turning to Nir, “They’re a completely different species, from a completely different evolutionary path. Their nervous system is nothing at all like ours! It’s so different we can’t read it like we can our own, not even with the nanites. Not that we’re not trying! If we could offer the Collective a connection to the Network, it would be amazing! But their memories, at least, work a lot like ours. At least, apparently on a cellular level. Certainly not in the way that they share them, decentralize them.”

“But you do the same,” the Collective said.

Nir frowned, feeling the like the conversation was moving faster than hem could participate. Hem could keep up, but by the time hem composed hems words, the subject had evolved already.

“Really?” Minrrek asked.

“We have told you before,” the Collective replied. “Many times to many of you. You are also a collective, like us. You do not share all of your memories as freely as we do. You have to be told things many times for the knowledge to propagate. Your Collective thinks much more slowly than we do. But we are, always, having a Chattering with all of you.”

Minrrek turned to Nir and asked, “What do you like to talk to them about?”

Both Minrrek and the Collective waited patiently for Nir to collect hem’s thoughts.

“I like to play music for them, and talk about what music is,” Nir finally said, not knowing if there was more to say. That’s all that came out.

“Oh, that’s fascinating,” te replied. “If you don’t mind, I’d love to hear what you both have to say about music. What is music?”

Nir squinted at Minrrek, trying to figure out if te was really that ignorant, and said, “Music is a sequence of tones arrayed in a rhythm over a period of time.”

“Well, yes. But, you discuss that, correct? I imagine you explore the nuances of whether or not it requires Artwork. Or whether it is entirely in the ear of the beholder?”

“Yes, of course,” Nir said. “We started talking about it when I told the Collective that I hear music in the Chattering. Well. No. We started when I played my flute on the beach for the first time. But we started analyzing what music was when I pointed out there were melodies and harmonies in the Chattering.”

“Yes,” said the Collective.

“Really! I don’t think I’ve noticed that before,” Minrrek exclaimed.

“It is there,” Nir confirmed. “You can listen to Network recordings of it. Or you can wait until tonight. I think it is pretty obvious, but if you need me to point it out I can pull up a recording right now, with the Collective’s consent.”

“That’s OK. I believe you.”

“But, it is not the whole Chattering. Because the Chattering sounds like a party, with people talking. But one with other animals present, squawking, chirping, clicking, trilling, knocking, popping, and rattling, among other sounds.”

Minrrek nodded, and said, “I’ve been present, yes.”

“But in the weaving chaos of that, in the background, or in the center of it, there is a melody and several harmonies that come and go. And if you pay attention, you can hear how the shifting of the music affects the rest of the Chattering. It’s really beautiful and it makes me cry sometimes,” Nir found hemself saying. Hem blinked several times.

Minrrek smiled, then turned to the Collective and asked, “How do you perceive it?”

“We don’t,” the Collective responded, several of the cuttlecrabs bobbing and shifting colors. “We can hear music as Nir plays it. Or when others play it for us. But we do not perceive our own sounds in the same way. But we are trying.”

“Oh, now that is interesting!” Minrrek grinned.

“We agree,” Nir said simultaneously with the Collective.

“Well, I’m glad I met you here, Nir,” Minrrek said. “I don’t want to intrude any further or keep you from what you were going to discuss, so I’ll move along now. But thank you for letting me introduce myself.”

Nir suddenly felt like hem had something to say, but couldn’t quite figure out what it was. So, hem opened hems mouth and frowned for a moment as Minrrek started to step away, and then said, “You can stay if you like. We can talk more about this. It interests me. I love talking about it. And maybe… maybe…”

“Yes?” Minrrek asked.

“If I don’t think about it, and just play for the Collective, I can play my flute in front of you,” Nir said. “I haven’t done that sort of thing before. I would like to see if I can.”

“Nir,” Polish said in a private channel.

Nir suddenly felt a chill. It was Polish’s urgent, warning voice. It obviously felt it had something important to say, probably about what was going on right now. But Nir didn’t want to be interrupted or managed.

“Not right now, Polish,” Nir sent back. Then said to Minrrek, “Thank you for talking to me. People don’t do that very often, and I don’t get much practice.”

“Oh, well then,” Minrrek replied. “Mind if I sit with you?”

“I don’t,” Nir responded. Then, feeling the thrill of conversing, Nir offered an explanation, “Normally, you would have missed me. Normally, I walk Spinward for a while to my favorite spot on the beach. I don’t like to be right at the park entrance. But today feels weird and I couldn’t go that way.”

“Oh?” Minrrek prompted. “Why is that?”

“There’s a body there,” Nir said. “It was a murder.”

“That’s unusual! Can you tell me about that?”

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