`errke heard the doors to Morik’s library open.
Rrema came through, a cart full of books and other Artwork following wem.
“I’ve been collecting stuff I think will go well here,” Rrema said. “Figured I would wait until the cart was full before bringing it over.”
“Ooh, let me see!” Morik hurried over. Picking up a colorful, patterned lantern and turning over in yems hands, Morik asked, “Have you been wandering around the whole Sunspot for this stuff?”
Togi followed Rrema’s cart in and huffed smugly, “Yup. Totally Rrema’s project, but I’ve been keeping quiet about it.”
`errke left the table where Sharwe was idly flipping through a large, handmade illustrated book, to amble over and see what Rrema had brought in. Already, rrem could see that Rrema had a good eye for color. At least, in regards to what was pleasing to `errke’s eyes. Not that being selective for color was the point of picking out items for a library, but the pieces of work that were meant for display matched the interior decor very well. They had colors that contrasted, so they’d stand out, but just enough that matched to unify the room without blending in too much.
If `errke had been collecting things for the library, rrem would have gravitated toward models of animals, or works of art that mimicked animal features and shapes, and then filled out the rest of the space with Sharwe’s taste in plants. But because Rrema had been focusing on colors as the theme, wem had reached for a wide variety of artifacts, including paintings, ceramics, sculptures of all sorts of materials, basketry, tapestries, and decorated tools of all sorts.
The books that wem had brought were all on the lower shelves of the cart, and were all hand made as well. But Rrema was just now telling Morik they were chosen for subject or author, based on their past discussions.
It was a big cart. Rrema had probably taken ramps to bring it down here. It would have really crowded a lift with Rrema accompanying it. But it was also modular and could be taken apart and unmade when Rrema was done with it.
“You’ve all really been hard at work on this place for a while, haven’t you?” `errke asked again, for Rrema’s benefit.
“Yep,” Rrema said, with quiet pride.
The library was not yet full of books. About two thirds of the shelves were still empty. And the same was also true of most of the display surfaces for other works of Art. And there were some of Sharwe’s plants in there as well, yet sparingly so.
But the shelves, cabinets, carts, cases, and the walls themselves were works of Art, clearly designed by Morik and Rrema, with some input from Sharwe and Togi.
The walls were a super fine bluish off-white plaster with shiny, very dark iron oxide glazed ceramic trim. And that trim was sculpted and shaped to frame the walls and give them a dynamic flare, drawing the eyes to focal points where wall hangings would go. The floor was covered in a carpet designed to resemble the patches of purple and green mosses of the coastal Forests, though more in color than texture. And the ceiling was more plaster, but it was colored and lighted in such a way as to create the illusion that it was vaulted if you didn’t look directly at it.
The shelves were all a dark, earthy, unglazed stoneware, with the upper surfaces coated in that blueish off-white plaster for the books to rest on. Almost certainly impregnated with nanites for climate and pest control. And the outer surfaces of the shelves were sculpted and carved to reflect the surrounding architecture while also illustrating scenes from the oldest stories that most people knew.
The imagery on the shelves appeared to match the intended subject matter. So, if you were going to look for the Sunspot Chronicles, and other books about the Nanite Innovation, you’d look for the shelves that depicted Morde ascending with Ralf fleeing, surrounded by Tetcha, the Flits, and the Pembers. Which was in a corner near the back, and rather small. Like the other shelves, it was also labeled with an embossed plaque.
That shelf had a copy of Hail Dragons, by the Collective, on it. An edition tentacle-written and tentacle-bound by the Collective themselves. `errke had brought that, acquiring it through connections Ralf had. It wasn’t that you couldn’t go up to the Collective and ask for one, that they wouldn’t happily make for you right there. This one was Morde’s copy, and sie was apparently happy to know it was kept in a good library.
“This is amazing, Rrema,” Morik said, gently picking through the other works of Art.
Near the back of the cart, there were five ceramic mugs, upright, with space arranged for them to sit solidly near the lip of the upper shelf. They were full of liquid. They smelled spicy and fruity from where `errke stood.
“You stopped by a beverage artisan on your way here?” Morik asked, upon seeing those.
“Your favorite one,” Rrema replied.
“Ferringera! Oh, everybody, you’ve gotta have this,” Morik said, picking up one of the mugs.
“That’s the idea,” Rrema said, smiling. “It was Togi’s.”
“Well, you both know me,” Morik murmured before taking a sip.
So they all stood around, holding their mugs and sipping from them, while looking at the cart and eyeing the library, thinking about what might go where. And they did that for a little while, making the occasional comments, and tending to agree with each other. Rrema usually had the most advice to offer, elaborating on other people’s ideas, or divulging wems thinking when wem had chosen a piece.
The drink was divine. With every sip, `errke felt rrems brain light up with colors and tingles and light, just from the flavor of it. And for that time, rrem wallowed in the happiness rrem felt for being welcome into Sharwe’s household. Maybe there would be more days like this.
`errke had worried that Rrema didn’t really like rrem. Or that `errke somehow irritated wem in some way, which might still be true. But that Rrema included `errke in this felt reassuring. Even if it just made sense that there were five drinks for five people.
And then, after a little bit, Rrema took a quick breath, letting it out a little slower, and said, “I need to talk about Nir.”
“Ah,” Togi said.
`errke found rremself mimicking Sharwe and Morik’s expressions of solemn interest, sobering up from the collective daydreaming. Rrem’s worries were rekindled, though. `errke liked Nir where Rrema did not.
“I’ll make it short, so we can get on with the library,” Rrema said. “But I need to tell you all that -” wem paused to take another breath and sigh, staring down at the cart. “I was contacted by a concerned Crew member. Founding Crew.”
“What?” Sharwe asked sharply.
“Yeah,” Rrema said. “That was my reaction. But we chatted. Kihns name is Keplenede, and – … Keh is concerned that Nir is headed toward Monsterhood in a decidedly bad way. But keh also cautioned that we’re probably not equipped to help hem. But…”
Morik opened yems mouth to say something, but `errke found rremself speaking first, “Why would a Founding Crew member take interest in Nir? I mean, someone should, whether hem decides to be a Monster or not! But, what’s the connection?”
“That’s what bothers me about this,” Rrema said. “Keplenede said that keh was taking part in the investigation of the murder as a matter of course. Murders are rare enough that a Founding Crew takes part in each one. Volunteers for it, to make sure that ancient Founding perspectives are available to anyone who needs them. And that, in the course of looking into it, keh had noticed Nir’s involvement in the investigation, and something about Nir had caught kihns attention. And that what keh saw in Nir worried kihn. And keh wanted me to let you know.”
“I have so many questions about that,” Morik mumbled.
“Right?” Rrema said.
“I think it’s suspicious,” Togi said.
“I can’t say I disagree with Keplenede,” Rrema countered sternly. “And I’m definitely glossing over the conversation and adding my own bias to it. I’m trying not to. But I know I am, because I don’t have patience for this, and it’s weird that Keplenede would contact me about it. Why not you three? I’m not part of the investigation. It reeks of manipulation.”
“Huh,” Morik grunted. “But keh is Founding Crew. Would Founding Crew be that transparent and careless like that?”
“I have no idea,” Rrema said.
“Ralf?” `errke barked.
“Yes, Boss?” Ralf manifested next to rrem.
“What do you know about the psychology of Founding Crew, Kiddo?” `errke asked.
“Oh, Hailing Scales, Boss.”
“Based on what you’ve told me, I figure there are three Tutors I’d ask about that,” `errke said. “And you’re the one that’s my parent. So…”
“I am teaching you well, I guess,” Ralf said. “OK. So, where do you want me to start?”
“Are they infallible, capable of countless layers of intrigue and strategy?”
“Not at all,” Ralf replied quickly. “Not even Phage fits that description. They have hundreds of millennia of experience, but they’re still people. They’ve had to find ways to accommodate those memories, either forgetting them or using various crutches. Shit. I’m not all that different, honestly. I’m almost just as old as the youngest one. But I haven’t messed with my psyche at all, leaning on the standard Tutor makeup to keep on going. It depends on the Crew member, but some of them have altered themselves. Doing that doesn’t get rid of imperfections and disabilities, though. It just swaps them out for other ones, typically.”
“What about Keplenede?”
“Don’t know kihn. Couldn’t say.”
`errke scratched rrems chin feathers and looked around at everyone else thoughtfully, checking in. Their expressions were each different, but all were variations of concerned and curious. `errke turned back to Ralf and asked, “Would you be willing to look into kihn for me, using your channels?”
“What does that mean?” Morik asked.
“Tutor channels,” `errke said, knowing that it was not a satisfactory answer. Morik’s silent confusion made it obvious yem didn’t accept it. But `errke wasn’t at liberty to violate Ralf’s privacy. Ralf knew what rrem meant. `errke would leave it up to Ralf to divulge its secrets.
“Sure thing, Boss,” Ralf said. “I’ll ask around. Might take a bit.”
That was yesterday.
Today, Yengkerk had agreed to meet `errke, Sharwe, and Morik in Sharwe’s greenhouse. Which was a whole other building in the same cluster as their household, shared by some other gardeners. It was tall and spacious enough that there were small trees in it, and pathways wove through the beds in a petal pattern, like a giant, simple pentagonal flower.
Because of the filtering of the glass walls, the greenhouse could have mostly green plants within it, but there were still a few purple leafed plants here and there.
There were no insects, no fauna. The plants were tended to by gardeners and nanites alone, but they seemed healthy enough to `errke’s eyes. And probably to most other people’s as well. This was the way people had done things since anyone can remember. But `errke knew Sharwe had complaints, and knew what some of them were now, too.
The crux of gems biggest complaint was that the generational isolation of greenhouses and gardens was not good for plants’ immune responses.
Unlike vertebrates, plants generally didn’t have complex, mobile immune systems that circulated through their structures. Instead, each cell had some kind of adaptive immune mechanisms.
Plants also heavily relied on epigenetic adaptations, which meant that sexual reproduction with a larger population was ideal.
Cultivated plants, especially within greenhouses and people’s homes, didn’t get exposed to as many pathogens, which seemed to make them healthier. But they were also largely only pollinated by their nearest neighbors, usually by application of the nanites rather than by insects and other animals.
And it meant, with the millennia of cultivating plants in this one way, domesticated plants were not as robust as wild plants. There was some cross pollination with outdoor plants, and there were plenty of those. So, with the plants that hadn’t become completely different species over time, they did a little better. But the domesticated plants that couldn’t be found in the rest of the Garden were definitively more vulnerable to various blights.
Now, the nanites could be programmed to do a better job, and that was probably going to happen, at the least. Now that `errke and Sharwe had written something up to shine a light on that problem.
But the two of them felt like they had made a pretty good case for their integrative garden approach by including a myriad of other benefits it might yield.
However, that wasn’t why they were here today. They had been working on Sharwe’s gardening while they waited for Yengkerk to show up. But the topic of discussion now was the relationship between Shegrräo and Refka, and what might have led to Refka’s murder.
But the juxtaposition of the two topics got `errke’s mind grinding away at an observation about the Sunspot and the way the Crew, and subsequently everyone else, did things.
It kind of flabbergasted `errke that Sharwe might have been the first person to observe this about the plants, or to care about it at least, in the whole lifetime of the Sunspot. With things like the construction nanites that could be commanded to replicate themselves by processing the right kinds of matter and the Network that could create and house conscious entities such as the Tutors, it was hard to believe that something fundamental like how to best cultivate plants had gone unnoticed or untended. The combined observational and computational powers of that system of technology should have revealed the problem, and the solutions to it, a long time ago.
It seemed like it might have been a deliberate choice, if that was the case.
Yet the Crew had gone nearly just as long with so many bigger decisions that had shut down communication between them and the rest of the populace. Up until a bit over a century ago, the Children had no clue who the Crew even were, and the Tutors were the go between. And the Tutors hadn’t even communicated with the Crew directly, leaving messages with the Auditor and receiving anonymized directions directly through a dedicated channel. At least, that’s what Ralf said.
`errke tended to trust Ralf in this. It had feelings regarding the whole thing, too.
The Sunspot’s culture had apparently been in some sort of stasis up until the Nanite Innovation. And even now, there was an obvious resistance to change. Especially big change, but even small innovations could take longer than expected to be approved. Small changes could take a few months to a few years for approval. Big ones could take decades or more.
`errke wasn’t sure where their integrative garden project fell on that scale. They’d just have to wait and find out.
But, the thing was, getting a personal exception, instead of shipwide approval, seemed to be much easier, for some reason.
`errke had pretty high hopes that they’d be able to start their first integrative garden within a few days of submitting the paperwork. And rrem had personal experience to back up that assumption.
Maybe it was something relatively new, a precedent established by Metabang and Ralf and their students at the initiation of the Nanite Innovation. But, when `errke was just eight years old, rrem had been able to secure permission to wander into the Wilderness of the Garden without rebuke.
Sharwe had similar permission. Which was a big part of the reason for how they met.
As far as `errke knew, it wasn’t very common. Most people were frequently reminded by their Tutors to respect the autonomy of the Garden’s flora and fauna, and to not disturb them. And most people got into the habit of doing so. But, various exceptions were just common enough as to be an established pattern now.
Monsters like Shegrräo, Refka, and Yengkerk were very different, though. They had Special Dispensation, granted to them by their Vow for the purposes of accommodating the disability that made them Monsters – not being connected to the Network.
But their Vow was supposed to mean that they were personally committed to stewardship of the Sunspot and the rest of its inhabitants. At this point, most people knew this because of Metabang’s book and Abacus’ speeches. Monsters were like very short lived Crew, essentially, bound to even stricter law than the Children.
But, still, Shegrräo had been allowed to make a fire, and Refka had been allowed to harvest living wood, and neither of those things seemed like they were in the realm of doing as little harm to the Garden as possible.
Before Yengkerk showed up, `errke was gearing up to talk about that.
Normally, when a person showed up at one’s residence or studio, one’s Tutor announced it so that you could give your consent to visit. Most people had Tutors and connections to the Network to facilitate that kind of communication.
That didn’t happen this time.
Sharwe and `errke were bent over one of the beds, tending to the collection of plants in it, when Ralf said, “Uh, `errke?”
And just as rrem was rising to look up from rrems work to respond, Yengkerk said, “Hello,” from about two meters behind rrem and Sharwe.
Both `errke and Sharwe turned to look.
Yengkerk stood upright like Sharwe, but was much more lean, and wore trousers and a tunic, both designed to accommodate their narrow, flexible tail. They were covered in a very short tawny-gold fur, and had a broad, dark colored triangular nose on their trapezoidal face. Their eyes were a startling blue, not very common amongst Children. And their face was framed by glorious black mane that was punctuated by two short, sharp horns and a couple of lengthy triangular ears.
Unless `errke stood up on two feet, Yengkerk would continue to tower over rrem. Rrem put up with it, keeping rrem’s forearms free to gesture and hold things but remaining relaxed.
It was a very conscious choice to do that. Rrem’s reflexes at being startled like that had told rrem to stand as tall as possible. Rrem had resisted that.
“I’m Yengkerk, they/them,” they said. “I believe you wanted to talk to me.”
“Yes,” `errke said. “I’m `errke. Rrem. Morik is on the other side of the greenhouse, over there.” Rrem then sent a message to Morik that Yengkerk was here.
“I’m Sharwe. My pronoun is gem,” Sharwe said.
Yengkerk nodded and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. You saw the recording, then?”
A polite formality and then a direct question. A small gesture toward the courtesies strangers owed each other, and then shortness. It was startling, and almost put `errke off rrems social stride.
`errke narrowed rrems eyes and said, “Let’s let Morik join us before we get into the stew of the meal, if that’s OK with you.”
Yengkerk gave a curt nod and looked around, while Sharwe placed a gentle paw on `errke’s shoulder.
Morik gangled over to them, yems lanky-limbed gait causing yems body, tail, and head to waggle. And yem timed that waggle to weave around protruding tree and bush limbs.
Smiling, yem told Yengkerk, “I’m Morik. My pronoun is yem. I’m glad you’ve agreed to talk to us. I hope we’re doing things right.”
“I was asking if you had all seen the recording, then,” Yengkerk stated.
“Mm,” Morik grunted softly. “Yes, we have.”
“I have not,” replied Yengkerk. “I’m not looking forward to it, but I also can only watch it on my tablet.” They patted a slim pouch that hung from a cross body strap. Their tail whipped back and forth as they positioned themself to see all three of them. “This is why I came. I would like to hear what you saw and heard. I’d like to know details I might miss by watching it on my tablet.”
“Well, I think we can try to help you with that,” `errke said. “Do you want to walk around the greenhouse, or find a place to sit.”
“I’m fine,” Yengkerk said.
“OK. Me, too.”
Sharwe spoke up, “I feel like I got a good look at all the details. I have vivid flashbacks to it. And, we could review it here and talk about it with you. But I don’t think there’s much to miss, honestly.”
“That sounds like a good plan, regardless,” Yengkerk said.
Morik frowned at Yengkerks bruskness, and then matched it, “Did you visit the site yet?”
“No,” Yengkerk replied. “I’m headed there. You were on my way.”
“Do you want to visit it together?” Morik asked.
“Yes,” Yengkerk seemed pleased for the first time since appearing in the greenhouse.
“Well, I guess we should start going that way,” `errke suggested. “We can talk on the way.”
“That would be lovely!” Yengkerk agreed.
It was a long walk.
It was a sunny and clear day, and since the sun was still forward of the Ring Mountains, they could look straight up to see Katofar peninsula, with the Aft Sea to the Aft of it and Ten Mouth Sound to the Fore, faintly through the blue atmosphere. The city of Baril, on the Anti-spinward tip of the peninsula was a subtle tan discoloration in the midst of the violet coastal rainforests there. Katofar mountain was a white splotch in the middle of the peninsula, easily mistaken for clouds.
Other parts of the Garden were clearly experiencing dark and rainy weather, or thick but wispy high cirrus clouds widely surrounding those storms.
A soaring rufwemni flew over Kwera, high enough to avoid the deterrents, nearly a speck. But `errke’s especially keen eyes caught the movement. Rrem knew it was a rufwemni based solely on what it was doing. No other coastal birds could fly that high.
Despite their earlier gruffness, Yengkerk had opened up and was volunteering what sounded like everything they knew about Shegrräo and Reffka. So, Yengkerk’s voice filled the air between and over the sounds of distant playing children and any outdoor Artistry collectives they passed. The atmosphere around them was otherwise still, with hardly a breeze.
“It did seem like they had sort of a quiet feud going on between them,” Yengkerk said for the third time. “Refka really seemed to have a hard time speaking up for rremself, in any case. And while I only heard Shegrräo vocally betray xyr frustration with Refka a couple of times, Refka spent the last few years working up a good silent fury over something between them. I could tell rrem had had it that last night, and I tried to step in the way to intervene, to keep rrem from following Shegrräo too closely out of the Moot. Rrem was a persistent one, though, I guess.”
They’d been getting an earful about how Monster Moots worked, and prior to that a rundown of who knew Shegrräo and could elaborate better on xyr history. Refka seemed to be a bit more of a mystery to Yengkerk. According to Yengkerk, rrem had seemed a shy, reclusive Monster without many friends, who was having a rough time of it socially.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, because when Shegrräo spoke against Refka, it was only ever to let Refka know when rrem had put rrems own foot in rrems mouth. A courtesy, really.”
“In the recording, Refka tells Shegrräo to stay out of rrem’s personal relationship with Shegrräo’s sibling,” `errke reported. “Maybe something happened there to start the feud?”
“Huh, could be,” Yengkerk said. “That doesn’t spark any memories for me, though. Can’t say what that’d be. I’ll pay close attention to that part.”
“To be clear,” Morik said. “Rrem said rrem had rejected the sibling’s romantic advances, and seemed to accuse Shegrräo of taking vengeance, and taking it too far. Or something like that. The words were quick and vague. Rrem told xem to ‘back off’, specifically. Like Shegrräo was still causing problems somehow.”
Yengkerk took a deep breath and let it out with a long head shaking sigh, “Whew. Sure didn’t seem like that was going on. But Refka was fuming enough to make me almost believe rrem believed it.”
“Mm,” Morik said. “You’ll see for yourself that Shegrräo stood xyr ground, doubled down, and refused to ‘back off’. But, Refka was warned and was the one to attack, so it was a matter of self defense on xyr part.”
Yengkerk nodded, “Shegrräo’s big.”
“Oh, yeah,” `errke said.
Sharwe was being particularly quiet, clearly listening in but also thinking. Occasionally, gem would eye a plant as they walked by it.
`errke sidestepped to give Sharwe a gentle push with rrems hip, haunch to haunch.
Sharwe reached over to preen `errke’s feathers as they walked. That touch was so nice. Incongruent with the subject of the conversation, but very welcome to `errke. It helped rrem think.
`errke saw Morik smile kindly when yem caught a glimpse of the two of them. And that was distracting. Because when Morik smiled, `errke felt rrems heart burst with tingles. And there were all sorts of feelings to sort with that, that came from all directions.
Ah, all three of them would have time to explore that later!
“Refka was a fool to attack xem,” Yengkerk said.
“Obviously,” Morik said. “Which begs the question: Why? Wouldn’t it take a lot of work to get someone to do that? From someone?”
“One would think,” Yengkerk agreed. “I guess I’ll have to see it myself, but I’ll believe you for now, too. Maybe Shegrräo was hiding xyr shittier behavior from the rest of us. I know I kind of suspected it after a while. Just didn’t seem like xem, though, if you know what I mean.”
`errke remembered what rrem had been wanting to ask about before Yengkerk had arrived and derailed those thoughts with their surprising behavior. Morik’s ‘from someone’ snagged at that memory, for some reason, and pulled it forward.
“I’ve got a question about Monsters,” `errke said. “I’m wondering if your answers will be different from my Tutor’s.”
“Serve ‘em up,” Yengkerk said.
“Are you all allowed to make fires in the Wilderness? Is that a thing?” `errke asked.
“Yep,” Yengkerk confirmed. “Though, most of us frown on it. Hotplates are safer, do less environmental damage. But a few Monsters here and there burning wood doesn’t make enough smoke to tax the nanites, honestly. Why?”
“Shegrräo was cooking with a fire.”
“Ah, yeah. Xe’d be the type for that.”
Maybe this line of thought was a dead end. It really wasn’t relevant to the motives for the murder in any case. But `errke’s curiosity prompted the questions, and it also seemed like Morik was more deeply driven by similar thoughts. Yem had perked up when rrem had asked that question. So.
“What about harvesting green wood, like directly from a tree?” `errke asked.
“Well,” Yengkerk said. “That’s a much more direct violation of a plant’s autonomy, right? But it depends. A small enough amount, like a twig, and no one’s gonna care. A larger amount, if the tree is still healthy, even you could still get away with it once or twice. Just don’t make it a habit. Being a Monster doesn’t necessarily give that many more freedoms there than you have.” Yengkerk scratched their head. “The way it generally works is if there is a pattern of damage that starts to affect the Auditor’s accounting, then it’s treated like any other crime. Right? When the damage reaches a certain amount, it’s treated just like this murder. And the Founding Crew has tasked us all with figuring out a way to stop it from continuing. Can’t really argue with that idea, even if I disagree with them about a lot of other stuff.”
“But we’ve never been able to stop murders from happening at all,” Morik pointed out.
“True,” Yengkerk said. “But we could be living in a world that has a lot more of ‘em. And we’re not.”
Sharwe spoke up, “I’m allowed to take clippings.”
“How common is that amongst gardeners?” Yengkerk asked.
“I don’t know anybody else that does it, personally,” Sharwe said. “But I know of some who have, or do.”
“And you’re careful, directed by your Tutor, right?”
“Yes,” Sharwe said. “Kettle looked into it for me and gave me access to some ancient notes. So, I guess there’s precedent.”
“But not a lot of people do it, which means that not much damage is done on a broader scale,” Yengkerk concluded.
Sharwe frowned, “How does the Crew manage that?”
“That’s more of a question for your Tutor, because I think it’s different for us Monsters,” Yengkerk said. “We manage ourselves, right? Where-as you are managed by your Tutors on behalf of the Crew.”
“But,” `errke interjected, thinking Sharwe had maybe picked up on this, but wanting to be the one to make the point. “Doesn’t being managed, being restricted, violate Autonomy? Like, if the Crew declare, ‘Sharwe and `errke can go off the trail but no one else can’, doesn’t that violate everyone else’s right to Autonomy?”
“Haven’t you asked your Tutor that question by now, though?” Yengkerk shot back.
“Yeah, I guess I have,” `errke admitted. “But I think I’m asking this in the context of this murder, actually. Because, like you said, it works differently for Monsters. You manage yourselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the murder weapon, for one.”
“Ah!” Yengkerk frowned at the sky for a moment, then turned and said, “Can you describe it again? I guess I’ll need to see it.”
“It’s that piece of green wood I mentioned,” `errke said, trying to remember what else about it seemed odd. “A pretty big one.”
Sharwe spoke up, “I didn’t look at it for very long, but my mind won’t let go of the image. The banding on it, from the rings of the tree, were what you should expect if you got it from the sapwood of a very large tree. Probably from just inside the cambium. Uh, near the bark. It would have left a pretty big wound.”
“Right! That,” `errke said.
“Of course, the nanites would probably automatically work to protect the tree,” Sharwe said. “I imagine. I’ve seen them doing it for some damage and not for others.”
`errke wondered what kind of criteria the nanites might be programmed for. But, certainly, protecting trees and plants from damage caused by people seemed in keeping with the philosophies they were talking about.
“OK,” Yengkerk said. “A little thought experiment, perhaps. I’ve noticed that you two are very physical with each other. You like being physically intimate, yes? At least, as friends. So, you have mutually agreed to allow unsolicited and unquestioned acts of contact, like bumping each other.”
`errke felt taken aback that Yengkerk didn’t ask permission to talk about that subject. But, because they were a Monster and had already displayed a bruskness, rrem let it slide, just as rrem had for all of their previous little social transgressions. It didn’t escape rrems attention that this was relevant to the point Yengkerk was probably making, too.
“Uh, yeah,” Sharwe said, guardedly.
Morik snickered, then cleared yems throat.
Yengkerk continued, “We’re all taught by our Tutors and Caretakers to respect each other’s right to Consent about anything that could cross personal boundaries and violate rights to autonomy. Personal space and contact falls into that, because you never really know what might hurt another person. And, your culture, at least, has rules of politeness that everyone tends to follow, except when they don’t.”
“Uh-huh,” `errke acknowledged, waiting for more.
“Monster culture is the same, really. We have lived separate from the Children and the Crew long enough that we’ve developed our own rules, but we have our rules just the same,” Yengkerk explained. “But, it’s where we assume permission that’s different. Also, how we handle transgressions might be different, too. We Monsters lean on authority less than Children do. But, still, it’s usually the little things, like putting your hand on your partner’s arm and such.”
“And how does this relate to the murder weapon?” `errke asked. Rrem felt rrem could see it. Rrem knew how rrem would draw the connection, but rrem was slightly more interested to hear how Yengkerk would.
“This kind of relationship also works between people. It is happening in particular between the Monsters and the Crew,” Yengkerk said. “And also between the Crew and the Crew.”
“OK.” This was still totally review of conversations that `errke had had with Ralf, and also with Sharwe just a few days ago when they agreed to be more loose with their physicality, but rrem had never heard it from a Monster before.
“It would not be unheard of for a Monster to tacitly be given permission to harvest green wood in conservative amounts, and establish a pattern, only to fall back on exploiting that permission to commit murder in an act of passion,” Yengkerk concluded. “And while the ship’s systems are recording everything, and the Auditor is paying attention to it all, the Auditor isn’t a person and doesn’t know what to look for. And even though there are billions of Crew, very, very few of them are actually interested in what goes on in the Garden. And it’s pretty easy for those that do to miss transgressions. Especially since Autonomy is one of the two inalienable rights. Deciding how and when to revoke one person’s Autonomy in order to protect another’s, or the Garden’s, isn’t a clearly cut line.”
“How did Refka harvest the wood and make the weapon?” Morik asked.
Yengkerk looked at yem and asked, “Did you think to review the recording of that?”
`errke sneezed in disgust. None of them had thought to do that. It was so obvious.
“Anyway, it was probably through use of the nanites,” Yengkerk said.
“Monsters have access to the nanites?” Morik asked.
“We always have,” Yengkerk said. “Well, not always. The first few Monsters didn’t, but since we were granted Special Dispensation through the Vow, we’ve had it. And it’s been long enough it might as well have been always. Besides, the name Monster wasn’t officially adopted until that day. It was a slur before that.”
While Yengkerk was talking, `errke zoned out a little bit and paid attention to rrems Network space. Then rrem pulled up the public recordings of Refka, which were comprehensive. Scrolling backward from the point of rrems murder, `errke quickly found the moment where rrem had harvested the wood.
`errke watched as Refka typed something into rrems tablet, then placed rrems hand on a nearby tree. A section of bark about the size of the stake dissolved, and then the wood underneath started to dissolve too, leaving the stake intact in the machine cut wound. Then, the remaining slurry of wood pulp and nanites pushed the stake out into Refka’s hand.
When Refka walked away from the tree, `errke kept rrems focus on the tree, so rrem saw the wood in the wound begin to be covered with a dark, graphene colored film of nanites.
Then rrem scrolled back again and watched it all over, focusing on Refka. But Refka was stony faced and silent through the whole scene and didn’t utter a word until rrem confronted Shegrräo with that revolting insult.
Although, `errke could hear the discussion continuing while rrem reviewed the recordings, rrem remained focused, sparing only enough attention to the outer world to keep walking and avoid bumping into anybody or anything.
There was one more thing to look at, out of curiosity. To answer some of the questions they’d just asked Yengkerk.
What was the command that Refka had entered into rrems tablet?
Because Refka was dead, and the victim of murder, it should have been publicly available as a potential clue to the circumstances of the murder.
It was not.
When `errke tried looking over Refka’s shoulder to watch rrem type, both the readout and Refka’s finger movements were blurred out with the word “Sanctioned” stamped over it.
“Ralf?” `errke asked.
“Yes, Boss?” Ralf responded, appearing in rrems Netspace.
As a Tutor, it had tools that allowed it to multitask in a way that `errke couldn’t quite do. It was probably also talking to Metabang, Morde, Abacus, Phage, Eh, or whomever else of renown it might know, possibly all at once for all `errke knew.
This was a simple question, though.
“Why is this sanctioned?” `errke pointed at the blurred out sections of the paused recordings.
“Oh, easy,” Ralf said. “Maybe there’s another reason, but usually it’s because it involves someone else’s name, and they haven’t given consent to be known.”
“In a murder investigation?”
Ralf shrugged, which `errke could see in the movement of its disembodied scarf and gloves, “they’ve almost certainly been notified of it, and had their consent requested. They might still answer it.”
“But if they choose not to,” `errke said.
“They could have a reason,” Ralf replied.
“What do you think?”
“Already looking into it.”
“Gonna take a bit?”
“No guarantees, either, Boss.”
“I know, Kiddo. Thank you.”
“Anything to help you learn and to keep you happy. It’s my honor and pleasure,” Ralf said.
`errke smiled and said, “I’m not twelve anymore, Ralf.”
“My love for you and what you’re doing with yourself has only gotten stronger with age,” the ancient Tutor said.
“I’m so lucky to be your Student,” `errke replied. “You know that. But we’re straying pretty far from our usual snark, you know.”
“Ah, the old comfort zone.”
“It’s the murder. So near the shore. It makes me not in the mood for snark.”
“You always seem to, Boss,” Ralf tilted its hat sideways before fading out.
They knew each other’s implied sign outs intimately at this point.
`errke returned to the walking conversation with Yengkerk to find they had reached the shoreline park.
`errke found rremself wishing that Rrema and Togi hadn’t bowed out of the investigation. Rrema was astute in ways that felt really suited to this sort of thing, and Togi just brought a calming air with nems presence. And both things felt really needed right now, stepping out onto the pebbles and sand of the beach.
There was a tension there that `errke couldn’t place. Whether it had come from the conversation rrem hadn’t been paying attention to, or the beach itself, rrem couldn’t guess. Everyone was especially silent, and there were no animals in sight. No cuttlecrabs, no birds.
The waves weren’t any different. Laconically rolling in like they typically did, an irregular but even pattern. The weather hadn’t gotten any worse from the near idyllic it had been when they set out.
So, that absence of animals was either a coincidence in their fluctuating movements, or they’d been disturbed away. Had one of the others shouted and startled them, or something?
`errke looked at Sharwe and Morik, and met unsettled confusion. Yengkerk looked concerned.
“Sorry I zoned out,” `errke said. “Reviewing Refka’s actions. I think I’ve learned something suspicious about it.”
“Yeah?” Sharwe asked with some caution aimed at their surroundings.
“First, did I miss anything?” `errke asked.
The three others shook their heads.
“We stopped conversing right as we entered the beach and noticed the quiet,” Yengkerk explained. “The timing of it and the quietness of it are spooky.”
“Yeah,” Sharwe confirmed.
“Ah, OK,” `errke said, keeping an eye out for predators that would spook any typical fauna, even though this was a park and the deterrents should keep all but the cuttlecrabs away. Rrem stepped out ahead, and said to Yengkerk, “It’s this way. I can even show you where Refka harvested the murder weapon.”
As they walked, a lone cuttlecrab emerged from the surf, carried in and deposited by a wave before skuttling off in the direction they were all headed, to the murder scene.
If it noticed them, it didn’t wave. It didn’t even pause.
After they watched it go, `errke said, “Refka used a command to make the nanites harvest the wood. The command was sanctioned and blurred out. I couldn’t read it.”
“And that’s weird,” Morik said.
“Yeah,” `errke said. “I think so, at least. Ralf implied that it agreed.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence, nobody asking what `errke thought it meant. It seemed they were all too wary of the surrounding absence of animals and the cuttlecrab’s strange behavior to delve into it. They’d presumably continue when they safely got to the murder scene.
But as they got closer, they began to hear the intense chattering of a sub-Collective of cuttlecrabs. A big sub-Collective.
And as they rounded a bend in the beach, coming around an outcropping of dunes and forest, the sub-Collecitve came into view, up near the dunes but still on the flat of the beach.
Nir was standing in the middle of them, talking loudly, trying to be heard over the cacophony.