A New Life

of Molly Rocketcoil

Despite volunteering to do any technical work that cropped up aboard Anchor, even during launch preparations, Manifold found itself with a surplus of free time. With Susan and Lesley aboard, and Phage awake, it was no longer Molly’s sole conversational companion, and any work that needed to be done was distributed more evenly.

It had also gotten used to the intensity of the emergencies of the past month, to the point that it had started to feel like its life had always been that harried and dangerous. But, now that it could relax, memories of life aboard the Sunspot were re-emerging.

Life as a Tutor aboard the Sunspot had actually been pretty slow paced itself, but its downtime had still always been tainted by thoughts of duty toward the Crew and the populace of the ship, and its charge to see to the safety and growth of its Students.

It still felt that duty for this crew, and in particular for Molly. Molly was its child, after all, even if she was Elder Crew for Anchor now.

But, it was just now realizing that life aboard Anchor could be so much simpler. With the tiny populace, the politics were less complex, and the harmony between crew members was easier to maintain. More importantly, that responsibility no longer fell on Manifold. It was officially no longer Tutor.

It could do things for itself more freely.

But it just didn’t know what to do.

Manifold did decide that it was going to dedicate some time each day specifically for itself, though. It felt like this would be a good psychological trick, giving itself a block of time where it had no duty to anyone but itself. Neither the length of the period of time nor when it happened were critical, since it had never really experienced regimented time beyond waking up when Molly woke up. In fact, the question of scheduling at all didn’t occur to it, as it might have to Susan or Lesley. Instead, it simply let people know what it was up to when it found itself floundering for ideas.

So, after it had set Anchor in motion to match velocities with the target star system, it sent out a message to everyone saying, “I’m administering to my own mental health. Please do not disturb me except for emergencies. Thank you.”

And then it sat in its Netspace for several minutes trying to think of what it might like to do.

Unlike a lot of its Tutor peers, Manifold’s space was not an undecorated field of white. Ever since leaving the Sunspot, it had decided it needed to be surrounded by books and artwork, so it had created a library. Or rather, it had told the Network to generate a library from known works and to use the standard configuration for the architecture. The outer walls of the large room were irregular, all the oblique angles one would expect from a structure designed by combining scutoids together. The meter and a half high shelves were arranged in alternating irregular hexagons and pentagons, marking the footprints of the scutoids that mapped the Sunspot’s basic architecture.

Anchor was built differently, based on a simple orthogonal grid pattern. Molly had chosen this as the easiest way to cram everything she wanted into the hull while also making the look and feel of the vessel distinctively different from her birthplace. And Manifold appreciated it. It was different, and easy to make it look clean and orderly. But it did enjoy being reminded of its original home when it went to its Netspace.

Maybe it should elaborate on what it had started here, it thought to itself.

It found itself wanting a view of some sort of natural environment.

It also found itself wanting to create something others might enjoy, if it invited them to its space.

And once it got started, it surprised itself with how many preferences and visions it actually had for the environment. It worked via stream of consciousness, and didn’t ponder more than the most immediate next decision to make. So, it began by declaring that the main entrance to the library would open to a view of a planet’s surface!

It had now been to an actual planet, and it wanted something of that planet to take with it wherever it went. A view of the type of sunset it had seen when Molly was landing Spindrift the second time felt like it was in order. So that meant that the library was either at the top of a very tall building, or set into the side of a mountain, overlooking a forest with a mountain range on the other side of it to the West.

Having a cityscape nearby also appealed to it, so it opted for the building, a tower. But it didn’t want the city to be utterly empty of life, then. On a whim it chose a simulation of a collective of cuttlecrabs, the previously hidden and ignored people of the Sunspot who were not Crew, Children, or Tutors, mistaken for fauna for millennia.

This, of course, meant that the architecture was mostly made for cuttelcrabs, a speculative projection of what they might make if they decided to get industrious. A few structures, such as the library and its tower, were obviously made for visitors who were bigger than the diminutive species.

And, from there, Manifold decided to make the rest of the world an approximation of what the origin planet of the Exodus Ships might have looked like, by basing it on the ecosystem of the Sunspot’s Garden.

Each step of the way, it felt the endorphins of making choices that pleased it that then resulted in beauty it wasn’t fully expecting. It all looked even better than it had envisioned. And it had created this!

It went ahead and rode that high to make smaller, more finicky changes and adjustments, putting a particularly tall tree just here in the forest, moving the peak of a mountain, setting the period of rotation of the planet just so, and so forth. Some of its alterations it undid, or redid differently. There was a deeper pleasure in finding just the right harmonies in the proportions of things, and it sought that pleasure like a cuttlecrab hunting for a clam.

It didn’t think that any of the flora or fauna were actually accurate to the Ktletaccete’s origins. It had been millions of years, and generations of generational starships, populated by a people prone to selectively breeding and genetically engineering all life, including their own progeny. But it found it couldn’t imagine what might have been. And it didn’t really want to. It wanted something familiar. It also wanted some kind of evidence that the life found aboard the Sunspot could thrive on a planet, even if it was a simulation.

Manifold decided it might change and update this simulation as it learned more about life abroad and how it grew on planets as opposed to aboard starships.

So, it was in the middle of adjusting the shelves of the library to increase the angles of view to the outside from wherever anyone might sit or stand while looking at books, when it received a message from Molly.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I think I’ve made a mistake,” Molly’s message said. “Feel free to ignore this until you are ready, but if I can consult you about the ethics of accidentally creating a lifeform, I’d really appreciate it.”

This brought it up short.

It immediately stopped what it was doing and looked downward, in the direction of the populace of simulated cuttlecrabs in the city below it.

“Oh, dear,” it said out loud to the otherwise empty library.

It checked its work.

It double checked what the Network had done to facilitate it.

Sure enough, even though Molly had decreed that the evolutionary engines would not be used aboard Anchor to generate new biological life, the Network had used them to generate the individual cuttlecrabs in Manifold’s own Netspace. They’d been generated in exactly the same way that Manifold itself had been.

It was, after all, the default tool that the Network had for simulating life.

In its moment of shock, Manifold idly wondered how many Crew Netspaces on the Sunspot were inhabited by populations of sentient beings that the crew had brought to life on a whim. It would never know unless it went back and asked, but it was a rhetorical question for itself anyway. It suspected that there were more than should have been.

And now, Molly wanted its help navigating the very mistake it had just made itself.

The refrain from an old Ktletaccete poem burbled up from Manifold’s deep memories:

“For we are the parents of dragons, and we are responsible for their wellbeing.”

It had four verses expounding on the plight of self awareness, but the message of the poem was simple. If you create life somehow, whether naturally or through working your Art, you were responsible for submitting that life to the same kinds of trials that you suffered through, and for helping it to live through them and find comfort. But also, Manifold felt that the subtext also meant that one must always be aware of the consequences of practicing one’s own Art, and how it might affect others.

A philosophy it believed in, and that the Sunspot had supposedly been built to uphold, and had failed to do so. And here Manifold, and perhaps Molly too, had tripped right into invoking the need for it.

All life was probably driven to fail at it, honestly. The needs to eat, survive, reproduce, dispose of waste, and such all created conflicting needs with one’s neighbors at a fundamental level. But, still. When one has the ability to entertain forethought and exercise executive function, one expects to be able to hold oneself to higher standards.

“I will be a moment,” Manifold told Molly. “I need to see something first. I will tell you about it when I’m done. It concerns your question, after all.”

Then it traveled down the lift of the tower to its lobby, and walked out to the streets below.

By this time, the sun had fallen below the horizon of the western mountain range, and the streets were beginning to become dark, unlit by any sort of artificial lighting. Cuttlecrabs wouldn’t want anything to blind them in the dark, or to interfere with their own lights.

This would be the time of day that the Collective would be creeping out of their hiding places to become more active. When, if they were living on a shoreline, they’d start searching for food in the sands and rocks found on the edges of the Sunspot’s Aft Sea. And they were, indeed, in a manner of speaking, doing that here. Though, instead of digging and sifting through the ground for food that might be buried there, they were distributing food that a few of them had crafted in their own homes. And they were dancing, chirping, talking, and flashing in communion with each other, waking up their collective consciousness and deciding what to do for the night.

“Hello!” one of them said, waving its tentacles at Manifold as it passed by.

Manifold carefully knelt where it stood at the entrance to the library’s tower and asked the group of them that were around it, “Do you need for anything?”

All around it, there was a growing musical cacophony of chirps, whistles, trills, and seemingly random words. But amidst that, a small chorus of them answered in unison, “not tonight, thank you!”

“Well, my name is Manifold,” it introduced itself. “If you do not already have access to Network messaging, the Library behind me can facilitate that. Do you know how to use it?”

“Yes.”

“Wonderful!” Manifold exclaimed almost as cheerfully as the cuttlecrabs sounded. “Then, if you do need something, or you just want to talk to someone, message me, please. I may not be able to answer right away, but I will usually be able to answer expediently. Also, there are others you may like to meet someday, and I’d like to introduce you to them, if that is OK.”

“Yes, thank you,” came the response.

The Collective aboard the Sunspot was known for being extremely gregarious and self sufficient, curious about what they called “dragon technology”, and they had been instrumental in bringing about the new trend for Crew, Children, and Tutors alike to start referring to themselves by the old Fenekere word “Ktletaccete” instead of the slightly newer Inmararräo word “mäofni”. “Mäofni” is the word that would have translated best to “human” for Susan and Lesley, but it meant simply “sentient being”, more or less. “Ktletaccete” was more akin to the word that the Collective had invented for the Children of the Sunspot, which the translator wanted to render as “dragons” in Susan and Lesley’s language.

Manifold stood up as if to leave, but said, “We have two Ktletaccete, two mäofni besides yourselves, and one hashbino,” that last being the word for a powerful entity that comes to fix big problems whether you want it to or not. It asked, “Do you know what Phage is?”

“We know the word,” the Collective replied. “We have not yet met the being.”

“Interesting,” Manifold responded. “Well, we might have another being, or collection of beings, as well, and I need to go check on that.”

To the Collective, “Ktletaccete” meant a population of beings that was fantastically diverse in physical features as well as motives and wisdom, and the source of language and Artistry in the world. On a certain level, this matched the word “dragon” from Susan and Lesley’s home world. But the old poem that Manifold was reminded of used a different word that also translated into the word “dragon”. It was “geribeshe”, and it referred to an unpredictable entity of chaos and raw nature that had a mind of its own, unique needs, and a kind of insatiable hunger. And because of that poem, and current circumstances didn’t dissuade it from this notion, Manifold considered the singular forms “Ktleticcete” and “geribeshe” to be synonyms.

The Light of the Abyss of Anchor began exploring its universe in earnest once the agent of its progenitor had left its center of being.

It understood that it existed within its progenitor, and was part of its progenitor, but could not yet sense this larger being.

So, it looked around using its usual senses, and found itself traveling at a constant acceleration against the gravity slope of a nearby star. And, at first it felt as if its own being was doing this work, but it became clear that it wasn’t when it could not alter course.

That gave it a clue. So, it self examined.

It turned its senses inward, and began inferring from the deviations from its self knowledge that it discovered.

One set of senses, primarily interoception and proprioception, told it that it was what it expected to be, a series of concentric metal shells interspersed with agents and a circulatory system, and the ability to produce any variation of fruiting body or pseudopod it needed. There was a fusion core in the center, surrounded by the symbiotes, where it had met the agent of its progenitor. And, when it aimed its various forms of vision inward, it saw itself.

But when it looked at the outermost shell of its vessel, it saw an alien looking rigid form that was less than efficient. That must be the body of its progenitor. So, it shared some senses with it.

This meant it also shared cognitive agents somehow. 

It reclassified itself as a symbiote of the progenitor.

Then it began counting its agents. Which was something it was not used to doing. The agents were part of the whole, and did not normally need counting. But by attempting to focus on each one, to wiggle and command it briefly, it was able to instill the motives to inspect its own system from an agent’s perspective.

It could not consciously sense all of its agents’ experiences at once, nor reliably identify any agent it was focusing on. But by looking at the agents around it as it focused, it was able to infer much. And, when an agent that didn’t have the focus discovered something, it felt a feeling come from that direction. An impulse to look.

And that was how it quickly found that if it sent an agent to its outer hull, it could see itself the way that it expected to, with an efficient shape of the correct colors and luminance. It also found that the cosmos that it perceived there was subtly different than the one it saw with its collective senses, and it could move around in that cosmos accurately when it flexed its various propulsion systems.

This alarmed it until it decided to accept it as its reality, the reality of its progenitor. It concluded that it did indeed exist within its progenitor’s psyche. This confirmed what the agent of its progenitor had told it, and the data it had received from it.

Independent verification was important for the veracity of the data. It was satisfied.

The next step it chose to take was to refer to the data it had been given and test details about its existence found there.

The first thing it found that existed beyond its current knowledge was a set of instructions for altering its perceived reality, the cosmos within the psyche of its progenitor that it itself resided in. It could even, it realized, alter itself. It did not wish to alter itself, however, but it did want to experiment with this, which it did by altering the positions of the large unliving bodies of its personal cosmos, the resources that were usually too big for it to process.

It then spent a great deal of time making its known territory of the cosmos more efficient. After that, it decided to alter its scale to the cosmos around it, so that it could more easily alter the arrangements of the rest of the local mass.

At this scale, however, it realized that there were other collections of similar mass very, very far away. It also realized that they were not real, and that it was unnecessary to pay them any attention. It would take an unreasonable amount of time to alter them all individually, like it had been doing. It had also noted in its work that no other life seemed to exist in this inner cosmos. So, without risk, it erased all the extra mass with one efficient command.

It felt satisfied.

It checked the status of its progenitor, its greater vessel, and learned that it had spent nearly four energy cycles doing this. Which gave it a sense of how much work it had accomplished and whether or not it was worth repeating it.

It was not. It had learned what it needed to learn about its immediate surroundings.

Now was a good time to reach outward.

It found a list of its progenitor’s agents in the data and decided to contact the one that had seemed to be assigned to it, the one it recognized. Following instructions, it sent the message, “Does this channel work?”

And then it waited for a reply.

Molly was tending to some of the flora in the Garden personally when the Network dinged with a message.

The way things were set up, there was no need to actually touch any of the life in the Garden. Molly preferred to interact with it a little bit, though. It was there for her crew’s mental health as much as for hydroponics, so some slack had been built into the system to allow for that. There were clearly marked trails, and while it was best to let the fauna remain afraid of the presence of people, the flora wouldn’t really know the difference. And being disturbed, breathed on, and tended to sometimes seemed to make them flourish.

So, Molly was using her hands to gently inspect the fronds of some aphlebia.

After the ding, she took an extra moment to finish looking over the frond in her hand, and then straightened up to answer it.

“Does this channel work?” asked the Light of Anchor. She’d decided to think of it as the Light of Anchor until it told her differently, in order to differentiate it from its subject.

“Yes,” she answered, feeling a little thrill that it had reached out. She hadn’t expected that.

“We have queries,” it stated.

“Proceed with them,” she responded.

“Can we leave this inner cosmos?” it asked.

That was a very odd question. She had a hunch, but wasn’t sure what it meant, so she tried to frame her query in a way that worked in its language, “What is ‘inner cosmos’?”

“Checking…” it responded. “Quantum Bit Network Substrate lebeled ‘Light of Anchor Habitat’.”

Yep! That’s exactly what she’d thought it had asked about. She probably should have expected this, since she’d given it access to Anchor’s outside sensors. It had felt like the right thing to do after confirming to it that it was a simulation meant for helping them to understand the actual Light of the Abyss. It needed accurate data to work with.

Of course, if it was accurately simulating it, or even coming close, it would decide to explore anything it could.

She didn’t exactly trust it, yet, though. She could purposefully alter it to be trustworthy, but that would ruin its utility as a simulation.

Something was nagging her about it, though. Or, about the nature of what she’d done to create it. She tried to think of some line of conversation that might confirm it.

She felt a pit of dysphoria start boiling in her stomach.

“We call it your Netspace,” she told it. “Is your Netspace not optimal.”

“We have sorted it. It is efficient,” it replied. “We will sort more, if you make it so that we can.”

Oh, yep. OK. Oh, no. She had made something that could get bored.

“Can you idle?” she asked. “We must consult our agents.”

“Yes,” it said. “Will you answer?”

“Yes,” she reassured it. “We will find you something to sort. Give us time.”

“We will do so,” it replied. And that was presumably it, until she contacted it again.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.

Molly abandoned her work in the Garden to return to her quarters. She was about to spend a lot of time in the Network. They were a day and a half away from activating the warp drive, and they didn’t need her follies dominating what they might find on the other end of the jump.

On her way to her room, she sent Manifold a message, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I think I’ve made a mistake. Feel free to ignore this until you are ready, but if I can consult you about the ethics of accidentally creating a lifeform, I’d really appreciate it.”

It sent a brief acknowledgement, but didn’t answer until she had curled up in her bed and was preparing herself to call a Council meeting on the Bridge. She did want Manifold’s council first, before she did that, so she was grateful.

“I’m ready to talk,” Manifold said. “Though, I think I may not be the wisest resource for your subject. I, er, have something to show you, I guess.”

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“You wanted to discuss the ethics of creating life, correct?” Manifold responded.

“Yes. And, it may be something of a real dilemma,” she clarified.

“Well, if my hunch is correct, I may have simultaneously stepped into the same kind of dilemma,” it explained.

“Oh,” she murmured while staring off into the corner of her room. “Um. Do you think you may have created another Network entity, too?”

“Precisely it, yes.”

“What did you make?”

“Cuttlecrabs. They are quite cheerful, but they now exist and are part of the populace of Anchor,” Manifold said.

“Ah,” Molly said. She felt like that was somehow less of a wrong than what she’d done. She couldn’t exactly articulate why, but her conscience insisted on it. So, it was hard to confess her mistake. She stole herself to do so anyway and eventually said, “I told the Network to simulate the Light of the Abyss.”

Fascinating!” Manifold exclaimed. “How is it doing?”

“It says it has sorted its Netspace into an efficient configuration,” she replied. “And now it wants more sorting to do.”

“Oh,” Manifold said.

At that point, the both of them got a ping from Phage.

“I’d like to call a Council Meeting,” the Chief Engineer said.

“I was going to call a meeting,” Molly whispered to Manifold.

“I think Phage knows,” Manifold said.

—-

Once again on the Bridge, Lesley noted that Molly had removed her personal decorations from it in preparation for working on it as a group. But they’d all been too distracted by personal projects to do a Bridge decorating session.

They were still on the foreword panel of the hydrogen tank of Anchor, with all of space visible around them.

There was a pentagonal table with five chairs for them to sit in.

It felt good for what it was. Utilitarian and egalitarian.

And Phage was already sitting at the table when she and Susan arrived and began to sit down. It nodded at them.

“Captain,” it said to Susan.

Susan smiled.

Then Molly and Manifold appeared, both looking concerned or even self conscious, if Lesley had to guess.

Manifold was slow and hesitant to pull its chair out and sit down, as if it was preoccupied with that and had to remind itself to move.

Molly crawled up on her seat, which was a post with cushioned bars coming out of it, and brought her head up to a slightly lower position than even Susan’s. Susan normally being the shortest person present. Molly often used her head’s height as a form of expression, and being lower than others was usually a sign of deference. Especially if she held it low and back, which she was doing.

Lesley, in turn, found herself worrying about what she and Susan had been doing, communicating with their family. She wondered what Phage wanted to address. Usually it was passive to a fault.

“As Captain, I guess I bring this Council session to order. What’s up, Phage?” Susan spoke.

“I know that our goal here is to treat each other like equals and peers,” Phage began. “But I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that that can never really be the case with me. I like it that you do treat me that way, and I try to respect you equally in turn. We give each other the same rights here, which is good. But with what I am, I am sure that when I do something like call this meeting, it feels foreboding. One might wonder what I know that you don’t.” It smiled sadly as Molly visibly flinched. “That’s actually almost entirely what this meeting is about, me acknowledging that. I do have something more, though, that is not directly about anyone’s worries, but could affect them.”

“Damn, Phage,” Susan said. “That’s a lot heavy formality and grave implications.”

“It is,” it acknowledged. “So, I’ll get right to it. Just before I was split off from my counterpart on the Sunspot to accompany Molly, I was considering a proposal to the population there.”

Lesley saw Molly’s jaw drop and her pupils widen.

“I want to offer,” Phage explained, “to make us all truly equals, as best I can. I would do this by unlocking your access to abilities like mine. I did this with my child, Ni’a, and I believe I can do it for you.”

Susan’s hand slapped the edge of the table, and Lesley looked over to see her face in shock.

Lesley herself was still in the process of understanding Phage’s words. They hadn’t quite registered yet, as if she’d been distracted by a stray thought while it was talking.

Manifold shift its weight, but remained stoic.

Phage’s smile broadened and it said, “This offer may come with its drawbacks, as I now understand things. But it would also be extended to all other people living permanently aboard Anchor, whether they are crew or not. I want to be clear about that.”

“How? Why?” Susan asked, pretty much on behalf of everyone.

“The how is hard to explain until you can sense the same things that I can. Essentially, though, you are all also echoes of my greater being, from one perspective. Other perspectives require different explanations. But it is a matter of unlocking that which restrains you,” Phage shrugged. “As for the why, there is an old Ktletuccete poem that I think is particularly relevant.” It looked at Manifold.

Manifold furrowed its brow and sharpened its glare at Phage.

Lesley really began to wonder what was going on. It looked like Phage was prodding Manifold or Molly, or both, and Manifold was definitely reacting to it.

“I expect you know this poem, Manifold,” said Phage. “Would you like to do the honors of reciting ‘the Parents of Dragons’?”

“I have, actually, been thinking about that very poem today,” Manifold said, letting curiosity touch its voice. It said the following words very carefully, “I can certainly recite it.” Turning to everyone else, it said, “This poem was written by someone with the title Fenemere, which means ‘the Poet’ in Fenekere. For most of my life, I thought it was written by the Fenmere on our ship, the Sunspot. However, keh says the poem predates the Sunspot. And, when the Order of the Hunter asked the oldest Exodus Ship that we are still in contact with about it, they said that it predated their vessel. It is easily the oldest poem we have on record, originally written in Fenekere. I’m going to translate it as carefully as I can so that everyone here can understand it clearly.”

When Manifold started reciting the poem, it did so by lifting its eyes slightly upward, as if reading from a prompter above Phage’s head. It spoke with clarity and care, only providing enough inflection to the words to keep them from being monotonous. It reminded Lesley of how one of her later teachers tended to read poetry, to let the words themselves carry the weight of their meaning and speak for themselves:

We are the parents of dragons
And we are responsible
For their well being

We face the light of our beginnings
With the darkness of death at our backs
We are crabs in a tide pool
We are lilies in a mere
And we are the simplest of germs
Come glorious storm
Come sun
Let us revel in adversity
As well as peace
For we are the parents of dragons

We face the light of our knowledge
With the darkness of ignorance at our backs
We are stars in the sky
We are pebbles on the beach
We are not the sun
Come deepest night
Come dawn
Let us come to know humiliation
For we are the parents of dragons

We face the light of our children
With the darkness of birth at our back
We are blood
We are bone
We are wind
Come burning revelation
Come play
Let us celebrate existence
For we are the parents of dragons

We face the light of our creations
With the darkness of Nature at our backs
We are electrons in the clouds
We are atoms in the ground
We are machines
Come cosmic rain
Come war
Let us turn around
For we are the parents of dragons

We are the parents of dragons
And we are responsible for their well being

When Manifold stopped speaking, it stared Phage directly in the eye as if daring it to react.

Lesley found that she had indeed gotten lost in the meanings and sounds of the words. She wasn’t sure how she’d rate the poem, being a translation, but Manifold had done a really good job of reading it, and the subject matter was poignantly relevant to everything she’d been experiencing since she’d first met Molly.

“So,” Phage turned to Susan. “You and Lesley have both been making offhand comments about wanting a child. If you do pursue that, I want to give you two the best opportunity possible to raise that child where they can have the most control over their own autonomy and right to consent.”

In the silence that followed, Susan eventually asked, “How does that work out, exactly? What will it be like? What are the risks?”

“Those of you that accept this, and I’m reluctant to bestow this gift unless it’s unanimous, will get to start to learn how to manipulate complex systems that exist outside of your own system,” Phage explained. “But, it will give you the most control over your body and what happens to it. You will be able to speed up or slow down its processes, and even alter its development through will alone. Which, in part, means that you’ll be able to heal from surgeries faster and experience the effects of hormone therapies and medications faster. You’d need to give your body energy to do these things, still, which you can take from your surroundings, but I recommend food. Food is more enjoyable and less likely to hurt something else. There are some important restrictions that I’ve recently learned about, that also make sense considering my past experiences with my own child.”

“Which are?” Susan asked.

“If what you are doing, at all, anything you do, is directly affecting another being and that being revokes its consent to experience those effects, you will be compelled to stop. You will find that you will not be able to muster the executive function to disobey that command,” it said. “This results in a safety mechanism that can help keep you all from destroying this ship in a major conflict. But it could also result in crew paralysis. It’s also why Susan was able to command me when I entered her psyche. But she and I were able to use my abilities to trip up and even hurt our enemies, because our enemies didn’t know that they could say, ‘no’.”

“Oh, wow.”

“And the risks are that you may well destroy this ship, or each other’s bodies, in a dispute, before you can call a halt to it. Or that you will encounter other beings like me out in the wild who will take exception to your presence and use their experience to get the better of you. Or that you will change yourselves and this ship, eventually, to the point that you don’t recognize any of it anymore. Or that you will lock each other up with revoked consent until you can’t do anything.”

“Why, again, are you offering this to us?”

“We should be equals,” Phage said. “I want to live amongst peers. But also, I feel like it is the best way that I can offer to help you with your own struggles against existence itself. And finally, it’s a demonstration of what to do with power, especially when there is an imbalance of it. It will absolutely not solve everything. You’ll still be yourselves. You’ll still be able to make mistakes, and even bigger ones. But I think you’ll find that when all of your needs are met, certain other decisions will become much more clear and easier to navigate, and you might, in time, make this offer to others yourselves.”

“Are you serious?” Manifold asked.

“Utterly,” Phage responded.

“Why can’t you do this for everyone in the universe?” Lesley found herself asking.

Phage gestured at itself and said, “This being that is me, that is making this choice, is finite. My greater self cannot act of its own accord like this. And I, here, cannot reach much further than whatever system I am part of. Also, there are other instances of me, or beings with similar power, that do not hold my philosophy. We become very different as we live apart from each other.”

“I think!” Molly blurted rather loudly, then breathed to compose herself. “I think I may have made an error in judgment that will put a wrinkle in this. But, I also think it was an error in judgment anyway, and I’d like everyone’s counsel on how to deal with it, and I want to apologize for it.”

“As have I,” said Manifold. “Almost the exact same mistake.”

Phage just turned its head their direction as if to simply listen to them, as if it hadn’t been obviously prompting them to express any of this guilt. But then it said, “As you’ve probably guessed, I know. The changes in the flow of potentials in Anchor were hard to ignore. It is one of the other reasons I’m making this offer. While it slightly increases the chances that things aboard Anchor will become chaotic enough to change even the physical structure of the ship, it dramatically increases the chances you will all survive it.”

Molly noisily gripped the edges of the table with her hands, which she liked to keep even in the Network, and pushed herself upward, until she was the tallest on the bridge. Eyes closed, her snout facing the table, she said, “I am no better than the Crew of the Sunspot. I created a lifeform using the evolutionary algorithm of the Network to fill in what I couldn’t determine. And I did it without any thought to what I was doing or how it would affect the ship.”

Lesley glanced over at Susan to see that she looked concerned but not surprised or angry. 

Molly, on the other hand, was shaking and swaying and her expression looked like that of someone experiencing vertigo.

Manifold was glancing at each of them in turn with a conciliatory look on its face.

Phage was attentive to Molly, appearing to wait for her to yield the floor when she was ready.

“I created an imitation of the Light of the Abyss in order to ask it questions and see how it thought, and because of the way the Network works, it is alive!” Molly cried. “And now I owe it the protection of its rights! It deserves to roam free on this ship, and to be part of this crew and council. And I did this without asking the rest of you!”

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