“We should get you two to safety,” Molly said to Lesley. “Your partner is unconscious. I can carry her.”
“What was that? Was that Manifold?!” Lesley nearly shouted back at her.
“No. That was Phage. I didn’t know it was here. We don’t have much time,” Molly held her arms out in an open gesture and rose a few centimeters to emphasize her offer to carry Susan.
“I’ve got her,” Lesley growled, and moved as if to intercept Molly’s advancement. Molly hadn’t come forward yet, but she understood that protective posturing and retreated a little anyway. Susan was the smaller of the two, and Lesley didn’t seem to have any trouble picking her up.
Having only fainted, Susan did wake up as Lesley was lifting her, and wrapped her arm around her partner’s neck for stability.
“I’ve got you, Sweetie,” Lesley said. “We need to move to safety.”
Molly made a point of looking at the sky and scanning it as she said, “Your government has sent aircraft to meet me. Phage thinks there is danger. We have minutes. Is your camp secure?”
“Against what? Government agents? Gunfire? No!” Lesley’s eyes were wide. “It’s barely even secure against rodents.”
“You may want to board my craft, then,” Molly stated, looking Lesley in the eyes evenly. “But, I intend to retreat to orbit and decide what to do from there.” She nodded to punctuate her statement, and then started to turn to start her way back up the gangway. She looked back once to see if Lesley and Susan were following.
The human’s eyes were wide, and they were visibly trembling again. Lesley was still holding Susan, one arm under her legs and the other supporting her shoulders. While Susan was hugging Lesley. Not for the first time, Molly was struck by how similar they were to the people her own had supposedly come from, the denizens of the Terra Supreme, the Sunspot’s parent ship.
“The Best Dirt” some people called that ship, voices dripping with sarcasm. There were no good stories about the Terra Supreme. The original Crew of the Sunspot had built their ship and left it in the midst of a bloody rebellion, a desperate attempt to escape a culture they could no longer bear. And in the process, they themselves had made decisions for their new world that further oppressed their descendants. When Molly had left the Sunspot, people were still in heated arguments about just what was wrong about the Sunspot.
She still didn’t like to think about her own motives for leaving.
But, in this moment, she was thinking about parallel evolution and how strange it was that it mimicked what her own ancestry looked like. While everyone aboard the Sunspot had widely different physiology, each person showing wild variations in all their physical traits and sometimes resembling various fauna of the Garden, the people of the Terra Supreme all resembled savanna primates who were particularly adapted for walking great distances while carrying various objects, such as their own young, with their arms. The populaces of both ships were the product of heavily monitored breeding programs, and millennia of genetic engineering. Where the Sunspot selected for the greatest viable diversity, the Terra Supreme had aimed for conformity. And here, on this planet, natural evolution (presumably) had led to a people who vaguely resembled the latter.
There were some major differences, though. Evident already in meeting just two of them!
These people had different skin colors, for instance. Their heights and physical builds varied more than on the Terra Supreme. Lesley was tall and stocky, sturdy enough to pick up another adult, and her hips were slightly smaller than her broad, strong shoulders. And Susan had much broader hips and thighs, with slight shoulders. And when the two stood side by side, the top of Susan’s head reached the middle of Lesley’s bicep. Of course, life on this planet used something like DNA but that wasn’t quite the same, incompatible enough that viruses didn’t seem to be a danger. And there were a myriad of subtler anatomical differences that marked the two as truly alien. They probably did not have the same internal organs, for instance. Their nervous systems probably worked in a totally different way, if they even had nerves!
Molly had already entered her ship and was in the process of removing her hazard suit when she heard Lesley’s footsteps coming up the ramp of the gangway.
“And now I’ve abducted two of their people,” she thought grimly to herself.
“You can put me down,” Susan whispered to Lesley as she carried her up the ramp of the ship.
“Not until we’re inside,” Lesley smiled back at her.
“You can also not put me down,” she heard her mouth say. They were the first people on their world to enter an alien spacecraft, and they were in the midst of doing so, and she was flirting with her girlfriend! Why? She looked around.
The first chamber they entered was the airlock, of course. A lifeform would have to be very, very different, either physiologically or psychologically, to not need an airlock on a spacecraft built to visit alien planets. This airlock did appear to double as an access shaft to the aft compartments of the ship. They entered through the side of the craft and faced a wall. To their right were the crew chambers, if Molly’s movements were any indication. To their left was presumably fuel, life support, and the engines.
The airlock was nearly featureless and surprisingly spacious. Cabinets were inset into the walls, their doors flush, with only small cracks and shiny finger sized panels that might have been flip-out latches to mark where they were. Everything that wasn’t shiny was an eggshell white. Molly had one of the larger cabinets open and had crawled partway inside. She had instructed her suit to grip the sides of the cabinet with its arms, and she was in the process of crawling out of it in a way that only a snake could do when she acknowledged Lesley and Susan’s entrance.
“You’ll be able to breathe my air, but you’ll probably want nasal filters,” Molly said. Another wall cabinet, a bin that hinged from the bottom, clicked open. “Scoop some nanite clay from the bin with your finger and apply it under your nose. Manifold will instruct it to function properly for you,” she instructed. “It will feel weird, but it won’t harm you. It will help.”
Lesley set Susan down in front of the bin, and by the time they were both staring at the graphene slime within it, Molly had fully extricated herself from her suit and was coiled near the cabin hatch. The gangway was already lifting to seal them all inside.
“Hurry,” Molly said. “I won’t open the hatch until you are ready, but Phage can only delay your government for so long. It is instructing me to lift off now if I can.” Her translated voice now seemed to be coming from the ship itself.
Lesley, being the more adventurous of the two of them, was the first to smear the nanite clay under her nose. “How much?” she asked, even as she was already doing it.
“I don’t know,” Molly said. “If you have trouble breathing, you can acquire more inside. The excess will leave your system harmlessly.”
Susan was still alarmed by that explanation, and she stared at Molly, “You’re asking us to put tiny alien machines into our bodies?”
“Only suggesting. It is your choice, always, with me,” Molly stated. “I will risk my life to let you leave the ship again before I take off. It is OK for you to leave. You may do what you feel is safest for you. But once we are in movement, it will be harder.”
Despite the space snake’s words, there really didn’t seem to be any choice. They’d entered the ship in the first place because they were more scared of being in the custody of government agents than aboard an alien vessel. It seemed really weird to put it that way, especially with the amount of adrenaline and dissociation she’d been experiencing this whole time. But Lesley especially didn’t want to tangle with authority, even though she’d done nothing illegal. When people like her were detained for any reason, things usually went badly.
Susan scooped up a pea sized dollop of nanite clay and brought it to her upper lip, and said, “OK.” She gave Lesley a worried look, and her girlfriend mirrored it back but added a reassuring smirk. And above that smirk, black slime crawled into her nostrils.
The gangway sealed shut and became part of the outer hull, and a hissing noise started. The air began to smell weird and spicy.
“With your consent, I want to analyze pathogens in your bodies,” Manifold said. “If I can identify anything that is harming you, I can have the nanites work to remove it, but I will ask again before doing so. But it would be good if I can also identify anything that might harm Molly.”
Lesley raised her eyebrows while still smirking warmly at her, so Susan said, “Why not? Yes. Go ahead.”
The bulkhead hatch opened before Molly and she crawled through, saying, “Please, follow me. I’m instructing the ship to produce harnesses for you in the flight cabin. There is room. You’ll be able to see what I see as we take off.”
Everything about the ship was clearly designed for spending long periods of time in microgravity. Although the surface they were walking on had a grippy texture, designed also to accommodate normal movement when the ship was landed, it was lined with cabinets, panels, and pop out furniture the same way that the walls and ceiling were. Everything was neatly stowed away, so there wasn’t much to look at.
After a short hallway with hatches in all four surfaces, the next chamber was even larger than the airlock. Much larger. Only the forward third of the ship contained the crew compartments, and this seemed like the bulk of it. It would still be cramped with three people living in this one room, but surprisingly doable, even with one of them being a three meter long snake. The colors of the walls were much more cheery than the sterility of the airlock. A soft navy blue was accented by lily green, sunset orange, and fields of a tan that reminded Susan of a sunlit beach sand. What were presumably the flip-out handles of the cabinets were a light lavender.
The next hatch clearly led to the cockpit.
“The harnesses will adjust to your bodies once you have secured them,” Molly was saying. “This will help keep you conscious and injury free during takeoff and maneuvering. They are powered by the same nanite clay that is in your nasal passages. We have begun using it for nearly everything.”
The cockpit was mostly a dull utilitarian charcoal gray, with the same sunset orange from the living quarters as trim for the control panels and seating. Any edge that one might have to look out for while moving around had a centimeter thick orange line along its length.
“I wonder if our eyes work the same,” Lesley remarked. “Because your interior design is gorgeous to me. The colors especially. Even if this was an apartment and not a spaceship, I’d want to move in.”
“Thank you,” Molly said. “We might be able to compare experiences later. Please strap in as soon as you can.”
Susan noted that the two “flight harnesses”, as Molly called them, that were still emerging from the deck of the cockpit, were different sizes. The smaller one on the right was clearly for her. It looked like a cross between the driver’s seat of a car crossed with a recliner and a water bed. It looked like it could pivot on all three axes to some degree in order to compensate for the various forces of maneuvering a spacecraft. And its default position was upright enough that Susan would be able to look out the forward portals without tilting her head.
Molly’s seat looked like an egg full of translucent goo. It had an opening slightly larger than her head, through which she started threading her body to arrange it in coils inside, keeping an eye on the sky through the portals. Or, wait, were those display screens? Susan didn’t remember seeing portals or windows on the outside of the ship. The light that came from these screens was such a good replica of the natural sunlight, and the way that the screens were inset into the cabin wall, it looked like they were windows!
Lesley took just a little longer than Susan to get into her harness, but said, “Ready!” when the straps had finished wrapping themselves around her torso and upper legs.
And Susan felt the ship move as the trees visible through the screens dropped away. The force was more firm and reassuring than her bouts of dissociative vertigo had been. She managed to let herself enjoy the thrill of it.
She was going to be an astronaut!
Molly lowered her head to rest in the opening of her seat, her lower jaw cradled in goo, and said through the ship’s speakers, “relax and let your harnesses cradle you. I’ve got some evading to do.”
There were two kinds of aircraft that had been dispatched to investigate Molly’s landing site. A wing of quick and agile fighters, and two large personnel carriers that maneuvered on vectored thrust.
Phage engaged the fighters first. And what it did with its nanite clay body, neither Molly nor Manifold could have done. To even fly like Phage had done, they would have had to have been aboard the Sunspot, to take advantage of the larger bulk of the nanites there to manipulate the magnetic forces necessary for such a feat. But even then, the speed with which Phage flew and then separated itself into three streams of nanite mist quick enough to intercept the fighters was impossible for anyone but it.
Phage, the Chief Monster and Engineer of the Sunspot, is an entity that defies explanation. Its origins are as mysterious as its ability to manipulate physics itself. No one can adequately theorize why it can do what it does, and even it itself refuses to fully try. When asked, it gives four or five different answers and lets you pick the one you like.
It does have limits, however. The further it stretches its influences, the less consciousness it experiences, apparently. Fewer emotions, fewer attachments, fewer decision making abilities, and less overall awareness. And it had agreed, but not vowed, to assist and protect the children of the Sunspot without doing anyone harm, to the best of its ability. It had been why the Sunspot had survived as long as it did.
It can copy itself, and send that copy to a new location, like it had done with Molly. But it seems to prefer avoiding that unless absolutely necessary.
So, it had some choices to make in its act to defend Molly.
Should it treat the lives of the fighter pilots as part of its agreement not to hurt anyone? And, if so, how should it go about preventing them from hurting Molly? And then, deciding upon that, how obvious should it be in its actions to stop or waylay them? How vulgar? How mysterious?
Should it leave them merely confused? Or should it risk putting the fear of the unnatural in them?
It was clear that this military force already expected trouble, sending fighters to investigate what should have looked like a meteor. Molly’s piloting hadn’t quite fooled them. They’d also likely get a better read on her taking off than her landing, now that they’d brought their sensory equipment and a few eyeballs to bear on the area. If Molly was to have any hope of a diplomatic second contact with these people, just what they experienced now would play a crucial role in that.
And here Phage had impaired itself ever so slightly by spreading itself over three targets rather than cloning itself to do the job.
It misjudged its actions just enough that each pilot reported what they thought was a glancing bird strike shortly before their instruments went haywire. Records showed that these strikes occurred at slightly different times. Chronometers and navigational instruments remained untouched, but radar and laser guidance were compromised, as were their radios. And all weapons systems refused to acknowledge any commands, lever switches, or button presses.
One of the pilots, upon seeing Molly’s landing craft rocket toward orbit just after losing control of half their fighter, panicked and ejected. The other two were able to hold it together enough to turn and return to base after circling the site a couple of times to confirm visuals and communicate with each other via hand signals. Without radio to warn them, they had to let the troop carriers decide on their own whether to continue proceeding. They both made it a point to fly within visual contact of them on their way back.
It took some time for Phage to reconstitute its nanite body, after having been spread over such a distance, but it was still able to make it to Susan and Lesley’s camp and the landing site before agents arrived to investigate it. Where it delighted in causing more subtler mischief.
The camp looked like it had been abandoned for over a week, the food having gone bad in the cooler, leaves strewn about inside a half fallen tent, and various other signs of obvious neglect. And the impact that the landing craft’s struts had caused to the grasses and dirt was reversed somehow.
Investigators knew something had happened here. They had eye witnesses. And also, the two hikers whose belongings they found were known to have checked in at the ranger station less than a couple days ago. Their campsite should not have been that old, nor that long neglected.
It was not a complete mystery, however.
The launch of the unidentified craft had been caught on national radar, and its presence in orbit was now being tracked and confirmed by several independent observatories.
The public was not alerted to any of this. And the theory that the two hikers had been taken aboard the spacecraft was marked as sensitive information.
Following all that, there began an argument across various boardrooms about whether or not this had been an act of a foreign country or an actual extraterrestrial encounter.
The arrival of a strange new object to one of the lagrange points, observed a month and a half earlier, added considerable weight to the latter theory.
Thanks to Phage’s actions, takeoff was actually straightforward and rather smooth, if hurried. Molly put them all under heavier initial acceleration than was strictly necessary to reach orbit. Still, bio-readings of her two passengers helped her to avoid straining them to the point of unconsciousness. The ergonomics of the harnesses did a lot of the work, too, of course.
It took Molly ten minutes to reach an orbit she was happy with and let acceleration abate enough to enter microgravity. She chose to remain in her pilot seat.
“I am so sorry to put you through this,” Molly said. “I have restricted your autonomy by bringing poor choices to your home and microgravity can be an alarming experience.”
She heard Lesley hiccup and then swallow something.
Through clenched teeth, Susan said, “I think we’re good. How did you do that?”
“Do what?” Molly asked.
“Reach orbit without boosters or an extra fuel tank. You must have expended a considerable amount of fuel landing like you did!”
“Ah,” Molly said. She really didn’t know the physics of any of it. She knew how to pilot the ship, and she had led the design of it, but the specifications of the technology had been handled by others and she’d been told what it could do. Algorithms and simulations had handled most of it, in the end, in any case. “Manifold? Can you answer Susan’s question?”
“Since making our second truce with Phage, Sunspot engineers have been making enormous strides in our understanding and use of physics,” Manifold reported. “I don’t even know how the drive of this ship works. I just know that we could not have built it a generation ago.”
“Oh,” Molly and Susan both said, almost simultaneously.
“It should also be noted that the requisite design specs and explanations of the physics involved are not included in the ship’s library,” Manifold added. “We could make minor repairs on our own if we had to, perhaps replace about half of the parts using the makers. But to replace or repair the more critical components, we will once again need Phage’s help. That is not the kind of decision the Crew of the Sunspot would normally make. We will have to ask Phage about it, if we get the chance.”
Lesley hiccuped again.
“What do we do now?” Susan asked, bringing Molly’s attention back to the horror of all of her previous decisions.
She’d actually had quite a lot of experience in her life. Although, by the standards of the Crew of the Sunspot, she was considered a child still, she had already begun to forget more than she could remember of what all that she had been through. She could always consult her personal records, so that wasn’t much of a problem. But she was used to feeling old and experienced at this point. She’d led the design of the first space/time bending two person starship, after all! However, this situation made her aware of how naive she still was. And that designation of child really stung in the moment.
Of course the landing craft had relied upon Phage’s guidance and knowledge. The warp drive of her starship had only been possible because of it. The whole idea of her expedition was predicated on Phage’s new public life.
Why couldn’t she remember talking to it before? Was something wrong with her mind?
This worry combined with what she now saw as a series of rash decisions during first contact now made her feel dangerously incompitent.
It was hard to talk, let alone plan any next steps.
“We have to find a way to return you to your home as safely as possible,” Manifold said to Susan. “That should be our first priority. And if we can find a way to do so publicly, we may be able to make peaceful contact with your people. But that should be a distant secondary. A choice we make only if we are certain we can pull it off.”
Lesley again hiccuped. “Dammit,” she said.
They were strange little hiccups. Molly decided to observe her readings more closely to catch the next one and see what was going on.
“What’s wrong, Darling?” Susan asked.
“I keep feeling like throwing up,” Lesley said. “I’ve gotten over feeling dizzy, but it’s like my stomach hasn’t.”
“Your species’ physiology must not be adapted to living in microgravity yet,” Manifold said.
Molly rolled her eyes at its rude assumption, but kept worrying about her own errors.
“Oh! I think I remember reading about this!” Susan said. “Some of our own astronauts have experienced it. Sometimes it goes away after a bit. Sometimes they have to keep swallowing like that the whole time they’re in orbit. I’m sorry Lesley, it sounds awful. Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’ve been through worse things,” Lesley said, gulping again. “It reminds me of the tail end of bowel prep, though, and I don’t like that. A whole gallon of that foul liquid. Of course I was gagging by the end of it. It’s a similar kind of soft gagging.”
“Manifold,” Molly interjected. “I’m having a hard time thinking. I feel like I had some kind of plan when I was back on the ground, but it’s gone.”
“I am continuing to monitor radio transmissions,” Manifold said. “I now have access to more of them, and our translations are getting better as we converse. We can assume we are being tracked. We got enough to know that they reported visual contact with our ship as soon as Phage’s interference cleared up. The fighters radioed their command about halfway back to their land base. But we are not being talked about now on any of the frequencies I am monitoring.”
“Security,” Lesley said.
“Yeah, they’re probably using shielded land lines,” Susan agreed.
“So you think that your government is planning something?” Manifold asked.
“Absolutely,” Lesley replied.
Susan sighed loudly, “I have no idea if they have anything capable of reaching us in less than a day, or even several months. They’ll have a team working on it, either way. I mean, my knowledge of this sort of thing is totally from political thrillers, so take it with a grain of salt.”
“What would a grain of salt do for us?” Manifold asked.
“It’s an idiom, Manifold,” Lesley said. “She means that you shouldn’t put stock – Oh, that’s an idiom, too. Hmm. Don’t rely on her words being accurate.”
Molly was having a hard time following any of this. She realized that she was panicking and closed her eyes to pull her head further into the crash goo, leaving only her nostrils free of it. Then she returned her focus onto the ship and its sensors.
By using her neural terminal’s link to it, she could effectively become the ship itself. Which is what she’d done during takeoff. This also allowed her to ignore what her body was doing and use the ship’s quantum processors to help herself think. Her Network echo mimicked her bodily functions almost perfectly for the purposes of housing her consciousness. Even if her body were to die, she’d still experience adrenaline rushes and other endorphins, the whole range of neurotransmitters, histamines, and hormones simulated accurately to keep her psyche and identity intact. But by adding the ship’s sensors to her awareness and paying more attention to them, she could trick her mind into acting less biological. Or so it felt. It was like how some people aboard the Sunspot liked to go sailing or flying in the Garden to clear their minds.
She took a moment to review her personal records then, and couldn’t find any conversations with Phage there. It had definitely been involved in the design and construction of her vessels, but all the records showed it talking to other people.
When had she let it into her mind? Why couldn’t she remember it? And why weren’t there any records of it?
She figured the Phage that had accompanied her had been a copy of the original, a child. And she was glad it was here, after all. But this secrecy, this obvious amnesia about it, was disturbing.
There was no obvious reason to have been so clandestine about it.
She hoped that Phage would make contact soon so that she could question it.
But, in the meantime, there were the humans aboard her ship and on the planet below her that were waiting for her next move.
She really had only two options. Make radio contact, or try to land again. Each one had a myriad of different ways she could go about it. All of them required at least some investigation to do well.
First thing she should do, she thought, was make a political map of the planet. Something she could lay over the detailed geological data she’d been gathering since she’d arrived. Cities had already been noted and marked, as had energy, heat, and radio emissions. Vehicle movements were trackable as long as she was above them and had a clear line of sight. Roads and regular flight paths were marked and getting updated. So, the trick was finding out where the governments were and what their boundaries were.
She’d also needed to understand more about how those governments worked, and what their attitudes and policies were.
And then, how to contact them directly.
She dropped her attention back to the ship’s cabin, where Manifold was talking linguistics with Lesley, and actively teaching her some Inmararräo.
Lesley was very enthusiastic about learning how to pronounce the language right. She seemed to be having fun, and practicing it was cutting down on the frequency of her gagging.
Susan had extracted herself from her flight harness and was now practicing moving about in freefall.
For a little bit, Molly distracted herself by marveling at how someone with four limbs was able to bounce from surface to surface, and change speed of rotation by extending or contracting them. Susan was clearly having a lot of fun, but being careful not to touch any instrument panels. The panels would not have reacted to her if she had, though.
“Susan,” Molly asked, “what are you willing to tell me about your people and your government? I would like to decide if I should talk to them directly before returning you home. I really would like to make friends, but I don’t know if that’s even wise at this point.”
Susan stopped bouncing with some work, grabbing her flight harness and pulling herself toward it, then looked at Molly’s chair. Molly was actually looking at her from cameras near the aftward bulkhead, so that was weird.
“Can you pull up a map of our country, so I can point things out?” Susan asked.
“Can you make it to the front console?” Molly asked, and Susan answered by doing so. So, then Molly converted the console to a display and projected a map of the geography surrounding her landing spot. The view extended out to a radius that included the airbase the fighters had come from, and there were also a couple of cities visible on either side of the wilderness. The airbase was near one of those cities. “I don’t know what your country is, but this includes everyone we’ve interacted with, I think.”
“Can you zoom out slowly until I say stop?” Susan asked.
Manifold and Lesley had stopped talking, now paying attention to what Molly and Susan were doing.
Lesley gulped and then asked, “Hey, have you connected to the internet, yet?”
“Is that your Network?” Manifold asked back.
Lesley looked weirdly at the ceiling, which is where she assumed Manifold was apparently, and said, “Yeah. I think. If by ‘network’ you mean ‘internet’. It is a network. The network, of all the computers. Well most of them. A lot of it is encrypted. Most of it isn’t. But it is digitally stored information. You might need to figure out the protocols to read it.”
“Stop,” Susan said. “That’s good. There’s the capital of our country.”
“Oh, that’s what all those frequencies full of numbers are,” Manifold said. “I had figured it was your network, but we were so focused on learning your local language that I hadn’t bothered to crack its code yet.”
Susan looked up and said, “Start with binary numbers.”
“Of course,” Manifold responded. “That’s easy to see.”
Susan nodded and said, “Think packets of eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and then sixty-four numbers. It’s all base eight. But, like, there are tiers of base eight encoding.”
“That also seems obvious now that I’m looking closer at it.”
“Good. So, the letters of our alphabet, our writing, are numbered,” Susan explained. “You haven’t seen our writing yet, have you?”
“Are you saying that your Network consists of text?” Manifold asked.
“I’m sure we’re at the early stages of what’s possible, compared to you, but no. Most of it is now video, audio, and images, maybe a lot of raw data and code being streamed between applications, too. But the numbers and text were the basis for it all, and can lead you to all the protocols for unencoding the rest of it. It’s not my specialty. I’m not a programmer, but I know that much,” she said. “I have no idea how quickly you can figure out how to emulate any of our software, but your translation device was amazing. How does it work?”
“Have your people discovered how to store data in the spin of particles yet?” Manifold asked.
“We’re either right on the verge of figuring that out, or someone is doing it already and hasn’t released their design notes. But we know it should be possible,” Susan nodded.
“That must be why you are amazed,” Manifold responded. “You speak of something you call computers. I assume that means processors?”
Susan grimace up at the ceiling and gestured vaguely with both hands like she was grasping a ball and rubbing it. “Yes and no. Close enough.”
“We don’t have anything like a processor anymore,” Manifold said. “Those are prehistoric for us. We know about them because of a few records that were not destroyed, preserved so that we might continue to know the basis of our current technology. This entire vessel is a processor of sorts. Every component of it can act as a processor separately and completely on its own, at whatever size you cut it down to, so long as it has power. With some limits. If the ship itself were made entirely of our nanites, there’d be much fewer limits, but that would be dangerous in other ways.”
“What is your network like? Does it have webpages that you read? Message boards? How do you access it?” Lesley asked, eyes very wide. They got wider, “Wait. Are you, Manifold, the ship itself?!”
“I am currently more the ship than Manifold is,” Molly said. “It has been restricting itself to the communications array for a while now. Very focused on it.”
“I have a neural terminal,” Molly said. She didn’t think to elaborate, and Manifold spoke before it occurred to her.
“Do you dream?” it asked more gently than it had spoken before. More like how it used to talk to Molly when she was younger.
“Yeah,” Lesley said, “You’ve picked a word that we have, after all. I’m assuming it’s being translated right?”
“What is it like when you dream?”
“It really varies a lot, but my most vivid dreams can fool me into thinking I’m awake and that they are not a dream. Full sensory experiences, with smells, flavors, and I can even read stuff in them, too.”
“Our Network is exactly like that,” Manifold said. “Your most vivid dream. Only, in the Network, if you pick up an object, such as a tablet, and command it to display a view of this cockpit, it will display a vision of the cockpit from the view of one of the cameras. For example. We can do even more things, but that should give you an idea.”
“I would love to play in it,” Lesley said slowly. Susan glanced at her.
“With everyone’s consent, that could be arranged,” Manfiold said. “However, you would likely miss it very much if we ever parted ways. Also, you would have to accept a nanite neural terminal, and risk that it might not be compatible with your neurology.”
Susan glanced up at the ceiling again, as if at Manifold, and said, “So, you have enough processing power to probably crack our encoding by what I’ve told you?”
“Yes. With some amount of time. More data would be useful, such as a visual of your alphabet,” Manifold replied.
Susan slapped her forehead into her hand, “We left all our books and maps at camp.”
“Our phones!” Lesley shouted.
“Oh! Right!” Susan exclaimed, fishing hers out of a pocket. “We can… Wait. Would you be able to scan the phone and control it or replicate it, like, virtually? It has all the protocols you’d need to access most of our internet! Just, don’t break it, OK?”
“That should be possible,” Manifold said. “Just put it in the maker that I’m opening, and I will scan it as gently as possible with the nanites. May I have your permission to operate it as part of the scanning process? I might not be able to access sealed components physically, and causing them to function may help me replicate them.”
“Are you an AI?” Lesley asked. “An artificial intelligence?”
“We have used words like that to describe people like me in the recent past, but no,” Manifold said gently. “I am a person. I am a Network person, born from the same evolution algorithms as Molly was, but purely on the Network. Aside from the lack of a biological body, I am as ktleteccete as she is.”
“It is much older than me, though,” Molly added.
“So, your pronoun is ‘it’, though?” Lesley squinted.
“The equivalent of ‘it’, yes,” Manifold said. “That is tradition, and I like it, so it remains my pronoun.”
“OK, I’m unlocking my phone, just in case you need that to operate it while it’s in there,” Susan said a little louder than everyone else. “I give you permission to use it, but please don’t look through my photos or my messages if you can avoid it. They might not make sense to you, but they are private to me anyway.”
“Your privacy is your autonomy,” Manifold said. “You have withheld your consent to read those things, so I will not do so, if I can avoid it.”
“I guess you’re going to be learning how to read as you do this,” Lesley said.
“Not exactly,” Manifold replied. “I plan to replicate the phone’s interface on one of the consoles and have you guide me through the use of it. If that is possible. That way, I do not have to understand any of the symbols to learn how to operate it. Then you can guide me to the codes for your language protocols. Or, Susan can if she knows that better.”
“Oh, I’m the closest thing to a linguist between the two of us,” Lesley said, winking at Susan.
Susan stuck her tongue out at her.
It did not take them long after that to get to the point where Manifold felt that it could understand and browse the world’s internet at its whim. Roughly another three hours.
One thing they discovered by doing so, especially at the prompting of Susan and Lesley to check certain sources, was that the rest of the world did know about the spacecraft and where it was at the moment. The news had not hit analog radio signals yet, neither visual nor voice only. But the internet was awash with speculation and the observations of ameteur astonomers.
And while Molly had managed to sneak away from her starship in her landing craft unnoticed until she had landed, that movement had not gone unrecorded. Someone’s instruments had caught her in action while they weren’t looking, and they had looked over their records once news had spread to their channels and alerted them to the possibility.
And also, although their names had not been leaked by the government, it was known that two hikers were missing from near Molly’s landing site, and those two hikers would be global celebrities once their names and faces were known.
Leslie, who had since removed herself from her harness, hung in the air of the cockpit in shock once she realized that.
Something about that possibility obviously terrified her.
Susan, unspeaking, moved to comfort her.
“What is wrong, Lesley?” Molly asked.
“She’s always been afraid of becoming internet famous,” Susan said. “It’s dangerous for her.”
“Do you mind telling me why? Maybe we can help her avoid the problem,” Molly said.
“You talk a lot about autonomy, like it’s a sacred right,” Susan said. “We agree with you on that, if that’s what you consider it. But, our world doesn’t. More of Lesley’s autonomy has been denied to her than even mine, because of how she was born.”
She looked at Lesley, who nodded absently.
“And that’s because most people think that she shouldn’t have it. That the way she was born means certain things that she must adhere to. And since she has begun to exercise her autonomy, they all hate her for it. She’s afraid that if she becomes famous, she’ll be attacked. People like her usually are when they do. Mercilessly.”
“I experience some of this, too. But differently. I have somewhat different fears,” Susan said. “It’s complicated and cultural, and private. Women like Lesley and me, women in general, experience some form of these restrictions one way or another.”
“Women…” Manifold said. “Oh, of course. I’m sorry, I’ve been ignoring those parts of your communications, and I shouldn’t have. Your people are like some of our predecessors. You’ve categorized yourselves according to bimodal sex characteristics. Understood. We’ve recently learned that that is one of the major reasons why the Sunspot was created in the first place. To get away from that very thing. But recently, some people have now started identifying as something like men or women, as your databases describe. This is deemed as OK, so long as they are exercising their autonomy and not enforcing the ideas upon others.”
“That sounds like where I have always dreamed of living,” said Lesley. “And now I’m not sure I can go home at all.”
“And I do not want to,” Molly said. “I won’t. I’m sorry.”
“We have a means to send Lesley there,” Manifold suggested. “If everyone consents and the nanites work for her.”
Lesley blinked and shook her head vigorously enough to alter her body’s rotational velocity, and Susan gripped her to keep her steady, hooking her foot on Lesley’s harness.
“No, I do want to go home,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I have friends. I have my family, my queer family. I can’t leave them. I can’t drag Susan away from them, and I can’t leave Susan. Maybe someday we can visit your home, if you’re OK with it. But for now, I’ve got to face this and fight it and work to make things as right as I can.”
“Let’s call it a plan B,” Susan said, moving to hug her.
“Plan Z,” Lesley corrected.
After a moment of quiet, Manifold said, “So. We now have several ways of contacting your world. Given that it will impact how you are received, Lesley, maybe you should help us decide how.”