Phage listened to the others as it worked. Once it had enough mass, it let Manifold have its own exobody back, minus the alloy substrate that had made it nanite clay. Once it had enough alloy dust from the remains of the landing craft, it’d be able to give it that, too.
Manifold walked up to Susan, Lesley, and Molly in a form that was the color of nanite ooze, nearly black and very greasy.
It heard Manifold enter that conversation with the words, “We could travel in an unconventional manner. We could tunnel.”
Everyone apparently understood that it meant by using the nanites.
“OK,” Lesley said in a voice that indicated she was not.
“Wouldn’t that leave a trace?” Susan asked. “The tunnel entrance?”
“Not if we use Phage’s expertise and care, and the nanites’ base programming, to heal that wound in the forest floor,” Manifold responded.
Phage was already visualizing how it would do this.
“Can we really move all that fast through the ground?” Lesley asked.
“You saw how quickly Phage consumed that tree? Yes?” Manifold asked.
There was some silence after that observation.
Phage found it fairly easy to track down fragments of Spindrift in order to consume them. The scattering and dissemination of matter and energy in a moment of violence was how it had experienced its very first moments of existence, its purpose for being, its function. Or at least, so its sense of identity told it. Nothing in its life since its earliest sequential memories ever contradicted that notion. And certainly not this task.
And it gained a serene sense of harmony and belonging when it went about finding lost pieces of metal and scraps of technology to disintegrate them. Like nothing else it ever did, this made it feel so happy.
Molly spoke up, “You talked about returning to orbit, Susan. How are we going to do that now? Do your people have inhabitable space vehicles? Can we steal one?”
Phage decided to respond to that, in Network, “I am working on a plan for that. It will take fifteen days, however. If all goes well. And you will need to pick a landing site. And we may need to negotiate with the military for the use of it.”
Lesley and Susan both sighed together, blowing air out through their lips, looking at each other.
“Burrowing is a good plan,” Phage said. “I can help quite a bit with that. It will be like riding in a vehicle, but slower.”
“We need to get to the coast, to the West,” Susan said. “It’s a long way. We’ll need wheels eventually.”
“What is there?” Phage asked.
“Family,” replied Lesley, putting an arm around Susan. “I’m guessing we’re going to need to say goodbye.”
Susan began to cry, and Phage noted that Lesley was on the verge of it as well.
“I will make the new landing craft bigger,” Phage said. “But can you not negotiate a clemency? Can you not return to your life here?”
Susan shook her head, and Lesley scrunched up her face and said, “I think neither of us see how, Phage. We registered at a ranger station before we set out hiking. Our government had to have checked there when Molly picked us up. Now, these military goons have seen our faces and backpacks and heard our stories, and they’ll make the connection. Also, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world figures it out. Either it will get leaked, or conspiracy theorist hackers will get the records from the ranger station, or our friends will fess up, and then we’ll be wanted by the rest of the worlds’ governments. And then everything we’ve done has antagonized our own country. Susan thinks we’re traitors, and I can’t really find an argument against that.”
“Then meeting your family will put them in danger,” Phage observed.
“They might already have been rounded up by the government,” Lesley said. “We have to check. We have to break them out, if we can.”
Molly looked alarmed.
“I will make the landing craft even bigger,” Phage said.
“Also,” Lesley looked down at Susan. “I’m thinking that the middle of a city might be a really good place to pick us up. They wouldn’t dare shoot down a fusion powered spacecraft over a populated area, nor use an EMP. Or they might, but they’ll think twice about it.”
“OK,” Phage responded, still chewing on bits of metal with microscopic teeth. “There is something you should all be aware of that might help you negotiate this. The government here believes that there are at least two thousand, if not possibly millions, of Mollys on the starship. I believe you’ve named it Anchor?”
Molly looked alarmed in a different way at that, “Really?”
“Yes,” Phage said. “They have had visuals of it since you arrived in this system, and their scientists have been making guesses about it. You acted strangely to them tonight, but they believe it was either alien behavior or an act. They are also in great disagreement as to how to deal with you when they encounter you. The commander of these forces is likely to face review over how aggressive he was. Shooting down your vessel was not approved by his commanding officers.”
It noted that everyone, including Manifold, relaxed considerably at those words.
“I don’t think that changes the politics that are driving Lesley and Susan to consider leaving with you, Molly. But I do think it increases your chances of surviving to return to Anchor. I don’t think they’re going to bomb you,” Phage added. “But you might be able to make something more of it if you are creative.”
“I have an idea,” Lesley said. “But it’s not going to save us. It might, however, save this planet.”
“Oh?” Phage asked.
“Let’s talk about it once we’re underground,” Lesley said.
It was around dinner time of the next day when they pulled up to their house. Lesley was driving the van that they’d stolen. Susan was in the passenger seat, looking forlornly out the window, watching familiar streets go by, counting the houses since they’d pulled off the freeway. Saying goodbye to her favorite trees and bushes in her head. Waving at dogs.
Lesley’s plan was the best of a whole bunch of shitty options. They were going to leave the planet dramatically, and they had fourteen days to wrap things up by the time they needed to do so. And once they were entrenched in this house, it would be really foolish for any police or any other government agency to attempt to root them out. But when Lesley had first carried her over the threshold of Spindrift, she had not considered that it was the beginning of a new life. She should have. Boarding an alien spacecraft consciously and willingly really couldn’t end any other way, now that she saw it all in retrospect.
Now there was the question of how their family was doing, and whether or not they were making things worse by coming here.
They’d not messaged ahead. They didn’t want any communications to be intercepted.
They had checked Bergamot, Tallis, and Wind’s social media accounts. Just to see if there were clues as to whether their lives had been interrupted or not. Things looked OK on the surface. None of their danger codes were in any of their posts. That was promising. But the only post that had been made today was a photo of Kirkleson splayed out on the couch, head up, eyes wide and frantic, in the grips of a frenzy of canine goofiness. That had been made mid morning. Anything could have happened to the household between then and now.
There were no signs of police or other government presence out on the street. The door was intact.
Susan swallowed her worry. She was feeling very tense about this.
Either they were about to be ambushed by agents opening the door, or they were going to be ambushed by family. And either way, the following discussion was one she was not ready for.
She really had no clue how any of it would end.
And the fact that they had a cyborg python and two shambling mounds of nanite clay in the back of the van that needed to find shelter in that house did actually complicate things.
Lesley decided to back into the driveway. And as she paused in the street before putting the vehicle in reverse and turning the wheel, Susan thought she saw the blinds in the front living room window move, as if someone had checked to see what the vehicle was doing.
Now would be an OK time to message, actually.
“I’m going to let them know it’s us,” Susan told the others. “Are you all OK with that?”
“Of course,” Molly said.
Everyone else just nodded.
She sent the message to their group chat, using her phone, “It’s us. For real.” And then she sent her favorite selfie with Lesley. The one with the planet behind them.
As Lesley pulled up on the handbrake and turned the engine off, the van now in the driveway, Susan watched the message and photo become marked as read by Wind. She smiled, imagining Wind’s reaction.
She pretended, for a moment, it was a normal day after coming home from an unexpectedly long trip, and that photo was just a souvenir.
Lesley turned to their friends in the back and said, “I guess you all stay here until we find a way to sneak you in. Probably through the garage. We’ll try not to take long.”
Molly nodded, and said, “May we observe through the Network?”
Lesley looked at Susan, and Susan couldn’t think of any reason not, so she nodded.
“Thank you,” Molly said.
“We will be circumspect,” Manifold added.
Phage just nodded.
Lesley glanced at Susan again and said, “Alright, let’s go in.”
Susan never felt so out in the open and exposed as when she walked from the van to the door of her own house.
Berg was a tall, big, round person, with a balding head and a big white beard, and they dramatically pulled open the door before either Susan or Lesley could knock.
“Come in!” they said, warmly but with some tone of urgency.
The smells of home enveloped Susan and just drew her into the house all on their own. Everything was still in its place.
Tallis was standing just behind Berg, ready to embrace Susan in a hug, and Berg closed the door behind Lesley and hugged her.
Wind was leaning against a banister near the back entrance to the room, smirking. He said, “So, got alien bodies in the back of that stolen van, eh?”
Susan stepped back from Tallis, looked into her gorgeous golden brown eyes, and asked, “Are you OK with guests?”
“What kind of guests?” Tallis asked.
“The queerest guests you’ll find this side of our galaxy,” Lesley said from over Susan’s shoulder.
“I knew it,” Wind snickered.
Tallis and Berg both became very solemn, and Susan’s heart sank.
“We’ve been visited by government agents,” Berg said. “They only asked a few questions and then left, and we haven’t heard from them since, but we’ve basically known where you’ve been since then. Guessed. And it was harrowing and we were terrified for you. And we’re still scared.”
Even Wind sobered up, “Yeah. If you’re here… Could you have been followed? Maybe they’re watching and the van outside has tipped them off.”
“We’ve assumed the latter,” Susan found herself saying, grimly.
“We’re sorry for bringing this into our household,” Lesley said. “But we figured we’d done that already by stepping onto that ship. And you might have already been in custody. We had to check to see if you were OK before…” she couldn’t say what she was going to say. Her eyes teared up and she obviously lost words.
“But, we’re worried about you!” Tallis exclaimed. “By coming here, won’t you get caught?”
Susan let herself smile wryly, then dropped it and said, “Let’s invite our guests in and discuss that. Lesley has a plan, and I don’t think the government is going to bother us so long as we stay in the house. We might need to order a lot of delivery in a week, though. Grocery shopping is going to be risky.”
“Good thing we all do work from home stuff,” Berg said.
Wind waggled his eyebrows. Tips from Wind’s clients would pay for delivery, most likely.
Lesley nodded once and started moving past Susan and Tallis, heading for the door to the garage. She said over her shoulder, “Fair warning. One of our guests looks just like a snake, but she isn’t one. I think she’s closer to mammalian than reptile, but I don’t think either classification really applies to her. And the other two are weirder.”
Following Lesley, Susan looked over her shoulder at Tallis. It was so good to see her vintage clothing, violet hair, and striking piercings again. It had been so good to hug her again. And Berg, standing behind her in their green and red sweater and tan slacks, had a longing and worried look on their face.
Susan said, “Come on. We’re going to have time to catch up and show you all our photos in a bit. And we’ll have some decisions to make, and maybe we can salvage this. But I really need you to meet our new friends.”
“OK,” Berg said.
Tallis tried to smile.
“No,” Susan said. “This is real. This is historic in a way that humanity has never experienced before. Oh, and we have messed it up so bad. But I don’t think there was any other way for it to happen. And you might as well see the good parts of it before the bad things we’ve brought down on this world catch up to you. It’s the least we can do.”
“What kinds of bad things?” Tallis said.
“If we’re not lucky?” Susan responded. “Increased oppression. One government getting the extreme upper hand with technology we’ve tried and maybe failed to keep from it. Outrage that we’re the ones to make contact, and you’re our family. Just the knowledge that aliens are really real, and how that’s going to affect power structures. The whole kyriarchy is going to twist itself into knots, and you’ve probably already seen the beginnings of it.”
Tallis took a deep breath and let it out of her mouth with a huff, then looked back at Berg.
“That’s about the shape of it,” they agreed. “Let’s go do this.”
Wind clapped with enthusiasm, but it didn’t really show on his face. Then he gestured for Susan to lead the way.
By the time the van’s back doors began to open, Molly knew more or less what to expect. Lesley was opening the doors, and the garage was full of clutter, and Berg was in the front, with Susan and Tallis behind them, and Wind taking up the rear.
It was decided she’d present herself first, being an obvious living being. And then let Manifold and Phage climb out afterward. She was going to wave to seem more human.
“Oh, wow!” Berg said, upon seeing her. Then immediately they stepped aside and gestured in big sweeping arcs, “Come in! Come in! Quickly! We’ll gawk once you’re safe!”
“Eep!” chirped Tallis, stepping out of the way and incidentally hiding behind Berg.
Wind, in the back of the garage, grinned. But it didn’t look like a friendly or a happy grin. Not intentional. A reflex of some sort.
“Is it OK for us to enter your house?” Molly asked.
Berg blinked, and said, “Yes! Please!”
“Oh, yes!” Tallis agreed.
Wind stepped back and held the door in the back of the garage open, saying, “all the way back, even.”
Molly slithered forward and down out of the van at not her quickest pace. She didn’t want to startle or unsettle anyone further. But she didn’t move slowly, either.
The things that were in the garage were very strange to her. She’d honestly never seen that many belongings in one place besides in someone’s artistry studio. And it had been a shared artistry studio at that. Perhaps that’s what this was.
There were a lot of boxes. But piled on top of and around the boxes were things like a globe, an old metal frame of something that looked like a vehicle, a wooden rack of some sort, a broken chair, an electronic screen, piles of clothes, a pillow, a big metal frame with springs in it, some glassware, and all sorts of other things she couldn’t possibly name. There were some figurines of bizarre proportions on a shelf behind everything, completely out of reach.
But there was a three person wide walkway through all of it, and she wove her way through that and up the short set of stairs to the door that Wind held open.
She paused before Wind to bow her head briefly, and say, “Thank you.” And then she entered the house.
The room she found herself in was undeniably a kitchen. It had no maker, as far as she could tell. There were boxy appliances of various sizes, but from their electrical hums, whines, and vibrations, she was pretty sure they weren’t designed to manipulate matter in any more than one or two ways. She knew these people didn’t have nanites. And the quietest device had knobs on it. No buttons. And there were spiraled iron disks on the top of its surface that she guessed would heat up when it was turned on.
She spent a few moments checking the internet to confirm her suspicions and to learn the vocabulary for each of the things in the room.
She heard Wind exclaim behind her, “It’s like I’m looking at three different genres of movie!”
“I know, right?” Susan said loudly back.
“A literal cartoon, an atomic horror robot, and something from a twenty year old horror flick that can probably change shape and absorb people,” Wind said, voice a bit shakier than intended.
“Well, more of a muppet than a cartoon,” Lesley suggested.
“Sure, sure, but still,” Wind replied.
“Can we all keep moving into the dining room?” Tallis asked.
Molly realized she was blocking everyone’s path and moved further into the house.
Soon they were seated around the big table in what was apparently the dining room.
Molly, of course, was draped on a chair rather than sitting in it properly. The chair just wasn’t made for her, but she made do with it, presenting her upper body and head at about the same level as everyone else’s, so she could rest her arms on the table.
Manifold and Phage were able to sit just like the humans. Phage had absorbed its tail to make that easier.
Berg had explained that they had such a big table and so many chairs because they liked to host dinner parties and political gatherings.
Once they were all seated, Tallis said, “OK, so I’m dissociating heavily now, and maybe I’m about to panic. I’m sorry, I’m going to be a bad hostess, I’m afraid. I don’t know how, but I just don’t think I can keep it together.” She turned to Berg and asked, “Is this real?”
“That was my reaction when I first saw Molly,” Susan admitted, leaning forward. “And I actually fainted when I saw Phage.”
Lesley put a hand on Susan’s wrist and said, “I think we should introduce everyone, Sweetie.”
Berg took the initiative and put a hand on their chest and, looking at Molly, said, “Hello, my name is Berg. My pronouns are they/them. I’m sort of a caretaker of sorts around here? A house person? I make sure everyone is fed, you know. By cooking!”
Phage titled its head. There were so many similarities between that greeting ritual and the custom on the Sunspot. Fascinating.
Molly just naturally responded to that, saying, “My name is Molly Rocketcoil. My pronouns are she/her. And I am… I have…” She looked down at the table in thought, and then said, “I am your guest, and I am thankful for it. I have run away from home, and I think that might have been a bad idea. But I can’t go back. So, now I must explore and find a new home, so that is what I do.”
“Oh,” Berg said. Then they looked at Susan and said, “I guess I can see why you brought this one home with you.”
Susan closed her eyes, smiling, and raised her eyebrows. Phage read that as an acknowledgement and a stifling of a laugh.
“I’m Tallis, and my pronouns are she/her,” Tallis offered next, voice trembling a little. “I’m actually an accountant, believe it or not. I help people keep track of their money and do their taxes. Especially queer people who might not have all that much to work with but who find it really traumatizing.” She shrugged, then looked over at Wind.
But Wind gestured at Manifold, since it seemed they were going back and forth.
“I’m Manifold” Molly’s parent said. “I am, or used to be, Molly’s Tutor. I’m her parent. I was assigned to her to help raise her from infancy and to usher her through life until her transition to Crewhood aboard the Sunspot, our original home. I’ll explain further later, but now I like to think of myself as her parent, not her Tutor, according to her wishes. My pronouns are it/its.”
“Oh, I like that,” Wind said. “My pronouns are he/him, but it is a good one. More people should wear it. My name is Fuckwind. Wind for short. I’m a sexworker, mostly cam work. And, I’ll explain that further, later too, if you’d like. Maybe give you a tour of my studio, depending on how long you’re staying.” He then looked at Phage as a prompt.
Phage looked at each of the humans, ending with Susan and Lesley, before speaking. It turned back to Tallis, who’d declared herself a hostess, if apparently a bad one, and said, “I am Phage. My pronouns are it/its. I am not entirely sure what I am, though my sense of identity says I am perhaps Everything, in a manner of speaking. But I will protect this house for as long as I reside within it. Nothing will touch it, or you within it, without your consent.”
Berg turned their head and looked at Phage sideways, and asked, “How can you do that?”
“I do not wish to frighten you,” Phage replied.
“I think it might be a little too late to avoid that,” Berg said.
“Fair point,” Phage said. “Then let me be explicit. I have used my abilities to help Susan and Lesley directly confront a military force, disable their weapons, and intimidate them into retreating. I then ushered them into a tunnel of my own creation and ferried them underground for quite some ways until we found the van that is now in your driveway. And I am currently, simultaneously occupying a mountain top, where I am constructing a radio dish array through which I will transfer myself to Molly’s starship, which is in the sol-terra Lagrange point 4, where I will begin construction of a new landing craft large enough to carry everyone in this room to safety if need be. With your consent, should you choose to accompany us. I wish to give you options, since I have participated in creating ‘this mess’ as Susan calls it.”
The widened eyes and leaning back of the three of Susan and Lesley’s domestic humans alerted Phage that it might have given too much information too quickly.
It looked at Susan and then Lesley for direction.
Lesley said, “Maybe demonstrate what you can do?”
“Are you sure?” Phage asked.
Lesley turned to her family and said, “We trust Phage at this point. It has literally saved our lives. But it is hard to believe what it is saying until you see it for yourselves.”
Berg held up their hand and said, “I think I’d like to see this demonstration, but I think what we’re reacting to is the idea of leaving the planet?” They looked at Tallis and Wind.
Tallis nodded silently.
Wind raised a finger and said, “I am a little scared by the demonstration idea. What did you have in mind?”
Phage saw Susan look at it out of the corner of her eye, with her face pointed down at the table, before she mumbled, “Give it some food, on a plate. Like, something you’d feed any guest, I guess. We all could use some dinner anyway.”
“OK,” Berg said, getting up from the table. “But I still want to talk about this leaving the planet thing.”
“Let’s just start with Phage’s snack, OK?” Susan spoke up a little more. “Then we’ll get to Lesley’s plan, and like Phage said, your participation is purely voluntary. We’ll even leave this house if you don’t like any of it.”
Tallis put her hand out on the table toward Susan, and said, “Baby, this is your home. We wouldn’t dream of pushing you out of it. But – ”
“Sorry, Tallis,” Lesley said, putting her hand gently over hers. “Sorry, but, you need to see just how serious things really are before you commit to anything. You have an idea from your brush with government agents, and all the news going around. But it’s possible that you should, actually, be very angry with us, and chasing us out of this house and distancing yourself from us publicly might be a very valid act for you. One that could save you. We need to let you do that if you have to.”
Susan grimaced and said, “Yes, that.” She looked over at Berg, who was getting something from the large, upright box in the kitchen, and said, “Do you remember when I read the short story Gray Goo by Drex K. Ericsen? I talked about the idea for months. It unsettled me deeply until I realized, thanks to Ericsen’s own notes, that there’s no reason for humanity to ever make self replicating nanites. It’s just not efficient. There’s too much work and complexity to making them in the first place, and they wouldn’t be able to do much else, right?”
“I’m following,” Berg said.
“Oh, yeah, I remember you going off about that,” Wind said. “You were actually excited by the idea at first, then horrified, then dropped it.”
“Well, Molly’s people perfected it before they took to space,” Susan said, gesturing at Manifold and Phage. “They’ve lived countless years with it surrounding them and have survived. It even keeps their plants healthy!”
“This is true,” Molly said.
“It’s basically magic to us,” Lesley offered.
“Yes, exactly,” Sasun said, nodding to her. “But, then, on top of that, Phage here is to Molly’s people what she is to us. And you need to see that. And then the ethical dilemmas we’re facing will become clear.”
Berg returned and put a simple ham sandwich on a plate down in front of Phage, and said, “OK.” Then they walked back around to their seat and began to sit in it. “Should we promise not to scream?”
“If screaming makes you feel better, you should scream,” Phage said. “It will not please me. But that should not be your consideration. This is your home.”
The humans just stared at it, and it found itself confused about their seeming inability to interact with it.
Did they somehow sense what it was? Or had its words unsettled them that much?
People were usually stand-off-ish around it, now that it thought about its past. But it had grown used to having a family and people it could talk to. It realized now that only a handful of decades of socializing, and having its own child for part of that, had really altered its sense of order and belonging in the universe. The millennia spent in isolation, speaking only to Monsters through text messages, seemed to have been collapsed into a single memory of “the before times”.
Time itself had become weird to it, distorted. Which startled it, a being that supposedly represented and controlled the very universal process that made time meaningful in the first place.
Thinking about this, it also understood Molly better. It had gotten a good look at how her psyche worked while it had ridden in her subconscious. But relating what it had seen to its own experiences made it clear in a way it couldn’t see before.
“If I may make an observation first?” Phage said. “I feel like I know how to talk to people from the Sunspot. Molly’s people. But I also feel like I don’t know how to say the right things to you. I am not sure why that is. But, to me, the right things are the things that inform you, and help you to guard and take care of yourselves. You are life. You are beings of awareness and emotion and observation, and compared to me you are very fragile. You are precious and I am enormous and can be clumsy. I need to know how to not hurt you. Is that OK?”
They looked at it with their wide eyes and seemed to nod ever so subtly, hesitantly.
“I am just going to eat this sandwich,” it said. “I will touch nothing else. I will show you what I can do, and then I will show you what my nanites can do. Your table and your plate will not be touched, nor anything else in this house.”
Berg took a deep breath and held Tallis’ hand and said, “OK.”
“My child, Ni’a, the Chaos of Life, taught me this trick,” Phage said. “First, I will increase the flow of entropy in the sandwich. It will decay before your eyes. I could also preserve it indefinitely, but that is harder to demonstrate in a short time.”
As it talked, it did as it said it would, and the sandwich began to grow mold on it and shrivel a bit.
“This necessitates increasing the lifecycle of molds and bacteria on the sandwich, otherwise I’d mummify it,” Phage said. “But I am able to restrict that to lifeforms that are not directly harmful to you, and to keep them to the confines of the plate. This also shows you that life itself comes from what I do, and that I can shape it. In some very fundamental ways, however, you do this, too. Just on a much more subtle level compared to me.”
By the time it had said that, the sandwich had become completely covered in green and was looking a lot less like its original shape. It was also clear that this was having a huge emotional impact on all of the humans. Even Lesley and Susan hadn’t seen this much from it. Susan had felt this ability as if it had been her own, but hadn’t used it quite like this.
“Now it is time to clean the plate,” Phage said. “There will be no trace of mold or bacteria on it, and you will not have to clean it yourselves, but I will not be insulted if you do. This is a demonstration of the nanites I control.”
It reached up with its left hand and put it down on top of the sandwich. Then it engulfed the sandwich, using its limb as a pseudopod, and began to break it and all other organic material connected to it down into its component molecules, leaving the table and plate untouched, like it had promised. On a whim, it did not allow the nanites to consume the matter for energy, however. It stored the matter temporarily instead.
“I could accelerate this with my own abilities if I wanted to, but I am letting the nanites work at their own pace, so that you can see what they do for yourselves. They can be used to construct things as well, however,” It explained. Then it reformed its hand and lifted it from the now empty plate.
Wordless, Berg hesitantly reached out to pick up the plate and examine it. They offered it to Tallis, who waved it away. Wind reached for it and got a chance to feel its surface and look at it at different angles.
“That was scarier than I expected,” Susan whispered.
“And yet, you controlled and commanded this very power,” Phage said.
Presented with a truth that was very difficult to face and articulate, especially when she was in the process of mourning the imminent loss of her home, Susan found her brain presenting her with a completely off topic observation that totally occupied her attention.
“Where’s Kirkleson?” she blurted, looking around.
“Oh!” Tallis said. “Carl is walking him! Taking him for a good long walk. Should be back in a half hour or so.”
Susan looked over at Molly and said, “I guess that’s fortunate. This meeting would be a lot more chaotic right now if he was here.”
“Yeah,” said Wind.
“Oh, boy. What are we gonna tell Carl, though, when he gets back?” Lesley said. “Or should we hide until he goes home?”
Carl was the neighbor’s 17 year old son. He liked to walk dogs for a little extra cash, but also accepted Berg’s cooking in payment, too.
“Well, you’ll miss dinner if you do that,” Berg said.
Lesley looked at Berg like she was trying to project her thoughts at them.
Susan reached out and grabbed her hand and squeezed it, and said, “Your plan.”
“In fact,” Berg said. “I really should have started cooking half an hour ago. But I think I can make it work if I start now.”
“May I show you one more thing before you do?” Phage asked.
“Thank you, but I don’t need to see it,” Berg said. “I’ve got work to do, people to feed.”
“Understood,” Phage said. “I thought it might be informative to watch me reconstitute the sandwich.”
Berg had already gotten up again and was moving toward the kitchen, “I believe you can do it. It’s not necessary. Thank you.”
This demonstration by Bergamont was just so Berg. Susan wasn’t really sure why she was so surprised by it, except that she expected everyone to have wild, unpredictable reactions to the aliens. Perhaps because she’d fainted when she’d first seen Phage. So, as the conversation continued, she found herself watching them start working on dinner.
“I think,” Wind said, “that seeing you recreate the sandwich would be pretty amazing. But the problem is that I’ve been shocked since seeing you in the garage, and I don’t know about Berg or Tallis but I don’t think my body knows how to react anymore. And my brain certainly isn’t processing much except my usual quips, you know?”
“Oh, I feel like I’m thinking clearly,” Berg said. “But I need to think while I cook. This all has implications.”
“Right,” Lesley said, leaning forward and gesturing with her free hand. “Like what would have happened if Molly had landed in any other country?”
“Or contacted the world before landing?” Berg countered.
“Or, what if we’d used the internet to contact people from orbit after she’d picked us up and learned our language?” Lesley added.
Susan felt like this angle of the conversation wasn’t useful or going in the right direction. Since the moment she’d hosted Phage, she’d started seeing broader connections. It was like her usual autistic pattern matching habits had been given booster shots, or a coprocessor.
“Or,” Berg said, “What if she’d passed us all by and our lives kept on going as they had been?”
“We have to remember that this isn’t about what could have been,” Susan said. “Right? Like, you two are talking about imagining the possible consequences of what we do next?”
“Maybe we’re just getting on the same page,” Berg said.
“So, the subtext?”
“Was all over the place, my sweet Fartmuffin.”
“Ah, OK,” Susan took that as a cue to stand down and just let Berg do their thing.
“Fartmuffin?” Molly asked, looking at Susan.
“OK, there, see?” Berg said, pointing from the kitchen. “You probably have some magic translation device like in the shows, but after nearly a month hanging out with our two brightest, there are still communication gaps.”
Lesley leaned toward Molly and said more quietly, “It’s a term of endearment that only Berg uses, and only for Susan. It’s OK.”
“There are always communication gaps,” Susan pointed out.
“Yes, but when they happen over a gulf of power, they tend to get people really hurt. And more than just the two involved,” Berg said, chopping something.
They were right, and Susan and Lesley had already been all over this with Molly, Manifold, and Phage, to varying degrees. She squinted and said, “You’re catching up.”
“Excellent,” they said. One big chop, a brushing of whatever it was into a pile, and then Berg reached for another thing to put under the knife. “So, I’ve got a line of questions, then.”
“Fire away,” Lesley said.
“So, you’ve all had access to the internet, I take it,” Berg stated.
“Yes,” said Phage.
“For at least two weeks?”
“Longer for me. Intermittently for the others.”
“Did any of you read any of the forums or threads where people are talking about what they hope you all will do for humanity, or how they want you to do it?” Berg turned to them and raised their eyebrows. “More importantly. Have you seen how some people are SWATting each other over it?”
“I think you don’t mean ‘slapping’ each other, do you?” Manifold finally spoke up.
“No. SWATting is when you call a SWAT team of police on another person to try to get them killed,” Berg said.
There was a knock at the door.
“I’ll get it,” Molly heard Susan say into the silence after the knock.
She joined everyone in watching Susan get up and start to slowly walk to the door.
“Anyway, Phage,” Berg started saying again. “Let’s say that you and Molly and your people don’t have a history of colonization like we do here, like our country. You’re just here, personally, to say ‘hi’ and move on, but now you’ve seen all this trouble we’re in, and all these people asking for help, and fighting each other over it…”
Susan glared back at them when she reached the door.
Berg fell silent for a second before adding very quietly, “it’s still a problem that you’re here.”
When Susan was sure that everyone was quiet, she got up on tiptoes to peer through a spot on the door. Then she turned back and hissed, “It’s the xenoanthropologist! And agents!”
After all her encounters with Susan and Lesley’s government, Molly had a really hard time processing that they’d just come and knock on the door like they were asking to be guests. She felt a little dizzy at the prospect and turned to Manifold.
“Maybe they finally want to talk like people,” Manifold said out loud for everyone’s benefit.
Molly nodded once, curtly, and said, “I should greet them, then.” And then she started to crawl off of her chair. “Susan, can you wait until I’m near before you open the door?”
“Sure,” Susan said, looking back at her family.
“This will be interesting,” Wind said, nervousness in his voice, obvious even to Molly.
“They can’t hurt any of you,” Phage reminded everyone. “I won’t let them.”
“Yet,” said Berg a bit forcefully.
“I need to be there, too!” Lesley said, and Molly heard her scrape her chair back and nearly run after her.
Lesley reached Susan’s side just as Molly stopped a couple meters away and nodded her ascent to Susan. Susan nodded back and turned to open the door.
Molly had a weird moment where she felt like everyone else was way more tense and nervous than she was. But then she realized that that was her own anxiety projected onto everyone else’s movements, and she smiled at herself. This type of anxiety was old hat for her. She’d faced it every time she’d geared up for an argument with the Crew. And, in the end, when it came to facing these kinds of things, her knowledge of herself was always her best tool. Sometimes her only tool.
And then the door was open and there they were. A person in an olive drab suit with a strange little hat on her head, carrying a thick folder. That was the xenoanthropologist, a woman by Lesley’s descriptions. Next to her was a taller, older looking person in a dark blue suit that looked softer and warmer than the xenoanthropologist’s clothes. And then, behind them were two people in black suits with black lensed glasses on their faces. Sunglasses, yes.
“Hello,” said the woman. “My name is Dr. Samantha Pellington. I believe we met in the Central National Forest last night? This here is His Excellency Weston Bersand, our first ever Xeno-Diplomat. If you will entertain us briefly, these two men, Mr. Vince and Mr. Charleston, will stand guard outside your door to make sure of our safety.”
Susan started to say, “Why should we -”
“Bring them all inside!” Berg shouted.
Susan stepped inside and said, “I think we want none of you darkening our doorstep. Please come in, even you two.”
Molly saw Lesley turn back to face Berg and mouth something that her translator said was, “I thought we don’t talk to cops.”
“This is different, Lesley,” Berg said. Then they said to their new guests, “You’re getting tea. Herbal. You can choose not to drink it. But you’re not staying for dinner, you hear?”
“Understood,” said H.E. Bersand as he crossed the threshold.
Molly drew herself up taller than the tallest of them, right in front of their paths as they entered the house, and found herself looking down into an intimidated Dr. Pellington’s eyes.
“Hello, Molly,” Dr. Pellington smiled and held out her hand. “I am sorry that we didn’t get a chance to talk earlier. My government is giving me the opportunity to rectify that problem.”
Molly was confused by the hand gesture. She’d never seen it before. But, it did look like it was an offering of some sort, and an expectation. And she guessed that she was also supposed to hold her hand out in a similar fashion, which she did.
Dr. Pellington grabbed it and gave it a very gentle downward pull, and then let go.
H.E. Bersand stepped forward then and offered his hand and said, “It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve been dispatched with full diplomatic authority to offer you and your people our people’s good will and negotiate with you fully. We needn’t take much of your time tonight. We just wish to open up a dialogue.”
“This isn’t my home,” Molly said to them. “So I cannot offer to you a seat.”
“Sit!” Bergamot commanded from the kitchen.
Molly took that as a cue to move out of the way, sliding over to a corner of the room where she could see everyone, those in the dining room and Berg in the kitchen included.
Susan pointed to the sofa for the Diplomat and Dr. and then led Lesley over to the two remaining chairs, turning to the guards to say, “You can stand where you are, at the door.”
As Susan and Lesley moved the chairs to face the sofa, Molly lowered herself to a more relaxed posture, and stole herself to say something meaningful. But the Diplomat beat her to it.
H.E. Bersand spoke up as he was sitting down next to Dr. Pellington, “I understand that you have offered us some of your technology in exchange for something. Our country would like to know what you mean by that, and what you want. If you could explain that to us right now, we would be very grateful. We are here right now simply to listen to you at the moment. So, if you will, at your leisure.” He nodded and sat back, looking to Dr. Pellington for confirmation of something.
Dr. Pellington smiled at him.
“We told you we’d contact you from orbit,” Susan said.
“May I speak?” Molly asked her, waiting patiently for her answer.
Susan looked startled at her, and then apologetic, and said, “Yes, of course. I’m sorry.”
This really did remind Molly of talking to the Crew. And, in a way, these people represented the Crew of Susan’s people, so that made sense. It really helped that there weren’t any visible guns present, or any attempts at physical conflict. She breathed in through her nose and licked the air. Yes, these people wore fragrances. They partook in the artistry of others. They were people. A good reminder.
She tilted her head and said, “I am looking for a new home, but I am beginning to learn that I can’t do that here. I am sorry. All I wish to do now is leave.”
H.E. Bersand frowned lightly and blinked, then said, “I don’t think I understand. We would be willing to offer you a place to live, or the freedom to visit from your spacecraft, in exchange for mere gestures of good faith. We did get off on the wrong foot, but we do see the error of our ways, and wish to apologize and change our position with you, offer you hospitality.”
“It’s not that,” Molly said. “It’s that, even though there are so few of us that your species outnumber us greatly,” she was being very careful not to give them any sort of number, as Lesley had advised, “our technology and understanding of the universe is so much more advanced than yours that its presence threatens the stability of your planet.”
“Ah, I see,” H.E. Bersand said. “Perhaps if -”
“I am not going to negotiate with you,” Molly said. “You have not earned the right. From your own planet. Your species.”
H.E. Bersand looked at Lesley and Susan and then back to Molly, “And what if I were to attempt to negotiate with you only for myself? For some purely personal benefit?”
“Then,” Molly said. “I think I would have to request that you leave your planet with me, when I return to my starship, to journey with me. It depends on what you ask for, of course.”
“Is that so?” he looked meaningfully at Susan and Lesley again.
“Where I come from,” Molly explained to him, “we had something we called ‘the Garden’. It was the interior wilderness of our generational starship, a much bigger spacecraft than the one I have in orbit around your sun. That Garden is a full, living ecosystem, and it is very delicate, and we have strict rules for how to interact with it. The very first rule is ‘Do not.’ To me, your planet is very much the equivalent of that Garden, and you and your species are fauna in that Garden. Disturbing you means that I risk disturbing the balance of your whole planet. I’ve already done that. Carelessly. Now I am on to rule number two, ‘Reduce your impact.’ Susan and Lesley here intend to help me do that.”
The Diplomat looked like he was taking great pains to appear measurably disappointed and said, “I see. May we be apprised of your plan, then, so that we may be reassured and may help you in these efforts as well?”
Molly looked at him for a good long moment, trying to assess what he was really thinking about. Everything in her being said that he was withholding something and that he was lying about something. Not even the Crew were this composed, and it unnerved her. But then she wondered if he was intentionally trying to make her feel that way. And then she wondered why he would want to do that.
Also, as they’d all discussed with Lesley about her plan while traveling underground earlier that morning, revealing too much about their numbers or plans or anything to any government official or spy or agent or anyone would risk it all. And Molly figured that applied even here.
Molly looked over at her and then at Lesley, and realized that her two friends hadn’t gotten any significant sleep since they’d re-entered the atmosphere of this planet. They’d each taken turns napping in the van as they drove, but it was not anything like what they’d shown they’d needed before.
Dr. Pellington yawned, too. Maybe she’d gotten even less sleep.
“No,” Molly told H.E. Bersand, then. “Not at this time.” She could think of nothing more that was safe to say to him.
“That makes me sad,” he said, standing up. “If negotiations are not in order, then, I think we should be going. Yes, Dr. Pellington?”
The tea hadn’t finished steeping yet.
Dr. Pellington, looking confused and uncertain, started to get up as well. She cast a pleading look Molly’s way, and then started to follow H.E. Bersand toward the door.
But Bersand turned around before the door and said, “I should inform you, however. From what we have seen of you, in action, we agree with you that you represent an existential threat to the people of this planet, Molly. And we are prepared to take extreme actions, even with weapons that we have not yet revealed to you, should you linger or fail to show us your good will. We must do what we must to protect ourselves.” He took a long deep breath and said, “I am going to give you my card. You may, if you change your mind, give me a call at any time while you are still able. There are things I am not at liberty to tell you, as well. But I can say that I cannot promise you more than a day. Farewell.”
The locally important human stepped forward to extend a small piece of paper with printing on it to Molly, which she took. Then, he turned and left.
“Did you just threaten a -” Dr. Pellington could be heard hissing as the door closed behind her and the other agents.
Molly turned to look at everyone else, still holding the piece of paper out with her right arm.
Everyone stared back at her.
Then Susan turned to Phage and said, “They’re going to bomb the city to get to us. And soon.”