“What we really need is a stealth ship,” Susan said.
At an orbital period of 91.3 minutes, they’d circled the planet about five times since reaching orbit. And they were now all looking at a political map of the globe, with capitals and points of interest marked. She and Lesley lived in the middle of one of the more contentious countries, at least by her standards. But they were talking about contacting the entire world via translated radio transmission and how to go about diplomacy with an entire planet of people who strongly disagreed with each other about a great many things.
Certain science fiction stories about doomsday were coming to Susan’s mind. Especially with Phage already on the planet, and representing an unknown and unpredictable existential threat that was supposed to be their guardian and ally. Maybe it could play a villainous foil for them? But they had to contact it first to coordinate, and to find out what it was doing there in the first place.
Molly was of the opinion that it would seek to return to her, and they’d hear from it soon. But she was also worried they hadn’t heard from it yet.
And, frankly, both Lesley and Susan were woefully out of their league when it came to global politics and diplomacy. It wasn’t Molly’s specialty either. And despite its unfathomable age and experience with people, Manifold admitted too much ignorance for its own comfort.
They were still discussing just what to say, because how could they not? But Susan kept thinking that the best thing for them to do was to have as little impact as possible.
Manifold had finally taken to creating a small robotic body for itself out of nanite clay. This gave Susan and Lesley something to glance or gesture at when addressing it. It was a cartoony replica of a three planet solar system, all made out of greasy dark gray spheres.
Susan turned to it, “Why didn’t you give this ship stealth capability? It would have been a good idea.”
“What do you mean?” Molly’s parent asked.
“Absorbent surfaces and oblique angling to cut down on light and radio wave reflections,” Susan replied. “It would help keep you from being picked up on radar or telescope. With your technology, I bet they wouldn’t be tracking us right now.”
Susan noted that her use of “they” referred to her own entire species, and that felt really weird.
Manifold bobbed, probably in imitation of a nod, and admitted, “We didn’t think of it. We’re not used to thinking adversarially.”
“I’d love to learn whether that’s a cultural or instinctual difference,” Lesley said.
“I think it’s safer to chalk it up to culture,” Susan shot back. “You and I both know where bioessentialism gets people, right?”
“Right,” Lesley agreed.
“Anyway,” Susan looked at both Molly and Manifold. “If we had some kind of stealth ability, we could just sneak onto the planet again and hide out somewhere. Maybe you could become urban legends while we return to our families. I don’t know. It’s probably too late to do that now, though.”
“I could really go for some street food right now, too,” Lesley said. “If only we could abduct a food truck.”
Susan gestured at Lesley with her lips drawn tight, and said, “That’s another problem. You’ve got a couple of pet humans who need to eat, and we don’t know if your food is ok for us.”
“We can go a little while without food,” Lesley agreed. “But we’ll get grumpy about it by morning and our performance will drop with each day.”
“We might have solutions to both those problems,” Manifold said. “But not perfect solutions.”
Molly had grown subsequently more and more silent during this conversation. Her last uttered words were, “I’ll do what I need to do. I can at least pilot this ship.” Which had been several minutes ago. She simply glanced in Manifold’s direction, face neutral and as unreadable as an actual snake’s.
“Please,” Susan said to Manifold.
“As for adequate food, from my readings of your metabolisms and the various nutritional information I could gather from your internet, I believe we can configure the ship’s food maker to synthesize a nutritional goo for you that should contain no poisons,” Manifold said. “It might not be pleasant to eat.”
“Can you have it make biscuits?” Susan asked.
“Something like biscuits.”
“That would be easier for me to eat. What about water?”
“We have plenty of that. In what you call Lagrange point 4,” Manifold said. “And just enough to get us there aboard this ship.”
Susan squinted her eyes at it and looked back at Lesley.
The four of them had spent over ten hours conversing with each other intensely. They were starting to pick up each other’s speaking habits. Manifold liked to lead people on, for some reason.
“To outfit this ship with stealth technology, or something like that, you need to take us to your starship,” Lesley said.
“Correct,” said Manifold. “The considerations are that it will keep you from your home for quite a while longer, but it might also seem less threatening to your people.”
“We need to contact our families,” Lesley said.
If Lesley was feeling like Susan did, she was hungry and getting a bit sleepy, and thoroughly exhausted. It had been an intense and long day full of multiple spikes of adrenaline.
Although their senses of humor were intact, Susan knew hers was a thin facade that she was keeping up simply to avoid exploding with other emotions. Otherwise, she felt a bit like a toddler who desperately needed a cookie and a nap.
But she agreed with Lesley and was intent on letting their people know they were still alive before even talking about sleep.
“I will leave it to you to decide what it is best for you to say to the people you know,” Manifold said. “Just tell me and Molly what you decide, in case it might affect us, please. I will get to making your biscuits.”
“I’d like to try the goo as well,” Lesley said.
“Of course. No problem.”
Molly sounded as sleepy as Susan felt when she asked, “What are you deciding to do?”
Susan shrugged and said softly to her, “We’re going to come with you. I think we should put off talking to the whole world until we know we absolutely have to. Let’s be mysterious. They’ll expect that.”
Lesley nodded, “A lot of people might start dismissing this whole event if they get no word from you about it.”
“Which means we need to come up with a story or instructions for our family to get them to keep quiet,” Susan concluded.
“Our jobs are done, though. We’ll be unemployed by the time we get back, I’m guessing,” Lesley added.
“I think we knew that was happening by the time we made orbit, Darling,” Susan touched her shoulder.
“We’ll figure out what we have to do when we get there,” Susan said, hugging Lesley.
Lesley nodded, hugging her back.
“I’m sho shorry,” Susan heard Molly mumble, apparently using her own mouth to form the words.
Both she and Lesley used each other as leverage to look at Molly.
“Molly, I’m getting really punchy from exhaustion and stress, so I don’t know if any of this is real anymore,” Susan said. At this point, her words were coming out of her mouth without her thinking about them first, which was an odd sensation. Usually, she had to plan them out beforehand. “But, thank you! You’ve come across astronomical distances to bring us into orbit and tell us you are sorry. No matter how this turns out, I have lived to learn that not only is there extraterrestrial life, but that we can share sympathy. That’s….” she ran out of words. Her eyes were tearing up, dammit.
“I would land you on your planet precisely where you direct me to, right now,” Molly said. “Just tell me where to land.”
Lesley held up a finger and opened her mouth, furrowing her brow, then checked with Susan with a look. Susan knew her. She wasn’t torn. By that expression, she actually wanted to go to Molly’s starship, and so did she.
They’d gotten themselves this far into the mess, might as well see all the possible sights before it was over. How could they not?
“No,” Susan said. “We’re going with you to your starship, if you’ll take us. Let’s see if we can figure out how to do this right. Or, at least, less distasterously.”
“My translator is confused by that word,” Molly said.
“I’ll explain it later, when I can think straight,” Susan said. “First, let Lesley and I contact our family.”
Molly climbed back into her flight chair, but kept her head high out of it, in order to rest and watch Susan and Lesley work.
Molly set up the console for them to function just like giant versions of their phone screens. They practically were using their phones, only the network connection wasn’t through the typical receiving tower, but directly from the ship to the nearest satellites, creating a network between them that wasn’t really supposed to be there in the first place. It had been trivial for Manifold to set that up using the tools aboard the landing craft.
And her two passengers explained everything they were doing as they worked.
It turned out that what they meant by “family” was not a group of parents, siblings, and children, but a group of partners.
Which actually made a lot of sense to Molly, in a way. On the Sunspot, the very first familial connections a child was born into were a household that consisted of a Caretaker, the number of children they’d agreed to raise, and everyone’s Tutors. For some of these families, there were generations of Caretakers in one set of quarters, working as a unit. For others, it was a collective of nearly the same age, a group of friends who decided to live and raise children together. Others worked more alone. Only very, very few cut ties with their Tutors, and they also rejected their neural terminals and named themselves Monsters, living apart from the rest of society in a way. That was a path people thought Molly might take in the midst of her decade long crisis. Monsters were special, respected and feared, but Molly never wanted to be one of them. Anyway, people often lived such long lives that they grew apart from their birth families and connected with new friends and formed new family groups with them. Sometimes repeating that cycle several times in their life.
Susan and Lesley had done something similar. Though, unlike people on the Sunspot, they had been born naturally to their parents, derived directly from their genes, and had rejected their birth families at a much earlier age than was culturally typical for Molly’s people. Humans seemed to live much shorter and more stressful lives, and queer humans more so than the rest. Were Susan and Lesley this species’ equivalent of Monsters?
So, the two lesbians told their extended family, which they called their polycule, that they were alive and OK, and that they were extending their vacation longer and would be outside of cell range for a while. At which point they turned to Molly and asked, “How long is this trip going to be?”
“Well,” Molly replied, “If we used orbital paths for the quickest possible route, it would take 194 of your planet’s days to reach my starship, but I don’t plan on doing that. It would be too much strain on our water cycle, and I didn’t take that route in the first place because I didn’t have to.”
“You’re leading us like Manifold would,” Susan said.
“Sorry, I’m calculating,” Molly explained. “It’s going to be about ten days there, an unknown number of days to retrofit this ship and give you a tour, and slightly fewer days back. I’m going to push it faster than I did before, so we will experience acceleration the whole way, which will be better for everyone’s physiology. Call it twenty days. That should be close enough.”
Molly watched Susan’s eyes bug out and her mouth open in what was apparently disbelief.
“What is it?” Molly asked.
“I’ve played with orbital simulators on my computer,” Susan whispered. “That’s a phenomenal waste of fuel and a lot of g-forces at the destination! I mean, for one of our rockets. Wait. Wait. Wait. This is sol-terra L4?!”
“Yes,” Molly confirmed.
“I remember the news sites said that when reporting on the blip there,” Lesley said.
“I guess I skimmed and just assumed, especially when Molly talked about coming over here in less then a couple months,” Susan nearly stammered. She tilted her head at Molly, “Does your ship break the laws of physics?”
Manifold arrived back in the cabin to say, “We don’t really call them laws anymore except when talking to Phage. But no, not really. As we explained earlier, it just utilizes technology that is beyond even our understanding now. Your food is ready. I can deliver it to you here while you communicate.”
“Thank you,” Lesley told it.
Susan sighed, and said, “Right. Thank you. Right. I’m living in a story like my dad used to tell me before bed, and I’m getting to experience everything I thought was impossible. Leslie, is this what it was like when you woke up after your big day?”
Lesley reached out and grabbed Susan’s hand and gave her a trembling smile, eyes tearing, and said, “Yes. I’m getting flashbacks. Yes. But this is like a mix of before and after. When we get back home and we’re still alive and make it through all of this, then it will be after.”
Molly found that she was intensely curious about that, but also sensed that it was a very personal subject. Nevertheless, she asked,“Can you tell me what your big day was about?”
“I’d like to get back to working on my letters,” Lesley said. “But, I had to have surgery to treat my physical dysphoria. Hormone therapy had not been enough for how I felt. And it was the most amazing, miraculous thing I have ever experienced up until now.”
Oh, this had to do with how Lesley was trans, or “transgender” as the local internet had put it. The social concept was alien to the Sunspot, since they didn’t assign gender at birth, or even really have the concept of genders. But it was alien to the Sunspot because the original Crew had been essentially transgender before they had built it, and had engineered the culture to be as accommodating as possible. And even then, physical dysphoria was still a thing that plagued some people, and there were treatments for it, including surgeries. In fact, the Nanite Innovation had been driven by a child with dysphoria.
“I have known of people who experienced the same kind of thing,” Molly said.
Lesley turned that teary, shaky smile her way and brightened it, blinking a couple times, before turning back to work on the console. It seemed like there was something more that Lesley had tried to squeeze into that expression for Molly. If Molly were to assume that Lesley’s expressions were perfect analogs to those of her own people, she would have called it agonized longing.
Molly thought about how advanced her technology seemed to these two, and realized that Lesley maybe wanted access to it for something she hoped she could gain.
It was bias and projection to assume that much. But Molly felt she was right.
There were things Lesley had said before that seemed to confirm it.
The two lesbians proceeded then to tell Molly about each of their family members as they sent personalized messages to them. They explained how they met, what they were to each other, sometimes a funny story, and what they were telling them specifically. It was all so much more personal and detailed than Molly expected, but she was so grateful. It helped her to learn about how these people thought, and what their culture was like. But it also made her feel like she was becoming part of their family, too.
And she knew not to presume. They were Outsiders to each other, and it had been less than a full day since they’d met. There were global and interstellar politics between them, and danger, and the ever present fear of betrayal. But this show of trust made her heart ache so deeply.
When Manifold, instructing a nanite clay tray of food to move through the cabin, delivered food to Susan and Lesley, Susan absently reached for a cracker and picked it up.
Molly watched her bring it to her nose and sniff it, then stop her typing to inspect it carefully all over with her eyes, before taking a tentative bit of the corner of it. She took a somewhat larger bite of it almost immediately, then whirled on Manifold with furrowed brows and what seemed like a snarl.
“How did you make it taste like that?!” Susan asked, her voice sounding like it did when she was excited and delighted.
“Like what?” Manifold asked.
When they were done with their messages, and replied to the really important ones, telling them “to keep things quiet and to not engage any rumors as to their whereabouts, standard queer safety stuff, you know,” Susan and Lesley finished their meals and climbed back into their flight harnesses. Which were as comfortable as beds.
“We’ll send you pictures of where we’ve been in about 20 days,” was the line included in all of the messages. It was bold, and maybe foolish. But they couldn’t help it. But also, it would not match the turnaround time their planets’ scientists would figure for them to even reach Molly’s starship, let alone make it back. So, it might throw the world off their track.
Manifold returned its nanites to one of the nanite bins and hunkered down in the ship’s Network to prepare for flight.
Then, under the suggestion of Susan, Molly directed the vessel to start altering its orbit to slingshot toward the moon first, like a typical rocket might. This would add some length to their trip, but then, when they were in orbit behind the moon, she would turn the nose toward the sol-terra Lagrange point 4 and instigate a full burn for a direct trip there. They hoped to stay in the shadow of the moon long enough to lose tracking, and make people think they had maybe landed on it.
They didn’t really expect that to work, but it was worth a try. And if it didn’t work, it would at least impress the shit out of everyone at home, and maybe make them think twice about messing with Molly when she returned.
And when the rockets started firing, they went to sleep in the weight of the acceleration.
Susan woke up briefly when freefall returned, but found that she was able to fall asleep again rather easily in the embrace of her harness. She did take a moment to think that it would have been nice to have pajamas or a change of clothes, and wondered if the makers aboard this ship could create some for her. Did they have the right kind of matter for that?
For the duration of their sleep cycle, the lights and displays of the cabin were turned off or very, very low. Vision was still possible, but it felt like night time.
When they awoke, Manifold apparently had set the ship to monitor Susan and Lesley’s sleep cycle and start to bring the lights up as they roused from sleep, so it felt like morning. The forward displays were acting like shielded windows, with the ship turned to let sunlight in when they weren’t in the shadow of the planet.
They unstrapped their torsos and sat up to eat breakfast in freefall, with their legs still strapped into the harnesses. The nanite clay trays somehow firmly hovering in front of them, almost as firm as rocks or furniture that had been anchored to the deck.
“Magnets?” Susan asked. “I mean, not really magnets, but, a magnetic field?”
“Yes,” Manifold said. “It requires the nanite form to be surrounded by a vessel like this or a large body of other nanites. If you push hard enough, you will feel it give a little. Push harder, and you can deform the tray. But you may or may not be able to do it with your muscles. I haven’t tested in this environment or with your physiology.”
“Amazing,” Susan said. “Um, can you make clothes with the makers on this ship?”
“We made my hazard suit aboard this vessel,” Molly said, pulling herself from her chair. “Clothes for you should be much simpler. We can also just clean the clothes you are currently wearing, while you’re wearing them.”
“Oh, that’s a dream,” Lesley mumbled around her breakfast crackers. “Samefooding this, while wearing PJs all the way to a starship and back? I do need PJs, I’m sorry.”
“We were thinking the same thing,” Susan smiled at her girlfriend.
At right about that moment, there was a sound somewhere between a ding and a tone, and a message appeared in strange, alien letters on all of the consoles and displays, overlaying whatever was already being displayed there. Right below it appeared a translation for Lesley and Susan’s benefit.
It said, “Will you return?”
Susan watched Molly’s head whip toward the nearest console and saw her face make what looked like a strong scowl. At this point, she was starting to trust that it was a scowl. Molly’s snake-like jaw clenched and shifted sideways, lips pushed strongly together in an expression that Susan had come to think of as Autistic concentration amongst humans. She couldn’t shake the feeling that that’s what it was, even though she knew at that point she was just projecting empathy.
After several seconds, a second set of lines appeared that said, “OK, thank you. I will remain and prepare.”
Molly lowered her head and squinted. It was clear she was somehow broadcasting messages back to the sender through her neural terminal somehow.
A few more seconds passed before the next reply, which said, “Patience. We will redress those forgotten events at a more appropriate time. I am sorry.”
Molly was not happy with that and tilted her head severely to the left, deepening her scowl at the console.
“It concerns them now. They are not the ones that keep me from elaborating. See you soon.”
Molly hissed and then relaxed. She cast what appeared to be an apologetic look at Lesley and then at Susan, and said, “Phage being Phage. I need to go to the living quarters to relax. Would you like to join me? We can design your new clothes there.”
Molly started configuring the interior of the ship for constant acceleration almost right away. Even though it would be about three days before they engaged that part of their trip, the extra surface areas could still be useful in microgravity. And she wanted feedback from the humans considering their ambulatory needs.
The kind of ladder Molly needed to climb vertically was different than what the humans could safely use, so a new design had to be fabricated that somehow accommodated both. That took some discussion, guesswork, and experimentation. And they wouldn’t full know it’s utility until the sustained burn.
Beds and chairs were arranged on the back wall of the living quarters. And one corner was cordoned off with dividers to provide a privacy nook for anyone who needed it. If they all needed to get away from each other, one could go to the cockpit, another to the nook, and the third could stay in the main room.
Susan and Lesley asked if they could use the makers to create things to decorate the space. Mostly, this was going to involve flat artwork to attach to panels and walls, so Molly showed them how to program the surfaces of the ship to display whatever they wanted.
When Susan saw that capability, she asked about why the cockpit even existed, with dedicated console and displays. If any surface could act as a display, and if Molly controlled the ship through her neural terminal, why take up the space and weight with the bulky controls?
“Redundancy, accessibility, psychology, and intuitiveness,” Molly replied. “Also, the dedicated equipment is slightly more robust and more responsive. Faster refresh rates on the displays. That sort of thing.”
Susan appeared to approve, but definitely spent some more time thinking about it.
“But, yes, I can pilot the ship from the toilet,” Molly said.
Lesley snickered at Susan’s expression on hearing that.
And really, from that point on, the trip was uneventful and all about finding routines that everyone was comfortable with.
While they still had a reasonable access to the internet, the humans collected photos of flowers and landscapes from around the planet and put them up on the more visible surfaces.
When it came time to instigate a constant burn and head toward the starship, Molly was satisfied that they were able to keep the moon between them and the planet for several hours.
While they were behind the moon, they couldn’t use Manifold’s rigged protocols and hacked satellites to contact any part of the planet, and they agreed that they should instigate radio silence from that point on, to cut down on chances of being spotted.
Which meant no internet, because those protocols required two way communication. But they were still able to pick up a few analog news channels, with intermittent clarity. And through that, they got the impression they’d been lost track of. But also, it was confirmed that they were still global news.
They spent a lot of their trip talking even more.
To Molly’s delight, both Susan and Lesley loved to expound on things in great detail. Manifold was also pleased by this and declared them to be honorary Tutors.
Molly, in turn, found herself relaxing around them and feeling more open and confessional about her past.
At first, she tried to focus on how she always found it hard to get along with the people she knew. She’d been mystified by it for most of her life, and Manifold’s advice had never seemed to help. And as she talked about it, she felt like she was trying to make that her case for why she’d left the Sunspot.
But she knew that wasn’t true. It was now, however, while talking about it with Outsiders, that she began to realize that her social troubles had been a symptom of her real trouble.
And that was that the fact of everyone’s conception aboard the Sunspot was a product of genetic engineering, and not natural birth. The fauna of the Garden got to experience natural conception and birth or hatching. And, those life forms had a consistency and predictability to their forms that was beautiful to Molly.
And, though she was very comfortable with her own body, and had been born to this world where everyone took their origins and extreme diversity for granted, she just never felt right about it. Something felt very, very wrong.
The diversity of the Sunspot was definitely preferable to the strict conformity of the Terra Supreme, no question. But neither breeding program sat well, and Molly had always felt disconnected from life and even space/time itself as a result of that history.
It was its own kind of dysphoria that plagued her, and in the end, after decades of trying to make peace with it, she felt the only antidote or treatment was to leave.
Susan and Lesley both offered to analyze her feelings and the ethics of what the Crew of the Sunspot had done, but Molly declined. She really didn’t want to think about it anymore.
She had to state three times that she wanted to move on, because the humans own minds couldn’t let go of the subject, but after that they resolved to respect that boundary.
And slowly, the blip of light that was Molly’s starship got brighter.
“What’s its name?” Lesley asked.
“It hasn’t named itself yet,” Molly replied.
“Oh, wow,” Lesley replied. “So, it’s like a person, too? Like Manifold?”
“No,” Molly blinked. “I just feel like it will present a name to me eventually anyway. As if it was a person, even though it isn’t.”
“Oh, that makes sense to me,” Susan said.
“Oh, yeah, I get it,” Lesley nodded. “At home, our ships don’t leave port without a name. I always thought that was tradition, but now I realize it’s a bureaucratic thing, too! A legality. The port needs to be able to identify the ship. Even our smaller vehicles have at least a license number.”
“Interesting,” Manifold said. “All of our equipment and devices have numbers that are derived from their current physical properties. Our Network uses that number for identification, but it’s at such a basic level of protocols, hardly anyone ever thinks about it. Only those of us who study Fenekere as a means for deep level programming tend to learn about it.”
“Didn’t you say Fenekere was an ancient spoken language?” Susan asked.
“It was,” Manifold said. “But it turns out that it lends itself well to being a language for algorithms and Network commands.”
“I think I might like to try learning it someday,” Susan said. “Just to see what it’s like.”
“The basic grammar is pretty easy,” Manifold replied. “But you should know that it has 923,521 root words.”
“That was a spoken language?!” Lesley exclaimed.
“By the original ktletaccete, yes,” Manifold said.
“What kind of people were they?” Lesley’s expression was odd and very asymmetrical. Molly read it as incredulous, by the tone of her voice as well.
“Well,” Manifold said. “We know that the people of the Sunspot’s parent ship, the Terra Supreme, made themselves all look coincidentally very similar to you, as an ideal. But the root words of Fenekere paint a very different picture.”
“Can we see? Do you have images?”
“Well, here is someone from the Terra Supreme. He corresponds closely to what you’d call a boy. He boarded the Sunspot a decade before we left.”
“Oh, wow. I mean, I can definitely see how he’s alien to me, but it’s like mimicry, like his species, or yours, mimicked ours to fool predators or something!”
“That’s how it looks to use, too,” Manifold noted. “Anyway, here is are a few forms from the Elder Crew who look like they might better match the comprehensive list of elemental body parts contained in Fenekere. This general trend is really common amongst people who’ve felt severe physical dysphoria and needed to transition dramatically. They mostly seem to choose something like this.”
Not for the first time upon seeing these people, Molly felt a kinship with them that surprised her. She felt herself wishing that more people were born to physical bodies like that aboard the Sunspot. She wondered what a world full of people like that would be like.
“Those are dragons!” Lesley leaned forward to look more closely at the display.
“Dragons?” Manifold asked.
“Yeah,” said Lesley, whose nod was echoed by Susan. “Nearly every culture on our world has a story about creatures that look kind of like that. Each one is really very different, kind of like that, too. Like, they’re different species but the same kind of thing. Six limbs, flexible body, frills or wings, manes, claws, fierce teeth, long tails, all of it!”
“Yeah, but, also, we have no paleontological or biological evidence of them ever existing. They seem to be mythological chimeras, mixes of animal traits meant to represent whatever is needed for the story they’re in.”
“Ah,” Manifold bobbed. “It could be that a similar tradition shaped Fenekere. Our people are hundreds of millions of years old, if not billions, just by counting exodus ships that we know still exist, and their likely ages. And if any number of our predecessors were like either the Sunspot or Terra Supreme, there’s no telling what our ancestors have been or what their lives were like.”
“I really have a hard time taking that seriously,” Susan said. “I’m sorry. It’s a limit of my experience and imagination. It’s hard enough for me to grasp just how long various prehistoric eras were on our own world. So, the idea that you evolved first on a planet like we did, and then spent uncounted eons traveling through space is just mind boggling.”
“You are not alone in that,” Manifold said. “When a person gets as old as I am, a very common ailment is to become traumatized by time. I have to force myself to hold an exact number of years or even days in my mind long enough to communicate it. And the larger the number, the harder it is. I reflexively want to say things like, ‘it was a long, long time ago,’ and leave it at that.”
“So,” Lesley said. “If the… I really have a hard time pronouncing this… ktletaccete were like dragons, or something very different, why did the people of the Terra Supreme decide that something humanoid was the ideal body?”
“We don’t know. Just like our Elder Crew destroyed records and rewrote our culture and language when they created the Sunspot, we think it’s highly likely the original Crew of the Terra Supreme did it, too. When we left, people were just starting to try to piece things together by contacting the older ships.”
“Oh, I would have wanted to stay to be part of that!” Lesley said.
“I couldn’t,” Molly said. “I just could not.”
Lesley gave her an apologetic look and said, “I know. And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you should have. You’re doing what you can to take care of yourself.”
These weren’t the only differences between Molly and the humans, either.
It turned out that their sleeping patterns were not the same. Which Molly fully expected anyway. The people of the Sunspot frequently develop very different sleeping patterns, especially as they get older.
Except when exertion drove her to sleep longer, Molly tended to sleep in four three hour blocks distributed evenly throughout a day, shifting slightly depending on how she pushed herself. She also usually had vivid dreams that she could remember upon waking.
Susan and Lesley had both synced their sleep to correspond with a nighttime, which both she and Manifold had learned was the standard for their species when they first started studying them. They both said their personal ideals were six hours a night, while their world’s medical texts said eight, and they were currently sleeping closer to ten hours at a time. With two dream cycles, apparently. Every now and then, one or both would wake up in the middle of their nighttime, rouse a little bit, look around, and then drift off to sleep again shortly after.
Dreams were a common topic of conversation during their first meal. And it did seem that all three of them were suffering from nightmares lately. Nightmares about being chased by various monsters, or of not being able to operate equipment properly, or not being able to understand anyone who was talking. Sometimes their dreams featured each other, but not as often as they expected.
Manifold let them know that it slept, too, and frequently dreamt of past students, as if they all lived together.
In the last hours of their trip, there came the point where Molly’s starship started to balloon dramatically from a point of light to a recognizable shape. They’d already been decelerating for nearly five days, and they’d keep decelerating, more or less, until they matched orbits. Because they were taking a direct route, some dramatic maneuvering was necessary near the end to get their velocity oriented properly. And most of that corresponded with the humans’ nighttime.
Molly decided to wake them up before the maneuvering, to give them time to prepare for the shifting forces. But also, she thought they’d like a good look at the hull of her starship when it was relatively close and in stable view.
Docking would also be dramatic and worth experiencing.
The landing craft was currently oriented with its nose facing away from the starship. But Molly had directed the forward displays to focus on it as if they were facing it.
It looked like the Sunspot, only much, much smaller. It was long and thin, with four Bussard spires arcing out gracefully from the forward hydrogen tank. There was a rotating habitat cylinder and a fusion spike, too. Unlike the Sunspot, though, the Bussard spires had bulbous compartments built into the tips, shaped like dulled barbs for aesthetics. That was the warp drive.
And the spires could collapse to lie along the length of the ship, in case it needed to dock within the Sunspot again for some reason. They hadn’t been retracted in such a way since Molly had launched it, though.
Susan and Lesley sat in their harnesses and silently gawked at it for a while, watching its growth slow in the view screens. It was just starting to extend beyond their field of vision.
“Your screens are holographic, aren’t they?” Susan asked, bobbing her head up and down. “I can see the ends of your ship still when I do this.”
“Yes,” Manifold said.
“It’s incredible,” Lesley said. “You know what it looks like to me?”
“What?” Molly asked.
Molly could have looked that up in the records and dictionaries they’d collected from the humans’ internet, but she felt that asking was better, more honest, “what is an anchor?”
“It’s a thing for keeping a boat or a ship, a ship at sea, in place,” Lesley said. “It’s a big weighted hook that digs into the ocean floor, with a line that connects it to the ship. They come in all sorts of shapes, and that’s like a few of them.”
“‘äinkor,” Molly said with her own mouth. It would be an ironic name for a ship. But something about it felt right. This ship did feel like her home, her port, now. And now that she was returning to it, she felt like it kept her in place, in a way, psychologically. It anchored her to her purpose and her goals. “I think my ship is named Anchor.”
Lesley smiled at her, “I like it.”
It just kept getting bigger and bigger without feeling like it was getting closer. This was in part due to the display settings adjusting to their changes in proximity and focus. But mostly it was a common illusion for something of its size that was still that far away.
It was tiny compared to the Sunspot, but it was still impressive.
“Holy fuck,” Susan muttered, craning her head downward to look up through the display at the bussard spire rising above them. “How big is this thing?!”
“Roughly 3 kilometers long,” Molly said.
“For just you and Manifold?!”
“And the ecosystem of its Garden,” Molly said. “There’s room and resources for about 2,000 people to live comfortably aboard it, too.”
“Why?” Susan asked more softly.
Lesley was also obviously curious.
“It’s where I live. It should be a nice and rich place to live. Comfortable.”
“And your people had the resources to spare to create it for you?”
“It will set them back for creating a full sized child ship when it comes time to do that,” Molly explained. “But only for time to collect the mass the slow way, and no one had left before the way I chose to. They felt it was my right to have it.”
Lesley gaped at her and asked, “Do you have any idea how much I’d die for a family that loves me that much?”
Molly didn’t know how to answer that.