Susan became aware of things in what seemed like a totally backward order.

First, her ears stopped ringing. Then she thought it was awfully soon for that. Which then helped her to realize she was still unconscious. But if she was unconscious, how did she know?

She also knew the exact locations of Lesley, Molly, and Manifold in relation to wherever she was. She was not, however, clear about whether or not she even had a body anymore.

She had a right hip, though, because it hurt. A dull ache. Like maybe there was a branch sticking out of it.

Better wake up from this incomplete and useless dream to check on that!

Then she crawled toward Lesley, because that was a logical thing to do before waking up to check on your own injuries. Was she even using her eyes?

She heard Lesley call her name, even though she should have been deafened by space/time slamming into her like it had done. Or should she have been dead? Deadened?

That wasn’t a word, was it?

She giggled. It was.

Her hand found Lesley’s and she opened her eyes, and things started working in logical order again.

Except for the part where her ears were working perfectly.

She could hear the creaking of wood in the otherwise silent forest around it.

She saw that Lesley was lying on her back, on her backpack which propped her up like a lawn chair, covered in tree needles, looking at her with a smile, but otherwise appearing unharmed, so she looked around briefly.

It had been such a strange explosion. Not the first one, which had been a conventional surface to air rocket. Nor the second, smaller one that had been Molly’s escape pod. The engine of Spindrift, the explosion of which had ripped through the matter of the ship like a recycling mill, and had somehow blown all of the needles and leaves from all of the trees in some kind of radius she wasn’t about to estimate, but didn’t touch the wood. All the trees for a long way around were naked.

She felt like it had violated physics in dying in the same way it had operated. Annoyingly, and conveniently.

It also struck her as odd that she remembered all of that in such vivid detail, considering it happened so fast and she wasn’t even sure she’d been looking at it.

She checked her hip.

No punctures.

Probably a strained muscle or some kind of ligament damage.

She rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to Lesley and asked, “Can you move? You know, things? Things I can watch you move?”

Lesley nodded and lifted up her left hand and flapped it like a happy stim, then grinned, “That one works!”

“Good,” Susan said. “Good. That’s my favorite one. How about the other?”

“I’m lying on it to look at you.”

Oh, she was! She’d rolled over just now. That was probably a good sign.

“Ooh, move a foot!”

Lesley looked down at her left foot and wiggled it.

“So, your left side works, mostly!”


“That’s good!”

“Is it?”

“I think,” Susan said and she started to prop herself up. Her own backpack was a bit of a burden to move under, but not as bad as she remembered from past hiking trips. “I think we’re being too silly. Can you roll on your back so that we can check your other side before you get up. This is serious.”

“I can’t now, my backpack is in the way. Why are you getting up?” Lesley asked. “Who checked you out?”

Susan paused to try to figure that out, but all she could come up with was, “Well, somebody has to get up.” Her brain really wasn’t working right yet. That was worrisome. She didn’t feel dizzy or unsteady, though. She was, in all other ways, recovering so fast.

At the same time she was getting to her feet and realizing her sense of balance and use of all of her muscles was just fine, she also sensed Molly stirring. She had sense enough to ask herself how that was possible.

The nanites!

There was still a Network between her, Lesley, Molly, and Manifold!

Tentatively, she leaned against a tree, closed her eyes, and tried to access her own Network space. It was there! Or, suddenly, she was there, and it was just as she’d left it. She came back out of it to the waking world and giggled.

“True distributed processing,” she declared.

“What was that?” Lesley asked, starting to stand up herself. She also looked distracted by how well her balance was, what with still wearing her hiking kit and having survived an explosion. “How are we recovering so fast?”

“The nanites,” Susan explained. “Our neural terminals are helping our brains orient themselves and heal faster, compensating for, well, our backpacks among other things! Also, there’s still a Network.”

“Oh, that’s why I know where Molly is,” Lesley said, walking over to Susan. “We should check on her quick. This place will be swarming with military soon.”

“Oh, shit! You’re right!” Susan clapped her on the shoulder, feeling her own adrenaline spike wanly in the midst of the biological wake of the explosion that had left her feeling drained. “Let’s get moving.”

That was when she noticed that it was getting quite dark out and she wasn’t feeling particularly unable to see.

The fireball that had struck the side of the mountain had not really left much of a crater. It had all the substance of a fuel explosion, being almost pure plasma. There was an area that was severely scorched, and trees ringing it were suffering some flames that were dying out despite how dry the season had been. The trees and shrubs that had been in the center of the impact had not fared so well, but were definitely not burning anymore.

It wasn’t quite night, the sky was still glowing from the now fully set sun, but this was the shadow of the mountain. It was barely safe to land a VTOL here during daylight, but untenable in these conditions, so no one was investigating the site yet.

If they had, they probably would not have had instruments that were sensitive enough to detect the unusual that was happening. They would have had to take samples to a decent microscope, preferably an electron microscope. But a high powered light based one in a lab would have shown something. That is, if Phage’s nanites hadn’t gone inert or simply left the sample by the time they got it to the lab.

There really weren’t very many of them left, and they were widely scattered. But both those states were slowly changing.

Phage had been moving fast enough that when its cluster of nanites hit the ground, it had deformed them, which had in turn disrupted their ability to generate their protective magnetic field. And Phage had been too focused on making a scene with its fireball to care whether most of its nanites survived. And intense heat can destroy them quite quickly. Under the right conditions, they can burn like flour floating in the air.

It had managed to save enough to maintain a kernel of consciousness for itself, and to rebuild what it had from the matter found on the side of a mountain.

It didn’t absolutely need the nanites. It could think using the psyches of any living beings around it. And it could move from one to another or inhabit many of them without any sort of technologically detectable network. It could, if it had to, live in a storm. It could also go for a time without living and emerge in a psyche at another point. But it would lose memories that way. It didn’t want to lose memories anymore if it could help it. So it had taken the effort to save a few of them.

And the ingenious little machines, containing quantum computing mechanisms of their own, after millions and millions of years of active refinement, still contained all of its most precious memories. Just, spread out so much and with so few of them, their bandwidth and processing power, to use archaic and mostly inapplicable terms badly, were very low.

If Phage had not been so focused on the moment of its melodramatic attempt at distraction, and had it known how much danger Molly and her crew were still in, it might have abandoned the nanites and hopped through the psyches of fauna and flora to converge on their location, losing all memories except the directive to help them.

It might have found a faint echo of itself in the nanites they had there and started to rebuild its current identity from that. And it could have helped them.

But, having lived amongst people for as long as it had, it had started to value being a person itself.

So it didn’t.

Being so far away from the systems of the Sunspot, though, was really teaching it what its limits were, if it wanted to remain a being. A lesson it thought it had learned long ago already, and over and over again, but it could not remember anything about that.

It felt like it desperately needed someone to talk to, though. Other people’s words could prompt unexpected memories and help it grow in strength faster.

It would sense and find Molly when it was ready.

The crash gel and the casing of her pilot’s seat helped to keep Molly conscious through the entire ordeal of being blown up. And although the shockwave had seriously sent her tumbling out of control, the rockets of her escape pod managed to regain enough control to break her impact on the ground to a gentle thump.

It had been dizzying, but of course she recovered quickly from that. Her normal sensitivity to balance wasn’t very acute in the first place, so she was pretty resilient to dizziness to begin with. And, of course, the nanites helped. But she didn’t normally even think about that sort of thing.

She was, however, extremely emotionally rattled, and decided she needed to sit and think for a while, breathing the oxygenated mix of survival atmosphere her escape pod provided her. It was so sterile smelling, and the onslaught of fragrances of the world she was on would only unsettle her more.

She was going to need to salvage as much of her technology as she could and, if she could, destroy what she couldn’t. She’d gotten that much directive with her conversations with Susan and Lesley. Letting her equipment fall into the wrong hands, or any hands, could seriously destabilize power structures on this planet and send cultures into an even worse dynamic. That was actually pretty hard for her to grasp, though. She had to relate to that dilemma through what the Nanite Innovation had been like, and the culturally seismic echoes of that.

She had been born before the Innovation, so she knew what that world had been like. And the changes that followed afterward had completely transformed the Sunspot in ways that nobody had predicted, not even the Crew.

Before the Innovation, the construction nanites of the Sunspot had only been an educational curiosity. They were known to reside in the soil of the Garden to help maintain its ecosystem, and that they were used to construct new ships when the time came for that. The Sunspot itself had been built with the use of the nanites, and would never have been possible without them.

And, before the Innovation, the Crew had been a technocratic mystery. As good as gods to the populace, faceless beings that controlled everything and gave the people the basis for their laws, but never seen or named anything other than the Crew.

In retrospect, those were bad times. But nobody but the eldest Crew had known anything different, and the Sunspot had survived over 130,000 years operating like that. Many, many good lives had been lived and enjoyed during those times. Only a few suffered, because they had disabilities that couldn’t be accommodated yet. And, that imbalance of power was extremely stable. Only the Monsters rejected it outright, denying the implantation of a neural terminal to hook them up to the Network, and living on the fringes of society according to their own sensibilities.

But, because the Crew had dedicated themselves from the very beginning to treating dysphoria, and because they were not a monolith by any definition of the word, and numerous other unknown reasons, the Council of the Crew had eventually decided it was time to change things, and try to change them for the better.

A Tutor by the name of Metabang had suggested the use of the nanites to treat severe, previously untreatable, cases of physical dysphoria. It had also pointed out that using the nanites to work as neural terminals would improve the function of neural terminals and also increase an individual’s ability to have autonomy over their own body and consciousness. And the Crew that were in power at the time were not adverse to that idea, and actually embraced it, because it turned out, after everything was shaken up, that the Crew were the ancestors of the populace. And that, one day, each member of the populace, now called the Children, would join the ranks of the Crew, if they had a functioning neural terminal.

Molly had been amongst the few thousand individuals who had tested the first nanite terminals. It had been exciting and weird, and had resulted in violence and uncertainty and permanent deaths, and she had something of a sense of what Susan and Lesley had been going through since visiting Anchor.

She remembered now that she had a copy of Metabang’s book, Systems’ Out!, in her own Netspace, stored in the nanites in her own head. She could share that with Susan and Lesley, if they were interested! Also, Abacus’ and Ni’a’s books would be good to read. She did wonder how much would be lost in translation, or just differences in cultural perspective.

But, helping Susan and Lesley understand where she was coming from wasn’t the most important thing here.

The important thing here was that she wanted to be more careful than the Crew had been during the Innovation, when engaging with this planet. And she had even less power to do that. She had a minuscule amount of power to be careful, now that she took a moment to look at it. And she’d already screwed up. If she had wanted to exercise her power to be careful, she would have passed the planet by and not contacted it.

She felt so, so lonely.

Was there any way to interact with other life in the universe without hurting them? Or without getting hurt?

Noting that Manifold had been silent for a long time, not even checking on her, she realized it was doing its Tutorly habit of letting her prompt it when she was ready, or waiting until she took action to give advice. She supposed it was respecting her autonomy by doing that, according to the sensibilities of the Sunspot and its Crew.

“Manifold?” she asked.

“Yes?” it responded.

“How are you?” She realized she didn’t ask it that very often, and resolved to do so more frequently. She was always annoyed by that question herself, though.

“Surprisingly well, but discouraged,” it said, voice tinged with curiosity.

“You’re going to need to make a more ambulatory exobody,” Molly was saying when something started thumping the shell of her pilot’s seat.

It was Lesley. She’d been so wrapped up in her thoughts, she’d never bothered to pay attention to how the others were doing, or even check in on them, and she felt instantly ashamed of that. But also extremely relieved they were alive!

She gave the command to her escape pod to open the hatch. There was a hissing noise and she was assaulted by alien fragrances. 

She had a brief flutter of worry about known pathogens, just like she had when she first took off her helmet on this planet. It was amplified by the fear and alarm she’d experienced from being blown out of the sky by a missile. But she also knew she’d spent nearly a month with Susan and Lesley and if anything had jumped not just species but different genetic paradigms entirely, well, more exposure was just giving it more of a chance to do so. But she’d already committed herself. And her nanites were constantly monitoring her health.

She emerged slowly from her goo, blinking, and looked around. Lesley was right there, Susan hiking up behind her. Manifold would be in the bin in the remains of Spindrift’s nose cone. It was getting very dark out, but she could still see fairly well.

“Manifold, why can I see in the dark?” Molly asked.

“Nanite receptors in your retina increasing your visual spectrum,” it responded.

“That’s nice, but I didn’t ask for that,” Molly said. “First they violated Susan’s conscious consent, now mine.”

“I’m looking into it,” Manifold said. “I do wish we had Phage’s help right now. It would be able to examine these things in more detail.”

“You trust it?” Molly asked.

“We have to go!” Susan declared just as she stepped up to Lesley’s side.

“What? No,” Molly looked at her. “We have work to do here. We have to salvage -”

“There will be government agents all over this place any second!” Susan shouted. And, as if to punctuate her point, the keening sound of a pair of VTOLs began to be audible in the distance, getting louder.

Molly looked around desperately at the wreckage of Spindrift, only there wasn’t much of it here.

She looked back in the direction of their landing site. Some things were burning, trees, Spindrift components, the ground itself. The fire looked like it was spreading. But there also wasn’t a lot of wreckage that way. Way less than she’d expected. How far had the explosion flung the ship parts?

Farther than they had the time to do anything about any of it, obviously.

She commanded the little Network she had to ping all available nodes, no matter how small, and construct a map. The escape pod just might provide enough transmitting power to cover the whole wreck.

In the meantime, she pulled herself out of her pilot’s seat fully, as quickly as she could and proceeded to the rest of the nose cone to activate her survival kit. “OK,” she said, to let Susan know she was in agreement.

The remains of Spindrift’s nose cone were rather large. Most of it was taken up by telemetry equipment, fuel for the escape rockets, and the rockets themselves. But the nanite bin that was there was substantial, a cubic meter. There was a full maker, with food storage attached to it. And her survival kit included options for a full hazard suit, or a simple arm harness and crash helmet. She opted for the latter.

She still had her translator bauble on her head, but decided to stow it since the crash helmet could do the same thing.

The map of the crash area was completed by then, and her heart sank. There really wasn’t much left of Spindrift. Nothing she could piece back together into a working vehicle or even shelter, beside the nose cone.

She noticed a prompt attached to the map that she had not expected. Everything Spindrift related was glowing in her mind’s eye, in the map in the Network, and there was the question, “Disintegrate?”

She didn’t remember putting that in the design specs. It was extremely fortuitous, a good idea, but who had done that?

She deselected the nanite bin and it stopped glowing. Then she did that for everything anyone was carrying or wearing. And then she answered the prompt with a perfunctory, “yes.”

She imagined it would not happen fast, she’d never seen how quickly nanites could dissolve metal, and she didn’t know how dense they were in each location. But it would stymie anyone trying to collect and examine the wreckage. It might happen fast enough. And, when it was done, Molly hoped the nanites doing the work had a way of destroying themselves. She figured they would. It would make sense. She figured it was the nanites. Nanites were the only thing she could think of that could disintegrate all that.

“Manifold, will you join us?” Molly asked.

“Yes,” it said. “Just figuring something out.”

Susan and Lesley were already scanning the area with their eyes, looking deep into the woods and clearly visibly panicking at the quickly growing sound of the VTOLs.

The bin in the nose cone opened and nanite clay started oozing out, to her relief.

“I’m trying to find a way to take all of it,” Manifold said.

“Thank you,” said Molly.

The graphene colored clay still moved fairly quickly. Unlike the pure nanite form that Phage had requisitioned on their first day here, this had an alloy substrate for the nanites to work with. They could use it and alter it to create rigid or semi-rigid structures. It was harder for Manifold to move it as a goo, but once it figured out a shape that had leverage it could move quite fast. At least an analog to having a biological body.

The original nanite exobodies had done this with dirt, rocks, duff, and whatever other stuff seemed handy from the ground they’d come from. They’d also had the assistance of the magnetic field manipulation of the entire nanite body of the Sunspot. Manifold didn’t have that here, so the body it started building actually had to prop itself up by its limbs as it formed.

“That’s like a nightmare,” Susan said when she saw it happening.

“Should I try to imitate a human as fully as I can?” Manifold asked everyone. “Or keep it abstract. Because I don’t think I’m going to fool anyone who can see color and texture.”

“Abstract might alarm people less,” Susan replied. “Can you catch up? We gotta run!”

“I have never run before,” Manifold said. “But, yes. Go!” It was using the nanites themselves as a kind of speaker, which sounded odd.

“Come on,” Susan said to Molly. “Lesley and I have been here before, we need to go this way!”

One of the VTOLs was circling to land already, and its spotlight washed over them.

As soon as the light hit her, Susan bolted. Lesley reacted to her movement and was right behind her.

Following suit, Molly pulled her arms back into a storage position and dropped low to the ground to slither as fast as she could after them. She’d always had two modes of movement. Crawling, which involved undulating her muscles in a slow vertical wave. And slithering, which she thought combined that with also weaving her body back and forth and taking advantage of any objects or edges she encountered along the way to push off from. Slithering was fast.

She was hampered a bit by the equipment she was wearing. She’d be happier and faster if she was naked. But on this world, she felt she needed all the tools she could keep.

None-the-less, she may have disturbed the humans by how quickly she caught up and surpassed them. Lesley yelped.

“Sorry!” she said.

I’m sorry!” Lesley shot back, panting through her running. “My brain says you’re a snake! A big, big snake!”

Of course, the humans were running with 35 pound hiking bags strapped to their backs. That would slow them down more than Molly’s arms.

“We need to get out of here!” Susan shouted. “There’s a road a long way ahead of us, but they saw us!”

“Going that way!” Lesley shouted back.

“Yes!” Susan barked.


They all felt a thumping in the ground that was getting closer, Molly especially since her whole body lay upon it.

Lesley glanced back and yelled, “Oh! Manifold!”

“Network voices,” Molly hissed over the Network, remembering that was an option for everyone now. “Let’s keep quiet.” 

They’d spent so much time together, even after learning how to use the Network, just talking out loud because it felt good to everyone with a body, it hadn’t been reflex to switch. Molly remembered that that kind of thing had been part of the cultural shock of the Nanite Innovation. People had had neural terminals before, since the beginning. But, being people, they still preferred to talk out loud as much as possible. It felt good to feel your own voice coming from your throat, if you could make one. Some people couldn’t, and that was accommodated in a variety of ways. But the general populace had this habit. The Crew, on the other hand, had been living in the Network for over a hundred thousand years. They had different habits. When the two populations had started mixing, as slowly and tentatively as they did, there were unforeseen communication gaps and hiccups.

Keep moving, Molly told herself. Reflection is distraction right now!

“Direct me!” Molly instructed Susan and Lesley, offering her senses over the Network to help them make judgments. She hoped they’d figure out how to connect with her that way, but didn’t have time to explain.

“Left!” Susan sent back.

The spotlight washed over them again, spiking Molly with fear, but she managed to wait until she was in darkness again to switch directions. The others followed her, and they kept moving.

That wasn’t enough, though. The spotlight found them again and stayed on them.

One VTOL was landing in the clearing they’d originally set Spindrift down in. The other was pursuing them and had a visual lock on them.

“Split up, spread out,” Manifold said evenly over the Network. “Between Molly’s exosuit and me, we’ll stay connected.”

They did that, and Molly found herself at the center of the spotlight, no matter how she moved. The oddest looking figure in the dark, she clearly caught the pilot’s eyes.

Now came the big question: How would they choose to hurt her?

It was flying lower.

“I’ve got it,” Manifold said.

“What?” Molly, Lesley, and Susan all responded at nearly the same time. It was clearly a chorus.

There was a soft thumping noise, and then a clunk from overhead. Then almost immediately afterward the ground around Molly burst with the impact of numerous small objects in succession followed by a roaring noise. She counted herself incredibly lucky she was not hit, and screeched out loud in a panic.

But then the spotlight veered away and the sound of the VTOL’s engines changed.

“That scared them into dropping their code,” Manifold said. “I got snippets of plain language! Keep running. Zigzag.”

“What did they say?” Susan demanded.

“Words of pure panic and confusion,” Manifold said. “They are terrified of us now and pulling out. But I’m still with them.” Its tone of voice took an edge of smug determination with that last line.

“So, we’re definitely hostiles now,” Lesley grumbled.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Manifold confirmed. “But I had to act. I think.”

Molly had briefly stopped moving when the shower of projectiles hit, but she’d immediately bolted again when the darkness returned. She found that Manifold had somehow figured out how to give them all a conceptual map of the surrounding area. It sort of prompted her with the presence of it, and she connected to it reflexively, and now had a sense of where trees and other obstacles were. It was centered on Manifold’s exobody, so she, Lesley, and Susan were on the edges of it. She, more so than the others, because Manifold was taking up the rear and she was spearing ahead. But that helped a lot.

She added her own senses to the map, like she’d been offering Susan and Lesley, to expand it, and then nudged them, in case Manifold hadn’t already done so.

“Got it,” Susan shot back. “This is amazing and weird!”

“And useful!” Lesley added.

“Do you think they’ll try to capture us still?” Molly asked.

“Oh, yes,” Susan replied. “Or worse. They’ve probably already got people surrounding this park.”

“So we need to find a way to sneak out.” It took so much less work and concentration to communicate over the Network that Molly could save almost all of her energy for moving. She hoped it was the same for the humans. “What are you doing to that VTOL, Manifold?”

“Instructing those nanites to slowly dissolve it and then self-destruct,” it replied. “Figured I should keep it simple.”

“How did you shoot it?” Susan asked.

“I am billions and billions of little electromagnets,” Manifold responded. “I can be a Gauss launcher if I need to be.”

“A gun. You’re a gun,” Susan told it.

“Oh, yes. That is what you call it,” Manifold said. “I’m not proud of it. That might have been a bad move in retrospect.”

“You think?!”

“They’ll be able to land safely, and abandon the vehicle.”

“Or stick around and examine the nanites in action and become more terrified!”

“Which they’re going to do with the space bits we left behind anyway!” Lesley interjected.

“Space bits?” Molly asked.

“Spindrift,” Lesley said more solemnly.

The loss of her vessel came back to her with a sharpness. She ached for it. She wanted Spindrift back now. She’d rebuild it some day, if she could keep enough nanites to start a new maker, and if she could find Phage. The designs were still in her memory, as much as she could understand them.

It was just a question of whether or not this world would let her do that.

They kept moving in silence for a while, focusing on coordinating their movements and staying far enough apart that another spotlight wouldn’t catch them all.

There were no more sounds of VTOLs, however. Though, for a brief moment, there were shouts coming from where they’d landed. Nothing intelligible at this point, they’d made enough distance to make the voices unclear.

After a while, Susan said, “It is two days’ hike to the road. And they’ll be on the road, at least, if not closer.”

“Oh,” Manifold said.

And they continued moving. Running, for the others. Slithering at top speed for Molly, though she was getting tired.

She was using her entire body to move, and doing more of it than she had been used to of late. When she was much younger, she’d crawled all over the Sunspot, exploring everything she could and playing with her peers. Solitary space travel didn’t really prompt one to do things like that. Not with this kind of urgency, anyway.

“I’m going to need to rest,” she told them all.

“Let’s turn left again, and go deeper into the woods,” Susan suggested. “And look for a place to camp. It’s not the direct they’d expect us to go, and might be a good place to hide while we figure things out.”

So they did that, and went as far as they could go before Molly had to stop and rest. 

She found herself panting, just lying where she stopped.

“No tents,” Susan said. “No lights, either. Food. Let’s cuddle and eat.”

Lesley slung off her backpack and plunked down against a tree to start ruffling through it for food. Susan stumped over to land right next to her and do the same.

“Molly,” Susan said. “When you catch your breath, you should join us. Sharing body heat will keep us alive. It’s not a terribly cold night out, but still. Especially after expending so much energy.”

“I know,” Molly forced herself to reply. “Thank you.”

“I’ll stand watch,” Manifold said. “I don’t have a metabolism.”

Cuddling with a space python who had decided to continue wearing her prosthetic exoskeleton was… different.

Molly had said she didn’t want to scramble to put the thing back on if they were discovered, and Susan understood. She’d been shot at, after all. The only reason Susan had taken off her own backpack was to get the food that was in it. And she’d only done that after Lesley had decided to. There wasn’t much thought to any of it.

They could have just reached into each other’s bags.

But the weight off their shoulders was part of resting. And the backpacks probably sat differently than Molly’s arm harness. She’d probably designed that thing with advanced, millennia old wisdom in ergonomics and miraculous material construction at hand. The backpacks were simple, made from Susan’s memory of how their old ones left at camp had been constructed.

One way in which Molly was not a snake was that she was endothermic. Her body produced heat, and she shed it through sweating just like Susan and Lesley. She had little bristly hairs between her scales, even.

To keep things simple, Molly had coiled most of herself at Lesley and Susan’s knees, and lay between them as they all leaned back against the tree. Her head was at about the same height as theirs, and Lesley’s right knee and Susan’s knee were tented over her coils. She kept her robotic arms limp at her side, folded back against the tree trunk, so Susan and Lesley could lean against the sides of her harness’ breastplates. It wasn’t not astoundingly comfortable, but it worked more or less.

And there was definitely warmth to be had between the three of them.

They were not intending to sleep this way, just rest, but Susan felt herself getting drowsy. So she deliberately tried to think about her surroundings.

Manifold stood in front of them, so that they were between a big old tree and it. Its nanite exobody was imposing. It somehow looked bigger than it should have for coming from only a cubic meter of material. Though, apparently, it was hollow in places. It had deliberately made itself as big as possible. It had said it was for strength and ease of movement, but it sure looked like it was trying to be scary, too. It had a general set of proportions that looked human enough, like it had taken the averages of Lesley and Susan and worked out something in between. This gave it what Susan considered a feminine look to it, which was, whatever. Kind of friendlier to her? She wanted to examine her feelings about that, of course, but didn’t know where to start. And, it had almost no detail. No hair, no mouth, only the simplest of noses, and its eyes were just dents in the face, if you could call that a face. Its ears were smoothed over discs. No semblance of imitating clothes, but it didn’t look naked, either.

It looked like someone’s terrifying idea of an ultimately inhuman robot made of alien technology from outer space sent to set humanity straight on a path of no more war or exploitation, or to destroy the planet for not complying.

And around them were trees and bushes and brambles, and silence. Most of the animals in the area had been scared well away by the explosion most likely.

She knew one thing. The first time they turned left, they had taken a roughly forty five degree angle. And the second time it had been less than thirty degrees. Or something like that. The first time, they were trying to still go somewhat toward the road she’d been directing them to. The second time, they’d been going for somewhere away from the road but also away from where they’d come. They had not intentionally made a U-turn. It’s possible they misjudged.

The map that Manifold had been building for them from its scanning said that they hadn’t.

So, this was home.

Surrounded by her own country’s military, who were actively searching for them right now.

A chilling thought occurred to her.

If they were considered hostiles now. If Molly was considered a violent and dangerous enemy from a foreign nation, in any legal way. If she was not considered a classless animal, and maybe even still in that case. Since Susan and Lesley had aided her, given her information, helped her to infiltrate this country’s borders and put the lives of people in danger (which was arguable, but the military and government would only see it one way), then…

Was she officially a traitor?

Not, like, did she actually betray her country, or humanity for the matter. She didn’t feel that she had. She felt she’d been acting in everyone’s best interests this entire time. No.

Would she and Lesley be treated like traitors? Would she be branded as traitors? Would they even get a trial, and if so, how would it end?

And, what did that mean for her and Lesley’s future?

How would their family think about all of that?

Oh, and, if they’d been ID-ed by the government already somehow, was their family even safe or doing well?

She turned Lesley to say something about it all when Lesley turned to Molly and said, “What if you built a rocket pack into that harness?”

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