2.11 Glimpse of a Strange Attractor

of Ni’a

Ni’a marveled as the realization hit them that they could sense which of the Whorlies was fronting at any given time. Their brain translated it as a set of something like aromas. They couldn’t really compare them to anything else, but they very much felt like scents whenever they looked at them.

Actually, every person had one. It’s just that the Whorlies were several different people, so their aroma of consciousness changed as they switched out who was fronting.

“Firas,” Ni’a said, and smirked cheerfully when Firas Whorlie looked up with a start. “You’re really good with your nanites! See if you can see through them!”

They were riding a tram to Agaricales, and Emala had had them bring little clumps of the nanite clay from their home to play with. After spending yesterday working with raw, earthen clay, to get a feel for working with their hands, getting to interface with the nanite clay was a real treat.

You could still work it with your hands, if you didn’t have a feel for controlling the nanites yet, but they were there in the clay and the hums of their interface prompts were notably present.

While Aphlebia and Candril were poking at their lumps of clay and watching the divots made by their fingers slowly disappear, Firas simply held zir clay in zir open palm while it danced and twisted. And after a second of Firas looking startled at Ni’a for what they’d said, the bulb at the end of their stalk of clay formed what looked like the semblance of an eye, and then twisted itself to look up at zir face.

Firas opened zir mouth as if to say something in wonder and looked down at zir little animate lump of nanite clay. Then, ze moved zir face around, tilting zir head this way and that, and the little eye stalk followed zir movements.

“Weeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiird!” Firas squealed.

“You shouldn’t have to make it look like an eye to do that,” Ni’a said.

“I didn’t,” Firas replied. “It just sort of did that automatically.”

“I want to do that!” Candril whined. “What did you do?”

“Well,” Firas rolled zir eyes dramatically while rotating their head to look at Candril. Zir nanite clay eye mirrored the movement. “First you have to learn how to be in the nanites. It doesn’t work if you can’t do that.”

“I know that,” Candril growled.

“You know how when you go online, you just sort of imagine that you’re entering this room in, like, your dreamworld?” Ni’a prompted.

“Yeah?” Candril grunted.

“Well, it’s just like that,” Ni’a explained. “Only your lump of nanites are one of the Network rooms you can enter and do stuff in.”

“Oh.”

“It’s really easy once you stop thinking about them as something you’re holding in your hands.”

“Oh!” Candril exclaimed, and then zir lump of nanite clay smoothly molded itself into a small replica of Candril’s own body and looked around. “Oh, this is amazing!” the little exobody exclaimed in a tinny but otherwise perfect replica of Candril’s natural voice.

Aphlebia’s mouth dropped open in a big, toothless grin.

“Phage says the default is for the nanites to replicate your body but like how you see yourself,” Ni’a said. “It’s actually a little harder to do what Firas is doing. But that’s OK. I think I can even share your nanite exobody with you and show you how to do it! If you want.”

“I – How do you know all this?” Candril demanded, still speaking with zir nanite produced voice.

“Um…” Ni’a looked around at everyone, even glancing at Emala, who was just watching, and repeated the words that nobody ever seemed to react to, emphasizing them, “Phage is my parent.”

“Like Emala?” Firas asked.

Aphlebia shook their head.

“No,” Ni’a said. “Like, I literally came from it.”

“Not the – the evolutionary engines?” Firas asked, increasingly incredulous.

“No, Phage says I came from that, too, just like you. But also from it, like…” and Ni’a looked around aimlessly for a bit, trying to think of something to say, and then got an idea and grabbed a lump of their own nanite clay and pinched it off from the larger clump. “This!” they exclaimed, holding up the smaller piece.

“How does that work?” Firas asked.

“I don’t know,” NI’a said.

“But how does it explain how you know more about the nanites than I do?” Candril had come back to zir own body and spoken with zir full voice.

“Well, for one, Phage told me. Like a tutor.”

“But what does that have to do with Phage being your parent?”

“I was going to tell you!” Ni’a leaned forward. Then they fell back into their seat and sort of drew themselves inward, looking down at their clay lump as they mooshed the smaller ball into the larger one. “I don’t want to brag, ‘cause it’s not fair. But I don’t want to keep it a secret, either.”

“What?” asked Firas.

“I can see and do things like with the nanites, but without them,” Ni’a mumbled. “And I can see how the nanites work just by looking at them. Like, every way how they work.”

The tram car was so quiet for a few moments, that everyone could hear the tube noise as it barreled toward its destination. Emala’s brows were furrowed.

Ni’a decided to explain a bit more, repeating words that Phage had told them. “It’s really just like how Aphlebia can see underwater with their eyes closed and the rest of us can’t, because we don’t have clear eyelids like they do.”

“This is all true,” Phage spoke to the room without showing itself.

Ni’a and Phage had been talking about this moment for a while by now. Knowledge about Ni’a’s nature and abilities were something that Phage felt strongly must remain under the purview of Ni’a’s consent and autonomy. Ni’a should control who knew about it and when. And Ni’a, just as they’d said, didn’t want to hide it from anyone. Or, at least, not from their family. But Ni’a was also scared to talk about it, so they had spent some time discussing just how to bring the subject up, or what to do if it came up. And what had happened just now was probably one of the best case scenarios.

Only, as perceptive as Ni’a was, they still couldn’t reliably read other people’s reactions. They could predict them better than most other people. Emotions and thoughts were really just another set of emergent behavior from a complex system, and Ni’a could see how they played out in another person to a level of detail that no one else but Phage could do. But, they still couldn’t actually read another person’s thoughts. Not without merging with them over the Network, like Phage had once done with the Pembers, and that wasn’t something they felt ready to do just yet, or maybe ever. And it required the consent of the other person, anyway.

So, they were nervous about the expressions on the faces of their peers and Emala at the sound of Phage’s confirmation.

“So, it’s like Morde’s magic?” Firas asked. They’d all read Metabang’s graphic novel by then, and heard Emala read it to them countless times.

“Maybe.”

“What do you mean you can do things like the nanites?” Candril asked.

Ni’a looked over at Candril and gave a half smile. “I can only do it with Phage’s consent, but,” they glanced over at Aphlebia briefly, “I can decide how leaves will move in the wind, and where they’ll go, even when there’s no wind. I haven’t really tried anything else. Well, maybe keeping my formula warmer for longer.”

“Why not?” Candril asked.

“Everything really fun I can think of ends up being something that could hurt someone else,” Ni’a replied, looking down at their clay again. “And I don’t want to do that.”

“OK,” Candril nodded. “Now, why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you the child of Phage? Why do you get to do these things?” Candril asked.

Phage projected its Network avatar into the space of the tram, near the door, so that everyone could see it was about to talk. It took the form of a cloud of black smoke, unusually devoid of the stars, galaxies and nebulas it usually depicted. And when everyone was looking at it, it spoke.

“I don’t even know that. It is just a thing that has happened, and I’m doing what I can to be responsible about it and to help Ni’a learn that responsibility, as well. I have earned the trust of the Crew, myself, but only after centuries of work to prove my trustworthiness with no apparent hope of ever succeeding. And I’m not sure that Metabang’s story about me has improved things.”

“Most people think that parts of it are made up,” Emala pointed out.

“That’s actually true,” Phage said. “But probably not the parts they think. And maybe not all on purpose. Metabang is just like you, a person. It has a flawed, finite perspective, and a subconscious mind that interprets things its own way. But the parts where I am in it are accurate.”

“Do you,” Emala asked, “also have a subconscious mind?”

Phage took a shape then, and filled it with stars. It looked a lot like Ni’a, only taller. Perhaps it was a projection of what Ni’a’s silhouette would look like some day. But it only said, “I am pretty sure I do, yes. As far as I can tell, a conscious mind requires one.”

“Then maybe Ni’a’s conception is an act of your subconscious mind?” Emala suggested.

Phage held up a finger, “that’s what I think, yes. But I still don’t know why.”

Ni’a was so glad that Phage had taken the center of attention. There’s no way they could answer these questions without panicking.

“Can you show us what you can do?” Firas asked.

“That would be profoundly dangerous in a tram,” Phage responded in a kind tone. “Maybe in a park.”

“Can Ni’a show us?”

NI’a cringed.

“Only if they are comfortable with it,” Phage said. “Let’s not push them.”

“OK,” Firas thought about things for a moment, then asked, “So, Ni’a said that they can only do what you allow them to do. Why do you allow them to do anything? Why not make them like the rest of us?”

“It is in their nature, and curtailing their nature would be cruel,” Phage responded.

“Curtailing?”

“Restricting.”

“But,” Firas pointed at Phage, “You already do it! You keep them from doing really cool things!”

Phage pointed back at Firas, “Consent is complicated here. I am already in charge of everything that happens aboard the Sunspot. Everything that happens here is part of my autonomic functions. In order to change how a thing happens, Ni’a has to ask me for my consent first, which they do implicitly by trying, and then I give it. Or I don’t. This is not the same as between Emala and you, by the way. It’s part of the nature of what I am.”

“Wait!” Candril blurted.

Phage looked at zem, “Yes?”

“If everything that happens is part of you, then what I do is part of you, which means that…” Candril had an expression that made it look like thinking was really hard right then, or at least finding the right words, but ze pushed on, skipping right to zir point, “Why don’t you give us permission to do what Ni’a can do?”

Phage stood staring at zem for the full duration of a curve in the tram tube, everyone leaning slightly in the change of inertia. The longer everyone waited for Phage to speak, the harder it was to break that silence and risk interrupting what it might say. Then it said, “I’ll get back to you on that,” and disappeared.

Candril looked utterly terrified.

Firas, eyes wide, turned to look at Ni’a and asked, “Did we just break your parent?”

Aphlebia, who was seated next to Ni’a, held out their open palm, offering to hold hands, which Ni’a gratefully took, but with a little surprise.

“You’re not all scared of me now?” Ni’a asked.

Everyone shook their heads, but Candril still looked like ze was trying to swallow something difficult.

“I have not seen anything I should be scared of, Ni’a Student of Phage” Emala said. “You are still my child, and you are a good person. I’m proud of you. I’m very proud of all of you. Phage is a strange thing, but it has been an excellent tutor.”

“Phage is a huge dork, just like every other tutor,” Firas observed. “Can we go to a park where you can show us what you can do with leaves, Ni’a?”

Ni’a looked at Emala for reassurance and said, “I guess?” and Emala nodded.

“Can you show me how you do it?” Candril asked.

“I – I’m not sure,” Ni’a frowned at zem.

“Like, over the Network, maybe?” Candril pushed.

“I don’t know if I can visualize it like that,” Ni’a said.

“I just want to be prepared for when Phage lets us do it, too,” Candril mumbled into zir chest, as ze looked down at zir miniature model of zemself ze’d made from nanite clay.

As they walked through Agaricales on their way to the great park that ringed the city, Candril broke zir contemplative silence to point at a resident’s lawn chair and say, “Hey! I have a question!”

“What is it?” Emala prompted.

“Watch!” Candril held up zir nanite clay figure, which ze’d been carrying around like a doll since ze’d made it, and willed it to transform into a replica of the lawn chair. Then ze pointed at it and repeated the word, “watch,” as it transformed into a different kind of chair, Candril’s favorite chair at home. “Why don’t we…” Candril drew out the sentence for dramatic effect, “make chairs out of nanite clay?”

“Candril, that’s a really good idea!” Emala said.

“Vine? Why aren’t people already doing this?” Candril asked.

“Some are,” Vine replied from Netspace. “The idea just hasn’t finished spreading yet. Also, many people like hand crafted chairs.”

“Well, poop!” Candril pouted. “I thought I was the first to think of it.”

“You are the fourth,” Vine explained. “The Nanite Innovation is 39 years old as of a few days ago, or a couple days from now, depending on how you mark it. There have been many, many discoveries and ideas to be made, and a finite number of people to make them. Everyone has been focused more on doing things while standing or lying down, it appears. By some chance, this week seems to be the time for nanite chairs to be discovered. If you had thought of this three days ago, you might have been the first. That does not take away from how astute you are, however. Nanite chairs could be customized to not only a person’s unique physiology, but to their posture, in the moment.”

Firas pointed at the air, as if pointing at the source of Vine’s disembodied voice,“See? Dorks!”

“Correction,” Vine stated. “Berius Student of Calcium Deposit has been using something resembling a nanite chair since xe received control of xyr nanites 35 years ago. Berius has a physiology similar to Morde Student of Ralf, as described in Metabang’s story, and has found an instantly customizable mobile stool to be important for increasing xyr mobility and reach. Not until two days ago did anyone think to elaborate on xyr design for their own purposes.”

Firas exaggeratedly mouthed, “Dorks.”

“Vine is not a dork,” Candril snapped.

“There is a tutor named Calcium Deposit!

“Firas,” Emala chided. “There is no call to make fun of other people.”

“I’m not making fun of them,” Firas stammered. “I just think they’re funny and harmless!”

“Funny?” asked Emala, pointedly.

“I do try to be both,” deadpanned Vine.

The Whorlies’ tutor, Charlie, then spoke up, “So do I.”

“As do I,” Doorway, Emala’s tutor, added.

The strange sound of Aphlebia laughing out loud interrupted everyone’s astonishment. They were bent over chortling.

“Does your tutor even talk?” Firas asked Aphlebia.

Their tutor spoke for itself, though.

“My name is Chalkboard,” it said.

On the way out to the middle of a field, the children had collected armfulls of leaves from various spots on the ground beneath the trees. The Sunspot does have seasons and it was the beginning of fall. Overall the number of leaves on the ground were still sparse, but a walk through the park allowed them to collect quite a few, many of them still green. And they put them in a substantial pile for Ni’a to play with.

Ni’a gave a bit of a grimace while standing before it, as everyone else took several steps back. They had, through the years, put a lot of practice into manipulating a leaf or two here or there, or other small things, such as keeping their tea or formula warm. Since that time when they were three, they had never attempted to manipulate more than four leaves at once. They didn’t even know if Phage would allow them to do this.

They had said repeatedly, as everyone else was collecting the leaves, “I might not even be able to make two of them move!”

Every protest was rebuffed with, “that’s OK! This is just in case!”

Aphlebia was the only other one who was reluctant to collect all these leaves, but Ni’a knew that that was because Aphlebia was conscientious about the impact to the ecosystem. The ship could endure this, for sure, especially if they only did it once, but Aphlebia cared in a way that most others didn’t. It was one of their principals, and Ni’a could see it was bothering them.

Emala was becoming increasingly amused and pleased at xyr children’s industrious cooperation. And though xe didn’t bend over to pick up any of the leaves, xe did make suggestions occasionally. Especially the suggestion to give Ni’a some room.

One glance at the Whorlies showed Ni’a that they were a blur of cofronting members, maybe three or four. An unusual state for them, but clearly they all wanted to see this and were doing the best they could.

Ni’a took a deep breath, closed their eyes, and said loudly, “OK!” Eyes still closed, they pointed unerringly at Candril, and murmured sternly but humorously, “stay quiet!”

“What?” Candril said.

“Quiet!” Ni’a replied louder.

Candril mumbled a string of unintelligible words that ended in “- quiet.” But then dutifully fell silent.

But whether it would work or not, there really wasn’t much to this that Ni’a hadn’t already done countless times before while alone, or while working with Phage. It was just the magnitude of it that was unusual. So, they decided to start with the top leaf and work their way down from there. Make it simple. But maybe not that simple.

They stuck their finger in their mouth and held it up. It was a gesture they didn’t have to do, but it telegraphed what they were doing. Then they pointed vaguely Aftward.

“The breeze is blowing lightly that way,” they declared. And then waited, eyes still closed, until a couple of their peers tested the air themselves. They did not need their eyes to see that. None of them did if they used the Network access they’d already been taught about, but of course Ni’a wasn’t using that, or the nanites, either. “So, I’m going to blow the leaves that way,” they pointed in the opposite direction.

They had a thought, and took a moment to command the nanites in the ground around and in the leaf pile to recede away from it. This took a little time, so they used that to adjust their feet dramatically.

“Tutors!” Ni’a called. “Watch what I’m doing! Watch the nanites! See I’m not using them!” Then they circled their arm dramatically and used a gust of air to forcefully blow the top leaf, and a handful of leaves under it, upwind.

It was a little anticlimactic, actually. But Ni’a looked over at their peers and listened to hear their tutors verifying that no nanites had been involved in the demonstration. They even heard Vine telling Candril how to watch the nanites zemself.

“Phage?” Ni’a asked the air quietly. “Can I really show off?”

“Everyone in eyesight but your peers are going to assume you’re practicing with your nanites, and what I think you’re planning is still really minor. Go for it,” Phage replied privately in their mind. “I’d honestly like to see how much control you can exert on all those leaves. I won’t help, but I’ll be there to stop you if you push it too far for credibility or safety.”

Without hesitation, Ni’a grinned and swung their arm in that wide vertical circle again, ending with their finger pointing upwind.

The leaves immediately shot out laterally in a stream, curving upward, the leading leaf following the arc described by their index finger, but flying high and wide, all the other leaves chaotically fluttering behind it, to describe a hoop of leaves five meters in diameter. And that alone was spectacular, but when the leaves closed the loop, Ni’a added a crowning touch.

Related to what they did to keep a drink warm, they sucked the entropy out of the hoop of air and leaves to an unnatural degree, not completely, but to the point where the leaves slowed to a glacial pace and appeared to hang in the air. They drifted in the directions they had been moving ever so slightly.

At least, that’s how they described what they did, later, when they were talking to me about it. I have examined the records of that moment over and over again, and I cannot explain the physics behind how that might have worked. I don’t know the equations, and neither does anybody aboard the ship, besides perhaps Ni’a and Phage.

“Ah!” Phage exclaimed out loud, deep, booming voice audible across the park. “Nice!

Phage had slipped at that moment, though I may have been the only one that noticed. It had not spoken using nanites nor any mechanism attached to the Sunspot’s Network. It had simply caused the air to vibrate, somehow, at a point somewhat above Ni’a’s head.

Ni’a looked in the direction of their peers, face almost devoid of expression. They appeared to be dissociated, emotionless, looking through their family rather than at them, but there was still a glint in their eyes. And the very second they came to and grinned, the leaves sped back up to their original velocities, but no longer in a controlled wind they burst outward with centrifugal force, hit stagnant air almost immediately, and started to flutter to the ground.

“Hot shit!” came a shout.

“Candril!” Emala snapped. Then, “Actually. Nevermind. That was an appropriate use of those words. Say it again if you’d like.”

“Hot shit!”

“There is an old, deprecated word that I like,” Phage told Emala as they sat in the darkened quarters where the family had settled down for the night. “I find I identify with it, even though it would make no sense among the Children of the Sunspot. I am not sure why it should matter to me. The cultures that it comes from are as alien to me as this one. But, the more I remain a localized consciousness here, the more that pointless things like this do matter to me.”

Emala lowered xyr tea from xyr mouth, not having sipped it yet, and glanced at the sleeping children, “tell it to me anyway.”

“Parent is great,” Phage rambled. “It is accurate and true. And most people know it, but don’t use it much, preferring to refer to their familial elders as caretakers and tutors. Parent is usually reserved for describing relationships between fauna or esoteric crafting elements.”

“I know this,” Emala said.

“And when talking about the reproductive relationships of fauna parents, we say ‘childbearing’ and ‘supportive’ parent. This doesn’t even refer to which gametes they carry or how they’re combined, because that varies from species to species too much.”

“I know this, too.”

“But, so many of the ancestors of the Sunspot’s populace used a couple of other words, words with a lot of baggage and misuse, to describe some parental roles. In some of their cultures there were other words, too, other roles recognized in a family. And the Crew had good reasons to expunge these words from their language. Your language.”

“Tell me the word, Phage.”

“This is not a moral statement. Not a referendum on the Crew’s choices. It is just a remark on how I feel about myself in this place/moment. Just my local identity as it has been informed by my connections to the Sunspot, its history, and what brought me here.”

“Phage…”

“I like to think of myself as Ni’a’s mother.”

“You’re right, I don’t know that word.”

“And that’s OK.”

“If you say so.”

“The Sunspot,” Phage said more quietly, “is Ni’a’s childbearing parent. You are their caretaker. And I am their mother. It makes me feel bizarrely good to say that.”

And then, after a few more moments it added, “and troubled.”

In the middle of the night, Eh and Fenemere were watching a holodrama on the viewscreen of the Bridge of the Sunspot. As the Bridge was a fully configurable Network space, they could have just as easily been participating in an immersive program, but they were old souls that found a nostalgic comfort in the separation of audience and performance. The holodrama had been produced by some of the Children of the Sunspot only a couple centuries ago, and told the story of a group of Monsters who had chosen to try to survive in the wilds of the great mountains that ringed the Garden. Which meant that it was written before the Nanite Innovation, and before the Children knew that they could look forward to ascendance to the Network after the death of their body.

The two Senior Crewmembers were quietly discussing the changes of the Sunspot’s culture since then and its implications. 

Fenemere was pointing out that not only had the Crew made some massive ethical mistakes in engineering the Sunspot’s social norms and restrictions of knowledge, but that the now obvious mistakes of the past point to likely mistakes of the present. Namely, that there was knowledge that individual Crewmembers held off record that they were all still withholding from their Children, and that that needed to be corrected.

Eh largely agreed with Fenemere, but Fenemere was so passionate and forceful with kihn’s statements that Eh’s reflexes were to try to slow kihn down and get kihn to think about the implications of bringing about change too fast. Namely that the rest of the Crew had to deliberate on this, and give their consent, and that the Crew’s privacy was also a concern of their autonomy. And Fenemere wasn’t having it.

But they both were also gripped by the holodrama and kept interrupting their discussion to pay attention to the story. Which itself provided allegorical examples in support of both of their points.

“Do either of you remember the ascendance of your parents?” Phage’s voice asked from behind them in the dark.

“Stop program,” said Eh.

Fenemere turned to look at Phage, who had taken the form of a Pember that was wearing Morde’s cloak, and pointed at it, “That’s part of my point. It’s been centuries and centuries. I’m not certain of any of my memories from before the Sunspot. I think I remember my parents’ names. I still desperately miss them, but not coming with us was their choice. However, what I do know and remember clearly is that ascendance on that ship did not hold the same weight of meaning as it currently does on the Sunspot. We all knew what it was. We all lived for it. And there was no false sense of loss, because we remained a family through it.”

“Memories are so unreliable. They change with time and psychological need,” Eh said, taking Fenmere’s rhetorical bait over Phage’s question. “This holofiction is more accurate to reality than any memory I have from before the Sunspot. If we don’t have something on record, how can we trust what we have to say about it, or its relevance today?”

“Frankly, I’m envious of the both of you,” Phage said.

Eh looked back at it while Fenemere tilted kihn’s bearded chin up in acknowledgement and asked, “Why’s that?”

“As far as I can tell, what memories you do have only come from your lifetimes, informed only by the experiences you have had from your finite perspectives,” Phage replied.

Fenemere asked, “And you don’t work that way?”

Eh glanced over at Fenemere with hooded eyes.

Phage shook its head, “You know damn well that knowledge I shouldn’t have, if I am any sort of finite being, spills forth randomly and with alarming regularity. It’s part of my charm.”

“Why are you dressed like that?” Eh asked, gesturing at Phage’s form.

Phage slowly turned a pair of blinking pulsars Eh’s way and said, “I’ve noticed something about myself and felt I should make a confession and also warn you of something that’s coming. But I need to explain something to you first so that you understand.”

“OK…”

“I cannot see the future. I can sometimes predict it better than most people, because I often have more knowledge at hand than anyone. Both Morde and Benejede are better at doing that in their own ways than I am, but they are also restricted to tight localities. You’re going to want to consult both of them, by the way. Or, at least, pay attention to where Morde is going, and ask Benejede what to do.”

Phage held up a finger before the others could speak while it paused to pivot its speech.

“Now, I can consciously know everything that’s happening aboard the Sunspot at any given time, if I think to consciously pay attention to it. But that comes with a cost. You’ll find that if you try to configure your Network resources to do something similar for yourselves, you’ll pay the same cost, though maybe at a different rate. The more broadly you spread your awareness, the less sense you can make of it all and the less you that you become. In other words, the more stimuli to your system, the more noise there is, and the less of what makes you unique that can influence the whole of it.”

“That makes sense,” Eh said.

“So, the way I normally function,” Phage explained, “is similar to you. This version of myself is something of a mimic of how you humans work, after all. I go by association. When something in the center of my attention reminds me of something else, that something else also becomes part of my attention, whether it’s a memory or another part of my senses. And, I forget about something else to make room. I don’t always put everything together into a nice story or prediction.” The Chief Monster lifted its arms in a gesture of resignation, palms upward, and then let them drop. Then it began to walk around the room until it was in front of the view screen where it manifested a chair and sat in it, speaking along the way. “I’ve never known a fear of death in any way. I didn’t evolve from any sort of life form that has known death. I am not geared to even think about predicting the future, whether by guess or statistics, and certainly not by intuition. And the task you’ve given me here, aboard the Sunspot, is simply to keep the ship from flying apart at the seams, and I do that only in the moment. Because I can.”

“It sounds like you’re trying to excuse yourself from something,” Fenemere pointed out. “No offense, but that is really weird coming from you.”

“I know. And I am,” Phage said. “And I’m going to accept your judgment in any case. But I also think that if you know all this, it will help you make decisions.”

“OK,” Eh assented. “Go on, please.”

“I swear, I’ve learned to ramble from your children. Morde, and Tetcha, and the Pembers… Sorry. At the moment, I’m personally afraid to look at everything that is going on, for personal reasons. I can’t tell you details I haven’t experienced personally. Everything is on such a knife’s edge that if I twitch in the wrong way, the natural fibrillations of the Sunspot could connect with each other and amplify. So, here’s what I do know.” Phage leaned forward, putting elbows on knees, tail whipping behind it. “There are four children whose identities, origins, and actions are complexly entangled. One of them is not on board the Sunspot. And I am not just Ni’a’s parent, I am their mother. And that last bit of information should inform all of us of the likely outcome of the first situation.”

“Mother…” said Eh.

“The conversation you two were just having is another portentous event.” Phage said. “It’s extremely relevant, I think. Anyway, I don’t think that my identity as Ni’a’s mother as opposed to their father is at all as relevant as the fact that such an ancient and socially charged concept has become part of me in the first place. Either one would mean the same thing. But I also find myself wanting you to know it because it makes me feel better.”

“Oh, shit,” Fenemere muttered.

“Are you saying,” Eh asked, “that this change in your sense of identity feels like an echo of something larger to come?”

“Yes,” Phage said. “And maybe more worrying, as I continue to exist here like this, I am becoming more human.”

“Why is that troubling?” Fenemere asked.

“Because I might not be able to continue my job.”

“Wait,” Eh snapped.

“What?” asked Phage.

“What do you mean one of the children is not aboard the Sunspot?!” Eh demanded.

“Ask Benejede,” Phage said. “Keh might be able to help you learn that in time. I can’t risk looking.”

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