“Metabang, if everyone is genetically engineered, then why are there people like us?”
I was expecting this question. It’s common for Students with major differences from their peers to ask it. I’ve had a lot of Students, and the Pembers were one of the rarest types.
I could tell that it was Myra who had asked the question because of xyr posture, expression, and vocal inflections. The differences were very subtle between xem and xyr other system members, but I’m particularly suited for tracking these things.
Myra continued as if I didn’t already know what xe was talking about, “Why are some people plural and some not? Wouldn’t the Crew make us all singlet?”
“Speculation:” I reported my stock answer, “Public records do not exist of the decision, so we must postulate.” I was forced by my position to tell the truth as if it was uncertain, “Neurodiversity must be prized as a trait in the ship’s population. It is likely that genetic engineering is managed by evolutionary algorithms. In short,” and here was the lie I had to tell, “I don’t know, but it’s probably part of the plan, because it happens.”
Protocol required that I hide the fact that I’m ultimately a tool of the Crew. And, in fact, for most of the rest of this document, I’m going to tell you things as if I must hide that from you, too, so that you understand what people knew at the time. I will be an unreliable narrator. But now you know better because I told you, and please do not forget that. It’s important.
Myra seemed to accept that explanation, so xe let xyr curiosity lead to xyr next question, getting up from xyr bed and leaving my tablet face up on the covers while xe began to stretch.
I could continue to watch xem through other cameras anyway.
“So,” xe said, “they make terminals for plural systems, too? Like, when we get ours, will it work for all of us?”
Easy to answer, “Definitely.”
“Cool,” xe thought about it a bit. I could tell xe was trepidatious about asking the next inquiry, but xe went ahead after a moment, “Do we each get our own avatar?”
“Of course,” I said evenly.
Stretching further as if xe wasn’t obviously getting more excited, “What happens when we cofront? Do we get multiple avatars at once? Do we get to see each other?”
“Oh, yes. Easily.”
“Oh,” xe relaxed, eyes wide, suddenly completely distracted by thoughts, not all of them xyr own. “Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit! Seriously?!”
Xe’d picked up my tablet to yell this into my microphone, holding it at arms’ length, so I got an excellent view of xyr face. Xyr surprise was so intense it almost looked like fear and xe was shaking, but it was obvious in context xe and the rest of xyr system were ecstatic with anticipation and were probably fighting for control, bursting with more questions.
They span in a circle, letting centrifugal force drag the tablet to finger length away from their outstretched hands, I’m not sure who talked next, “We need to talk about this! Is it OK to tell our friends about it?”
“Yes, that is permitted,” I replied.
“I love you Metabang!” it was definitely Myra again.
Again, an easy truth, “I love you, too. And of course.”
“Text our friends:” Myra ordered, “Meet us in the park after lunch? We learned something cool! Signed, Myra.”
“Sent,” I reported as xe walked briskly across xyr quarters.
“Myra?” I said.
“I can’t wait until you’re old enough to get your Terminal, too. I have things to show you. And it will be nice to see your true selves.”
I had no idea at the time just how much xe would soon get to learn. I knew it was going to be more than the typical Student, since my project had just been approved. And I’d run simulations to predict the consequences, but there were things even I didn’t know and would learn in the end. Which is why I’m writing this.
“It’s gonna feel more real than dreams, right?” Myra asked.
“That’s what they say,” I replied.
The Pembers bounced as Myra led them out the door, their tail curling tight with excitement. They wore a simple blouse and skirt, blue and pink that were vibrant against the grey of their fur. Their ears were relaxed, eyebrows high, pupils wide, and a massive grin on their face as Myra danced their body down the corridor, waving their arms to enjoy the movement and expend energy. Their neighbors mostly smiled as they watched them trapse toward the nearest upward ramp. People generally like to see other people obviously happy, especially youngsters.
Myra paused at the bottom of the ramp and whirled to look back at the door to their quarters, raising the two long feathers that sprouted from behind their ears and letting them drop softly in sync with the movement of their arms. A gesture unique to them of pure joy.
“Wooooo!” Myra shouted, then ran right up the ramp.
The park was a small piece of cultivated land on the edge of the urban area the Pembers lived in. For their sake and that of those they knew, I’m not naming that city. There were other parks there, of course, but this one was the closest to their quarters. They lived one deck below the surface of the Garden of the Sunspot, in the corridors under a collection of art collectives that specialized in apparel and outdoor equipment, things useful for hiking and camping. And right at the edge of that neighborhood was the edge of the city itself, and the park, demarcated by a thick line of trees with a trail running through them to a large clearing with a pond in the middle of it. Eventually, the Pembers were sitting on a rock next to the pond, finishing up their lunch and talking amongst themselves.
For a time, while they were eating, they had placed my tablet face down on their outstretched skirt, so I had to observe them by other means. All of the available cameras were quite a distance away. I could see the curve of the inner wall of the Sunspot’s Garden on the horizon and I watched them over the trees of the park, trees and mountains reaching for the central plasma tube where the sun was midway through its daily passage. But, of course, I could hear them as if I was right next to them, because I was.
“So, even really big systems like ours get a separate avatar for each headmate?” Ploot asked.
“Metabang didn’t say they don’t!” Myra replied.
“Amazing,” said Jural.
“I wonder if there is a limit on how many can cofront at a time,” mused Toost.
“I don’t know. I forgot to ask it,” Myra said.
“And is that limit because of our brain, or the terminal?”
“Metabang? Did you get all that?” Myra picked up the tablet to look at the screen and I saw their inquisitive face.
“Yes,” I replied.
“It varies from system to system,” I said. “You will probably meet the terminal’s limits, though.”
“Welp. OK, then,” Myra pouted.
The Flits, a three member system and friends of the Pembers, had been walking slowly across the field toward us, their large bulbous tail leaving a wide trail of flattened grass. When they got near enough just then, Myra heard them and looked up.
“Oh, hey!” xe exclaimed.
“Hey,” said the Flits, “It’s me, Ketta. Who’s all up today?”
“The whole Council of Eleven!” Myra replied.
“Woah,” Ketta muttered. Keh sounded drained, like keh had spent the morning arguing with someone after a night of no sleep. But keh leaned on the rock next to the Pembers, opting to remain standing, and pressed kihns shoulder against their arm and mumbled, “Tetcha and Morde are on their way. So what’s the big news?”
“Well,” said Myra, “It mostly involves us, so… Well, Metabang was telling us about all a neural terminal can do, and -”
“Oh, yeah.” Ketta interrupted, “Breq told us all about that.” And then keh mustered up some energy to half exclaim, “cofronting!”
Sometime, long ago, humanity finally reached for the stars. Or, interstellar space, at least. Our motives for doing so are lost to time or classified records, but what we do know is that our ancestors used nanotechnology to transform a large asteroid into the 400 km long habitat cylinder of the spacecraft we inhabit today. There may have been others, but if so we are not in contact with them. The nanites now lie mostly dormant in the soil of the Garden that lines the interior of the vessel, and we are told that we are now many generations into interstellar space. The ship is piloted and managed by the Crew, which keep themselves sequestered from the rest of the population, the Passengers. And, in theory, the genetic diversity of humanity as we see it today is in preparation for eventual planetfall some day in the future. Though many say that day will never come. The ship was named the Sunspot, and whoever contributes to these stories after mine is invited to add them under the title the Sunspot Chronicles.
The interior of the ship is a cylinder, divided into 40 square regions, five regions long and eight regions in circumference. Each region is marked with a spoke that connects it to the central plasma tube that carries our daily sun.
This story, Systems’ Out!, which follows the life of the Pembers, takes place in a coastal region near the aft of the ship.
The Pembers are a plural system, as I’ve said, a group of people who have shared one body since conception. Plurality is a neurotype that has existed amongst humans since anyone can remember, and the Crew have thoughtfully structured ship technology and ship laws to accommodate that diversity. As with other neurotypes, plural systems tend to attract each other, and feel most comfortable in each other’s presence. And the Pembers and the Flits were no exception to that rule.
My name is Metabang, as you know. I have been the Tutor of many, many passengers aboard the Sunspot. I was made for the role of Tutor, generated by evolutionary algorithms along with my peers as code in the system, an emergent consciousness that has known no body. Together with the caretakers, passengers who raise children, I help educate the population. This document is part of that, which is doubtlessly why you are reading it.
The Pembers are my current assignment, and I do, in fact, love them quite a bit. They represent more children than I have ever had to take care of at once before, but I have been allotted enough ship resources to do so. They are a very large system, and their numbers are always growing.
That said, not all of their friends were plural. With the Flits, they’d grown up with Tetcha and Morde, a couple of what the Pembers call singlets, people with fully integrated consciousnesses, or as integrated as a human can get. A single awareness per body.
At Ketta’s mention of Tetcha and Morde, I split my awareness to track them. I could follow both conversations just fine, but Ketta and Myra’s is pretty much a repeat of stuff I’ve already told you.
Following signals from their Tutors, and patching into their tablets, I found Tetcha and Morde in the middle of the woods, some ways spinward from where the Pembers and Flits were. Some seconds after I’d checked in on them, Tetcha broke a silence of indeterminate length.
“You’re sure leading us on a circuitous route today! Are we avoiding something?” xe asked.
“I don’t know, Tetcha,” Morde replied. “This is just the right way.”
“OK!” Tetcha chirped, leaning over to sniff some flowers beside the trail, “I love your magic, even if it’s weird. These flowers are really pretty!”
“It’s not magic,” Morde growled.
“Well, I think it’s magic. I don’t know how it works.”
Morde sighed, “I’ve explained it so many times. I can sense minute, subliminal changes in the patterns around me, sights, sounds, smells, temperature, emotions. And I guess my subconscious compares that to past events and extrapolates what it all means. And then I get a feeling and follow it.” Then Morde turned to look meaningfully at Tetcha, “Your own Tutor agrees with me about this.”
“Yeah, You, Abacus, and Ralf have all been over it with me, but I get to call it magic if I want to,” Tetcha quipped. “I don’t see all that happening, so it’s magical! You just say, ‘we go this way,’ and if we do, we find such cool things! Or, even better, we avoid getting hurt. Remember last week?”
“That is when you started calling it magic, yeah.” Morde pulled hir cloak tighter around hir arms using hir tentacles and looked upward in exasperation, “I mean, OK. Call it magic. I guess I’m a magician.”
“More like a witch, I think.”
“Morde,” Tetcha pleaded. “I love you!”
“Thank you,” More replied. “I love you too. I don’t know how you put up with me.”
Tetcha frowned, “What do you mean?”
Morde whirled to look at Tetcha and gestured with hir hands, “Look at me!” Hir head and body were covered almost entirely by a large cloak, as usual. Only hir hands, part of hir face, and the tips of hir eight tentacle-like arms that sie “walked” on were visible. Morde had a phenotype that presented itself in a few other Passengers, with varying results. Some of them were forced to be aquatic, but Morde had the strength and cellular structure to hold hirself upright, a fraction taller than Tetcha if sie wanted to. Sie was gesturing at hir cloak as much as anything else.
“Oh,” Tetcha stopped and became carefully solemn. “Sorry. Dysphoria again?”
Morde looked down and sighed, sie had experienced this physical dysphoria since sie could remember, “Always.”
“Can I hug you?” Tetcha asked, “Or would that make it worse today?”
“I wish you didn’t hurt so much,” Tetcha told Morde, giving hir an embrace.
“Thank you,” said Morde.
I cut the feed.
A very common question posed by my Students has been, “What defines being human, anyway?”
They especially ask this after learning just how diverse the ship population is and how the generic life cycle works. This question is also typically followed by some form of, “Were we always like this?”
The answer to that question is one of the victims of record loss. Probably deliberate record loss.
No one aboard the ship knows or admits to know what the original human beings looked like. There are not records of them, and attempts to recreate one would be utterly directionless and pure guesswork.
What we do know, however, is that despite the great physical diversity of the population, the relative neural diversity in comparison to the fauna in the garden is significantly less. The ship’s population is neurodiverse, within a certain range. But it seems clear that our brains all closely resemble the brains of our ancestors (and I use “our” here because my neural network is modeled after the same as yours, even if it is all handled by the quantum processors of the Sunspot’s systems). The resemblance is close enough that our neural terminal technology needs only minimal adaptation to work for every Passenger.
Also, we find that our medical technology and knowledge is easily adaptable to the population’s otherwise unique forms. And when examined, the population’s genetic diversity is also not as broad as between members of fauna. Passengers can be said to belong to the same genus, genetically speaking, if not strictly the same species.
If there are other ships like the Sunspot, we believe that life on them would exhibit roughly the same characteristics. Though some suggest that there may be greater variation between ships. One of them might have a predominately submarine population, while another might be predominately avian. They might have different ranges of climate. Such diversity could increase the overall adaptability of life for whatever might befall the ships in the future.
If we were to spawn a child ship from the Sunspot, we might choose to push its ecosystems and population toward increasing that diversity. It seems wise.
That all said, statistics and records do not seem to indicate that Morde’s dysphoria was the result of hir divergent body type. There are people who look very similar to Morde who do not experience this dysphoria. And there are also people of a very different body type that do.
Dealing with that dysphoria and treating it is something that has become part of my life’s work, actually, and I will address that further a bit later. Suffice it to say, Morde was not the only one within this friends group experiencing it. Sie just may have had the most severe case of it I have encountered yet. Ketta was feeling it pretty bad this morning, too, as evidenced by kihns mannerisms.
As I said, people of similar neurotypes tend to cluster and become friends, allies. Even before they’re consciously aware of their similarities. It happens again and again.
Toost, one of the Pembers, was in control and pointing at the Flits, “You don’t have Breq with you. Again!”
Ketta looked up and away from Toost, “We don’t have our tablet. Our Tutors don’t need our tablets to be with us.”
“In the park they do.”
“Breq can use your tablet,” Ketta pointed out.
“You always do this,” admonished Toost.
“I hate wearing things and I hate carrying things, so yeah,” Ketta replied, gesturing at the Flits’ naked body. “Anyway, we’re getting fitted for a terminal soon.”
“None of my headmates would let me leave without our tablet,” Toost replied.
“We have an agreement,” Ketta recited, obviously repeating words keh had said before. “On my days, I get to not wear clothes or carry stuff. It’s an accommodation. Tomorrow or the next day, whomever is fronting does what they want.” keh looked meaningfully at the Pembers, “You don’t have days. You have…” keh frowned and emphasized the next word as if it was hard to pronounce, “sentences.”
“Yeah, but you do switch involuntarily sometimes. I’ve seen it,” Toost said.
“Our systems are so different,” keh deflected. “It’s weird.”
“True,” Toost admitted.
“We’re fine. We’ll be fine.”
“OK, sorry for pushing.”
“Thought it was you. Tone of voice.”
The conversation had slowed and just at the point Tetcha and Morde had arrived, slightly aftward, between their friends and the city.
“Hey, we made it!” Tetcha declared. “We only had to enjoy ten billion beautiful flowers on the way!”
Morde barely moved once sie stopped by Tetcha’s side, “Hi.”
Toost’s calm but stern demeanor was suddenly replaced by an excited Myra, who flapped xyr hands enthusiastically, “Hey!!!”
Ketta glanced up at xem and mumbled, “hi, Myra.”
“So what’s the news?” Morde asked.
Myra noticed how glum Morde was and looked at Ketta then back at Morde, as if comparing them. “Woah,” xe was more subdued. And with hesitation xe asked, “you two are both having a high dysphoria day, aren’t you?”
Both Ketta and Morde gave Myra the same pained look, expressed with facial structures that were wildly different. Morde had no visible nose or mouth, as both were covered by hir cloak and the facial protuberances sie kept hidden by it, and hir eyebrows were short and bristly tufts that seemed to float on a smooth forehead that sloped back into the recesses of hir hood. Mordes eyes were forward facing with horizontal hourglass pupils. The Flits, on the other hand, had a wide, large head covered in pebbly scales with no hair what-so-ever, with two slits of nostrils just above a wide, lippy mouth. Their eyes sat below bony brow ridges, with big round pupils and no visible whites, set wide apart on their head, mostly forward facing but with a wider field of vision. And they both looked haunted by death itself.
“Sorry,” Myra said. “I’m just getting good at seeing it in your eyes. Like, same hat, right? Balmer gets it pretty bad in our body.” Xe turned to the Flits, “Ketta, you want to tell them?”
“I mean, I guess?” was the response.
“What?” Morde said more than asked.
“It mostly pertains to systems like the Pembers and us, not you guys, but anyway…” Ketta rumbled.
“Ah, that’s all right,” Tetcha chimed in, trying to be reassuring. “Good news for you is good news for us!”
“Well, we both learned from our Tutors that when we get neural terminals, we’ll be able to cofront while logged in,” Ketta explained.
“Ooh,” Tetcha lit up. “So, we’ll get to see and talk to all of you?”
“Yep,” Ketta actually smiled a little. A half smile, “But also, the Pembers were saying Metabang confirmed that your avatar will feel like your body and it can be whatever you like, so…”
Without changing expression, Morde seemed to float up and forward a little, as if lifted by this thought, but hir voice didn’t reflect any emotion, “Yeah, Ralf told me about that much. I can’t wait. I could stay logged in all day on days like this.”
Ralf interjected from the folds of Morde’s cloak, “Uh, that wouldn’t be advised, boss.” I silently concurred, it wouldn’t.
“Whatever,” Morde dismissed it.
“You’d think,” Tetcha observed, “with everything on the Sunspot so carefully designed, we wouldn’t have problems like body dysphoria.”
Tetcha’s Tutor, Abacus, took that moment to make itself heard, winding up for a big hypeshare, sounding a bit like myself, “Neurodiversity is probably maintained so as to -”
“Ugh, Abacus, I know!” Tetcha shut it down.
I decided to change the tone and focus of the conversation. Everyone was on topic, just not working with the full set of data, letting their emotions dictate their responses. And we had business to do with them. The timing and location was perfect. So I interjected, “Everyone’s here.”
“Yeah?” Myra said, glancing down at my tablet.
“We have news for all of you,” I said, on behalf of the other Tutors. This was my thing, but they were on board, too. I’d been keeping my tone pedantic and informative or just choosing not to talk to hide my own excitement. There was a certain amount of discretion required, but also presenting this project to our Students was a delicate thing. So, I hesitated for just a moment before saying, “It’s an opportunity, if you accept it.”
“Uh…” Ketta slowly looked my way.
“What?” Morde asked, almost as if sie hadn’t heard what I said.
The Pembers looked down briefly, as if listening, then their head snapped up, Jural vocalizing, “Wait, what?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why wait until we’re all here in this park?” Tetcha asked. Which meant that everyone here was feeling suspicious. Great. Good move, Metabang.
“Relative privacy,” I explained, after a bit of a pause, “proximity to the resource, and group dynamics.” I figured I should stick to the truths. They needed to be informed in order for their consent to be legal, should they offer it. “So,” I said, “Want to be able to do something really cool?”
A bird flew by as everyone just stared at my tablet for several seconds. I got really worried I’d screwed up.
“Why?” asked Morde.
Ralf took over, “You’ve been selected by the Crew to be part of an experimental trial of a new kind of terminal. If you consent.” Well, OK, being super direct and to the point was probably the best idea, after all. Then it chirped up, “Morde, it is pretty cool if you ask me.”
Abacus offered a monotone embellishment, “Deliberations have taken generations. We are told those in favor have assured significant precautions.” Also true, but I just didn’t know how that’d go over. Abacus is an odd duck, even from my perspective.
“Precautions for what?” Ketta asked, a totally reasonable question, actually. The answers to it, however, would take a long time to enumerate and the chances were actually really slim that any issues would come up. Myra was right on kihns toes with xyr question, though.
“Why us?” xe asked.
My turn again. “Well,” I said. “You’re being offered because you’re my Student. It was my proposal, originally. And I think you’d benefit from it in particular.”
“And your friends group provides samples of control groups,” Ralf offered. “Others are being offered, too, though.” It paused again, then spoke in a slightly different tone, “Boss? Please say, ‘yes’. I’m excited about this.”
Morde obviously felt pressured by that and gave a brief, impatient half gesture, “Out with it. What is it?”
“Metabang?” Ralf prompted.
“The nanites,” I said.
“What?” Ketta’s head snapped up, looked directly at my tablet.
“Oh!” came from Morde, whose eyes were suddenly wide, and whose shoulders were becoming squared, head raised higher. In preparation for this moment, the other Tutors and I had made sure to educate our Students in more detail about the nanites for the past couple of years. And as we’d hoped, everything seemed to be clicking for them. They’d probably start to be able to guess at the dangers as well, such as they were.
“Oh, wow! Oh,” Jural took over the Pembers, “Those wouldn’t need to wait for our skulls to stop growing.”
“Oh…” Ketta echoed the vocalization of the moment, also lost in thought, then keh noticed the Pembers’ switch, “Hey, Jural. Good morning.”
“Balmer’s going to flip,” Jural nodded toward kihn.
I wanted to push this forward, so I stepped in again. “So,” I said, “do you consent to be fitted with nanite terminals? And, if so,” I paused for really dramatic effect and continued at a slightly slower pace, “are you prepared to receive them now?”
“Yes,” Morde replied instantly. Then to the rest of hir friends, “I think we should say, ‘yes’.”
Tetcha’s jaw actually dropped open in disbelief. Xe was prone to speculation and believing in many wild and improbable things, one of which was an understandable and common skepticism of the Crew and their motives, so I didn’t find xyr reaction unsurprising. “Really? Doesn’t this feel kinda weird to you?”
“Every cell in my body is saying this is the next step we take,” Morde said, emphasizing the words to denote hir implied meaning, referring to their earlier discussion.
“Your magic,” Tetcha said.
“It’s not magic.”
“For the first time in a while,” Tetcha said in a careful, hushed tone, “I feel like something’s going to go really wrong.”
“It will,” Morde stated.
“There really isn’t much chance of that, actually,” Ralf countered.
Morde looked down at the pocket in hir cloak where Ralf’s tablet was, and admonished it, “It will.” Sie looked back up at Tetcha, then at the others, “Something is always going terribly wrong somewhere. You know it. I can feel it. But as weird and scary as this is, it is what we’re going to do. It’s the best route.”
“We’re so doing it,” Myra reported, enthusiastically and firmly. “Balmer just flipped.”
Ketta nodded and spoke up, “The others just gave me their consent.”
Myra continued, “The Council of Eleven just voted unanimously over here. We’re holding a poll for our internal population, but that’s just a formality. We’ve been dreaming of something like this for ages!”
If I’d had eyes, I would have blinked, as many of my Students do in response to things that surprise them. I had not expected them to begin reaching a consensus this quickly. I had expected to have to explain more, and if Tetcha took a cue from the others, I’d have to cover my legal bases unprompted as we set them up for the procedure. So I started going over in my mind what they would need to know.
Morde turned to Tetcha and took xyr hands. “I will go where you go, Tetcha,” sie said, looking hir partner in xyr eyes. “My senses tell me this is OK and right, but I won’t do it if you don’t want to.”
Tetcha took a quick breath as if to talk, then stopped, breathed out xyr nose and started over more slowly, “Are you sure it’s your magic, and not your dysphoria talking?”
Morde looked down at their hands, then back up to Tetcha’s eyes and held them for a second. In a low, sombre tone, sie said, “It’s both.”
I’d known about Morde’s sense of intuition for a long time. Ralph had consulted me about it, in fact, wondering if I’d had any Students who experienced the same thing. I hadn’t. We didn’t think much of it, other than it was just sharp enough to catch our attention. And Morde had always downplayed it. Tetcha made more of it than anybody else, and we honestly didn’t think it was going to play all that much of a part in this decision. But here we were witnessing the entire friends group letting it guide them.
Well, that and their own adolescent excitement.
I felt bad that I was inherently taking advantage of that excitement to push this, but for Morde’s sake, actually, and for others like hir, I really didn’t want to wait much longer. Time was of essence. Every day delayed was another day of trauma for hir.
The Pembers would also benefit from this in other ways. Some of them experienced dysphoria too, but it was apparently milder and mitigated somewhat by their plurality. But it was their plurality for which I was pushing this. They were an entire group of people experiencing life through the bottleneck of just one body, one set of senses. And the physically implanted neural terminals that were standard at the time would not serve them justice, would not give them the full accommodations and rights to autonomy they deserved as living beings. The old technology would take longer to do its job, and every day that was prolonged was a day of great risk for them.
I admit, I had a lot of bias riding on this. It was a mistake on my part to succumb to it. Things may have turned out very differently if I hadn’t. But this is how we got to where we are today, and my carelessness played a big role in that.
I proceeded to direct them further into the woods where we might not be interrupted by other Passengers enjoying the park. As adolescents, they were under our charge, their caretakers playing less of a role in their lives. We Tutors were the responsible parties. But, by the laws of the ship, our Students were officially in control. Their consent and their autonomy was paramount. Is still paramount. As is yours. As is everyone’s.
In a short time, with mostly meaningless and redundant exclamations, questions, and replies, we found ourselves all lying in a circle on the forest floor, with our Students’ heads in the center, their feet, tails, and other lower appendages outward like the spokes of the Sunspot, and our tablets between each of them, near their ears.
Time to cover my bases. They’d already consented, but they needed to know what they were getting into. I reassured them that they could interrupt me and back out at any time, right up until I would tell them it was done. And even then, there should be a way to reverse it. The nanites were very flexible in their use, and noninvasive.
“Normally,” I began, “the nanites that were used to build the Sunspot are contained in the soil of the Garden, where they work as part of the ecosystem. The bulk of them should remain there.” I paused on that for emphasis, making it sound almost like an admonishment, for reasons they wouldn’t suspect yet. It was just a thought I suddenly had. I didn’t explain. I should have. I continued, “However, a small number can be spared to use as neural terminals for the populace. Simulations say that this can be done relatively safely. There may be some initial conflict, and new guidelines for population behavior may need to be established. But we cannot do any more planning, and the needs are great enough to proceed.”
Here is what I didn’t tell our Students, which I should have:
As you may have surmised, AI Tutors, such as myself, have a channel through which we may communicate with the Crew. We are occasionally allowed to use this channel as a means to propose ideas, as a note attached to our job reports.
Early in my career, I had a Student with high physical dysphoria who was assigned to a caretaker who had had no experience raising a child with such a struggle. It fell upon me to guide my Student and help them find the treatment they needed.
Unfortunately, prosthetics and surgeries did not suffice in this case. In 99% of cases, they do, amongst a population of 1.5% who actually experience dysphoria. My Student was a very rare case, and no systems were set in place to help them.
They immersed themselves in the Network the day they got their neural terminal, and logged off minimally to take care of their body. And even that was not enough. They said they could still feel how wrong their body was through the link.
They died early from the increasing neural agony of dysphoria.
This drove me to append a note, at the end of their file, tersely and passionately requesting better relief for dysphoria, or an effort to prevent it.
I was surprised to be given permission to suspend my Tutoring duties in order to research options. And at the end of my tenure doing that, I had found only one possibility that met all my criteria.
Use the nanites as a new form of terminal, surgical tool, and prosthetic.
They had been designed and used to build the Sunspot itself, and now most of them lie semi-dormant in the soil of the Garden, helping to maintain the atmosphere and ecosystem. They’ve been adapted to interacting with the carbon cycle. It would not be an impossibility to adapt them further for internal use.
After I submitted that proposal, I was simply given my next Tutoring assignment, and I didn’t hear from the Crew regarding the subject until after the Pembers’ plurality was confirmed.
I was told to watch the Pembers’ development closely and report in greater detail than typical requirements, and that they and their friends group would be potential candidates for experimental nanite terminals. I was told not to tell the Pembers about the potentials of the nanites until the offer was either finalized by the Crew or rescinded. I could see the wisdom of that, so I complied.
It took the Crew that long to explore the possibilities of using nanites that way, run simulations, and then argue amongst themselves about whether or not to proceed. I only surmise what their process was. They are opaque and do not talk about their deliberations.
I do not know why they had restricted use of the nanites by the populace at all until now, and I do not know what their future plans are beyond replacing certain technologies with them shipwide.
What I know about the capabilities of the nanite terminals is this:
The distributed processing and networking of the nanites is used to mimic and extend the functions of the human neural system. The nanites within the body are configured to integrate with the metabolism and focus on giving and receiving signals from the dendrites and axons of most of the nerve cells.
Because this is a full body integration instead of a web of monofilament implants that is the current terminal design, and the connections more closely mimicking natural cellular activity rather than simply using electrical stimulation, the whole psyche of an individual can integrate with the terminal.
This means that every single consciousness within the neurology of a system such as the Pembers can access the Network without having to take conscious control of their brain, which they call “fronting”.
There is no bottleneck. The nanite network is adaptable to the needs of each body. And therefore there is no limit to the number of system members who may access and manifest on the Network at any given time.
If the rest of my proposal has been accepted, the nanites should be usable to organically and gently alter a person’s body over time, to improve their health and adapt them to their life’s demands or relieve any dysphoria they may have.
I had not been informed about the use of the nanites to create external bodies. Either that was proposed by another Tutor that I’m not aware of, or the Crew themselves decided upon it. It is a permission that startles me, and I cannot accurately predict the outcomes. Oh, but we haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet. You know about it by now, of course. But we will get there. About how we learned about it.
Anyway, instead of saying all that, I cut it all short.
“As you lie in the grass,” I said, “nanites will make their way into your bodies and toward your neural systems. You really shouldn’t feel anything at all. When the process is complete, you will start to sense the Network, and we, your Tutors, can teach you how to access it and use it. And as your bodies continue to grow, and your brains develop, the nanites should be able to adapt. You will be a small percentage of the Sunspot’s population with this new kind of Network access. People will be informed and reassured to reduce jealousy, but there will be jealousy.” I honestly expected that to be the worst problem, which again probably distracted me from the other possibilities. I didn’t need to take a breath, but I mimicked doing so out of habit of imitating all the Students I’d ever taught, and then finished, “Everyone will be fitted, with their consent, in time, but until then you will be special. We think your group are well equipped to handle that burden.”
Myra offered, “Well, we do keep to ourselves a lot.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“I have a question,” Tetcha spoke up.
“It’s already done, isn’t it?” xe asked.
“About twenty words ago,” I replied, “yes.”