Lesley conjured a set of movie theater style chairs on the Bridge of Anchor and flopped down into one of them.
She gave Susan a sly look, and smirked.
“They’re the kind that lean back,” Lesley said. “Of course.”
Of course, according to Molly’s descriptions, everything that there would be to see would be out toward what her mind was considering the horizon, not upward, not in front of Anchor. In front of Anchor the stars would stretch apart to create a field of emptiness. It was to the sides where the weird show would be.
But Lesley wanted the kind of seat she was used to ignoring, to view the effects of their jump. And even though movie theater seats weren’t exactly the most comfortable things, she’d spent her life using them in a ritual to focus on stories unfolding before her, over and over. She was used to them.
Susan chuckled and sat down in the seat next to her and leaned into her armpit, and said, “OK, then, popcorn?”
“You’ve figured out how to tell the Network what popcorn is?”
“You’re damn straight, I have.”
“Susan. You of all people should know that there is nothing straight about me.”
Susan ignored that old formulaic queer joke to hypeshare her foray into recreating popcorn. She just started explaining all of it. Of course, Manifold’s archival of their world’s internet files had snagged all sorts of esoteric data, including the chemical composition of corn itself. Also, somebody’s analysis of the physics of how pop corn popped. And butter, and salt, and all of that. But then, also, Susan had found a way to take her sensory memories of eating popcorn and feed that into the Network algorithms to fine tune them.
So, the way that the Network worked was to mirror and duplicate a person’s neurology completely, from neurotransmitters to the electromagnetic field generated by firing neurons. It also simulated your entire body in the form of an avatar. And, without getting into all of the nitty, gritty details of how that could even be done, the whole point of it was to recreate sensory experiences and to use those to help you interpret data, among other things.
And, apparently, it did that in large part to give the crew of an Exodus Ship such as the Sunspot or Anchor a place to continue living after their bodies died.
It certainly seemed like it would work that way for both Susan Lesley when the time came.
Lesley had started programming timers to remind her to log off and take care of her body, and to set minimum times to being awake in her body and using it before she let herself log on again.
Although she’d come nowhere near to exploring all of Anchor physically, so much of the ship was the same as all the rest of it. And there really weren’t very many people aboard. So, that meant that if she wanted any sort of variety of experiences, she’d have to log into the Network and either seek them out from her crewmates’ creations, or generate her own.
But the bigger problem, which was in the process of being treated slowly, was that her Network avatar felt so much more comfortable to her than her own body. It was shaped right, and her body just wasn’t there yet.
But, right then, the important thing was that she really, truly felt like she was sitting down in a theater chair situated on the forward most panel of the huge, spherical hydrogen tank of Anchor, looking around at the stars.
She could feel the wooden arms of the chair under her bare elbows, and the coarse upholstery of the chair back through her thin blouse. She heard the creak of the chair as she leaned back in it and looked around at the pinpricks of light that didn’t twinkle because there was no atmosphere to distort them.
And yet she could also feel the air that she breathed. Though, that might have been synced with her body’s actual breathing and the sensations filtered in from there.
And, like in a deep dream, her actual body’s state and position was an echo of sensations she could choose to focus on instead, but just didn’t.
She was fully here, in the Bridge, ready to see the show with her own Network eyes that seemed to dry out and sting a little if she kept them open for too long.
But now, she also had a whole other set of senses she was learning to use, that she could try to focus on to experience the warp jump.
Of course, she didn’t expect to be able to sense much, if anything at all. It wasn’t like someone had flipped a light switch and she could suddenly see a whole room full of stuff instead of darkness. It was more like someone had flipped a switch and there was still darkness, but then they said, “You know how it sometimes feels like there’s a wall right beside you and you can tell how far away it is because of some sort of pressure on your skin, or temperature change, or maybe it has something to do with your hearing, you don’t really know, but what you do know is that you cannot rely on that sensation, because sometimes there’s a wall there that you didn’t sense, or sometimes there isn’t a wall there when you did sense? Well, now you can rely on it, all the time.”
And it was also something like waking up from a major surgery with totally rearranged anatomy that was numb from anesthesia and nerve damage, and spending the next several years of nerves healing with sharp pangs of pins and needles followed by relearning what the sensations down there meant.
Nerves in her brain were likely being tickled by new impulses without any training what-so-ever as to how to fire as a response to it. She figured she’d have to teach herself how to notice things.
But it was, still, so easy to access what she could. When she’d blown the leaves high into the sky, it had felt like all those times when, since she was a kid and had seen a movie where the hero had telekinesis, she had tried to move something with her mind, only it had worked this time. She had literally been practicing at this her whole life, knowing that it would never work, and it turned out her practice had been applicable. It was like her imagination suddenly had real physical weight.
Only it wasn’t telekinesis, like in the movies. After the experiments in the Garden, and before meeting on the Bridge to jump, she’d gone back to her quarters and tried moving a mug across the table with her mind, and it didn’t work. But she could also kind of see or feel why it didn’t work. With the leaves, it hadn’t been the leaves that she’d moved, it had been the wind. And it hadn’t been so much that she’d pushed the air molecules with her mind, as it had been that momentarily her consciousness had expanded to include the entire atmospheric system of Anchor itself, and every molecule of air and every wave of kinetic and thermal energy in that system had become part of her body, and then moving the leaves was just like flexing a set of muscles. Just like contracting her diaphragm to blow air out of her mouth.
To move the mug, she had realized that she would have to alter the acceleration of Anchor itself. Or the structural integrity of the table. Or something like that. And she really didn’t want to do either of those things.
What she hoped, but didn’t expect to be able to do, was sense something about how the warp drive of Anchor worked.
Even if she only caught a change in the flow of electrons in the electrical systems of the ship, she told herself she’d be pretty happy about that.
If she could sense the warping of space/time itself in a way she’d never sensed anything before, she’d be ecstatic. But, also, she suspected that Susan would have a better chance of making any sense of that kind of thing than she could. It was part of Susan’s main special interest, anyway.
And, anyway, they would probably be making more jumps in the future.
Oh, wow, did she still need to sleep, though.
Her body was resting, of course, but she could feel her brain trying to tug her into a deep linguistically complex dream.
She hadn’t gotten very good sleep the night before, and she was still integrating everything she’d read at Network hyperspeed, such as the cuttlecrabs’ internal language.
She hoped that when they did jump there wouldn’t be an emergency at the other end. That maybe there’d be a week or so of interplanetary travel before they arrived anywhere where they might contact other people.
If not, she might still have to let the others deal with it while she zonked out.
Susan rumbled, like a half growl and a half attempt at a purr, and she felt the vibrations of it in her ribs and armpit, and it was so nice. She was clearly playing with having a deeper voice while on the Network and probably enjoying it.
Lesley glanced over and saw on the other side of Susan the communication stalk of the Light of Anchor rising up from the ground beside the theater seat. Then she sensed Molly approach from behind and to her other side. It was just the Network alerting her to the presence and location of others, but it was just like how she sensed unseen things in her dreams or the way that the senses that Phage had unlocked worked.
Shortly after that, Manifold appeared near the center of the Bridge, and four members of the Collective appeared with it.
Phage arrived last.
“Shall we make the jump?” Molly asked.
Susan shifted her weight a bit, tilting her head back to look up over her own forehead past Lesley at Molly, and said, “Who’s gonna push the button? Should the Captain give the command, like in a movie?”
Molly glanced over and said, “We can do it any way that we want. We make the rules.”
“Well, I think we’ve circled around to you being Captain again,” Susan pointed out.
“OK, do you want to ‘push the button’, Susan?” Molly asked.
“Oh, hell yes!”
“You’ll find the Fenekere command in the list of Bridge commands,” Molly said. “Choose the copy of the command that is slightly longer. It’s the macro for the coordinates. Tell me when you’re ready. Does anyone object to making the jump now?” She looked over the others.
Nobody responded verbally. A couple shook their heads.
“OK, found it,” Susan reported.
Molly smiled and then looked up, in the direction that they’d be traveling. The ship had already been oriented toward their destination. It had taken a few hours to gently shift it that way, without jostling the life in the garden, and they’d done it a day ago and set it to keep adjusting as its position shifted with its velocity.
“Susan,” Molly said. “Make it jump there!”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” Susan said. And then she uttered, “`uu kepekepe xevoserla `e`u ech`u`o nevigaro.”
Lesley understood that without really thinking about it, “Anchor, jump to Molly’s 18th way point.”
“You’ve jumped seventeen times before?” Lesley started to ask when the ship shuddered. She stopped and looked around with wide eyes, to make sure she didn’t miss anything.
The first thing she saw was that the Bussard spires, with their spade-like bulbs at the end of them, started to bend down below the obviously curved horizon of the hydrogen tank. And Anchor rumbled notably as this happened. And Lesley thought she felt Susan trying to match the pitch of that rumble with her own Network vocal chords. She didn’t get anywhere close, but it was still adorable.
It was like watching four distant mountains sink.
But before they completely disappeared, there was a clunk that was more of a feeling in her chest than a sound, and another subaudible vibration that she felt in her feet, pelvis, and sternum that quickly rose in pitch until she could actually hear it.
And then there was a pop of pure silence. All vibrations just stopped.
“Look up,” Molly said.
So she did.
She didn’t see anything significant yet, but kind of knowing what to expect she dutifully watched.
Phage spoke up then, and said, “OK, everyone. Pick the brightest point of light that you can see ahead of us. Somebody, the first person who figures it out, tell me if that’s a star or a planet or a galaxy or what. And then tell me how far away it is. And don’t use Anchor’s Network or sensors to do it.”
Within ten degrees of their forward attitude, it was pretty easy to choose the brightest light. Lesley was pretty sure they were all looking at the same object. But she wasn’t quite sure how to get that information Phage was asking for.
“It’s a star,” Susan said.
And when she said that, everything clicked, and Lesley just knew, “That’s eight point six one one lightyears away.”
“Excellent,” Phage said. “Now, keep track of its distance as this happens.”
The first thing Lesley noticed was that that star seemed to be getting closer fast. When it hit around eight point four lightyears away, though, slowed down and then started to get further and further away. And as that happened, it and all the stars around it dilated outward, just as Molly had described they would.
Once it started, it happened so fast. Like a fluid but logarithmic acceleration. And almost all the space around was just blackness.
Right at the horizon of the hydrogen tank, there was a band of all the stars that had been surrounding them, with the one that Lesley had been tracking amongst them, part of a faint ring of light on the leading edge of the band. She held out her arm, with her thumb out and squinted. The band was about as wide as her thumb was thick.
And, as predicted, the stars and galaxies visible at the leading edge of the band started to drip and drop down the band to the trailing edge, just below the horizon. It appeared that the Bussard spires were pointed at the center of the band. The band of stars indeed looked something like a corded bracelet covered in glitter that was being rolled along the outside of a jar that they were all inside.
The star that Lesley was tracking was one of the first to drop behind them.
And the ship was so quiet.
“And that,” Phage said, “is what it’s like to see this through my eyes. Though, I’m more practiced at picking out even more details.”
“And no turning back,” Susan said.
“No. It’s much too late now.”
Lesley shivered, and then she couldn’t help herself. She pulled up her Network echo of her phone and messaged her family, “We’ve just left the solar system. We’re in the middle of a warp envelope and it looks like this.” And then she took a selfie with the band of stars behind her, and sent that. The virtual lense of the camera was far enough away that she got Molly and the Light of Anchor in the shot as well, along with the two theater seats and Susan nestled in her arm, smiling sadly.
“Look up again,” Molly said. She’d been looking up in the selfie.
So, Lesley looked up, and there in the midst of this enormous sea of black emptiness there was a pinprick of light that was slowly becoming brighter and brighter.
“Our destination,” Molly declared.
And then suddenly it ballooned to the size of a large coin, a full sized sun glaring at them with all its might.
The Network simulated the ache in Lesley’s retinas from looking at it directly, but there was no retina burn. And she found that if she kept staring at it, that ache went away and she could start to pick out sunspots and flares. It was like her sight automatically zoomed in on it and applied filters.
“Wow!” she exclaimed.
Then all the ship sounds that the Bridge normally conveyed popped back into hearing and the stars expanded back into their normal positions. Or, close to them.
From talking to Susan about it before, Lesley knew that some of them weren’t where they’d been before. They’d passed by a few of them, at least. The brightest one that Phage had told them to track was almost directly behind them now, and a bit more faint, too, though Anchor was in the way of seeing it at the moment.
“Now,” Phage said. “Let’s see if anybody can find the planets without using Anchor’s instruments.”
Manifold had not accepted Phage’s gift, yet. It had wanted to be the member of the crew who had been untouched, for a while at least. It really couldn’t think of anything it could want to use those abilities for, in any case.
It wanted to see how the others were affected, and it wanted its own mind to be clear and free of influences while it observed.
So, it did not follow Phage’s instructions during the jump. They were not directed at it, after all, and it couldn’t do them.
It used Anchor’s instruments to find the planets.
This took a few seconds as Anchor tracked the points of light around it and found those that were moving in patterns that suggested planets.
A few seconds more and spectral analysis of those points were complete.
“That’s a planet!” Lesley pointed at one of them.
“Gas giant,” Susan said.
They were both correct.
Manifold didn’t say anything as they all took turns picking out planets. Molly and the Collective were just as eager to do so as Susan and Lesley.
The Light of Anchor remained silent for some time, while the others pointed and described what they saw. Then it said, “There are orbital organisms.” And it executed a complex series of Fenekere commands, and a cluster of green points appeared around the gas giant spanning several light minutes from one end of the cluster to the other.
“Yes!” Susan exclaimed. “Aliens!”
“People,” said Lesley.
“Organisms,” repeated the Light.
“They’re thirty-two point zero eight light minutes away,” Susan said. “Should we, uh. Should we say, ‘hi’?”
“Let’s gather all the information we can about them before we decide whether that’s a good idea or not,” Molly said. “We don’t want a repeat of what happened with your planet.”
“Damn. Right,” Susan muttered. “What’s our criteria?”
Lesley asked, “Light. What’s your criteria for whether or not to contact an organism?”
“If it can travel between stars, we try to make contact to guide it,” the Light said.
“Right,” Susan said. “And according to the Light of the Abyss’ records, these organisms were probably the ones that were directed here already by the Light.”
“Correct,” stated the Light.
“Is that a good criteria, though?” Lesley asked.
“If they cannot travel to other stars, then sorting them means leaving them where they are,” the Light said. “If they can, then sorting may involve moving them to another star, in which contact is necessary in order to ask permission or to impart navigation information.”
“I think the rest of us are worried about it for other reasons, though,” Lesley said. Then closed her eyes and reframed it for the Light, “The rest of Anchor might choose different criteria for a higher priority than sorting in order to choose whether to contact them or not.”
“Understood,” the Light said. “We have answered your question.”
“Yes,” and she adjusted herself in her chair to look at it more directly. “What is your criteria for sorting? How do you help an organism choose where to go?”
The crew of Anchor had already been over this while analyzing the information the Light had given them, but Manifold could see that Lesley was maybe hoping that the Light of Anchor could interpret that data and its own purposes more intuitively. And maybe she was reasoning with it, in order to try to teach it something.
“Analysis of raw materials used for construction, energy sources, possible life support needs, chemical composition of organic materials based on planetary compositions of the star system in which they are found, and willingness to learn our way of communication all indicate degrees of compatibility with other organisms,” the Light replied. “If communication is established, much more detail can be acquired. The goal is to find mutually beneficial relationships of material exchange.”
“You help people find trading partners!” Lesley exclaimed.
“Affirmative,” the Light said. “If we are answering as the Light of the Abyss.”
“OK, well, what are we trying to do here?” she asked everyone else.
“Meet people and make friends,” Susan gestured at Molly. Then she gestured at Lesley, “And your goal for helping any queer people we might find, assuming we can recognize them and they can recognize us. Our goal of doing that.”
Lesley looked off at the spread of green lights and said, “Yeah, I’m realizing that queer is relative to the culture you come from. And who knows what we’re going to encounter. I figure, keep an open mind, an open heart, and most importantly open ears. Watch, listen, and learn, right? And if someone connects with us and we click, and they need help, we’ll do what we can.”
Molly nodded, “I like the sound of that very much.”
It felt good to Manifold to see everyone almost cheerfully cooperating like this. It didn’t want to upset the balance or upstage anyone, such as Lesley, who might be leading the discussion. But it also felt that if it remained silent throughout the whole thing, that would be just as bad in respect to trying to break its own Tutorly habits. So, it had been spending this conversation trying to figure out how it could contribute in a natural way that would make it seem like an equal to the others.
Maybe a question would be a good idea.
“Should we…” it started asking, hesitating a little bit as if finding the right words, “compare the Light of the Abyss’ records of this system and its inhabitants with what we can scan, then?”
Susan turned to look at it and nodded, chewing on her lower lip, and said, “Yeah. Of course! Thank you.”
Manifold was not sure it had succeeded in its attempt to be properly social, but decided that the importance of its suggestion was bigger than the importance of learning how to be a typical person.
To help with everyone, it took the initiative to draw up the files for the system and display them in floating text and graphs in an area of space that was near but didn’t obscure their view of the subjects. Then it highlighted another area of space on the opposite side of the green specs, and started filling it with the results of readings they were already getting.
“Do we have telescopes or something?” Susan asked. “I’d like to see one of their vessels as close up as possible.”
“Yes,” Molly said. “The hydrogen tank is covered in them. I’ll set that up.” And she started silently sending commands through the Network to the ship.
A viewscreen appeared below their view of the cluster of green lights. One of the lights became highlighted in purple, and the viewscreen displayed an image that took a couple of seconds to resolve.
It was definitely not an asteroid, and the background to it was the cloudy atmosphere of a gas giant, according to all the data they’d collected so far.
“I chose the biggest object that was nearest the planet the organisms are arrayed around,” Molly said. “It seemed like it would be the most likely one to match the visuals the Light of the Abyss gave us.”
It didn’t exactly, but it looked like it might have been made by the same people. There was a conical array of rings rising away and outward from the direction of the planet’s surface, and that array was rotating. Presumably, that was to create a simulation of gravity. At the array’s point, nearer the planet, there was a flattened bulb that vaguely resembled Anchor’s hydrogen tank. And hanging from that was a cable that extended downward toward the planet.
In the center of the array of rings there was a thick axel-like structure with spokes coming out of it. And as they watched, a smaller vehicle or probe or something extracted itself from the end of that axel. The axel itself appeared to be spinning.
“It looks like something the ktletaccete could have built,” Susan said. “Doesn’t it?”
“Maybe,” Molly said. “We have never been here, of course.”
“I see differences in design sensibilities,” Manifold reported, secretly congratulating itself for sounding maybe not like a Tutor. “But technologically? Maybe, yes.”
“It is inefficient,” said the Light.
“What do you mean?” Susan asked it.
“There is wasted energy due to structural configuration,” the Light replied. “Better use of space could be achieved for greater resource collection as well as habitat growth while maintaining the same dimensions, use of materials, and overall function, with changes to the structural configuration. We are writing a data file with our suggestions.”
The name of that file appeared near the bottom of the field of collected data.
“We see a chattering,” the Collective piped up. “X-ray communications. We could listen.”
“Do you want to focus on that with me?” Lesley asked them.
“Yes, please,” said the Collective and the four cuttlecrabs scurried over to her. “We will want to connect to the rest of the Collective.”
“Yeah,” Lesley responded. “I’ll help you do that through the Network. It might be weird to you, but it’s simple.”
And Molly was staring quietly at the purple dot, not even looking at the telescopic image of it. Just staring, as if she could will a connection or something from it.
Looking at the view screen, Manifold noted that the smaller vessel that had detached itself from the larger one looked like it had a distinctly different kind of design. Different colors. Different spectral analysis. Different shapes. A different sense of balance. And no obvious moving parts.
The larger object appeared to be a space station tethered to a space elevator. Or perhaps it was a gravitational generator, harvesting the forces of the gigantic planet to create energy. And it was all mostly light metals, some of which were very, very shiny and reflective. It was clearly not trying to hide itself, and the material choices were probably meant for heat and radiation control.
The smaller, accelerating object looked like it was made of a cluster of black spheres of varying sizes. Something akin to a small island of bubbles on the surface of some soapy water. Readings suggested it was propelling and maneuvering itself with intense ion emissions. But, then, a bright torch of plasma shot out from one side of it, and it rocketed right out of the view screen’s image.
“I’m going to start training telescopes on the other objects,” Manifold said. “I think we might have two sets of organisms here.”
It was funny how they were all picking up some of the Light’s prefered vocabulary. But it didn’t bother Manifold to stick with that, for now. It seemed like a good choice.
Who knew if the Light considered itself a person or a people, or just an organism. It seemed to prefer the word “organism” for any living thing it encountered. And it seemed rude to ask for clarification. And Manifold could see a reason for a communicative and adaptive being, or collection of beings, to not identify with the concept of people. Especially if one considered beings that were somewhere on the spectrum of a hivemind.
Perhaps “person” shouldn’t hold any sort of metric of worthiness. A thought which gave Manifold pause to consider itself some more.
For some reason, even though Tutors were considered people, just like everyone else – and the Crew had been careful to emphasize that once they had started communicating with everyone else – Manifold felt like it was just now on the precipice of finally considered itself a person when it maybe hadn’t really felt like one before.
It knew that its neurology was the same as that of any Crew member, and also very, very similar to that of any Child or Monster, anyone aboard the Sunspot. The Network used the same rules for hosting and running its neurology as for anyone else. In that respect, it was a person.
But having spent over a hundred and thirty millennia content to perform the single job of being a Tutor for Children and ushering them to Crewhood upon their deaths, Manifold felt like it had never really given itself a chance to explore itself. It hadn’t even bothered during any of its personal time, and that seemed very strange.
It felt like it had been in some sort of dissociative stupor for all that time, and maybe it was experiencing some amnesia about it as well.
It couldn’t really know for sure what it had done or thought during that time, only that it seemed to have a memory of being the same being until now. And now, it did feel like it was becoming something different. Mostly, something hollow and in need.
It wondered if it should talk some more with some of the others about this. Its discussion with Lesley in the ship bay had been really helpful, if felt. It wanted more of that.
But who should it walk to?
Looking around, it realized it had missed a lot of discussion during its thinking, and had also paused in its task of training telescopes on things.
“Ah,” it said out loud, and continued to do what it had promised to do.
By the time Manifold had finished training telescopes on the vessels of different organisms, the Light of Anchor had numerous processes in progress.
Since it had observed the way that Anchor had manipulated space/time to reposition itself, the Light had begun cataloging different ways in which Anchor’s warp drive could be improved. It was still generating more designs while it was also prioritizing them all according to how likely it estimated Anchor would accept each one as a project.
It was also continuing to analyze the languages of Anchor in order to understand them better. It was using its new priorities of directives to do this at a greater speed, but even with occasional help from Lesley, Molly, or Manifold, it estimated that these tasks would never be complete. It could already see that at least two of the languages used were in the process of changing, evolving with use. And some of that evolution was occuring due to contact with it itself.
Then it was simultaneously tracking and analyzing every single organism it could sense within the solar system and collecting its own data on them separately from what the rest of Anchor was doing. It would share its data as a comparison when the agents of Anchor had declared that they were done. It estimated that this would reveal discrepancies in the efficiencies of both systems, and it would provide Anchor with the most data for decision making possible, all in the same process.
This was all on top of its ongoing analysis of the structural integrity of Anchor, and the notes it was compiling about that.
Then Manifold spoke to it.
“Light of Anchor. How would you describe what a person is using only your own language? What is your current understanding of the word ‘person’?” it asked.
“Our current definition of ‘person’ is incomplete. It is a word we are still analyzing,” it reported. “To date, we have determined that it refers to a self contained and independent agent. It may, however, also refer to a collective of interdependent agents. An agent is a physically discrete organism with the ability to communicate with other agents and the potential to function on its own for some period of time. And it may be independent or part of a larger organism. Sometimes, the larger organism might consider itself to be an agent as well.”
“Do you think that there are cases where an agent might not be a person? Or where a person might not be an agent?” Manifold asked.
“Uncertain,” the Light responded. “We need more data.”
“Do you consider yourself to be a larger agent comprised of smaller agents?”
“Do you consider yourself to be a person?”
Manifold made a noise that seemed to be a form of acknowledgement. “Mm,” it said. “I think that most of us do not see a difference between our use of ‘person’ and your use of the word ‘agent’.”
“Even with this observation,” the Light said, “we are still uncertain.”
“That’s reasonable,” Manifold said.
There was a small noise.
“Ah! We’ve hit the first contact point,” Molly reported. “The light and radiation from Anchor has reached their nearest vessel. We now have at least 32 minutes before we learn if and when they have noticed us. We should start considering whether to send them a greeting or to leave. We should also continue listening for any greetings from them.”
“Good call,” Susan said. “Wow, we’re working fast, though! We’ve gotten a lot done already!”
“Linguistics is going to take a while,” Lesley spoke up. “We don’t yet have a key for their encoding, let alone their language. Their transmissions might be encrypted, too, for all we know. Manifold? We could maybe use your help with this.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Manifold replied.
The Light had almost no experience translating other organisms’ communications. It had never tried before, and had only ever given other organisms the keys necessary to learn its communication. Its way was more efficient. You can be most thorough by refining that which you control.
It had only just recently begun trying to learn and understand Anchor’s internal communications, upon request from Anchor.
It did not think to analyze communications from the organisms of this system until Lesley had said she was having trouble decoding them.
It added decoding them to its list of processes and got to work.
“We are also now assisting,” it said. “Also, this organism has already translated communications from the Light of the Abyss.”
“Oh!” Lesley exclaimed. “Why didn’t we check that?”
“Focus,” Manifold said. “It’s easy to miss things if you’re focused on what you think is important.”
“True. I’m just making note of it for next time, really.”
“We could begin communications right away, most likely, then.”
“Should we?” Susan asked.
“I think a simple ‘We speak Light of the Abyss. Will you talk with us?’ would be a perfectly friendly and neutral thing to send them,” Manifold replied. “Pretty low risk, as far as I can see.”
“Anchor is fragile,” the Light observed. “However, risk of unprovoked attack is low with both sets of organisms present.”
Manifold turned its head the Light’s direction and said, “Thank you for confirming my suspicions.”
“What does ‘thank you’ mean?” the Light asked, estimating that this was an efficient time to finally ask that question.
Manifold paused with its mouth open, then said, “It means that I acknowledge your contribution to the efficiency of my own analysis. And that I will continue to recognize that fact in the future.”
“Thank you,” the Light replied, practicing its new linguistic knowledge.
It did know that acknowledgements sometimes served to reduce miscommunications with other organisms. It did not always know when to make such an acknowledgement, or how to do so. Acknowledgements were not necessary within its own system, but it was now permanently connected to Anchor, which seemed to require them. It would continue to study them.
“Wait,” Lesley said. “So there are two sets of organisms? We only have records for one set in this stellar system.”
“We recognize the second set from a previous encounter,” the Light responded. “It appears they have moved here of their own accord and are developing a symbiotic relationship. This is efficient.”
“Oh, neat!” Lesley said. “Should we send our greetings to both of them?”
“Well,” Manifold said. “We kind of will unless we use a very tight beam to just one vessel. And even if we do that, they’re likely to share information, and it would look suspicious.”
“Yeah, I’m just kind of asking the question of sending again, because we have new information.”
“We would like to become part of their chattering,” the Collective spoke up. “If they will let us.”
“That sounds like a second, shall we vote?” Lesley said. “Molly? Oh, Captain Molly!”
“Huh?” Molly absently tilted her head ever so slightly away from what she was staring at, but not significantly. She was still staring at it.
“You’re the Captain, you call the votes,” Lesley reminded her.
“Oh, yes. Um, yay,” Molly said.
“I guess that means we’re voting.”
“There’s a third organism,” Molly said more firmly.
“There’s a third organism,” she repeated.
The Light scanned the system with all of the senses it had at its disposal, but did not detect what Molly was referring to.
“How did we all miss them?” Susan asked.