It began in words. So, so many words. Phrases, definitions, half-heard or half-read syllables, Lesley experienced her very self as a sea of language, visually, audially, and even olfactorily. She only became aware of her own dream body with the sensation of black, angular, bubbly memetics surrounding her and pushing against her skin, buoying her mind to a surface she could only vaguely sense above her.
The floatiness was exhilarating, and having lost herself in a matrix of pure meaning had felt like a relief that she wanted to reach for again.
But she also felt the need to make sense of it, so she began to visualize things. A cup. A rose. A blade of grass. A rocket. And a myriad of words attached themselves to each vision, like an absurd animation of pipecleaner antibodies flying toward a miniaturized hero and clinging to them in a bad old movie.
She almost giggled herself awake at the thought of that, but instead decided to dive deeper into the dream, wrapping herself around each vision, realizing that she herself consisted of words.
The miniaturized hero became just another in a long line of newly and multiply categorized things.
And with every thing she engulfed, she felt profound resolution. Each one a knot in her heart that untangled itself and disappeared.
So she kept this up, continuing the blessed routine seemingly forever. A never ending kind of existence that gave her all the meaning she ever really needed.
But, then, in the middle of this ocean of comprehension, there grew a vacuum.
At the end of a tube.
Sucking up all the words and taking them to somewhere. Somewhere else.
And she couldn’t have that, so she threw herself at it, to try and dismantle it with raw analysis.
She tried to wrap it with her stringy fuzziness and stop it up with semantics, but instead found herself suddenly in the tube and falling feet first faster and faster upward. Sliding through the smooth black plastic straw.
Until she found herself adrift in deep space, a sun glaring at her from one direction, and rrerru was ‘ankor wihäorirr akt. Fwiroawrooooooooo crrkt blong blong blong chareetle flash flkt.
She was lying on her back, realizing that the ceiling was completely undecorated, and she was very much awake.
She felt complete. Her muscles were like water. Happy. And her skin sang with the sheets that cradled her.
She smelled something that very closely resembled bacon cooking. But it was faint through the door of the bedroom, and when she breathed in her lungs felt clean with the mostly filtered air. She could feel the oxygen flooding her body.
And, yes, she could feel the rotation of Anchor’s habitat cylinder, dragging her along with it, and it didn’t bother her. It felt orderly and right.
She was alone in the room, and figured that Susan was cooking again. Susan, whose ability to eat food was extremely restricted by her highly sensitive palate and a keen sensory processing disorder, was very likely cooking something only Lesley could eat, between the two of them, by the smell of it. Aside from the bacony scent, there was something very akin to onion as well, and Susan could not do onions.
Lesley knew that she would never again get to eat actual bacon or actual onions, and she imagined that realization plagued Susan deeply regarding her usual safe foods, but that didn’t stop her stomach growling over the aromas, or her mouth from literally watering.
She let herself groan in anticipation of the food and the enjoyment of moving as she pulled herself from bed and moved to their dresser for her clothes. And with her movement, the lights of the room slowly began to brighten, just a touch faster than the light brought by sunrise.
She chose maroon leggings and a light moss green sleeveless, scooped neck tunic. She smiled at the idea that if she lay on her back with her feet in the air, she’d be almost perfectly camouflaged in the Garden of Anchor.
She’d designed gaudy, gold velvet brocade slippers for herself a couple weeks ago, using a maker. They were her favorite now, and she settled her feet into their silky softness, and moved toward the door to open it.
It slid into the wall, a memory material that rolled up into a slot in the doorframe when it opened, so quiet and fluid.
Molly had once explained that the doors could have been made out of nanite clay and instructed to open whichever way any user felt most comfortable. But that she’d decided on the older door designs for her own sense of familiarity.
Molly was seated in her perch at the center table of their common space, and Susan was indeed in the kitchen.
Molly had a set of hanging pots arrayed on the table, with a bin of soil and planters of seedlings. She was transferring the seedlings to the pots and arranging them just so, quietly and intensely focused.
“Good morning, my Love,” Susan purred. “Did you get enough sleep?”
Lesley smiled and moved herself to the table to sit with Molly, “I did. What are you cooking?”
“Something like oniony hashbrowns, something like eggs, and something sort of like bacon,” Susan replied. “And, there’s going to be something chemically identical to coffee soon, too. I’m having the bacon-ish stuff and some toast. We’re working on an orangy juice, but it’s not there yet.”
Lesley knew that everything that Susan was cooking was essentially vegetarian, by their standards. Though, when it came to categorizing reconstituted alien fungus and algae, it was really hard to say that with any certainty. But, the technology Anchor used to help them recreate their favorite foods was so good that Lesley really couldn’t tell the difference. Susan could, though.
“Are you personally testing the fauxnions yourself?” Lesley asked.
“No,” Susan said as she brought over a dish that looked like it could have come right out of a diner back home. “But, cellulose walls are pretty easy to recreate, apparently, so they should have the right crunch, and their chemical composition is nigh identical to white onions, so I figure I don’t need to try them. They seemed to cook right, I think.”
“How did you know to start cooking this when you did?” Lesley said, breathing in the incredible aroma of it. “Your timing is absolutely perfect.”
“I helped with that,” Molly said, working on another seedling. “Phage was right, and I’ve been practicing. I’m a little better at predicting movements, but I hazarded a guess with your sleep cycle and got it right.”
“Wow. Cool,” Lesley said just before pushing some hashbrowns into her mouth and chewing on them. Maybe it was her mood, but they were just perfect. “I had the wildest dream,” she mumbled around her hot food. Then she swallowed before saying, “I think I dreamt I was language itself. Like, the very essence of it.”
“Ooh, I love those kinds of dreams!” Susan exclaimed as she went back to the kitchen. “Did I ever tell you about the time I was a math equation without all the numbers? I was trying to invent a board game before I went to bed, working on a results table that I wanted to have just the right curve to it. And I couldn’t figure it out. So, I went to sleep thinking about it. And in the dream it started out as a set of numbers plugged into some sort of operation against a white background, and as I manipulated it the numbers fell away, replaced by variables, and then they fell away, and so did I, and I was literally just a set of operations. Which then dissolved into pure relationships. And it felt like I’d solved it in my sleep, and it was amazing! But when I woke up, I couldn’t remember a thing about it, and I hadn’t taken any notes!”
“Yeah. So that game’s not happening,” Susan said. “Anyway, watch this.”
Lesley watched, chewing her next bite, letting the juices and grease of the food coat her mouth, while her partner pulled out something that looked like a camping burner and put it on top of one of the heating panels of what they had to call a stove. Susan smirked and waggled her eyebrows, then pulled out an actual moka pot. Which she then unscrewed and placed in pieces on the counter.
“I made this while you were sleeping,” Susan said. And she’d clearly hidden the components under the counter just for this demonstration.
A clear canister of what looked exactly like coffee grounds was pulled out from below next, along with a tablespoon sized scoop.
“I’m gonna try steamed milk-ishness tomorrow,” Susan said. “So, this is going to be undoctored.”
“Oh, you know I’ll take it black,” Lesley said, letting her fork rest on her plate. “Jus – just, do continue, please.”
“Mm,” Susan grunted. “You know, Phage says we should soon be able to do things like keep our food warm on our plates just by thinking about it.”
“I’m pretty sure I could do that right now for you, but I’m focusing on your coffee,” Susan intimated.
“So am I,” Lesley said, leaning forward a little bit.
And eventually the coffee was made, with Lesley watching every step of it carefully, drinking in the familiar sights of the process while absently chewing on the bacan’t. Well, OK, it was bacon. There was no reason to not call it bacon, besides the fact it didn’t come from an actual pig.
It turned out that the burner didn’t need to be connected to any sort of gas source. It somehow turned the heat from the stove into plasma through some kind of element that was already in it. Or, maybe Susan was just making it happen. Lesley didn’t look that closely. It didn’t really matter to her that much. The familiarity was much more important.
And the quarters just became filled with the scent of coffee.
“I think I like that smell,” Molly said.
“The taste might take some getting used to,” Susan said. “And it is a stimulant for us, so I don’t know how your body would react to it. But I’ll make you a cup if you like.”
Susan delivered a mug that they’d both designed together some days ago. It looked exactly like one you’d expect in a diner. Well, as best as they could both remember it, which was good enough. A small, speckled ceramic piece, with a thin orange pinstripe around the inside of the lip, and the handle just barely big enough to slip your index finger through it. The dark substance that the mug carried had a gorgeous crema.
“I think – I think – I think -” Lesley softly stammered, “I might just survive this.”
“You really look more well rested than I’ve seen you in a while,” Susan said.
“I think I might be.”
Susan went back to the kitchen to munch on her toast and work on Molly’s coffee, and said, “So, we should probably catch you up on where we are with the Siphon and the Drill.”
“Oh, yeah, please,” Lesley said.
“We did move a bit closer, and we’ve been exchanging language files,” Susan reported. “Which means that you have more material to absorb if you’d like. But you don’t have to. It seems like communicating via the Light’s language is pretty comfortable to everyone involved, as terse as it is. It strips away all pretext and subtext and just focuses on describing facts and intentions in terms of material effect, right?”
“Well, that works out pretty well for diplomacy, it seems! At least, with these people. Still, you should hear the Siphon’s mode of speech. It’s pretty amazing.”
“What are they like? Do we have pictures?”
“Yes! We traded visuals!” Susan exclaimed. “Do you want to see what they look like now? Or wait until you meet one in person?”
“In person?” Lesley paused in chewing her last piece of bacon, eyes wide.
“Yes, we’ve been invited aboard.”
“Maybe I should see what one of them looks like now so that I don’t freak out when the airlock door opens.”
“Okidoke!” And Susan pulled up a Network projection of a life sized Siphon to stand near the doorway of their quarters. The figure had to crouch to fit in the space, and even then it nearly didn’t. “Probably should have pulled that up out in the corridor or Garden. But you can do that later.”
Lesley estimated it would have been nearly four meters tall fully erect. Its head was the size of her entire body, legs, head and all, and half of its skull was taken up by what looked like a beak. The eyes were large and looked like they were all pupil. Nothing about its face looked expressive. There was a barrel chested, conical body that ended in a short, upturned tail. It had a reasonably long and flexible looking neck. And it stood on two stubby hind legs and two long, spindly forelegs. All four limbs had strange joins and ended in something akin to hands. And it was covered in brown and tan striped hide that looked soft and suede-like despite having no fur, hair, feathers, or scales of any sort.
“It looks like it could swallow one of us whole!” Lesley gulped.
“Well, they tell us that they don’t eat people,” Susan replied. “Anyway, here’s what they sound like when saying ‘hello’.”
It sounded almost exactly like whalesong. Or, Lesley’s memory of whalesong. It was likely semantically different, but the same basic paradigm of linguistic noise.
“I think that was part of my dream,” Lesley said, staring at the visage of the creature.
“Yeah. Play it again.”
“Greetings,” said the Siphon.
“Play,” Lesley took this sentence slowly to make sure the right language was coming out of her mouth, “a longer clip if you have one. Don’t tell me what it means.”
“Sure,” Susan said.
And then the Siphon said, “We harvest gas giants for their elements and energy and trade for raw building materials. The Drill give us metals in exchange for fuel.”
Lesley pointed, “Do you know what that means, yet?”
“No, I haven’t checked the translator’s files for it,” Susan replied.
Lesley told her what she’d heard, and suggested Susan check it against the translator.
When Molly heard the translations herself, she tilted her head at Lesley and asked, “How did you do that?”
“I think I just can,” Lesley said.
“So, like you maybe picked up the language file transmissions and translator’s work and absorbed them while you dreamt?” Susan asked.
“Yeah, maybe,” Lesley replied. “How long was I asleep, anyway?”
“About fourteen hours,” Susan replied.
“Yeah, we all got some sleep in, too.”
“So, when are we going to visit them?” Lesley asked.
“We’re already approaching orbit,” Molly said. “We’ll go over in Spindrift when we get there, but it’s going to be a few days, yet, unless we jump again.”
Lesley shrugged and said, “OK. What do the Drill look like?”
“Well, you know their spacecraft?”
“That’s them. They are literally a people of self replicating spacecraft,” Molly explained. “We don’t know if they’re more akin to the Crew or the Tutors of the Sunspot, once organic or never organic, but that doesn’t seem important.”
“Oh, wow. What does their language sound like?”
“Rat squeaking, actually,” Susan said. “Wanna see if you can understand it, too?”
It turned out it sounded a lot like rat squeaking, if more complex, and she did understand it.
“And have we learned anything about the space pirates?” Lesley asked.
“Nope. Just that they’ve been a problem lately.”
“Yeah,” Susan said. “I want to pursue them and have a talk. Maybe get their side of the story. But it seems dangerous.”
“Is it our business?” Molly asked.
“No. Not really. But if we’re going to start inserting ourselves into an interstellar society, maybe we should learn about who all is in it, in person if we can,” Susan replied.
They spent the rest of breakfast eating and talking about lighter things.
Molly was preparing the hanging pots to put up around their quarters, with any number of them in Susan and Lesley’s room if they wanted them. She also talked about lining the hallways of Anchor with plants of various sorts.
Susan suggested painting some murals, too, and Molly said that that had been a great tradition on the Sunspot that she missed.
When Susan asked about what kind of art the Collective do, Lesley was able to describe their sculpture, architecture, horticulture, and pottery. So it was suggested that they might like to make the plant pots and maybe even tend to them.
“They’re the ones that prompted me to start doing this,” Molly said, gesturing at her seedlings.
And then they spent the rest of the day actually pursuing those goals, having planters and soil made, working with the Collective to design said planters, harvesting seeds, and all the other tasks involved in starting the project.
As big as Anchor was, it was a thing that could take weeks if they didn’t use nanites and other ship systems and aids to help. Or they could automate it all and walk away as it happened without them. They chose a mix, doing some things by hand, and others by machine, as they felt like it, and talked about many things while doing so.
“Where’s Manifold and Phage,” Lesley asked eventually.
“Oh, they’re talking warp drives and history with the Light,” Susan said. “I almost joined them, but I wanted to make you breakfast, and then we got into this. I can do the warp drive stuff later. That’s a bigger project than this is, after all.”
And Lesley felt like if this was what her life was going to be like from now on, she could seriously live with it.
And the next few days were indeed more of the same. Though they mixed up their work with painting murals, or just going for walks to enjoy what they’d done, or to see what the Collective was doing in the corridors they hadn’t been to yet.
The cuttlecrabs were extremely productive.
When Lesley asked where they got all the supplies for these projects, Molly said that they’d stocked up on reserves before leaving the Sunspot. But, some day in the future they’d want to either do some mining themselves, or trade with someone like the Drill.
“Mining in Anchor is ridiculously easy, though,” Molly said. “The Bussard collector can also be used to corral swarms of nanites, which then do all the work. We just need to find the resources and then pilot the ship near enough to harvest them.”
“So, I suppose that raises the question, though,” Lesley asked. “If there’s something we want to trade for, what would we be willing to give? Would knowledge of technology, like the nanites, be OK?”
Susan gimaced meaningfully.
“I take it that would be a ‘no’ vote,” Lesley said.
“Yeah, I’m against it,” Susan replied. “Unless we’re getting similar knowledge in return, at the very least.”
“Kind of like what the Light is doing for our warp drive?”
“OK, so, the Light of Anchor is only a few days old, and it was only fed information from all the navigational files the Light of the Abyss sent us, right?” Lesley asked Molly.
“So, how does it know about how to improve the warp drive so thoroughly?” she asked.
Susan stuck the tip of her tongue out and made a popping noise against her upper lip with it, and said, “I think it just thought about it for a little while. Though, those files did include heavily detailed records on itself, so it knows how its own warp drive works, at least. But haven’t you let your mind be utterly blown by how incredibly powerful Anchor’s Network is, Lesley?”
“And it’s using the Network to think, because it exists in the Network.”
Then, the last day before docking with the Siphon, they spent some time working on their own environment suits.
Of course, they’d had regular conversations with their hosts this whole time, taking a couple hours each day to trade information about each other and negotiate the visit. And this was a little tense, but it seemed like something the Siphon had done before, and they didn’t propose anything that seemed like red flags to Lesley.
And, during that conversation the discussion of atmospheres and safety came up, and the Siphon requested that they wear environment suits for the duration of the visit. There was no need to worry about contamination of either population that way, as sanitizing the outside of a suit was far easier than doing the same for an organic body. And the suits should be armored, in case they wanted to tour any of the industrial areas.
So, upon that agreement, the Light offered to design the structural aspects of the suits for everyone that needed one. And then Lesley, Susan, and Molly spent the day designing their own aesthetics, sending the designs to the makers, and trying out the suits to make sure they worked.
It was also decided that the Network entities of Anchor would visit by riding in the suits’ extension of the Network. They wouldn’t be bringing any nanite exobodies aboard the Siphons’ station. It just seemed like too much opportunity for shenanigans on either side if they did bring them. And they didn’t even mention the extent of their nanotechnology to the Siphon.
Of course, there’d be the makers full of nanites aboard Spindrift, but those would be held in reserve.
The council agreed unanimously that they should keep that card close to their collective chest.
They also did not mention what Phage was, nor what they’d been learning how to do from it. And for very similar reasons. They felt like the information might make them vulnerable, and refraining from using those abilities as much as possible while visiting was probably in order, too.
Maybe, when they were all more sure of themselves and knew their actual limits and boundaries, they might be more straightforward with strangers.
So, as Lesley was checking her suit out in a Network mirror, and adjusting the purple, pink, and green of it ever so slightly to complement each other as best as possible, she also wondered what kinds of things the Siphon might be hiding from them.
And it was hard to think of any, because the Siphon had been disturbingly forward and frank about introducing themselves. They’d included nearly everything a person might be curious to ask about in their files. Even the biological and social details of their reproduction.
She hadn’t meant to focus on that part, but it had jumped out at her, caught her eye, and then her brain fixated on it.
They had 7,458 viable sexual karyotypes. Morphologically, they had nearly identical reproductive anatomy, but over seven thousand sexes. They didn’t produce eggs or spermatozoa. Instead, they each could secrete a cytoplasmic goo that, when mixed together, would produce something like the Light’s fruiting bodies. Pods on stalks grew from the goo and fed off of it, and within the pods would grow their children. And they’d feed and care for the pods by adding more goo to the base collection. Each collection of goo would be tended to by several adults, so each child might have DNA from multiple adults. More than just two.
Their nurseries and incubation wards were off limits to alien visitors, but still, they described them in detail. Including how they reered their children upon hatching. They were strangely hands off. Leaving learning tools, instructions, and whatnot in the nurseries, but also not personally tending to the children. No physical contact. Very little visual contact.
Affection and support were shown through constant singing and material accommodations including food, gifts, toys, media, and artwork. Simple robots were used to deliver most of the latter.
Singing, apparently, could be heard throughout any of their habitations around the clock. It was their language, and they shouted their conversations for as far as they could be heard.
Despite avoiding the sight of each other, they seemed to have very little concept of privacy otherwise.
Lesley tried to imagine what it would be like growing up as one of them, and felt her heart ache. But she knew that was her human reaction to the vision. Her own needs would not be met by that lifestyle, and she’d experience it as abuse, but these people were not human. It’s very likely that what they did was the result of very different instincts, if they had instincts. And then she in turn wondered how one of them would fare being raised like a child in a human family.
She imagined it would probably end in violence. It seemed like the most likely reason for the Siphon’s extremely hands off approach to child rearing had to do with an intense territorial instinct, like with octopuses. Or something like that. It would probably be too stressful for a Siphon child to be around family members, particularly adults.
But, who really knew? At this late stage of their civilization, where they were an interstellar people, all sorts of social pressures could have brought them to this.
In any case, these were hypothetical scenarios she was imagining that would likely never come to pass. They could figure out a way to make room for Siphon on board Anchor if it ever came to that. It was a big ship. And that room would include the ability to raise children the way they needed to be raised.
Now, raising her own child on Anchor. That was a hopeful inevitability. And how would that be?
Here, she had so many conflicting feelings, it was hard to think.
She knew she wanted to get pregnant and bear a child. That was imperative.
Philosophically, she was against just bringing a child into the universe simply due to biological drive and emotions. But even if it was just those things pushing her to do so, they were so strong she couldn’t ignore them.
Most of her life, she hadn’t actually given it much thought, because she’d been told it wasn’t her lot.
She just had felt the intense injustice of being left out. Most of the time. She’d apparently been dissociating from the worst of her dysphoria.
At fourteen, though, she’d had a dream that she’d somehow gotten a sex change surgery that was so good she’d also gotten pregnant over the summer. She knew that was impossible, but she felt so happy and at peace during the dream, she never forgot it.
Then, shortly after her surgery, much later, she started feeling an aching hollowness where her uterus should be. And that occasionally got bad enough it led to panic attacks and suicidal episodes.
And Susan had helped her through those by sharing her own despair about not being able to get Lesley pregnant. And it had helped. Just barely, but enough to get her here.
So, in the last several years she had been thinking about it.
They’d both looked into adoption. But they’d run into a few big snags there.
Very few adoption agencies would adopt out to a mix raced queer couple. And those that did were too expensive for them.
But also, the more they had looked into it, the more they had realized that the whole adoption industry in their country was geared toward getting babies from marginalized families into the hands of the “moral majority.” It was pure colonialism, through and through.
They gave up on that route, and focused on queer family. Perhaps they could be aunts to a partner’s child. Living in a polycule increased the chances of that.
And, already, here on Anchor, despite leaving their queer family behind forever, they were part of a new family, and with children! Strange, strange hypercognitive, inhuman children. But, still, children.
That did help the dysphoria some. But her biological drive to get pregnant was still strong. Especially now that her dream was actually in reach.
And when she thought about it, all the feelings and emotions that churned in that void in her belly, it felt like it was all made more intense by being the only one of a breeding pair of humans in a fifty light years radius.
But also, being queer, trans, and autistic, among other sources of cultural and childhood trauma, she really wanted to see what a human could be when raised from birth outside of the brutally toxic environments of her home planet’s cultures.
Could she and Susan overcome their own upbringing enough to do that?
She just then realized she felt like they had an even better chance of doing so with Molly’s help.
There was something about Molly’s demeanor and the assumptions she made, the social things she took for granted, that made Lesley want her help. In everything, but especially raising a child.
That was a feeling that made her sit right down on the floor and stare at her reflection for a long time, completely forgetting that she was still logged into the Network.
She felt giddy. Floaty. Extra aware of her skin and the oxygen fizzing through her blood to it. Her fingers tingled, and a smile pushed itself to her face.
Manifold was also good parent material, it seemed. Stable, reliable, considerate, and very skilled at teaching.
But thinking about Molly being a co-parent made her feel this way in particular.
And she had the sense that Molly would be grateful and fulfilled in some way to be included.
And that just made Lesley even happier.