Susan had the side of her face pressed into the back of Lesley’s right shoulder, eyes clenched shut, arms wrapped around as much of her family as she could, and Molly’s tail lying between her feet, when she heard a soft click behind her.
“Down on the ground! Now!” a voice shouted in her ear, and she flinched.
But while she felt startled, she didn’t feel afraid. There might be physical violence. She had a vision of being smacked hard on the back of the head with a rifle butt. But even that didn’t scare her. The emotion just wasn’t available, and she was a little confused by that.
She felt everyone’s muscles tense, but nobody moved to do anything.
Then she heard Berg’s voice respond loud and clear, “Put your guns away. They will be useless to you here.”
A chorus of clicks and soft cussing from all around them followed that.
And Phage said, “Fascinating.”
Which was followed by someone shouting, “Shit!” and the strange sound of metal making quick contact with nanite ooze.
Susan opened her eyes to see a woman in black heavy combat gear turn to aim her rifle at the garage, where Susan last remembered seeing Phage. And behind her, the van’s suspension creaked and a man shouted.
She dropped her arms and turned around to see Manifold holding a soldier up in the air by the front of his vest, while reaching out to grab another man who was desperately trying to shoot it with an already jammed gun. Two more soldiers were charging Manifold with their rifle butts ready to use as cudgels. A couple of military grade trucks blocked the van’s exit, and people were pouring out of them.
And looking at this, her confusion bloomed. The military had to have known that their guns wouldn’t work. But, on the other hand, there were so many of them, and they’d effectively barricaded any escape. Were they planning on just burying her family under a pile of violent bodies? Yet they also had to know that the nanite swarms that Manifold and Phage controlled were monstrously dangerous and could not be contained.
“There’s going to be another EMP!” she heard her voice shouting.
“No there isn’t,” Berg said.
She whirled to see her family disengaged from their hug, facing their foes and looking as confused as she was, with Molly ducking in the middle of them. But Berg was standing where they’d been during the hug, facing her and looking at her with a firm expression.
Berg inclined their head at her and said, “This is a demonstration. Remember it. Take it with you. Let it keep you warm.”
Wind and Tallis span to look at Berg in alarm, and they were just as taken aback by the expression on their face as Susan was. Lesley glanced over her shoulder then, too.
“Get in the van, Susan, my love. Lesley, dearest, go. Keep Molly safe,” Berg continued. They turned to look behind them. “Phage! Clear the people! Manifold! Move the trucks!”
Soldiers were shouting and hitting pavement with their torsos, shoulders, elbows, and knees all around, guns clattering almost comically. Phage moved phenomenally fast, and sometimes appeared to be in more than one place at a time, and maybe was. But people were also mistepping and colliding with each other all on their own. And Susan caught a glimpse of a soldier’s boot falling apart at the seams.
Of course! Phage would cause critical things to fail, even boots.
She dove for the back doors of the van and opened the left one while Lesley got the right, and they made eye contact with each other.
“Molly,” Susan could hear Berg saying in the midst of the violence. “We are sorry that we could not greet you under better circumstances. This planet is not safe for you. If you are still alive and nearby when it is, we will contact you. But do not wait around for it. And leave quickly. We are holding the others at bay as best as we can. Go!”
Susan pushed Lesley towards the driver’s seat and turned to help a wild eyed Molly into the van. Not that the snake needed any assistance with her balance or taking a step, but it felt like the right thing to do, and Molly seemed reassured by the hand.
She looked up, feeling her body begin to shake, and a weird, indescribable feeling taking over, to see Berg standing between Tallis and Wind, smiling sadly after her.
Their attackers were either unsuccessfully trying to get up off the ground, apparently dizzy beyond function, or just choosing to lie in place, and Phage had moved toward the front of the van already.
A rocket flew high overhead and just kept going out over the nearby bay, its engine petering out quickly. That would have been the EMP.
She craned her head out of the van and looked left, Westward, and saw in the clear sky, way off in the distance, the vapor trail of something that had entered the atmosphere.
“Lesley!” She shouted back into the van. “It’s time to go!”
Then she nodded at Berg, who nodded back and put their hands on Tallis and Wind’s shoulders as they turned to watch her close the van’s doors. She smiled back, and pulled the doors shut with all her weight.
The van had no seats in the back. They’d removed the one set that had been there, to make room for the two nanite bodies and the space snake. Molly was already curled up to one side, holding onto a couple of passenger handles with her hands.
“I think we’ve got my family’s blessings,” Susan tried to say as she passed by Molly, but it came out an utter mess of gibberish and sobs. So she sent that via the Network to everyone in it.
The van’s engine sputtered to a roar as she turned and collapsed into the passenger seat and reached for the seatbelt.
She looked out the windsield to see Phage dragging incapacitated people out of the way of the van, while Manifold tackled the problem of the trucks.
In the distance she heard the sound of VTOLs and the unmistakable thumps of mechs marching on pavement. They’d have to move soon.
Manifold decided to take the method of least resistance with the trucks, and went about moving one of them sideways, away from their driveway. It shrank its body in size while it extended a slick of nanite ooze out under the truck’s wheels to act as lubricant, then it started pushing.
And when Phage was done moving people, it joined Manifold, undoubtedly adding its control of physics to the job.
The two of them ended up pushing the truck into a neighbor’s car and both of the vehicles up onto the sidewalk on the other side of the road. Enough room for Lesley to pull the van out onto the road to the right, which she then did and stopped to let Manifold and Phage jump onto the back bumper of the van.
When the rear of the van dropped under the weight of Molly’s elders, Lesley hit the gas and they were off.
“Too bad this isn’t a moving rental,” Susan said in a daze.
Lesley bent over the wheel, sputtering with laughter. “Please!” she protested. “I’m driving!”
Molly watched Manifold and Phage slowly ooze through the corroded seals of the back door of the van and reconstitute themselves on the inside. They were only halfway in when Lesley took a sharp turn to the left, but that didn’t seem to sway them or slow their progress.
“Sorry!” Lesley said. “Trying to avoid being cut off by the mechs!”
“We’re going to need to ground those VTOLs, or they might engage our spaceship!” Susan broadcasted.
“I will ask for permission to do that,” Phage replied.
“How?!” Susan shot back.
“Focus on driving and navigating. I’ll explain later,” Phage said. “But I think you’re already guessing correctly. Anyway, the ship has some added tricks now.”
“I’m beginning to think that technology isn’t the measure of a people’s ability,” Manifold said.
“It really isn’t,” Phage agreed. “But it can provide an edge. It is not nothing.”
“Nothing is ever as clear cut and simple as any amount of words,” Phage said. “Even entire stories fall short.”
“I can see that is true just trying to remember my own life,” Manifold replied.
“Is that something you do very often?” Phage asked.
“No, but I probably should,” Manifold said.
“You are very strange for a localized manifestation of entropy,” Manifold observed.
Phage just laughed once and gave it an incredulous look.
This banter was doing a lot to help Molly relax and focus her thoughts. She wondered if Phage was facilitating it with Manifold just for that sort of purpose. And Phage winked at her.
Manifold looked over at her and asked, “How are you doing? Will you be able to fly?”
Molly looked inward and examined her physical and mental state and reported, “I am ready. Especially once I get in the seat. I miss it.”
Then Phage asked, “What’s it like?”
She looked confused at it and asked back, “You’re flying it right now, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Phage said. “But that is a different me, and I also think it’s different for you. I shrink myself down to fit into things like the landing craft. You expand yourself to fly it.”
“I find it hard to describe,” Molly admitted. But she really tried to find the words for it. “When I am flying the landing craft, I allow myself to become the ship, and my mind grows to understand it. I can sense every sensor, feel every fluctuation, and I can see all directions at once. I no longer feel my body, except as a tiny extension of the whole vessel. And sliding through the air in it is just like sliding through the grass when I’m on the ground. It’s intuitive and… and… really, it is glorious. It is better than any dream I’ve had, and yet, like a dream, when I disconnect I forget most of it.”
“Would being able to remember make it better?” Phage asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Molly said, trying to imagine that. “I think it would make me yearn to get back in the pilot seat even more. And I don’t need to be a ship my whole life.”
Susan leaned over to turn and look back at them and said, “Can I ask a weird and kind of embarrassing-to-me question?”
“Of me?” Molly asked.
“Whoever can answer.”
Molly looked at Phage and Manifold, and they both shrugged and nodded.
“Can your medicine…” Susan started, then scrunched up her face to think of better words. “How much can it change a person’s body? Like, how different could one of us look or, well, function, theoretically?”
“Do you want to answer this, Molly, or should I?” Manifold asked her. It had never done that before. It usually just answered.
Molly was feeling better about listening than talking right then, though, so she nodded to it.
“By the time we left the Sunspot, no one had really pushed it to its limits yet,” Manifold said. “Of course, we can perform significant surgeries and alter someone’s form or function rather quickly that way, but those are mostly cosmetic in nature to begin with, removing tissue, reconfiguring it, or adding newly grown tissue and organs using stem cells. And, of course, we know more about our own bodies and how they work than, say, yours. We could certainly help you heal if you get seriously hurt, but there would be more risk. However, the Nanite Innovation really expanded what we’re capable of doing, but those techniques also take much longer. Sometimes decades. Why do you ask?”
“Well,” Susan said, looking around and checking out the windshield to see where Lesley was going.
It seemed to Molly like she wasn’t actually going to answer. Susan’s eyes darted around and rested on different sights as if she was thinking about anything but what she was asked to say. But then she gave a little shrug as she was looking off into the sky at what might have been the landing craft and spoke up.
“I’d really like to be able to get Lesley pregnant some day,” she said to the sky.
“Susan!” Lesley exclaimed. “I am driving!”
Phage had been astute and observant enough to pick a day and a time during which the traffic of the city would be at its lightest, and the park that Lesley and Susan had picked for a landing place would be least likely to have many people in it.
They did have to weave through some traffic. And law enforcement did try to chase them a couple of times. However, Lesley was good enough at driving to avoid crashing, and Phage was allowed by its hosts on the planet to cause the law enforcement vehicle’s engines to stall.
It is entirely possible that someone was looking out ahead of them, as the park was actually quite empty when they arrived. Not even a single person walking a dog. Phage could not have arranged that.
The VTOLs had long turned back due to engine troubles, and the light riot control mechs had also stalled. Both of which were Phage’s handywork, performed with permission.
It was very happy about its timing of everything. They’d only been delayed by minutes, so the landing craft was in the midst of opening its gangway when they arrived at the park.
“Molly,” it said. “When you get aboard, take off as soon as you possibly can. Skip the airlock cycle. Override it. Risk danger to your passengers, let me and Manifold take care of them. And keep activating the chaff as you ascend, repeatedly and liberally.”
“You’ll know what it is when you connect. Let’s go!”
Lesley pulled up right next to the ship, but the run from the van to the vessel was still harrowing. Whatever had been dampening Susan’s adrenal glands earlier was now not working, and she felt exposed and in danger with every step.
Molly had been exiting the van’s side door before Lesley had brought it to a complete stop, so she was able to slither up the gangway first, where she took a sharp right and disappeared into the interior of the ship.
Manifold and Phage waited to take up the rear.
“You have harnesses in the cockpit,” Manifold instructed over the Network as they ran. “But let us help you to get there when we get to the living quarters. Molly is going to be taking off immediately.”
Lesley grabbed Susan’s hand and led the way up the gangway.
The whole ship looked like a larger Spindrift. There were some subtle differences, but it was as if it had simply been scaled up in a 3D rendering program. Even the hatch was larger. The inside was more spacious too, but otherwise it had been colored and decorated the same way as when she and Lesley had first entered the original.
“I’m really proud of my work on this,” Phage said. “It would have been nice to bring along more people, but I now see that couldn’t happen.”
Susan was too busy hurrying to respond to it, even over the Network, but she really needed to ask it some questions now.
The airlock was open all the way through to the interior, completely failing its intended purpose, and the gangway started lifting even as Manifold was stepping onto the far end of it.
When they got past the toilet, the floor of the ship began to tilt upward, and Susan felt Phage embrace her in its nanite exobody and carry her forward into the ever increasing up. She was not held in arms, but an amorphous blob that could have served as a launch couch all on its own.
“I’ve got you,” it said.
In the cockpit, Molly was still climbing into the pilot seat even as she was directing the ship to ascend.
Susan wondered if the gangway hatch was even closed yet.
And by the time that Phage was lowering her into her harness, the ship was fully vertical and gaining acceleration, adding Gs to what she already felt from her planet’s natural pull.
There were repeated thumping noises, popping off in a rhythm, almost like the ship had a heart beat. Only sometimes they syncopated.
Before she could ask about them, Phage said, “There’s an airbase very nearby, and they’ve dispatched fighters. Molly is dispensing with a considerable amount of chaff to misdirect their missiles.”
“Oh,” Susan said just before she lost consciousness from the forces.
She knew what was happening to her body, even as she detached from it from the discomfort. But she still didn’t quite register what had happened.
It was like a soft fade in a movie. And as the darkness started lifting, she found herself talking to Berg, Tallis, and Wind. And at first she couldn’t make sense of what they were saying to each other, just the overall emotions of it. She felt a strange mix of sadness and pride coming from them, and she somehow felt also that they weren’t exactly her family. Not her immediate family, but someone far, far older.
“We can’t come with you,” Tallis said, more clearly.
“Not like the one who carries you now,” said Berg. “You are now in its system.”
“But we are entangled,” said Wind. “And you can always come home when it is time.”
And then it was like a great weight was being lifted off of her chest, and her mind expanded and opened and her eyes opened with it.
She looked over and saw Lesley smiling at her with tears lifting out of her slowly blinking eyes.
And Lesley mouthed the words, “I love you.”
They were in freefall.
Once they were in a stable orbit, Molly felt like asking everyone else how they’d rather get back to Anchor. They were free. They had no deadline. They could take their time. They could use a minimal amount of fuel and thrust to alter their solar orbit and arrive there in roughly 190 days. On the other hand, she herself was eager to be back in her own home.
The sooner she could start reconfiguring things for Susan and Lesley’s comfort, the happier she would be. And she felt like this landing craft, as spacious as it was, was inadequate.
But they were crew now. It was as much their choice as hers. Manifold and Phage, too.
So she declared their first council meeting and put the option up for a vote.
Phage abstained, but offered to pilot should they choose the quick route of constantly adjusted thrust.
And Manifold said that it would cast its vote with the majority of the three remaining council members.
Susan looked to Lesley without saying anything, and Lesley smiled.
“I want to get back to our camping trip,” she said. “We can finish it aboard Anchor, in its Garden, and I don’t mind waiting ten or so days to get around to it. But nearly a year? No. Let’s take the express route.”
Susan turned to Molly and said, “I vote with her, Captain.”
Molly smiled and said, “then it’s as good as unanimous.” Then she got serious again and asked, “What should we name this vessel? Phage gets first suggestion, since it made it for us, but it belongs to all of us. What do you think?”
“I’m not good at names,” Phage said. “But I felt that I was doing my best to resurrect your old landing craft. I believe it was called Spindrift?”
“I really liked that name,” Lesley said.
“I don’t know,” Susan said. “Do you think it’s unlucky now that the original was shot down?”
Molly felt the sting of that memory, but this ship really did feel like it had the same spirit to her, and she said, “That was my error. I lingered and hesitated and that gave them time to aim and fire. And I felt like Spindrift never got a chance to really prove itself. I am comfortable allowing it to continue to live through this vessel, if everyone else is.”
“I second that motion,” Manifold said.
“Then we now put it up for vote,” Molly said. “Shall we call this vessel Spindrift?”
The ayes were fully unanimous.
And with that, Phage returned its nanites to one of the bins, and went about setting course. The rest of them started to arrange the living quarters for ten days worth of deeply emotional travel.
The flight back to Anchor was relaxed, hopeful, and melancholy.
It started out mostly silent, as Susan and Lesley seemed to be lost in their own thoughts, or communicating privately over the Network. And nobody else wanted to disturb them. One or the other of them would break out in sobs. Susan had a full blown meltdown at one point, screaming and pounding everything in a small room full of cushions they’d prepared for just such a possibility. But otherwise, they seemed to give each other reasons to smile or even chuckle softly.
On the second day, the two of them started talking to the others and asking questions of various sorts.
On the third, they agreed they needed movies and music, and started going through the archives Manifold had collected for them. They were utterly amazed at the breadth and depth of what it had managed to back up from their world’s internet. And they cried at the most bewildering things.
Everyone took turns cooking, and discussing the differences in nutritional needs and safety concerns the humans had from Molly. Despite the flexibility of the makers to create food ingredients of incredible variety, there were still treats and dishes that both Leslie and Susan agreed they’d never be able to have again, and that they’d grieve for along with the rest of their home planet.
Whenever such loss came up, they’d take some time to be silent about it and hold each other, then start talking about what they looked forward to.
This cycle reminded Molly intensely of what she went through when she’d left the Sunspot, but she felt like keeping that to herself. She had the urge to share, strongly. It was her nature. But she felt responsible for doing this to Susan and Lesley, and didn’t think that her own story was appropriate for expressing her respect for that. Instead, she focused on trying to reassure them of their rights and status aboard Spindrift and Anchor.
It was the only way she knew how to do things. The way she’d been brought up. Or the ideal of it, anyway, not that the Sunspot was able to uphold that ideal yet. As far as she was concerned, all five of them were equals.
And though Susan had called her “Captain” earlier because Manifold had explained once that there was usually a Captain for every council meeting, Molly kept repeating the law that the Crew of the Sunspot had decreed. The Captain was meant only to enact the council’s will at times when the council could not convene, and could be deposed and replaced at any time for any reason. The Captain also served as chair of the council for the purposes of orderly procedure. And with a Crew this small, there was almost always a quorum while they were connected via the Network.
And that said, she fully expected the others to serve as Captain an equal amount of time, should they consent to it. They could rotate daily or something.
But for those ten days, the only council meetings they held were to decide just how to decorate a corner of the living quarters. Which, honestly, was always an important decision for the mental health of all of them. Even Phage.
It wasn’t long, though, before Susan asked it, point blank, “What happened?” as if those two words were enough for it to know what she was talking about.
Molly had a pretty solid guess, however, since they’d all been through the same things, and she had a very similar question brewing. Berg had said some pretty strange things to her before she’d entered the van to escape.
“I think,” Phage said. “It seems that there may be something like me present in every system, no matter how big or small. I don’t have much experience yet, so I can’t say for sure. But so far, I’d guess that sometimes it is dormant, or so spread out that it’s not very conscious. Sometimes the system has it under strict control, like you had over me in the forest. And sometimes it’s just like me. And we don’t mix well.”
“What do you mean by ‘system’?” Susan asked.
“I’m not sure,” Phage replied. “But if I had a guess that I could hazard for this conversation, I’d say any collection of lifeforms.”
“So, like our planet?”
“Like your planet, like your country, your city, your family, like this ship. Like you. You are a system, Susan. And there is something like me in you, and since I am not from your system, or any of your systems, I had to respect both its will and yours,” Phage explained. “Which is, I think, as it should be.”
“So, was Berg, like,” Lesley pondered, “possessed by one of your counterparts? Was that why they were talking so strangely before we left?”
“‘Possessed’ may be the wrong word for it,” Phage said. “There had to be a degree of consent there that a word like ‘possession’ doesn’t account for. Your word ‘channeled’ might be closer, but I honestly hate words when it comes down to it.”
“But they said, ‘we’ and ‘the others’, like ‘we are holding off the others’. How does that work?” Susan asked.
“I don’t know,” Phage said. “Somehow, the Sunspot had only me on it for the longest time. And I have no memories from before I arrived there, just the memory of coming through the Tunnel. And even that memory surfaced after someone confessed to having invited me through it. I could guess it has something to do with the age and size of the system of a whole planet.”
“Anyway,” Phage said. “I think there may be a lesson in that. If my experience is correct, if anything like me ever tries to invade this vessel, or Anchor, or one of you, you have the power to stop it. If they’re corporeal, and have a body like you, it’s more complicated. But if they’re just an entity on the wind, a ghost in the Network, your ‘no’ is like a bulkhead to a pumpkin.”
“I don’t know if all that is quite true,” Lesley said. “Maybe the ‘no’ part, but I mean. I dreamt of them during takeoff.”
“Me, too,” Susan said.
Lesley nodded at her, “And they talked to me like I was family, like I was their child. Like their descendent, taking a part of them with me to the stars.”
“Same,” Susan said. “And until they did that, too, I was feeling so guilty that I was betraying them. Betraying the whole planet. And I still kinda feel that way. I think I always will. But I can live with it better now. And I realized something.”
Lesley just nodded and gestured for Susan to go on.
“Lesley and I were just two of nearly 8 billion people, and countless other lifeforms on that world. And that’s not counting the unfathomable numbers of beings that came before us. Or who will live there after,” Susan said. “It’s not that we did anything to deserve to be out here with you, to become part of a new family, to leave our home or to reap the benefits of your medicine, or anything like that.”
Susan looked over at Lesley, who then said, “It’s that they can spare us.”
“And there might be,” Susan said, “as much benefit as loss in sending us abroad, in the long run. Or no measurable effect at all. But we won’t know until it all happens.”
And they all spent some time in silence thinking about that.
“I’ll still feel guilty for not doing everything I could to help those who were worse off than me, though,” Lesley said after some time. “I don’t think I want to feel otherwise.”
“Who knows, though, Lesley” Susan countered. “If somehow Molly’s arrival on our planet awoke that power in our family, or whatever it was, maybe we will have helped people.”
“But it seems… just, or something, that we won’t know until we’ve returned to see, though,” Lesley added. “Even if everyone we know is dead by then because of relativity.”
“Yeah,” agreed Susan, quietly.
It seemed like to Molly they’d had that discussion before, and she guessed they’d have it again, over and over, for quite some time. Possibly with different conclusions each time.
It’s what she did with herself, after all.
So, when they arrived and Phage deftly pulled Spindrift into its shipyard on Anchor, Molly invited everyone to join her on Anchor’s bridge before they disembarked from the landing craft. She thought it would be good to go over the starship’s systems together as a crew. To go about the business of making it their home from the lowest mechanisms to the most complex settings, beginning with the routines of finalizing the docking of Spindrift and checking the status of everything vital.
With their bodies still strapped into their harnesses, Lesley and Susan agreed and came with her, Manifold, and Phage to the bridge of Anchor, to once again stand on the great hydrogen tank at the prow of the ship and behold the stars and planets around them with no atmosphere to distort or obscure the view, sun shining upon them from an angle.
“I’m thinking one of the first things we do, once we’re actually settled in,” Molly said, looking around at the accouterments of her old bedroom, “is redecorate this bridge so that it’s not just mine.”
And that’s when all the stars around them, including the sun itself, folded into each other, turning space into a blinding white field that faded to a faint pink-gold glow from all around. And that glow seemed to have corners.
The habitat cylinder of Anchor still span at a slightly less than stately pace. All of the systems reported nothing wrong with them, only that they were no longer in the gravitational grip of the sol-terra Lagrange point 4, or any measurable gravitational field at all.
It felt like they were inside something.
“I have never seen this before,” said Phage.
… to be continued right here with Molly Rocketcoil and the Light of the Abyss!