The walls of the gigantic, circular lift rose up into the ceiling on all sides to leave Lesley and the crew of Anchor standing in the middle of the mall of the Siphons’ outer ring, and the architecture and decor of all of it made Lesley feel like a small child.

Everything was built for beings that were two to three times taller than she was.

She thought of it as “a mall” because it was an enormously wide corridor running through the middle of the ring, with alcoves and rooms of various sorts lining it. Each room had a thin, translucent white wall between it and the corridor, just thin enough to play shadow puppets on it if one was backlit. The alcoves went all the way to the outer wall of the ring, where there were windows. And the whole thing was covered in skylights, so Lesley was able to look up and see the station’s axle, which held the docking bay where Spindrift now was.

Everything was either shiny chrome or white, but it was dimly lit. Many, but not all, of the rooms had lights on, casting faint glows into the corridor.

And the air was full of song!

Soaring whistles and moans were punctuated by rhythms of chirps, worbles, poinks, and clicks. And every type of noise made was able to reach both the higher and lower limits of her natural hearing range. But as they all stood and listened, the thumping that she was occasionally feeling in her chest began to be audible by her ears.

Her nanite terminal was adapting her perception of her senses as she was hit by communication that would normally be just outside of her awareness. It wasn’t that her eardrums could actually pick it up now, just that her brain was interpreting vibrations picked up by her lungs and ribs as noise.

She was pretty sure it wasn’t her suit that was adapting. The Light had designed it and already knew what the nanites were capable of. It wouldn’t duplicate the effort.

Or, maybe it was the suit.

Even though there were numerous voices, it was not a cacophony. The Siphon carefully timed their speech with each other to maintain harmonies and clarity.

And since she understood the language as if it was her first, it sounded to her like a reasonable conversation.

“Welcome, Anchor!” was one of the first things spoken as the lift opened.

A small robot was already scurrying up to their location from down the corridor, and it echoed “Welcome, Anchor!” in Inmararräo, and flashed the same in Light of the Abyss, when it came within earshot. It was little more than a box covered in displays that could slide around on the floor, and it was still moving forward to meet them as it echoed every single following sentence, whether the sentence was addressing them or not.

Lesley found she had to choose which of the three languages to focus on, so she picked Siphon to practice it. She probably wouldn’t be able to speak it, though. She still picked up queues from the other two languages, and was able to compare occasionally. She could probably have pushed herself to parse all three, but really didn’t want to.

Especially after she heard some of the differences in translation.

“The Drill emissary arrived after Anchor and awaits for interception to parlay after Anchor’s visit here. The Drill is eager to trade information with Anchor,” one of the Siphon sang.

“When you are done visiting us, the Drill would be pleased to share stories with you,” the robot said in Inmararräo. And then it flashed in Light, “Will you trade with the Drill after you trade with us?”

Nothing sinister there, but while the others would respond in kind to the other two languages, Lesley wanted to know the original context. There was enough of a difference to worry her.

It might prove useful later.

Molly responded to the robot by flashing “Yes,” and then saying, “We would be pleased to do so!”

Lesley had to check her reactions at Molly’s words. She suddenly felt simultaneously protective and proud of Molly beyond what the immediate situation warranted. And it was strong enough to distract her from the wonders around her. She was in another first contact situation, and a potentially important one, and all she could think of was raising children with the help of a giant space snake!

Oh, she was crushing so hard. But she hadn’t yet spoken to Molly about it.

Just Susan.

And Manifold.


Manifold didn’t need to do much to prep for the visit to the Siphon’s station, so it spent nearly every minute until departure going over the Light’s plans for warp drive revisions with Phage.

Engineering was not one of its Arts so much as a necessary skill it had picked up in order to assist Molly. It had a passion for it in so much as good engineering made their lives better and safer, but it didn’t really see the full craft of it. At least, it didn’t think it did.

Long, long ago, it had really stopped thinking in terms of passions and Arts, anyway.

It had been assigned to be a Tutor, and it had thrown itself fully into the role like there was no other reason for anyone to exist. And that had been within the first hundred years of its life. Which it now remembered only slightly better than any other given year.

Its life since then had been dedicated to learning about whatever its students wanted to learn, and it all became such a blur.

It hadn’t really lived a long life so much as hundreds of long lives.

Maybe it had never consistently been the same person in all that time. But it would need to pour over millennia of ship recordings of its own behavior and reports to have any idea of it.

Truly, right now, it felt like its current life was maybe a year old, if that. But it also knew from experience that it was nothing at all like and infant or toddler.

Neither and infant nor toddler could look at such an array of complex solutions to warp technology and instantly pick out the most viable options.

It was obvious to Manifold nearly at first glance.

It immediately dismissed all methods that required radically restructuring the Bussard spires, let alone the whole ship, while also thinking about how it was its new identity as Molly’s parent that was about a year-ish old.

It then dismissed a slew of improvements that only addressed energy efficiency and nothing else. They could afford a full retrofit of the warp drive itself, altering it while resting in an Oort cloud somewhere, or leisurely refueling in the solar winds closer to a rich star.

It had worked with more than enough caretakers to understand what parenting could mean at any stage of life. The problem was its reflexes. Over a hundred millennia of mindlessly being a Tutor was, well, a forge of fundamentally formative habits to completely understate it.

It felt like its Tutorhood was a Law of Nature at this point. Even though it no longer agreed with the model of creating and assigning a living being to any given task without so much as a discussion about the ordeal with it, it couldn’t figure out how to be any different.

It was literally easier to warp spacetime itself in order to travel at superluminal speeds than it was to conceptualize itself as a species other than Tutor.

Maybe it should actively rewrite itself.

Not the way that life typically did it through self examination, discipline, and simply living through adverse experiences, but use Fenekere commands to literally change the way it functioned.

It remembered that that idea had occasionally crossed its mind throughout its life. Especially since, for most of its existence, the Crew had had the system permissions to do that, but Tutors had not. In times of its own distress, it had daydreamed about something it couldn’t have.

It had happened with the death of almost every Student it’d had. After a while, even those tragedies became routine.

Now it was Crew of Anchor, it had all the permissions.

Would the others view that action as akin to it dying?

They probably would.

How different it would be from what Lesley and Susan were doing with their bodies would really have to do with how extensive the changes were that Manifold chose to make.

Lesley and Susan would accept it. Phage wouldn’t care. The Light would help. The Collective would be curious.

But Molly?

Manifold cared most about Molly.

And it had no idea what kind of changes it might make in itself.

Except maybe to overcome this block of indecision, somehow.

In any case, it had had several in depth conversations with Phage and the Light about the warp drive while preoccupied with itself.

It barely remembered what it had said by the time its children were boarding Spindrift to make the trip to the Siphon’s station.

And, as she strapped herself into her flight chair, Lesley gave it a ping, requesting a private conversation.

It was simply a matter of ancient habit to shift gears and give her its full attention. But that prompted the fleeting question, “Why did it think of Lesley as like another one of its students, but not the Light of Anchor?”

“Can I ask you for some advice?” Lesley asked it.

“Oh course,” Manifold offered before it could finish that last thought.

“It’s about Ktletaccete manners and culture,” she said.

“What interests you about it?” Manifold responded in an automatically amiable tone.

“I want to know what you and Molly might think of something, before I decide how to deal with it,” she replied.

Oh, so it was a personal matter of some sort. It was reasonably impressed with how Lesley was approaching this, “Yes, of course!”

“I’m trying to figure out how to work this,” Lesley said in Inmararräo. “I think I’m making up this word in your language. I hope it makes sense. Do you know what multimating is, or might be? And how is it treated on the Sunspot.”

“I think ‘mating’ might be the wrong root? That’s typically reserved for fauna,” Manifold said. “We don’t have a compound word like that, either. But, may I ask what it means to you?”

“Well,” Lesley explained. “OK, I wasn’t sure about ‘mating’. I mean by ‘mating’ is declaring and maintaining an affectionate partnership. Maybe temporarily or long term. But ‘multi’ meaning doing that with more than one other partner.”

“Oh!” Manifold exclaimed, thinking it understood. “We use ‘bonding’ and ‘partners’ or ‘family’ for such groups. So, ‘multibonding’ might be the word you’re trying to create. And we do have what you would call sex, but since it doesn’t typically produce offspring, it’s purely for recreation or bonding.”

“Yes! OK. Neat!” Lesley fell quiet for a moment. Then she said, using her word inserted into the Inmararräo, “The sex part is something I’m less interested in at the moment. More the partnerships, like for raising children and keeping a household. Family is good.”

“Yes, family is good,” Manifold agreed. “Why are you asking about multibonding?”

“Well. How do relationships work for Ktletaccete?”

“Most of the time? They just grow and diminish naturally as people grow together and apart. If two or more people find they work well together on something, or most things, they tend to find themselves sticking together,” Manifold told her. “We do sort of identify types of relationships, like peers, Student/Tutor, Child/Crew, friends, partners, and family. Family is sort of reserved for particularly strong bonds between any group of people. But it’s also relative to personal perspectives. Someone I might call family might not consider me family, and we must learn to respect that.”

“Oh, wow,” Lesley sent back. “So, but, wait. Do you have any sort of exclusive bonding, like just between two people? Like, a declaration of family that can’t be shared outside that pair?”

Manifold frowned to itself and asked, “Do you mean like the Crew assigned mating done on the Terra Supreme?”

It took a few moments for Lesley to answer that. “Shit,” she said. “Not really, but I think I’m getting it. You take multibonding so much for granted that you don’t have a word for it or its opposition.”

“Am I guessing correctly that multibonding is atypical for humans?”

“In my home country, at least, yeah. We call it ‘polyamory’ and the norm is called ‘monogamy’. I just wanted to know how to say that Susan and I are polyamorous.” Lesley explained. She then added in a much more hesitant tone, “Um, to Molly, specifically.”

The whole conversation suddenly made complete sense to Manifold, and it smiled. “Lesley, I think you and Susan might find that Molly already thinks of you as family.”

Lesley’s silence was warm.

Manifold marveled that two alien species could have such similar expressions and behaviors of happiness, contentment, and embarrassment. Assuming it was reading her right, of course.

It decided it should add, “If you wish to do any sort of activity with a ktleteccete, or start a project, you can just ask if they’re interested. If the answer is ‘no’, it is always OK to ask what they might rather do. I think we can have hopes for things like you seem to be having, and it might hurt to have them dashed. But, for us, life is long and relaxed, and there is always time to work something out or find an alternative.”

“I’m really not used to thinking that way,” Lesley admitted. “Even though that’s the whole dream, isn’t it?”

“And there is time to learn and adapt.”

“I still feel like my life is in peril, somehow.”

“In some ways, I suppose it is,” Manifold considered how best to reassure her. Iit felt that coming from a place of acknowledgment was usually best. “We are about to visit a people we have never interacted with before. We don’t know what surprises they might hold. But they seem safe and hospitable.

“But, with where we’ve parked Anchor, it would be trivial to retreat to it, depending on just what goes wrong. Especially for those of us unlocked by Phage, I think,” it concluded.

“Yeah, that’s the thing,” Lesley said. “I know you, Molly, and Phage have granted me something close to immortality. A longevity I can’t wrap my head around. But, I can’t wrap my head around it! I can’t get my head to accept that it’s real until I experience it.”

“There is always a certain amount of that for someone as young as you are,” Manifold pointed out.

“But, are Sunspot children literally put in mortal peril by their own government from birth? Are there structural systems in place specifically to make life harder or impossible for some people? Are there roaming bands of hateful people who will assault and even kill someone they just don’t like?”

“Those are things that can happen in degrees, and I suspect that even if I answer yes to some or all of them, it will not be to the degree that you’ve experienced.”

“I wouldn’t know, really,” Lesley said more quietly.

“I think you’re saying that you have been living in a constant state that at least feels like peril since you can remember?” Manifold offered.

“More or less, yeah,” Lesley replied.

“Then, I can say that that is very rare on the Sunspot, and I think I get your point,” it concluded.

“Right,” Lesley conceded. “Thank you. So, Susan and I want to have a child, or maybe a couple children. But, I can’t tell if Anchor would be a safe place to raise children. Not right now. Because my brain is telling me we’re still in danger, and everything is new and unknown. And I don’t even know if I’m going to come back from this little trip!”

“Well, both Molly and I would be honored to help make Anchor the best place to raise a human child that we can, I’m sure,” Manifold said. “And, in the meantime, we’ll all be looking out for you. We’ll do everything we can to get you and Susan back home to Anchor safely. I, at least, will make that a priority.”

Although they were communicating on a private channel of thought that could convey more than just tone of voice, but emotions and expressions, Manifold could also see Lesley’s actual face. It looked like she was blinking away tears when she started to say, “Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate you, Manifold. I guess I’m just really asking how do I approach Molly to talk about all this, because, uh…” The muscles of her lower jaw tightened, and she seemed to be fighting a smile as she took in a big shuddering breath. That smile took over her eyes. “I guess, um. I’ve got some stronger feelings about it all than I expected.”

Manifold had actually fielded this sort of question more often than it could count. 

Most children go through adolescence for the first time, and even with the relaxed culture of the Sunspot, even in later adulthood there are situations that make a growing affection or attraction feel like new, unknown territory. And it had seen all sorts of results and outcomes of such pursuits. It had whittled its advice down to a very simple tactic. But each Student needed to hear it in their own way. 

That was the Artistry of Tutoring.

“I take it you’re worried that you will be too worked up to bring the subject up in any sort of reasonable, casual way?” Manifold asked.

“Yes, actually.”

“I assume you’ve also talked to Susan about this?”

Lesley’s eyes got really big, and she sent, “I was going to talk to her next, actually.”

“Of course. Of course,” Manifold reassured her. “She will be the best emotional support for you. I think you’ll be more calm about this after you talk to her. And it would make sense if you both talked to Molly about this together.”

“But, I don’t think Susan has these particular feelings,” Lesley protested.

“Maybe, maybe not, but the practical discussion is your interest in Molly’s help with raising your child and being part of your household, correct?” Manifold pointed out.

“I guess. Yeah. The practical part.”

Manifold sent her the feeling of a reassuring smile, and said, “She’s already part of your household. You all share quarters together. And when you let her in on your plans for having children, and she gives you her support, your expression of appreciation will just come naturally.”

It watched her frame relax considerably as she thought about that and it agreed with her. She said, “I like that. That makes so much sense.”

“And there will be a time to bring that up, too,” Manifold said. “If there isn’t some prompt here, while we’re visiting the Siphon, it will be when you get back and settle back into your quarters. But, if you’d like, I could feed you a gentle reminder. A natural question or observation that could prompt you, when I feel like other distractions are at a minimum. But, talk to Susan first, before arranging something like that with me, OK?”

Lesley smiled and chuckled, “Thank you, Manifold. I’ll do that. I’ll do that right now.”

Manifold’s basic wisdom for how to address emotions for someone that were too strong was simply to find ways to relax. But you can’t tell another person “be calm” and expect them to do so. You have to figure out how to help them find their way to calmness.

But, in all its experience, a state of relaxation and acceptance of the situation was the most reliable way to find a favorable outcome, and also to weather any unfavorable outcomes that might still crop up.

It felt satisfied that it may have pointed Lesley in the right direction.

And then it remembered that this advice could be applied to its own dilemma as well.

If it relaxed and observed itself, it would learn what it was now by just seeing what it did and felt good about in these new circumstances.

It felt childish for having taken so long to come to that conclusion. And then decided to appreciate that feeling of naivety and embarrassment.

Forgetting old wisdom and having to learn it anew was as much of a sign of change as anything else.

And change was welcome.

The Light decided that it didn’t need to visit the Siphon, nor even send an agent with the others. It had work to do on Anchor, and the other agents of Anchor had all the knowledge they needed to interact with the Siphon.

So it stayed fully aboard the starship and began the agreed upon work on the new warp engines. 

This did not involve actually touching any of the ship’s systems yet.

All it needed to do until the others returned was begin constructing the replacement parts and testing them, and there were plenty of resources for that. Half the shipyards were stocked with raw materials, and the rest provided more than enough room to store the new equipment as it was being built.

It briefly noted that Phage chose to visit the Siphon, and the Collective sent four of their agents to ride in the remote Network with Phage and Manifold.

The rest of the Collective chose to remain aboard Anchor to continue cultivating the flora that the rest of Anchor agents had begun spreading around the hallways of the ship. They also continued to make cosmetic changes to the bulkheads that the Light did not understand.

Occasionally the Light would send an agent to observe their work and evaluate it in an attempt to sort its purpose.

It did not comment, since the inefficient use of nanites and energy was negligible. And the Light had enough data, collected over millennia, to know that it itself did not always have a full assessment of the efficiency of any given system.

It should attempt to learn something more from the Collective’s actions before it began advising.

Now that she had left Anchor, Molly realized that she knew precisely where it was at any given moment. Even if her starship wasn’t within eyesight, she could turn her head to face it and track it as everything rotated and revolved around each other.

She found herself doing so as they took the lift from the Siphon’s central docking bay to their largest outer ring. There was nothing to see but lift walls. However, between the movement of the lift, the rotation of the shaft that it was in, and the orbits of the space station and Anchor around the gas giant, there was a steady change in attitude between her and Anchor. And she felt her nose drawn in a gentle but notable arc.

It was really the movement of the lift and its rotation that did the bulk of the delta-Vs, but she could still sense the influence of the much slower orbits. Almost as if she could measure them, and put numbers to them.

In preparation for the shuttle trip in Spindrift, they’d used the warp drive for a tiny jump to park Anchor in the trailing trojan point of the gas giant’s largest moon. Anchor could use its Bussard spires as ion thrusters for attitude adjustment and orbit maintenance, but Legrange points really saved on effort and fuel.

That distance from Anchor to the space station had still been roughly two days of travel in Spindrift.

And during that time, they’d maintained their daily routines of making meals, working on various types of artwork, playing games, planning larger projects, and talking about life. But even though the conversations had been dominated by subjects that Molly was deeply interested in, such as the improvements to the warp drive that they’d decided upon and what to expect from the Siphon, she had found herself tracking the movement of Anchor while only absently listening.

There were a couple moments during the last hours of the trip when either Susan or Lesley had tried to get her attention to talk about something. But, apparently, her delay in responding, even though she was genuinely interested in talking to them about whatever it was, had been just enough to cause the opportunity to pass somehow in the humans’ eyes. Either another subject came up from someone else, or they said, “Oh, nevermind. Now’s not a good time.”

That made her feel a little bad about being preoccupied by Anchor’s position, but she just really couldn’t take her focus off of it unless she was doing something specific, such as cooking or piloting Spindrift.

It wasn’t that she had been worried about Anchor. She was just deeply fascinated by this new sense of hers, and it made her feel so immensely calm and happy to have it and lose herself in it.

Of course, as they’d traveled, orbits continued, and that two day distance from the space station to Anchor had expanded to three and a half days. When they were done visiting the Siphon, it would take longer to return home than to leave it.

But, whether it had remained at two days distance or expanded to four or five, although Anchor happened to be visible through a window when the lift walls had been raised, it was just a speck of light following the moon. It was far enough away that no details could be seen by the naked eye.

The song of the Siphon, which was immediately audible was beautiful but almost muffled to her initially.

It was the almost cacophonic declarations of the translation robot as it approached that snapped her out of it and brought the immediate surroundings back into her world.

Her eyes focused on it just when it said, “When you are done visiting us, the Drill would be pleased to share stories with you,” and then it flashed in Light, “Will you trade with the Drill after you trade with us?”

She immediately drew herself up and flashed back, “Yes!” It was just a matter of sending her first thought to the communication panel on the front of her newly outfitted suit. But then she realized it had spoken her own language first, so she added out loud, “We would be pleased to do so!”

The robot sang her responses back to the Siphon.

She’d been expecting to communicate solely through the Light’s flashes, but now the Siphon seemed to be making it clear that they trusted their translations of Inmararräo. Did that mean they were interested in risking more nuanced conversations? It seemed like just about any language could communicate emotion, opinion, and abstract thought better than the Light’s speech. But that might mean a greater chance of miscommunication.

At least, that’s what Lesley had said.

Now focused, Molly took stock of her surroundings.

The floor was the same white, soft rubbery substance that had been used for the surfaces of the docking bay. It proved excellent for the belly scales of Molly’s environment suit to find traction. But the white surfaces of the walls and ceiling were glossy and appeared to be made of something hard, an enamel or polimer of some sort most likely.

And the shiny metal trim, probably a chrome, didn’t just line the panels of white. Occasionally, such a panel, whether it was nearly as big as Spindrift or as small as Molly’s head, would have a single spiraled tendril of trim reaching into it toward its center. There seemed to be no pattern. Not to which panels had the tendril, nor to which side of the panel it came from. And the trim was flush with the paneling.

The basic architecture was as rectilinear as it could be for the gentle curve of a gigantic ring.

And since they were on the night side of the planet, almost all of the light available came from the large glowing white walls of some of the rooms that lined the main hallway.

Having made personal contact with the habitats of two alien civilizations now, Molly felt perturbed by how familiar this felt. Though, the oversized scale and odd proportions of it all did feel distinctly alien. As did the absence of any visible life, besides the robot.

“Follow the guide. We would like to show you everything we do,” the robot said in Inmararräo, flashing something much more terse in Light. It was at this point that Molly realized that both channels of communication were translations of the same Siphon source, and not complimentary statements.

“That seems like a good place to start,” Molly said, glancing at the rest of her crew.

Everything you do?” Susan had her suit ask in Inmararräo. “I mean, I’d love to see that all. But don’t you have secrets?” Like everyone else, she’d seen and remarked upon just what the Siphon had sent in their welcome files. She was clearly taking this opportunity to probe their motives.

“We find that complete understanding minimizes reason for conflict,” the Siphon responded.

Since they’d started conversing with the robot, the singing throughout the corridor had quieted down a lot. It might not have always been the same voice answering, but whatever conversation had been going on before they’d arrived had stopped and now everyone was focusing on conversing with the visitors.

Susan glanced meaningfully at Molly and sent a private communique to Anchor’s crew over the Network, “We’re hiding big stuff from them, and I don’t think we should share yet. But. Do we believe them? Or is this going to be a problem?”

“I think we should admit we’re holding out, but not say what, and ask if that will be a problem,” Lesley suggested.

“I believe Jedekere would call that wise diplomacy,” Manifold added.

“Vote?” Susan asked.

“If I may,” Phage interjected.

“Go for it,” Susan said.

“Thank you,” Phage replied. “Right now, taking some time to answer is probably OK, and expected. And we should vote on this one thing, yes. But this is also a case where the executive privileges of the Captain and the trust that we put into them comes into play. Sometimes we’ll need to make quick decisions, faster than a vote can handle. Our Captain of the day should take into account past votes and the will of the crew, but take action and speak for us without delay when that is necessary. That is, at least, typical operating procedure on the Sunspot, and what the position of Captain is for, besides directing votes. And, if the Captain doesn’t feel up to it, they can name the next in line, or a volunteer, to take over.”

Molly, Lesley, and Susan were just standing there looking at each other while this conversation was happening, a nonverbal way of communicating to the Siphon that they were making an internal decision. They at least hoped that’s the message they sent. The Siphon had at least fallen silent while they convened. And the robot hadn’t started moving yet.

“Who is acting Captain today?” Susan asked. “Wouldn’t it be Manifold?”

“Well, it would have been the Collective, but they passed it to me as next up, and I now abdicate the position to Molly, since she has a physical presence,” Manifold said.

“OK, so what do you think, Molly?” Susan asked her.

Molly looked at the floor and tried to think about how she felt about this, but even though she felt some trepidation about taking charge this is exactly what she’d set out to do. They were all living according to her original dream right now, and this was her opportunity to set the whole tone and pace of what they did from here on out. And she knew how she wanted it to be. The decision was easier than she expected.

“Is everyone good with me being Captain right now, with all the responsibilities that Phage detailed?” Molly asked. “Treat it as an official vote that’s been seconded.”

Everyone voted, “Aye.”

“Thank you, I’ll try to serve you well,” she responded to the vote. “Now, I believe Manifold seconded Lesley’s suggestion.”

“Essentially, yes,” Manifold said.

“Then let’s vote on that. Shall we admit that we are withholding information, but not tell them what it is, and ask them if they can be OK with that?”

Everyone also voted “Aye,” but Susan was hesitant about it.

“Before I say anything to them,” Molly said, “what is your hesitation, Susan? Maybe I can consider it.”

“Well. I just have a little fear that admitting even that much will cause problems, even if they say it’s OK. And unanimous votes make me feel nervous.”

“But you voted ‘aye’ anyway.”

“Yes. I think I don’t agree with my fears at the moment.”

Molly nodded and then turned to the robot to say, “We’ve all agreed that we should divulge to you that we are keeping secrets that we do not wish to share. And before we proceed, we’d like permission to continue keeping them. Will this cause problems for our relationship?”

A lone voice responded, “This is common. We understand. May we ask if there are conditions under which you would divulge your secrets?”

Privately, Susan shot to the rest of Anchor, “We’re really just buying they’re not hiding anything?”

“Not necessarily,” Molly shot back. Then she said to the Siphon, “Yes.” Glancing at the others, in Network and out, she continued, “we can share them if we learn that they will not scare you. We are wary of judgment and fear. The last people we encountered were not friendly once they learned the full extent of our secrets. They wanted to exploit us, forcefully.”

“We give you our word that we will not attempt to coerce you, and after we have shown you the full extent of who and what we are, you can make a decision then whether that meets your criteria,” the Siphon responded.

“So easy,” Susan commented privately.

“Diplomacy is the art of making the hard seem easy,” Manifold told her.

“Are you being cynical too?” she asked it.

“No,” it replied.

Phage chuckled.

“Please follow our guide,” the Siphon repeated.

“Lead the way,” Molly gestured to it.

The little bot whirled on the floor, apparently considering one of its identical sides to be the front, and started heading toward one of the lighted walls. It stopped in front of the wall, and turned back to face them when they arrived.

The gigantic shadow of a Siphon stepped into view, in front of the light that was apparently being cast upon the translucent wall from the other side, like a shadow puppet. It arranged itself so that its full silhouette was visible, and then remained in position. It did not gesture much at all. And when it spoke, it only lifted its head a little.

“I am the Emissary,” the Siphon sang, to be translated by the bot. “You have been speaking to me. It is my job to welcome newcomers. This is how we interact when we visit each other. You can see my shadow but I cannot see yours. It is an ancient custom that keeps the peace between Siphon, but we do find that some others are offended by it. We prefer not to see other beings in person, especially close to our own personal territory. If you can understand why this must be so, we may continue.”

“We’ve read your files,” Molly replied. “Do I understand it correctly that this is an accommodation for your territorial instincts?”

A few clicks, which turned out to be clapping of its beak, translated to, “Yes.”

Suddenly, it was as if a needle was being shoved into the tissues of Molly’s awareness, to her right and above her way out in space, which, at this point in the station’s rotation, was a position uncomfortably close to Anchor. She let her head snap to look in that direction.

There were opaque bulkheads in the way, unfortunately, but it was also far enough away that whatever was there would appear to be a point of light by the unenhanced eye. She was still able to focus on it and discern all sorts of details about it.

“You caught that faster than I did,” Phage remarked.

There were a collection of about fourteen living entities and their warp drives over there. They’d arrived from somewhere beyond the Kuiper belt of the system, possibly the Oort cloud if Molly hazarded a guess. Two of the lifeforms felt familiar, and if their friends had been stationed further away it would have taken them longer to jump back here.

“Pirates,” Molly hissed out loud.

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