Spindrift

of the Adventures of Molly Rocketcoil

The phrase “wonder fatigue” formed itself in Susan’s mind, and she made a note to check the internet for it when she got back home. If no one had coined it yet, she’d make a post about it.

Her eyes were closed.

Her head, and the rest of her pajama clad body, was resting in what felt like moss and grass. It had been green when she’d looked at it.

She could feel the tiny world she was in spinning. Really feel it spinning. It wasn’t dissociative vertigo. It was actual proprioceptive sensory input.

Also, she knew it was spinning because she had watched it spin as they’d approached it in Molly’s landing craft, and had felt the forces of that spin take hold as Molly matched the rotational velocity necessary to dock on the outer hull of her starship.

It had been a mind boggling maneuver, and a nauseating one. Both Susan and Lesley had suffered visibly through the ordeal, and Molly had thought that contact with the dirt and life in her Garden would help.

It almost had. 

Crawling through the corridors of the starship Anchor had been an increasingly claustrophobic experience despite how amazingly wide they really were. So when, after taking a lift through the decks to reach the inner Garden, they stepped out into a forest of what could only be trees, there was some palpable relief.

Then, Susan noticed that there were trees above the trees above her. She could see the tops of them pointed downward at her like stalactites, on the other side of a thin tube of fusion plasma she did her best not to stare directly at. The plasma was shielded, and relatively safe, but still left an after image on her retina. It also did nothing to hide the fact that she was now inside a small O’Neill cylinder.

It was hundreds of meters in diameter, huge really, but small enough that the spin used to create centrifugal force as artificial gravity was something she could feel.

It was still big enough that a phrase she’d read once surfaced in her mind, preceding her collapse to the ground: The energy needed to create enough steel to make an O’neill cylinder is so much that it makes it nearly impossible.

She supposed fusion might solve that problem. But she’d have to look up the equations to really know, and it wasn’t like Manifold had copied the entire internet to the landing craft’s Network. Had it?

At that point she realized she was dissociating, feeling numb emotionally, and starting to lose the sense of where her feet were and what was up or down. So she’d carefully laid down and closed her eyes, noticing that Lesley was wordlessly doing the same thing just one step behind her.

“Wonder fatigue,” she thought. “The feeling of no more feelings after you’ve seen too much wonder,” her brain tried to articulate. She wanted to come up with a better, more scientific sounding phrase, but that just wasn’t going to happen, and already she’d forgotten what the first words of that sentence had been. The space between each word was a golf of amnesia.

“That’s a good term for it,” she heard Lesley mutter, just as she was drifting into a feverish half-sleep where she dreamt she was Anchor itself, constantly spinning.

In the dream, she heard Manifold say to Molly, “we should let them rest there and see if their bodies adapt to the spin.” She thought that maybe it had actually said that out loud, but couldn’t be certain it wasn’t part of the dream.

She wondered, while dreaming, if she’d somehow activated the nanites in her body to function as a neural terminal. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

But what would they do if the spinning didn’t go away? Maybe if Susan activated her warp drive, space/time would bend in such a way that it would become meaningless.

She tried to figure out how to do it and fully lost consciousness in the process.

—-

“On more reason now to move the wing to the undercarriage,” Manifold was saying. “Not only would that present a better control surface in the early stages of re-entry, and better heat management, but it would also mean fewer ablative tiles to discard to uncover the stealthing material later.”

“Yes,” Molly reluctantly agreed. “But, with the wings above, we can use them as cover when we’re on the ground. The adaptive camouflaging will be over our heads when we’re near the vessel, rather than under them. Also!” She raised her voice pointedly. “If we move the wing, we’ll have to rethink the whole vectored thrust system.”

This had been a heated argument since they had first started designing this vessel. 

In the grand scheme of safely landing on a planet, it was actually a trivial decision for them. They had plenty of ways of compensating for changes in aerodynamics and heat management, which is why Molly’s design choices had won out before.

But with new constraints and demands on the table with a deadline to accomplish them, Manifold was taking the opportunity to bring it up again. And it was irritating Molly.

At least the deadline was on her side. Moving the wing and restructuring the vectored thrust system would take longer.

They were on the Bridge of Anchor. Which is to say, Molly’s body was resting next to where Susan and Lesley had chosen to lie down in the Garden, and she and Manifold were occupying the Netspace that comprised the Bridge of Anchor. Anchor, like the Sunspot, had no physical Bridge.

Molly liked to keep the Bridge decorated and simultaneously useful. It appeared as if it was a platform located on the forwardmost surface of Anchor, on the hydrogen tank. A sense of gravity was added to it, so that aftward was downward. If Molly looked around her, beyond the railing of the bridge she saw the curve of the hydrogen tank. And beyond that, the four Bussard spires reached out into the stars like the splayed tentacles of a cuttlecrab.

And surrounding all of that was the night sky as visible from their position in sol-terra L4 of Susan and Lesley’s home system. The sun happened to be to Molly’s left at the moment.

The platform itself looked like her bedroom had in her quarters on the Sunspot, the one place that had been refuge from everything else. Complete with bed. Only, the walls and ceiling were missing, of course. There were floor lamps and potted plants, and her favorite climbing tree. She was on the tree, treating it like her pilot’s chair while arguing with Manifold.

A two meter wide exploded model of the landing craft was rotating in the space in the middle of the Bridge. They would each command part of the model to glow when they talked about it.

If someone had boarded the landing craft and flown it around to the front of Anchor, they would not have seen this. This was all within the Network.

Manifold had been silent for several seconds after Molly’s last statement, then it seemed to change the subject, “Do you still plan to find a way to stay on this planet?”

“Manifold,” Molly said with as much patience as she could muster. “Do you realize that this is the first planet I have set scale upon? Ever.”

“Yes.”

“The other inhabited planets we found were atmospherically hazardous to me. We didn’t even approach them. We know very little about them.”

“Yes.”

“I’m done being alone. And I’m done with not learning about other life.” Molly was even more done with this conversation and wanted to get back to finishing the landing craft, but found herself gathering her thoughts for it anyway. Manifold knew that she intended to play this planet by ear, and do what was necessary in the end. If she had to leave it, she would. But a voice interrupted her.

“If we bend space counter to the spin, maybe we’ll stop feeling dizzy…”

 “That’s not how it works,” Manifold answered.

It was Susan! She was on the Bridge. She had an avatar that looked like a somewhat younger version of herself, in the pajamas she’d been wearing since before passing the moon, and she was clutching a blanket.

“Manifold,” Molly hissed. This shouldn’t be possible. What was happening? “She doesn’t have a neural terminal yet!”

Susan didn’t notice. It appeared as if she was sleepwalking in the Network.

“Actually, it seems that she does,” Manifold said. “Checking the system records, she activated while sleeping. The nanites adapted fast, though. That’s unusual.”

“Activating while asleep is unusual! And I thought you had configured their nose filters to not accept commands or consent.”

“They are in the Garden, where most of our nanites reside,” Manifold reminded her. “It could be that several days of analyzing their biology and neurological readings gave the nanite cloud a head start to setting up the terminal, and it could also be that Susan’s alien neurology made it difficult for the algorithm to tell the difference between a conscious command and an unconscious one.”

“That sounds contradictory,” Molly frowned at it. “And why didn’t the algorithm restrictions propagate to the cloud at large?”

“An oversight on my part,” Manifold admitted. “I used the default medical programming for the set. And, neurology is weird and unpredictable enough without taking into account alien variation.”

Susan now appeared to be paying attention to them, but they weren’t speaking in her language so she probably didn’t understand what they were saying. Her expression was blank, possibly curious.

“Her terminal should help her remember this,” Manifold said. “She probably thinks she’s dreaming. Her avatar is probably shaped by her dream, after all. But if we say anything to her, she’ll probably remember it.”

Molly thought about that for a minute and then made a decision. She turned to Susan and said to her in her language, “This is the model of our landing craft. I’m thinking of calling it the Spindrift. Of all the words in the dictionary files we downloaded, it is the most pleasing to me. You should ask me more about it when you wake up. You have a neural terminal now, and we can remove it if you like, but it should help you adapt to the spin of the ship faster. You should play with it while you’re here.”

“OK,” Susan said pleasantly.

“You must have requested and consented to it in your dream, and the nanites must not have known the difference. I am sorry for this trouble,” Molly explained further. “I don’t know if Lesley has done this, too, yet. But you should describe your experience to her, the good and the bad, so that she can make a more informed choice if she wishes to. We will not deny either of you.”

“I like that,” Susan said.

“Manifold?” Molly addressed it in Inmararräo again. “As pilot of Spindrift, I’d really like to keep the design as similar to how it already is as possible. I’m familiar with it and how it handles. But you’ve got a better grasp of engineering. I think one of us should give Susan a tour. Would you like to do that, or shall I?”

“That’s a good idea, and I’d enjoy either one,” Manifold said. “But, I’ll adhere to your wishes regarding the vessel, and I’d feel safer about it all if I did the work on it. Is that OK with you?”

Even rituals of consent can feel aggressive and adversarial sometimes, Molly noted, but she knew Manifold would keep its word, so she nodded and said, “Yes. Thank you.” Then, to Susan, “This is the Bridge. I made it look like my own quarters because it makes me happy. Would you like to see some of the rest of the ship? I should show you how to use the Network.”

“Oh, I’d like that,” Susan replied.

“Hey, Sweetie,” Susan heard Lesley say as she was blinking her eyes open and trying to decide which way to roll to get up. So she rolled in the direction that would have her facing her partner. They smiled at each other.

Lesley had pulled herself up to lean against the trunk of a tree. It was a pretty big tree, about 20 meters tall. But it also had bark like nothing Susan had ever seen, like a tight carpet, and its needles were purple and came in bunches of eight. Lesley was pulling apart a cluster of fallen needles, looking rather ill. Like she was desperately distracting herself with something tactile. She made a grimace and swallowed something deliberately.

“Is the spin still bothering you?” Susan asked. She realized that while she could still tell which direction the ship was spinning, she could no longer feel it. She also finally noticed that she felt a little lighter on her feet than she usually did when she finally was standing again.

“Yeah,” Lesley said, giving an uncomfortable and apologetic smile. “You fell asleep. Maybe I should get some sleep, too, but the spin bothers me too much.”

“Your inner ears are really giving you hell in space, aren’t they?” Susan noted, looking around now that she could fully pay attention to what she was seeing. The trees on the other side of the habitat cylinder were far enough away that they kind of blended together visually. But if she squinted she could see individual trees. She’d had a totally different sense of them when she’d had vertigo. Everything had felt so closed in, closer, too.

Lesley shrugged and pointed at Molly, who was asleep in a tree across the path they were in, coils draped over a branch, “I imagine a snake wouldn’t need much of a sense of balance without standing on two feet like us. Molly probably doesn’t even notice things like this. How did you adapt so fast?” 

“I don’t know,” Susan said, thinking about her dream. She remembered Molly telling her how to adjust her neural terminal to tune out the spin and keep it a subconscious sense of direction. She narrowed her eyes. But that didn’t actually happen, did it? “I dreamt about it, but I think maybe that was just my psyche making sense of it and figuring out how to tune things out on its own.”

“Ask me about Spindrift,” Molly’s voice said, as she lifted her head to look at Susan. She was wearing a kind of tiara shaped headgear she’d put on before leaving the landing craft. It had a speaker in a bauble on her forehead that she used for talking through the translator.

That was part of her memories of the dream, too. Susan’s eyes widened. “Oh,” she said.

“What’s Spindrift?” Lesley asked without looking up from the needles she was tearing apart..

“Molly’s name for the landing craft,” Susan responded, still staring at the snake.

“Oh, nice,” Lesley said. Then frowned. “How did you know that?”

“She told me in my dream,” Susan said.

“And, it technically was a dream,” Molly confirmed. “You were just dreaming while connected to the Network. A kind of sleepwalking.”

How?” Lesley finely looked up, alarmed.

“Susan subconsciously consented to a neural terminal while she was asleep, and the nanites in the garden connected to her,” Molly answered evenly.

Susan felt a chill go through her body and she wanted to sit down again. Instead she turned to Lesley and said, “oh, shit.”

Susan was so afraid that Lesley would be angry with her, disgusted, or terrified. She herself felt scared and, well, violated. She really didn’t trust the nanites, even though they’d been a ubiquitous part of her surroundings for the past week and a half, and having them activate and invade her own brain based on her subconscious impulses really didn’t help with that. And Lesley’s expression definitely showed shock and desperation. She really wasn’t doing well with her sense of balance and nausea, and it was also clear she was wrestling with a lot of emotions and thoughts.

It was not hard for Susan to let concern and fear show on her own face.

Lesley planted the palms of both her hands on the ground and said, “What do I do?” She looked between Susan and Molly, and followed that with, “What all can the nanites do? How do I stop this?”

“Stop what?” Molly asked.

“The spinning,” Lesley whispered.

“The easiest is to consent to a nanite termin -”

“Yes, that’s what I want,” Lesley said more forcefully through clenched teeth. “I need that now. How do I get it?”

This startled Susan and she found herself saying without really thinking, “I was going to ask to have mine removed.”

Lesley shook her head sharply, “I can’t. I need them. Now. As soon as possible. If we’re here one more minute, I need them.” She looked up pleading at Molly.

“Well,” Molly said. “The nanites are behaving strangely with your neurology, so I can’t be sure what they’ll do.”

“I don’t care!” Lesley nearly yelled.

“To be absolutely sure they get the command right,” Molly said, “say ‘`oo junothena fe watakarro’. It means -”

“Ooh joonoetheynah fey watakaro!” Lesley repeated as best she could. “How quickly does it work?”

“I don’t know. Quickly, it seems. But you pronounced that wrong,” Molly replied.

“I don’t know if I can pronounce it right, I was never good at uvular trills,” Lesley snapped.

“Well, let’s try it in your language too, then,” Molly instructed. “Say, ‘May I please have a nanite terminal?’ and say it like you’re addressing Anchor itself.”

Lesley nodded, gripping the needle covered moss underneath her, and said scrunching up her eyes, “May I please have a nanite terminal?”

Nothing seemed to happen.

Lesley opened her eyes and said, “My hands are tingling!”

“You shouldn’t be able to feel them entering your system at all,” Molly stated.

“Well, I think I do!” Lesley said, looking hopeful.

“OK,” Molly relented. Then, lowering herself to the ground finally and approaching the two women respectfully, she drew herself up and said, “I’m going to say something in Fenekere and then ask for your consent in the same language. All you have to do is say ‘nim’. That’s ‘yes’. Say ‘nim’ when I’m done talking. It will be the command and the request for consent to activate the balance adjustment algorithms for your terminal, stopping the spinning sensation.”

“This is what we did in my dream,” Susan added softly.

“OK. Good. Thank you,” Lesley replied.

Susan watched Molly lift her head a little, almost like she was going to look at the sky, but she stared off into the distance as her electronic voice said, “`oo ‘efoktleta beshukaleseli’e rleqeplaro watakerro!” Then she looked at Lesley and said, “Beshekeleseli’e. ‘ii ge jenothena nenena.”

It didn’t sound like a question, but when Leslie was sure that Molly was done talking she nodded vigorously and said, “Nim!”

“That should do it,” Molly said. “I’m not sure how quickly they’ll take effect, or if they’ll work as well for you as for Susan. But that should do it.”

Susan felt helpless and lost as she watched her girlfriend thank Molly once again, and then slowly, shakily get to her feet and reach out to hug her. But she hugged Lesley back for all that she was worth.

“Do you remember how Manifold said we’d experience something like withdrawals if we ever gave this up?” Susan asked Lesley.

“Well, I couldn’t let you go through that alone, could I?” Lesley retorted, smirking. “I am starting to feel better already, too. Slowly.”

“Placebo effect?”

“Maybe,” Lesley stepped back with a light frown. “But it’s still getting better.”

“Manifold said that several days of monitoring your systems has probably accelerated the nanite integration,” Molly reported.

Lesley dropped her hands to her side and then put them akimbo, “What else can they do?”

“Well, you now have full passenger access to Anchor’s systems, so a lot of things,” Molly hedged.

“How long are we here?” Lesley asked.

Susan was too emotionally drained to be much a part of this conversation. So she just listened, and sort of let her mind wonder where the words prompted her to go.

“Manifold says the full refit of Spindrift should take two days, then we can start our return journey,” Molly said.

Lesley clapped her hands together and said, “Then what can we do in that time?”

“May I message both of you?” Molly asked.

Susan wasn’t sure what she meant by that but absently nodded. Lesley enthusiastically nodded as well.

“Let’s start with basic communication, then,” Molly said.

Susan realized then that she hadn’t heard that with her ears. Molly’s voice had echoed in her head as if she’d nearly hallucinated it.

Molly asked them if they wanted to visit the flying ring, a safe place in the habitat cylinder to enjoy the benefits of low gravity while wearing a flight suit. But they both turned it down, agreeing that freefall aboard Spindrift for a few days had been enough of that. Molly told them it wasn’t the same, but they didn’t care.

So, using a neural terminal to carefully calibrate and finely control a flight suit was not part of their lessons.

They did go swimming, though. 

And took a tour of the Garden’s pathways and habitats, to see all the flora and fauna, and so Molly could talk about how the nanites worked to help maintain the ecosystem. And during that, she demonstrated how they would repair disturbances to the soil.

She also gave them their own Netspaces, and taught them how to play in them and decorate them however they liked.

Lesley agreed with Susan that it was a lot like a cross between a virtual reality computer game and just plain lucid dreaming.

And then she showed them how to alter their Network avatars purposefully, with commands.

She felt she may have made a mistake there almost immediately.

Lesley cried, and then apologized, and then said she needed some privacy for a bit and went to her own Netspace.

“She still has some dysphoria,” Susan explained to Molly.

Oh. “Oh,” said Molly. Oh, dear, she thought. She closed her eyes and took several breaths.

The Network simulated everything it possibly could about owning and experiencing a body while you were conscious within it. This was, apparently, considered critical to maintaining your psyche and personality in its natural state. Hormones and biofeedback are as much a part of thinking as anything else. And even if your actual body had those things going on within it while you were focused on the Network, the way the Network worked and would continue working after your body died this was important.

“How about you?” Molly asked. “How do you feel?”

Susan looked around the training room, which was where they’d been trying out commands, and sighed. “I don’t think I have dysphoria. I’ve never really felt like I did, other than when I was masking my orientation of course. But I’m scared,” Susan said. Then she looked up at Molly, “I – I’m scared that Lesley won’t want to leave this. But also that maybe she shouldn’t. You know? For her health? But also…” She made an embarrassed looking grimace and looked down at her feet as she kicked them one at a time, shuffling.

Molly felt like she understood that feeling, even if she didn’t know what Susan was holding back. She reassured the human, “It is OK, I don’t need to know. But if it is something I can help with, I will do my best to understand.”

“Well, OK,” Susan hemmed and hawed a bit. “Well. There are some changes to my body I’d like to try. But if I find that I do have dysphoria I’ve been dissociating from this whole time and I really need those changes, I don’t know what I’ll do. It’s ridiculous.”

Molly took a deep breath, trying to decide how much to promise. To these two, what she could promise would be like miracles. But they’d come with drawbacks. Susan was already probably imagining a lot of them accurately. She also probably didn’t have a clue just how dramatic some of the possibilities were. Assuming, of course, that the nanites could safely practice medicine on their bodies. But it was starting to look like that was a distinct possibility.

Either Susan and Lesley would experience things they could only experience on Anchor, and not be able to stay away from it for very long. Or they would make changes to their own bodies that were strong enough to raise questions when they got back home. 

The changes would take time. They’d be largely unnoticeable at first. Depending on what they wanted, it could take decades for some of the more severe choices. But that would be the other thing. As long as they had sufficient nanites in their bodies and their bodies provided enough power to the little machines, they could prolong their lives considerably.

If Molly had her way, she’d be with them, and their world would know about her and accept them all. But she didn’t have very high hopes for that. She certainly had no idea how to get there from here.

She started to feel hopeless and panicky. But she did her best to hide that, and to give Susan a reasonable answer to her problem.

“I want to give you as much freedom of choice as I can,” Molly started. “And I don’t want to coerce you into doing what I want to be done. I do have my motives and my dreams, though. My ideal would be to live with you on your planet, but I feel like that is a very childish dream.”

Susan nodded, and twisted her lips.

“I absolutely do not want to take you from your planet. It would be nice to have friends here, but I would like more than two, and they don’t have to be you, and we haven’t known each other for long enough to know if that would be a good idea anyway,” she rambled, hoping the translator was getting such a long, complex sentence correct. Susan nodded some more, now biting her lip. “So, keep that in mind when I say this.”

“OK,” Susan said.

“For my people, personal autonomy is sacrosanct. It is of vital importance that everyone experience it to the best that conflicting interests can offer. And that includes autonomy over one’s own cells. We’ve been working on this for hundreds and hundreds of generations.”

“And that means?” Susan prompted her.

“It means,” Molly drew that out, hesitating to answer fully, “that with the help of the nanites, within physiological reason, you might be able to make those changes to your actual body in time. And,” this was the really dangerous statement, “if you can’t, there are options here aboard Anchor to accommodate you. Some of them might work on your home planet, but some won’t.”

Susan looked like she was even more scared. Terrified, perhaps. Her Network avatar was shaking as her actual body would do.

“I can’t advise you as to what to do,” Molly said. “You’ll have to make those choices based on how well you know yourself. But Manifold and I will do our best to help and accommodate you through those choices. If you have any questions…”

Susan swallowed and said, “I really want to see my family.” She shook her head. “If I can just see my family again.”

Molly nodded and said, “We’re going to do everything we can to make that possible.”

Susan breathed in very deeply and said, “Then I’m going to wake up and go wander around in the Garden some more. I need some reality.”

“Would you like me to show you how to command the nanites to – “

“No!”

“OK. Please, make plenty of noise to warn the fauna of your presence,” Molly requested.

“Oh, I will,” Susan growled.

After a good long hike in the waning light at the end of an Anchor day, Susan returned to the entrance to belowdecks that was near the quarters Molly had given them.

There, in the reddening light of the plasma tube, she found Lesley sitting by the nearby stream, watching it and wiping tears from her eyes. Susan’s heart sank.

She went over to sit down gingerly next to her girlfriend, and Lesley scooted over to give her room on the rock. But she didn’t say anything, because she just couldn’t think of anything appropriate to even ask. If Lesley had something to talk about, she’d bring it up eventually anyway.

Lesley gripped her arm and rubbed her eyes on her shoulder, snickering softly at herself. Then she wrapped her arm around Susan and said, “I’m sorry.”

Susan was afraid to respond to that, but asked anyway, “for what?”

“I’m a wreck, and I maybe did something I shouldn’t have done,” Lesley said. “After you went for a hike, Molly told me the same things she told you, though. It might be alright. But I’m feeling really fucking dysphoric right now.”

Susan looked at her and tilted her head for more. It was maybe best to let Lesley lead this.

“You know how early on I used to say that the problem with doing drag and wearing all that makeup, wigs, corsetry, and padding was that I’d get used to feeling the euphoria of it and feel even worse about myself afterward?” Lesley explained. “And I wasn’t even dressing as ostentatiously as my sisters were. I really underplayed it, not really there for the show, you know? I could just get my body to look and move in ways that I didn’t think hormones would ever be able to do, and I couldn’t afford the surgeries for that ever.”

“Yeah, I remember you talking about that,” Susan said as gently as possible.

“I’m experiencing the same thing all over again. Oh. And don’t ever make yourself look younger than you are. Big mistake.”

Susan nodded and found her mouth saying, “I wonder if the nanites’ medical technology can reverse aging.”

Lesley shook her head, and said, “Even if we could do that with them, should we? If we go back home safely somehow, what would people say if they saw us aging backward?”

Susan flattened her lips and said, “Yeah.”

“Also,” Lesley said, squeezing her harder. “I’d still die to carry your baby somehow.”

Susan suddenly felt very excited at that old thought, and scared about what that meant.

Infiltrating a military installment was not originally on the menu.

Phage had found an excellent place to monitor communications, a tower on a mountain that relayed nearly everything significant in the country of Susan and Lesley’s origins, and that was awash with so many patterned radio waves. It had started to feel almost as connected as it had been aboard the Sunspot, with its conscious presence spanning over a range of hundreds of kilometers. Thousands in this case!

And there was a connection to the internet through that tower, and through that Phage could monitor and influence most of the world itself. At least politically and with certain social classes, the ones most likely to interact with Molly and her new crew should they return.

But in one heavily encrypted channel there was a brief communique about a meeting in a place deep underground that sounded suspiciously important and, from the position of that tower, totally opaque.

So it had traveled there. Sometimes under its own power, shooting through the wind as a stream of dust in the night, sometimes by coating a vehicle headed in that direction. It found itself waiting, spread out on the road leading to the entrance of the place, a gigantic set of concrete doors inset into the side of a mountain. And when a truck slowly passed over it to enter the compound, Phage clung to the rubber tires and underside of it, adding a faint sheen of graphite to the already dark surfaces. And it let its mind fall silent until well after the truck stopped moving, just in case faint electrical activity between its nanites might trigger a sensor.

Once it had connected itself to the communications and security systems of that building, however, it learned that the detection instruments that did exist were not sensitive enough to detect it.

At that point, it relaxed and started to explore. It brushed the surface thoughts of the people inhabiting the building, the words and emotions that almost became words when they talked to each other. It didn’t do this so much as a form of what people often call telepathy as it was reading the interplay of cause and effect with all of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as heat and kinetics of the whole building. Individual people didn’t matter so much as the flow of information and how that affected group behavior and the movement of electricity and mass.

Phage found the meeting.

It wasn’t happening yet. There were hours to go. But the room was identifiable and in the near future there was a mass of information collecting there to be disseminated very carefully. The computers of this place were not connected to the outside world in any way, not even by power source.

By the words, thoughts, and electronic documents presaging the meeting, Phage confirmed that it was about Molly’s starship and landing craft and an attempt to predict whether or not she would return. Nobody here knew her name, what she looked like, or anything detailed except for what telescopes and radio receivers had picked up and the accounts of eye witness pilots and agents investigating a very strange scene in the woods.

Phage was pleased with itself.

Oh. There was a detailed photo of the starship and an accurate assessment of its mass. They had better telescopes than it had predicted. And they now knew that interstellar architecture was possible on that scale, and it scared them deeply.

Not knowing the composition of the interior of what they guessed was the habitat cylinder, someone had estimated somewhere between two thousand and ten million people might be aboard. There were some statements of breathless speculation after that detail on that particular document.

Now Phage had to decide if and when to try to contact Molly again. Would it be better to warn her of what they knew? Or would it be better to let her engage honestly with the experiences she already had? That was something Phage had always been bad at gauging. It seemed to be different every time. Its child, Ni’a, the Chaos of Life, always seemed to be much better at that part of things. But they weren’t here. Not in a localized conscious way, at least.

In want of a decision, it kept observing.

Nobody noticed Phage snooping through the files of the installation. It didn’t have to cause any computer to operate to do this. In the days that it had been on this planet, it had learned how to read files on a number of media all on its own, and if it could find that media through a power cable it could read it.

If they had noticed it, they would likely have dismissed it shortly, the entropy of their worry suppressed by Phage itself.

In a very real way, Phage was the military installation itself now. It thought its thoughts and had its feelings. It also had its own original motives still, too, which started to affect what people did in strangely subtle ways.

Cups of coffee were left to cool more often than before, forgotten by excited people, for instance. And the steam made interesting shapes that people were too busy to see.

In preparation for first contact, Molly had synchronized her days to the location where she’d planned on landing. There had been no need for Susan or Lesley to adjust their circadian rhythms, and that had been long enough ago that Molly had adjusted.

The next day aboard Anchor was spent with more tours and training. Rest was still of primary importance, though. As everyone had a lot of emotional and informational experiences to process.

It was a matter of balance. They had to heal from things they hadn’t realized would hurt, but they had to prepare for their return and the unknowns that presented. And it was mostly guesswork, because none of them were experienced with this sort of thing.

Breakfast involved learning how to program the makers through the Network to do exactly as you wanted for your nutritional intake and enjoyment of the food. Molly was amused to see that both Susan and Lesley were surprised that a kitchen was still involved. So, she pointed out that it’s nice to cook, and the artistry of cooking gave the food a quality that the makers could not match.

Lesley was delighted to cook her food. Susan opted to make the maker do all the work.

They both learned that almost all of the food came from the vast and diverse mushroom and algae farms in the hull of Anchor, and was supplemented by a small fruit orchard. And they marveled at that, because some of the ingredients they used worked very much like meat, milk, or eggs, as they reported. The idea of using fauna as a source of food disturbed Molly in a way that she could not articulate. The Sunspot had never done that, not in all of its history, as far as she knew.

In a way, though, the fauna of Anchor were still a source of nutrients for her. They were part of the overall ecosystem, and even the farms were not disconnected from that. Living things died, after all, and their mass consumed by other living things. The fauna hunted each other, and were in turn eaten by fungus and plants.

She just hadn’t thought about it before and found that she didn’t really want to, either.

Then, after a leisurely walk in the Garden, trying to catch sight of fauna they hadn’t seen yet, and some alone time to write, think, nap, or read, Molly thought to teach them how to manipulate nanite clay directly.

“You’ll be able to do more with it on Anchor and on Spindrift than you will away from either ship, but it’ll still be a useful tool in an emergency if you have some with you,” Molly said.

Both humans nodded, though Susan quirked her lips and looked hesitant.

“The easiest thing to do is to inhabit a nanite exobody,” Molly continued.

“I don’t want that,” Susan blurted.

“OK,” Molly said. “How about you?” She turned to Lesley.

“I’m willing to learn how to use one,” Lesley offered.

“OK, then while you play with one after I show you how to do it, I’ll teach Susan how to control a small clump of it externally, in a more detached way.” She looked back at Susan hopefully, and asked, “is that OK?”

Susan bit her lip and nodded, “yep.”

“OK! So, the easiest way to approach using a nanite exobody is to set your own vessel down in a place where it will be comfortable, undisturbed, and unlikely to hurt itself while relaxed, and enter the Network. Then, while in the Network, you just sort of pass through a nanite bin and climb out of it. Your subconscious mind and the nanite protocols will take care of the rest,” Molly dove right into it enthusiastically. “If you want particular traits that your own bodymap doesn’t normally have, that’s where it gets tricky. But it’s still pretty much the same as altering your Network avatar, so you have the skills to do that already.”

Lesley nodded, obviously trying to hide her eagerness behind solemnity.

Susan sighed and looked at her feet.

And as the rest of the day went on like that, Molly noted these little microexpressions and felt a sort of tension growing between Lesley and Susan.

It reminded her of the eb and flow of her relationship with Manifold, actually. But she worried that the extraordinary circumstances of this stress was not something the two would weather well. She hated to see either of them hurting, as she felt responsible for them and hopeful for her future with them. She wanted them to continue liking her, when it came down to it.

But it also wasn’t her business, and all she could do was try to accommodate each of them as best as she could.

Spindrift. The name she’d chosen for her landing craft. The word had uncertain etymology, like her own name, but was used to refer to the spray of water off the top of waves in a powerful wind usually only found in storms and gales.

It was a poetic sounding word, like something someone would use to describe a thing they wanted to experience. It sounded like something that should be refreshing to Molly’s sensibilities. Just the auditory texture of the word. And it seemed to be a portmanteau of two other words, spin and drift. And those words were what had originally caught her eye, because that’s what she would cause Spindrift to do during re-entry in order to control her speed and angle of descent, loosely speaking.

But it referred to the effects of something powerful and dangerous and the result of chaos. The Sunspot was big enough that it had the kind of weather and geography to produce spindrift. Molly knew what it was and had tasted it before.

And in retrospect it definitely felt like the last two days of visiting Anchor, while Manifold worked on the landing craft to prepare it for diving back into the storm of that chaotic world where Susan and Lesley had been born, had been spent breathing spindrift on the wind.

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