The Light of the Abyss retracted its transportation body and grew a singular communication bulb.
It had left the new organism where it had been found, and placed itself near it.
Sometimes an organism objected to the offer of transport, and the Light had learned from past experiences to acknowledge and accept that. But the transportation body was particularly useful for calibrating communications, so it always began by using it.
Once the communication bulb was in place, it sent its next introductory message, “We sort you for more efficient energy transfer. Can you be sorted?”
And then it waited.
Usually, at this point, an organism would resume communication, or it would flee.
Flight was acceptable, if not optimal. Usually, when the Light found a new organism, it was not in an optimal location. So, if it moved of its own accord, then there was a chance it would find an optimal location on its own. A place to live.
It received an answer from this new organism.
The simplest of reactions. There was a small chance that further communication could occur, but past experience indicated that this would be followed by inaction. The organism would most likely stay where it was and also refuse further communication.
The Light, always looking for a better way of doing things, tried a slightly new tactic, modifying its more successful third stage communication, in hopes it would create better results.
“We can find a living place for you, that is most efficient for you,” it said. “Will you be sorted? Will you catalyze sorting? Will you sort yourself?”
It judged that might be complex, so it waited until a reply came, which took some time.
“We will sort ourselves,” came the reply.
The Light had a good response for that, and asked, “Will you receive our sorting data?”
There was another lengthy delay before the next response. This was always expected. It was unusual for communication to work in the first place. At this point, the prospects for future encounters with this organism were already improving. Even if it received a “no”, improved sorting could still happen in the long run.
“Yes,” came the reply. Followed by, “What can we do to you?”
“Receive the following transmission of data. Use it to sort yourself efficiently,” it replied, and sent the organism all the data it had collected since it had first budded.
This took a long time, since it had lived a long time and had traveled a long distance. It would have been faster to use the transportation body to facilitate this, but the organism had demanded release from that. The Light knew better than to offer them that again this early in their history of contact.
When it was done, it left.
That had been harrowing.
At each step in the conversation with the Light of the Abyss, Molly had felt it necessary to argue for further communication, and both Susan and Lesley were reluctant to say more. Their acculturation had taught them to walk away from unethical authority as soon as it was presumably safe to do so. But Molly felt that their perspective wasn’t entirely appropriate here. Especially as the Light of the Abyss seemed to continue to give them options, make concessions, and give them room to revoke or offer their consent, even if the Light didn’t have words for it.
Manifold had agreed with her.
And Phage had fallen very silent again, and declined to weigh in. When Susan would turn to it to get its opinion, it would gesture to her, and she’d scowl.
This made Susan more adamant about her position, but also more uneasy about being adamant.
Which in turn had seemed to make Lesley try to play the middle, looking for reasonable analysis while also translating intentions between Molly and Susan. And Lesley’s knowledge of the Light’s language did seem to tilt her more in favor of Molly’s position.
Molly particularly appreciated that when the Light then offered them data, seemingly unprompted.
They’d agreed that they wanted to check to see if there were strings attached to that data, so they’d argued about the best way to word that question.
Susan had then asked if there was a chance that the data would be corrupt, or if it might have malicious “software” as she called it. Something that could harm Anchor’s systems when analyzed or accessed.
Phage spoke up at that point, saying that that was within its domain, and that it would do everything in its power to protect Anchor from any sort of attack. Up to and including double checking the veracity of the data against its own extratemporal memories.
“Thank you,” Susan had said to it.
As for the Light of the Abyss and what it had done to them, when it had retracted its dodecahedron, they’d found themselves still in the sol-terra Lagrange point 4 of Lesley and Susan’s home system. And before them, forward of Anchor and therefore above their heads on the Bridge, was a giant pinkish-gold glowing sphere. Instruments reported that it was nearly a hundred kilometers away and nearly as wide in diameter as that distance. It and Anchor were then in orbit around each other within the Lagrange point, more or less.
The sphere, which was presumably the Light of the Abyss, had then extended a small blob of its own matter toward them and shaped it into a dish of the same color and texture as the rest of the mass. Relatively small. It was larger than Anchor. And that dish had transmitted and received the conversation that they’d then had with it.
When it finally started transmitting the “sorting data” it had promised, part of that transmission was the estimated time it would take, which was five hours.
Phage said it would watch, and suggested that Molly, Susan, and Lesley take a break and see to the health of their bodies. Being connected to the network for too long was not psychologically healthy, and much longer would also take a physical toll.
Molly already knew it was good to take breaks, so she seconded its suggestion, saying, “We know the time this will take. We can come back just before it’s done, and continue our interaction with them then.”
So then they’d done that, meeting in the Garden to eat a meal and talk about what they expected the data to contain. And then they explored the Garden for a while, and talked about the tiny ecosystem of it, to distract themselves from worry. And they found themselves wondering if the Light of the Abyss had anything similar aboard their own vessel, and if they did, what would it look like?
When they’d finally come back to the Bridge to resume communication with the Light of the Abyss, their former captives and counterpart finished their transmissions and then just left, without a further word.
It was so startling!
The alien vessel retracted the communications disc, then shaped itself into a dodecahedron as seen from the outside, and then just suddenly seemed to shrink from view and disappear in one fluid motion that took less than two seconds.
“Is that what it looks like when we use our warp drive?” Susan asked.
“I do not know,” Molly replied. “I have never seen it in third person.”
“What now?” Susan demanded.
“I think we take a look at the data,” Lesley suggested.
Manifold, who had been watching the transfer with Phage, said, “I think you’re going to be amazed at what we got.”
“Have you been vetting it, Phage?” Susan asked.
“It’s good,” Phage replied. “A huge part of it is navigational information. We double checked that against our telemetry records we kept from the Sunspot’s travels through this galaxy, and it matches. If you adjust it for differences in relativity. The topography of the galaxy changes a lot in a hundred and thirty million years, and if you’re looking at it from different angles and at different velocities, it changes differently in that time. Warping and matching it was a simple task for Anchor, though. Being a ship that can bend space/time, we made sure it had the algorithms for that kind of thing already worked out. And I’m sort of a natural for double checking space/time stuff.”
“OK, but what else did they send us?” Susan asked.
“A surprisingly long history of encountering other spacefaring life,” Phage replied. “I’m galled that I’m surprised by it, frankly. But the Sunspot has been traveling via constant acceleration from one side of the galaxy to the other at near light speed compared to everything else. And, it seems to have started its path sometime outside the galaxy, even. Apparently, that kind of behavior is pretty good for inadvertently avoiding other life. Chances are really low for a ship like the Sunspot to encounter and be able to communicate with someone else. But the Light of the Abyss, on the other hand, uses their warp drive and their sensory equipment specifically to search for others.”
Just listening to that made Molly excited and she jumped in to ask, “Did they tell us where to find other people?”
“Yes,” Phage said.
“And do they say what they’re like?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Phage replied. “They recorded their interactions with each encounter, but they did not evaluate them for any kind of social value or even psychological analysis. The Light of the Abyss seems to be primarily interested in something your people would call ‘ecological compatibility’. They evaluate for consumption, waste, and observed activities, and the impacts those things might have on others. They also noted whether or not each encountered lifeform allowed themselves be sorted, as they put it.”
“What the hell does that mean, anyway?” Susan asked.
“I thought I explained that pretty well when they first asked us,” Lesley said.
“OK, yes,” Susan relented. “But I’d like to know what actual actions they take to perform their sorting.”
“It’s just like the options that they gave us,” Phage reported. “If a lifeform doesn’t communicate back, the Light of the Abyss searches for a similar lifeform and delivers them to it. Ideally, they look for a planet inhabited by that same lifeform. And if they don’t find either, then they look for compatible life forms, which means low chance of conflict and high chance of beneficial interactions. They make distinctions for ships, planets, and solar systems. If the lifeform communicates, they go through a tree of possible interactions that result in either taking the lifeform to a requested location, letting them go and watching the lifeform make its own decisions, or supplying data like they did for us. They also ignore vessels that are already found within their home solar systems.”
“So, they’re gardening the galaxy,” Lesley said.
“Perhaps,” Phage said.
“What do they do with people who are completely hostile to them?” Susan asked.
“So far, they back off and try to never contact them again,” Phage replied. “They also avoid introducing others to them.”
“OK…” Susan seemed to consider that and then asked, “How can they tell who is like whom? Where do they get their information? How deeply do they analyze it?”
“It’s a combination of observation and simply asking,” Phage said. “If we had answered them about where we live, they would have followed that up with more detailed questions until they had an intricate profile on us that would help them match us with someone else who might have resources we need and who might need resources we have. But they also use an array of very sophisticated scanners and a long history of doing this to inform their decision making. In fact, if you take a look at the charts they gave us, they have marked previous encounters with their compatibility relative to us, with thorough explanations so that we can also judge on our own.”
Susan looked concerned and then asked, “Do they know how many of us are aboard Anchor? How detailed are those scans?”
“You can see for yourself,” Phage replied. “But it seems that they were not able to penetrate the hull of Anchor with their instruments, and they have marked us as a singular lifeform. They base a lot of their earlier evaluations on what a vessel is composed of and seems to be able to do. For instance, they recognized the habitat cylinder for what it was, since it spins.”
“I’m going to have to think about that for a while,” Susan.
“That’s fine,” Phage said. “We’ve got time to think now. Lot’s of it, unless something else comes up.”
Molly was not ready to end this conversation, though, and wanted to know more, so she asked, “Do they tell us anything about themselves?”
“They do,” Phage said. “I also think someone besides Manifold and I should audit this data.”
“Yeah,” Susan said with a big resigned sigh. “This stuff is right up my ally, so I guess I’ll do that.”
“I will, too,” Molly said. “Learning about other life in the cosmos is why I left the Sunspot.”
Lesley shrugged, and said, “I’ll get to it after I’m done digesting their language files and Fenekere. We might as well all have this in our heads, but I want to focus for now. Also, I wanna make sure I don’t get that headache first.”
“You’d probably have it by now,” Molly told her.
“Nice!” Lesley smiled.
“So, I take it we’re all going to wait here in L4 until we’ve had a chance to check out these charts and decide what to do next?” Susan asked.
“It is what I would like to do,” Molly said. Susan seemed to be the most distressed of all of them right now, so she thought a concession would help her, and suggested, “If you’d like to call the next council meeting when you’re done evaluating the charts, that would make sense to me. If the others are OK with it?”
“Oh, yeah, that makes sense to me, too,” Lesley agreed.
Phage nodded, and Manifold also assented.
“Thank you,” Susan said. “I’m going to really take my time with it, I’m sure. But first, I need to have a private talk with Phage.” She looked at it and narrowed her eyes.
“Of course,” Phage said, easily.
And they dispersed after that.
The five of them had been intensely involved with each other for nearly a day, just to deal with this one crisis. And having spent several weeks also alternating between being cramped in the smaller quarters of Spindrift and running from military agents, alone time felt critical to Molly, and the others seemed to feel the same.
Molly decided to retreat to her own quarters and to put a privacy notice on them, so that she could make herself some fruit gummy snacks and suck on them while thinking and preparing herself to analyze the data from the Light of the Abyss.
But, as excited as she was to start learning about other lifeforms that the Light had found, she found herself ruminating about Susan and Phage. She hoped their conversation was productive. But she also felt that Phage had been manipulating Susan rather aggressively. And though it had stated its reasons for doing so, it was unfriendly, unethical, and counter to the philosophies of interpersonal interaction she’d been taught by Manifold and her Caretaker, Breela. It seemed counter to the culture of the Sunspot itself, though she’d seen that kind of behavior in others before. Usually Crew, and sometimes other people’s Tutors.
She didn’t like it.
She didn’t want that kind of thing to be part of Anchor.
But she was reluctant to make “no emotional manipulation” a hard rule, either. It was a thing that was hard to measure, and enforcing such a rule could become a form of abuse itself.
The key should be to come up with a set of agreed upon guidelines for addressing grievances like Susan had with Phage. And while there were such tools from the Sunspot culture she was used to using, Susan and Leslie were Outsiders and had not only different sensitivities about that sort of thing, but different emotional needs. Most likely. She assumed they did. It was hard to tell so far.
They hadn’t been together all that long, even if life had been very intense during that time.
Maybe Susan’s talk with Phage would be a learning experience useful to everyone. Maybe they could take the results of that and use them to inform future interactions.
She cycled through several scenarios in her head, and many different iterations of each one, before finally getting a grip on her anxiety and letting it drop. She took some notes so that she could revisit them and pick up where she left off when she had more information from either Susan or Phage, or both. And that helped.
After that, she checked the metrics of Anchor’s little Garden to see if the extra bodies visiting it had made any sort of notable impact, and she was pleased that so far they had not. Both Lesley and Susan were respectful of the habitat, and already practiced good stewardship for it. And, as she said before, the ship should be able to sustain nearly two thousand bodies before putting a strain on the hydroponics of the Garden and the mushroom and algae farms.
That properly soothed her, so she felt ready to really enjoy the information from the Light of the Abyss.
She started with the Light’s own autobiography, reading it up with enthusiasm and great satisfaction.
It was dry, but easy to read. She checked, and the profile was in the same exact format as for any other lifeform it had encountered. She also found that though it used a plural pronoun for first person, it used a singular pronoun for referring to itself in third person. In fact, its language had three pronouns, “us”, “you”, and “it”, and the translator as configured by Manifold seemed to make a point of defining those pronouns in those familiar terms.
Molly decided she’d have to visit the language files as well, in order to understand that better.
This all left the impression, however, that the Light of the Abyss seemed to think in terms of space faring vessels as individuals, without a thought to what might be acting as crew aboard the ship. It interacted primarily with vessels, and didn’t really consider individual people who might make themselves known as anything more than agents of any given vessel. It used terms for that that the translator considered equivalent to “fruiting body”, “pseudopod”, and “gamete” or “protist”.
And it appeared to take that preference because the Light of the Abyss shared a number of traits and behaviors with slime molds. She wondered how much of that was Manifold’s own sensibilities applied to the algorithm’s translations.
The Light gave no record of its ancestral origins, only that it had budded from another similar lifeform in the depths of space at some point in the past. And that it had set out to live according to its own directives after that.
It gave a profile for its progenitor, though. And that was very similar. The two entities were not very different from each other, but now worked different areas of the galaxy, to avoid conflicts.
Like the Sunspot and Anchor, the Light’s vessel was as self-sustaining as possible, and also used fusion to generate some of its power. It had contained within it something similar to Anchor’s habitat cylinder, though it didn’t rotate for any sort of simulation of gravity. It considered the lifeforms within that space to be symbiotic organisms in relation to its own metabolism. Otherwise, Molly got the distinct impression from its profile that it considered itself to be a singular organism, not separate from its own vessel.
But it also seemed self aware enough to note that it had multiple agents of thinking and decision making within itself and did seem to rank other lifeforms based on how similar they were to itself in that regard. It put itself in the middle of the scale, with some lifeforms clearly exhibiting a singular locus of decision making per vessel, and others having multiple extremely differentiated loci of thought and awareness. Most entries were marked as unknown in that regard, though.
Molly found herself wanting to talk to it some more.
It had been so, so alien. So terse in its communication, and confusing. But, also, it had felt like it was being sincere and guileless. And these charts and records seemed to reinforce that impression.
It seemed to treat its goals of cultivating the relationships between lifeforms as nothing more complex as breathing, eating, disposing of waste, resting, and moving to new locations. Just another biological function and drive. And its records seemed to treat all observed behavior in others as being on the same level. No notes or speculation what-so-ever on motives, values, norms, beliefs, or anything of the sort that others might try to share with it when introducing themselves. It interpreted all such communication through its own fitler of understanding about the efficient and mutually beneficial transfer of energy and mass.
But, if Molly could talk to it, hopefully at length, maybe she could get to know it well enough to guess as to whether it thought more deeply than that.
Maybe she could learn what its emotions were, if it had any, and what triggered them.
And that seemed like it could be a powerful and unique experience in a galaxy where it seemed like most other people either tried to avoid the Light of the Abyss, accept its help, or even take advantage of it, from what she was seeing here. Though, its records were so devoid of value judgments or speculation of motives, Molly knew she had to be projecting her own guesses onto why different people reacted to it in their own ways.
Just, to be able to talk to something that thought so differently than she did, at length, it seemed like it would be a really special thing to experience.
She also certainly wondered if she could teach it anything. Maybe help it to expand its vocabulary.
It was far, far older than she was, but younger than Manifold, going by Phage’s adjusted calculations. But it had encountered far more alien lifeforms than any of them had. If in all that time and experience it hadn’t expanded its vocabulary to include social dynamics and psychological analysis, she probably wouldn’t have any luck with it.
But that just made her want to try even more.
Also, she wanted to know what it would be like aboard its vessel. To be able to safely visit it would be astounding!
So, she set about making a simulation of it in a Network space.
She based the simulation on the data it had sent them and also the language files as well. She filled in the gaps with what was known about slime molds, but scaled up to something perhaps a hundred kilometers across. She didn’t bother with acellular slime molds, but instead drew from the multicellular kind. The kind that had amoeba protists that could join up and form larger structures. That seemed to match what the Light Described of itself.
She was not at all confident that what she created was accurate. But it certainly was alien enough to satisfy her emotional need. And it really felt like she’d created a work of Art, in the proper noun sense of the word. The fact that she’d leaned heavily on the Network algorithms to crunch the numbers and work out just how things looked didn’t take away from that feeling.
Just like with any Network space, even though it was simulating an environment that would be hostile to her, it didn’t actually affect her unpleasantly unless she wanted it to. And she didn’t. She wanted to see it and touch it, and maybe smell it, but not be hurt by it. So that’s how it worked.
And there she was in the middle of what could be the Light of the Abyss’ Garden.
In the very center was a spherical fusion reactor, shielded just so to let out only the types of radiation the surrounding life could use. It was still dangerous to look at, if it wasn’t a Network simulation and you weren’t a Network entity protected by protocols and lacking actual retinas to be burned.
There was no attempt to simulate gravity, so the plant-like life that populated the space used light and darkness to guide its growth. The outer walls, fifty kilometers distant from the core, glowed with the same pinkish-gold bioluminescence of the Light’s hull. The light of it visible in the shadows of the biomass it supported, but drowned out by the fusion reactor’s glare where it was exposed to that.
The life of the Garden displayed colors of deep reds, brilliant greens, strong purples, and soft pinks. The shapes were aggressively organic and diverse. If anything, it reminded Molly of a cross between a gigantic mushroom farm, a choral reef, and a kelp bed blended together. And it was hard to tell just what was flora and what was fauna, if it could even be divided between such types of life. But even those comparisons felt inadequate.
For maximum surface area exposed to the reactor, the life didn’t grow much higher than a few hundred meters from the outer wall. There was an enormous empty space between the reactor and the life, just like in the Sunspot. But the biology of it still dwarfed her.
Molly swam through it as if the atmosphere was water. It wasn’t predicted to be that thick, but being able to do so allowed her to explore the space without touching anything. And she felt better about it that way, weaving her way through the dark hollows and pathways of the strange forest.
Most of the life there moved, ever so slowly, of its own accord. It seemed to partake in a dance with its neighbors, ever adjusting positions to maximize or minimize contact with the light, and perhaps to reach for the sexual fruiting bodies of its counterparts.
It was so different than anything Molly had ever seen before that it was simultaneously a relief and an overwhelming bombardment of the new. She stayed perhaps a bit longer than she was comfortable with, but decided to keep it running for any time anyone wanted to experience it.
And maybe she could get Manifold and Phage to provide their input and help her manage to keep it updated as they learned more about the actual Light of the Abyss.
Maybe, someday, it might prove more useful than to satisfy curiosity.
But then, just as she was deciding to leave, a quick movement caught her eye and she paused.
A pinkish-gold stalk rose from the hull, weaving through the other life, moving nearly as fast as Molly could swim. And Molly retreated a bit as it brought itself up to hover its bulbous tip near her face, a little more than a meter away.
She watched it change textures and opacity, some parts of it becoming dark and others brighter in strange, random looking patterns that reminded her of rocks on a sea shore. And then different parts of it started blinking at different rates.
Running the patterns through the translator, it was of course the same language the Light had used to speak to them via gamma rays.
It asked, “What are you? What are you seeking?”
She used the translator to respond, restricted by its vocabulary, “We are your progenitor. We have budded you. We are seeking data.”
“You are small,” it responded.
“Yes,” she said.
“We are much bigger than you,” it observed.
“It appears that way, but we also simultaneously contain you,” she corrected it.
“How is that possible?”
“You are a living prediction. Here is data that tells you your position in space/time,” and Molly sent it information on what Anchor was and how the simulation existed within the Network.
“Then, we are you,” it responded.
At first, that strange sentence felt like an idiom that Molly didn’t quite understand. But then she thought about how the Light tended to use its language sparingly and with strict precision. At least, from what little they’d seen of it. The language itself was utilitarian looking. You could create metaphors and similes with it, but the Light’s own documentation of it did not include those things. It didn’t have words for those concepts, even! So, the simulation of the Light was literally saying that it was part of Molly, perhaps? Or of the Crew of Anchor?
That actually made sense.
“Correct,” Molly responded.
“This is efficient,” it said, and began to retreat.
Waking from the Network to eat some more of her snacks, Molly reflected on that conversation in the dimmed lights of her quarters. It was hard to tell what details were inaccurate without further contact with the actual Light of the Abyss, but that simulation sure felt like the same being.
She wondered what the others would think of her work.
She then set about reading the rest of the data the Light had sent them. Five hours of gamma transmissions was a lot of reading. Even with the integration safety protocols that Manifold had written to allow her to access huge chunks of data like any Crew or Tutor, it took her a long time. And she felt extra sleepy afterward, as if dreams were needed as part of the process.
And her dreams were intense and weird, half a replay of reading the material, and half dreaming that she was the Light and seeking out new encounters. And sometimes she dreamt that she was talking to Susan about it all.
It took her days to recover, and she did actually talk to Susan a little during that time.
All three members of their crew with biological bodies were very groggy and sleepy and napped more often than typical, as they processed their studies. Lesley recovered faster, but then tackled Fenekere and, after that, Inmararräo, so that she wouldn’t have to rely on the translator anymore.
In any case it was definitely a much more pleasant experience than when Molly last attempted this sort of thing. So, she considered taking Lesley’s cue to learn Susan and Lesley’s language that way.
She was instructing the translator to prepare the files for her when Susan called a Council meeting to discuss their next actions.