Lesley decided that instead of sleeping for the last few hours before their jump, she’d try visiting the cuttlecrabs one more time.
It was still currently Manifold’s Netspace, so she asked it permission to visit with them alone. She felt like she could relax and process being with them better if she wasn’t on the spot with someone else there. And Manifold thought that would be OK, so it had agreed to it.
She once again noted how different their city was from anything she’d ever seen.
Their smallest shelters were about the size of a covered catbox, and they seemed to be willing to cram four cuttlecrabs in each one at a time. And there were a lot of them. By far, that was the most common building they had.
And most of them were arranged in organic circles of eight to sixteen shelters, with streets of a sort in between them.
The streets were made of soft sand and pebbles, like a beach imported inland, and they were wide enough to accommodate slow moving streams running through the centers of them. The water in the streams was treated somewhere to be brackish and briny, and they harbored smaller life like might be found in tidepools.
The life in the streams was cultivated and harvested by the cuttlecrabs.
But, they also had, here and there, dedicated mollusk farms, which provided their staple food source. Again, these were marine style habitats important and supported to be inland.
The slightly larger community buildings were more interesting than the shelters, aside from the fact that the sheer number of shelters indicated there were a lot of cuttle crabs here.
The largest structures, besides the ones made for larger visitors like Lesley, were very clearly built with two purposes in mind: To give the cuttlecrabs a higher vantage point from which to view their world; and to be aesthetically pleasing. They were nothing more than works of art, and had no other obvious utility. Essentially, they were sculptures and statues with scaffolding cleverly built into them.
And these structures rivaled the tower that held the library, giving the city a weird sense of balance, but also a huge contrast between these tiny four crab dwellings and the human-metropolis sized towers. The towers were really spread out, though, and sparse, so that there was plenty of room for good views from any angle.
The mid-sized buildings, still too small for Lesley to enter, appeared to be warehouses and kitchens, or both. The two major industries of this city were food distribution and building. And at first glance, Lesley had a hard time identifying anything else they might be doing.
There was nothing remotely resembling commerce. Food distribution happened with no sense of exchange. Everyone just made sure that everyone else got food. And there was no apparent organization to the building, other than where buildings were placed. Individuals joined or left the building projects fluidly, seemingly at a whim.
Of course, this seemed to make sense to Lesley, since Manifold had said the cuttlecrabs were a hivemind that called themselves the Collective.
The sound of the cuttlecrab city was wild, too. To Lesley, they sounded like a forest full of parrots or ravens, with a lot of sounds thrown in that made her brain think baby crocodiles. Chirps, trills, whistles, squawks, and poinks, interspersed with truly random sounding Inmararräo words.
When she arrived this second time, one of the cuttlecrabs immediately waved with its tentacle and said, “Hi!”
It was genuinely the cutest thing. It happened the last time she’d been there, too.
She knelt and gave them a good long look, allowing herself to truly register what they looked like. The one that had waved stopped to let her do so.
So, they had a shell that came to an upward-turned point in the back. There were six shelled legs. And they had four noodly arms and two longer tentacles. The arms were lined with little suction cups, and the tentacles had suction cups on their spade-like tips. There was a very prominent and wicked looking parrot-like beak, and two eyestalks with hourglass shaped pupils. And they could change the colors of every visible piece of their anatomy except their beak, with chromatophores even in their pupils. The color changes could happen in the blink of an eye and seemed to be tied in with their communications with each other, maybe even the center of it.
They also had a bioluminescent sack under their belly that could flash and change colors as well.
And each cuttlecrab was just big enough that it would make standing in Lesley’s two upward turned open hands awkward but possible. And she had big hands. She didn’t try to convince one to try this, she just guessed from the looks of things.
“You’re Lesley,” another cuttlecrab said through the cacaphony of the city. Lesley noticed that all the nearest cuttlecrabs quieted down whenever one of them spoke to her. She also noticed that when it spoke, they all flashed colors in sync, and the one talking would also gesture with its tentacles.
“Yes! Thank you for remembering,” Lesley replied.
“Thank you for visiting! Would you like some food?”
“I -” she caught herself before turning it down. They hadn’t asked that last time. It seemed like an odd question, since they were such obviously different beings. But, this was the Network, so it couldn’t really hurt her, and for the sake of learning about them, she figured why not. So she asked, “What kind of food are you offering?”
“We farm many different mollusks and arthropods, and kelp,” several of them said in unison. “Our preparations now remove parasites and dirt, so that they are safer to eat. Would you like some?”
“Do you cook it?” she asked.
“Oh, ah. If you apply heat to the food in a controlled way, you can make it very warm and also kill many invisible parasites you might not be able to get rid of otherwise,” she explained.
“No, we do not yet cook our food. We will try this,” they replied.
“That’s OK,” she said. Then she took a deep breath and stole herself to eat something anyway, “I would like to try some of your uncooked food for now. Can you give me your proudest preparation? You know, your most artistic food?”
“We would be delighted!” they said. Then the ones nearest her turned to those who were passing by and gestured, and flashed, and warbled, and the word “book” was spoken. And then they turned back to Lesley and said, “We will bring it shortly.”
That moment of communication spread out through the whole city like a wave, with “book” echoed the whole way along with the flashes and warbling.
After learning the Light’s language, Fenekere, and Inmararräo, this made Lesley really curious, so she asked, “would it be OK with you if I learned how to speak your language?”
“Our language is your language,” they responded.
At first, this confused Lesley. They were speaking Inmararräo with each other currently, not her own language, but she figured out pretty quick that the Collective were referring to Inmararräo. They didn’t know that she spoke a different language originally.
“No,” Lesley said. “I mean, I don’t know how to gesture and flash and chirp like you do, when you communicate with each other, and I’m wondering if you’d be OK if I learned how to do that.”
If she weren’t in the Network, she wouldn’t have even asked the question, but with her command of Fenekere she could configure accommodations to be able to flash light and color, and she could probably gesture with her hands appropriately. And making the right sounds on the Network didn’t necessarily rely on vocal chords or any sort of actual physics.
“Oh! You mean to think like us!” they exclaimed. “You wish to join the Chattering?”
That brought her up short. That sounded way more intimate than she was expecting. But it made sense, now that she really looked at what they were doing and the fact that they called themselves the Collective. She hesitating to answer, so the Collective decided to reassure her.
“This has been done, and we welcome it. If you can find a way to think with us, we would be pleased to welcome you to the Chattering,” they said.
“Really? It would not be intruding?”
“Yes. We like new thoughts and new connections. It welcomes us. But we are afraid we do not know how to teach you.”
“That’s OK,” she told them. “I think I have the tools I need to learn it myself, just as long as I have your consent. So, I guess, I’m going to ask you this same question in this language called Fenekere, and if you really agree, I need you to say ‘nim’. Does that sound good?”
“OK, so. Mmm… ‘ii fe fenokera gegugo ‘emamo’a?”
They all sort of tilted the same direction and then chirped, “Nim!”
“Thank you. So, while you’re bringing me my food, I’m going to think to myself for a bit. I’ll be learning to think like you, and when I’m done I’ll try the food and then we can chatter, OK?”
“OK,” they responded in chorus, and then went about their business to let her think to herself.
She switched from a kneeling position to cross-legged and started searching the Network databases for what she needed, throwing out Fenekere commands as she discovered each bit of information. It turned out that cuttlecrab communication had already been run through the translator, probably as one of the first tests of its function when it had been first programmed. So, it was a simple task to get it to generate a glossary and grammar that she could read. And when she started reading it, she accelerated herself like she had done with the other languages she’d just learned. It felt like it took forever, like with the others, but she noticed absently that the movements of the cuttlecrabs slowed way, way down in her perceptions as she did it.
As she read, she also, of course, visualized herself performing the communication, making flashes of different colors with a ball of glowing light hovering in front of her belly, and gesturing with her arms. Practice was an important part of learning anything, and she had read somewhere that visualization would often work just as well as physical practice. And it seemed to work particularly well here on the Network.
But, then she had a moment where she realized that her body was sitting in her bed visualizing her presence in the Network, where she was in turn visualizing herself in some kind of imaginary dreamscape. And she briefly wondered if that meant the imaginary space in her mind was also technically a Network space, and decided to ask Manifold about that later.
And afterward, she also gave herself some accelerated rest. It wouldn’t help with integrating the new knowledge with her actual brain, but she felt it couldn’t hurt while she was here in the Network. And this gave her time to ponder the nature of the Network and her consciousness. Which she’d done a few times before, whenever she spent a lot of time online.
But now that she was giving herself, through Fenekere commands, the ability to communicate in a very non-human way with a bunch of very non-human beings, and she could see just how alien they were to her, she had a wild thought.
Molly had, about half a month or so ago, taught her how to alter her Network avatar. She’d used that skill to idealize it, to make it more her, like the body she was hoping to have through nanite driven surgeries and continued hormone therapy. But maybe even slightly better than that.
And she hadn’t really experimented beyond that.
She wondered if she tried something radically different, say, perhaps, to communicate better with the Collective, would it make her dysphoric? And, if it did, how long would it take for the dysphoria to set in? What would trigger it? The sensations? Or just seeing her reflection?
Or, could she purposefully dissociate from the dysphoria in order to experience the novelty for a short time?
Was she willing to risk it? She kinda wanted to. And knowing she could undo whatever she did made it seem a lot less dangerous to her psyche.
She tapped her knee several times while she considered that, then dropped her thinking down into its normal speed. She’d think about it some more over food, first.
The cuttlecrabs sprang back into motion, and suddenly she was surrounded by echoing thoughts that washed across the landscape like waves.
Will the new book dragon’s gut digest this?
They will tell us.
Foundation materials are ready for use at the new site.
The timing is good.
Oh, they awaken! Can they really learn our thinking so fast?
The new seventh tower will be tall. It will feel glorious!
We must check the power plant. It is time to do that again.
We shall see…
Lesley decided to try to add her own thoughts, and communicated, The new book dragon thinks and is listening.
And she watched that declaration ripple outward from her and disappear into the surrounding neighborhoods.
Welcome to the Collective!
The new book dragon is part of the Chattering!
Far out across the skyline of the city, she saw towers flashing briefly with her original declaration and understood it.
The towers were not just for aesthetics or the spectacular view, they were to facilitate thought! They sped up communication across the whole cityscape.
And she found these realizations were immediately confirmed by the rest of the Collective. Apparently she had thought out loud, with flashes, chirps, and gestures of her own, already fluidly assimilating into the Collective’s culture.
Her self awareness became part of their selves awareness, and her own mind started processing their thoughts as if they were her own as well. She could tell the difference, still. She could, after all, sense where these thoughts were coming from. She could see and hear it. But it became very natural to her to relax into it and lose herself to them.
But just before she became worried about losing herself, the Collective quieted and repeated the word “food” several times, allowing her to separate herself and focus on the dish being delivered to her. In fact, she felt herself being directed to look, her muscles almost moving of their own accord. Her network muscles.
As expected, the food was arrayed on a flat ceramic platter.
The platter had been made by dropping wet clay from a height upon a shelf, and then allowing it to dry before loading it and firing it in a kiln. It was flipped over to provide a perfectly flat surface on the top, with a gentle curve on the bottom that kept it in place when laid on sand. The edge was sharp and irregular, but the Collective had never had to worry about cuts.
The food was all freshly butchered and arrayed on the platter in a radially symmetrical pattern. Lesley could only identify a few of the pieces as legs of arthropods or digestive tracts of mollusks. Most of it had been rendered either into clumps of paste, or bits of severed and shaped muscle.
And, honestly, this arrangement didn’t look all that different from some of the food she’d had back home. It would be like eating raw lobster, crab, and oysters, with, apparently, bits of kelp as garnish. Or, something that linguistically translated to kelp even if it wasn’t really the same.
She shrugged and dug in.
It was briny and clean tasting! Complex flavors, and textures that were familiar to her, but in her home culture would have been had on an expensive date. She found herself craving rice wine.
As she ate, she decided to put off trying out a cuttlecrab avatar for a while. This experience had been enough. But having just contemplated the possibilities while communing with the Collective, she was faced with the exhilaration of options available to her on the Network.
And it made her want to experience something akin to that all the more while awake in her own body.
When she was done, she rejoined the Chattering and began contemplating with the Collective what they might do with access to nanite exobodies, and perhaps what they might do with Phage’s gift to them, should it bestow it upon them.
When several hours had passed and they’d exhausted that topic, she extracted herself from the Chattering and thanked the Collective for their hospitality and left for her own Netspace.
She felt she needed some time to herself after that, to come back to who she was. And she knew that if she woke up in her bed she’d fall asleep almost immediately to process all that she had learned. And then she’d miss the jump, which she didn’t want to do. So, her plan was to meditate in her Netspace until the time, then join the others on the Bridge for the jump to watch the effects.
The plain white space felt good for that.
But then, she remembered that, as today’s Captain, she had a vote to call for before the jump.
Would they, as the Crew of Anchor, accept Phage’s offer?
Lesley felt dread grip her gut.
Phage wanted unanimity. Not necessarily for everyone to receive the gift, but that it be bestowed at all. Any one who wanted to opt out of receiving it could, but they would need to vote “aye” for the sake of the others. And what if someone voted “nay”?
Would there still be room to continue discussing it? To work their way to a unanimous “aye” or a unanimous “nay”?
They’d broken procedure yesterday when the enormity of the offer had been presented to them, and they’d forgotten to talk about that aspect of their decision making. So much had gone unsaid, agreed upon by implication. At the time, Lesley had felt that that had been OK because they were truly feeling like a family and could trust each other. And it had felt like a crisis and there was the need for quick action, and parliamentary procedure would just slow them all down.
She hadn’t really even thought about it, she’d just done. And it seemed like the others had, too.
Well, anyway, she felt like the Collective was ready to join the council to cast their own vote.
That had been part of what they were all doing for the past day, right? Readying their new members for participating in this decision?
Tentatively, she messaged Susan, “So, how is the Light? Do you think they’ll be ready for the vote?”
Susan took a while to respond, but came back with, “Yes. Both Molly and I agree that they are very trustworthy. They have a lot to learn, yet, but they comprehend their place in our crew well enough. Yeah. How about the Collective? Manifold said it trusted them, but you’ve just spent a lot of time with them, right?”
Lesley was anxious enough that she felt like Susan’s hesitation to answer had some subtextual meaning in it, even though she knew her well enough to know Susan didn’t really do subtext much. But she hadn’t mentioned the vote directly in her response.
Lesley sent back, “I’m actually part of the Collective now? Honorarily, really, of course. But I learned their language and it’s really more like thinking with them, and it was pretty wild. Anyway, they know exactly who they are and where they are. Manifold gave them that much knowledge. They don’t have any memories predating their creation, but they feel like they’ve been building their city since they founded it, while they also know that they live in a Netspace created by Manifold and are free to leave it any time to create their own.
“Anyway, they’re more curious about the rest of Anchor in the physical sense, and the rest of us crew, than they are in having their own Netspace. We can probably expect some nanite clay cuttlecrabs wandering around the hallways soon. But…
“Well, while they’re not really sure what they’d do with Phage’s gift, they are excited to see what the rest of us will accomplish with it. They say they’ll vote ‘aye’ so as not to invalidate any of our other votes.”
“Mmm,” came Susan’s reply.
That was it.
Lesley could think of all sorts of reasons Susan would vote ‘nay’, but her contract idea had sounded really solid. She really hoped that Susan was just feeling unenthusiastic and focused on that contract.
She wondered how she should communicate next, though. Should she ask Susan directly whether or not she thought everyone was ready for the vote? And ask why not, if she wasn’t ready? Or should she just call the meeting and go from there?
There had been some times when she’d annoyed Susan by pushing a subject, and she didn’t want to do that again. But, on the other hand, if Susan needed that communication and she just called a meeting, her partner would feel slighted and possibly even unloved.
Lesley felt herself locking up with anxiety and executive dysfunction, her mind ruminating on those questions as a circle of thought that wasn’t going anywhere, and she was starting to panic. She was today’s Captain, and it was her job to make executive decisions like this, and facilitate good meetings, and their jump time was due in a couple of hours.
Then, two thoughts presented themselves in her head.
Anchor didn’t have to jump on time. It could coast at the target velocity until they were ready to go.
And she could just ask Susan if she wanted to talk first. If she didn’t, then she didn’t, and that would be Lesley’s answer.
Lesley ended up wording the question, “Are you ready for the vote?” instead, though.
“Yeah,” replied Susan, quickly but glumly.
No. She really couldn’t leave it at that. That had clear subtext. “Do you… Do you want to talk about it with me, first?” Lesley asked.
“No, no, we should just call the meeting and vote,” Susan said.
Well, shit. Well, OK. Then the next step was to contact everyone and call the meeting.
They would be expecting it.
But she found that it was really hard for her to get herself to do it.
She felt frozen, with growing fear that it was going to be a bad confrontation.
Maybe she really wasn’t cut out to be Captain. She sure wasn’t enjoying it. She could make decisions for herself and Susan when the shit hit the fan, and she could answer questions with authority when she knew what she was talking about. But managing a group of people who might have differing feelings and opinions was just unpleasant. Especially if it seemed like their feelings and opinions might be opposed to her own.
She said that out loud, “Unbearably unpleasant.”
Somehow, stating that out loud in her Netspace unlocked the words she needed to send to everyone, so, without letting herself second guess it she sent, “I hereby call a council meeting on the Bridge to discuss the possibility of voting on Phage’s offer. Our new crew members are invited to participate.”
It almost felt like she hadn’t been the one to say that. Like it just happened.
And then she let out a big sigh and almost woke up from the Network to go to the Bridge.
She managed to stop herself because that wouldn’t work.
She was definitely still frazzled. And she really did need to wake up so that she could eat something and then go to sleep proper, and maybe get some exercise when she could. This was already a long fucking day.
At Lesley’s request, Manifold arranged the council table to have seven sides this time, with one side chairless, and another furnished with a wide platform with a set of shallow stairs behind it. Places for the Light of Anchor and the Collective respectively.
The Light was expected to appear as an amoeboid agent with a communication stalk sprouting out of it, and didn’t need any sort of chair or stool or similar furniture to remain comfortable or feel equal. And, so it did.
The Collective, on the other hand, were sending a sub-collective of four cuttlecrabs who could speak for the whole, and their platform was modeled after similar structures found in their city. It was big enough to accommodate all four of them, and high enough that they would be eye level with Susan (unless Susan chose to be taller in the Network today for any reason).
Both would be connected to their greater selves through the Network, so it wasn’t exactly like they were sending separated emissaries to the meeting, but Manifold did think that psychologically they each might end up treating it that way, anyway. It was hard to say. It understood from reports from its former Students that the Network could trick you that way, sometimes, and you could forget all that you could do with it.
As it expected from the tone of her request, Lesley was the last to arrive. And she sat down at a table with Susan to her left, Molly to her right, the Light and the Collective in the next two places, with Manifold and Phage sitting side by side opposite her.
She looked slow, overly careful, and twitchy. It guessed that she had likely not slept since its discussion with her in the empty shipyard, and it worried about her.
“I’d like to,” Lesley said perhap a little listlessly, “bring together – or rather – bring to order this session of the Anchor council. In doing so, I’d also like to welcome the Light of Anchor and the Collective to the council as full fledged members. Neither of you are that much younger than the council itself, and as part of our little family it is your right to have your voices heard as equals. We also welcome your unique perspectives and sensibilities. Thank you for joining us.
“I think I should probably explain our parliamentary procedure formally, so that our new members know what to expect. But I’d also like to point out that I am currently speaking Inmararräo. We do not have an official language here, and maybe never will, but since we only have two members who do not currently speak Inmararräo, it seemed most efficient to set up the translator to work for you two. It will translate all words spoken at this table into your language, and you will only hear that language. And it will translate your words for each of us. We could all speak our favorite languages, and this would work fine, but I also want the practice for personal reasons.
“OK, so, we’ve been really informal here. When you have a really big group, there are rules we can use for taking and yielding the floor, and as today’s Captain it would be my place to manage that. If this meeting gets out of hand, I’ll institute those rules as best as I can remember them. OK?” She’d been picking up steam while staring at the table this whole time, but she stopped here to look around. And then she said, “But, we are going to use the whole motion, seconding, and voting procedure for big group decisions.
“And the way that works is this,” she sighed. “If someone wants the council to make a decision on something or take an action, they will say, ‘I motion that we do the thing,” or something to that effect. Then, if someone else agrees that that is a good idea, they will say, ‘I second that motion’. If no one says that, then there isn’t enough interest to act on that motion and we will move on to other matters. If a motion is seconded, then I will call a vote. And, like, we might have motions within motions, such as to propose a vote should be unanimous, and anyway. I think our new members will see how it all works if you just sit and watch for a bit.
“But, really, like I said, we’re a family first and a council second, as far as I know, and if you need help having your voice heard and don’t know how to say things, ask. So, is everyone comfortable with this?” She looked around again.
Susan nodded first and strongest, Manifold following her. Molly smiled. The Collective chirped a positive, and the Light flashed an affirmative.
Phage said, “Of course.”
Lesley took a long deep breath, glanced at Susan, and then said, “During our last meeting, Phage effectively forwarded a motion that it would offer us each the gift of its natural abilities, for us to each use and experience as we see fit, if we unanimously agreed to it. Now, I think there’s been talk of it being OK for one or more of us to turn down this gift for ourselves after we vote, but I wanted to make sure that was what Phage has in mind. Is that accurate?”
“I hadn’t said that. Unanimity, yes. As a preference on my part. Abstaining from accepting the gift, no,” Phage replied. “But it sounds perfectly reasonable to me. Still, I think that’s a decision we should make as a group, more or less. If you don’t want to allow it, I’m fine with that, also.”
“I’m voting ‘no’ anyway,” Susan said abruptly.
She didn’t say anything more, and just kept her gaze on the table in front of her.
Lesley seemed to crumple and looked at a complete loss as to what to do next, glancing fearfully at her girlfriend ever so briefly.
Manifold had not expected this. It had expected someone to lean toward ‘nay’, and was even considering that vote itself. But up until now, Lesley and Susan had been a front of agreement. They’d come from the same culture, and had the same general reflexes regarding most major decisions, especially in regards to their own home and their roles aboard Anchor since joining the crew. They were partners and usually talked about difficult things between themselves before addressing the rest of the group about them. But this time, it seems they hadn’t.
It wondered what the difference was in this case. Perhaps it had been that Susan had played host to Phage within her psyche and used its powers to face down a military company, and Lesley had not. And maybe one or the other of them was feeling self-conscious and fearful about disagreeing with the other.
Manifold found itself wishing that it had seen this coming so that it could have counseled them both before the meeting. But it had to remind itself that it had been deliberately trying to avoid being a Tutor.
“Can?” Lesley managed to say, lifting her head ever so slightly. “Can you maybe tell us why, Susan?”
Susan squinted at the table and took a sharp quick breath through her nose and said, “I’m sorry, Lesley. It just feels really dangerous and wrong to me. It has felt like Phage has been manipulative and untrustworthy since we’ve met it, or at least like it doesn’t understand how, well, us mortals, I guess, work. And I don’t think that any of us can see the true ramifications of what it’s proposing, least of all it.” She looked sideways up at Phage, “Sorry, Phage.”
“I’m not hurt by your words, Susan,” it replied. “And you may even be correct. I don’t think I’m trying to manipulate any of you, but I do feel like my sense of communication has been off. I do seem to have a subconscious mind, and I may be making manipulative moves and statements purposefully without being aware of it.
“And I do not think it is in my place for me to defend myself or my proposal, in any case. Please, say what you need to say, and I will take it as criticism I should consider. Thank you.”
Susan frowned at it.
“Can I try to convince you to vote ‘yes’?” Lesley asked very softly.
Susan’s face softened before she turned to Lesley and said, “Of course, Darling. But… If your case is mostly about how it will all benefit us, I’m going to try to convince you to also vote ‘no’. I’m going to need other reassurances, and I’m not sure they’re possible, you know?”
“Mm,” Lelsey seemed to acknowledge that.
Molly was watching this whole exchange with a worried look on her face, and Manifold knew her well enough to predict that she would be at a loss for words for some time yet. She didn’t seem in great distress, though.
Manifold let its own curiosity lead it to ask, “For the sake of understanding, what kind of reassurances do you feel you, or the rest of us for that matter, should have, Susan?”
Susan looked at it and said, “Well, OK, so. I had this idea for a contract we could draw up with Phage, and between each other, that would include a code of conduct and assurances that Phage would have no expectations of us for giving us its gift. It’s the kind of thing that some people from our world talk about doing with potentially malicious or evil spirits, or faeries, or such things. Not that many people really thought they existed. But with what Phage looks like and how it’s been behaving, passively aggressively prodding me and you and Molly, Manifold – at least, that’s what I thought it was doing – I thought that’s how we should treat it. But now I think I’m wrong.”
Manifold nodded to let her know it had been listening, and glanced at everyone else to see if it seemed that they were following, before it said, “So, what do you think is going on then? What’s the problem?”
“So, Molly told me that Phage has made this same proposal to the Sunspot, and also to the Terra Supreme,” she gazed meaningfully at Manifold for a few moments before turning to Lesley and then also to the Light and the Collective to say, “The Terra Supreme is the Sunspot’s predecessor ship. It’s full of fascists and their captive victims. And Phage apparently is offering to give them all its powers.”
“Oh,” mumbled Lesley, her face creasing.
“Who does that?” Susan asked, spearing Phage with a questioning glare. “These are three very different populations of people, with very different problems. How is it that you think that this one offer is the appropriate solution for all three of them?”
“I don’t,” Phage said. “It’s a solution to my problem, honestly. But it’s up to each of you to decide if it’s an appropriate solution to your problems, too. If it’s not, I will live with it.”
Susan kept staring at it, and then said more slowly, “And that makes it feel like a test. If not by you, then by the rest of the universe. I feel like there’s a reason we don’t have this power, and I feel like if we vote ‘yes’ for it then that actually makes us unworthy. And, frankly, Phage, I’m still not sure if you’re worthy of the power.”
“From my point of view, giving you all the power would make the question of my worthiness a moot point,” it said.
“I get what you’re trying to say there, Phage,” Susan said. “But we are not a closed system. This isn’t just a question of the power balance between each of us. We are about to jump to an inhabited star system, to interact with the people there. And we’re being presented with the question of whether or not we want to be people ourselves when we arrive.”
“If I may,” Manifold interjected, then paused to gather its thoughts. “Wherever we go, we face the high possibility there will be a power imbalance between us and the people we meet. Many, many planets will not have interstellar capabilities nor mastery over nanites nor quantum storage and processing like we do. If we encounter other space farers, such as the Light of the Abyss, we may find ourselves severely overpowered by beings who are better at manipulating the fabric of space/time than we are, and who have power sources that surpass our own.
“The question of whether or not we will be people in relation to those we meet will always be there, whether we accept Phage’s gift or not,” it concluded.
“This feels different than that,” Susan said. “This feels like a test of my very soul.”
“I felt the same way just before my surgery, Susan,” Lesley whispered with hardly any breath at all.
“I was in such a bad place I wasn’t going to live if I didn’t get it. I don’t think anybody ever truly understands that, no matter how many times I say it,” Lesley spoke just a little louder. “Because, you know, it’s dysphoria, and the way you die from dysphoria is suicide. And people blame suicide on the willpower of the victim of it. In fact, they tell us that our survivors are the victims! That we can just choose not to die! But, that’s not how it works. There just gets to be a point where you might even just die. Just stop living, even if you don’t use your own hands to end it.
“Because it just hurts that much for some of us,” Lesley said, as if it was her last sentence.
“Yeah, and you -” Susan started to say.
“No, I’m not done,” Lesley said evenly. “You see, I’m not special in that. Other people are there right now, even, but they’re not being given the opportunity I was given. They have no options. My whole life I thought I would never, ever get to transition, let alone receive that surgery. Only unbelievably rich people get to experience that relief.
“And then when I finally realized I had to push for the impossible thing or die in the worst agony anyone can possibly describe, things fell into place politically to give it to me. And who was I to say ‘yes’ to that?! Who was I to accept a fucking miracle?! There are so many other people who needed that as much as I did, and didn’t get to have it! And now they’re dead, or will be soon, in pain, never having had a chance to live even a minute free of it.
“And you know what every single one of them would have said to me? Because it’s the thing I would say to them?” She lifted her head and stared at Susan, tears streaming down her face, mouth screwed up into a quivering knot of sorrow and loss.
Susan, apparently realizing that words were not the thing to say here, just shook her head so slightly.
“They’d say, ‘Go for it! Grab that miracle while you can! One of us has to live to feel that joy! One of us has to live to show the rest of the world that we fucking deserve it! That we’re human!’”
“And they’re fucking dead now, Susan! I can name some of their names!
“But with every tool we’re given here, by these people, by our new family, we gain the power to help not only ourselves but the next people we meet who are like us! Like you and me, Susan, Sweetheart. Like you. And me.
“I have to help people, Susan. I have to. Not worlds. Not countries. Individuals. Let’s go out there and find people like us, and if they consent, bring them aboard. Or give them some kind of hope! We finally have the power to do it.”