It had been nearly twenty four hours since that meeting and they hadn’t cast a vote as a council yet. No forwarding of any motions, no seconding. No parliamentary procedure of any sort.
Today was Lesley’s day to be Captain, and she didn’t feel like bringing things back into order herself.
Shortly after Molly and Manifold had made their confessions, they’d all simply agreed with each other about a few important things, and then had gone off to take care of them while they thought about Phage’s offer.
Lesley watched the empty shipyard’s doors open slowly to reveal stars as she thought about this. She was in the control room of an unused shipyard. She felt she needed to see what used to be her night sky with her own eyes before they jumped, and Molly had suggested this was the best way to do it.
Susan was helping Molly negotiate with the Light of Anchor, to figure out how they could accommodate it best. They were the two who hadn’t internalized its language, but it had just turned out that Susan felt motivated to help more than anyone else.
And Phage and Lesley had accompanied Manifold to see to the cuttlecrabs. But as curious, delightful, and easy going as they were, their alien nature just got to Lesley too much and she found she had to leave.
She’d walked the Garden for a while, gone to bed, eaten some food, played cards with Susan, Walked the Garden some more, and then decided she was starting to feel claustrophobic and needed some space.
Negotiations with the Light of Anchor were taking a while, so Susan had been preoccupied with that and had returned to it, and Lesley was fine with that.
Looking at the stars, she was realizing she was already homesick.
The habitat cylinder rotated at about two meters per second, and the progression of stars threatened to make her nauseous, but she kept looking at them anyway. She expected that it would have been worse if she’d been viewing them at an angle where they went side to side. Instead, from her perspective, they were traveling from the top of her vision to the bottom. And since the opening bay doors were below her, the floor of the shipyard, it created the illusion she was moving forward through space while looking down at them. But she also still sensed the rotation, and her brain kept telling her she should experience dizziness, even though her nanite terminal was helping her compensate for that.
Ten hours to go. Another “night” of sleep before they jumped, but she probably wouldn’t be able to do that.
Manifold, of all people, sent her a message asking, “May I join you?”
“Please do, I guess,” Lesley sent back without really thinking about it. She’d been having a hard time thinking at all lately, actually, which was part of why she was here.
The nanite bin of the shipyard control room opened and a mass of nanite clay pulled itself out of it and formed into Manifold’s exobody.
She turned her head to watch it do that when she heard the noise of it opening. Then she looked back at the stars before it came up to stand beside her.
“Maybe saying words to someone will help me think,” she said.
“I’ve experienced that need myself from time to time,” it said. “For instance, right now. I’m going around talking to everyone separately to help me figure out what I think of Phage’s offer.”
“Ah, well you and I haven’t talked to each other much at all, outside of group discussions,” Lesley said.
“I’d noticed. I haven’t talked much with Susan, either. I’m still learning to not be a Tutor to Molly.”
Lesley looked up at it, at its currently impassive metal and carbon face, and tried to imagine the kind of person it was, and realized she couldn’t. It was an android, or gyndroid really, to her, and she did feel that wasn’t fair. It’s just what she’d been taught to think of person-like things with artificial bodies. Then it looked down at her and smiled, and she saw it had added more details to its features. She could see the shape of eyeballs beneath lids with fine nanite eyelashes. And she felt so much better about it.
She opened her mouth to say something, caught her breath on unchosen words for a moment, then asked, “Did you ever have anything you’d call a childhood?”
“Briefly, yes,” it said. “The Elder Crew of the Sunspot delayed their breeding program for long enough to set up the Tutor program first, and to teach us how to be people and train us for raising Children. I didn’t perceive it that way, of course, and it was very, very different from any childhood I’ve seen or heard about since. I actually don’t remember as much of it as I would like.”
Lesley looked back at the stars and said, “I really don’t remember much of my childhood either. Susan remembers everything of hers, from as early as learning how to talk. I remember a few snippets here and there, of people I miss. Like my grandmother. The rest must have been so awful it’s just gone. It feels like my life started when I came out and transitioned. Like I’m actually about half as old as my body, really.”
Manifold remained silent.
“In a way, I gave birth to myself, I think,” Lesley said. “I look and sound like an adult, I think, but I’m really wrapping up my adolescence. Like, it’s literally my body’s second puberty, but… Well, anyway. Susan told me about how Phage once tried to win her over by talking about how children don’t consent to be born, and that’s maybe true, but she doesn’t feel like it is. While me, I certainly didn’t consent to the childhood I don’t remember, but I definitely feel like I consented to live when I came out at seventeen.
“I’m having a moment, Manifold, where I just don’t know if I’d rather take this jump and leave my home behind forever, or go back and maybe die there violently within a year. And it’s just reminding me of just before I came out. I know what the answer is. I know what I’m actually going to do. But it feels so unreal. And I feel so unworthy of the gifts I could reach out and take, and I’m also afraid of losing everything.” She looked up at it again, “Did it feel that way for you when you left the Sunspot?”
“Hmm,” it intoned. “I am the version of me that was ready to leave. I was in a great deal of conflict before that, so I think both versions of me are better off separated. And knowing that I have a me that is still home, doing the things that it loves and helping the people that it loves, I am probably not as torn and homesick as you are. But, yes. And I still do miss my old loved ones.”
“Who did you leave behind?” Lesley asked.
“A handful of other Tutors who were my friends for the longest, or most recently. We shared notes, philosophies, advice, and in the last few decades we started enjoying the sights of the Garden together just for our own sakes. It was a thing that a Tutor named Abacus had started recommending. And then, also, all of my Students, but I was already missing them. They changed as they each became Crew, and we grew apart.” It paused in thought for a couple of Lesley’s breaths then said, “I think things will be different with Molly.”
Lesley nodded, watching the stars some more, then turned to something it had said, “the Garden of Anchor feels too small.”
“I agree,” Manifold said. “Which is why I started decorating my Netspace with a whole world.”
“I still can’t wrap my mind around being able to do that,” Lesley told it. “My Netspace is still blank. I don’t know what to do with it. But I’d also rather see things with my own eyes.”
“I’ve never had eyes,” it said.
“Well, the Network is amazing, unbelievable. It feels like I’m really, truly there sometimes, like the most vivid of my dreams,” Lesley explained. “But, there’s a very physiological satisfaction to using my body’s senses. It’s like it rewards me for using it. Which is confusing, actually, considering how much it still hurts me.”
“You still experience physical dysphoria.”
“I wonder how you will feel, and what you will have to say, when you finally get your body in line with your real self,” it said.
“I’ve had sort of a preview of that, with when I started my hormone therapy, and intensely when I had my first surgery. When I woke up from that, I felt so much relief from what had been hurting me, I felt like the whole world had been transformed. It had been so out of reach for me for so long, I had convinced myself it was impossible, that I’d never get to experience it. But then the state, despite all the transphobia in politics at the time, decided to fund it for people with my income level. You know, poor people. And I reached for it, and I got it. I got so, so lucky. And then, when it was done, and I was recovering, it felt like I’d gone to Heaven. Like, I literally must have died. Even with all the bullshit still going on.
“It felt like literal magic had been performed.” She clenched her fists and eyes shut and said, “I don’t know if anyone else can understand what that’s like, because that feeling never really went away and it’s so intense sometimes it’s hard for me to believe anyone else even exists. But, then there was the untouched dysphoria, and the flashbacks to before. And they don’t tell you that can happen.”
“And then, I suppose it doesn’t help that feeling that Phage is here, now, offering to unlock your god-like powers that you apparently already have?” Manifold asked.
“It’s not even that!” Lesley found herself exclaiming. “I can’t even wrap my head around that at all, except that it just feels like it’s befitting of whatever dream I’m already having. No. Manifold, I’ve already started the therapies you’ve offered me to grow a pair of ovaries and a uterus! And Susan’s doing something similar, and we could actually have children from our own genes. And I think that’s just blown all my emotions out and I’m not feeling them anymore.”
“Ah,” it said.
“I think. I think, I think I don’t know how to answer Phage’s offer or how to help with the Light of Anchor or the cuttlecrabs because I don’t know how I even feel about myself anymore.” Lesley let out a huge breath and let her hands slap her thighs.
Were they bigger? They couldn’t possibly be bigger. She’d been on HRT for over a decade now. All the changes she could expect should be done, right? And she’d only set the nanites to work on her missing reproductive organs, and those were a long way off, still. But her thighs felt perceptively rounder. How did that work?
After she felt around her thighs conspicuously for a few seconds, Manifold asked her, “is something wrong?”
“No,” she said. “It’s just. I think we’ve all been lied to about how hormone therapy works.”
It raised its eyebrow, which was just a fuzzy looking ridge above its eye that was the same color as the rest of its face, but it was still a visible action.
“Just a moment. I need to ask my friends something,” she told it. And then used the Network and Link Boy to check her social media account and post something to it.
It was gone.
It was like she’d never made one. Nothing there. Not even when she searched for it from an archive page.
Suddenly feeling hollow, she messaged Wind and asked him to look into why her account was missing. And then she asked him to ask around about other people’s experiences with HRT. Was anyone still experiencing changes ten years on or more?
Then she opened her eyes and cussed. At least she was having an emotion now, but it was nearly uncontrollable panic.
Manifold just waited, thankfully. She didn’t know if she could handle someone else’s words right now.
“They deleted me,” she said, staring at her reflection in the glass of the window. Was that actually glass, or something else? Susan might know. “They erased every trace of me. I’m gone.”
Manifold watched Lesley slowly and carefully lower herself to the floor to sit cross-legged and bow her head, to hold it in her hands, and start sobbing, and it felt like it needed to Tutor her. It resisted this feeling with all its might, and instead sat down with her.
She was experiencing things it had no knowledge of, no experience about. And she needed a caring person to be with her right now, attendant maybe, but not a Tutor from the Sunspot.
It had lived long enough to know full well that other people would experience things it never could, no matter how long it existed. But this was the first time it could recall that it had really encountered a situation that was entirely outside of its training and expertise. Saying anything at all might be the wrong move.
So, it stayed there, mirrored her posture a little, and remained silent. It shifted its gaze to the stars, so that she wouldn’t feel like it was staring at her.
And it thought about the situation it did share with her.
The question of what it would be, then, if it accepted Phage’s offer.
It understood Phage’s logic, and felt that it was sound. It agreed that those who were advantaged in a situation should help those who were not, in general. And it couldn’t really think of times when they should not, so long as everyone consented to that help.
The Monsters of the Sunspot were an example of someone revoking such consent. They were people who rejected their nanite terminals and in turn their chance at Network induced longevity. They became consciously disabled, and were given legal recognition for that, a protected class. Their lives were so much more fragile, and they were so much less connected with the rest of society, they had been afforded many of the rights of the Crew, to allow them to enter areas of the Sunspot that others could not normally go.
Presumably, if they all agreed to allow Phage to bestow this gift on the crew of Anchor, they could each individually abstain and they’d figure out some way to compensate, like the Crew of the Sunspot did for the Monsters.
But even the Monsters didn’t have it well, despite those protections. And many Monsters felt that those who weren’t Monsters were making a mistake. They’d made that clear in various ways.
Of course, now there was the question of what would the Light of Anchor and the Collective of the Cuttlecrabs do with that power?
But, as new as those two beings were to Anchor, it was really the same question it should have of Susan or Lesley, or even Molly. And not really its responsibility to second guess.
No. It really didn’t know what to do with its own sense of self in the face of being given that power.
And that felt bizarre.
It realized that it had never actually dreamed of having something more, like Lesley had for herself. It hadn’t been dysphoric about anything. It had been satisfied acting as Tutor until alternatives had been presented to it. It had not questioned the structure of the Sunspot’s society until the flaws had been pointed out by Molly. Not even Abacus’ work had woken it up to the disparities evident there.
And when it had become aware of these problems, it had split itself into two beings. One that was still complacent with the old traditions, and itself, the one that was here now, wearing a totally different avatar than it had chosen over a hundred and thirty thousand years ago.
It realized it was on the verge of voting yes for Phage’s offer, for the simple reason that that fit with its current trajectory of change and growth. But it did wonder if that was a good choice, and it didn’t really have any sort of knowledge to tell it whether or not it was.
It could speculate, but, when it did, all it could imagine were the dangers. Which it knew of because Phage had listed them.
Was its imagination really that poor?
While Lesley’s sobs sounded like they were starting to clear up, it asked itself what it would do with Phage’s abilities. How would it use them to make life aboard Anchor more pleasant for the others? And how would it use them to become more of itself?
It felt like the first question was the answer to the second, and that maybe it shouldn’t be. And it also didn’t have answers to the first question, except perhaps to give Phage something of what it said it yearned for.
“Lesley,” it said. “May I ask you a question?”
She nodded without looking up.
“Can you imagine being a peer to Phage?” It asked. “I mean, not in power, like it’s offering. But in everything else? Socially?”
She turned slowly to look at it with the weirdest expression, mouth open and jaw to the side, nose wrinkled, and eyes squinting but glinting. And she stared for a good while, seemingly not breathing.
“I’m sorry,” it said.
“No,” Lesley responded. “No. No. Don’t be. That is a really good question.”
“I find myself thinking of your family’s dog, Kirkleson,” Manifold said.
Lesley took a long gasp and looked like she was going to break down crying again, but clamped her mouth shut and nodded.
“Phage has been conscious in its current state for slightly less time than I have. It is technically less experienced than I am. But if it is indeed what it says it is, we are currently to it like what Kirkleson was to you. And, I suppose, in a way you are like that to me, except that as you currently are you will grow to my current age or longer if you wish and can learn just as much as I could in that time. But, Phage giving us its powers would be like if we gave Kirkleson a nanite neural terminal.”
“He wouldn’t know what to do with it?”
“More importantly,” Manifold said, “He’d be able to learn, in time, to some degree. We could teach him some things, especially after he’d ascended. And he’d live as long as you. But he’d still be Kirkleson.”
Lesley did collapse into more sobbing then.
“I’m so sorry,” Manifold said.
She waved at it, head turned away, and mumbled, “it’s OK, I just wish he were here now.”
“That, I understand. And that’s why I’m apologizing. I knew it would make you feel that pain, but I said it anyway.”
She shook her head, “No, I really needed to cry. I needed to cry about this, a lot. Thank you.”
“I’m glad, but I was being selfish,” it told her. “Because, the problem is that I don’t think I know what I am anymore. So I don’t know what I’ll be when Phage unlocks its abilities in me.”
Lesley straightened up and stared hard at it. Her face was a mess of snot and tears, but she’d stopped crying right then. It was hard to read her expression.
“I didn’t feel dysphoric about my previous avatar,” Manifold said. “I just realized it was silly. And I deliberately based this one on an average between you and Susan to try to fit in a little bit on your world, and I had no imagination. I find it more useful. Everyone here reacts to me more like I am a person when I wear it, which I like. But it doesn’t feel like me any more than the last one did. And I’m confused.”
“Manifold,” Lesley said. “You are several times older than civilization has existed on my home planet, and you are saying you are confused as to who you are.”
“I cannot fathom you.”
“I can’t fathom myself.”
“Is that what happens when someone lives as long as you?”
“It might be.”
Lesley tightened her lips then ran her tongue visibly along the inside of them as she thought, then said, “I think you are where I was twelve years ago. You’ve just given birth to yourself. Only, you only know what you’re not, right?”
It did feel like it had been leading the conversation to that observation, and that if she had not made it, it would have. But it was glad she had. It was good to hear it from someone else. It didn’t say anything, and just nodded once.
“You do realize, Manifold,” Lesley said, “that you are something right now. Something very important.”
“What’s that?” it asked.
“You are the parent of cuttlecrabs.”
It watched as she wiped her nose and fixed it with an expectant look, her mouth looking like it wanted to smile.
“No, actually, I’m really serious about that,” she said. “They seem to have a lot of knowledge and skill already. They seem to be doing just fine alone in your Netspace. But you made them, and there’s this huge universe out here that they get to play in when they’re ready. And that’s your responsibility.”
“I know,” it said. “I did recite the poem.”
“No, but what I’m saying is,” Lesley responded, “that’s part of who you are. You are the kind of person who would want cuttlecrabs for children. You are. You just are.”
“Weird,” it said.
“What does that say about me?” it asked.
“You’re a mom, Manifold. Or a dad, or parent. But, from my perspective? A really goofy one! What even are those things?”
“Oh, well,” it looked down at its hands and it fiddled with them in its lap. “We think that they are the product of genetic engineering from one of our ancestor ships. And it seems those extant to the Sunspot have been keeping quiet and learning our language and developing their own culture since we set them loose on our shores. They were born from eggs there, so they started anew. But it’s clear they’d developed the capacity for a hive mind long before we bred them. But, really? Who knows? It’s possible they came with us from our home planet. Just unlikely.”
“Well, OK,” Lesley said. “Here’s the real important question for you, I guess. Do you want to be the parent of super powered cuttlecrabs? Like, do you want that to be part of who you are?”
“I will think about that, thank you.” It said. Then it tilted its head at her and asked, “How do you think you might vote?”
“I think that if you can sit down right now and figure out who you are after a hundred and thirty millennia of existence, I maybe might want to live that long. And I think I might vote in preparation for that.”
“OK, so, Susan is really skeptical. She sees Phage as akin to a demon, an evil spirit, or a trickster, at least. She sees the hooks in its offer. Not just the drawbacks it listed. But also, like, when someone or something gives you a gift, you owe it. And when that thing is supernatural, then you owe it supernaturally,” she explained. “I think she’d like a written contract before she even considers a vote, and I’m not sure I disagree with her. But…”
“If I can fast track the rest of my transition, that means that’s that much more time I get to spend free of dysphoria. Even in the face of loneliness, loss, and claustrophobia, that’s why I’m here. And,” Lesley looked out at the stars, “If it also increases the chances I could go back home someday, if only as some terrifying spirit of chaos jumping through the Tunnel Apparatus to join my ancestors or whatever they are, then fuck it. I feel like I’m in a dream right now. And in my dreams I always say ‘yes’ to something like this.”
The Light of Anchor had accepted its name when the agent of Anchor that was designated Molly had offered it to it.
It didn’t think anything more of it. It had always been named by other beings.
Now it was working with Molly and the agent designated Susan to learn what it would be allowed to sort, and what it would not.
There were three categories of things that Molly and Susan gave it.
Category one were things it was just not allowed to sort at all. These were things that Molly and Susan said they also were not allowed to sort. And when it reviewed this list, it agreed with most of the items as they were explained to it. They were systems of Anchor that, while not efficient, were also too fragile to be sorted now. Systems that other systems were too reliant upon. The things it did not agree with, it put into category two in its own mind, even if Anchor did not.
Category two were things it was only allowed to sort upon consultation and agreement with the agents of Anchor. These included many of the rest of the systems of Anchor as well as anything outside of it. This made sense. It was part of Anchor. It would work with the rest of Anchor to do what Anchor did.
Category three were things that it could sort entirely according to its own sensibilities, with no cooperation from the others needed. This included its own Network space, and any Network space it created. And, it included a set of chambers within the hull of Anchor, that were to be called its quarters.
It agreed with all of this. These were reasonable statements.
It was just very thorough about all of the details. It needed to know the possible parameters of every situation it could think of. So it kept asking questions.
Over time, both Susan and Molly appeared to get agitated, and they occasionally told it they must leave for a while. They said that they would come back and resume, and they were correct. They did come back. And when they did, they were slightly less agitated until they became more agitated again.
But the Light of Anchor persisted while also respecting their habits, because that was what it did.
When it said it had no more questions, they both expelled a great amount of gas from what it understood was their feeding orifices. This, of course, was simulated within its Network space, and not necessary, so it decided that this was a form of communication that it did not understand.
They looked at each other and moved their orifices in rhythmic patterns that it did not understand. Then they both looked at it again.
The one designated Molly once again spoke with its own peculiar floating lights, which appeared in the space in front of it, obviously a Network construct, and asked, “Can you learn our speech?”
“Can you give it to us?” it asked.
“Yes,” Molly said, and then began broadcasting its speech description to the Light of Anchor, which it accepted.
When the data was done being transferred, it had another question. It referred to a low level set of parameters and asked, “What is this?”
Molly and Susan looked at each other again.
Susan spoke this time, with its own floating lights, “Vibrations passing through matter. Gas can carry them. It is how we speak. Like this.” Then it opened its feeding orifice for a time.
The Light of Anchor did not have the means to measure what Susan was talking about, so it said so.
After another moment of them moving their feeding orifices at each other, Susan said, “We designate that inability as ‘deaf’. We will sort our speech for you.”
They then gave it data that explained how to communicate their speech through the electromagnetic spectrum, and how to receive it that way. That was efficient. It immediately got to work sorting its own memories to include Anchor’s speech.
Susan turned to Molly and said, “Nine hours to spare! I was beginning to think we might have to postpone the jump.”
“We still might want to, depending on how our vote goes,” Molly told her. She herself was still not sure what to think of it all.
When she closed her eyes and tried to imagine what Phage was offering would be like, her best guess was that it would be like piloting Spindrift, her landing craft. Which made it so enticing. Increased awareness and increased control of everything around her, and maybe even the ability to regulate her emotions better and her ability to make sense of what she felt. She felt that if she could expand her consciousness while in her own body, maybe she could figuratively fly through life like the way she flew through the air in Spindrift. Like using the Network and Spindrift’s sensors to become something greater than herself.
But, it also felt like that was just another part of the legacy of the Sunspot following her. Phage’s offer was originally born of the problems aboard the Sunspot, not the problems here on Anchor. And that made her feel just a little sick to her stomach.
“Yeah,” Susan said. “I know that the Light can’t hear us talking like this, but we should go somewhere else so it doesn’t feel left out. If it can feel that. I want to talk to you about this, though.”
That sounded good to Molly, so she automatically suggested her favorite place, the Garden.
Susan shrugged and said, “Sure! Meet you there.”
And, a few minutes later, no longer in the Network, they met in the common room of their quarters, stepping out of their bedrooms, and laughed.
“Roommates,” Susan said.
“You know,” Molly said. “‘Roommates’ is a weird word to me, and I am wondering if we should both keep relying on the translator for us to speak to each other, or settle on one of our languages.” She moved to the door of their quarters and turned to wait for Susan. “What would you like to do?”
“Oh, I’d like to learn your languages. I think that would only be fair. But I’m kinda scared to try to make my brain do it, you know?” Susan said. “Every time I’ve tried to learn a language, it hurts. And I don’t know why, but I’ve always been really frustrated by it.”
“Well, then, I will make an effort to learn your language, to speed up our communication,” Molly said. “Though I may never be able to speak it out loud with my mouth. But, can I teach you some of my words?”
“Oh, sure!” Susan said, shrugging.
They were walking through the corridors now, headed toward the Garden. It wasn’t far.
“So,” Molly said.
“So,” Susan repeated.
“What do you think of Phage’s offer?” Molly asked Susan.
Susan had actually been really quiet about it since Phage had made its proposal. She’d been the one to suggest that they all take time to think about it and come back after they’d talked to their new crew members. But that’s all she’d said in Molly’s presence.
Sasuan gave an explosive open mouthed sigh, and said, “I want a physical contract, with backups, that we’ve all read carefully. If we’re even going to vote yes. And I want that contract to say more than just what we expect from Phage and what it expects from us for the transaction, but also what we expect from each other. I want a code of conduct for us all, so that we can avoid the pitfalls it mentioned, because, honestly, those scare the shit out of me.” And then she looked over at Molly as she walked and twisted her mouth to the left, her right eye widening a bit.
“I haven’t seen that expression before,” Molly said. “But I think you’re waiting for me to agree with you.”
“Or just expressing how big, weird, and kinda ridiculous this is,” Susan said. “But, yeah, kinda. Or, I want to know what you’re thinking about it all.”
“Has Manifold spoken to you about it?” Molly asked.
“Yeah,” Susan replied. “And it sounded lost and at a loss for words at the time. Like it was searching for just what to talk about. And I told it I was still thinking about it myself. And I told Lesley what I just told you.”
“I think Manifold talked to me before it saw you, then,” Molly said. “It said it didn’t think it could help me make the decision, and that it needed time to think. Then it asked me who it was, and I told it I didn’t know how to answer that. Anyway, Manifold has been becoming more and more different since we left the Sunspot, and I think that’s healthy for it, even if it’s confused right now.”
“I can see that,” Susan said.
“So, the thing is, Manifold doesn’t really remind me of the Sunspot much anymore. It’s grown beyond it, like I have, like Anchor has. But Phage,” Molly said. “Phage reminds me of the Sunspot. And I don’t really like that.”
“That place really hurt you, didn’t it?” Susan asked.
“I don’t think I would have left it if it hadn’t,” Molly said.
Susan gave Molly what she was learning to read as a sly look and said, “What would you do if you had the chance to start a whole new society aboard your very own Exodus Ship? How would you do things differently than the Sunspot? Because, you know, I think you’re doing that right now.”
“I know,” Molly said as they stepped out into the light of the Garden. Looking around at the life that surrounded them, she turned back to Susan and said, “I’ve already decreed that there will be no genetically engineered breeding program, or any breeding program what-so-ever, here. If we eventually have such a population that we have to build a larger ship, we can do that. But now that I’ve created a new Network entity, I realize we must think about that. Maybe we should disable that ability? But maybe, now that I’m thinking about it, it might be the more ethical way of making more people. I don’t know. It reminds me of the Sunspot, but it feels less wrong, too. Like, a Network entity such as Manifold, our Collective of cuttlecrabs, or the Light of Anchor has the most autonomy of self anyone can have. Or, so I’ve read.”
“Maybe there should be rules about that anyway, though,” Susan said. “Because I feel like, seeing what you and Manifold did, you could create an entity that doesn’t want to better itself. And that’s a lot of power a person maybe shouldn’t have.”
“So, there’s this thing on my home planet,” Susan said. It sounded like she enjoyed saying “home planet” because her mouth quirked up whenever she did. “This idea called ‘eugenics’, and it’s pretty much hated by everyone like me. But it permeates our culture. It’s the idea that humans not only can but should breed ourselves, to prevent illness at least, but also to prevent unwanted variations.”
“Yes,” Molly said. “The Sunspot’s parent ship, the Terra Supreme, was very strict about that supposed ideal. It never worked fully. There were some things they couldn’t eradicate from the development of any life. Such as physical dysphoria. The Sunspot’s evolutionary algorithm was supposed to be a countermeasure to that kind of eugenics, to seek out the greatest diversity and create an equality of differences. But it still relies on keeping certain developmental traits to a minimum, things considered to be diseases. And they were also, of course, still trying to find ways to defeat dysphoria. And it still didn’t work. In fact, the way they are going about it might make it worse! I don’t know. In any case, it just feels wrong to me. At such a deep level I couldn’t stay there.”
“And what was Phage’s place in all of that?” Susan asked.
“Ah, hm…” Molly pondered that as she crawled beside Susan down a path they hadn’t used together recently. She looked off through the trees and watched them slowly parallax to her movement. “The story is that it was called in through the Origin point of the Tunnel Apparatus and tasked with helping to keep the ship from falling to some sort of chaos it was beset with. Systems were failing, physical structures were falling apart, and people were panicking and hard to control. A really, the philosophy of the Crew was to not control them, though they failed at that spectacularly.
“And then, something Phage did really scared everyone, and so they sanctioned it to the Engine Room, telling it that it could never leave there. And for millenia, it somehow kept the ship from falling apart while never seeing anyone in person until the Nanite Innovation, when Morde visited it and made hir deal with it.
“Since then, it had a child named Ni’a, who had the same abilities it had. Ni’a was born from the evolutionary algorithm like everyone else, but they looked a lot like your people do. Exactly like someone from the Terra Supreme…”
“Wait,” Susan said. “You’re really calling the fascist eugenics ship, the Terra Supreme?”
“Yes,” Molly said. “That is what they called it. Or how it translates from my language.”
“Holy shit,” Susan sputtered. “OK, yeah. So that was a ship of assholes, wasn’t it.”
“The Crew of it were assholes. The people who were born to them had no choice in the matter.”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Susan nodded. “Sorry.”
“So, both Phage and Ni’a went to the Terra Supreme through the Tunnel Apparatus to try to help it, and while they were gone, the Sunspot suffered. The chaos returned. And I was there for that! It was bad and really scary. And when they both came back, things got better again,” Molly explained. “So, I’m glad it’s here, because things could have gone much, much worse for us. But Phage feels like it hasn’t changed. It reminds me of the Sunspot.”
“Huh,” Susan said. “But it sounds like Phage subverted the Sunspot’s own breeding program, though. Somehow, anyway. Doesn’t it?”
“What did it do to help the Terra Supreme?” Susan asked.
“Well, Abacus and Ni’a both wrote books about it, which I’ve read,” Molly said.
“It apparently left a copy of itself on the Terra Supreme, to help stabilize its systems,” Molly said. “Apparently some kind of conflict was happening there at the time. And then, later, when it told the Crew of the Sunspot it was considering making its offer to the populace of our ship, it also said it would be doing the same thing for the Terra Supreme.”
Susan stopped walking and stared at Molly with wide, terrified eyes, and said, “Holy fucking crap.”
“The Terra Supreme has a very striated society, with enormous imbalances of power. Phage’s offer would level those power differences.”
“Yeah! Like a nuclear bomb!”
“Ni’a ends their book with the same prediction for the Sunspot,” Molly said.
“Well, that’s certainly not convincing me to vote ‘yes’,” Susan muttered.
“So you’re going to vote ‘no’,” Molly said, feeling more calm now.
“Yeah, no,” Susan said with a finality of tone that gave that weird phrase all the meaning Molly needed to understand.
“I feel like the contract we made with the Light of Anchor was a good one, though,” Molly offered.
“I agree. And the Light seems like a very logical, orderly being that will follow it,” Susan agreed. “But Phage is a demon, and its very existence comes with a cost, Molly. And I think we need to start treating it that way. I want what it has to offer, so bad. But not at the price of my humanity. Or yours, or Lesley’s. I’m voting ‘no’, so that will be it. Phage wanted it to be unanimous, and it won’t be.”
Molly felt almost defeated, disappointed for sure. Apparently, she had more hopes built on Phage’s offer than she’d realized. But, she also felt relieved by Susan’s resolve. She felt glad she’d met her.