Being present with your alien abductor when they are in turn abducted by a whole different alien was definitely a good time to talk about consent, Lesley thought.
They’d figured that much out, at least.
So far, there really wasn’t much to look at or measure with instruments or discern from much of anything, but it at least looked like they were in the hold or bay of a gigantic spacecraft. And none of them could think of anything else that could have happened to them.
The sheer size of it didn’t seem to phase Molly, Manifold, or Phage, though. Just the way in which it had happened, and that it had happened at all. But Lesley and Susan both found the scale of it mind boggling.
It appeared that they were inside of a multi kilometer diameter dodecahedron with walls that glowed softly. They could see the corners because they glowed more brightly than the centers of the panels. If you could call such massive structures “panels”.
Phage was able to give the exact dimensions of it, and Molly confirmed them with her scans, but Lesley couldn’t bring herself to care about those numbers.
What they knew was that Molly’s own starship, Anchor, was a 3 kilometer long marvel of engineering that was now inside something else, and no longer under the gravitational influence of the star system they’d been in previously. And they’d watched it happen and what they saw didn’t make any sense to any of their visual cortexes, not even Phage’s.
It had been several hours now, and they had yet to notice any changes in their situation, so they were talking.
When it had happened, their own bodies were still inside their landing craft, Spindrift, which was inside of a shipyard of Anchor, docked, and they were connected to Anchor’s Network and convening on its virtual Bridge. Lelsey had felt like the innermost of a set of nesting dolls.
Deciding that leaving Anchor again via Spindrift was probably not a safe thing to do, yet, they’d disembarked their personal vessels, their bodies, from Spindrift and truly boarded Anchor. Well, Phage and Manifold, being Network entities, didn’t have to do that. But Molly, Susan, and Lesley did.
And now they were resting around the table of their common room between their quarters. A Network projection of Anchor floating within the dodecahedron hovered above the table. It was technically only visible to those with neural terminals or to Network entities, but there was no one there who couldn’t sense it. And while puzzling over it and the motives of whatever force had encased them in the structure might be, Susan started talking about the concept of consent.
Which, of course she did, because the last month had been an exploration of stretching or outright violations of consent, and this was just icing on the cake.
Now, to think of Molly as their alien abductor wasn’t very charitable, and no one was doing so seriously, except maybe their home government. But that government was entirely out of the picture now. Lesley and Susan had voluntarily entered Spindrift on Molly’s invitation. A choice they’d made when faced with likely violence from their own people. But it hadn’t exactly all been under ideal conditions nor while operating with all the information that was possibly relevant.
And according to Molly and Manifold, their people prized consent above all else, and held it as a sacrosanct right for all living beings. Well, all animals, at least. Or sentient beings. For a loose and broad definition of sentience. And you couldn’t exactly fault a member of the fauna of, say, your ship’s Garden for hunting and eating another member of the fauna, because it’s what they did.
They said they recognized the fuzzy, gray, uncomfortable areas. And Lesley’s dear, astute partner Susan wanted to talk about that. And Lesley did not blame her at all. But she thought it was painfully, poetically fitting of their situation.
“I feel like we’re caterpillars in a jar,” Susan continued. “We’ve been left on our twig, and with a little exploring we can definitely tell we and our twig aren’t where we used to be anymore, but we have absolutely no idea what’s actually going on or why. And whomever is doing this may or may not realize that they’re endangering us.”
Molly looked very confused.
“Did she use too many idioms?” Lesley asked her.
“No, the translator has adapted well enough by now,” Molly said. “But, I am trying to figure out why anyone would put an arthropod in a jar in the first place.”
“You’ve never done that?” Susan asked.
“No one has ever even talked about something like that before,” Molly said.
“We do not disturb the fauna of the Garden. Nor the flora, if we can help it.”
“So,” Susan frowned. “When we saw you take a sample of grass from our planet and stick it into that compartment on your suit’s chest, that was against your teachings and philosophy?”
“Ah. Hmm,” Molly said.
“It’s OK, I get it,” Susan said. “You draw the lines you’re willing to cross or not differently than we do. As a kid, I once put a caterpillar with its twig and leaf into a jar and poked holes in the top, probably for the same kinds of reasons you picked that blade of grass. To examine it, right?”
“Anyway, whoever is doing this didn’t bother to ask if it was OK, and we have no way to tell them it’s not,” Susan observed. “And I guess I just wanted to thank you for trying to talk to us first thing. You know, before we decided of our own accord to join you on your ship!”
“It seemed like the best thing to do,” Manifold, Molly’s unfathomably ancient parent, said. “It was a natural conclusion to Molly’s motives, to make friends. You do have to be able to talk in order to do that, yes?”
“Precisely,” Susan said. “And these people, if people are involved and it’s not a weird natural phenomenon, haven’t given us any channels to even try to talk to them. We can’t give or revoke our consent. At least, not verbally. If we want to get out of this, we have to communicate with them by trying to break the jar! And do that without knowing what’s outside of it!”
“That seems pretty obvious to me,” Manifold said.
“I know! Doesn’t it?” Susan responded. She was staring pointedly at Phage, hands folded in her lap.
Not for the first time, Lesley thought about who these people were and how quickly they’d become familiar with each other, despite their wildly different origins. They’d only been working together for just over a month now, but they were already treating each other like family with expectations of each other. Like, expectations that they’d be understood, or even littler things. Familiar things.
So, there was Molly, who was the reason they were all on Anchor together, making it a home now.
She’d been born on a generational starship called the Sunspot, or its actual name was `etekeyerrinwuf but that translated to Sunspot, and was the product of a genetic engineering program that she strongly objected to. It was uncertain what her ancestors looked like, but Molly appeared to Lesley and Susan to be a three and a half meter long python, only with ear holes and little wiry hairs between her scales. And apparently, she’d never met anyone aboard the Sunspot who looked even remotely like her. They were all as different from each other as she was from Susan and Lesley. Molly was careful to explain that that diversity isn’t why she left the Sunspot, it was a dysphoria she felt over what had caused that diversity, the genetic engineering program itself. She was unable to bring it to an end in her lifetime, one person against billions, and she couldn’t live with the discomfort, so she’d taken her right to leave. And it had been granted to her by the Crew of that ship.
Despite traveling with her parent, Manifold, she found life in the cosmos aboard her ship, Anchor, very, very lonely. And so she had started searching for other life. Which then had led her to meet Lesley and Susan.
Lesley and Susan were, of course, humans. With all the things that one might expect of humans, more or less. Except they were girlfriends, which wasn’t all that common. They were both autistic, which is part of why they had been so attracted to each other. And, apparently they were both transgender. Lesley had started her transition years ago and was really hoping that the medicine available aboard Molly’s ship could at least supplement her hormone therapy regimen now. But Susan had come out to her as “not actually a woman” just before they’d left their home for good. All these things had made life difficult for them in a culture that was not very accepting of them. Even if there had been legal accommodations, there’d always been discrimination, or worse.
They’d left their planet to make a home with Molly for a number of reasons. But the most compelling had been that they’d been branded as such dangerous traitors for aligning with Molly that their own government had been willing to try to bomb their city, with thousands of people in it, just to stop them. After that kind of thing, a whole planet can start to feel deadly. So they’d left.
Being fitted with nanite neural terminals allowing them to communicate with each other over the Network as if they were sharing a vivid, memorable dream was certainly a perk, though. As was the promise of transitional healthcare using highly advanced, nigh miraculous technology.
Then there was Manifold, Molly’s parent. It had been assigned to her as her Tutor at birth. On the Sunspot, the title of Tutor meant something like a life-long guide, partner, and confidant who acted to protect your autonomy and safety as well as shared their knowledge of wisdom with you. Basically a parent. Only, where Molly was 73 years old and still lived in a body, Manifold was over 130,000 years old and had never had one. But it could create a robotic body out of nanite clay and inhabit that. Which is what it was doing now.
Manifold had been created to be a Tutor, and had been expected to move on to another child, or Student, upon the death of Molly’s body. But, when Molly decided to leave the Sunspot, Manifold had divided itself into two beings, one that agreed with her decisions and one that agreed a little less. And the one that agreed went with her, and they were both dispensing with the Tutor/Student labeling, and just going with parent and child, lowercase.
Manifold was strange.
She related to it a lot, because when it wasn’t explaining something or giving advice it was usually really quiet and didn’t participate in conversations much. She felt that she was like that a lot of the time, at least in comparison to Susan.
And for the most part, Manifold didn’t feel or sound like anything but an older adult with a parental attitude toward everyone and an aversion to keeping track of time longer than a day. But it was supposed to be nearly twenty times older than human civilization itself, and she just could not fathom that.
But, then there was Phage.
If you counted its age as from when it had been summoned to live aboard the Sunspot, which is when its contiguous memories began, it was a few hundred years younger than Manifold. But if you asked it its age, it would say that it was something closer to fourteen point five billion years old. And it would, occasionally, talk about things it should not know.
The truly scary thing about it was that it was able to exist without a nanite body or connection to the Network and it had abilities. It could ride in a person’s subconscious, and then leave at a later time if that person let it do so. It could transfer itself from one person to another. It could also make things around it age and decay so fast. Or, also, arrest that decay, effectively putting an object into stasis. And it claimed to be able to manipulate complex systems in subtle and powerful ways.
Lesley had seen it do many of these things with her own eyes.
Susan had hosted it briefly while they faced down an entire military company. Between it and control over the nanites from Molly’s ship, the five of them were able to rout twenty to fifty armed people and dismantle a handful of vehicles by simply glancing at them.
During another encounter with the military, Phage had caused boots, guns, and armor to disintegrate while fist fighting the soldiers who wore them.
Phage called itself a manifestation of entropy itself. And its time riding within Susan’s psyche had changed them both.
It also currently rode in a nanite body, but preferred nanite ooze to clay, lacking the alloy substrate that the nanites would normally use to strengthen the shapes they made. This made it look dark and oily instead of the shinier gray that Manifold was. And it held its demonic looking shape just fine.
Susan was obviously staring at it because she expected it to do something about their situation.
It raised a nearly invisible eyebrow at her and said, “After what I’ve experienced on your planet, I’m not leaving this ship. It’s dangerous out there.”
“Seriously?” Susan asked.
“I have been known to joke, but not in this case,” Phage said. “I will not leave it without any of you, in any case. This ship is my system. You are part of the system, and when you leave it I may accompany you. But if I extend myself much further beyond your influences, I do risk getting smacked down hard by something bigger than myself. And you would not benefit from that.”
Susan’s eyes got big and she folded her arms and looked all around, saying, “Well, that’s terribly reassuring.”
“With an emphasis on the terrible,” Lesley let herself mumble.
Susan nodded emphatically at her.
Molly turned to Phage, her snake-like brow furrowing more expressively than her reptilian counterparts could actually do, and said, “If you won’t help us explore our surroundings personally, can you at least give us some guidance on how to deal with this situation?”
“Hmm,” Phage said. “I suspect that our hosts, or host, or whatever it is, hasn’t really started to try to communicate with us yet. But I’d check all the spectra of radiation, gravity waves, sound, particles, and even chemicals that could be emanating from those walls before giving up. In the meantime, I will let you know if one of my kind, or something equivalent, contacts me.”
“Thank you. On it,” Manifold said. It was picking up little idioms from Lesley and Susan’s language perhaps faster than Molly.
They both used the translator the linguists aboard the Sunspot had constructed, but as they learned the language they could direct the translator to use specific wording.
“OK, well,” Phage said. “Unless you need me further for the Council meeting, I’m going to go hang out in the Engine Room for a while. I have some things I need to think about it.”
“We don’t have an Engine Room, Phage,” Molly told it. “I’ve been controlling all that stuff from the Bridge.”
Phage smiled, “We have an Engine Room now. It’s my traditional Network space. And if you’d like me to watch over the Sunspot’s systems and keep chaos to a minimum, like I still do aboard the Sunspot, we might as well call it the Engine Room.”
Like Manifold, Phage had copied itself. Apparently, it had reasons for not doing that willy nilly that were probably very similar to its reasons for not leaving the ship to explore now. For a short time there had been three copies of Phage on Lesley and Susan’s planet, and that hadn’t exactly not ended in disaster. But it had helped them survive by doing that, so it was hard to see just what it was afraid of there.
But it wasn’t like any of them were going to be able to force Phage to do anything it didn’t want to do, if they wanted to do that anyway. It was against the code of their new family, and Anchor itself, to coerce anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do. And though Phage felt the least like a member of their family, Molly wanted everyone to treat it like an equal and that seemed like the best way to be friends with it, after all. Coercion is not a friendly thing.
So, it looked like they would have to eat their frustrations that it wasn’t going to magic them out of this new predicament.
At least, as far as any of them knew, they weren’t in imminent danger. There were no deadlines that any of them knew about. No needs that would go unfulfilled if not attended to. Anchor was homeostatic. It could support them indefinitely. Well, the fusion drive would run out of fuel eventually, but when it wasn’t propelling the ship its lifespan was longer than any period of time Lesley was used to thinking about. Somewhere between decades and centuries, she understood. Maybe longer.
But that was also a potentially false feeling of calm, because they just didn’t know what might happen in the next second. And whatever had caught them had captured a three kilometer long starship with a warp drive by surprise in a matter of seconds using something that bewildered even Phage.
Molly agreed that Engine Room was a good name for its Netspace, and they all agreed it could go.
So then they all stared at each other over the table for a little while, the Network projected model of Anchor rotating in space between them.
“I think I’ve got something,” Manifold said, after a bit.
“Yeah?” Lesley asked.
“We’re being bombarded by streams of modulated gamma rays, from all directions,” it reported. “Each panel of the dodecahedron is acting like a transmitter and is sending several channels worth of different patterns of modulation.”
“Weird,” Susan said.
“Yes,” Manifold said. “We use X-rays for most of our communications, and we have thought to scan at lower frequencies when looking for other civilizations. Using gamma rays allows for an incredible density of communication if you’re not using the spin of particles to store information already. But it’s very costly and more dangerous to biological systems. Which is why we hadn’t looked in that range yet.”
“So they’re not trying to kill us with it?” Lesley asked, thinking about how gamma rays were used to kill cancer cells in a dangerous treatment that could also cause cancer if prolonged.
“Not even close,” Susan said. “This is a fusion powered interstellar starship. It has to have more than enough shielding to prevent that, and it should be obvious from the outside.”
“Correct,” Manifold said. “In any case, I have been recording these signals since I noticed it. Some of them have already cycled.”
Lesley tilted her head and asked, “What does it sound like if you convert the waves to sound?”
“Nothing,” Manifold said. “Unless I transpose it down to ranges that your ears can detect, the waves are too small for you. I can make it sound like a nearly imperceptible whining noise, or I can make it sound like this.”
Lesley decided that the sound that Manifold produced for them might best be described as “a black hole farting.” It mercifully turned it off after only a few seconds.
“Without a key, however,” Manifold said, “We have no good way of decoding their transmissions, let alone translate any language that they might be using. If they’re using anything we’d call a language.”
“Well,” Lesley stole herself up for a suggestion and said, “We have the dodecahedron. That’s twelve pentagram shaped panels. Maybe that bit of information coupled with the frequency of the cycles you’ve noticed are the key?”
“I’ve already got our translator working on it from that angle,” Manifold said. “What I’m saying is that it’s going to take longer than translating your language did. We have a lot less information, despite how much of it we’re being bombarded with.”
Susan looked at Molly and put her hand palm down on the table, “Welp! Wanna start decorating our spaces while we wait? Do that thing you were suggesting with the Bridge? Make this place more pretty, too? Or…” she trailed off meaningfully.
“Yes?” Molly asked.
“We could talk about our healthcare plans and goals, perhaps,” Susan said. “Lesley went without hormone therapy for two weeks for a bit there, and though she’s stocked up since we visited our home, that’s not going to last the month. She really shouldn’t go through menopause just because she’s in space.”
Lesley felt relief that Susan had brought that up. Even though she could speak for herself when needed, it was an extra stress. She never felt like she was allowed to, especially for things she really needed badly, and she always had to fight that feeling in order to self advocate. Even when everyone did care about her and wanted to hear what she had to say. She knew it was an irrational fear at this point, but it was a habit of thinking deeply ingrained by her upbringing as an autistic trans girl.
“Let’s revisit your health concerns first,” Molly said. “I have a feeling we’ll have time to follow that up with redecorating, and you’ll be in a better mood to do that after we’ve dealt with your needs.”
So, that’s what they did.
And, although Lesley had hoped, and had tried to prepare herself for what she might learn about it all, she was not ready for the wash of emotions she was overwhelmed with when she learned what could be done.
First of all, they apparently didn’t need trained professionals to do any of it. Especially since they had working models of how a pair of ovaries and a uterus worked, and how they were attached to the human body, with Susan. Lesley didn’t have those things, but really wanted them, and the ovaries were of particular interest because they’d produce the hormones she’d need naturally. And organ printing was just something one of the ship’s medical grade makers could do.
Or, even better, the nanites in her own body could do it right where the organs should exist.
Except it was faster to print them in the maker first and then surgically implant them. And if she wanted naturally produced hormones by the time her bottle of pills ran out, she’d need to go that route.
But, on the other hand, once her estradiol and progesterone were sampled, it was easy enough to have a chemical maker synthesize identical versions of them.
In a daze comparable to when she first got approved for her original transitional surgery, she opted for the nanite printed organs supplemented by ship produced hormones. And then she just stared at the wall for a while, while Susan started talking about her own needs.
Her body already went through a cycle of cramps and bloating every month, her amygdala and pituitary gland both insisting on a hormonal cycle with what she fed herself. She also cycled her progesterone according to charts of natural levels in cis women, and that emphasized that cycle. But she’d experienced it already before she’d managed to convince her doctor to prescribe the progesterone.
Now she was looking at a few decades of actually ovulating and bleeding with her cycle. With her own eggs.
She was going to be an egg producing human!
She was so overcome with a haze of euphoria, old sorrow resurfaced, disbelief, dissociation, and outright anger at her own world and the circumstances of her birth, that when Susan started talking about a radically different body configuration and the hopeful production of spermatozoa it just blended into the background.
Susan had, of course, already talked to her many times about how she felt about herself and how she saw herself in the mirrors in her dreams. She’d even shown Lesley her ideal self while in the Network, once it had become clear they would be living with Molly aboard Anchor from now on. So none of it was a surprise.
But Lesley did wonder how Susan was able to talk so calmly about it when it was even more of a fantasy than what Lesley had just been granted. Such a wild need that Susan had dismissed it all as completely impossible and even unethical in the eyes of her fellow humans. More so than how simply changing one’s sex characteristics was seen.
Some of the changes Susan was yearning for would take decades to enact safely. Which was true of cross sex hormone therapy, in any case. But Lesley could imagine her ache about that, because she’d felt the same thing herself.
She was also expecting Susan to change her name and pronouns fairly soon, as part of all of this. But Susan kept saying she wasn’t interested in that, that her own dysphoria was purely physical.
And maybe that was the case. And Lesley wasn’t going to tell her otherwise. But it seemed that statistically, social dysphoria accompanied physical dysphoria. Or the change in physical self was enough to yearn for a fresh break in identity as well.
But a wolfperson by the name of Susan for a life partner, who could maybe get her pregnant, sounded pretty damn awesome to her, too.
That is, if they survived what was happening to them today to even see all that, of course.
And the procedures themselves weren’t without risk, either. Anchor’s medical systems were geared for ktletaccete, Molly’s people, not humans. And it turned out that on a cellular and metabolic level they didn’t have much in common. The closer you got to their DNA, or the equivalent, the more alien they were to each other. So, even though the systems had been monitoring and examining them for a month, on direction from Manifold, miscalculations could still be made.
But that uncertainty felt like an old friend now. She’d felt it the day she’d gone in for a surgery that had a 99% success rate nearly a decade ago. And the day afterward, and from then on, the world had felt fundamentally different, more magical, more miraculous.
She felt herself looking forward to that cycle again.
So, it turned out that after those discussions, neither Lesley nor Susan were in any sort of mood to do anything but lie next to each other and stare at the ceiling, occasionally giggling or saying, “I love you.”
Molly told them that she’d take a crawl through the Garden while they processed all that.
And Manifold disappeared into the Network to manage the translation project and focus on it.
In the back of her mind, Lesley felt like joining it. Languages were a secondary passion for her, but with these contacts with alien people that was starting to become her entire focus. And she wanted to learn more.
But right then, she needed to ride her high of personal hope.
A few hours and a nap later, Manifold reported it had found the key and had translated the message.
The vast bulk of the information had been essentially a dictionary that covered math and conceptual frameworks for abstract thought and concrete memetics and references. Manifold was hesitant to use the terms “words” or “dictionary” or anything of the sort to describe the communication, but in the end it was able to point to discrete patterns that might as well have been words and sentences.
But it said, “This is basically the same thing we transmitted on the front end of the Sunspot Chronicles when we started broadcasting that from the Sunspot. It’s meant to be decoded, and was packed with a ladder of clues and translation tools.”
When it came to the actual message, however, it was translated into just two sentences.
“We are known among others as the Light of the Abyss.” And, “Where do you live?”
“Can we send them a message in their own language?” Susan asked.
“Yes,” replied Manifold.
“Tell them we don’t talk to cops.”