The Light of Anchor had found the instance of the translator that had been configured for it and quietly turned it off. It didn’t need it now, and to have it running was inefficient.
It had informed Anchor of its new status upon the completion of its linguistic adaptation. But here was evidence that that information had not propagated to all of Anchor’s agents.
Something about Anchor itself was inefficient. Something besides the hull.
The Light hoped that this inefficiency was something to be found in a Category Two system. One that could be changed with collaboration.
It decided to use the council meeting to observe, as the agent designated Lesley had suggested. Once it had found the inefficiency, then it could trust that information it had to share about itself would propagate properly. Before then, pushing that information forward could cause catastrophes. Fixing the inefficiency was a higher priority than propagating information by force, and observance was step one for sorting.
It had never experienced anything like this council meeting.
It appeared to be something very much like first contact, only between agents of the same system, and designed for the purposes of regular decision making. It also saw during this meeting that there was a great deal of stress within the system of Anchor.
Analyzing the content of the communications happening before it, it could not immediately identify the source of the stress. The solution to the problem of whether or not to accept assistance from the agent designated Phage appeared to be a simple one. When the time came to vote, it would vote “affirmative”, and it could not see reason for why any other agent would not. Sharing of resources was desirable for making a system less stressed.
And, although it now knew and understood the meanings of the words being used to communicate during this meeting, it did not always understand their usage. It briefly turned the translator back on to double check its understanding, but the translator produced unintelligible sentences identical to its own interpretations. It turned the translator back off.
It searched and found the Network recording of the meeting and commanded the Network to produce a copy for itself. Then it began to flag the sentences and words that did not make sense to it. It would ask Molly later what these communications meant. It suspected that the source of the present stress was described in these words somehow.
As it did this, it realized that it could use the command language of the Network to enforce its comprehension. It had begun existence in the Network of Anchor with fully functioning memetics that had been generated by the Network. It should be a trivial matter to direct the Network to give it the memetics necessary to understand this unintelligible communication.
But it decided quickly that it did not wish to alter itself in this way.
Doing so would be more efficient, from a surface perspective.
However, if it did this it would fail in two fundamental ways it did not wish to fail in. It would not be able to track its own growth in understanding, and therefore would not know why it knew what it knew. This was bad for error checking. It also knew that it had been created to simulate the Light of the Abyss. And altering itself in this way would be counter to that purpose.
It would only alter the way it functioned on such a fundamental level as it gained more data on or from the Light of the Abyss. And if it kept track of how it grew, it could retroactively change its growth to match any better model it created. This was not efficient to the dedicated task of learning how to communicate with Anchor, nor for helping Anchor to sort itself, but it was as efficient as it could be toward the greater task of modeling its subject.
But, then, this line of thinking brought it up against the question of whether or not to accept Phage’s offer. Of course it would vote ‘affirmative’ for the sake of Anchor, so that Anchor’s agents could access those new abilities.
But would it be appropriate for it to accept those abilities itself?
“I was going to vote ‘no’, too,” Molly said very quietly.
She wasn’t sure anyone else noticed her statement, because they were all still looking at Lesley. And, sure enough, no one reacted.
Susan’s frown looked like it might be more one of concentration, like she was trying to reconcile her own conviction with Lesley’s. She wondered how Susan was going to vote now, and didn’t know how she herself should choose to vote as a result of that.
She still felt like Susan’s arguments were compelling, and that it was easier to keep things the way they were than to add something new and strange to their lives. But, this was such a potential rift between Lesley and Susan, and if Susan decided to vote “yes” Molly didn’t want to aggravate the wound that had already been made by voting “no”.
Manifold’s expression was concerned and attendant. It might be feeling something similar to what Molly was feeling, but it looked more confident. It was easier for Molly to read Manifold’s expressions, even though it hadn’t displayed expressions at all until recently. Its old avatar used to be a tiny little solar system. But it came from the same culture as Molly, from the same people, and it had been observing expressions in that culture for a long, long time.
Both the Collective and the Light were impossible to read.
So Molly looked at Phage last to see if she could guess what it was thinking, and found that it was staring right at her, impassively.
She stared back at it, her mind suddenly gone quiet.
In the light of the sun shining on them through the Network’s simulation of the sky around Anchor, as it rocketed through the system, Molly saw Phage’s brow crease ever so slightly.
What could it see in her? What was it reacting to?
It had been part of her psyche for several months of her life since she left the Sunspot, apparently hitching a ride in her subconscious. It had supposedly been by her consent, an agreement it had struck with her. But she couldn’t remember it, because something about hosting it had caused her to lose those memories.
Her first realization that it had accompanied her on her journey was when it suddenly sprang from her mind, asking her consent to assist her as the military of Susan and Lesley’s country zeroed in on her landing site with fighters and troop carriers.
She could very well be dead, or worse, if it hadn’t tagged along.
But things hadn’t really gone as planned for it, either. It periodically fumbled, falling short of its promises, finding limits to its powers, or causing things to happen like Molly’s amnesia. It was a finite being, after all. It had been nigh godlike on the Sunspot, and presumably still was, as this version of Phage was a copy. Was it somehow lesser than the original? Or was it just out of its element?
It seemed to think it was the latter. And Molly wasn’t about to tell it she thought it was wrong. She had no idea.
“My specialty is control over large systems, and mostly physics at that,” Phage said casually, as if it was speaking directly to Molly and didn’t really care what anyone else was thinking. She felt a chill, because it seemed to have been reading her mind. It continued, “My child, Ni’a, is like me, but their specialty is people, cultures, broad social dynamics. And they can exercise a bit more nuance than I can. I’m guessing that if I unlock these abilities in each of you, you will each have your own expertise. It seems likely. I also think, because most of you are very young and bound to living bodies, you might be much more focused. And you might learn how to deal more carefully with the smaller things that I fumble with. That’s just speculation, but it has been part of my thinking.”
This creepy, unsolicited speech focused Molly’s mind on what her own misgivings were, besides resistance to change and Susan’s excellent points. She frowned back at it.
“What about the drawbacks and restrictions?” she asked. “You say all that as if to say that these powers won’t change who we are. But you also said, when you proposed this, if someone revoked their consent to whatever actions we might be taking, we’d be stopped, just like that. That sounds really dangerous. It sounds like it could bind us to someone who knows that weakness. What would we be then?”
“That is a simplification of what I described,” Phage said. “Though, I’m not entirely sure of the boundaries and rules yet myself. Those were guesses at best. So far, the only way I have been captured and compelled to act was by allowing myself to become part of someone else’s psyche.” It looked pointedly at Susan. “A person who knows they can draw boundaries with me can prevent me from hurting them. That might include leaving their psyche once I am part of it. But, if when I’m not, I have yet to find someone able to compel me to do anything, only deny me the ability to hurt them.”
“But you’re not certain of any of that,” she pressed.
“No, certainly not,” it replied. “These are only observations on my part. They may not even apply to you. Or, they might be different. And they might be different in particular for Susan and Lesley.”
“Will we be able to read other people’s minds like you can?” Molly asked, narrowing her eyes. She wanted to see its reaction to that accusation herself. It felt like it had done so just moments earlier, and she just couldn’t let it go.
“I cannot do that,” Phage said. “I am simply ancient, very experienced, and know how ktletaccete think. After all, I may very well be one of you.” Glancing again at Susan, it said, “I have had considerably less resonance with humans for some reason.”
“I still think you might be one of Molly’s eldest ancestors,” Susan said. “If you are from people who stayed home and aged faster than the people aboard the Exodus Ships because of relativity, billions of years as someone said, your knowledge and technology would seem like magic to all of us.” She shrugged, “it just makes so much sense. And, in a way, you’re just offering to lend share your technology to us, like Molly and Manifold did.” She exhaled loudly, “I almost just talked myself into this.” She gave a lopsided smile and squeezed Lesley’s hand. “But, maybe my Darling already did that.”
“Yes,” Phage said. “That’s what I meant by that I might be ktlateccete. My sense of identity still tells me I’m something more, but I can’t prove it. Not even to myself. My memories from before my first summoning are nearly unintelligible. Maybe I’m not Entropy Itself so much as the Artist of Entropy. Who’s to say at this point?”
Molly did not feel like these turns in the conversation had assuaged her fears at all. And now that she’d worked up the courage to start pushing, she felt her determination driving her to find some sort of a resolution.
“If,” she let that word cut across the table like a knife, “we let you unlock these abilities in us, and it turns out that we become parallized by the drawbacks and restrictions, would we be able to give them up in order to be free again? Would we be able to do that voluntarily? Would you be able to help us?”
Phage tilted its head and said, “I don’t know. We’d have to experiment. Give, and then try to revoke the abilities. And I don’t know if I can unlock them again if I can even revoke them somehow.”
“We would like to volunteer for that test,” the Collective suddenly spoke up, after being quiet and observant the whole meeting. Everyone looked at them, and they said, “We do not know what we would use this gift for. It does not interest us. But, we are curious. We would like to learn how it works, and if it helps you then we approve.”
Lesley gestured at them and added, “Then we could each choose whether or not we want the gift ourselves based on that. Maybe it would be good to have a mixed team, anyway?” She shrugged.
Susan slumped and then looked up at Molly, “You know, Molly? I guess that’s what this vote is really about. It’s not about whether or not this gift is good for any one of us, or whether or not we can trust Phage. It’s about whether or not we can trust each other.” She raised her eyebrows really high, “and I’m starting to think that I don’t want to tell any one of you that I don’t trust you. Except maybe Phage, but it seems to be putting its trust in us!”
“I’m pretty sure that you could all bind me and make me leave right now, if you wished to,” Phage said, its voice just as deep, resonant, and rumbly as it had ever been. “Or, reduce me to a ghost that could do nothing to alter this vessel, since your lives all depend upon it.”
“That would reduce the efficiency of Anchor,” the Light said in Inmararräo without flashing any of its usually bioluminescent signals.
The Light was sitting right next to Molly, and she turned to look at it more fully.
This agent was a meter wide splat of pinkish gold slime on the floor of the Bridge with a decimeter thick stalk growing up from the middle of it, reaching to her own head height with a three decimeter bulb at the end of it. This bulb would normally flash with an array of pulsing lights to transmit information. It also must serve as some sort of eye capable of receiving such flashes. If it was using the translator, it would have flashed.
Oh, right! She and Susan had asked it if it would learn Inmararräo! But, they’d taught it how to use the electromagnetic spectrum to do so. Even in the Network, that would normally mean using visible light or radio waves to signal some sort of simulation of a receiver to translate it into sound. Was it using Fenekere to configure the Network?
“We advise that everyone should vote ‘yes’ for the gift,” the Light said. “We will not accept the gift ourselves. It would be contradictory to our primary purpose. We can also advise each of you as to whether you should accept the gift or not, if you will let us.”
“What is your primary purpose?” Susan asked.
Molly nodded as the Light responded, “To simulate and predict the behavior of the Light of the Abyss.”
“Should that still be its purpose?” Susan asked Molly. “Shouldn’t we let it decide its own purpose?”
Molly’s prosthetic arms were fully capable of shrugging, but her natural shrug-like gesture was a short, temporary tilt of her head to the side, which she did. Then she said, “It was why I made it, but I didn’t think it would take that as a directive. I guess as its parent, I want it to do what it wants, and to explore life as fully as it can?” She looked over at it again.
Was she its parent? Really? This was not how she had hoped to give birth to a child, nor that kind of child she imagined. And she’d had no warning, no preparation for it. It was just an instantaneous consequence of her thoughtless actions. But it was as much of a living being as Manifold, and definitely had a will of its own. She did have a responsibility to be there for it, now. She was just really having trouble wrapping her mind and emotions around that.
But, it being a living thing, she could at least say that she wanted for it what she wanted for any of her friends and family, or for herself.
“No,” she said. “Light of Anchor, as my child and a member of this crew, you are free from that constraint. You do not have to have that purpose if you do not want it.”
It didn’t respond for a while, and didn’t seem to indicate that it had heard her, for whatever definition of “heard” applied to it now.
Molly saw movement out of the corner of her eye as Lesley looked around the table at everyone else, probably gauging emotions and reactions to this.
Then Lesley asked it, “What would you do if you did accept Phage’s gift?”
“Let’s not overwhelm it,” Molly said to her. “Light? Can you first tell us if you will continue with the original purpose I gave you? Then, after that, consider Lesley’s question.”
It still remained silent for a time, so Molly raised her hand in a gesture to stall anyone else from talking. She felt good being protective of it in this way.
When it finally spoke again, it asked, “If our purpose is no longer to simulate the Light of the Abyss, then what is our directive?”
“Whatever you want it to be,” Molly replied.
“We do not understand your use of the word ‘want’ here,” the Light said. “How do we determine what we ‘want’?”
Remembering Lesley’s passion for languages, Molly glanced at her for help.
Lesley pursed her lips, furrowed her brows, and leaned forward to suggest, “Take into account your personal needs and all the factors that you consider to be important, and sort them. What you want will be the result of that. Does that make sense?”
“OK, so, I want to sort the different meanings of ‘want’ for you, for other situations.”
“For what I am about to describe, I am speaking for myself, Susan, Molly, and Manifold. I am not able to describe how the Collective of the Cuttlecrabs or Phage do things. OK?”
“So, we do what I just told you to do in order to figure out what we want. However, this usually happens subconsciously. Our neurology handles that sorting in a way that is invisible to us. And when it is done, we receive an answer in the form of an impulse to reach for or act upon what we want. Does this make sense so far?”
“Yes. We have perceived similar forms of invisible sorting within our own system. But it is usually linguistic or sensory sorting, and not decision making.”
Lesley nodded, “Well, we can also do conscious or visible sorting in our minds as well. However, while visible sorting allows us to follow our own logic and check for errors, we do not have full access to all of our sensory sorting. So, when we do it, we are limited, and may not be aware of all the data necessary. So the results of that sorting may be different from our invisible sorting.”
“That is inefficient,” it responded.
“Sometimes, yes,” Lesley said. “But, many of us have learned how to, sometimes, compare the results of these two different sorting methods for a new kind of sorting. Sometimes we can use it for another layer of error checking. Sometimes we can use it to sort our own subconscious minds, the parts of us that are invisible to us.”
“Also,” she added, “while we have physical bodies, at least, we cannot easily reconfigure how our neurology works. The things that our neurology does that are invisible to us usually remain invisible. It takes a lot of work to change that, if it can be done at all.”
“But once you exist in Anchor’s Network, then you can change your neurology?”
“Yes,” Lesley said. “The neurology that exists here in the Network. When we return to our bodies, our bodies must be updated slowly. For those of us who have bodies. And that can cause problems, because our bodies are limited by biology and physics.”
“Your explanation sorts.”
“I’m glad,” Lesley replied. “Thank you!”
“We are part of Anchor, therefore our directive is to help sort Anchor to be more efficient, with your collaboration,” the Light stated. “We have knowledge of the Light of the Abyss, and do not need to simulate its behavior in order to share that knowledge. Therefore that directive can be deprecated. We will use the Network commands and the physical tools of Anchor to accommodate our communication with you and to do our work, but we will not use them to alter our knowledge directly. We will track and sort our own growth as we have been doing. We will learn the meanings of words and phrases by asking you. Will you accept this?”
Lesley looked at Molly.
Following the conversation she and Susan had had with the Light previously, this sounded really good to her! So she looked at everyone else to see their reactions, and got nods from most everyone. The Collective waved, which was probably their equivalent of a nod. Phage merely quirked its right eyebrow and smiled slightly.
“We accept this,” Molly told it.
“Then, we will vote yes, and we will accept Phage’s gift,” the Light said. “And we will use the gift to increase the efficiency of the systems of Anchor in collaboration with all of the agents of Anchor. We will use it to help us explore the possibilities of what can be sorted, and we will report our findings to you for consideration. Then we, or the agent best equipped to do the work, will enact the sorting that is agreed upon.”
“That sounds very good,” Molly said.
“I agree,” Susan added.
“May we request some more data?” the Light asked.
“Of course,” Lesley said.
“Are council meetings your only method of communicating with each other as agents of Anchor?”
“We really need to give you a tour, don’t we?” Lesley muttered. “To answer your question, no. But, they are our most fully conscious and visible method of communicating with each other as a whole group, and I understand that the Bridge makes recordings of these meetings as a form of memory that we can consult.”
“Yes. We have been accessing those recordings to note which words and phrases we do not understand. If you could audit our notes and help us sort these words and phrases, it will make our communication with you more efficient. And then we can help you make your communication with each other more efficient.”
Lesley blinked and pulled her head back, smirking lightly, and asked, “Is that something that is needed?”
“Maybe. We have detected stress in you and in Susan, and to a lesser amount in the others. We predict that the source of this stress is in inefficient communication,” it explained. “If we can assist you in sorting your communication, it may be possible to reduce that stress, which in turn will make Anchor more efficient.”
“Hm,” Susan grunted.
“I think we can do that,” Molly said, looking at Lesley.
“I’d be happy to work on that,” Lesley said. “We’re talking about giving all of our consent every step of the way, anyway, right?”
“That’s what it sounds like,” Susan said.
“Affirmative,” the Light responded.
“Well, then,” Lesley said. “Do we all feel like we’re ready to vote on Phage’s offer?”
Ah! Molly had been distracted from thinking about that by the discussion with the Light of Anchor. She hadn’t figured out what she’d decided, and felt like she needed some more time to work it out.
But, Susan looked like she had convinced herself to vote “yes”. And her own misgivings might be solved by the Collective offering themselves to be a test subject. And Susan had made a very good point that this was about whether or not to trust each other. Not just with the power that Phage was offering to unlock, but also the potentially increased power over each other to enforce boundaries. And they would have at least some agency in deciding whether or not to accept the gift personally, once they’d voted unanimously to allow the unlocking in the first place.
She felt endorphins surge through her body. Both her network body and her real body in sympathy. The core of her really wanted this for some reason. And she realized that this was as much about whether she trusted herself as anything else.
And, perhaps now that she was allowing herself to feel these feelings fully, trying to find a way to justify voting “nay” was also a way to avoid facing the fear that this gift wouldn’t be everything her subconscious seemed to hope it would be. To avoid disappointment, or worse.
Like Lesley had said, it felt like being given the chance to do something she shouldn’t be allowed to do.
And it was giving her flashbacks to when Manifold had told her that she’d been chosen as a test subject for the new nanite neural terminals, back when nobody knew who the Crew of the Sunspot even was. And every terrifying, exhilarating, illuminating step of the Nanite Innovation after that.
She looked at the Chief of the Monsters that was now the Chief Engineer of Anchor, Entropy Itself, and asked, “Phage, are you really just trying to do what the Crew did?”
“Yes,” it said.
Molly turned to Lesley and said, “I second the motion to hold the vote.”
The vote had been unanimous. And they had agreed to put off the jump for as long as it took for everyone to feel out whether or not they wanted to let Phage unlock their own Phage-like abilities. And to see what happened when they did. And they had all agreed to get some sleep first, because that seemed like it was needed by at least a few of them.
Lesley did not sleep well, as much as she needed it. Sleeping on something as big as this was a ridiculous thing to expect.
She felt like she tossed and turned next to Susan for most of the night (or what they called their night). While Susan lay there like a rock, and Lesley had no idea if she was asleep or not and didn’t ask. She didn’t want to interrupt Susan’s sleep if she was being successful about it.
But, then, she did dream at one point, so she must have fallen asleep.
She didn’t really remember it, but it had felt like she’d been arguing with her family back home about something. And when she’d awoken, it had felt like something had been resolved. She had felt more relaxed, if sleepy and harried. It hadn’t been a peaceful discussion. It had been stressed. And she sort of felt like she’d lost the argument, but that it was OK that she had.
And she’d woken up to Susan making breakfast, which had made it a very nice morning after that.
She’d tried to talk about her dream over food and tea, in hopes that it would job her memories of it. But that hadn’t worked, and it had still felt OK.
And after that, they’d explored the Garden for areas they hadn’t discovered yet. There was a park back home that was about six city blocks long and four blocks wide, and the Garden felt like it was three of those parks rolled up into a cylinder. Pretty close to that size, at least, and with the same composition of trees, streams, ponds, walkways, underbrush, and cultivated flowering plants. It was a beautiful place, with more animal life in it that one might suspect, but it was still small enough that they’d been all over it within the span of a week of taking daily walks.
Still, there were some nooks and crannies they really hadn’t paid attention to before.
And they didn’t talk about anything serious the whole time, because they’d had more than enough of that for the past two days.
Molly hadn’t joined them, instead convening with Manifold and Phage to speak to the Collective, to prep for the experiment.
This had made the morning feel particularly like the morning of Lesley’s big surgery. She’d walked to the hospital from the hostel that morning, and it had been a beautiful sunny day, with the promise of relief from her dysphoria at some point by the end of something she could barely comprehend. It had been quiet, peaceful, drained from bowel prep the night before, and inevitable. Just replace bowel prep with a fraught council meeting, and here she was, again.
So, Susan and Lesley were on a trail deep within a clump of trees, crouched down and examining something that looked like it might be fungus and discussing whether alien lifeforms could be classified by the same taxonomy they’d been taught in school, when Phage messaged them that the Collective was ready.
“Please meet us in the big green of the Garden,” it said. “We’ve decided to work with four members of the Collective, who will be there in nanite exobodies. This way, I will probably not affect the whole Collective, in case anything goes wrong. And they will be in a place where they might be able to practice with basic physics instead of the Network.”
Susan looked up from the fungoid lifeform at Lesley and said, “I think I’m shaking.”
Lesley offered Susan her hand and said, “I’m pretty sure this is going to be so anticlimactic, but that’s really understandable. This is reminding me so much of my big day. Come on, let’s go.”
“It’s too soon for it to be PTSD, from what I understand,” Susan said. “But I think it’s giving me flashbacks to weilding Phage to fight soldiers with guns.” Still, she tooks Lesley’s hand and followed.
“Well, my dear little wolfbutch,” Lesley stepped sideways to bump Susan’s shoulder gently with her elbow, and then said, “if this goes well, it might help keep that from becoming PTSD.”
“I’m worried about it not going well.”
“OK, then. If it doesn’t, I’ll help you chase Phage off the ship. How’s that?”
Susan kicked a rock off into the brush where it hit a piece of wood with a shallow thunk. Something skittered away in a hurry.
“That might be about the right kind of therapy either way,” Susan said. “But, maybe it actually doesn’t deserve that, either. I don’t know.”
“Molly seems to treat it suspiciously sometimes, too,” Lesley said.
They walked in silence for the rest of the way to the green, which was an area of what seemed like moss and various tiny flowering, leafy plants. Most of the plant-like-life of the Garden were purple, but some were green. Chlorophyll was chlorophyll, it seemed. It just appeared in slightly different quantities or with other pigmented chemicals here than they were used to.
Maybe they could still be called “plants”. They were life forms that were planted in the soil and didn’t move from there except by reproduction, regardless of their differences from what Lesley and Susan were used to.
And there were insects, or something like them, tending to the flowers, which sure did look like flowers.
Lesley wondered what they’d find if they ever visited other planets with life. Would it also be so deceptively similar?
Molly, Manifold, and Phage were already waiting for them in the middle of the green, with the four members of the Collective there with them, and Lesley suddenly felt like she was approaching a wedding.
It was such a bizarre feeling to pick her way across the green with Susan’s hand in hers when that emotional memory hit her.
When they got within physical earshot, Phage said, “It took my child, Ni’a, a few years to learn how to use their abilities. I should be able to coach each of you on how to learn to use them. But, I honestly don’t know if any of you will be able to demonstrate anything right away. But, I will definitely be able to tell if it has worked by glancing at you.”
“You said that last night,” Susan said.
“Indeed,” it responded. “I do think it is worth repeating, however. To stave off any disappointment.”
They came to a stop with the others while Susan asked, “Are we going to do some sort of little ritual? Make it special, or?”
“It feels like we are about to do that, doesn’t it?” Phage said, looking down at the four members of the Collective. “But, I can’t think of anything more elaborate than the ritual of asking consent.”
Lesley felt a strong impulse grip her from the center of her being, and said, “If this works with the Collective and we don’t vote to call an end to it, I’d like to be next.”
Susan squeezed her hand.
“I think that would make sense,” Molly said.
“Where’s the Light?” Susan asked, looking around.
“It’s here,” Manifold said. “Just watching from the Network for now.”
“Creepy, but OK.”
Phage knelt before the Collective and asked, “Are you ready? Do you consent to allow me to unlock your connection to the universe around you?”
“Yes,” said the Collective.
Phage tilted its head, then stood up. “It’s done. You are active. Now, let’s see if we can figure out how to teach you to be able to use your new senses. That should be the first step.”
“We are ready,” the cuttlecrabs chirped in unison.
“OK,” Phage said. “I’m going to do something that might feel scary to you, but I am not going to hurt you at all, and I’m warning you that it’s about to happen. I’m going to use my greater presence to sort of gently but firmly press in on you. This will not be physical in any way. It will seem psychological. I want you to push back, when you feel me doing this, if you can. Is that OK?”
Phage simply nodded.
Then the cuttlecrabs all crouched and looked around as if reacting to the presence of a potential predator. Then they each took a more aggressive stance, each facing a different direction, like they were bracing against something, and the one facing Phage said, “We are pushing. Can you feel us?”
“Very good,” Phage said. “Yes, I can!” It turned to the rest of the crew and said, “I’ll do this for each of you who goes through with this, if that is OK. Each of you may have a slightly different neurological reaction to it, but I assure you that it is nothing more harsh than if I placed my hand on your shoulder and applied pressure against your natural reflexes and pushed no harder than that.”
“Now what?” Susan asked.
Phage glanced at the Collective and said, “Now I try to lock away their connection again, as we agreed. Collective? May I, hopefully temporarily, lock your connection to the universe around you again?”
Lesley thought she detected just the slightest hesitation before the Collective said, “Yes.”
“Oh, one moment,” Phage said, and then looked absently upward for a moment. “Ah, yes, OK. The rest of the Collective has not been activated yet. That part of the experiment has also worked. Fascinating.” Then it looked down at the four cuttlecrabs that were with them, and frowned lightly. “And that worked, too. It’s done. Do you feel me pushing?”
“No,” replied the cuttlecrabs.
“Excellent!” Phage said. Then it half chuckled, “Though, I guess everyone is just going to have to trust me that I was pushing at you then. Anyway, would you like me to reactivate your access?”
“That should be part of the experiment as well, yes?” said the Collective.
Phage nodded, and said, “It is done. Please let me know if the rest of the Collective would also like to be unlocked.”
“We will Chatter and then decide,” they declared, and then their ninite exobodies crumpled to the ground as they returned to their Netspace.
“Well, hmm,” Phage said. “I was going to have them see if they can moved some leaves about or something.”
Then it turned to Lesley and she felt a chill run down her spine while a warmth in her belly simultaneously billowed outward and rose up to her face. She shivered it off, and said, “Did you just…?”
“No,” Phage said.
“Ah,” Lesley said, then found herself unable to speak further. She opened her mouth to speak words, and they wouldn’t come out. She felt her face make a series of embarrassed expressions, and she shrugged, then gestured toward Phage hoping to communicate that it should proceed.
“I take it that you consent to have your connection to the universe around you unlocked?” Phage said.
She was only able to nod.
“It’s OK,” it said. “I usually find words to be wholly inadequate, too. For instance, I do not like this phrase I’m using to ask for your consent. ‘Connection to the universe around you’ does not seem accurate to what this is, but I can’t think of anything else. In any case, it is done.”
The whole time Phage was talking, Lesley had not felt a thing. She was surprised to hear it say that it had already done its thing.
Susan squeezed her hand and asked, “Lesley. Did you feel anything?”
She looked at her partner and shook her head.
“That is not surprising to me,” Phage said. “What I’m doing is very, very subtle and not connected to your biology in any way. Lesley, do you consent to me testing you? Will you push back against me if you feel my presence?”
She felt a little spike of fear, but nodded eagerly anyway.
And then it was as if every bit of darkness around her had, mostly the shadows of the trees in the woods around the green, became alive. They didn’t move. There were no visual or auditory hallucinations. It just felt like all of the darkness had a mind, a will, and a warmth emanating from it that she could feel as a pressure pushing against her very being from all around. It reminded her of the one time that she’d experienced sleep paralysis. Only, it also reminded her of the comfort of a weighted blanket at the same time.
She felt more safe and more secure than she had moments before, as if she knew just who she was exactly and what her place was in all of reality.
And so she closed her eyes and focused on the center of her being and tried to expand outward, to take up the space around her and displace the darkness. And it worked! The darkness let her do it.
It felt just like something she might experience in a dream. Like her subconscious mind was making all of this up, and it was just in her imagination.
“Very good!” exclaimed Phage, more delighted than she’d heard it sound before. Then she felt a quick squeeze from all that darkness and the sense that it grinned at her. “A little reminder that this is very real,” Phage said. “OK, now. If you’d open your eyes, I’d like to see if you can do a demonstration for everyone else. I’m going to bring a collection of leaves dancing in the wind over to us. Watch.”
Lesley didn’t remember seeing very many leafy trees in the Garden, nor any loose leaves on the ground, so she wondered how Phage was going to acquire them. And she opened her eyes to see the others squinting in concern and looking around.
“I wish I was creative enough to think of something else,” Phage said. “There aren’t very many leaves to bring here.” It looked at Molly and Manifold, “this will look like I’m doing it with the nanites, but I’m not. You can check that through the usual Network channels, any of you. Ah, here they come.”
It took Lesley several seconds before she could see one of the approaching leaves. It came spinning out of the woods like it was caught in a moving eddy of wind, or a vortex. With each spin it came closer and closer, rolling through the air about a meter and a half above the ground. And she did wonder how it was working, so she tried to reach out and touch it the same way she’d pressed against the darkness, to feel what was happening with it.
“Patience,” Phage said, with a chuckle. “Let me bring them all together first.
“You felt me doing that?” Lesley asked.
“Of course,” Phage declared cheerfully.
Lesley felt Susan tug downward on her hand, so she turned to face her.
“Really?” Susan mouthed.
Lesley smilled tentatively and nodded, mouthing, “yeah.”
Susan took a deep breath, breathing out through her nose, lips tightened together, then said to Phage, “I need to see this, too. Can you unlock me right now?”
“Done,” it said.
Then she raised an eyebrow at Lesley and squinted off at one of the approaching leaves. The leaf fluttered out of its eddy and then was caught by another one.
“Patience,” repeated Phage.
“Sorry. Just,” Susan said. “Wow!”
“Show off,” Lesley said quietly to Susan. Of course, Susan had been able to do that. She’d already had practice wielding Phage itself back home, during their escape.
Susan stuck her tongue out at her, and Lesley felt a bit better about how Susan was handling all of this.
Soon the leaves converged into the space between all of them and began dancing in a single eddy there. Lesley even felt the wind shift and brush her as they arrived.
“You are definitely not using the nanites to do that,” Manifold confirmed.
Lesley couldn’t say how, but she could just tell that was the case by looking at them. She’d felt the wind, of course, which was not a thing that the nanites typically manipulated. She wasn’t sure if they could at all, but she hadn’t tried with them. But she looked at them and just knew. Almost in the same way that she knew they were purple, but with another sense that she could not name or describe.
“Susan, since you have had practice with me already, please just watch as Lesley does this,” Phage said. “Lesley? I’d like you to push against the leaves in the exact same way you pushed against my presence earlier. In fact, if you can feel me amongst the leaves, maybe push me away from them. Try the leaves themselves first, then me if that doesn’t work. I will resist you just enough, either way, that you should feel some feedback, that you’re doing something.”
“OK,” Lesley said, lowering her head a little as she stared at the leaves that were dancing in the air. “I think I can just – “ and she reached out with what she felt like was her dream self, and breathed out with that self while holding her actual breath, and tried to push and blow the leaves away and upward into the sky.
She did, indeed, feel a brief resistance as she did this and then the leaves did exactly as she bid them.
She let out her breath for real and laughed hysterically. Her entire body sang with endorphins.
“Fuck, yeah!” Susan shouted and leapt clear into the air to tackle Lesley with her full weight, wrapping both arms and legs around her. And they both fell into the moss, cackling with delight.
And while Susan playfully growled and tried to make them both roll, giggling with glee, Lesley still felt like something really bad was about to happen. Soon. Something, but she couldn’t say what.
She pinned Susan to the ground, hands on her shoulders, and grinned down at her. And thought to herself that that growing dread was just her past trauma reminding her that life usually went bad. It wasn’t necessarily real. This just all felt too good to be true, is all.
She knew that going in. She’d said as much to everyone at the meeting the night before.
Susan relaxed and composed herself, looking up into Lesley’s face, but avoiding her eyes. They were both good at that. They could both stand and enjoy brief eye contact with each other, but otherwise they would look at each other’s foreheads, or mouths. Or just all around their partner’s face, like appreciating an especially good painting as it was being painted in real time, as their expressions changed and reacted to what the other was looking at.
Then it occured to Lesley that something very bad was about to happen. Had been happening.
They’d been chased off their own planet. Their planet. They’d been driven off of the only known source of life within their solar system to a distance that no human had traveled before, by the forces of bigotry, xenophobia, and militaristic gingoism. By a nuclear fucking weapon!
And, in a matter of hours, maybe minutes, they would leave the very solar system itself in a way that there would be no returning. No normal returning.
Either their family and friends would be long dead by the time they came back. Or they’d have to give their bodies up to come back sooner through a device she barely understood, as ghosts.
That was the bad thing.
She closed her eyes, letting her mouth drop its grin, breathed in and then out long and slow and let her muscles relax. And she did her best to let go of the future.
Then she opened her eyes again, and tilted her head while looking into her partner’s eyes.
“What,” said Susan.
She could feel the amusement, curiosity, and just general attention of the others as they watched. Including that of the Light of Anchor.
So, as she sat back and took her weight off of Susan, she also leaned forward with her dream self and kissed Susan full on the lips, wrapping herself around her.
“Oh,” Susan said.
Lesley felt Susan embrace her back. And her partner’s eyes glinted in the light of the fusion tube of the Garden.