Turnabout

If you have read any of the other books mentioned in this story, such as Metabang’s Systems’ Out!, you will know that Phage has, among other explanations, described itself as “a Localized Manifestation of Entropic Decay Itself”. And, if you believe those very mostly true accounts of history, you’ll know that it has supposedly done some amazingly spectacular and disturbing things that maybe could only be attributed to it being such a thing.

One thing it definitely could do is change the flow of energy within any system it touched. It could speed things up. It could slow things down. It could sometimes reverse things.

This is all to say that up to this point, it had been making its nanites work faster than they would otherwise be able to. It had a sense of urgency and was applying it.

And, because the nanites were focusing on replicating, their destruction and reconstitution of the material around them accelerated exponentially as more nanites were added to their mass. This was exactly the kind of thing Susan had been afraid of when she first heard about them. Specifically, of what would happen if the process of replication was somehow not stopped.

Any human scientist watching this and recognizing what was happening would have been mortally terrified.

As it was, it was terrifying enough, nearly a hundred kilometers away, for them to see something they couldn’t identify slowly turn solid metal into an inert powder, along with any other component of alien origins attached to it. They were scared it was going to spread, but it didn’t. It was discerning, and that worried them, too.

Phage, on the other hand, working through the night, was undisturbed and unobserved, and had a singular goal. To grow bigger. Which it did.

And then, when it grew big enough to create a functional parabolic radio dish, it did. A dish made entirely out of nanites.

And it turned that dish in the direction that it sensed with senses beyond the abilities of the nanites where Molly and Manifold seemed to be. And using the simplest protocols from the Sunspot, it sent a message in Fenekere, knowing that only Manifold could quickly translate it without assistance.

Fenekere, with its incredibly huge and almost but not quite redundant vocabulary, allowed for full paragraphs of communication that did not repeat any sequence of phonemes longer than two syllables, if you knew the whole language, as Phage did.

It required some poetic interpretation, which Manifold was capable of.

Phage waited for a response by dedicating a remaining portion of nanites to continue replicating.

Molly hadn’t eaten yet, because she’d been too exhausted by their flight from the military. And she was just considering asking either Susan or Lesley to get her some food from their bags, when Lesley started talking to her out of the blue about putting a rocket pack on her prosthetic harness.

“This is really more Susan’s thing,” Lesley said. “But I bet you could put little rockets on your forearms and use them for control. And then you’d be a flying cyborg snake! And who wouldn’t rather be friends with a flying cyborg snake?”

“People are already scared of me, and I think that might make it worse,” Molly heard herself say. She agreed with herself at this point, too.

“And that’s why they’d rather be friends with you!” Lesley nudged her.

“Are you trying to cheer me up somehow?” Molly asked, trying to figure out what this was all about.

Lesley looked horrified and said, “Oh. Sorry, now that I hear what I said. Sorry. That was funnier to me before I said it. I don’t think I’m thinking very straight right now.”

“It could be done,” Manifold said. “And it might even work for a useful amount of time if we used the same technology we had in Spindrift. We’d need Phage’s help.”

Lesley looked up, “So not useful right now?”

“Maybe not,” Manifold said. “We don’t have the fuel we’d need, in any case. And nanite clay might not be the best housing”

“Speaking of fuel, how are your nanites powered, or do I want to know?” Susan asked.

“I am mostly running off of reserves gathered before Spindrift was destroyed,” Manifold replied. “There are a myriad of ways that they gather energy from the environment, all of them for low level activity, remaining functional while inactive. I will have to supplement my energy by consuming organic matter, or by finding a power source and tapping into it.”

“Do you think Phage has to do that, too?”

“No. Not in the slightest.”

“So, you really think it is a supernatural being that can manipulate physics all on its own,” Susan said.

Manifold turned its body slightly to its right to look back at her over its shoulder, a gesture it didn’t have to actually do to see her and said, “I know it is. But, in a way, so are you. You manipulate physics simply by metabolizing, and your consciousness is hard to explain, even with our own science.”

“You know what I meant,” she squinted up at it.

“I do. And my response is still relevant. Just because we don’t know how Phage works or what it really is, it does not mean we don’t have definitive records of what it can do.”

Molly shook her head a little bit, thinking about this conversation.

“That’s scary,” Susan said.

Molly glanced over at Susan and said, “it is. It scared the Crew of the Sunspot enough that they sanctioned it to the Engineering room to never exit that space for nearly a hundred and thirty thousand years.”

“How did they force it to go there or even stay there?” Susan asked.

“I don’t think they did,” Molly replied. She’d been over those stories repeatedly since she was a small child, there was no other way to interpret them, especially after Phage and its child Ni’a had shown the entire ship the extent to what they could actually do. “It legitimately cares about the people of the Sunspot and is doing what it can to protect them. And it sent a copy of itself with me to honor that commitment.”

“OK, but does it care about the people on this planet?” Susan asked.

Molly tightened her jaw and stared at the stretch of ground visible between Manifold’s legs. She didn’t know.

“That is a relevant question,” Manifold said.

“Can you answer it?”

“No. You’ll have to ask Phage.”

“I wonder where it is,” Molly mumbled. They were still all successfully keeping their communications in the Network, where it was still entirely possible to mumble, and fully express yourself in all sorts of ways. Even when the Network consisted only of several hundred pounds of nanite clay, three neural terminals, and the brains they were linked to. Molly was proud of her little crew she was now a part of. But she was feeling unworthy in a lot of ways, so she had mumbled.

“I just received a message from it,” Manifold said.

Everyone’s eyes snapped up to look at it. It was still glancing over its shoulder motionlessly, as if looking at Susan.

“What did it say?” Molly asked.

“That, for safety, I should transmit a copy of myself over to its location, and let it do the same in this direction,” Manifold responded. “Backups. I do not like the sound of playing with my consciousness and sense of identity simply for backups.”

“You’ve already copied yourself,” Molly pointed out. Though, she knew this Manifold was very different from the Manifold she’d known before. It had a very different attitude toward her.

“That was different. I’m more of a child, not a copy. I am my own person.”

“You could think of this as another child?” Molly suggested.

“Hmm. There is another problem with it.”

“Yes?”

“It will take some time on my part, and the military might be able to triangulate and track my signal. And find us.”

“Do it,” Molly heard Susan forcefully blurt out, with her full voice. She felt Susan lurch forward as she said it, and when she looked over, Susan had her eyes clenched shut.

“What?” Lesley hissed out loud.

“We need the backup, bad!” Susan hissed back. “And if it gives me a chance to question Phage in person, maybe I can learn to trust it. Or at least make peace with what it can do to us.”

“OK,” Lesley said, holding her hands up, palms out, and keeping her voice low. “I agree. Good idea. I was just surprised you went for it.”

“I am too,” Susan whispered horsely. “But I think we’re officially traitors now, and I’ll be damned if I let a bunch of cops define who and what I am by forcefully taking us down! We’re surrounded, and our only way to peacefully remove ourselves from this situation just got blown up. We need a scary edge, and Phage scares me to death!”

Lesley looked up at Manifold and said, “Let’s do it.”

It nodded once, and stated in the Network, “I told it, ‘you first.’ And it just agreed.”

Molly let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding, and then said, mostly to herself, “I guess talking out loud isn’t any worse than using the Network. Both can be heard, with the right senses, to about the same distance.”

“Yeah,” Susan Networked back. “But why give them more than one way of detecting us? Sorry I spoke up.”

“How long will this take?” Lesley asked.

“Done,” the deep voice of Phage rang out through the Network. “Manifold’s turn, if it’s willing.”

Susan dropped into the shared Network space and said, “Show yourself, Phage.” 

She spoke in such a way that she hoped the others could overhear even if they weren’t in the Network like she now was. She still wasn’t sure how it worked yet.

Phage apparently heard her.

The space was default off white, just an endless sea of nothing with Susan in her avatar in the middle of it. She could look down and see the body that her subconscious apparently chose for her. It was a slightly younger version of herself. Maybe from her early 20s, what she usually thought of herself in her dreams.

Maybe two meters in front of her a cloud of darkness started to unfold from space itself. It billowed like ink in water, and she thought she could see stars within it. As it grew it filled out the shape she’d seen it take before with its nanite exobody. A humanoid form with a long, tufted tail that swished about. It was just a silhouette, but it had the shape of hair that was short, curly, and messy. Chaotic.

A couple of eyes formed as stars clustering together and flaring. It grinned briefly by doing the same thing for a semblance of teeth.

“Hello,” it said.

“You look like a demon,” Susan said.

“I feel unsurprised,” it responded. “I take this shape as a mix of some of my favorite people. But presenting myself as a view of part of the cosmos has always been a reminder of what I actually am, and where everyone comes from. And that is a thing of nightmares for some people.”

Susan stared at it for a bit, trying not to be taken off guard by it. She’d meant that a humanoid with a tufted tail was classically demonic. She hadn’t been referring to the elementary 3D shader effects. But if the people of the Sunspot were as diverse in shape and form as Molly had said, then she was attributing moral symbolism to other people’s bodies, and it had a point there.

“I supposed you wouldn’t have known what my people’s concepts of demons are,” Susan offered.

“Ah! I’ve been wanting to converse with someone again for so long now! Only, it really hasn’t been that long. But! You help me. Thank you.” It leaned back and nodded.

“What do you mean?” Susan asked, squinting.

“I am not fully present until I am conversing. People bring my self out from me. Also, I get lonely,” it said. “And, thanks to you mentioning it, the memory of what one of your demons looks like came to me, and now I know. I am sorry for the resemblance. It was unintentional.”

“You read my mind?” Susan stepped back, feeling a chill. She realized she felt threatened by Phage’s presence, in a way that went beyond how she felt instinctively scared of a large snake.

“No,” it gently shook its head, speaking more softly. “I don’t work that way. I am something that has access to all of the universe’s memories, somehow. Or something like that. But I cannot access that which I do not have associations for. I require people or circumstances to give me those associations. And it is unreliable.”

“What are you?” she asked it.

It appeared to take a deep shuddering breath and said, “From what everyone has been able to gather, I came from the origin marker on the Tunnel Apparatus aboard the Sunspot, transmitted from what is perhaps the very beginning of the Exodus Ships over a connection that was marked, ‘Never use this.’ It uses something related to quantum tunneling, hence its name. There has been a lot of relativity between that origin point and the Sunspot. The planet from which the Exodus Ships sprang is now, certainly, billions of years old, even if the Exodus Ships are only millions of years old themselves. If I did indeed come from there, who knows what I am. But my memories of before my arrival are gone. The traveling took them from me. I only have my sense of identity.”

Susan had stepped back two more times during that monologue, and she followed its last statement with, “Which is?”

“Oh, I believe you’ve already been told that,” Phage grinned very brightly, literally twinkling.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, stepping back again.

“Protecting Molly and Manifold.”

“What about me and Lesley?”

“If you are friends with Molly, then you are friends of mine.”

“What about this planet?”

“Someday I will eat it. But until then, it will have billions of years of existence, from what I can tell,” it tilted its head. “Though, I suppose, in a way, I am eating everything all the time, only very slowly.”

“And the people on this planet?” Susan demanded, forcefully stopping her retreat.

It sat down, cross legged, and appeared to pull its tail into its lap, and said, “Little more than flashes of photons in the dark. They will be gone all too soon, just like Molly and her family aboard the Sunspot. I cannot protect them and protect Molly at the same time, not right now, at least. But I probably don’t have to.” 

Its arms made little movements as if it was doing something like braiding the tuft of its tail, but all Susan could see was its silhouette. She felt like it was doing these things to humanize itself, to help her think of it as a person. And she was determined not to do that. This was simultaneously too unbelievable and too important to fall prey to that. If this thing was really real, she was talking to something like a god, even with its apparent limitations. And the fate of her family depended on what she could convince it to promise to.

She felt like she was grasping at rotten straws, falling apart in her hands. They’d been fired upon tonight, just minutes ago, with real bullets. She’d seen more military vehicles today than she’d seen in her life previously, all searching for her. Well, for Molly, but her by extension. And she was sitting on the ground in the middle of a “theater of engagement” with her arm pressed up against a giant mammalian snake from another world after surviving a missile attack and what might have been a strange nuclear explosion. And her life was in imminent danger, and here she was talking to a phantom of the cosmos that wouldn’t promise anything except that it would do something.

It looked up at her and said, “I believe you are near a panic attack. I may be able to soothe that for you, if you consent. Help you think more clearly.”

She gritted her teeth, “I don’t. want. you. messing. with. my head.”

“Understood,” it let go of its tail, which flipped out and whipped around. “I won’t try to soothe you at all, then.”

It didn’t say anything more, even though Susan waited for it. So she said, “What are you going to do?”

“Everything,” it snickered nastily. “But, first, before that, in the meantime, I’m going to help Molly get out of here, get her back to Anchor if she’ll allow it, and do what I can to meet your needs, in gratitude.”

“What if my needs are in conflict with hers?”

“Then I’ll do what I can for the both of you, within reason. But favoring her.”

“What if I’m unreasonable? I’m feeling very unreasonable right now.”

It snorted and its voice sounded like it came through a smirk, “Reason is a social construct.”

“Don’t do that,” Susan growled. Again, she was just letting her thoughts come right out of her mouth, “Don’t use the rhetoric of discourse to deflect my very legitimate concerns.”

“Susan,” it stood up. “I am not your adversary. In fact, without me, you wouldn’t exist. Nothing would. But I am not your maker, either. I am the conscious echo of everything that happens, and I am a localized phenomenon that can be conversed with and that can do things within mysterious limits that even I don’t understand. All I can do is be as honest as possible with you, and that’s what I’m doing. Nobody is guaranteed to get out of this mess, not even me. But like you, I’m going to do my best to keep everyone from being hurt in the immediate time frame. I just have limits and priorities. Like you.”

She thought about all of that, and about what it had done for them so far, and all the possibilities of what it maybe could have done but didn’t, and came up with a worrisome question, “Have you been holding back?”

“Oh, yes. Definitely yes,” it took a step towards her this time. “And you want me to. I’ve learned two very important things about myself from my time aboard the Sunspot. I can do very nuanced things, but the larger my influence the more catastrophic the effects. That includes holding back catastrophe, by the way. But also, the wider I spread my conscious control of things, the less consciousness I have, eventually to the point I am no longer a person. And the Sunspot was at the very edge of my limits in terms of size and complexity.”

Susan nodded and thought about that, “and now there are two of you on my planet, and I’m only talking to one of them.”

“I intend to merge as soon as it is expedient to do so,” it sounded actually self conscious about that. Which did not reassure Susan.

“Can we,” she was not comfortable with the fact that she was moving forward with asking this, but it was coming out anyway, “use you as a threat to get what we need? Tell them, ‘put your guns down or Phage…’”

“Destroys the world?” it asked.

“I’ve actually always hated that story,” Susan said. “The aliens were no better than the world they were confronting. Coercion is not peace.”

“I like you.”

“Any other path is just so much harder, isn’t it, though?” Susan observed.

“Infinitely,” Phage rumbled. “As you have likely decided for yourself, you were coerced into existence. Birth is violence enacted against the born, and then you’re told to be grateful for it because everyone else is.”

Susan tilted her head, “You are really awful, you know that? I thought that we decided whether or not to be conceived, to inhibit a body.”

“You’re not being sarcastic,” it looked confused.

“No! I hate a lot about this life! It’s really, really hard sometimes. Some people are born with debilitating illnesses that nobody wants to fix. People are real assholes a lot of the time. There are whole systems of exploitation that kill people and make it hell for the rest. But when it comes to being born, I feel like I remember making that choice,” Susan shouted at it. “And I plan to own it!”

It straightened up and seemed to look curiously at her, as if it was realizing anew what she was. It didn’t say anything.

“You’re actually out of your element, aren’t you?” Susan frowned at it.

“I think,” it said, “that maybe I’m more of a product of the Sunspot than I have admitted to myself.”

“You think?” she sputtered. “You are so alien to me.”

“I am sorry. I will try to adjust.”

“I don’t want you to adjust,” she said, stepping toward it finally. “I want you to tread lightly. I want you to treat the soil of this planet with respect. I want you to see the damage that you, and Molly, and Manifold have already done, and decide to undo it if you can, or step aside and let us undo it. Maybe, in fact, you should follow our direction while you’re here, you know? But above all, I want to live my life according to my way with my people.”

It blinked and said, “I will do that.”

“Good. And make sure that the other you understands that, too. Now,” she looked around, hands on her hips. “Where are the others? I could have sworn I’d been broadcasting all my words, and that should have at least brought Lesley here.”

“I’ve been talking to each of them separately,” Phage admitted.

“Why?”

“My relationships to each of you are more important than the risk is worth to talk to you all at once,” it said.

“No,” Susan literally put her foot down. “That ends now. Right now.”

Everyone suddenly appeared all around her. There was still only one Phage, but Molly, Manifold, and Lesley were now in the space with her and each one blinking in confusion at what just happened.

Susan stepped into their fields of vision and pointed at Phage, and made her declaration, “That! Right there! Does our bidding. You all understand? It takes our advice and our wisdom and does what we tell it to while it’s here. Got it?”

Lesley frowned in agreement, and nodded, saying, “Oh, yeah. No question.”

Manifold’s expression remained passive, but Molly looked downright startled. Susan really didn’t have any sort of plan she could tell her to make her feel better, though. She just knew where her boundaries were right now, and how they needed to be stated.

“Molly,” she said, addressing her newest friend. “That thing might actually be your oldest ancestor. Or a cousin. And it says it means to help us, and I’m grateful for that. But it is a bumbling power and it doesn’t belong on this planet any more than you do. Maybe someday you all can be part of our family in some way. I’d actually like that. But until we get out of this situation, we have to do it our way. The human way.”

Molly nodded meekly and said, “Agreed.”

“I haven’t even decided yet if I’m OK with how these nanites got in my head,” Susan shouted, clenching her eyes, her Network avatar’s eyes, shut. It was just like shutting the real ones. She opened them and looked around, “Now, humans shot you down, and stranded you here. That was ultimately the consequences of your actions, but! It was wrong. And it is damn inconvenient! And we’re going to make them back off!

“Uh oh,” Phage said.

“What?” snapped Molly.

“Brace yourselves,” it said. Then everything went black.

Susan’s actual eyes snapped open to see Manifold’s exobody riddled with what looked like medium sized lighting. It glowed in places before it started crumpling to the ground.

Her heart was pounding and her ears were ringing again. Her whole body was trembling as if it had felt an unexpected impact. There was thunder rolling off of the mountains.

Molly screeched and immediately started crawling forward out of her harness, which seemed to be inert.

Lesley was cussing.

“That,” someone else said with Susan’s mouth, “was a big mistake.”

When the military had set off the EMP device, they had set it off closer to Phage’s original location on the mountainside than to where its new child was with Susan, Lesley, Molly, and Manifold.

This didn’t so much give it the time as the opportunity to warn itself of the incoming pulse. The way in which that happened was not something measurable by most concepts of time.

This meant a couple of crucial things.

One was that some of the military forces that had been held back from the engagement but that were nearby to the north were just outside of the pulse radius, and their equipment and vehicles were still operational.

It also meant that Phage had been able to shield Manifold and most of its nanites. They’d lost cohesion and many of them were burned out by electrical surges. But it should be able to rebuild itself with a renewal of energy that Phage could supply. Molly’s arms would need repair, but that was possible. And the little Network would re-establish itself shortly. The nanites in everyone’s bodies had been too diffuse to be affected by the EMP.

It could not shield the nanites that were scattered around the rest of the forest, and those that were engaged with various bits of metal ceased to function. The remains of Spindrift stopped disintegrating, which confirmed a scientist’s hypothesis. At least to a commander’s sensibilities.

By a quirk of who had been most emotionally engaged with it, Phage found itself lodged with Susan when the Network went down.

In its anger and disgust at itself and at the use of the EMP, which had almost certainly damaged the local power grid as well, it uttered some words using Susan’s mouth before diving into her psyche’s subconscious in shame.

“I’m sorry,” it told her and her alone. She didn’t react to it right away.

It watched through her as she tried to make sense of what had just happened.

Molly managed to say “Transh-waitor…” once she was free of her harness and ready to face her friends. She looked discouraged. It was just the speaker in her helmet that was blown. The translator was safe in her nanite neural terminal. Fixable.

Susan had joined Lesley in cussing, but didn’t stick to it very long. They were both cussing about different things. And as soon as Susan was standing and facing the others, she looked down and said out loud, “OK, asshole. You’re mine now.”

“What?” Phage asked her from inside at the same time that Lesley uttered the word.

Susan ignored Lesley and kept growling at it vocally, “You invaded my vessel, so you are definitely playing by my rules. You come out when I let you out. Got it?”

“Who are you talking to?” Lesley asked.

“Phage,” Susan said, looking up at her with an expression of grim implication. “It dove into my soul when – whatever that was – happened. I think it was an EMP. I kinda thought they weren’t real for some reason.”

“Oh, damn!”

“I’m pretty sure it had to have taken out all of their vehicles, computers, communications, and everything they could use to track us, though. If it was an EMP, that is,” Susan told her.

Phage offered her a wordless affirmation. And she smirked.

“That’s good, Phage. Impulses of yes and no, until I’m ready to hear you talk, OK?” she said.

“What did it say?” Lesley asked.

“That I’m right,” Susan smirked bigger. “Common, let’s help Molly. I’ll examine her equipment, you see if she wants food. We should start getting ready to move.”

Phage remained silent while Susan waited for its confirmation.

“Huh,” she said, then bent over to look at Molly’s harness and arms. Phage could tell that despite how primitive they looked even to Susan, they didn’t make much sense to her. She couldn’t find the electronics that she was expecting, just blown out myomer muscles. Or something that was enough like myomer that that was a close enough word.

She felt discouraged, and Phage sent her a confirmation of that discouragement.

“That’s not the way to get me to trust you, Phage,” she muttered.

Its reflex was not to gain trust from anyone. It was used to just telling things like it saw them. And now it saw reason to question its current actions. It really could not act against Susan’s will. It could try. It could probably push her to jerk her muscles and feel alarming things. But it couldn’t compel her to actually do anything, and it was finding that while it was contained within her mind, it could not affect the outer world with its usual powers, and that scared it.

It could treat its own little corner of her psyche as its utter plaything. An entire universe it could mold, destroy, rebuild, and warp however it wanted, but no more. The rest were just weak impulses to her conscious mind.

How was she doing this? Or was it, perhaps, one of its limitations? Was that really why it had been stuck in the Engine Room of the Sunspot?

It decided in deliberation to let her know it was terrified.

She’d moved to examining Molly’s helmet to confirm what Phage already knew about it, and paused long enough to feel Phage’s emotions and said, “That’s good. That’s appropriate. You can talk to me now.” She sifted her hands through the inert nanite clay of Manifold’s exobody.

“I will need to recharge Manifold’s nanites for it to reconstitute itself and rejoin the Network,” Phage told her.

“Oh, the Network’s still up? Our neural terminals aren’t fried?” she thought back.

“Yes. No,” it responded to each question. “I can now leave your psyche safely if you let me.”

“I don’t want to yet,” she responded.

Oh.

“I want to try something first,” she said.

Oh. Uh, oh.

She held her hands spread out over Manifold’s nanite clay, and said, “Let me do what you do. Show me how to do it.”

Phage felt itself drawn up into her body from its hole in her mind, felt itself form limbs to superimpose into hers, and a head to match hers, and a heart to match her heart. It felt itself half become her, and consented to do as she asked.

It drew power from the atmosphere all around it, slowly and subtly, and funneled it into the nanite clay below the palms of her hands. The entire process was invisible to human eyes, but Susan sensed it all. And she nodded.

“Thank you,” she said. “Now, let’s see if we can do some more amazing things.”

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