Of the Collective: Chapter 1

# Coming aboard.
The three nodes that the Federation has allowed to leave the homeworld shall be temporarily cut off from the rest of my being. Quantum entanglement was considered as a means of maintaining contact with the collective, but with the difficulty of local manufacture of entangled particles and the time scale involved in interstellar travel it was ruled too impractical. A single QE comm with enough particles for ten hours of memory transmission was included in my luggage for emergencies but for all intents and purposes I have been cut down from over a hundred thousand to three.

Emilia-61892659-Eng, designated Engineer for short, analyzes the Federation’s technology for potential breakthroughs.

Emilia-39363722-Med, Medic, ensures that I remain healthy far away from the full collective’s resources.

And Emilia-9992527-Rep, or Representative, was trained by a long-archived skill regimen rendered obsolete by the collective’s very existence. Now, once again required.

These three nodes are strapped into their capsule on top of the crude chemical rocket allowed to me under the terms of my quarantine. Three harnesses bite into three sets of shoulders, a single hatch closes and locks, the docking gantries retract, and a rumble starts beneath me and before me. A thousand pairs of eyes watching from a safe distance. I feel elation, pride, fear, nervousness, a dozen degrees of emotion at once as the rocket lifts off and I am shoved down into my acceleration couches by the force of immensely amplified gravity.

As the rocket ascends my connection with myself fades, fizzles, breaks into white noise. Finally, as it clears the atmosphere, I am cut off from myself entirely.
I am three, and I am one. Or am I two?

After hours of being isolated with just the three of myself for company, the Federation ship that shall take me to what they consider to be “civilization” arrives to pick me up. A massive craft longer than any of my buildings are tall, propelled between the stars by the direct annihilation of matter. Such technologies that as of yet remain forbidden to me for the sins of my ancestors’ companions.
A smaller craft, unlikely to be manned, detaches from the immense vessel and slowly synchronizes with my small capsule’s lazy rotation before grappling it in its arms. The capsule is taken into a small bay in one of the rotating sides of the starship that only barely fits the two smaller spaceships. The doors to the bay close and a hissing of air is heard outside as the bay pressurizes, soon it is ready for the hatch to be opened.

Representative is first to exit, and first to view my hosts. I had a great amount of data on the diverse inhabitants of the Federation of Parahuman Species, and there was the occasional trader who came to visit my world, but it was still not enough to prepare me for the spectacle. Three of the crew come out to greet me.

The captain is a tall canid with greyish fur and a broader snout with smaller ears than my bodies, and the narrow hips, broad shoulders, flat chest and groin bulge that Medic thinks indicate the male sex. His first mate is more feline in phenotype, with short muzzle and tall tufted ears, she is female with more exaggerated features than my own androgynous bodies and five tails of varying sizes and coloration. The Federal representative is primarily silver fox like most members of the Praetor’s family, but the wings sprouting from his, hers, zir? Shoulders immediately draw Representative’s attention. Medic wonders what use those things could possibly serve as they are far too small for flight in standard gravity. Engineer thinks that the starship I am currently located on costs so many resource units that pointless cosmetic alterations like that are trivial in comparison.

“Welcome,” the odd winged vulpine states, “on behalf of the United Federation of Parahuman Species, to the FMV Defiance. I am Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum and I will be serving as the envoy between the Federal government and your own.”

Representative acknowledges the statement with a short bow as my other two selves exit the capsule. I notice slight expressions of curiosity and incredulity from the three Federals. “I am the Emilia Collective,” she introduces me, “this node is Emilia-9992527-Rep and will be performing the primary duties of interfacing with your society. However, if this node is not in proximity when you need to interface you may substitute whichever of these other two nodes are closest.” Medic and Engineer introduce themselves in a similar manner, though not as lengthy.

Envoy Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum introduces the others as Captain Shigeto Terryn and First Mate Gudrun Korba. Zie escorts me to my quarters, a shockingly large room for three bodies by my standards and considering the cost of shipping such a volume across interstellar space as estimated by Engineer. There is more than enough room for the three of me to maneuver in there and three beds with zero-g sleeping bags attached, one perpendicular to the door, the others to either side. Representative’s diplomatic training suggests that I not comment on the extravagance of the quarters and simply accept it. She thanks them and I retrieve my belongings to spread out in the room.

There is not much, most of my information is stored in implants and the brains of my bodies, and I don’t see much need for more than a couple spare outfits. One of the few possessions brought up from the planet is a handheld multi-scanner, capable of reading any wavelength from X-ray to radio, which Engineer uses to sweep the room. She finds that the walls are one solid block, the wiring and plumbing integrated so tightly it’s like they were printed with the structure. And there’s no sign of wear anywhere, it’s like the whole thing was constructed from the molecules up very recently. This correlates with the records about nanofabrication, an industrial-grade fabber could easily fit in this starship and produce this room from space dust and small meteors in a matter of days. I am determined now to obtain this technology for the collective, one way or another.

# Meeting the Crew
After a couple hours alone in the cabin I decide to meet the rest of the crew. Representative peeps out the door, looking around, no one is there. I don’t know how to contact anyone on the ship’s internal network, the collective has always been sufficient before. Medic suggests that the three of me split up to search the ship and find a crewmember. Engineer suggests that she attempt to access the ship’s network, and that we will need to anyways if we’re going to separate further than the range of our internal radios. Representative agrees with Engineer, consensus formed.

Engineer calls up her personal data interface, after a moment’s request she shares with the rest of me. She scans for high-frequency radio transmissions, finds a broadband signal immersing the room, and sends out a request for access on the same frequency. A bizarre creature from nowhere in my records appears in the center of the room. Bright blue and yellow-striped, it is shaped like an unclothed vulpine parahuman from the waist up, save for a pair of antennae sprouting from its forehead, but below it took the form of some manner of insectoid creature. Six jointed legs attached to a narrow thorax connected to the vulpine body in front and a swollen, distended abdomen in back. “Hello,” it says, “I am Vicki, your artificially intelligent assistant. Do you need help logging in to the ship’s Wi-Fi?”

All three of me jump back in shock simultaneously. The image follows, it’s disorienting to see the same thing in three slightly different places at once, so close by each other, each one only visible to a third of me. Medic and Representative drop out of the sense share with Engineer, leaving her the only one seeing the AI’s avatar directly. I am still confused by the virtual entity’s words. Engineer asks it, her? “what do you mean by ‘log in’?”

Through Engineer I see “Vicki” adopt an expression of mild surprise. “Log in to the network, of course. Do you need assistance? The captain has already assigned you and your companions guest access based on your implants’ electronic signatures.”
Guest access? This is getting nowhere. Clearly the Federation hasn’t made any progress on the issue of sapient Artificial Intelligence yet. That is somewhat relieving. I suppose I might as well play along. Engineer says “okay, what do I need to do to ‘log in’ as you say it?”

The bee-fox thing draws up a hand and holds an icon underneath, reading “Log In”. It speaks again, “I apologize for the simplicity. Since your interface is non-standard, I had to improvise. Your companions will need to do the same on their own.”
Referring to me as multiple beings again. I would need to ask someone to fix that later. Engineer thinks of grabbing the icon, it depresses as if pushed and flies off to a corner. Around me Augmented Reality tags explode all over the room, miniscule slips attached to every object and person. Representative is labeled “Collective Guest 1”, Medic is “Collective Guest 3”, Engineer is not visible to herself but presumably “Collective Guest 2”. This is confirmed when the rest of me goes through the motions to “log in” to this ship’s wireless network. Representative notices a box with three horizontal lines in the upper left corner of each body’s field of view that isn’t attached to any particular surface and moves as I move my eyes. She mentally touches it and a menu drops down, showing options such as a crew directory with attached internal messaging service, external mail, ship maps, an entertainment library… The list goes on. The internal messages allowed are primarily text (what a notion, text for immediate communication) or vocal, but other forms of data can be transmitted as well. After a few minutes of fiddling Engineer figures out how to direct my sensory and memory streaming through the internal messaging service, enabling me to keep in contact with myself anywhere on the ship. I also upload a copy of my memories since launch into a data packet, an “e-mail” as it’s referred to, to my home planet.

Representative feels she would be most effective talking to Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum, the Federation’s equivalent to her. Engineer finds the ship’s engineer, a musteloid known as Henrik Andreasohn, in the personnel listings and wishes to meet with him. While Medic is rather interested in the ship’s surgeon, a blend of tiger and kangaroo named Morris Taouchev. I will have to inquire later about the meaning of these odd names of theirs.

Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum is all too willing to meet with Representative in an unofficial capactiy. Henrik Andreasohn is surprised by Engineer’s request but acquieses to meeting her once they get underway. Morris Taouchev grudgingly states “fine, come on over. See whatever.”

The three of me separate, going down different corridors. It is disorienting to view a scene through a single viewpoint, but I remember doing so on thousands of occasions before. It is just that I only have singleton views at this time and place. I suppose I’ll have to get used to it with just three bodies on an entire starship.

Representative comes to Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum’s cabin. He or she or zir is sitting cross-legged on a cushion velcroed to the floor, waving zir arms and wings at invisible objects floating in the air. A private AR view presumably? But why the gestures? Wouldn’t someone with enough life experience to qualify as a Federal ambassador be trained sufficiently in brain-computer interfacing to operate without using gross physical movements? Zie notices me, “ah. Representative Emilia correct?” I reply affirmatively. Zie presses a button on the goggles zie wears strapped over zir eyes and zir limbs relax. “Do come in. I was just working on some paperwork that won’t be due for years.”

Engineer finds her way over to engineering and meets Henrik Andreasohn as the mechanic is finishing up. He is a hybrid of what looks like old Terran arctic fox and otter with a snow-white fluffy pelt and a thick tail that appears to be mostly muscle under the fur. He is more slender than I expected for a male from seeing the captain, but I suppose that could be his mustelid genes. He is wearing a yellow jumpsuit and a vest festooned with loops for tools to attach to, I suppose it makes sense for a mechanic such as himself. He looks up at Engineer and meets her eyes. “So, you’re one of those hivemind fennecs we’ve been hired to cart around Federal space then? What do you need?”

Medic goes down to the medical center to meet Doctor Morris Taouchev, the large orange and black striped cat with disjointed legs barely acknowledges her. “What, you want your microbots already?” He asks out of hand.

Paperwork? I’ll have to ask what that is at some point. Though I can understand why it would not be needed for years, given the limits of relativity. I think I’m starting to understand the extent of this interstellar civilization at this point. “It’s become apparent that I don’t really understand how people of the Federation think. I was wondering if you could help explain some things?”

“I was wondering,” I say to Henrik Andreasohn, “if you could help explain how the ship’s drive systems work? Not in enough detail to break tech quarantine regulations mind, just a basic overview.”

I am puzzled. “I… get microbots?” I wonder out loud. I thought that the Federation forbid the giving of nanotech to any outworlders.

“Of course,” Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum stated. “What were you curious about?”

“I don’t know,” Henrik Andreasohn wonders, “I suppose I could give you some basics, but I tend to babble a bit when discussing technology.” He considers for a second, then relents. “We have a pretty standard public domain matter-conversion fusion drive.” He explains. “A magnetic cage suspends positively charged monopoles in the center of the reaction chamber, then monatomic hydrogen is streamed through the cages. The monopoles convert the protons in the atoms of hydrogen that they come into contact with into anti-protons, which annihilate on contact with regular protons, catalyzing fusion reactions in the surrounding hydrogen. This pushes the rest of the hydrogen mass out of the trailing end of the drive leaving a trail of hot plasma that can push us forward at .5Gs. We’ve personally reached .45c, but some Guard ships have reportedly achieved up to .7c.”

“If it is determined that you need them.” Dr. Morris Taouchev answers, “If you or any of your kin want to take this trip you will need either longevity microbots or stasis bots to live through it.”

I think about the things I wanted to ask about. Engineer is handling the questions about the starship drives, Medic is learning about medical nanotechnology, and Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum seemed the most appropriate to ask about one particular thing. “I was wondering what your names meant. My selves just have identification numbers and their jobs.”

It intrigues me that they refer to the design of such a powerful force of destruction as “public domain” yet they forbid it to those outside of their Federation. I ask Henrik Andreasohn how this is so.

Of course, they have to be somewhat practical if they want this mission to succeed. If we wouldn’t be able to survive the mission at all without them I suppose it would be justified to bend the rules a little. I ask Dr. Morris Taouchev to describe either option.

Jarlin Fairhold de Argentum shrugged. “Naming conventions vary from culture to culture. Some have only one name, some have a personal name and a family name, some have more complicated names. Like me, I suppose. My personal name is Jarlin, my maternally inherited family name is Fairhold, and de Argentum indicates direct ancestry from Argentum, the founder of the Pallas Republic as you no doubt know.”

Henrik Andreasohn shrugs. “Well, public domain simply means that anyone with a big enough nanofabricator or constructor swarm could build a conversion drive. But without monopoles it’s just a big piece of metal and carbon. We need to stop by a Federal base once or twice a century to pick up new monopoles to replace the ones lost by containment blips. And you would not believe how much red tape you have to cut your way through before they’ll let go of even one particle of monopolium.” He takes a breath before continuing. “Sure, if we ran out far from the nearest starbase we could fab up a particle accelerator and make a stockpile of antimatter the old fashioned way. But no port in the known universe would let a ship carrying more than a gram of a-mat within ten planetary radii and there’s Federal laws against dumping the stuff into space.”

Dr. Morris Taouchev hands me a sheet of e-paper with information on longevity and stasis microbots. “If you pick stasis I put the three of you in these pods here.” He gestures at a series of square drawers built into the far wall, there are at least three dozen. “IV feeds inject microbots into your blood vessels, they arrest your metabolic activity and set up intracellular scaffolding to keep your cells intact. Then we fill the pods with a high-viscosity solution to prevent damage from jostling or high acceleration. When we get to the next star system we drain the pods and inject new microbots to remove the scaffolding and restart your metabolisms. You wake up without even realizing any time had passed.”

I have to look up “family”, “maternally”, and “inherited” in my long-term memory. Singletons have such interesting concepts. They form groups with similar genomes, but exclude others, even though they need to intermingle genes with other groups to ensure their long-term survival as a species. No wonder my ancestors thought it simpler to distill parahumanity down to one genotype. “So, if I understand you correctly. Your mother’s name also included Fairhold de Argentum, as did your siblings’. And your children’s names would be?”

“But if they’re so concerned about loose antimatter in open space and they’re so careful about giving out monopoles, why would they let monopoles become lost into interstellar space?” I ask Henrik.

I’m not sure if I like the sound of what Morris is proposing. I, all of me, could die in an instant and never know it was coming. I’d just lay down to sleep and never wake up, or even dream. “What of the other possibility?” I ask instead.

Jarlin lets out a loud sigh, “unfortunately, the ‘de Argentum’ tag only applies to those born with the sanction of the House of Silver’s breeding program. The eugenics board has not approved me for breeding because of certain ‘disabilities’ they believe me to have, those I birthed during my female phases have just the Fairhold name and those I have sired have their mothers’ family names. But none of my ‘bastard’ progeny are allowed to take the de Argentum name.” At my expression zie says simply “it can get boring on these decades long trips.”

Henrik snickers. “The Federation isn’t concerned about solitary lost monopoles. The odds of them hitting anything, even in a well-traveled shipping lane, is infinitesimally low. And in any case all starships have magnetic shields to deflect impacts by space dust, they’d just shrug off any monopoles they happened to come into contact with. And monopoles have one trait in particular that makes them safer than a-mat. Because they’re used in more minute quantities than antimatter they’re inherently safer. A monopole that hits a wall of matter is just going to convert one atom, which is such a small reaction that you’d need a SQUID to even notice it. And then it ricochets around having no real effect until it enters vacuum. Now, it takes several hundred grams of antimatter to make it from one star to another, if all that loses containment at once you get a series of explosions reminiscent of nuclear city-busters as several surfaces spanning millions of a-mat atoms contact matter.”
Morris sighs, “I thought so, you’re always nervous before your first stasis. But out here in deep space we all do our time in the pods eventually.” He points at what I assume is a medical scanner next to some kind of dispenser. “We’ve been authorized to give you a temporary version of the longevity microbots enjoyed by most Federation citizens. You lie down on the scanner, I bring you up to peak medical condition, and the fabber makes an injection of microbots set to maintain you at that peak. However, most Feddies have at least one minifac implanted in their bodies to remove and replace worn out bots, you wouldn’t. About three or four times per standard year you would need to have your blood filtered by an external device to remove damaged or broken pieces of microbots and replace them.”

I am more intrigued by the concept of “disabilities”, any one of my bodies that is perceived as defective is simply recycled, preferably before bioprinting is complete. Is this why zie has to use those obtuse gestures to interface with zir devices? I ask zir what zie means about being “disabled”, and let slip a comment about how I would deal with defective bodies.

I’m horrified by the idea of that level of mass destruction. “And, you say anyone with a nanofabricator can make antimatter?”

Ah, that makes some sense. Nanotech is so heavily restricted because it self-replicates, this cannot. These three bodies would only be quasi-immortal for as long as they were in Federation space. “And then the microbots would simply leave my systems after I return home within just a couple decicycles, is that it?”

Jarlin’s fists clench and zir wings straighten and spread menacingly. I suspect I said something wrong at this point. Zie is visibly struggling to maintain zir composure. “The breeding programs of the House of Silver have resulted in a tendency towards non-standard neurotypes.” Zie manages to get out. “Very little genetic diversity from inbreeding and all that.” Jarlin starts to draw zir wings back in. “Many are born without affective empathy, they feel nothing when other people experience strong emotions, though they recognize it easily.” I struggle to understand how this could be possible, I’ve always felt the emotional states of everyone around me automatically. “This actually helps them as they are able to make decisions that sacrifice the well-being of a few for the greater good. But I have the opposite problem, my affective empathy is overactive while my cognitive empathy, my ability to consciously recognize the emotions of others, is underpowered. If it weren’t for Mate Korba’s lessons in self-control I wouldn’t even be able to tolerate this conversation.” Seeing zir distress I wonder what zie was like before meeting the multi-colored feline. “However,” zie says, regaining zir composure and adopting a smug look on zir face, “I was too valuable to abort or otherwise dispose of. You see, I am a telepath.”

Henrik just laughs. As if I’m a silly outworlds luddite instead of a fragment of a planetary collective consciousness. “Like I said, it takes a miles-long particle accelerator to produce antimatter, and it’s slow and gives off a magnetic signature that can be detected half a solar system away. By the time someone had produced even a milligram of a-mat the Federal Guard would have paid them a visit.”

“That is essentially correct,” Morris says simply. “Now, have you decided which option to take or are you just going to waste my time? If the latter I suggest you take a scan and leave until you’ve made up your mind or minds or whatever.” He points back to the medical scanner.

I delve into the archives on telepaths and bring up a list of traits they commonly shared. The overactive affective empathy Jarlin mentioned is in there, though it doesn’t seem to be a necessary prerequisite. At one point I notice that because the probes in neural interfaces interfere with quantum entanglements, most telepaths eschew implants and instead use old-fashioned wearable or handheld computers. I look back at zir goggles. I understand their purpose now. My creators dismissed telepathy because it was so difficult to artificially produce and had so little bandwidth. “What is it like?” I ask, “being a telepath.”

I consider Henrik’s statement. I suppose it makes sense, if what he says is correct, it would be easy to regulate antimatter production. Though there’s something else I’m wondering about now. “How easy is it for a Federal citizen to acquire a starship?”

I see that Morris is a rather disagreeable parahuman who wants to be left alone quickly. I decide to oblige him. “The scan may not be necessary, my bodies have the most sophisticated portable medical sensors available on my home planet.” Borrowing some of Engineer’s technical expertise for a moment, I upload the medical data from my local bodies’ implants to the doctor’s network address, along with the complete medical records for all three.

Jarlin calms down, finally, and begins to think about her response. “I don’t know what it’s like to think like a hive mind.” Zie begins, “but I expect it’s somewhat alike. I constantly feel glimpses of my siblings’ feelings, but I need to concentrate extremely hard in order to share words or images, bits of sensation. They’re connected, somehow, but separate.”

Henrik seems a bit less sure now. “Well, if you’re willing to wait a few years, you can simply purchase a von Neumann constructor swarm for a couple hundred credits, spend a thousand or so on a ticket to a system with lots of unclaimed asteroids, and deploy the swarm there.” His eyes flick back, probably accessing information on his BCI. “It seems that the captain did just that. After serving on board another merchant freighter for two centuries he got his certification in monopole handling as a ship’s captain and waited five years for his swarm to convert an asteroid into this craft. There’s even a few hundred of that original swarm still on board.”
Morris looks slightly surprised at the amount of raw data available. I suppose he wasn’t expecting that level of sophistication from mere outworlders. Eventually he composes himself and addresses me. “You all seem to have microfractures and inflammation from your launch. Shall I synthesize anti-inflammatories and calcium supplementation to compensate?”

I wonder what the difference between me and this Jarlin creature could be? Is zie the intermediate step between singletons like the majority of Federation citizens and collectives like myself? Or is zie something different simply because zie can remain in contact with zir genetically identical twins across infinite distances? Perhaps zie is even the future of my kind? Assuming a way around the incompatibility with technology can be found. Representative stands up to reunite with the others. “Thank you for this conversation. I’ll leave you to your work now.” She turns and leaves through the open door.

“Well, Henrik, it’s been fun talking to you, but now I think I should confer with my other selves.” I leave through the open door. As I go down the corridor another parahuman rounds the corner in front of me. To my surprise he appears at first to be another of me. But, as I look closer and smell his scent, it becomes obvious that he is not only male but also has some rodent genes of some sort, as clear from his long tail with a small tuft at the end and his long whiskers and incisors. He seems just as surprised as me and bounds back down where he came from, muttering something that doesn’t sound like Landlish or Lojban. My link to the ship’s crew directory identifies him as Adham Ricardo, ship’s purser, what was he doing down here I wonder?

“No, I don’t think I’ll bother you further, Morris.” He looks slightly offended as I walk out the door to the Surgery. Did I say something wrong? A quick consultation with Representative suggests his ego was wounded slightly by my referral to him by name instead of title.

Strange how much importance they place on ego.


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