All three of my selves retreat into my cabin after that confrontation with Ricardo. The difference between our two civilizations seems insurmountable, how could a group mind and a society of singletons coexist when singletons not only accepted, but required such an inefficient distribution of resources? It was obscene, ludicrous. I can understand why my forebears had wanted to attempt merging into single collective consciousnesses and how frustrating their failure must have been.
I am still occupied with that line of thought when Vicki informs me that Captain Shigeto Terryn and First Mate Gudrun Korba are ready to see me now. Medic is reminded of her prior interest in Gudrun’s unusual anatomy. Representative wants to compare her role to the Captain’s. Engineer, who was most upset by what Purser Ricardo said, is advised to receive microbots now.
My nodes query their destinations and depart. I note that Medic and Representative appear to be traveling to the same area, while Engineer simply needs to draw upon my memory to find the medical bay.
Engineer arrives at the facility maintained by the tiger-kangaroo and simply informs him that she is here to receive the microbot implants. He shows her to the chair with the blood filters and she sits down, anticipating the probes before they insert themselves.
Medic and Representative are led by the ship’s internal maps to the same cabin, where both the Captain and First Mate apparently reside. The canine and the feline stand outside the door to welcome my nodes. They are dressed in the same outfits that they wore when greeting me at the docking bay, but Korba appears to have green stripes now for some reason. “You wished to speak with the two of us?” Captain Terryn asks. Representative affirms. He waves us into the room. This cabin is even larger than the one occupied by my three nodes, I notice a track along the ceiling running perpendicular to the walls dividing the room in half. When Engineer remotely processes that data she supposes that it supports a retractable wall between two normal-sized cabins.
Representative turns to the Captain in query. “The two of you merged your cabins?”
Medic addresses the First Mate with her first question. “How did your fur pattern change in the time since we met last?”
Captain Shigeto Terryn looks slightly uneasy at my question. “Myself and First Mate Korba have a recurring relationship and we’re currently in one of our intimate phases. During such a phase we tend to sleep together most nights and it’s most efficient to merge cabins, when we decide to take a break the partition is raised easily enough.” He waves a hand idly towards a wall opposite the track. “Envoy Fairhold prefers to have time alone so zie tends to have the partition to zir cabin raised. If zie decides to join us the partition is lowered for the night.”
First Mate Gudrun Korba on the other hand seems excited. “I’m a Kitsune.” She replies, pointing to her collection of tails. As I watch the fur around her face begins to change color to a deep blue, the hair on her cranium lengthens at the pace of a millimeter every five minutes while her cheek ruffs become thinner, and her fingers sprout claws.
While these conversations are occurring, Engineer hears a familiar-sounding voice with her node’s own ears talking to the Surgeon. Eventually Dr. Morris pokes his head in and asks me a question. “It seems you have a visitor. Shall I let him in?”
Representative considers the situation. “This alters the plan slightly. If both of you wish to be interviewed simultaneously there is a reduced need for two nodes to converse with you. This node has not yet obtained the microbots the surgeon claims are needed to survive interstellar travel and could be acquiring them at the same time as the Engineer node.”
Medic is confused. “What is a Kitsune and why would that allow you to alter your physiology so readily?”
Engineer wonders who could be coming to visit her. Her curiosity piqued she tells Morris to “let him in.”
Terryn glances over at Medic for a second then turns back to Representative. “It would seem that your other ‘node’ is keeping my first mate occupied. If you had questions for me alone you could ask them while Gudrun is being interrogated about her little quirks.”
“Oh, yes.” Gudrun Korba concedes. “You have been isolated, you may not know who we are. We are a subculture who employ internal bodysculpting microbots to alter and enhance our bodies. The microbots controlled by our BCI implants can shift cells around and modify their functions in accordance with our thoughts.” She picks up a couple of her tails to show me. “These are both an indication of my rank within the order and a reservoir of spare mass. A trainee with only one tail can change their coloration. A two-tailed initiate can alter their build enough to resemble any other member of their species and sex. Three tails and one can change their apparent sex and assume the physiology of a range of species.” Korba releases her tails and lets all of them fan out. “I’m afraid I’m sworn to secrecy in regards to what one of my rank is capable of.”
Adham Ricardo enters the medical bay. His ears lowered as he looks at Engineer lying on the chair. “Excuse me.” He says, his voice soft. “I was wondering if you would accept an apology from me in regards to what I said to your other… self?”
“Very well.” Representative says. “I am intrigued by your apparent function on board this craft. If I manage to devise what it entails this node may leave discussion of your ‘relationships’ to Medic when she finishes discussing Kitsune with Korba.”
“I am having trouble discerning the function of you ‘Kitsune’, First Mate Korba.” Medic inquires. “It seems that it would be more efficient to adapt permanent specialists for different tasks than to modify an individual to change functions on the fly.”
Engineer lets out a soft exhalation, I don’t know exactly what that meant but somehow I knew it indicated slight annoyance or exasperation. “We are all one person. What you say to me will be hear by all three of us on this craft.”
Shigeto waves a hand and segments of the floor rose up to form four chairs, in two pairs facing each other. He takes a seat in one of the chairs and points at the one facing his. After a minute he says “I suggest you sit down here and our pairs take the other seats.” At this prompting Representative does so. “You say that you cannot ascertain what I do for the ship? I am the Captain, I coordinate the other crewmembers and make decisions that affect the entire ship, that makes me responsible for their actions.”
Korba sits and waits for Medic to sit opposite her before she begins to explain. “There are many who believe that an individual should acquire as many different skillsets as possible so as to be prepared for any situation, and that methodology is very useful when you’re in a situation with few people available. But that’s not why Kitsune shapeshift.” She lays her tails over her lap and begins to stroke them idly. “No, we change forms in order to disrupt society.”
Ricardo leans against a nearby table and begins to speak. “I just wanted to say I was sorry for that outburst before. I hadn’t realized it would upset, you, so badly. I suppose I had just forgotten how hard it can be to try and understand a new system like that.” He cocks an ear at me quizzically. “Are you alright? Something I said?”
Representative is intrigued for a minute. “You make decisions for the entire ship? I would have thought it inefficient to route all decisions through a single node instead of allowing the nodes immediately relevant to the issue to decide based on the needs of the whole. Especially without our memory-sharing technology.”
Medic tries to contain her utter confusion at Korba’s statement. “Why? Why would such actions be allowed by the whole?”
Engineer answers “if you are referring to my apparent distraction my Representative and Medic nodes are having rather confusing conversations with Captain Shigeto Terryn and First Mate Gudrun Korba. You may continue.” When he doesn’t immediately resume I ask him “you mentioned something about forgetting how hard it is to try and understand a new system, elaborate.”
“Well, no.” Shigeto accedes. “I don’t need to make every decision for the crew, if one of them can solve a problem on their own I don’t get involved. It’s only if they need to draw from the ship’s resources that I need to interfere with their work. If there’s a dispute between two or more crewmembers I cast the tie-breaking vote. I also propose a course for the ship to follow when we are starting on a new commercial enterprise or looking for work.”
Korba gives a soft chuckle. “Oh, the whole of society doesn’t quite tolerate our actions, there are plenty of objectors. But for the most part people find our antics to be amusing, at worst an annoyance.”
Adham sighs, his ears drooping visibly. “I was not born to the Federation, I come from one of the “Outworlds”, as much a part of the Federation as your own world, but radically different it would seem.”
Representative thinks she’s beginning to understand. “I suppose that arrangement makes sense with your less efficient methods of communication. But could you explain why you specifically have this role?”
Medic seems to be getting a little frustrated. “You’ve explained how people react to your “Kitsune” group’s actions but you still haven’t explained what it is you do or why?”
Engineer stares at Adham, intrigued. “My memory banks lack information on your world, would you care to explain what makes it so different?”
Captain Terryn pauses before answering, as if he has to think hard to come up with an explanation. “Well, for one thing I own the ship. I took out several loans to buy the design plans, constructor microbots, mineral rights, and assorted other little things needed to build this spacecraft and I spent almost my entire share of three voyages’ profits on paying back those loans.”
Gudrun Korba shrugs at me. “Yes, I suppose I haven’t told you yet. In Federation space we strive to prevent stagnation. Stagnation leads to apathy, apathy leads to tyranny, and tyranny kills civilizations. We have two primary methods to head off stagnation: the first and most common is to disrupt the status quo in a variety of methods that don’t cause lasting harm but still change the state of things. One time we made all the food from the public nanofabs in SecLand’s East sector taste like sewage for instance.”
Ricardo grimaces as he remembers what life was once like for him. “On my old homeworld, ownership of arable land was concentrated in the hands of a small number of hereditary landlords. After the forced settlement technology regressed to pre-industrial levels, by the time I left there were barely any forms of automation available, as such there existed a caste of people who were considered to be little more than living tools, slaves.”
Representative continues her line of inquiry towards the captain. “And, this ownership gives you control over the ship in what way? Why did the crew agree to follow you?”
Medic searches the mesh for the definition of “tyranny”, the search provides “rule by an absolute ruler, often oppressive. See: Tyrant.” The proceeding definition of “tyrant” indicates “an absolute ruler, usually oppressive and cruel.” She asks Korba to elaborate on how tyranny “kills civilizations.”
Engineer is surprised. People used as tools? Their labors benefiting another without any gain for themselves? Even used in place of robots? She notes the tone Adham used when speaking the term used for such people and asks “what was your social status on that world?”
“Well, basically, the government’s law enforcement recognizes me as the ship’s owner and anyone else who tried to command the ship would be investigated.” Shigeto explains. “And it’s not like the crew have no say in ship decisions, they can voice their opinions at any time, or just leave the next time we come into port.”
Korba starts to give a more detailed explanation. “Tyrants suppress anything that could present a threat to their rule. In particular change, change upsets the established order even when it improves the living conditions of the general populace. Not to mention that concentration of power in a single individual and his cronies makes the collapse all the more devastating when it happens.”
Adham groans as he thinks about it. “I will admit it, I was taken as a slave when I was about nine standard years old. The slavers thought I might make a good pleasure slave so they removed my gonads, and in any case hybrids like myself weren’t well regarded on that world. But a few years after I was sold my master noticed I was good with numbers and had me educated as an accountant.” I notice that his hands are trembling as he recounts this story. “Yet, he, his sons, and even his wives and daughters would still force me into bed with them frequently.”
Representative considers this concept of “ownership”. “So, you possess this ship because the rules of your state that you do on account of what you’ve done? Is that how it works?”
“But wouldn’t preventing drastic change prevent the civilization from falling?” Medic attempted to rebut Korba’s argument. “Especially if the tyrant is immortal like your technology is capable of accomplishing?”
Engineer tries to parse this information, it all seems so bizarre. “What, pleasures are you talking about? I don’t understand what could require removal of your reproductive organs?”
Shigeto pauses and considers. “Yes, I suppose that’s correct. But I would like to mention that several societies have attempted to do away with the concept of ownership, and with the exception of yours, if you can call your hive mind a “society”, they all collapse or revert to stone age barbarism within a generation.”
Korba laughs again. “Nobody can live forever, even with our technology several Praetors have died in office from assassinations, accidents, or microbot glitches. The human country of Zhōngguó was unified as a strong centralized state by an Emperor who thought he could live forever but he perished a mere eleven years after his rise to power, and the country fell into civil war three years into his son’s reign. Some dynasties that succeeded them held together for two centuries or more but they all inevitably fell to usurpers. Nippon, the country from whose mythology we take our name, decentralized power under a dynasty of Emperors believed to be descendants of the god of the sun and who presided over many reforms in government in an unbroken line that persisted for over 2,500 years.”
“Right,” Adham states. “You all have identical bodies, so that would mean you’re all female, right?” At my affirmation he continues. “During puberty hormones produced by the male gonads trigger muscular growth and other secondary dimorphisms. A number of slave owning masters enjoyed copulating with pre-pubescents, by neutering me young it was ensured that I would never go through puberty and develop the muscles to fight off those who might force themselves into me.” I noticed him idly rubbing at his crotch as he spoke, “I asked Morris to clone me a new pair of balls as soon as I escaped that world.”
Representative starts to understand. “I see, so the government is necessary to prevent disputes over who has the right to use certain resources or assets? And you believe that I don’t need a government because there are no disputes over ownership on my-” She stops, realizing what she was about to say.
Medic calls up some of my information on religions. “God of the sun you say?” She inquires. “Similar to the Last Solar Prophet?”
Engineer feels something odd at Adham’s story, the only thing that comes close in my memory is her reaction to witnessing a node crushed in an industrial accident. The falling machine had slain her too quickly to broadcast any painful memories, but the sight of her spilled blood and smashed organs on the floor had left the surviving nodes on site, and many others within broadcast range before the stream had been temporarily cut off by safeguards, catatonic. Not understanding why she was feeling this again now she struggled to voice her next question. “How, how did you manage to escape from that awful place?”
Shigeto grins. “Yes, and you only own your planet because the Federation recognizes your right to own it and the other polities cannot reach it.”
Korba chortles, “I’m actually unsure of whether we came up with that idea. There’s no records of the Kitsune Order’s existence at the time Noospherism emerged, but it may have been some of our precursors. It is true that the dynasty of the House of Silver seems to provide the ideal balance between stability and dynamism.”
Adham’s facial features raise as he remembers this now. “I actually had help from this ship’s crew. When they arrived in orbit the heads of the major families, my master included, were invited to a summit to discuss trade with the Defiance’s crew. First Mate Korba noticed me being yanked around on a chain tied around my neck and began to talk to me while my master was distracted negotiating with the captain. She told me about life in the Federation, and after some cajoling I confessed my feelings towards my master to her.” He looks at me thoughtfully. “She did a better job of hiding her disgust and horror than you are, but she’s trained in that sort of thing. Anyways, on the last day of the summit she handed me a pill and a note reading that if I wanted to be free I should swallow the pill an hour before the next time my master became intimate with me. It turned out to be a tailored strain of the influenza virus, while me and the majority of others it infected became ill for a few days my master and his family, and many other landowners whom he was related to, drowned in their own bodily fluids.”
Representative is slightly disturbed by this realization that my prolonged existence apart from the rest of parahumanity is only at the will of the only parahuman government capable of destroying me entirely.
Medic considers the merits of Korba’s statement. “And I suppose that this dynasty enables you to remove potential tyrants without completely destroying Federation society. In contrast to Adham Ricardo’s world.”
Engineer is reminded of how the Federal Guard reacted to my precursors, and even though I know Adham’s masters probably deserved it, this part of the story disturbs me. “I thought that the Federation did not interfere in Outworld governments, except to prevent them from acquiring nanotechnology?”
Korba stares at Medic, her eyes seem to bore into her like industrial drills. “That country on that planet was already primed to topple. We simply provided the tools for them to bring themselves down.”
Adham snorts. “Oh, but this wasn’t the Federation interfering in an Outworld government. It was just a Federation citizen gifting an Outworld native with a bit of biotechnology that would not present a threat to anyone with a microbot immune system. It did not matter what I chose to do with it. Of course,” he notes, “after that power vacuum opened I couldn’t go back to my old life. But fortunately, the Defiance sent down a shuttle to the region and sold the former slaves weapons to maintain their new independence and passage to their old homelands or even to the Federation. I chose to leave the planet behind entirely.”
Representative and Medic disengage from their conversations and grasp hands. The optical sensors in their palms line up and exchange data at rapid speed, far more quickly and with greater fidelity than even direct user-to-user wi-fi can transmit. Thoughts that cannot be truly translated into words arc back and forth between the two as they contemplate the data presented to them.
Engineer picks up glimpses of the other nodes’ thoughts as she thinks of what to say next to Ricardo. “What is the difference between the concept of ownership on your old world and in the Federation?” She eventually decides on.
Shigeto and Gudrun glance at one another and seem to exchange a series of subtle expressions, I am too preoccupied to parse them out. Eventually, the captain speaks to me, “would you like us to leave you be for a while now?”
Adham Ricardo stares at me, “I have studied the economic systems of dozens of worlds, all of them have the concept of property, whether it belongs to the individual, or the state, or the tribe. As a rule, denial of property rights to individuals inhibits technological or social progress. What can be property also varies a great deal, but the pattern I’ve noticed is that when land can be owned it enables ownership of people, and landowning individualist societies may or may not practice slavery but landowning groups always have slaves.”
“Yes, we would.” Representative and Medic speak in unison as they get up to leave.
Engineer looks at Adham, pleading something, but what is unclear. “What do you consider my concept of property to be most like?”
“Goodbye, Emilia, we hope to speak to you again later.”
“You’re complicated,” Adham replies. “You’re both an individual and a culture all to yourself, and you don’t seem to have even considered yourself to have “owned” anything as you have had so little contact with anyone else.”
At this point Dr. Morris Taouchev comes back in and tells me that the procedure is complete. The leads in Engineer’s body retract and she is free to leave, Representative and Medic call out to her to confer. “Thank you for this most enlightening conversation, Adham Ricardo, I have much to think about now.” I leave.