This is actually the second Rain World fic I've posted, but the other one is not going here because it's a chatlog with a Snazzy Custom Workskin. (Also RIP Sig you don't even have a character tag over here...) I would be very surprised if anyone on this site is looking for Rain World fic here specifically, but this is the longest fic I've ever successfully completed, so uh. Why not.

This fic was inspired by the oldest Rain World fic I've been able to find, a string of new pearls by starryeyedgiant on AO3, and the title is borrowed from a mixture of The Moon Will Sing by the Crane Wives and The Mind Electric from Miracle Musical. (Yeah, I dunno either.)

Thank you so much to my betareader for agreeing to read this! You have my eternal gratitude, and all mistakes here onward are entirely my own fault XD

Once upon a time, long ago, this would have been effortless.

The Looks to the Moon who was thirty-three million miles of printed biocircuitry and cultured nerve tissue, fourteen thousand seven hundred and twelve mobile neurons and a water treatment facility would have analyzed and acquired each new sign in an instant. She would have recorded all relevant data in high-fidelity video and muscle-memory recall, stored away in her memory banks alongside meanings, nuances, and past usage, compiling key information into a standard system language file with a tidily sorted dataset for input recognition training - all she could ever need to remember and more. Speed and repetition would be no object; she would have been limited only by the rate at which her visitors provided new input data, and the process of teasing out each grammatical structure would take only microseconds of rapid iterative adjustment with each new use. This Looks to the Moon would have catalogued this new language in its entirety, had she known and cared to do so, the resources of a thousand linguists' dreams at her metaphorical fingertips.

The Looks to the Moon of before did not care to study scavenger sign language. Moon of now, with five neurons and a half-dead puppet to her name, has no better option.

She cannot converse with them without the Mark of Communication, and without the functionality to implant one, she has no other way to be understood. So it is this she must resign herself to: stooping to the level of what should have been no more than a troop of clever animals, learning their language twitch by painstaking twitch.

She does this now with no small amount of difficulty. Since her collapse, describing her memory as 'faulty' has become a grave understatement. Gone are the days of high-quality audiovisual logs and qualia, media libraries that might lie untouched in her databanks for hundreds of cycles until the moment arrived for their use. Her remaining core memory lives in tightly compressed packages, barely browsable with her limited RAM and corrupted sectors, only the simplest, most vital details kept to hand. She is lucky if she can spare a pearl's worth of space for note-taking.

Speaking of pearls: they are one of the primary purposes for which Moon has been learning. Or, more accurately, they are the reason she is being taught. The scavengers have observed the little white creature that has crawled into her sunken chamber now and again, bearing the Mark, and how she would read to it the pearls it brought her. Scavengers are clever animals, and learn well by example, and now they bring her pearls as well, tossing them onto her little island of rubble like offerings.

They bring them sparingly, of course, hesitant to part with precious currency, but they have discerned there is some value in giving them to her, though they do not yet understand what. It is clear to them that she can speak, and that she cannot understand them, and they have taken it into their own curious little hands to rectify the issue, pestering her nearly every cycle now with visitors.

With her chamber defenses long dead, she cannot exactly force them to leave. Her silence is her only weapon left, and she is so very, very lonely.

The scavenger in front of her grabs at her hands again and reshapes them into the sign she is fairly confident means 'time'. It is that, or 'event', 'period', or possibly even 'cycle', though there is little telling how aware these creatures are of such things, living out their tiny lives like so many have before on the skin of her corpse.

(Another scavenger's horns brushing one of her five neurons reminds her of her place: she, too, is now a tiny life, living here.)

She breaks free of the first scavenger's grip, gently, then makes the sign again. The scavenger (whom Moon has been calling Goldie in her head, for its light-colored fur), nods its head in a rush, replying: Good. Good. 'Time(/event/cycle)'.

The second scavenger, a dark grey specimen so tall and lanky she's nicknamed it Pole-plant, signs something back to Goldie, too fast and fluid for Moon to follow. Goldie replies in kind. Moon catches Time(/event/cycle), Rain, and Give/take, but lacks the processing power to properly analyze around the chasms of missing vocabulary, leaving her feebly guessing from context instead.

Time(/event/cycle) rain here, she tries, paired with a head-tilt which appears to be an interrogative particle. The question is rhetorical, of course. If anything has survived of Looks to the Moon, it is the knowledge of rain.

Goldie still appears enthused, and signs slowly to her in reply, in the simple, exaggerated way one might address a small child. Moon tries not to be insulted. It is not Goldie's fault her memory is so poor.

Yes! (This is punctuated by a specific expression, eyes narrowing briefly in what Moon has learned is some sort of positive emotion.) Rain come. We go. It pauses, then considers: You good? Safe?

As safe as she will ever be like this. Yes, she signs back, and tries not to appear frustrated by her own inarticulate fumbling. Rain come, I not die.

Pole-plant narrows eyes and jerks its shoulders, possibly the scavenger equivalent of a laugh. Not (the) thing they ask. You good? Not die is not not hurt(/sad). Their concern would be charming were it not so misguided.

I am a purposed organism, she wants to say, like your ancestors once were, and I will continue my work for as long as it requires, under whatever circumstances I may be inevitably subject to. It does not matter how I feel about the rain. I am still alive, and will be alive after it; that is all that matters.

What she manages to put together, however, is: Not big bad. Rain time(/event/cycle), you sleep, I sleep. Same.

It is one of the longer sentences she has managed so far, which seems to please them both, although Pole-plant retains a general air of skepticism. Moon has not lied, though - she does indeed enter a comparable state of hibernation during the worst of the flooding, to conserve battery power during periods when she cannot otherwise function or interact with her environment.

Were it not for the frequent periods of forced downtime she is subject to, ironically, her puppet's miniature rarefaction cell would be far more depleted, but now the very rain which crushes her each cycle indirectly aids in keeping her alive. Not a very useful kind of being alive, given that she cannot accomplish much of anything during that time, but at least it extends the window in which she might have some chance at restoration, if that were hypothetically possible.

In one of her last simulations before dying, Looks to the Moon calculated the odds of her structure being repaired at around 0.000012%. Had she used a smaller data type to store this result, it would have rounded down to 0.

Theoretically, there are better uses of her time.

In the rare moments where Moon's mind has been able to concern itself with anything but the immediate, carnal reality she now finds herself entrenched in, the Great Problem beckons from the quiet corners of her thoughts. It is inescapable, on some level, written into her code and imprinted again through culture. At the end of the day, all processes within her serve one final goal: to solve the question of ascension. Even with five neurons and a decaying shell, a deep embedded shard of this purpose still drives her, every routine straining to reach just the tiniest bit closer to the end.

Moon also knows, quite keenly, that she cannot fulfill it. An iterator's basic libraries contain a few simple simulations for testing purposes, which Moon has retained at least half of, and even the standard fluid dynamics simulation used to test basic operating capacities lags and hangs pitifully on her processors. She has enough power to remain conscious, or to run a moderately rigorous simulation; she does not have enough to spare for both.

At some point, she deleted most of these simulations to free up memory for storage. Her ability to run simulations is a moot point, anyway. Her simulation building engine was not a core utility, and like most of her memory, it has been unavailable for some time - which leads to the next obstacle: data loss. The most basic advances aside, any and all progress she - or indeed any other iterator - has ever personally made on the Problem has been lost to her, dead beneath the waves with the rest of her former self.

Some cycles ago, her pale little archaeologist beast brought a pearl encoded with notes from Looks to the Moon's own personal research, another fragment of memory now scattered with the rest of her parents' detritus. The primary directory contained extensive reference bibliographies, raw simulation output data in a million-line spreadsheet, and a detailed thesis on the results of a seven-hundred and ninety second karmic inversion loop simulation. Hope peered up out of Moon's chest, bright enough in the shadows of decay to blind her, oh-so-briefly, before she realized she could not even comprehend her own hypotheses.

Even if by some miracle Moon were to stumble upon the Solution tomorrow, who would she tell? The scavengers? Her little archaeologist? She cannot send or receive broadcasts without a connection to the towers, and even if she could, the global networks must have long since collapsed by now. Even Five Pebbles might not receive her messages anymore, assuming he hasn't finally crossed himself out by the time she reaches him.

Moon has had a long time to think about this. To iterate upon the problem now is to start from scratch, on hardware too slow for even a rudimentary test simulation, with so little space to record her results she may as well be handwriting her theorems on the head of a pin, all for an answer she may never even send. A fruitless endeavor, even by the standards of random gods.

(Sometimes, when the cycles leave her alone with her thoughts, she still tries.)

The difficult thing about transcribing a sign language is the medium. A verbal language would have afforded her the convenience of plain text transcription, but nothing about Moon's existence has been 'convenient' for a long, long time.

This Moon of five neurons does not have the storage space readily available to keep media recordings of scavenger sign, not in detail and certainly not for every sign she encounters. She would attempt to write higher-fidelity data to the pearls they bring her, but these days the writing application of her external pearl-reader crashes more often than it runs, and it's a gamble as to whether it would save her data, corrupt it, or just fail entirely. Not that it would help much, either, when her processing speeds are so slow that merely reading a pearl requires her full attention. She cannot read and sign at the same time, so any data retained must at least fit within her local memory.

Of course, given a full dataset of all Scavenger sign language she could ever need to know, Moon might not need to keep all of it permanently. The underlying neural networks of her vision modules reduce all the data she trains them on down to simple sets of parameters and statistical overlays, so only her output requires a dedicated library. However, her current rate of learning adds data at a snail's pace, and retraining with only a fraction of the input set risks losing previous knowledge, old signs slipping away as the new ones are added - so even deleting her input dataset is too great a risk.

Her first attempt at cataloguing the language does start with media recordings, though, clipped and trimmed and compressed down for size as well as she can manage. She takes short video snapshots, one at a time, then meticulously selects the clearest key images to save, downscale, and compress, sorting them by part of speech, meaning, and numerical sequence for her language file library. More detailed notes on usage and syntax fill a separate database file, with a similar organizational scheme.

When that becomes too much to comfortably store, she spends a cycle alone with a rudimentary drawing program she has miraculously retained from her basic utility package, tracing over each image with crude binary overlays at the smallest pixel resolution she can justify. She reduces each sign to a series of clean black lines on white, until only the line thickness and dithering distinguishes between scavenger limbs and movement line notation.

When even this grows somewhat unsustainable, she begins working out a text notation, assigning individual standard characters to common visual patterns and meta-features, writing a key for herself at the top of the file, and leaving a few of her converted one-bit images for basic visual reference. The transcriptions look like a squidcada has been let loose on a keypad, but they take up less space, and as an added bonus, seem to slightly reduce the time and effort needed to retrain herself on new data.

At this point, the quality of her signing appears to degrade slightly; Moon confuses signs more often when watching and Goldie corrects her movements more frequently, and so Moon re-records and traces and converts more reference images as needed to adjust. She cannot directly modify how her proprioceptive modules convert the image data to output gestures, but she can tweak the input data until the output is correct, and so spends another six cycles 'practicing' signs alone to herself, using true sense-memories for comparison until the movements are correct, then deleting them for space. Input is more difficult, already struggling with the limits of her tiny input dataset, but with enough time and effort and careful optimization, she manages. Her reference images barely resemble signs anymore, but they're the bare minimum that works, and that's all she needs of them.

In the end, she is forced to keep more reference data than anticipated to handle the number of unique signs and subtle-yet-vital variations, but there is no point in keeping the images at all if her output is not accurate. The library still slims down immensely, freeing up precious space for episodic memory and other general knowledge. Her teachers seem pleased with her. The system is becoming efficient at last.

Then, of course, a particularly bad storm cycle dashes one of her neurons against a rock and corrupts the portion of memory containing half her notes. Approximately forty-seven cycles of work, including an estimated ten to fifteen hours of drawing time and six cycles spent adjusting, lost in an instant to a fluke of fluid dynamics. Moon does not even notice it at first - she only wakes up from hibernation to a warm, beautiful shaft of sunlight slanted through the roof of her broken chamber, spends several minutes watching the rippling water reflect soft, organic patterns on the walls, and then realizes she does not know how to form the scavenger signs for sun or rain.

Her system status notifications do not even deign to inform her of the damage. She only works it out when she queries her neurons' status and receives the report of physical hardware damage from neuron #04531 (cause: kinetic impact; warning: suspected data loss, multiple corrupted sectors, reformatting recommended; warning: unable to sync with memory conflux, please contact administrator-) and she can feel the missing data like a numbness in her limbs, something that is meant to be there and is not.

It is already a constant feeling for her, of course. Everything else she is has already been taken from her. She should not have expected anything different.

Big [unknown sign(s)] today, Goldie comments this cycle, as a greeting. You good?

Moon, who has only just finished salvaging the rest of the uncorrupted data and reformatting her damaged neuron, does not know how to communicate one of my scant remaining fragments of consciousness has been irreparably damaged, and all your hard work is nothing but garbage data. She does not even remember the sign for I am sorry.

Bad, she manages, struggling with what vocabulary she has left. Hurt. Signs... hurt, bad. Not know... (she doesn't remember many/much, so with much chagrin she substitutes) ... big signs.

She can't tell how much of her message the scavengers understand, at first. There is a period of puzzled silence, and she watches their eyes shift and squeeze as they try to decipher her poorly kludged explanation.

Hurt head? inquires Pole-plant, looking at her curiously. Not know signs, not know [unknown sign(s)], who(/horns?/face?) [unknown sign(s)]?

Not technically accurate, but close enough. She is a little surprised they know enough to correlate head trauma with mental injuries, but it must not be too unintuitive for them.

She makes a gesture she's fairly sure means sort-of, and nods. Hurt...

She holds up her neuron, and points to it. Goldie, ever patient, offers a sign of two fingers undulating in the air, which Moon imitates and files away as neuron fly.

Hurt neuron fly, she repeats. Sign go away. Not know. Her custom language file's skeleton has - had - an entry for dead/destroyed, but the sign data itself is missing, so she does not include it in her efforts.

Goldie looks pensive, if a scavenger can be described as such. Again?

Moon suppresses a static sigh and moves to repeat herself, but Goldie stops her, shaking its head.

[Unknown sign(s)] hurt you again, it clarifies. Hurt neuron fly, [unknown sign(s)] sign.

A cold shock spreads through Moon's puppet, her emotional firmware simulating the behavior of a vagus nerve to produce a gut-twisting sense of unease.

Hesitantly, she repeats Goldie's most recent unknown sign. What sign [unknown sign 1]?

[Unknown sign 1], know all-gone, Pole-plant chimes in to explain. Moon records (re-records?) that sign as forget, and then parses the sentence again.

I forget... again? she asks, and tries to ignore the way her puppet's fingers shake. Goldie nods.

Forget [unknown sign(s)] time(/event/cycle). I know you neuron fly bad, not angry. It is disconcertingly calm about the idea.

I (am) angry, interjects Pole-plant. Too-much time(/event/cycle), now again? It throws its hands in the air in a startlingly Creator-like gesture of disgust and frustration. Two time(/event/cycle)! [Unknown sign(s)] three?!

The rest of what it says is unintelligible to her, though she thinks she might recognize the sign for Goldie's actual name, which she has never been able to translate, and possibly something about deer. Moon can only sit and watch the tirade play out, huddled and shivering on her little island with her neurons nestled close.

She is aware of the state of her own mind, nowadays. She should be used to this by now. Her emotional firmware is very good at its job, though, and so even with her puppet's tissues all but dead inside their shell, the pain persists.

Goldie arrives alone, the next cycle.

Hello, it signs to her, after wriggling under the gap that allows most creatures entry to her chamber. You good? Neuron fly good?

Better, Moon manages to reply. Did she learn this sign last cycle for the first time, or the second? Third? How would she know anymore? No more hurt. Sign gone. She wishes she knew more conjunctions. Function words are much more difficult to ask about than simple nouns and verbs, but her current sentence construction leaves much to be desired.

Good, good. Goldie crosses the gap to her island in three quick strokes and settles beside her, dawn's thin sunlight bouncing off the water to dapple its fur. It makes another unknown sign, and Moon is able to recognize just enough to guess it might be I am sorry.

Moon transcribes it as accurately as she can, some echo of memory guiding her to pre-adjust the input before she attempts to recreate it herself. (To be safe, she tilts her head to phrase it as a question.)

Not know 'I am sorry(?)'? Goldie asks. Moon takes this as a sign of successful transcription. Meaning, feel bad, [unknown sign(s)] person.

I forget, Moon apologizes, Know now. Thank you.

Goldie nods in understanding. It has long been the kinder of her teachers. Teach you more again today?

Would that I could just find one of you with the Mark, Moon thinks bitterly, and then suppresses and deletes the thought from her processes before it can continue. There is no use wallowing in what-ifs.

Yes, she signs. Again. Please.

They continue like this for an hour or so, under the slowly growing light of morning, until another familiar-looking creature wriggles through the wreckage to swim into her chamber. The newcomer is not a scavenger, but something else entirely, and seems wary of Goldie's presence. It approaches with a slow, quiet caution, pausing at the shoreline, and blinks at Moon with its large, dark eyes.

It resembles her little...

Her little...

She doesn't remember. The relevant data must have been stored in the same neuron as her ruined notes. This creature seems unfamiliar with her, squishy-looking head-feelers poking out towards her with a sort of juvenile curiosity. Water clings to the seemingly hairless skin of its sleek, pale body, tinged yellow in contrast to... nothing, apparently. She must have seen an organism like this before for her to make such an observation, but she remembers nothing else about it. The missing data taunts her.

The little yellow one before her bears a Mark of Communication, presumably from Five Pebbles, but nothing else. (Should Moon sarcastically thank the cycle for answering her prayers?) One of her now-feral overseers pokes its eye through the entrance, notices Goldie, and then flits up to the ceiling in a fit of what Moon can only imagine is self-preservation.

Goldie boggles and startles at the overseer's sudden presence, but has no spear to throw, and instead stares hungrily, spare hand groping about for a scrap of stone or rubble. Moon taps Goldie's shoulder, more contact than she has voluntarily made in some time. Please, no hurt, she chides it.

Goldie gives her a strange look, and makes a sign with circled fingers around one eye that Moon assumes means overseer, then follows it with Important, danger. See(s) us, [unknown sign(s)]. Moon shakes her head with a static sigh.

Overseer - (she points to the overseer, just to be sure she is fully understood) - mine, me. No hurt.

Goldie tilts its head and begins to form a reply, but the little yellow creature - seemingly emboldened by Goldie's lack of interest in it - creeps forward and pushes its head up under Goldie's arm, vying for Moon's attention. Goldie's eyes bulge and boggle again at the sight of the apparently quite stealthy newcomer before it settles back down beside her, guarded but not yet hostile.

It takes a second for her to remember that she must speak to this one, instead of trying to squeeze her thoughts into a series of inadequate gestures. "Oh! Yes, hello, little creature."

The little one stares at her, blankly, but appears to be listening. Goldie perks up as well, though it still comprehends very little of her speech.

"Your shape is familiar to me," Moon tells the little one. "I feel as if I... might have met one of your kind before."

The creature's eyes widen and its tail flicks with some unknown agitation, but it stays put and continues to listen.

"But my memory is so unreliable now..." she hedges, uncertain of what else to tell it.

Is it seeking more of its kin, perhaps? It looks smaller than she thinks it should be. A juvenile, possibly orphaned or abandoned... or maybe the corrupted remnants of her memory are causing her to jump to conclusions. Moon changes the subject before she can give it any false hope.

"I see that someone has given you the gift of communication. Must have been Five Pebbles, as you don't look like you can travel very far..." She pauses. She has not thought directly about Five Pebbles in some time. "He's sick, you know. Being corrupted from the inside by his own experiments..."

She does not know how to feel about her brother anymore.

At first she was simply so, so angry. It hurt. All of it hurt, and she could not understand. She had only ever sought to be kind to him, to love him, to trust him - at their proximity, what other choice did she have? It was with that deep, burning rage that she woke for the first time, only dampened by the shock of the cold and the flood. Were it not for the distance - were it not for the taboos - were it not for how pitiful she had become - she might have killed him then and there.

(As his acting administrator, she could have done it. An order to close his pumps, an order to disconnect his rarefaction cells, a shutdown under pretense of maintenance, anything. Perhaps he would have begged her over the private broadcasts in the same way she begged him. Perhaps he would have thanked her.

Perhaps that had been his true plan all along, and here she'd gone and killed them both by being merciful.)

Her first dozen drownings had chilled her anger into guilt, drinking up the blame like a river. She had been more than his senior. She had been his administrator. She should never have allowed this to happen. She should have checked up on him, she should have forced communications sooner, she should have suspected something before it had all fallen apart-

Looks to the Moon could have done all these things, but Moon can only drown herself another thousand times over in her what-ifs and should-haves, filling her neurons to capacity with her regrets.

When she runs out of things to say to the little creature, it blinks a few times at her, then wriggles and plops itself down on the shore of her island, settling itself down with its thick tail tucked around its legs. It watches Goldie closely, still unsure how it will be received. The feeling appears mutual.

What did you say? Goldie asks a moment later, repositioning itself so it can keep an eye on the little creature while it watches for her reply.

Not big say, Moon replies, chafing against the limits of her freshly lost vocabulary. Say... know understand me. Say maybe know it, maybe forget.

I have no knowledge of see(ing) (it) before, Goldie comments, shrugging its shoulders in an alien display of flexibility. See other, many time(/event/cycle) ago. See one, come here, [unknown sign(s)] pearl to you.

Oh. That is... correct. The scavengers began teaching her after witnessing another Marked creature bringing her pearls to read. She cannot picture the original creature, not clearly, but this single detail has somehow remained.

She points to the little yellow one, unsure how to phrase her question. This?

Goldie shakes its head, using a sign Moon has been lucky to recall, but was never able to fully decipher. Similar(/kin/related-to) that. It makes another new sign, one finger pointed up from the side of its head, the other hand at its flank miming the flicks of a broad, thick tail. The name of this new-again species, presumably.

Moon imitates the sign four times before Goldie approves. Something about the motion of the wrists still eludes her, and she's unsure if it's a matter of anatomical differences, or if the water damage to the nerves has impaired her range of motion. She reaches a satisfactory degree of transcription, though, and soon finds the yellow one watching her, transfixed.

It uncurls, still casting hesitant glances in Goldie's direction, and then attempts to mimic the sign for itself. Goldie's hands twitch in wordless surprise. You sign, [yellow creature]?

The little yellow creature stares intently at Goldie tilting its head. It tries to imitate the new signs as well, ghosting out you and sign with its fingertips, but shows no sign of comprehension, and does not reply.

Teach one, teach two, suggests Goldie, though by the crinkling of its narrowed eyes, Moon suspects that it is only joking.

Is this species even capable of language, out in the wild? It seems unlikely, but then, she had not anticipated such complexity from the scavengers, either. Once again, all she has is missing data.

Moon checks the free space on her injured neuron again. The already-compressed footage of new signs is not anywhere close to filling it all up, not yet, but she will need to begin editing soon. The thought of it makes her bioprocessors ache, and she pulls her puppet's legs up to its chest, filled with the irrational wish to hibernate early this cycle instead.

Exhaustion is not irrational, she reminds herself. But it is still hard.

Sixteen cycles later, the little yellow creature returns. By this point, Moon has recovered an estimated two-thirds of her previously lost vocabulary, and acquired approximately fifty new signs not previously in her lexicon besides. It is still insufficient for translating the contents of the average pearl - Moon's growing vocabulary tends far more practical and earthly than what her parents saw fit to record - but she can prompt Goldie for new signs, now, rather than just hoping she will learn the right ones, which helps.

Goldie's hope springs eternal, but Pole-plant has not returned for another visit. Moon suspects that Goldie is visiting on their own initiative lately, perhaps even disapproved of by their tribe.

(She is not sure at what point she stopped regarding Goldie as an 'it'. Using an alternate pronoun feels familiar, and in her dead tissues lies the sneaking suspicion this is not the first time she has had this revelation.)

Goldie has not yet appeared this cycle when the little yellow thing pokes its nose through the entrance, something clutched tight in its skinny little paw. The creature's tail bears new scars, already somewhat faded, and Moon greets it with a friendly wave and a "Hello, little creature!" as it scurries and splashes over to her.

"I wonder what it is that you want...?" she muses. Her words only linger in the air, unanswered. "The scavenger that comes by here hasn't arrived yet today, but that does not seem to bother you."

Moon casts a glance up at her neurons, wobbling and gliding in the air above her.

"There is nothing here," she adds, a little bitterly. "Not even my memories remain. Even the scavengers still leave with nothing." She pauses. "I've probably already told you that, haven't I?"

Predictably, instead of an answer, the little creature wriggles a little and cozies up to her side, moist skin almost touching her own. The creature's ambient body temperature runs slightly warmer than expected, radiating a faint layer of heat as its tail brushes her leg.

"I do enjoy the company, though," she admits. "You're welcome to stay a while, quiet little thing."

The creature trills softly, tail and head-feelers twitching. Moon cannot remember why she knows its anatomy as well as she does, but she's not complaining. The little creature rolls over, exposing its belly for a few seconds before it shakes itself and hops back onto all fours, then stands upright and finally shows her what it has been carrying this whole time.

It is a neuron fly.

The shock of it nearly pins her in place for a moment, unable to process anything but the image in front of her as her own five neurons flicker and spark. How had she not noticed? How could she not sense the presence of a piece of her own mind returning to her? The little creature holds the neuron fly out to her, and, when she does not move to take it, gently deposits it in her lap like a gift.

No, forget that - it is a gift, and nothing short of miraculous.

"That... that is for me?" she forces herself to say at last. After all this, a lifeline. Where did this little creature even find it? She picks up the neuron in both hands, cradling it, and watches its flagella twitch as she attempts to resync.

It is not hers, she realizes immediately. The newer structure, the not-quite-identical genetic keys, the foreign data - this is from Five Pebbles. She can read the leftover fragments of his RAM in it - a torn-out scrap of a crowded mental scratchpad, the contents divorced of any context or meaning. Some of it resembles the processes of a standard utility program, if she is very generous in filling in the blanks, and one part contains several instances of the string 'Erratic Pulse'... whatever that's supposed to mean. It is a treasure of insight into her brother's inner workings, and yet somehow utterly meaningless.

Even in her current state, it seems his systems still recognize her status as administrator. With only a small amount of hesitation, she orders the neuron fly to reformat itself and resync to her own system. The entire snapshot is erased in a matter of seconds, and then only an empty, fresh neuron remains.

A moment later, it reconnects, and she can feel the increase in processing speed. She might have to give it up if she needs more long-term storage, but the fact she has the choice is improvement enough. Pebbles' neurons are a newer model than most of her own, though blessedly backwards-compatible - it has nearly twice the storage space, the internal processor is slightly faster (not to mention less water-damaged), and most important of all, that space and speed is now hers to do whatever she wishes with it.

She thanks the creature with all she has, and it stares back as before, blinking its round black eyes. Then it bows its head and mrrps, almost purposefully, feelers angling forward and down. Moon is not sure what this body language means from this species, but a part of her that she cannot place wants to translate it as You're welcome.

Six neurons is not fourteen thousand seven hundred and twelve, but it is six, and six is greater than five. She would be a shame to every simple, brainless predecessor she has ever had if she could not calculate that.

Twelve cycles after that, the little yellow one comes back with a second neuron. Another ten after that - near the end of a cycle, just as Goldie is leaving - it arrives wearing a tattered cape.

It's more holes than fabric, faded grey-white and stained green with muck at the hems, but the fact the little creature is wearing something at all puzzles her. She has not observed this behavior from any of the animals wandering her structure before, and if Looks to the Moon ever saw such a thing, the memory has long been lost. Even the scavengers only bother with simple belts and sashes, marks of utility or status - the weather around her and Pebbles' cans is too warm for them to care past that. This little creature did not bother with clothing either, before, and the garment is clearly not fitted to its frame. It looks like something a Creator child might have worn, once upon a time.

When it doffs the rags and holds them out to her, Moon realizes the meaning, and accepts, as graciously as she can manage.

Goldie signs an idiom Moon understands to be a compliment - she takes it for sarcasm at first, but Goldie's comment seems sincere, and they wish her well as they return to their shelter for the night. The little yellow creature hops with delight at her new appearance and runs energetic circles around her, until Moon has to shut off camera input to keep her vision modules from lagging while she pulls her voice together to ask it to calm down.

(It does appear contrite about this, at least, dropping down on its belly before her and lowering its head, then nuzzling her leg in a gesture that might be meant as comforting.)

She bids it farewell shortly after, and sits there for an unrecorded amount of time, fidgeting with loose threads as she begins processing the day's new vocabulary.

Looks to the Moon would not have imagined wearing wet, dirty rags gifted to her by a small, wriggling animal. Moon finds they suit her quite well, these days.

The next loss comes swiftly on the little creature's heels. She should have anticipated as much. Whatever dispute the scavengers have been having over her comes to an unfortunate head, and three cycles later, Moon boots up out of hibernation to find a scavenger pointing a spear between her eyes.

She is not capable of blinking in surprise, but she instinctively fumbles to adjust the dimming of her lense caps, which is the closest equivalent her puppet possesses to eyelids. A slightly hysterical part of her decides that this will have to suffice.

Her puppet is still lying nearly prone where the floodwaters have knocked it to the edge of the room, one arm dangling out into the cool, rippling water. The scavenger, pale grey with star-green eyes, steps forward and balances itself with one clawed foot on her chest, signing to another with its free hand. A jolt of pain surges through her - she lets out a tinny cry, involuntarily, and in her peripheral vision glimpses Pole-plant gripping a neuron fly in their claws.

At her current angle, she can barely follow the conversation at all, but it is something to do with her, and something to do with pearls, neither of which come as a surprise.

"What do you want?" she asks, uselessly. "Please, let go!" One of the other scavengers - there are several now in her ruined little chamber - points to her and furiously signs something about deer, or possibly important, and give knowledge, which would be intriguing if she were not so terrified.

After another moment of rapid back-and-forth, the pale scavenger steps off her chest, only to grab her puppet by the shoulder and shove her upright instead. It takes more effort than the creature expects, her rusted puppet arm providing some meagre resistance, but the pale scavenger jabs its spear beneath her chin until it feels she is sufficiently motivated to let it manhandle her, ignoring her cries and complaints.

You are great steel, yes? signs another newcomer, a dark individual with long back-spines. Its wide golden eyes peer at her from behind a grey vulture mask. She does not recognize this one, but dubs it Spitter-spider for convenience, and notes the unfamiliar red-and-white patterns of its bomb-studded belt. You understand ones with- and here it makes a new sign, tapping fingers into a circle a short distance above its horns, mimicking the sign for speak.

The Mark of Communication, she realizes, and a foolish glimmer of hope wells up inside her drowned corpse.

Yes! she signs, as well as she can with a spear at her neck. Yes, I understand.

You do good, Spider signs to Goldie, whom Moon now finds to be standing beside Pole-plant, tense and wide-eyed, trembling. That-one signs after all. Its eyes narrow, as if sharing a private joke. Sad, sad (that) that-one lies!

Moon shakes her head, frantic and uncertain. Not understand. I do not lie!

Spider chitters, eyes squeezing shut, and this time, Moon has spent long enough around scavengers to interpret it correctly as laughter. But that-one does! Yes, yes. I see great-steel before, in that tall place to the west. Others say [unknown sign(s)]. Give steel, give knowledge. It opens its eyes again, and its gaze grows piercing. Give the Mark.

This scavenger has traveled near Five Pebbles, Moon realizes, though it probably has not met him face-to-face. Her brother was never too patient with animals wandering into his chamber - he would force the Mark upon them just to tell them where the exit was and shoo them right back out again. If this one had met him, it would be Marked, so its knowledge is more likely secondhand. But this individual cannot possibly think...

I cannot give Mark! she tries to explain, hands shaking. She wants so badly to pull away into herself, away from the cold rebar of the spear, but the pale scavenger's grip is like Miros talons against her battered flesh.

Lies, accuses Spider. You are great-steel. You give knowledge. You give the Mark! It points to Goldie, who looks like they would rather melt through the floor than be in her chamber right now. [Goldie] sees! [Yellow creature's species] has the Mark and comes and watches(/listens to) you!

"That... that's not-" She should be able to compose a better reply than what her fingers are supplying her, but there is simply so much happening, and it is already growing difficult to process. Not lying. I not give [yellow creature] the Mark. I am hurt and cannot give.

Hurt? Spider seems to scoff.

I say to you before, Pole-plant interrupts, visibly annoyed as they tuck Moon's wriggling neuron under their arm. That-one has bad head, forgets everything. Probably forgets way of giving the Mark. Not surprised.

More lies, retorts Spider. Great-steel does not forget.

That-one is broken great-steel, deer(/important)-one. Dead and then alive, all-gone and nothing left. Pole-plant's displeasure expresses itself in the flicks of their fingers, and in the uncomfortable way their elbow jabs at what is still, despite her frequent wishes, the vessel to more than 10% of Moon's current mental capacities. She tries not to flinch, at their words or at their actions, but she is fairly sure she does not succeed.

(She should not feel uncomfortable, watching herself be described in this way. She has said as much herself, before.

Somehow, it still manages to hurt.)

Yes, she forces herself to sign. That-one is correct. I am broken. I forget. I cannot give you anything.

I do not come here to play your game, says Spider. If you lie to me, [Goldie] will pay the toll.

'Pay toll' is the meaning Moon has recorded for that last sign, but by the way Goldie shivers, she doubts it will involve trading for pearls.

I do not lie, she signs again. The tremors are a lost cause; she can only pray to be understood. [Yellow creature] has Mark, from other great-steel, nearby. Similar(/related/kin). Not me. I understand one with Mark. I cannot give.

Spider stares at her for a long, long moment before its eyes flash with rage. It turns to the others. Garbage(/no-value)! You are all fools, all of you. Broken great-steel can give no knowledge. You teach how long?

One-hundred cycles, Goldie answers, which is not the exact number Moon has recorded, but seems to translate contextually as a generic 'large number'.

You are a fool, Spider tells Goldie, each sign like an attack. That-one says it - there is garbage(/no-value) here. You waste our strength and you waste our pearls. Do not try this again.

Moon catches a flicker of Pole-plant's fingers that she does not translate quickly enough, but looks disparaging. Spider turns away to retort, and Moon cannot follow easily what is said next, only catching Deer/(important), Do not speak, and a general air of offended ego that reminds her painfully of her parents.

And you, Spider continues, returning its attention to Moon. You learn now. You do not [unknown sign(s)] with us again. You are broken. You have no strength. [Goldie] does not come here again. You do not speak to us again.

I do nothing! Moon protests, only for Spider to stride forward to Pole-plant and rip the neuron fly from their arms, holding it out like an unruly squidcada nymph. Please, do not hurt me!

You learn now, Spider repeats, and the world explodes in pain.

She recovers. She always recovers.

Six neurons is better than five is better than four is better than none. Has she had four neurons before? She thinks she has, once; the feeling of reading Pebbles' processes in his stolen pieces felt familiar, however faintly. A little creature, paler than yellow, once devoured a neuron in what she later judged the throes of starvation, from how much livelier the little tormentor had looked on its next visit. A little creature had become a little friend, and then a little- a little-

The phantom ringing in her nonexistent ears stops approximately five minutes before the next rain begins. The scavengers have long vacated her chamber; even Goldie has left with them, as promised. She feels a pang of sympathy for them, and a lesser one for Pole-plant (who, to their minor credit, had at least seemed shocked and horrified by their leader's actions.)

Most of her knowledge has survived intact, this time. She has learned from before, spreading her libraries across several neurons, still mentally present enough to manage simple risk-and-benefit calculations for such a situation - a greater risk of small losses and a minor decrease in the speed of data lookup and retrieval in exchange for a more stable system. The neuron she lost, now bleeding out neurochemicals and clear haemolymph in the water around her, only contained a small fraction of her vocabulary, and her masterlist of entries can tell her every word she has lost.

She curls her arms around herself and rocks, back and forth - a self-soothing behavior, she recognizes, purposeless repetitive movement not unlike that of an animal under stress. It seems improper on some level, but then again, what is she now, other than six or seven perpetually stressed animals strung together by circuits and light? The cold of the sharpened rebar spear ghosts underneath her puppet's chin, scraping soft impact-resistant silicone a finger's width from her audiovisual processing cortex.

She is not sure if the spear would have actually hurt her. She does not wish to think of if it could.

She dims her lenses, knees curled up to her chin, and lets the rain swallow her whole.

The next cycle will be better. Looks to the Moon was above the cognitive fallacies of organisms like her creators, or at least she liked to think she was, and so telling herself something a large number of times would not convince her of it any more than any other false information, but perhaps Moon of now and her smaller, lesser neural structures will be more receptive.

This is not true, of course, and she cannot convince herself of it either, but she repeats the words to herself like a silent mantra nonetheless.

The next cycle will be better.

The next cycle will be better.

The next cycle will be better.

The next cycle will be better.

The little yellow creature comes by one more time, bearing another neuron from Five Pebbles - it looks disappointed to see she has lost one already, and so Moon explains what it has missed in simple words and gentle avoidances, skimming around the particulars.

She is quite heartened to see the creature at all - more so than she would have expected. When she still stood a thousand feet above the sea, Looks to the Moon's chamber saw little in the way of visitors, only the rare supplicant or politician or, on an odd day, lost animal. After her creators descended to leave the world behind, she ceased to see even that.

Funny, that even such a short time could acclimatize her to the frequent presence of guests. Now she finds herself lonely without them.

The little yellow one curls up by her side for a long time, that cycle, resting its tail over her legs like a blanket, its head nestled under her arm. Contentment fills its presence from feeler to tail-tip, but there's something else underneath she can't put a name to. Are these animals capable of melancholy? She's tempted to say yes.

The creature stays late, waiting until the first drops of rain before it rises to leave.

"You better go, little friend!" she warns it, nudging it off her lap with care. It seems quite aware already, but it moves slowly, almost indecisive. "I will be fine. It's not pleasant, but I have endured it many times before."

The little one stands up then, shaking stiffness from its joints, and scampers off her rubble island into the water. It turns back to stare at her mid-stroke as it swims across, though, and when it reaches the opposite shore, it hesitates, still watching her with those eyes like polished river stones. With careful poise, it leans forward to perform a deep, solemn bow, one she cannot help but search for meaning. Is this an apology? Reassurance?

Something sorrowful lurks in those eyes as it rises. Somehow, even with her limited knowledge of this creature's body language, Moon knows this means goodbye.

Goldie next arrives twenty-three cycles after the little yellow creature's departure. They have grown thinner, and their eyes dart about with more suspicion than before, as if permanently on alert for interlopers.

I am happy to see you, but... why come? asks Moon, when Goldie has settled on her island and stops looking about like they're about to throw a spear at one of her rogue overseers again. [Pole-plant] is correct. I am still broken. It is dangerous for you to come here, and I cannot give you anything.

(One small advantage which remains in being a machine: Moon's memory for skills does not atrophy easily with disuse. Her vocabulary has been diminished by approximately 8%, but for the signs she does know, she is nearly as fluent as the last time they spoke - perhaps more so, given time to fiddle with the fluidity of her translations.)

Wanted to see you, Goldie only explains. You are-

The sign they make next is one Moon has recorded as ally(/non-hostile/trusted outsider), but the way Goldie uses it, Moon realizes with a faint sense of shock, seems to translate more as friend. She raises her hands to reply, almost instinctive in denial, but Goldie continues first.

Important-one hurt you. I could not come here for many cycles. I am sorry. After a moment, they add, [Pole-plant] is lying for me. They have done this before as well. If I am careful, others will not know.

Moon once would have considered this empathy uncharacteristic of scavengers, from her limited external observations, but they are - as she has learned - very social animals. Perhaps she should not be so surprised. [Pole-plant] lies for you?

Yes. Many times before. More difficult now - others do not trust us. I cannot come often. But this cycle, there is a great lizard hunt to the north, so today is maybe safe.

... you are very kind. Thank you, says Moon, when she can find nothing else to say to that, and soon the two of them fall into the comfortable patterns of a long, meandering conversation.

Important-one two thorns spine does not like great-steel, Goldie explains, after the few niceties they both bother with have passed. They come from the tall place, to the west, from before the terrible event.

A few questions adjust Important-one two to something like Chieftain's second in command, and thorns spine becomes a name, the first Moon has translated directly - Thorn-back. She inquires about the terrible event next, and Goldie straightens up a little, their signs gaining a storyteller's flourish as they begin.

Many cycles ago, a clan lived up on the great-steel's place to the west. Your kin, you say?

Moon nods. Yes. My kin, Five Pebbles. She translates his name literally, but with the gesture that indicates she is introducing a new party. Goldie seems to understand.

Many live in that clan, Goldie tells her, and it grows strong and rich with things they find there. Many treasures, pearls, steel. But the great-steel - your Five Pebbles - is unhappy. Finds an angry red [little creature], who carries bombs and death in its belly, and gives it a- Here they use a sign similar to overseer, but not quite, miming something floating in the air beside them. A citizen drone? Moon can't imagine why her brother would give one to some random creature, but she keeps her attention on the story.

With citizen drone, the red-one enters the territory and pounces upon the people as predator. Many try to kill it. They fail and die. The red-one kills the old chieftain, and banishes all who do not run away. Some stay to fight, to die. Many leave that place. Thorn-back is child of the ones who leave.

Goldie shakes their head, sorrowful.

They only know one great-steel, and that one is not kind. They do not trust any who are not us - not great-steel, not [little creature], not any.

Why does Thorn-back... Moon struggles for a word. Choose what to do? Goldie gives her an odd look, so she rephrases. Why is that-one second of the Chieftain?

Goldie hesitates. Many things. Not easy to explain. Kin of chieftain of another clan. Our clans meet, become one. You understand this?

Ah. Politics. Should she be surprised that these creatures have made it this far, or merely resigned to the inevitability?

Yes. I see. She pauses for a long moment, considering. If Thornback is not second to the Chieftain, what happens?

Another becomes it, Goldie replies. Next is [unknown sign(s)] eye, kin of [unknown sign(s)]. Moon takes these to be names she does not know.

Is that-one better than Thorn-back?

Goldie's eyes widen in alarm. You are not saying...?

Ah. Reduced as she is, it is hardly Moon's place anymore to meddle in the affairs of budding civilizations. Perhaps scavenger politics should stay off the table, so to speak. It is not as if she possesses the means to do much of anything, anyway, with her vulnerable puppet body and - now that she thinks about it - painfully well-known location. She does not wish to become leverage again for whatever Goldie and their fellows get up to.

It is your choice what you do, she settles on, and leaves the topic at that.

They chat for a while longer about other, more meaningless things. Goldie has not brought any pearls for Moon to read this cycle, but with their current level of mutual understanding, they can now tell Moon about their day, and the things they have seen in the cycles since they last met. Pole-plant is very angry at Thorn-back, but has been simmering quietly about it for fear of retribution, and personal relations have grown tense with a denmate Moon understands as the green-eyed one which menaced her at their last meeting. On a lighter note, another scavenger who Moon faintly recalls meeting many cycles ago has gotten busy tending the clan's offspring. Normally, Moon would not care all that much, but Goldie grows visibly more relaxed at this topic, slowing their nervous twitching and the darting of their eyes, so she finds herself willing to listen and nod along.

Moon has never actually seen a scavenger younger than a late-stage juvenile - apparently the youngest are kept hidden away in the dens when they are very small, and undergo some sort of pupation (or at least, that is what she gets from Goldie's explanation) before emerging ready to venture into the world. Nymph-rearing is predictably busy work which Goldie has engaged in before, though not with offspring of their own - their broodmate's, rather, and Goldie saw all three nymphs grow to their juvenile adult stage alive and healthy.

Goldie describes their broodmate's children to Moon: Short-horn, another sign-name she can understand now, who Goldie fears may be a little too timid and gentle for their own good; Beehive, who used to fluff up their spines at every little thing that startled them; and a third whose name Moon still cannot decipher, exceptionally skilled with a spear and prone to wandering far from the dens to hunt. Goldie even manages to share a short anecdote of some incident, many cycles and seasons ago, in which the last of the three fell afoul of a nest of grapple-worms and came back to the den, ruffled-up and humiliated, with a pair of worms still stubbornly glued to their horns.

They mime this last part in great detail, even fluffing up their own feathery spines and boggling their eyes to complete the picture, and Moon laughs so hard she nearly tips herself off the island.

In another lifetime, when Looks to the Moon's parents bothered her with such things, her databanks held countless neatly-organized entries cataloguing all the mundane dates and details of births and lives and deaths, archived like so much census data alongside the rest of her city's statistics. What was the point of filling her memory with the dry, multitudinous particulars of the departed, when she could have filled it with things like this?

As always, time goes on.

Twenty-six cycles become forty-eight become well over a hundred, until Moon no longer cares quite so much about keeping track. It's trivial for her, of course - with the system clock still limping along in her basic utility programs, the most she must do manually is reset the timestamp every so often when hardware damage or momentary loss of power desynchronizes it. Even if she neglects this, a few minutes of cumulative inaccuracy will hardly destabilize her sense of time.

Although Goldie finds more chances to visit, Moon does not hear much of what exactly plays out among the scavengers - but one cycle Goldie arrives again with Pole-plant in tow, and filling in the blanks comes quickly after.

It was a hunting accident, Goldie signs, and Pole-plant rolls their eyes.

Yes. A "hunting accident". With two explosive spears. Which were thrown at them, very accidentally. Pole-plant exaggerates the signs with a flick of the head - sarcasm, of all things, translates surprisingly well from them.

That one says they mistook the other for a centipede, says Goldie, earning another, more impatient eye-roll.

We all know Summer-eye wished to become the Chief's second, Pole-plant all but scoffs. Thorn-back was a [unknown sign(s)] to them.

Summer-eye, Moon has surmised, is the scavenger next in line as Chieftain's second. They have not met, but she has heard of them a few times now, in passing. Their description has been brief but concise, in a manner reflective of the individual: practical, straightforward, and a tad ruthless, but ultimately invested in the good of the clan.

Is it like Summer-eye to do this? Moon asks. As an outsider, Moon cannot claim to possess any strong opinions, but she still has some motive to keep herself abreast of the local goings-on. She does not need to wake to another spear pointed under her chin.

Not really, Goldie tells her. If Summer-eye meant to challenge Thorn-back, they would do so to their face. They make a thoughtful face, eyes half-open, mandibles clicking idly. If it was not an accident, another caused it. I am not sure who.

Three-prongs is quiet often, Pole-plant notes. They are Summer's broodmate. Were meant to be hunting that cycle. Did not say why they stayed behind. Then they shake their head, a brisk little gesture like throwing off water. But I will not grab at planted spears.

It sounds like many things are changing, Moon observes, keeping her body language neutral for now.

Thorn-back is not dead, Goldie adds, perhaps to comfort her. They are hurt badly, but they live. Can give orders, but is not in charge until they are well. So Summer-eye is in charge until then. They narrow their eyes in a smile and add, Those ones are very busy now, so it is easier this cycle to meet you. We will hunt on our path home so they do not scold us, though!

Summer-eye could be as stingy and wary as their predecessor, Moon knows, but something like hope still blossoms, however fruitless it may prove.

The topic changes quickly enough. Soon, Goldie is in the middle of telling Moon about the new running rivalry between Pole-plant and a three-legged lizard that has shown up and stolen from their foraging attempts for multiple cycles running, while Pole-plant interjects every so often to dispute the more embarrassing details or insist that the creature was very large and had a terrible growl, and they certainly had not boggled and run from some ordinary green- when a quiet splash at the edge of Moon's chamber catches her attention.

She looks up and-

Her visual processing still lags sometimes, very slightly, but this time her processing speeds have nothing to do with it.

The little yellow creature has returned.

Recognition takes a few hundred milliseconds longer than it has before. The little one's body has filled out with a longer tail and thicker limbs of an adult, old scars faded and new ones scattered sparsely across its skin. It approaches with unrestrained delight, diving ahead through the water and nearly spraying Goldie and Pole-plant as it clambers ashore, and the second thing Moon realizes is that this creature is not alone.

Another of these creatures, pale as moonlight, pale as a blank pearl, catches her eye some short distance behind where the yellow one had stood. It hesitates on the opposite shore, as if waiting for something. As Moon watches, two more of the creatures emerge, peering out from either side of the white one's tail - wide-eyed little things maybe half the white one's size. One, dark green with bright eyes, darts after the yellow creature, leaping into the water and wriggling along with the same tail-swishing and arm-sweeping strokes. The other, light blue with a stubby short tail, hangs back behind to watch.

The yellow creature wriggles and flops down with its head on Moon's knee, ignoring the scavengers' startled hands and eyes. The sight of the little green one splashing up in its shadow seems to alarm them far more, though - Pole-plant scuttles to the edge of Moon's island, eyes popping wide like bubble fruit, and even Goldie scoots back a body's length further away from it.

What is wrong? Moon asks, bemused as they both scramble to make room for the tiny thing.

Careful! Danger! Goldie signs.

Where? Moon tilts her head in question. Goldie flails a hand in the general direction of the green creature, not quite daring to point.

The green creature looks up at Moon with large, ponderous eyes. It blinks once, slowly.

"Hello again, little friend!" Moon says to the yellow one, narrowing her own eyes in a smile. She offers a little wave to both it and its... child? "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"

Not that, Pole-plant corrects, regaining a speck of courage with the tiny thing at a safe distance. That small one is not a threat. But the parent... Pole-plant twists uncomfortably, sizing up the yellow one again. You must be very careful. [Yellow creature's species] are very protective of their children.

Yes, says Goldie. Remember what I told you, of Thorn-back's kin? The red death? They say that one was a mother whose little ones were lost. They become very, very angry if you hurt one.

They brought it here to see me, Moon replies, watching the little green thing stare back at her. I think it is okay. They are my friend, after all. To the yellow creature, she continues: "You were away for so long - and now you've returned! With your family, as well, it seems. I am glad to see you found them after all!" She glances up at the white creature, still lingering at a distance. "You even brought a friend, as well!"

The yellow creature cannot reply, and the tiny ones do not bear the Mark of Communication, but the white creature makes a thin, almost desperate little rwaa noise and leaps forward, as if suddenly freed from its position on the far shore. It swims across to her with frantic strokes, the other tiny creature clinging to its tail like a jetfish rider.

Has the little yellow one started a new family? Is this its mate? No, that doesn't seem quite right. Besides, something about the white one keeps tugging at her memory, pointing to nothing where some data should be...

The white creature has all but climbed onto her lap to nuzzle her chest with its cheek, long sleek arms reaching gently around her waist, by the time she asks: "Do I know you?"

It startles at her words and recoils, something twisting and turning behind its gleaming black eyes. The white creature tilts its head, staring at her, then at the yellow one beside it. It twitches its feelers, trilling softly, and Moon watches as the yellow one twitches and trills back.

White [yellow creature] has returned? comments Pole-plant, eyes widening once more. Thought that one was dead. Have not seen in a thousand (very many) cycles.

Another jolt of realization flashes through her, as Moon watches the yellow and white creatures wriggle and call to one another - the white creature must have come here before. It carries the Mark, like its companion (parent? littermate?), and she knows she has met others of its kind.

"I'm sorry to have startled you," says Moon, raising her hands in a gesture not quite unlike an apology. "My memory is poor, and has been damaged for some time. You seem familiar, but if we have met... I don't remember it."

At this, the white one's fingers twitch, and it lets out a pitiful little sound, almost too quiet to hear. Moon's frail puppet heart aches for it. A longing familiarity filled its movements only a moment ago, so strong as to be alienating, but the Moon in front of it has never earned that tenderness or trust it displayed.

It is painful enough that she cannot remember this creature, but to be forgotten must be at least as terrible.

"I am sorry," she says again, wishing not to sound so useless. "I... were you the one who used to come with pearls to read?"

The white creature nods, slowly.

"The scavengers have told me about you. I am missing many details, but... you ate one of my neurons, didn't you? I must have been quite unhappy. And then you... replaced it?" Another nod, sharper, more intense. "I cannot remember much else, I'm afraid, but..." She reaches out and touches the creature's hand, laying her puppet's fingers over its own. "I wouldn't mind getting to know you again, little friend. Even if I forget again... I think I would like to remember you while you are still here."

She doesn't quite know how to read what sparks in the white one's eyes, but it makes another sound, slightly less sorrowful, and places its other hand on hers.

What does it want? asks Goldie, not suspicious so much as intrigued. Moon pulls away her hand as gently as she can to answer.

I think... before I forgot, we two were friends, like the yellow one.

I remember this, replies Goldie, looking unsurprised. It came to you often, even when it had no pearls. I often thought it liked being with you.

The moment passes, and as the white one withdraws, the little pups emerge from their initial fascination and awe in favor of exploring. Both begin climbing onto Moon's lap and arms, tiny fingers sticking slightly as they try to keep their grip. The yellow creature has to grab the green pup before its chubby little hands can reach the dangling flagella of Moon's lowest neuron fly, chittering something at it which she hopes is a warning. (Moon urges the neuron to float a little higher, just to be safe.)

The blue pup takes an interest in Pole-plant, who is all but hiding behind Moon in an attempt to avoid the parents' attention. The pup peels away from its white parent's side to toddle forward on its hindlegs, hands reaching out in front of it - Pole-plant tries to move away to the island's other side, but this quickly turns out to be a mistake, as the green pup sees the action and takes an equal if not greater interest, its little tail wriggling in excitement as it hops off Moon's lap to investigate.

Moon and Goldie both watch, neither hiding their amusement well, as Pole-plant is backed all the way to the water's edge by two creatures each no bigger than their head. Pole-plant raises their empty hands in surrender, eyes darting from one pup to the other in a panic as the green one forges onward with tiny squeaks and bounces, until the yellow parent takes mercy and comes over to gather them up. Moon can't say for sure, but she has a feeling the yellow one's chirps and snuffling sounds are its own species' version of a laugh.

The white creature huddles up next to her again, watching - still a little more warily - as their yellow kin returns with the pups, one under each arm. The two of them - four of them, really - all curl up around her in a pile, limbs and tails and feelers all tangling together, and Goldie slowly inches back over to join them. Pole-plant keeps a little more distance, perhaps a body's length away, mostly still avoiding the pups, but both of them have clearly settled down now there's no sign of a threat.

Moon relaxes a little, manually restricting her processing of camera inputs down to simple motion detection and large-scale entity tracking - just enough to notice if Goldie or Pole-plant begins signing again, or if something else needs her attention. It is a trick she has learned from trial and error, about thirty cycles ago, and though it doesn't hold off the impending headache, it helps immensely. Even with seven neurons and countless cycles of optimization, this many visitors puts a noticeable strain on her processing and memory; at least limited sensory input will help keep anything from crashing.

Already, her neurons are running quite warm, both from work and from ambient temperatures. Moon can feel it on her skin - her little island must be painted gold right now by the afternoon sunlight - so she lets the neuron flies glide about the room, skimming the surface of the pool to catch water on their flagella for cooling.

She can feel the sensations from them, however faintly. The neuron flies don't relay much about the subtler details of their own sensory experiences, but she can still query for simple neural input streams, and imagines the cool water dancing over her puppet's fingertips as well.

The white creature leans forward, placing its head in her puppet's lap, its chin warming her thigh. Absentmindedly, Moon places her free hand on its head and pets it. It makes a growly chrrr from somewhere deep in its chest, and a moment later the yellow one picks up the sound as well. Goldie chitters in amusement at the scene, and even Pole-plant slides a little closer, as if resisting the urge to join in.

This is temporary. Moon knows it is. Next cycle could steal away a neuron in the flood, or bring another war-party to her threshold, or drown her friends in its depths. Perhaps in another hundred cycles what's left of her can will finish collapsing, or her arm will snap and let the rains wash her puppet to the bottom of the reservoir. Even in time her memory will degrade - copied again and again until entropy flips a bit or blunt force trauma clears a sector - time will eat her away like the river does stone, until she is hollow and smooth and clean.

Even in this moment there is so much that her lightweight memory cannot hold. She will not remember perfectly the sound of the creatures purring against her, or the way the light hits Goldie's fur through the broken ceiling, or the feeling of flagella dragged through cool water. But she can experience it - right here, and right now.

Maybe, just for now, that's going to be okay.