Night Wave bounds through the waves of Hope, skimming across the surface at thirty kilometres an hour, leaping gracefully from the crests of the great rolling swell.
She’s concentrating hard. It’s not that she’s out of shape. Her body’s too finely tuned for that; but the mind gets out of practice. It’s been almost a year since she spent a significant amount of time at sea, and she didn’t realise how much she missed it.
The tiny Thantian spaceship that Mersyntil had found her had dropped her off a few hundred kilometres away. Literally: it wasn’t equipped to land on the ocean, so it hovered above the surface and she jumped free. Hitting the water that first time was like a glorious explosion of homecoming. By the time she had resurfaced, it was already ascending into the clouds, blinking its lights cheerfully in farewell.
It’s not long now: on the horizon ahead is the rocky island which gives White Bird clan its name. These days there are buildings and machinery covering the top, but the cliffs which ring it are still a riotous glory of bird life.
Night Wave reflexively finds herself reaching for her toolkit to ping the island and calculate the exact distance. She’s still not used to the void inside her head. It feels like half of herself is missing. She has a spare copy of anything useful, thankfully, back on the Dark Cloud, in orbit around distant Earth; they’ll send it along if she asks. But getting the toolkit replaced is going to have to be a priority.
She’s beginning to pass people; the occasional hunter, an errand runner or two. She avoids them. What are you doing? she thinks. If you don’t want to meet anyone, why are you even here?
Of course, it’s obvious: there’s only one person she really wants to see.
It’s getting late in the evening, and she knows the clan usually meets up on the sunward side of the island, as an informal meeting. Ostensibly it’s to discuss the day’s business, but it’s mainly just an excuse to argue and bicker and generally enjoy each other’s company.
When they see her approaching, everyone stops talking.
“Um—” she begins to say. Then the cheering starts.
She’s suddenly surrounded by people she hasn’t seen for years.
“Night Wave! You’re back!” “Where have you been?” “What’s Home Waters like?” “Did you join one of the explorer ships?” “Where did you go?” And, most frequently, “I’m so glad to see you again!”
Everyone’s changed. Which they haven’t; they’re not humans, so they’re not going to get any older. But they all seem different. Night Wave knows it’s her, of course. She’s seeing them differently because she’s changed. She was expecting this, but somehow it’s not what she imagined.
Suddenly, the crowd clears, and the matriarch approaches. She lifts her head out of the water to study Night Wave, and Night Wave finds herself studying the matriarch back. This is the terrifying older sister who made her childhood a misery? She’s just… another sealin; competent, well built, and with all the charisma required of the role, but no longer intimidating.
“My little Night Wave,” she says. “You’ve grown.” The matriarch doesn’t mean physically. “I’m so glad to see you.” She comes forward and rubs up against Night Wave.
“You look awful,” she says, very quietly. “When you’ve had enough of this, let me know and I’ll get you out of it. I know why you’re really here.”
The party lasts for hours; someone unearths a cache of drunkfish, carefully preserved against some future need. The real thing, too, naturally fermented in their shells. The ethanol doesn’t do anything for Night Wave, but after a couple the decomposing neurotoxins fill her brain with a comforting fog.
She talks endlessly, telling the clan about her adventures on Home Waters, the doomed marriage into Blue Horizon—she cries a little, but it doesn’t really hurt any more—and the voyages on the Dark Cloud. With trepidation, she tells them that Dark Cloud didn’t work out, and that they didn’t want her… and discovers that they become angry on her behalf. She was expecting embarrassment. She wasn’t expecting support.
She doesn’t talk about the Snarl, or Stephen and the puppy.
Night Wave listens, too; the trivial, banal gossip of an out-of-the-way clan is somehow fascinating. Who’s argued with whom, tales of children, marriages in and out of the clan, tales of the clan’s own work—White Bird specialises in farming, the careful management of the seabed ecology to maintain a decent growth surplus. Half the names she doesn’t recognise but somehow she doesn’t really care. She just lets the comforting inclusiveness wash over her, and feels something inside her relax that she didn’t realise was there.
Eventually, as the moon begins to go down, she slowly realises that the party’s broken up. Half the people are asleep, floating on the surface.
Reluctantly, she applies her biochemistry, and sobers up. Her thoughts somehow crystallise, but washed clean. And then she starts looking for someone.
She finds him waiting patiently on the outskirts of the group, with it but not really part of it. He’s huge; five metres long at least, bigger than Dark Cloud’s patriarch. He, at least, hasn’t shrunk with time. In the moonlight his black and white markings make him a creature of absolute shadow and shining light.
“Hello,” she says shyly.
“Night Wave,” he says, his voice rich with exotic undertones. She shivers. He’s the heart of the clan; the symbolic centre around which everyone revolves. The matriarch leads, but the patriarch inspires.
She starts crying.
“Don’t worry, little one,” says White Bird, and comes up behind her. He tucks her under a foreflipper, and she buries herself into his side, once again a puppy sheltering behind her parent. “I am here. Nothing will harm you while I live.”
There’s a beach nearby. Once she stops shaking, he takes her up out of the water, and gently rests his body against hers, pressing her into the sand. His weight fills her world; it is protection and inclusiveness and family. It proves that she is his and he is hers, and he is the clan. Finally, she’s found somewhere where she belongs. She’s home.
Her mind goes flat and calm.
After a while, she quietly starts telling him about the Snarl. The horror and the loneliness. The mistakes. The death. But she also finds herself telling him about Stephen, doing his inadequate best to comfort her and make her feel included. And Reeearh, gentle and kind, yet never able to admit that to itself. She even tells him about the robot, and its three thousand year project and eternal optimism.
She also tells him about Tonauarc, and doing all the wrong things for the right reasons.
Eventually White Bird says, “She should never have sent you out on your own.”
“She needed me to investigate the spider,” Night Wave says, oddly stung by a criticism against the Dark Cloud matriarch.
“Nonsense,” says White Bird. “So you couldn’t face marrying them. That doesn’t mean you they had to throw you out. You’re an honoured cousin and should have been treated as such. If she wanted this spider thing looked at, she should have made up an errand and sent a Dark Cloud sister.”
“Thank you,” she says.
He flicks her away; she tumbles into the water and rights herself several metres off. “I’m not trying to boost your ego,” he says. “She made a mistake. You don’t send out vulnerable people on their own. Remember that.”
“I wasn’t really alone,” Night Wave says.
“You were the only adult sealin there,” says White Bird. “This human did his best, but wouldn’t be able to truly understand you.” He follows her down off the beach.
“I know,” says Night Wave dejectedly. “I kept telling myself that he wasn’t really rejecting me, but…”
“Translators don’t work on body language,” says White Bird. “Although once he realised what was wrong, it looks like he did his best. You seem quite taken with him; I’d like to meet him. What’s his name?”
“Stephen Hawke,” says Night Wave says in English. “Why?”
“Oh, just wondering how yours would sound,” says White Bird. “Night Wave of Stephen Hawke of Earth. …no, it doesn’t have the right ring to it.”
Night Wave is shocked for a moment, and then laughs. “Since when have you ever told dirty jokes?”
“You just haven’t been within earshot,” he says. “I think we should name him a friend. Anyway, there’s someone I want you to meet.” He calls.
Slowly, shining in the moonlight, another sealin approaches. There’s something odd about her, until Night Wave spots the markings, and realises it’s a him.
“I would like you to meet my son,” White Bird says proudly.
The young male is an adolescent, on the verge of adulthood. He’s nervous and very shy, and greets Night Wave with slightly unnecessary formality.
Night Wave replies in kind, studying him with fascination. Male children are very rare. With practical immortality and a stable population, the only reason for any male to give birth to another was if…
“White Bird!” she exclaims. “You’re retiring?”
“I am,” he says. “I’ve been patriarch here for a long time. And it’s been good, believe me. But for the best of the clan it’s time I moved on and let someone else take my place. My son here will be he.”
The other male—traditionally he’ll be called Young Bird, until it’s time for him to take his father’s place and name—looks even more awkward at this. White Bird nuzzles him affectionately, sending him rolling.
“Don’t worry,” White Bird says. “I’m in no hurry and there’ll be plenty of time for you to grow into the role. I won’t leave until you’re ready, I promise you that.”
Young Bird mutters something which sounds suspiciously like, “Thanks, Dad.”
“But what are you going to do?” says Night Wave.
“I will become a peregrine,” says White Bird. “I have sent so many daughters into the world. It’s time I saw what they have made.”
Peregrines, older males who retire from their clan, give up their name and then take up a life of wandering, are as rare as male children, and for the same reason. Night Wave has only ever met two in her entire life: semi-mystical figures, full of obscure wisdom and good humour, that blew into her life, made an impression, and then left again. Peregrines can go and do what they like: they are everyone’s friend. The only rule is that they can never go back to their old clan.
“I’ll miss you,” she says.
“Bet you you won’t,” he says cheerfully. “I want to see this Earth of yours.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Night Wave says, suddenly suspicious.
“This is your home,” White Bird says. “It will always be with you. While we exist, you will never be truly alone.” With a sudden pang, Night Wave thinks of Reeearh. “This is your refuge. Come whenever you like, stay as long as you like. We’ll be pleased to see you and will always make you welcome.”
He swims closer, and looks deep into her eyes. “But you should never be afraid to leave,” he says.
She stares at the two of them for a long time. The moon touches the horizon.
“I have unfinished business on Home Waters,” she says.