Nothing much happens.
Night Wave is brusque and acerbic. The ship is mostly incomprehensible. The puppy spends the time playing quietly. The spider is largely invisible, although they occasionally see it slowly stilting between stacks of crates, down the other end of the ship. Stephen is bored.
It shouldn’t be possible. He’s on an alien spaceship, travelling through space at who-knows-how-many thousands of times the speed of light, heading to nobody knows where, accompanied by alien creatures of two different species. Every moment should be a thrilling adventure, but his sense of wonder has basically failed and he now just wants to get there.
More or less for something to do, and mindful of the Secretary’s words, he starts watching Night Wave.
For someone who keeps saying that she wants him to leave her alone, he sees a surprising amount of her. Every ‘night’ she joins Stephen and the puppy in their little clearing in the crates to sleep, and whenever they head to the life support circle for a meal, she always seems to be there. Stephen always tries to exchange a few pleasantries; sometimes she replies, sometimes she ignores him. But she’s always around.
Between the oh-so-casual encounters she seems to either spend her time staring out of the open end of the spaceship, watching the stars go by, or else watching the symbols flicker in her virtual heads-up display, or else searching the ship.
It takes some time for Stephen to realise that this was what she is doing. At first he thinks she is wandering aimlessly; he and the puppy do a lot of that themselves. But once he realises that he can easily spot where she is by walking around the ship and looking up, he sees that each aimless walk is in a different part of the ship, and she’s methodically working her way down the length.
“I think she’s looking for something,” he says to the puppy. “I wonder what?”
Night Wave carefully examines Stephen’s face, and then looks down. After a while one of the pieces moves by itself, skipping ahead two places, passing over one of Stephen’s pieces. He removes it from the board.
“Interesting,” he says. It’s not actually the best move. If she’d ignored the bait he left out she could have a king in three moves. To Stephen’s total surprise, she’s not a good player.
Stephen had his idea during lunch. The life support circle had given him an unusally complex meal, made out of a bag of small, round biscuits about a centimetre across, and some syringes of coloured paste: a sweet one which was red, a tart one which was green, and a spicy one which was blue. Stephen had tried various combinations of flavours and had eventually decided that he wasn’t that hungry and he’d rather wait until dinner.
However, the biscuits were of two different colours and just the right size to use as draughts counters; and the syringes contained just enough paste to scrawl a rather wobbly eight-by-eight grid on the deck…
Night Wave was fascinated.
She stares at the board again.
“I played this a lot at university,” Stephen says. “I never got into chess or Go much, but I got quite good at draughts. It’s deceptively simple.” He almost adds that he hasn’t played seriously for years, but decides that it wouldn’t be tactful.
“Emergent complexity,” Night Wave says. “It’s nearly a cellular automaton. How did you invent this?”
“It just evolved over time,” Stephen says. “There are lots of games like it.”
Initially, she’d been amused. He’d explained the rules—it’s not like draughts is a complex game—and she’d started playing confidently, obviously expecting to win. She stopped being amused halfway through the first game and ended staring in perplexity at the board, wondering what had happened. That was three games ago.
“I’ve been wondering about something,” he says. “Where is your space suit? And the puppy’s?” He holds up his arm. “Mine’s here, but neither of you are wearing anything.”
Night Wave snorts. “Where’d you think we’d wear it? Around a flipper? No, ours are inside. Implants, you’d call them. Part of the standard toolkit for space travellers.”
Night Wave is obviously trying to think through the consequences of each move, but doesn’t seem to be factoring in any of Stephen’s moves when thinking ahead. He’s seen this before a lot in novices. She’s getting better, though. She plays. The way her pieces move around the board on their own isn’t telekinesis; it’s some kind of field effect tool. They’re ubiquitous with the other Home Waters sealin, although the Gardenites don’t use them.
“Where did you get it?” she suddenly says.
Stephen does a double-jump and takes two of Night Wave’s pieces. “They gave it to me on the Dark Cloud,” he says.
She looks away. “Of course they would.”
Nothing more is forthcoming, and they play in silence for a few turns. But Night Wave suddenly decides to talk again. “Show me that,” she says.
Stephen holds his arm out, and she sniffs the bracer over with a practiced air. “Builder work,” she pronounces. “Crude, over-complicated, but at least it knows about humans. See those holes?”
Stephan had wondered; the bracelet, which is more of a bracer as it covers a good half of his left forearm, is so covered with them it looks almost porous. “What about them?”
“That’s where your air comes from,” Night Wave says. “They’re actually cleaning and recycling your air in there. Your move.”
Stephen stares at the bracelet, and then holds it up to his face. He can’t feel anything coming out of the holes.
“Don’t be stupid,” Night Wave says. “Of course it’s not going to let the air jets touch your skin. It’s your move.”
Nettled, Stephen plays, capturing another one of Night Wave’s pieces. She’s doing quite badly now. “What about yours, then?” he says. “If this is so crude, what’s the right way to do it?”
“Why bother moving the air around?” she says. “We just modify the air molecules in place to turn carbon dioxide back into oxygen. Easier and simpler that way.”
He thinks about it. “What do you do with the excess carbon?”
“What do you think? Turn it into more oxygen, of course,” she says, and then more thoughtfully, “Or just destroy it. You don’t want too much. Okay. You win. Again.”
Stephen resets the board. He knows how sophisticated sealin technology is, but they’re so matter-of-fact about it that it rarely strikes home quite how terrifying it really is.
After their first game, Night Wave had said, “Is using food to represent the playing field traditional?”
He’d said no. Then she just focused at the board, and the squiggly lines and biscuits had blurred and vanished, to be replaced by glowing green hairlines and disks of something which felt like glass but looked like frozen smoke. They’d just appeared out of nowhere.
After several turns, Stephen says, “We used to have this thing called the principle of conservation of energy.” They laugh; Stephen sadly, Night Wave with real humour.
“Our machines must seem like toys to you,” he adds.
He’s surprised when Night Wave says, “Toys? Never.”
“Oh?” he says.
“Don’t make the mistake of confusing simple with primitive,” she continues. “That’s what the Builders do, and that’s why that thing on your wrist is so dumb. They’re addicted to pointless complexity—they never go for the simple solution. But you use complexity, because that’s the only way you have to get things done.”
Her voice has inflection now. By now Stephen’s pretty sure that this means she’s either deliberately trying to make a point, or else she cares enough about what she’s saying that she’s forgotten that’s she decided not to bother. Night Wave is, he thinks, a little complicated.
“I’ve seen some of your machines,” she says. “I’ve seen an internal combustion engine. Thousands of moving parts! Thousands! All moving in synchronisation with each other, all tricking the universe into giving you a tiny bit of reverse entropy, all that intricate detail… and they work! You’ve actually made them reliable! Have you been on to your space station?”
“No,” Stephen says.
“You should,” Night Wave says. “It’s wondrous. The air’s held in by steel and glass enclosures. The temperature is controlled by moving hot and cold fluid of a dozen different kinds around using little spinning bits of metal, each carefully shaped so that when they spin they create pressure imbalances that force the fluid through the pipes… and then just letting heat flow in and out of them. It’s all powered by electron pressure in a web of metal wires, and even this is driven from sunlight knocking electrons off silicon crystals. You’re exploiting side effects of matter to trick the universe into giving you what you want! And it all works.”
She looks at him. “That’s anything but primitive.”
Stephen crowns one of his pieces. Night Wave stares at the board.
“How did I not see that?” she says.
“It’s very easy to miss things until you have enough practice looking at the board,” he says.
“There are thirty-two available spaces,” she says. “That’s only fifty bits of information. Play.”
They quickly finish up the game, Stephen beating her easily, and set up the board again.
They’ve been playing since lunch. The puppy had watched for a while, apparently more interested in the byplay between the two of them than in the game, but has lost interest completely by now, and is dozing nearby. Night Wave is concentrating furiously on the board, oblivious to everything else. Stephen takes the opportunity to look her over from close up while she’s distracted. Sealin are bigger and chunkier than Earth’s seals, and the extra set of limbs mean their body is balanced differently as well. But there’s nothing about them that looks wrong; there is a wholeness and elegance to their shape that is obvious to the eye. Night Wave’s tiger stripes are startling, and break up her sleek lines, but so obviously part of her that even after a few days in her company Stephen can’t imagine her looking like anything else.
On the whole, Stephen likes sealin, and after meeting most of the ones on Earth he fancies himself a bit of a connoisseur. He’d like to see Night Wave swimming in real sea.
…the old space station still has people on it, he remembers. In fact, a new module was recently added. They don’t rely on rockets any more to get there, instead cadging lifts from either the sealin or the Builders. There’s usually an alien ship hanging about near the station.
He’s always thought that this was because they were afraid it would burst and wanted to be around to pick up the pieces. Now he wonders if they’re just fascinated.
Stephen wins this game by crowning his second king and then hopscotching it backwards, taking all three of Night Wave’s remaining pieces. She stares at the board, and then all the pieces go flying. “Stupid game,” she snarls. “Stupid planet. I don’t know why I bother with you.” She turns, and disappears into the crate stacks with a flick of her tail.
The puppy, woken by this, swims through the air, collecting the floating pieces, and deposits them in Stephen’s hand. “Thank you,” he says. “I think she’s getting a little frustrated. Don’t suppose you want a game?”
The puppy’s expression manages to convey her complete lack of desire to play.
After a few minutes Night Wave comes back. “Again,” she says.
Stephen raises his eyebrows, but lays out the pieces again.
“With regard to machinery,” he says as they play, “you mentioned regulating temperature on the space station. How would you do that?”
“I’d declare an area of space, select for the type of matter I would want to influence, and set up a tropism to the desired temperature,” she says. Some symbols begin to flicker around her head. “…yes. Easy, really. The subtlety’s in the details. You need to be able to distinguish people from the environment, for example. Humans don’t react well to having their body temperature changed.”
She goes into a fugue for a few moments, thinking.
“Are you an engineer, by any chance?” Stephen suddenly says. Night Wave snaps back to alertness.
“Yes, I am,” she says. “Why do you ask?”
Stephen grins. “No reason,” he says.
She’s doing much better, and Stephen is struggling to hold his own. Eventually he makes a mistake, which Night Wave exploits, and she wins.
“Well done,” Stephen says after she takes his last piece. “You’ve improved a lot. Another game?”
They play again in silence. Night Wave wins again.
By now, Stephen is getting suspicious. Her play style has changed very suddenly; it’s much more disciplined and less chaotic, always making the textbook move for any given situation. And she never makes mistakes any more.
As he lays out the pieces again, Stephen remarks: “There are people back on Earth who used to use computers to play this game. But then they got too good, and you couldn’t win against one—the best you can do against one is a draw. They proved it mathematically. So nobody uses computers any more. It’s just no fun.”
“That’s interesting,” Night Wave says.
They play again; her play style is back to what it was before, and Stephen wins. When she loses the one after, she also loses her temper again, but by then it’s dinnertime and the board gets dematerialised with a certain amount of mutual relief.
But now Night Wave is talking to him.