“It doesn’t work,” she says.
The street outside the house is full of clusters of glass cubes and polyhedra, connected with glowing beams of light. They hang at various heights in the… well, Stephen still can’t call it air. The cube is in the centre of the latest one, which is the simplest of them all.
Night Wave looks a lot better. A good meal and a stress-free night’s sleep, curled up with Stephen and the puppy, has done her a lot of good. Stephen’s slightly less well off: both the sealin are strong and muscular and he ended up rather squashed between them.
Strangely, while he did find himself faintly wondering whether Night Wave would have another episode and attack him again, what sleep he did get was untroubled. Something in his subconscious trusts her.
“Why not?” he says.
Night Wave has been building communicator rigs of various kinds all day, each of them gradually simpler and cruder than the last, trying to find something which will send out a signal. The last one is the crudest of them all: a device which will send out a brute force screech, with no information content. She said it would bring ships just to make the noise stop.
“I don’t know,” she says.
Abstractedly, she begins to clear up: the discarded glass objects begin to blur and dematerialise, one by one. Each one represents a component of some exotic machine which Night Wave is thinking into existence with the toolkit buried in her brain. Now she’s unthinking them.
“There’s something very odd with the way it resonates,” she says. “I’ve been stimulating it every way I know how, and in some ways it’s behaving like it’s generating a collapsed warp field, but nothing ever happens… it’s like the energy’s going nowhere.”
Stephen shrugs. “I have no idea what that means,” he says, “but it sounds bad.”
“It’s confusing,” she says, and sags a little. Better though she may be, Stephen’s well aware that yesterday’s crisis is only a few hours away. “Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m not an expert on warps. I’ve got all the theory, I’ve done it a few times, but all I can tell is that this is not a standard warp core.”
“Do you think you can make it work eventually?” Stephen says.
“Sure,” she says. “But I thought that this morning, too.”
Stephen reaches out and touches that last cube, moments before it dissolves away. One moment it’s glossy and warm under his fingertip, and then it’s simply not there.
“Then perhaps we should give it a rest for today,” he says. “We can go talk to Reeearh. We should tell it what this is. It’s not like another day will make much difference.”
“No,” she says abstractedly. “I want to try something else… I may be able to force resonance in the right mode by setting up a false-space tropism around it. Persuade it it’s in a different universe… I heard about that once.”
Stephen’s known enough engineers to recognise a problem-solving fugue when he sees one.
“Besides,” she says, “I’m not sure we should tell Reeearh just yet.”
“Why not?” says Stephen, surprised.
“It may seem a bit callous,” she says, “but it has a coping mechanism which has been working just fine for a very long time. Let’s not disturb that. Don’t want it to decide that it wants to kill us now rather than later.”
“If you say so,” Stephen says, unconvinced. Reeearh wouldn’t do that, he’s sure. Superficially he might want to kill them, but deep down he’s sure Reeearh likes them.
“Okay, let’s see,” Night Wave says, and some more glass cubes appear in front of her.
It doesn’t work. Neither does Night Wave’s next try, which is something about creating a warp field via a virtual warp core that’s really a manifold of time-shifted mirages of the real warp core in a reflexive feedback system. At least, that’s what Stephen thinks Night Wave says. However, this fails for a different reason.
“I’m getting interference,” she says, studying the cubes, which are glowing gently. “I’m sure it’s working. The manifold builds power nicely, but then something disturbs it and it dumps it all. I think it’s that light.”
Stephen looks up; in the undercity the light at the heart of the Snarl is, of course, hidden behind the ring. But there’s enough purple reflecting from the body of the Snarl that it’s presence is felt.
“Shielding?” he suggests.
“Don’t be silly,” she replies.
“How about… I don’t know… we go further away from it?” he says. “Does this stuff obey the inverse square law?”
“Yes, actually,” Night Wave says, and looks out at the Snarl, spiralling away into the distance. “…yeah, that would probably work.
Her eyes are bloodshot again. “Tomorrow, though,” says Stephen.
“There’s plenty of time—”
“Tomorrow,” he says firmly, and plants a hand on her back.
“All right,” she says meekly.
They don’t bother to pack up the machine; Night Wave just dismisses it, to be recreated later. The warp core itself has to be carried. Stephen ends up pushing it halfway around the rim before mentioning how awkward it is. Night Wave then spends ten minutes building a self-propelled carrier for it: a tetrahedron of glass cubes with the warp core at their centre. It follows Stephen around like, well, like a puppy.
The actual puppy is excited, obviously well aware that they’re going on a trip, possibly permanently. She had no interest in the warp core engineering the previous day but had been happy to watch, playing quietly while keeping a proprietary eye of Night Wave and Stephen. She obviously has no intention of letting them out of her sight. Now she’s swimming in circles around them from sheer enthusiasm.
As they pass through the square, heading towards the ribbon that will take them up to the mouth of the Snarl, they run into Reeearh, who is sitting in its usual spot.
“Hello,” Stephen says.
“You are here to die?” Reeearh says.
“Not just yet,” he says. “In fact—um.”
Stephen darts a glance guiltily at Night Wave. He’s rescued from further embarassment when Reeearh spots the carrier and their conspiracy collapses.
“You have the technical thing,” it says, and leaps to its feet, eyes narrowing. “You have a machine. What would you do with that, prey?”
Stephen hesitates, and then mentally feels his way through Reeearh’s complicated world view.
“It is a trivial thing, not worth of your notice,” he says. “We would not dare to waste your time with such a thing.”
Reeearh rumbles in reluctant agreement, but calms down.
“However,” says Stephen, “on a wholly unrelated matter we are going on a walk up to the rim. For exercise. And a change. Would you like to join us? Have you hunted there recently?”
“No,” says Reeearh thoughtfully. “You are right… I should investigate. I will accompany you, prey. Maybe I will hunt you there.”
“What are you doing?” Night Wave asks Stephen, very quietly.
“It’s dying of curiosity,” whispers Stephen back. “Easier for it to lie to itself this way.”
Night Wave gives Stephen a unconvinced look, but doesn’t reply.
The path up is just as long as it was when they went down it. Now, it seems both shorter and longer: shorter, because they’ve been here before and it’s familiar to them now; longer, because they’re all eager to see what happens when Night Wave starts the machine.
“What do you expect to happen?” Stephen finds himself asking.
“I create the warp field, set up the resonator, start generating a signal, and then keep it going until—” Night Wave glances at Reeearh, who is carefully not listening.
“What will we see?” he says.
“Not much,” Night Wave says.
“And what will you do if it doesn’t work?”
Night Wave snorts. “You mean, am I setting myself up for horrible disappointment and another breakdown? No. There’s plenty of things I can try. If the worst comes to the worst, I can retune it. But it’s slow and laborious and would take me forever. We’ll get there. Trust me.”
“Oh good,” says Stephen.
After a while, as they’re approaching the crystal chandalier, he says, “What will you do when we get to Home Waters?”
“Home Waters,” says Night Wave wistfully. “Talk to people. Find friends. Swim in real sea…”
“…stand under a real sky again,” says Stephen.
“Feel the wind on my skin,” says Night Wave.
“A down which stays down.”
“Light which isn’t purple!”
“Oh god yes,” says Stephen. They both sigh.
After a few moments, Night Wave says, “I think I’ll go back to Hope.”
“Your home planet, right?” Stephen asks. “Why?”
“I want to go back to White Bird,” she says. “See the patriarch. Be somewhere I actually belong. I don’t care about bettering myself any more.”
“They’ll send me back to Earth,” Stephen says.
They’re going to part, he suddenly realises.
He feels a sudden moment of sadness. Was this how Conroy felt? Is this something that happens with all Earth-humans and sealin? It doesn’t seem to happen to the Builders…
“I’ll be sorry to see the puppy go,” he says.
“She likes you,” Night Wave says.
“It’s not entirely her idea,” Stephen says. “They did something to her on the Dark Cloud.” He says the name of the ship without thinking, but Night Wave doesn’t flinch.
“She thinks you’re her mother,” Night Wave says.
“Oh, and what are you?” Stephen says. “Her father?”
“No,” says Night Wave. “I’m just a friend of the family.”