When they get back to the house, Night Wave is making fish.
She’s floating in the middle of the central chamber of the house, symbols and a few charts floating around her head. At intervals, space blurs in front of her nose and a translucent, glowing shape forms in front of her. It’s the barest sketch of a fish, merely a paper-thin lozenge with a hint of a tail, but they immediately swim away. The house is surrounded by a cloud of them, schooling in swirling, colourful patterns, and they fill the interior.
“They’re beautiful,” Stephen says, watching the patterns as the move together. Night Wave doesn’t reply, but makes another one.
“What are they for?” he asks. He tries to touch one with a finger; it twitches away and is gone. The puppy has better luck, and manages to catch one in her mouth. It shreds away to nothingness.
“Nothing much,” Night Wave says. “Just felt like some company.”
Stephen looks at her critically. She doesn’t look good. The sealin is thin and her whiskers are drooping; her muscles are picked out against her hide more sharply than he’s seen before, and he’s sure her stripes are fading.
“You should get out more,” he says. “There’s actually some nice places here. Not that I still don’t want to leave, but it’s better than hanging around here.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Well, tell me,” he says.
Night Wave says nothing.
Stephen crosses his arms and waits.
“This is all my fault,” she says eventually.
“How?” he says.
“I thought I was being so clever,” she says. “I was the one who got us into this. We should have stayed on the ship…”
“The spider left early,” says Stephen. “It said we had three hours. And besides, we needed off the ship for a while.”
“Well,” she says. “No. That is… the spider wouldn’t have done anything to you. They really are harmless. Creepy, but harmless. It’s just… the matriarch asked me to keep an eye out to see if anything strange was happening. When the spider decided to divert to the Snarl, I thought it was worth a look around, and then it started saying odd things to you, so… I exaggerated a bit.”
“You lied to me,” Stephen says.
“…yes,” she says, and closes her eyes.
Stephen doesn’t know what to think. It’s not as if it isn’t in character for her; he’s slowly been realising that Night Wave is no stranger to bad decisions.
“Wait,” he says. “The matriarch asked you to do what?”
“She thought there’s something odd going on with the spider and the Builders,” she says. “Why was the spider ship so near Earth? Earth’s nowhere much, there’s just no reason to go anywhere near there. And the Builders are up to something, she’s sure. So when you and the puppy had to go back to Home Waters, and I was leaving anyway, there was an opportunity…”
“So we were your cover,” Stephen says. “The matriarch never does anything for only one reason.”
“No,” says Night Wave miserably.
So… Night Wave lied to him and has been trying to manipulate him. And now she’s trying to do it again, by trying to get Stephen angry at her.
She’s just so bad at it. Apart from the dangers of encouraging her self-flagellatory mood, she’s so clumsy that Stephen really can’t bring himself to be cross with her. And besides, he’ll be damned if he’s going to give her the satisfaction.
There’s only one thing to do now: change the subject.
“I talked to the robot,” he says. “It said something very interesting.”
He repeats the robot’s conjecture about visiting ships.
“So the spider did know the Snarl is here,” he says. “Why? Why would you want to go to a place where nobody goes?”
He’s managed to pique Night Wave’s interest and she brightens.
“Something you don’t want anyone to know?” she says.
He pauses a moment to take the puppy into the life support circle room. She swims into the circle, pauses for a moment, and then wriggles ecstatically. She does this a couple of times a day, and Stephen’s pretty sure she’s defecating. He’s used it himself; the circle dematerialises the result so rapidly that it’s as if it never existed. He still isn’t sure whether it’s genius or just disturbing, but he certainly hasn’t gotten used to it.
“Like what?” he says, as he comes out.
Night Wave doesn’t reply, but this time it’s because she is thinking.
“…and they didn’t try to rescue Reeearh and the robot,” he adds.
“And the plant,” Night Wave says.
“Okay, and the plant,” he says. “So they either didn’t bother to look or else didn’t care to find out.”
“Not nice people,” she says.
“Would we want to be rescued by them?” Stephen says.
“Yes,” says Night Wave firmly.
“I keep thinking about contraband,” Stephen says. “I don’t even know if you galactic types have any.”
“There are things too dangerous to have around,” she says. “…or too horrible. But I know what you mean, and it’s pretty rare.”
“So, a secret, then,” he says. “What kind of secret would you want to keep in a place like this?”
“I don’t know,” says Night Wave.
“Neither do I,” says Stephen.
They stare at each other. The fish swim past.
Stephen is worried about Night Wave.
She has always been a bit moody, but this depression is new, mixed in with a deeply unsettling lethargy that’s almost catatonic. He doesn’t know anything about sealin psychology but he thinks she hasn’t recovered after her breakdown when they discovered they were stranded on the Snarl.
He realises that other than the occasional trip out with him and the puppy, she’s barely ventured outside the house since they got here.
That evening, while they’re having dinner, he says, “We should go on a trip.”
Most sealin are messy eaters. They will swallow small fish whole, but what they really like is to get something bigger and then rip shreds off it with their small, sharp teeth. There’s usually a shower of scales or fragments of fish skin and bone.
Night Wave doesn’t eat like this. She still rips her food apart, but rather than getting the life support circle to give her fish, she usually ends up with something which looks a little like smoked salmon, without the texture. Junk food, perhaps? Is Night Wave eating the sealin equivalent of instant noodles? Whatever it is, she doesn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about it.
“I want to see what’s further down the spiral,” he says, after she doesn’t reply. “There might be something we can use.”
“Not likely,” she says.
“If there was anything to be found, the others would have found it,” she replies listlessly. “There’s nothing there.”
“We can’t be sure, can we?” Stephen says. “The robot’s obsessed with its pipe. Reeearh’s not a technical type. The plant is… a plant. How do we know there’s nothing there left by some earlier visitor?”
She mulls this over, and slowly starts to perk up. “That’s faintly possible.”
Unlike Night Wave, the puppy is a messy eater, although the synthetic fish she’s dismembering are ones that an adult would swallow whole. Luckily the life support circle won’t let the fragments go too far; they just fade away and are gone before they become a nuisance.
“It’s an obvious place to want to go,” Stephen adds. “There’s a whole half of the sky we can’t see from here, hidden behind that damned purple light.”
“That’s true,” she says. “That’s very true. There could be anything there.”
“Probably just stars,” Stephen says cautiously. He’s not entirely comfortable with how quickly her mood’s shifting.
“Who knows?” she says. “We’ll only find out when we look. When are we going?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Stephen says.
“Tomorrow?” she says. “What about…” She pauses, and shudders briefly before closing her eyes. “Yes. Tomorrow. Right.”
She opens her eyes again to look at Stephen. “I’ve got to get out of here,” she says.
Later on that night a voice calls from outside the house. “Stephen Hawke.” It’s the robot.
Stephen has persuaded the life support circle to give them cloth and a tacky substance which works like glue, and has put up curtains. He pulls the one over the door aside.
“Hello,” he says.
“I’ve been thinking about your idea,” the robot says, on the walkway outside. “It has real possibilities. I’ve built some prototypes and they work. Come and see.”
Stephen looks back to check on Night Wave. She looks alert and curious. “Coming?” he says.
“Sure,” she replies.
The robot takes them back to the park, obviously its favourite test area. By the rail gun’s muzzle there’s now a number of blocky, featureless shapes scattered around the ground.
“Here it is,” the robot says, coming to a halt by a small distorted cylinder on the ground. It’s about twice the size of the little observation probes from the previous day, and apart from the shape just as seamless. Night Wave noses it curiously, while Stephen holds the puppy back. He’s seen rockets in action before.
The robot is chattering on about how it works. “…been experimenting with different kinds of matter,” it’s saying. “It makes a lot of difference. Denser is good, but leaving a trail of ejected uranium blocks behind me seems a little rude. Liquids are much easier to handle. Watch this.”
It begins fussing over the device.
“What did you say to it?” says Night Wave quietly as they wait.
“I… happened to mention rockets in passing,” Stephen said, heart suddenly dropping. “Is that bad?”
“Rockets?” she says. “Seriously?”
Stephen’s rarely been so glad to be condescended to.
The robot seems to make one final, invisible, adjustment and backs away. “There.”
There’s a sudden spray of vapour and the cylinder slowly leaves the ground, accelarating sluggishly into the sky. Under it there’s a jet which bounces off the ground and fragments into a glittering spray that dissipates in all directions. Stephen flinches as it bounces off his suit field.
“What is that stuff?” he says.
“Mercury,” says the robot.
They watch the little rocket rise up above them, while a mercury rain falls all around, the droplets hitting and exploding all around. After a minute or so the jet abruptly cuts out.
“I’ll bring it back a bit later,” the robot says. “What do you think?”
“It’s very ingenious,” says Night Wave politely.
“I’ve never seen mercury used in rockets,” Stephen says.
“Oh?” says the robot. “You know more about them than I do. What do you use?”
“Hydrogen and oxygen, I think,” he says.
“But they’re so light!” says the robot. “And aren’t they flammable together? Is that safe?”
“I think that’s the point,” Stephen says uncertainly. A background in linguistics and cultural studies hasn’t really prepared him for discussions of rocket physics. “We burn them and, um, hot gas comes out the bottom.”
“Hot gas?” says the robot. “Why would you… of course! Hot gases expand! That way you convert the energy of elasticity in the gas to momentum as well! Very ingenious. I hadn’t thought of varying the temperature. I’ll give that a try. Thank-you.”
There’s no gravity outside Stephan’s suit, and so Stephen finds himself walking through a cloud of drifting mercury droplets as they leave. The puppy thinks they’re beautiful, and is darting back and forth, setting up shock waves as her own suit field pushes them aside.
“Well done,” Night Wave says to Stephen.
“You will look back at this moment for the rest of your life and think: I did this,” she says.
“Ho ho,” he says.
They start heading back. It’s late, which here means that their body clocks want them to sleep; the Snarl itself is as unchanging as ever.
“It’ll work, though,” says Night Wave after a while.
“You mean it’ll actually cross light years of space in a spaceship driven by a shower rose spraying mercury?” Stephen says.
“Anything’s better than nothing,” she says. “It was planning to spend a hundred thousand years drifting through space. Even that joke back there will get it there sooner. It’ll work.”
After a few moments she adds: “It won’t work fast enough to do us any good, though.”
The continue on in silence, Stephen walking, the two sealin swimming alongside, moving with bare flicks of their tails.
They pause for a few minutes so that Night Wave can examine the statues. She’s interested, but says very little, and seems subdued on the way back to the house.