Thant High is a gas giant, hugging its primary with a period of just over fifty days; the sun, on the few occasions when he sees it, is a sky-filling inferno.
From a distance, Stephen thinks the world looks dull. The surface is a uniform, iridescent grey, with no trace of clouds. Close up, the grey surface resolves into the tops of a trillion towers, a kilometre wide and thousands of kilometres long, whose heads project right out of the atmosphere and whose bases float near the diamond core of the world.
The apartment that they’ve been assigned—although ‘menagerie cage’ might be a better phrase, Stephen sometimes thinks—is in one of these towers, at an altitude where the outside temperature and pressure is reasonable. Stephen can venture outside with nothing more than a breathing mask. Even though they’re close to the top, there’s not the tiniest patch of visible sky; the endless ranks of towers stretch away in all directions, disappearing off to infinity above and below.
It should be grim and industrial. It’s not. There’s constant activity and traffic and things happening; it’s a vertical street full of parks and artwork and little dramas which catch the eye and are endlessly fascinating. The sides of the towers aren’t smooth, instead being encrusted with platforms and balconies and peculiar shapes which elude the eye, and there are people everywhere. Here a group of Thantians are painting some kind of abstract picture on a blank piece of vertical wall; another group seem to be repainting it with something else, and in the weeks that he’s been there the entire picture has changed several times. Here a square kilometre of tower is covered in a perpendicular forest, waving in the endless updraught, obviously vegetation despite being pastel blue. There’s movement in it. Possibly wildlife, but without binoculars Stephen can’t tell. Way down, on the edge of vision, there’s a patch of blue off to one side. He has no idea what it is. Nearby there’s a rope bridge connecting two of the towers, swinging slowly in the breeze. People are everywhere, all Thantians, moving around the towers, socialising, travelling, playing games…
The dead city on the Snarl was intricate and overwhelming. This is at a scale which makes the Snarl seem insignificant, and there’s a beauty and life here which the Snarl didn’t have and could never aspire to.
Stephen finally realises why Night Wave thought the word ‘robot’ funny. The Thantians are just as much machines as any vehicle back on Earth, yet they’re more alive than some of the people he’s met.
They’re helpful, too; they’d found his rucksack, floating freely in space amongst the fragments of the Snarl. When he’d opened it he’d found that his toothpaste had burst and then frozen solid, and his laptop wouldn’t boot.
Nevertheless, after a few weeks, he’s bored. So when he hears Mersyntil enter the apartment behind him and call out, “Good news!” he’s quite willing to give up the view.
“What’s happened?” he says as he enters, pulling the mask off and hanging it next to the balcony door.
“The board,” says Mersyntil, “has finally realised that they’ve run out of questions to ask you.”
The Thantian appointed itself their liaison, reasoning that they’d be made more comfortable by a familiar face interceding between them and the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Thant High trade companies. Stephen appreciates the sentiment, although he still can’t tell different Thantians apart.
“It’s about time,” says Night Wave tiredly, entering the apartment behind Mersyntil. She’s riding a floating platform that the Thantians gave her; she steers it up next to the pool and topples off it and into the water. The splash soaks Stephen, but he’s used to that by now; Mersyntil just rises up near the ceiling. The puppy romps up to greet her and there’s some good-natured shoving.
The Thantians, while making it perfectly clear that while, on the whole, they don’t blame Stephen and Night Wave for recent events, have nevertheless been intensively debriefing them since they arrived, desperate to extract every scrap of knowledge from their brains. They’d even removed the ruined remnants of Night Wave’s toolkit and prosthetic memory for analysis.
Stephen can’t honestly complain, but he does wish they’d do it a little more quickly.
“Does this mean we can go?” he adds.
“It means we can go,” Night Wave says, thrusting her head up out of the water in a startlingly dolphin-like pose, and rolls onto her back. Stephen absent-mindedly rubs her zebra-striped belly with his feet.
“They’re just being thorough,” Mersyntil says.
“I thought bureaucracy was an Earth invention,” Stephen says darkly. Mersyntil doesn’t laugh.
One of the reasons they have been put here is that the previous tenant of the apartment was amphibious. Half the floor space is water; deep pools, channels, currents to carry you from one room to another… Night Wave spends every possible moment in the water, and the puppy’s barely left her side. To his surprise, Stephen finds himself a little jealous.
“How’s Reeearh?” he says as Night Wave surfaces again.
She sighs. “Not well,” she says.
Reeearh is locked in a much larger vivarium elsewhere in the tower. After a thousand years of keeping itself functional with a combination of carefully channelled obsession and iron willpower, it was completely unable to cope with the radically different environment of Thant High. When it woke up from being rendered onconscious on the trade fleet police ship it had started viciously attacking anything that moved. They had, at least, had enough warning to prevent it from hurting anyone. The Thantian zookeepers have begun synthesising partially-living prey animals for it to hunt down, with a glee which Stephen finds a little disturbing, but it seems to be doing Reeearh good.
“We should write it another letter,” Stephen said. Reeearh has never replied, but its handlers had told them that it rereads them frequently.
Another shadow that is hanging over them is the knowledge that a Thantian researcher has finally tracked down Reeearh’s species. They’d gone extinct not long after Reeearh was marooned on the Snarl. They had decided not to tell it, at least until it was more stable.
The plant is installed in a different tower. There is already a year-long waiting list of people coming to talk to it.
“Technically, the enquiry’s not over yet,” Mersyntil says. “But everyone knows what the conclusion’s going to be. Aggravated misadventure for the destruction of the Snarl, and reckless endangerment for the antimatter explosion. You’ll be cleared of all wrongdoing, of course. I believe they’re already starting to argue over the wording of the formal complaint to Yotimtlan.”
“And what good will that do?” Stephen says.
“You’d be surprised,” Night Wave says. “The Thantians are respectable. Their opinion carries weight.”
One of the things which has surprised Stephen most about the Thantians was just how many of them there were. Each tower alone has a population orders of magnitude bigger than Earth’s, and the number of towers is nigh astronomical—he’s seen the total, but it is so large as to be meaningless to him. The nation that operates the entire Thant High trade fleet occupies the top few hundred kilometres of a relatively small number of towers, and even that is a major galactic power.
The antimatter explosion has angered a lot of them, and that number is increasing as the news slowly percolates downwards through the towers. Most of the bureaucracy is due to the fact that for the first time in a very long while, several dozen of the Thantian nations are working together, and the process is not friction-free.
Stephen grimaces. For a while there’d been a small vocal faction which had blamed Night Wave and Stephen for the whole thing, largely because they were available and Tonauac wasn’t. They’d been shouted down eventually but the process hadn’t been pleasant. It wasn’t just bureaucracy which was universal.
“I’ll be sorry to see you go,” Mersyntil says. “It’s been really interesting having you here. Catastrophes notwithstanding, of course. Precontact cultures are so rare.”
“Thank-you, I think,” says Stephen.
“I read his diary, you know?” says Mersyntil. “James Conroy’s. It was… interesting. Seeing galactic society through completely new eyes. No wonder he got it so wrong… anyway. What are your plans now?”
“We need to see about the puppy,” Stephen says. The puppy’s nightmares aren’t getting any better.
“That’s best done on a sealin world,” Mersyntil says. “We have a small community here, but she’s Dark Cloud clan, isn’t she? I don’t think we have any of them. I can ask, but sealin space isn’t very far away and it’s probably easiest just to go there.”
“Could we get a lift?” says Stephen.
“Of course,” says Mersyntil. “I’m surprised you even need to ask. Where would you like to go?”
“Home Waters.” “Hope.”
Stephen and Night Wave speak across each other, and then stare at each other.