“I do not like humans,” says the sealin matriarch.

Stephen Hawke clutches the hand grips of the little flying scooter they’d given him, and through a haze of fatigue tries to look respectful and attentive and not at all spacesick. He’s not sure he’s succeeding. His legs trail away awkwardly and his sinuses feel blocked.

“I tell you this,” continues the matriarch, “not because I wish to hurt you or to insult you, or to excuse any kind of injustice, but simply to emphasise my gratitude.”

She is big; not large as sealin go, but she still outmasses Stephen by a factor of two to one. Two sets of flippers, a fluked tail, and a vaguely sea-lion-like head with a serious expression back up a penetrating gaze through big, black, soulful eyes. Stephen finds her thoroughly intimidating.

“Autumn Star was naive and foolish, but naivity and foolishness should not warrant the sentence of death,” she says. “We cannot protect everyone from the cruelty of random chance, although it is our duty to try. We were unable to protect her, and we were unable to protect her child. You could, and although Autumn Star is dead, her child lives. Thank you.”

“I couldn’t do anything else, madam,” Stephen says.

“You risked your own life to save another,” she said. “But I understand your meaning, and admire the sentiment.”

Behind her, through the transparent wall of the ship, the Earth slides past. The sealin ship is in low orbit, which means the ground is only a few hundred kilometres away. The view is stunning, but the constant movement isn’t doing Stephen’s stomach any favours. He tries to relax his grip on the scooter but something inside him is screaming falling and his knuckles are white.

The matriarch is examining him thoughtfully, and after a moment—Stephen does not wish to interrupt her—he says: “Madam, how is she?”

“The child?” the matriarch says. “Thoroughly traumatised, as you might expect. We do not have the facilities to properly repair her damage here, but our medical engineer is applying a mild memory block. She will be due to begin her education soon anyway, so we will send her back to Home Waters. We have a cousin-clan which specialises in this area. The Dark Cloud cannot be spared, but fortuitously a spider is passing nearby later today and has agreed to take you. You and she will be escorted by one of our engineers, Night Wave, who is returning to Home Waters for reassignment.”

Stephen abruptly forgets about his nausea. “You—want me to go?”

“Yes,” says the matriarch simply. “You will wish to communicate with your superior; Falling Bubble will arrange this. Now: you will receive a formal acknowledgement of gratitude from the patriarch within the next hour. Your training will not have covered this. You are not required to make any specific response, but I would suggest that you say ‘Thank you, sir’…”

Stephen rather likes Falling Bubble. She’s young and excitable, and appears to be his opposite number on the sealin observation team, which means she gets all the lousy jobs—such as shepherding visiting aliens around. She’s also the pilot of the Dark Cloud’s pinnace, so they run into each other frequently, and he feels like he knows her.

So he doesn’t bother to hide his reaction, and as she guides him away from the matriarch through the Dark Cloud’s cavernous interior, he finds himself saying in a dazed tone of voice: “She’s sending me to your home world…”

“Home Waters?” Falling Bubble says excitedly, and does a pirouette around him, nuzzling him gently. He fends off her snout with one hand. She tends to express herself physically, which makes her piloting interesting sometimes. “That’s wonderful! You’ll love it!”

Stephen hasn’t been to the Dark Cloud before, and until they bundled him and the puppy into the shuttle in Ras Mohammed, had never expected to. The clan is avoiding making any statement with regard to the complicated mess which is Earth’s first foray into interstellar politics, which of course is a statement in its own right; but they have been doing all their business down on Earth to avoid the symbolic significance of inviting an official envoy onto the clan’s ship.

He’d seen pictures, of course. From the outside, the starship is a stretched ovoid of interlocking bubbles. But he hadn’t realised that from the inside the walls of the ship are almost completely transparent, and the omnipresent sight of the Earth sliding past below does something uncanny to his inner ear. It doesn’t help that the ship’s interior is mostly one vast open space. And apparently the ship is largely made out of force fields with very little actual matter in its structure… He tightens his grip on the scooter.

“Where are you going?” says Falling Bubble. “To the surface? You have to go to Falling Rock Flying, it’s in Dark Cloud’s home territory. I was born near there! It’s beautiful, but of course mostly from underwater. You can swim? How long can you hold your breath? But of course we’re probably going to give you a space suit, so—”

He tunes her out, and stares despairingly out over the ship’s interior. Sealin glide gracefully around, apparently swimming through empty space. Glowing symbols and diagrams form spheres around some of their heads. The sealin believe in open-plan working spaces, and the ship stations are accessible from anywhere.

“Bubble,” he interrupts tiredly—she’s recommending food he has to try, most of it fish-based and none of it cooked—and asks: “Do you know anything about a spider ship? We’re supposed to be getting a lift?”

“A spider,” she says. “Wait—” Symbols flicker around her head. “Oh, yes, it’s not far from here. Well, Dark Cloud can’t go, and I suppose it makes sense. We will have to get you a space suit.”

“And I’m going with somebody.” He thinks back. “Night Wave? I don’t think I’ve met her.”

“Oh,” says Falling Bubble. There’s a pause. “Well… I’m sure you’ll get on fine.”

There’s an awkward pause.

Falling Bubble jury rigs something in her head mounted display so that he can make a phone call. He ends up looking at a tiny, inverted image of his superior floating ten centimetres or so from her head. They did try expanding the image, but then it ended up distorted over the surface of the sphere and the result was rather disturbing.

“Sir, the matriarch wants to send me to the sealin home planet!” he says urgently, leaning close to Falling Bubble. She twitches her whiskers.

“Good! I hoped she would,” says the Secretary gleefully.

“Do I go?”

“Of course you go,” the Secretary says. “She’s your boss. Do what she says.”

“She’s—my boss?” Stephen says.

“Yes, I just got her email,” the Secretary replies. “Don’t panic, I need to brief you. Is this call private?”

Stephen looks through the Secretary’s projected face into Falling Bubble’s interested eyes, just on the other side. “No, sir.”

“Then get down here as quickly as you can.”

“I can get you there in fifteen minutes,” says Falling Bubble hopefully.

“Excellent,” says the Secretary. “Do it—who’s that behind you?”

Stephen turns.

The sealin patriarch is swimming through the air towards him: four metres of black and white orca-patterned muscle. There’s a brain there, too, and a good one; Stephen knows that when not in his ceremonial role he’s a senior crewmember under the command of the matriarch, doing something incomprehensible with the Dark Cloud’s faster-than-light drive; but right now his hindbrain is saying big scary animal.

He swims right up, close enough that Stephen can smell him through the thick air.

“Stephen Hawke,” he says. He speaks perfect English. They all do.

“I, and Dark Cloud, are grateful for your actions. Thank you.”

That was it?

Stephan attempts a half bow, but in free fall with one hand still clutching the scooter and his legs trailing behind it is not very successful. He remembers the matriarch’s words and says: “Thank you, sir.”

The patriarch then adds: “You are a friend of mine and of Dark Cloud.” Then he winks at Stephen, in such an awkward manner that it’s obviously affected, turns, and swims away.

There’s a pause, and then Falling Bubble squeals: “You’re a friend!”

Stephen meets the Secretary’s eye, and then he asks Falling Bubble warily, “What does that mean?”

“It means you’re my cousin!” she says excitedly.

“It appears, boy,” says the Secretary’s image drily, “that you’ve been adopted.”

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