Stephan wakes up, and remembers precisely where he is.
He’s lying flat on his back on what feels like a comfortable mattress, but which he knows is merely empty space, subtly folded by the bracelet on his left wrist. His arm is tucked around a large, cool shape, with its nose tucked into his armpit: Autumn Star’s daughter, and the reason why he’s currently here. She whuffles sleepily as he moves, but does not wake up.
Stephen gently disengages himself from her. Unsurprisingly, the child’s a lot smaller than the other sealin he’s met, only a metre or so long, and her skin is mottled in back and white spots. He gathers that she’ll lose these as she grows up, taking on more of her mother’s colouring.
He’s a little worried that once she’s no longer touching him she’ll fall down onto the hard ground, but her own space suit seems to take up the slack and she continues sleeping peacefully.
The spider’s ship is a pipe. It’s a couple of hundred metres long, and maybe twenty wide, and is open at the ends. The local gravity pushes outwards, so the inside of the pipe is the ground, and Stephen finds it as thoroughly disorienting as he thought it would be when Falling Bubble explained it to him.
The spider is carrying some sort of cargo, and the interior of the ship is piled high with crates. The three of them are in a little open space at one end of the ship. Stephen and the puppy are in one corner, and Night Wave is as far as possible away from them.
Night Wave is a type of sealin that Stephen hasn’t seen before—she is striped in black and white like a zebra; or a tiger. She’s still asleep, drifting high up near the top of one of the piles of crates. The current she’s swaying in is completely illusory, merely a figment of her space suit’s imagination; the interior of the ship is quite still, because it’s completely airless.
Stephen quietly makes his way to the end of the ship, making sure to keep the puppy in his line of sight, and looks out. It takes a few moments for his eyes to adjust but then he can see the stars slowly drifting by. He shivers slightly and makes sure to stay well back from the edge.
The end of the previous day is a whirlwind in his memory. After he and Falling Bubble got back to the Dark Cloud, they discovered that the spider ship had changed its course and there was no time left. They clamped the bracelet onto his arm, thrust the puppy (startled but astonishingly pleased to see him) into his arms, and then the two of them, Falling Bubble and a sealin he hadn’t met who turned out to be Night Wave, piled into the pinnace and they were off. Once they met the spider ship they all piled out again, and then Falling Bubble was gone without even time to say goodbye.
Then accumulated stress hit Stephen and he more or less passed out.
There’s something sneaking up on him from behind; but this is familiar, and he reaches out and grabs his stalker before she can pounce.
“Hello, you,” he says to the wriggling mass of young sealin in his arms. “Sleep well?” He rubs her on the top of the head; she seems to enjoy that.
He lets her go and she starts swimming happily through—well, he can hardly call it the air —around him. “Excited to be going home, are we?” he says. “Tell you what, let’s be excited a little further away from the gaping hole on the side of the starship, shall we?”
Stephen leads her back to the camp and starts going through his rucksack while the puppy looks on with interest. “There may be some breakfast available,” he tells her. “Although I haven’t figured out how to get food yet. But let’s see if I have anything in here… oh, ugh.”
The rucksack’s in vacuum, of course, and one of his tubes of toothpaste has burst. Interestingly, the other two haven’t, although internal air pressure has made them inflate like strangely-shaped sausages. As he picks them up and they enter his space suit’s pressurisation field, they collapse in his fingers. “That’s not creepy at all.”
He shows the burst tube to the puppy. “Aren’t you glad you’ve got a suit like mine?” he says. “Otherwise you’d end up looking like this. Although I don’t know where you keep your suit.”
Eventually he finds a rather bent cereal bar, and halves it with the puppy. They’re a big hit with the sealin; they don’t have much use for sugar, but they adore the fat and texture. She gobbles it down with great pleasure.
“I suppose we should go and explore,” he says to the puppy. “And meet our host, whereever he, she or it is.” The ship’s crew are noticeably absent. Nobody came to meet them when they arrived, and there has been no sign of movement. “I assume that there is actually somebody here.”
“There is,” a voice says.
Night Wave slowly swims down towards them. “And it’s probably awake, given the noise you’ve been making. And I don’t want to meet them.”
“Ah, hello,” says Staphen, standing. “I’m sorry if we disturbed you. We didn’t get a chance to talk yesterday; I’m Stephen Hawke, from the—”
“I know who you are,” says Night Wave.
Stephen tries again. “Thank-you for escorting us,” he says. “I know it’s inconvenient, but—”
“Like they gave me a choice,” she says.
“I beg your pardon?” says Stephen.
“Understand this about me, Stephen Hawke,” says Night Wave. “I am not part of Dark Cloud any more, and I am not your friend. I’m here because it’s my duty. My last duty.”
“I’m… sorry about that,” says Stephen.
“Don’t be,” she replies. Her voice has been level and calm throughout, and it is only now that Stephen reads her body language and sees how upset she is. She’s just not letting it reach her voice.
“I’ll show you the life support area,” she says. “Follow me.”
They pick their way between the stacks of crates to the middle of the ship, where there’s another open space, this one containing a gently-glowing orange circle inscribed into the floor. No, Stephen corrects himself; floating just above the floor. He leans over to examine it more carefully.
“Stand on the inside, please,” says Night Wave. She’s aready there.
“This area is the life support interface,” she says. “If you want food, it will be provided here.”
There is nothing which resembles a control. “How do we ask for it?” Stephen says.
“You want it,” Night Wave repeats, and then when Stephen’s face remains blanks, adds: “Preserve me from primitive barbarians. Consciously desire it. Picture it in you mind and concentrate. You’ve read that human’s diary, haven’t you?”
“Oh, that sort of wanting,” Stephen says. “Yes, I have, I’m just a bit slow on the uptake today.”
He holds out his hand, and tries to imagine a mug of coffee in it. Hot, steaming, bitter, just the thing that will wake him up…
There’s a blur and his hand is suddenly filled with a beaker. He jerks back in reflex. The beaker doesn’t fall, but drifts in the air, turning slowly, leaking fluid from its open mouth. Stephen quickly rescues it. The moment he touches it the liquid inside settles at the bottom of the beaker.
He tries some. It’s hot and brown and not unpleasant, but it’s not coffee. He grimaces.
“It can’t read your mind,” says Night Wave tiredly. “It reads your desires.”
The puppy is already chewing on something fibrous and meatlike. She obviously knows exactly what she’s doing.
“And if you need to defecate,” she adds, “do it here.” She doesn’t demonstrate, to Stephen’s relief.
“Is there any, um, privacy?” Stephen asks.
“Your suit will do that,” she says. “If you like. …and you can get rid of that stupid leaking container of cleaning fluid here too. Someone should have warned you. …although it’s not like you would have known.”
“Thank you,” says Stephen.
“And that concludes the tour,” she says. There’s a blur, and suddenly her mouth is full of something that looks like a salmon. And then she begins to swim away.
“What, that’s it?” says Stephen.
“Yes,” says Night Wave, her voice unimpeded by the fish. “Consider yourself escorted.”
They watch her go.
The two of them send some time playing with the orange circle. It’s obviously the same technology that the Builders used in the Hotel, and equally obviously it’s not considered at all special out here. It’s just Earth which is impressed; poor backward, ignorant Earth.
It may not be exactly the same. Conroy went into raptures about how good the magic food from the Hotel was, and the few times Stehen ate there has merely confirmed to him that Conroy knew what he was talking about; but the food here is utilitarian and, while perfectly edible, rather unexciting.
This suits Stephen fine. He grew up poor and prefers plain food.
Once they’re done they wander aimlessly down to the other end of the ship and watch the stars go by there. There’s still no sign of any movement inside the ship.
“Night Wave seems angry,” he says to the puppy. “I wonder what’s up with her?”
The puppy, of course, doesn’t answer. Stephen knows full well that she’s too young to understand his words, but has got into the habit of talking to her anyway. She certainly understands his tone of voice. He keeps having to remind himself that she’s not an animal, and even though she has no language, has a brain as capable of reasoning as his own.
Right now she is swimming attentively but calmly by his shoulder.
“…and I do wish I knew how you did that,” he says.
The rest of the day passes uneventfully. They walk, play quiet games, and Stephen tells the puppy stories. She’s more self sufficient than she was after the accident that claimed her mother; then, she was desperate for attention, but now she is quite happy to go exploring on her own for short periods. She always stays nearby him, though, and is never off on her own for long.
Eventually Stephen simply pulls out a book.
When they get tired, they head back to their clearing in the crate stacks to sleep, and find Night Wave there, staring into space. She ignores them.
The second day passes equally as uneventfully. But on the third day, they wake up to find the spider watching them.
The name was coined by the Builders, in their own language, and has been translated into English by a kind of mutual agreement. It’s not until Stephen sees it moving that he realises why they called it that.
“Human individual. Sealin individual. Sealin juvenile. You are on my ship.”
The voice is spare, and somehow lacking; there is thinness about it that unnerves Stephen. He wonders whether this is the spider’s own voice, or some facsimile produced by a translator; and if the latter, what that quality is supposed to represent.
“By your invitation,” Night Wave says, from her perch up above them all.
“You are correct,” says the spider. “You are welcome. I have been paid.”
In shape, it is a knot of flesh, or maybe not flesh, about ten centimetres in diameter; legs drift behind it like tentacles. There seem to be no sensory organs or orifices. As they watch, the legs stiffen and project in all directions. Suddenly they are enormously long, and jointed, and the spider slowly begins to clamber back along the ship.
They watch it go.
“I was hoping to avoid that,” says Night Wave.
“Why?” asks Stephen, his heart rate beginning to drop. The puppy is hiding behind him. “Is it dangerous?”
“No,” says Night Wave. “It’s just really creepy.”
That night the puppy has a nightmare, wriggling and whining. She wakes Stephen up, who lies on his back blearily for a few seconds before he realises what’s happening. He shakes her awake and she promptly bites him on the arm.
She doesn’t bite him very hard, and Stephen grew up with big dogs and so the experience isn’t entirely new to him, but it still hurts. She lets go instantly and looks stricken and guilty while he clamps his other hand over his arm to try and staunch the bleeding. Luckily she has razor-sharp but very short teeth, obviously intended for holding fish and small animals before swallowing them whole rather than chewing them. The puncture wounds are clean and shallow. Just a bit messy.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” he says to the puppy, and tries to gather her up under one arm. She resists for a moment before jumping in for comfort, making the whining sound again. It’s a true vocalisation, too, and isn’t coming from whatever internal organ the sealin used for speech. I should ask Night Wave about that, Stephen thinks; Night Wave is still asleep, undisturbed by the commotion.
He strokes the puppy until she’s calmed down a bit, and then says, “Come on, let’s go for a walk.” Looking under his hand he sees that most of the bleeding has stopped, so he grabs the rucksack and heads towards the Plaza. She follows docilely.
Luckily he’d thought to throw in a first aid kit, so he manages to disinfect and bandage the wound. He has no idea whether the disinfectant will work against the puppy’s mouth bacteria, or even if she’s got any, but it’s what he’s got so he uses it. He’s not too worried; her breath smells clean.
The puppy watches while he does this.
“Come here,” he says, and holds her, stroking her head. “You had bad dreams, didn’t you? You were dreaming of your mother?”
He knows that she can’t understand what he’s saying, but that doesn’t really matter.
“You were fighting off that shark, weren’t you? There’s a brave girl.”
She hadn’t, in real life, the shark being far too busy with poor Autumn Star, but that was because Stephen was hanging on to her, stopping her jumping into the sea.
“When you’ve grown up a bit you’ll be a terror,” he says. “No shark will dare go anywhere near you.”
Stephen has had nightmares himself, where the shark loses interest in Autumn Star’s corpse and goes after him instead. The ones where the shark attacks him aren’t so bad, in hindsight. The ones that make him want to scrub his soul clean are the ones where he finds himself alone on the upturned boat, after having thrown the puppy to the shark to get away.
“Grow up big and strong,” he says.
The puppy’s calmer now, getting comfort from his approving tone of voice. She likes being cuddled and he’s obliging. Stephen has wondered why, given that the sealin don’t have arms.
“But please bite the sharks, not me, okay?” he says. “My skin’s not thick enough.”
He looks at his arm, wrapped in the clean bandage. Autumn Star’s blood was red, just like his.
After a while the puppy falls asleep, and he carries her back to their sleeping place and they settle down. The next morning, Night Wave sees the bandage on Stephen’s arm, but says nothing.