Finally, the fateful day arrives.
About a week prior, Sea Flower has declared the puppy to be fine, and no longer her responsibility. She still finds excuses to show up every couple of days to play with her and talk to Stephen.
“Why is she still here?” Stephen asks her once. “Why isn’t she living with Dark Cloud? Or one of Dark Cloud’s cousin clans?”
“The last I heard,” Sea Flower says, “Dark Cloud was still at Earth.”
Stephen’s brought up short. “…you mean the ship is the entire clan?” he says.
“Why, yes,” Sea Flower says. “Didn’t you realise?”
“No,” says Stephen. “No, I didn’t.” That goes some way to explaining the ubiquitous cousins: if the entire clan heads off to the stars, all their business back home would have to be run by someone. Someone trustworthy.
Sealin politics must be labyrinthine.
“A cousin clan, then?” he says.
“We could,” says Sea Flower. “But you’re her closest link to the rest of her family, and she’s happy enough here, so why disturb her?”
Then she adds: “Besides, it’ll only be for a few days. Then she’ll be able to make her own decisions.”
Now the few days are up.
Mind formatting, while routine, is subtle and moderately tricky. They’re going to reshape a number of fallow areas in her brain, implant some physical hardware, and install a lot of deep memories to do with language, social mores, and a lot of other areas than Stephen doesn’t like to think about. As it is, for all intents and purposes, the sealin coming-of-age ceremony. Sea Flower arranges for the puppy to go through the ceremony along with some of her age-mates from the local school of juveniles; this is apparently normal, and besides, they’re cousins of Dark Cloud.
However, the site is in deep ocean and some way away, so Stephen has to stay behind.
He’s waved goodbye to the puppy as she climbed into one of the sealin flying bubbles, and then watched it speed away over the waves. Now he’s alone on the island and feeling thoroughly sorry for himself.
It’s only been about six weeks, he realises. The day after Autumn Star died, when they ferried him and the puppy up to meet the matriarch, was the first time he had ever even left Earth’s atmosphere. Now he’s been on two alien worlds, seen the destruction of a space station the size of Manhattan, escaped atomic death with seconds to spare… he snorts with amusement. Put like that, it sounds like an adventure, rather than an extended nightmare.
And, of course, if he tallies up the days, the bulk of the actual time was spent in committee meetings dealing with the aftermath.
But soon it’ll be all over. And he’ll be leaving Night Wave and the puppy, and Sea Flower and Mersyntil and poor Reeearh, back at Thant High, and all the other unlikely people who have been part of of his life for these last weeks.
And then there’ll be more committee meetings.
“It can’t be that bad,” a familiar voice says.
“You haven’t seen what our meetings are like,” he replies. “Night Wave! What are you doing here?”
Another of the bubbles has silently touched down nearby, and Night Wave and another tiger-striped sealin are climbing out.
“Come to see you,” she says cheerfully.
“You’re flying again,” he says. “You got your toolkit fixed?” He hugs her.
“Good as new,” says Night Wave. “It’s so nice not to have to crawl any more. Where’s the puppy?”
“Just gone off for mind formatting,” says Stephen soberly.
“Ah,” says Night Wave. “You’re still worrying. It’s fine. Honestly. If you really want proof that mind formatting doesn’t eradicate all antisocial and disruptive impulses, then there’s someone you should talk to. Meet Swift Lightning. My daughter.”
The other sealin isn’t swimming through the air, and is instead sitting on the ground in the traditional posture. Stephen looks at her more closely, and then starts wondering how someone who looks so much like Night Wave could be so different.
“Pleased to meet you,” he says.
She looks him up and down. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Swift Lightning says. “All of it… unbelievable.”
“That bad?” he says.
“And I thought you’d be taller,” she adds. She has a cool, refined voice, distinct from Night Wave’s rougher accent.
“You wouldn’t believe how busy I’ve been over the past few days,” says Night Wave, wriggling.
“You would if you’d had to live with her,” says Swift Lightning darkly.
“What have you been doing?” Stephen says. “Why are you here? Aren’t you on Hope?”
“I,” she says smugly, “have a ship.”
“You have a promise of a ship,” corrects Swift Lighting.
“The same thing,” says Night Wave dismissively. Swift Lightning sniffs, but says nothing.
“Okay, look,” she says. “I made some calls and talked with some people. There’s a lot of interest in Earth right now. Everyone’s talking about you. So I called our friends at Thant High. They’re a trade hub, right? I managed to generate some interest in sending a ship out to Earth; there’s plenty of things you’ve got they’d be willing to trade for. Shakespeare, Elton John, World Series baseball… I’m not sure you realise how valuable newness is.”
“And she came and talked to me,” says Swift Lightning. “Apparently you people like sealin. So she wants some to go along as a bribe.”
Night Wave ignores her. “And I thought, who do I know who’s a publicity-friendly, award winning performance artist who knows some people who might be interested in seeking out a totally new audience? So I headed over here and made some more calls…”
“I don’t know what you did with my old mother,” says Swift Lightning, “but provided you don’t give her back I don’t care.”
“There’s…” Night Wave is suddenly hesitant. “There’s only one thing we need.”
“What’s that?” says Stephen.
“An invitation,” she says. She’s now visibly nervous. “From a native.”
Stephen blinks. “You mean me?”
“Sure,” he says.
Night Wave swims in a tight circle, chasing her tail with glee. “Wonderful!” she says. “I need to make a phone call…”
Stephen and Swift Lightning watch her skim up the beach, back towards the bubble.
“What happened to her?” Stephen says.
“I don’t know, but I hope it lasts,” Swift Lightning says.
Night Wave and Swift Lightning go fishing, promising to bring back some of the big, six-finned salmon-like fish. Stephen’s been practicing roasting them in the embers of a bonfire on the beach; sealin typically don’t cook their food, but the puppy and Sea Flower love it. He’s curious to know the others’ reaction.
It’s hard to think back to Earth, but after his impulsive acceptance of Night Wave’s request, he’s beginning to think through the implications. Stephen likes the Thantians; they seem straightforward and honest. Having them show up as a neutral third party will help defuse the sealin/Earth/Builder political tensions.
Also, despite the presence of the Gardenites on Earth, it’s very easy to forget that the sealin are not a monolithic culture. Having the contingent from Hope along as part of the trade delegation will help remind people of this: while Hope is a sealin world, it is very much not part of Home Waters. Plus it’ll do the matriarch a lot of good to get some push back for a change, he thinks.
And it’s very likely that the Builder diplomatic mission is still in turmoil after Tonauac’s death and the collapse of the instant distance project. While Stephen doesn’t know how many people were aware of the project, it seems plausible that they were banking on it as a lure to encourage Earth to ally itself more closely with Yotimtlan. Having the Thantians and the Hope dance troupe steal some publicity away from them can only be good.
Plus, the Secretary will love it.
He thinks about the future and finds himself slowly smiling.
Later that evening, as the fire is burning low and the fish are roasting, the bubble ship returns silently across the waves.
Night Wave and Swift Lightning, who were lying sprawled near the fire bickering amiably, fall silent, and Stephen stands up.
The puppy leaps out, followed more sedately by Sea Flower. She looks around, and then her gaze falls on Stephen, and she bounds up the beach towards him.
Stephen crouches down, with his hands on his knees.
“Hello,” he says.
“Hello,” says the puppy.