Home Waters is awe-inspiring even to Stephen’s slightly burnt out sense of wonder.

The planet itself is wonderful; all Earth-like planets are. Blue oceans, curls of cloud casting microscopically exact black shadows, reefs and islands and lagoons everywhere. A small continent near one pole trails a comet-like tail of islands in an archipelago that loops three-quarters of the way round the globe. After the glare of the Snarl and the surreality of Thant High the very colours of Home Waters soothes something in Stephen’s soul.

But the planet is nothing compared to what surrounds it.

Extending in an arc from each pole are fan-like structures, each a good two planetary diameters in size, curling sunwards to catch the light. They shine blue and white, and for good reason: each one is an ocean suspended in space. When Stephen asks the ship to magnify the view, he sees floating islands, cities, vast ocean craft sailing across the impossible surface… They’re not flat, either. The ocean is sculpted. Stephen sees mountain ranges, tipped in white breakers; valleys, quiet and green at the bottom. Once he finds a torus of water floating free, kilometres across, surrounded by a halo of vehicles.

Each one must have as much livable ocean surface as the home word. And that’s just on the front.

“There aren’t as many people living there as you might think,” says the ship.

Scheduled services ran between Home Waters and Thant High every few days. Mersyntil had, however, found Stephen and the puppy a place on a private vessel that would get them there a little sooner. It’s a member of the Fraternity of Travellers; there is no crew, the ship itself being sentient. Stephen tells himself that he’s met enough machine people that he shouldn’t be surprised by this, although he is. He was a little leery of travelling on anything so eccentric until both Night Wave and Mersyntil assured him that the Fraternity has an impeccable reputation; and Mersyntil had met this one personally.

His fears were unfounded. The ship couldn’t be any less like the spider ship. It’s not elegant, merely a utilitarian flying office block, but the inside is comfortable and well-appointed—it uses the same wish-fulfillment technology that the Builders installed in the Hotel, back on Earth. Stephen’s rather pleased at finally getting a chance to try it out.

“The total population’s only a few billion,” the ship says. “They like their space.”

“It’s still impressive,” Stephen says. The magnified view closes, and he sees the whole world laid out before him. From their angle of approach it looks almost winged. The puppy dozes in one of the ship’s pools; she has had another nightmare and had slept badly.

“They like to show off, too,” says the ship cheerfully. “But I do like visiting here.”

The wings are much less visible from the surface. During the day they’re lost behind the blue sky, and their position over the poles mean they share the same day/night cycle as the rest of the planet, so at night they’re dark. It’s only at dawn or dusk that they become obvious, great sweeps of blue ocean and white cloud low on the horizon.

Word of what happened on the Snarl had come ahead of Stephen, and after waving goodbye to the Fraternity ship he finds there’s a welcoming committee waiting for him. He ends up spending a good week being politely interrogated by groups of serious and formidable matriarchs. Stephen feels this is a bit harsh given that he’s just been through exactly the same thing on Thant High, but at least he now knows the answers. Plus it’s an opportunity to perform his secondary function, and he’s polite and helpful and restricts himself to the actual facts, and in general tries to be a credit to Earth.

They do at least put him on a carefully manicured jungle island near the equator. The facilities are deliberately simple, the homeworld surface being a nature reserve, but there’s a life support circle and the local wildlife doesn’t bite him; he rigs himself a hammock and between committee meetings relaxes in the shade and listens to the surf break over the reef.

Most evenings, there are visitors; polite and friendly sealin from nearby clans dropping by to see the human and exchange a few stories. They’re good company, and Stephen finds himself looking forward to the visits; but he’s pretty sure that they’re all carefully choreographed, and he wonders exactly who these casual visitors are. Heads of sealin government coming to evaluate the Earth-human representative? But if so, it’s so subtly done it’s hard to take offense.

They’ve all read James Conroy’s diary. He hasn’t tried asking if they want to play draughts.

The dark cloud on the horizon is the puppy. A young sealin comes round in the mornings for a few hours of careful play. After the third visit she stays on to talk to Stephen.

“We’re evaluating her,” she says. Her name is Sea Flower, and she’s yet another cousin of Dark Cloud’s. “Although I’m sure you’ve realised that.”

“You’re a psychologist?” Stephen says. The puppy’s dozing on a nearby rock; Stephen’s sitting on the beach. He’d been about to take the opportunity for an undisturbed swim when Sea Flower interrupted him.

“Pretty much,” she says. “Although the word’s only approximate.”

“I actually thought you’d just scan her brain, or something,” Stephen says.

“Well, we could,” she says. “But it’s much more interesting to do this way. And besides, she’s nice and I like playing with her.”

Sea Flower doesn’t think much of the Dark Cloud’s attempt to patch over the puppy’s trauma, although concedes that it was probably the best they could do under the circumstances. It’s produced complications.

“Basically,” she says, “had you gone straight from Earth to here on a nice, dull ship with a minimum of stimulation, she’d be fine. Unfortunately, instead she’s been through some pretty traumatic and formative experiences. She’s not the same person as she was when she left.”

“I don’t think any of us are,” Stephen says.

“In her case, those experiences are built on top of the crude memory block the Dark Cloud technicians installed,” says Sea Flower. “So the personality she’s developed after that point doesn’t really connect to the personality she had before it.”

“Doesn’t mind formatting, um, install a new personality?” Stephen says uncomfortably.

“Who told you that?” says Sea Flower. “Nonsense. The old personality is shaped. But we can’t do that until the mind block is removed and her two sets of experiences integrated into one.”

Stephen nods slowly. “What will that involve?” he says.

“Oh, technically it’s easy,” Sea Flower says. “A little judicious memory editing, biasing her value set so there’s a gradient over time rather than a sharp edge… she’ll go to sleep one night, wake up in the morning and never even notice it’s been done. It’s a lot easier given that she’s a juvenile; no language means no metamemories to complicate matters.”

Stephen just blinks.

“But there’s something you need to be aware of,” she says. “Right now she’s fixated on you. After you rescued her you were the most important figure in her life, because the memory block rendered her memories of her mother inaccessible. So she transferred all her feelings for her mother to you.”

“I was aware,” he says. “There’s a but coming, isn’t there.”

Sea Flower hesitates. “The but is that we’re going to have to undo all that,” she says. “She’s going to consider you a close friend, nothing more. She won’t consciously know why, not until we tell her, but you need to be prepared.”

Stephen looks at the puppy again. She’s lying on her back, flippers up in the air, one hind flipper twitching occasionally as she sleeps. He recognises that: it’s not nightmare-twitching, it’s chasing-fish-in-her-dreams twitching.

“I’ll miss her,” he says. “But I know it needs to happen.”

Sea Flower, who’s sitting on the ground next to him, rubs her snout against his leg.

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

They sit, side by side, staring out to sea.

“You saved her life, you realise?” Sea Flower says. “And I’m not talking about that earth sea creature. I mean later.”

Eventually Stephen says, “When will you do it?”

“A couple more days of monitoring, then a trial run, then we’ll do it for real,” Sea Flower says. “Then more monitoring. I’m going to be around for a while.”

Stephen sighs. “All right.”

In fact, they cheat. The day of the procedure comes round, and Sea Flower tells him that they’d done it two days previously. Stephen’s angry at first, and then indignant, and finally grateful. They’ve neatly defused his tension and worry; if he hasn’t noticed the difference in the puppy’s behaviour, is it a difference worth worrying about?

In fact, her behaviour does change. It takes a little while for her to grow into it, but she starts to become much more independent, and more willing to stray outside Stephen’s line-of-sight. She starts going on long trips in the afternoons, although coming back each evening.

About a week later, she doesn’t come back at all.

Stephen keeps trying to tell himself that there’s no way she can get into any trouble, but nevertheless finds himself pacing nervously up and down the beach late at night. He keeps thinking about all the things that can go wrong. At least Home Waters doesn’t have any sharks…

Eventually, Sea Flower’s shape appears in the air in front of him, pale and translucent.

“I’m sorry,” her image says immediately. “I only just found out that my team forgot to notify you. She’s fine; she found a school of juveniles a few miles away.”

“Oh,” says Stephen. “Thank-you for telling me.”

Sea Flower, through the telephone link, examines him with almost professional concern. “She’ll be back in the morning, I’m sure,” she says. “I’ll see you then.”

The puppy does, indeed, return with the dawn; excited and happy, and obviously wanting Stephen to share her excitement. He does his best.

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