Falling Bubble is as good as her word. The trip down is… intense.

They’re not in the pinnace, but instead are using a much smaller vehicle which he suspects is more of an EVA pod. It’s just a sketch of a cylinder made out of wire, with some heavier metallic elements at one end which could be the engines, surrounded by yet another force field bubble. There aren’t even any seats: they just float in the centre.

From the way the Dark Cloud is snatched away behind them, it accelerates like a bullet down a gun barrel.

He tries to keep his eyes closed.

“What does being a friend mean, precisely?” he asks her, trying to distract himself.

“It means you can come visit, borrow our stuff, ask for help, that sort of thing,” she says happily. “Oh, and you can marry into the clan, although the matriarch would probably discourage it, because you’re male, and also a different species, although she is very broad minded.”

Some unlikely images pass before Stephen’s eyes. He shakes his head.

“So you weren’t expecting this?”

“Oh no,” she says. “We haven’t had any new friends for ages!”

“Did the matriarch plan this?”

“She plans everything,” Falling Bubble says solemnly. “Of course, so does he.”

They don’t bother with a reentry; they just power round the curve of the Earth until they’re over the centre of the Pacific and then dive straight down. Even in the inertially damped interior of the tiny ship Stephen cringes. The ocean expands below them, the clouds whip past and are gone, and then suddenly they’re descending relatively sedately towards Île de Jardin, south-east of Tahiti.

Five years ago Île de Jardin hadn’t been there. Then a Scavenger had dropped it out of the sky: a starship the size of a small moon, which had planted the island on the sea bed and then left, leaving Earth confused and terrified and seething like a disturbed ants’ nest. The sealin and Builders who followed did their best to calm things down again before any serious damage was done; but the inevitable discovery by the people of Earth that the Builders were as human as they were hadn’t gone down well. Neither did the admission that the Builders had had a secret presence on Earth for years.

The island is about five kilometres long, with some hills in the middle. There’s a rather interesting alien forest in them, which teams of Earth-human botanists and biologists have been investigating with glee from the very first moment they were allowed in, but Falling Bubble just skims over the top and heads for the cluster of shining white buildings at one end. She aims the pod towards the biggest, and the ground comes up below them.

“Here you are,” she says. The bubble suddenly vanishes around them, and in a breath the thick, muggy but cold air inside is whipped away and replaced with the hotter but blessedly dry air of Earth. Stephen breathes deeply. It’s not that sealin smell bad, but… they still smell.

“Be back as quickly as you can,” she adds. “That spider’s not slowing down. Be careful of the gravity!”

“Thanks,” Stephen says, and gingerly pulls himself out of the skeletal ship. Halfway down something invisible grabs him and he cartwheels before falling awkwardly onto the turf.

“Sorry,” she says cheerfully. “I’ll meet you by the hotel. You have real sea here!”

The two disconnected shapes in the air in front of him lift like they’re on wires: the porpoise-like sealin and the wire cylinder around her. They drift away. Falling Bubble isn’t even bothering to turn the field enclosure back on.

James Conroy, the human who accidentally stowed away on a Builder ship and who was indirectly responsible for the Island being here in the first place, originally thought that the sealin were primitive because they didn’t have any hands. Stephen knows better: they are so advanced that they simply don’t need them any more.

He dusts himself off and goes inside.

The United Nations Alien Embassy—the name itself is a hateful political compromise; it’s not an embassy and some of the aliens are human—is housed in one of the buildings that gave the Builders their name. They’d been built on the planet called Garden, and had been scooped up with the rest of the island. After it was dropped on Earth, the Builders made an abortive attempt to reclaim the island before being persuaded that in the interests of interstellar harmony they should be donated to the people of Earth. These days it’s nominally French, being in their territorial waters, but there’s an unspoken agreement that the French can only keep it as long as they don’t actually try to do anything with it.

The embassy building itself is the blandest and most uninspiring of the structures, and is almost indistinguishable from a traditional Earth office building. Stephen has always felt that this proof of the universality of bureaucracy is somehow reassuring, but has never figured out precisely why.

He knocks on the First Secretary’s door; it’s been hastily retrofitted into the alien structure, and the door jamb is simply clamped on, because the glossy white fabric of the building is far too difficult to drill into.

“Come in,” the Secretary calls. “Ah, Stephen. Good timing.”

This is the Secretary’s working office. There’s a more formal one for receiving people but this is the one where things actually happen. A small desk faces away from the window, which shows a travel-brochure view of the hills and the sea. The other walls are lined with bookshelves and filing cabinets, and wires are draped across the ceiling—the Builders don’t use electricity.

“You did say as quickly as possible, sir,” Stephen replies. “Falling Bubble was… obliging.”

“Good,” says the Secretary, not listening. “Sit.”

The First Secretary taps his fingers on his desk.

“So the matriarch is sending you to Home Waters,” he says.

“Sir, she didn’t even ask me first!” Stephen says.

“Of course not,” the Secretary says. “She’s the matriarch. She’s in charge. She never asks anything.”

“And I’m leaving today!”

“She did tell me it would be on short notice,” the Secretary says. “Sorry you didn’t get more warning.”

“You knew this was going to happen?” Stephen says.

The Secretary sighs. “Of course I knew,” he says. “The matriarch told me. I’m your superior, which means I’m responsible for you. Of course she told me. Come on, boy, you know this.”

Stephen struggles to recall what he knows about sealin social structures. Getting information on how they do things isn’t easy: they’re fairly open, and happy to answer questions, but the complicated relationship between Earth-humans and the sealin mean that everything all has to be unofficial and behind the scenes. Which means all briefings are incomplete.

“She didn’t ask me whether I wanted to go,” he says, “because she already assumes I’m under her command, and therefore subject to her orders.”

“Good,” says the Secretary. “Or at least, so I’m told—you’ve got more direct experience with the sealin than I.”

“Yeah,” says Stephen.

The Secretary rolls his eyes. “…you don’t not want to go, do you? The first Earth-human on the sealin homeworld? This’ll make your career, boy! Not to mention history!”

“I… would just have liked some warning, that’s all,” Stephen says weakly. “Not to mention a rest first.”

“That’s not how the matriarch works and you know it,” the Secretary says. “Look, this is about more than you. You know the stakes. Tell me what this means.”

It’s the Secretary’s favourite way to dress someone down: get them to tell themselves off. It’s effective, not to mention humiliating.

Stephen sighs, and tries to get his fatigue-muddled mind into order. “The sealin generally don’t like the Builders because of the mess they made on Garden. The sealin from Home Waters are unsure about us as well, because we and the Builders are both human, and they think we’re going to fall in with the Builders. But there’s a faction on Garden who do like us because of the James Conroy affair, so the sealin from the home world can’t just write us off as a loss because that’ll annoy the Gardenites.”

“Go on,” the Secretary prompts. Stephen rubs a hand against his brow.

“Okay… so they’re playing it cool with us until they figure out which way we’re going to jump.”

“So given that they’re trying to keep a safe distance from us, why has the matriarch just sent you to their home world?” the Secretary asks.

“Because the puppy needs me,” Stephen says. Light dawns on him. “Ah! This is family, isn’t it?”

The pieces come together in his head as the Secretary talks.

“Right! This cuts through all the layers of politics at a stroke. She’s taken you on, which means you’re not representing Earth any more. You’re just doing an errand for Dark Cloud. Which means you get to parade across their homeworld and talk to everybody and appear in their press, if they have press, and you’ll be polite and agreeable and come across as being a reasonable, inoffensive Earth-human and get us loads of good public relations, and you can get away with it because it’s not political. And the patriarch made you a friend, so even if you weren’t on business you’d have a perfect right to be there anyway.”

Stephen nods slowly. “She’s doing us a favour, isn’t she?”

“A big one,” the Secretary says. “So don’t mess this up.”

“No, sir,” Stephen says.

“Come on, it’ll be easy,” says the Secretary. “Don’t annoy anyone and be polite. You’ll have an escort, I take it?”

“Someone called Night Wave,” Stephen says.

“So just do what she says and you’ll be fine,” the Secretary says. “You like the sealin, so just keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Go pack. You don’t have much time.”

“Yes, sir,” Stephen repeats, and stands to leave. On his way out of the door, the Secretary calls after him.

“Oh, and Stephen?” he says. “I’m glad you’re all right. And good work with the child.”

“Thank you, sir,” Stephen says, and leaves.

People do actually live on the island: one of the buildings, popularly known as the Hotel, is a Builder apartment block. It’s a miraculous place, where the decor changes to suit your mood, and where simply by desiring something it can materialise in your hand. Stephen has seen apartments made up to look like palaces, beaches, outer space, and the bottom of the sea (complete with water), and he’s seen banquets appear in front of him, each plate customised to the diner’s subconscious wishes. The technologies involved are subtle and exotic and almost infinitely far beyond anything that Earth can do, and the sealin think it’s a little gauche.

Stephen, of course, does not rate one of these apartments. He lives in a tiny room in a ramshackle housing complex which started life as a stack of shipping containers, which he shares with a postgraduate biologist studying what’s left of the Garden ecosystem on the island. The traditional Earth technology may be rustic and quaint and far too hot when the sun hits it, but at least he can get wifi.

His room-mate is out, and it takes him very little time to throw some clothes and basic toiletries into a suitcase. As an afterthought, he adds his laptop computer and several more tubes of toothpaste. After some more thought he unpacks everything from the suitcase, finds a shabby but sturdy old rucksack under his bed, and puts it all in there instead.

He’s on his way out when a voice calls out to him. “Stephen Hawke!”

The man walking down the grass towards him is Tonauac, one of the Builder diplomats. About one and a half thousand years ago his ancestors walked on Earth, somewhere in central America; then they were plucked off the planet by forces as yet unknown and left to fend for themselves. They rediscovered Earth some time around the Second World War, and have kept it under observation ever since, not really knowing what to do with it.

“I hear you’re going to Home Waters,” he says, smiling. “Congratulations.”

Stephen shakes his hand. Tonauac is significantly more senior in the Builder hierarchy than Stephen is in Earth’s, although his exact role seems somewhat vague. He’s not involved in any obvious decision making but attends a lot of meetings. It’s the UNAE’s opinion that he’s some sort of sort of courier, this being borne out by his frequent trips back and forth from Earth to the Builders’ adopted home world of Yotimtlan. He has an uncanny memory for names and faces and personal minutiae which Stephen has always suspected might be artifical, and knows everyone.

“Not many humans have been out that way,” he adds.

“Thank you, sir,” Stephen says. “It’s an honour and a big responsibility. I hope I won’t let Earth down.”

“I’m sure you won’t,” Tonauac says. Then he frowns. “However, there is something which concerns me.”

Tonauac’s accent is almost perfect, but there’s enough of a lilt to it to make him seem foreign. What with the casually expert way all the galactics use language, this is probably an affectation: the Builders are incredibly popular in middle America, where their ancestors came from, and Stephen wouldn’t put it past them to try to cultivate this.

“I hear the matriarch is sending you on a spider ship,” Tonauac says.

Is that public knowledge yet? Well, there’s no point denying it. “Yes, sir,” Stephen says. “She is.”

“I’m not convinced that’s a good idea,” Tonauac says. He glances up and down the path, and then takes Stephen by the arm and draws him aside. “Spiders can be dangerous. They’re strange, unpredictable and very alien. I really don’t know what the matriarch was thinking of.”

“I didn’t presume to ask, sir,” Stephen says.

“No,” says Tonauac. “She is a little intimidating… look. I’m heading in that direction soon; I’m on a trip back to Yotimtlan. I can drop the two of you at Thant High. You’ll be changing there anyway. I’d take it as a personal favour if you’d come with me. I don’t want anything on my conscience.”

“That’s… very kind of you, sir,” says Stephen. “Frankly, the trip is scaring me enough as it is. But I’d have to check up with the Secretary first, of course. Apparently the sealin are sending an escort, so there are complications.”

“An escort?” says Tonauac. “Do you know who?”

“Someone called Night Wave,” says Stephen.

Tonauac thinks. “A field technologies engineer, I think? I don’t believe I’ve met her. She doesn’t seem like an obvious choice. Why her?”

“The matriarch said she’s going back to Home Waters anyway,” says Stephen. “For reassignment.”

Tonauac’s head slowly lifts. “Reassignment? Well, that’s interesting.” He lets go of Stephen’s arm.

“You should be aware,” he says, “that among sealin that’s the usual euphemism for ‘fired’. This Night Wave is being kicked out.”

He purses his lips. “There is something very odd going on here, Stephen,” he says. “Be careful. Be very careful. I know you like the sealin—I like a lot of them myself—but most of the ones you’ve met are Gardenites. Home Waters sealin are different. They’re a very old and very powerful people, and they are arrogant and jealous of their privileges. You’ll be safe enough on Home Waters itself, but do please try to persuade the Secretary to let you accept my offer.”

“I will bear that in mind, sir,” Stephen says, not needing to feign nervousness.

Tonauac nods abstractedly. “Here,” he says abruptly, and Stephen’s phone goes ping. “I’ve sent you a copy of my itinerary and some contact details. Don’t hesitate to call if you need help.”

He grimaces at Stephen, and slowly walks away.

Even though he doesn’t live there, the beach that the Hotel overlooks is rather pleasant, and it has become something of a meeting place for the island’s population, of both species. One of the ground floor apartments traditionally has its window left open so that people can lean inside and have cold drinks materialise in their hands.

Falling Bubble is playing in the surf with one of the Gardenite sealin, who Stephen doesn’t know. He doesn’t disturb them, but instead sits heavily on one of the beach chairs and watches them. They’re playing in the breakers; the island has quite good waves, and some of the younger staff have been learning to surf. The water here is blue and friendly. It’s very different from the grey waters of the Red Sea in winter. Stephen can’t quite believe that was only that morning. It seems like a lifetime ago.

He leans back and closes his eyes. Earlier he had been practically asleep on his feet from fatigue, but now the adrenaline buzz makes sleep impossible. Inside his eyelids he sees himself back on the upturned rib, clutching the squirming and terrified puppy in his arms, and trying not to look at the bloody mass in the water that used to be someone he knew…

Stephen opens his eyes again, and lets the warm blue Polynesian sky wash away the nightmares.

Eventually Frozen Bubble sees him and comes swimming up the beach. Literally; she’s swimming through the air about a metre above ground level. He stares.

“How do you do that?”

“Do what?” she says, before shaking herself dry at a polite distance. Behind her, her friend humps up the beach in a more conventional way.

“Fly,” Stephen says.

“Oh, I have a space suit,” she says dismissively. “This is Shining Silver.”

“Hello,” Stephen says.

“She doesn’t speak much English.”

Stephen tries one of his few words of the main sealin dialect. Unfortunately the sealin speak using an internal resonating chamber rather than a larynx, and their language contains a lot of sounds that are simply impossible for humans to reproduce, but the sense seems to come through. Shining Silver replies delightedly; Stephen doesn’t understand a word and just has to smile and shrug.

“She says that she’s very envious of you,” Falling Bubble says. “She’s never been to Home Waters.”

“She was born on Garden?”

“Of course,” says Falling Bubble. “She’s from the Hidden Moon clan.”

“I hope she likes Earth,” Stephen says. Falling Bubble translates.

“She says it’s very beautiful,” she says. “I think so too. Everything’s so… wild here. And the fish taste nice.”

The Hidden Moon clan are the Gardenites who met James Conroy, and saved his life, when he was marooned on their world. They have a small enclave who live in the big bay down at the other end of the Island but frequently hang around the town. Officially they are personal guests of Conroy’s and according to the Embassy are most definitely not settling down for good, even though everyone knows that’s exactly what they are doing—the phrase ‘illegal aliens’ is a poor joke among the island’s Earth-human community. But they are friendly and popular, and very enthusiastic about Earth and Earth-humans; plus it’s useful to have a backchannel into sealin society.

“Falling Bubble,” Stephen says. “What do you know about Night Wave?”

Falling Bubble hesitates, and then says awkwardly, “We should go.”

“Come on,” he says. “Tell.”

Falling Bubble sags a little. “Oh dear,” she says. “I don’t want to say bad things about her. I really don’t.”


Shining Silver is looking on with fascination. Stephen does wonder how much of this she’s understanding.

“She just doesn’t fit,” Falling Bubble says wretchedly. “She’s a cousin, here for a while to visit and get some experience and… and… she was hoping to marry into Dark Cloud. But she’s not going to. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with her work, she’s perfectly competent, but she doesn’t get on well here. She’s moody and… eventually the patriarch said no. So she’s going back to Home Waters.”

“Why are we being shipped out on a spider ship?” Stephen says.

Falling Bubble looks blank. “It was passing and going in the right direction?”

“Who are the spiders?”

“I’ve never met one myself,” says Falling Bubble thoughtfully. “They’re collectors. Aesthetes, I think is the word. The wander the galaxy, picking up odd things that take their fancy…”

“Is there anything I should be careful of?” he says.

“I don’t think so,” says Falling Bubble. “They say they’re a bit creepy.”

“Interesting,” says Stephen. “I’ve been told they’re a bit dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” says Falling Bubble. “I haven’t heard that.”

“One of the Builders,” says Stephen, watching Falling Bubble carefully, “has offered us a lift.”

The experts say that the sealin have a fairly similar emotional spectrum to humans. Their body language is rather different, but is surprisingly easy to learn, and Falling Bubble tends to wear her feelings on her body anyway. Stephen is watching to see how she reacts. She doesn’t.

However, Shining Silver leaps up and spits out a long sentence, obviously furious. Both Stephen and Falling Bubble turn.

“What did she say?” Stephen asks.

“She was very rude,” says Falling Bubble. “She says that you shouldn’t call them the Builders, because they wreck things instead. And that everything they tell you is a lie. And that you shouldn’t travel on one of their ships if you want to live.”

“Well, tell her I’m not,” says Stephen. “I’m taking up the matriarch’s offer.”

In fact, what the Secretary had said was, “One does not derail the matriarch’s plans, not if one wants to prosper. Do what she says, Stephen. I’ll smooth it out with Tonauac.”

Falling Bubble translates. Shining Silver calms down, replies, and then humps down the beach into the water and is gone.

“She says she’s sorry,” says Falling Bubble, “And that she’s going to hunt fish until she feels better.”

Less reassuringly, the Secretary had then added: “But he’s right about one thing, boy: something here stinks. The matriarch never does anything for only one reason. Keep your eyes open. Something’s going on.”

“She’s still upset about the Garden energy budget adjustment,” says Falling Bubble apologetically.

“Oh, that,” says Stephen.

“I read his diary,” she says after a moment.

“Whose diary?”

“James Conroy’s,” she says. “I really liked it. So adventurous and romantic! But those storms sounded awful. I can’t really blame her for being upset.”

Stephen, who like nearly everyone on Earth has also read Conroy’s diary, can only agree. The Gardenites, not major technology users, had contracted out to the Builders for some terraforming work, and the Builders had botched it. Significant damage was done to the planet’s climate and it spawned a series of catastrophic global storms. Garden is still repairing the damage and the Gardenites are bitterly resentful of the amount of help they are having to call in from the sealin homeworld.

They reflect, side by side, for a few moments.

“We really should go,” says Falling Bubble.

The bubble ship is parked at one end of the beach, looking like an abstract wire sculpture of nothing much. Stephen walks up and then stops abruptly, staring at it. When he boards and they take off, he realises, he’s going to start a journey that a few hours earlier he had never even contemplated. It’s going to change him.

“I’m leaving Earth,” Stephen says numbly.

“Yes?” says Falling Bubble.

“I’m actually leaving. I’m going to another planet. I’m not coming back for… weeks.” He takes a last look around. The landscape here might have come from Garden, but the sea and the sky and the birds are all Earth.

Falling Bubble cocks her head as she looks at him. She looks amused.

“You’ll be fine,” she says.

Stephen jabs a finger at her. “Only eight Earth-human beings have ever walked on planets outside the solar system. James Conroy, and that diplomatic team who went to Yotimtlan. Eight! And I’ll be the ninth!”

She drifts up and rubs herself against his side. She very strong; her skin feels like steel cable shrouded behind rubber. “You’ll be back soon,” she says. “I’ll see you again.”


“Because you’re my friend!”

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