The sharp, predatory shape of the Utopian Sprite glided noiselessly through the hangar doors and came to silent stop precisely above the single docking ring that remained illuminated among the dark and slumbering forms of TNR’s corporate ships, powered down and ghostly in the depths of the station’s ‘night’. Far above, the rows of windows that gave the corporation directors a view of the hangar’s activity were dark, and only the faint thrum of life-support broke the quiet.
It was later than Captain Silver Night had planned to arrive.
The after-dinner conversation around Cia’s dining room table had been a long one, which neither he nor Amieta had wanted to cut short: with them both spending so much more time in the State these days, the support they could give Cia in dealing with Camille’s sudden and artificial adolescence was less it might be otherwise. Tonight it had been clear that Cia was feeling the strain.
Silver felt a twinge of guilt at the memory: the new corporation had been taking up more of his time than he had expected – or realized. Interviews with potential staff, decisions to be made about the construction of the new offices, investments to be approved … and, if he was honest, the days out of his schedule, travelling with Dr Toin. An investment in corporate efficiency, ensuring she took the time away from her work that, left to her own devices, it would not occur to her she needed, but still, an additional demand on his time – time that seemed these days to be in shorter supply than usual.
But staffing had been finalized, the labs were running at full capacity, and Amieta’s transfer would make the transport side of the operation run more efficiently. He could spend more time back in Gulfonodi now. And I will.
This evening, after they’d finally left, there had still been the trip back to Korama which, even in the sleek Sprite, was hardly instantaneous. Silver had planned to check in with Dr Toin once he got back, but it was too late for that – by this hour she would be long asleep. A query through the pod-interface confirmed her office was locked, the equipment powered down.
He checked the virtual workspace they shared – shared in name, at least, for although Nolikka referred to their ‘collaboration’ Silver was aware his contributions to her work were small and infrequent. The logs showed she had left over an hour earlier.
On impulse, he opened the connection. He could at least bring himself up to date on her progress, and discuss it with her tomorrow, before he headed back to Gulfonodi for Camille’s promised lesson in the sim.
What the virtual space looked like to Nolikka, Silver was not entirely sure. To him, it was a cavernous space, fragments of discarded formulas and tangential ideas in a tangled jumble around the edges, the elegant equations of Nolikka’s latest theories hanging in the center.
The debris around the edges contained incomplete sketches at the project at hand, and more, the interface picking up Nolikka’s stray thoughts and memories in the mathematical argot that came as naturally to her as tunes to a musician. After their trip to Debreth, the repeating patterns of bird-calls had been woven through shield harmonics and capacitor limitations. When they had first returned from the ocean planet, the rippling equations that described fluid mechanics and the low, haunting calls of the sea-dwelling mammals they had seen had threaded themselves around the edges of the workspace, as if the whole space were under water.
Sometimes the central theorems looked to Silver a little like a tree, extending branch by branch as Nolikka added here and pruned there. Sometimes they seemed more like one of the puzzle globes Camille was so fond of, a gently spinning sphere of interlocking formulae, colors shifting with each rotation, or a delicately arching bridge from nothing to nowhere. What the colors meant to Nolikka, or the scents that sometimes came with them, the intermittent chimes or low tones, Silver did not pretend to know. To him, they added beauty, if not comprehension.
Today it was a tree he saw, lopsided with one long branch of equations followed out to their limit. Silver traced the line of them, following Nolikka’s speculations, seeing the faded translucent places where pure hypothesis linked more concrete work. He could see the possibilities she had discarded, too, in the detritus swept aside to the edges of the workspace, twigs she had broken off and tossed aside. In amongst them, he could see traces of Nolikka’s recollections of the sea still lingering, but they seemed … different. The colors were darker, or colder, perhaps. He thought he glimpsed places where the mathematics of fluid movement shifted to echo other, older formula: the greedy equations of dead stars, of black holes. The sour smell of stagnant water drifted towards him on a waft of cold, stale air.
Something just under the threshold of full perception tugged at his attention, and he moved closer to the piled mathematical odds and ends. The air had definitely become colder, and he could hear it now, just barely: a wordless song. It had shadows of those same equations, and it was low, melancholy – no. Melancholy was not a strong enough word for the sound weaving along the edge of his perceptions. And yet it seemed strangely familiar, as if he had heard something like it before …
It was not the song that was familiar, Silver realised, but the shadow. It was the same shadow he had heard in Nolikka’s voice. Just a dream, she had said. A foolish dream.
A dream of Heart of the Forest weeping in a world of snow and ice. Frightened, alone, Nolikka had said.
The words were far less than adequate set next to the mathematics of infinite emptiness before him.
He had encouraged her to consider talking about it, but she had not raised the subject since. Not that I have been here for her to raise it as often as I could have been. She had asked him to go with her to a shrine, he remembered, but then Camille’s outrage at Amieta’s change in employment, the research Cia had asked him to do, the paperwork here at TNR – there had not been time.
Just as there had not been time for Cia’s worries over Camille.
Tomorrow, he resolved. He could find a suitable shrine or temple nearby, and …
No. Tomorrow was Camille’s flying lesson. The day after, then. But the day after was the day he’d set aside for the courier run to restock TNR’s datacore supplies …
He would find time. Somehow. If not tomorrow, or the day after, then –
Silver felt a chill that had nothing to do with the artificially generated virtual cold.
Later, he had said to himself before, long before he met Noli. Before he met Cia and Camille, when family meant just three people. Circumstances had separated them, travel had been inconvenient, there had always been later for that visit …
He remembered the message he'd received more than a decade before (We regret to inform you...) telling him that he would never see half of that family, his sister, again. Then, just a few years later, standing on the station where he was born, outside the funeral of the last of his family. Realizing later had turned into too late.
Turning and meeting a cool grey gaze with a shock of more than recognition and swearing to all his Ancestors he would never take later for granted again.
Silver studied the jumble of equations and fractional thoughts at the edge of the workspace, not really seeing them, turning the problem over in his mind. Cia needed him, Camille did. They were family, and his responsibility to them was non-negotiable. But Nolikka … they were corporate partners, and that was a binding commitment too.
Yet he couldn't be in two places at once.
But then, he wouldn't need to be in two places if everyone was together to begin with.
Like a family should be.
He would talk to Cia about it. She might even still be awake – Silver had a hazy recollection of Cia complaining about night feeds, an idea he shied away from contemplating in detail.
He would call her now.
Not later ever again.