Day 14. 50 pages, 20,651 words.
Gadrion Aran Char left it to her crew and the other Councillors to begin arrangements. A lot of this had long since been arranged at the Fleet end, but it would still be a huge undertaking dependent on the humans. And this, Char was beginning to realise, was actually likely to prove a far larger challenge than previously assumed. And they’d assumed it was going to be a huge challenge.
The Fleet would have to coordinate a landing, which necessitated the identification of a neutral territory on the world below them, for the purposes of landing and meeting with the humans on roughly equal terms. And this was a world which seemed to have been carved up into a multitude of different territories thousands of years before, none of them neutral.
It would also require them to negotiate between ninety-seven authorities representing major Earthly cultures, and six hundred and thirty-four lesser ones, each more prickly than the last, about who would get to say what and who would get to sit where and who would get to lead the discussion and what, even, the discussion was supposed to be about. The simple expedient of letting Myrael, Gydanna or Silver Bane run the event was tempting, since that was how the Fleet did things … but Char got the feeling that wasn’t going to fly on Earth.
She stepped out of the room, closed the door and drew a steadying breath.
Char turned to see Bonton Doal, the Bonshoon representative to the Molran Fleet Council of Captains, hurrying down the corridor towards her at his usual urgent, sorrowfully-adorable waddle, his two attendants hovering close behind. Old Bonton was really more of a pity-presence on the Council, although he was technically Captain of a Worldship. Indeed, Bonshoo (Third Iteration) was accompanying the extended flagship local convoy for precisely that reason. But he was always so painfully confused.
“Hello, Captain Doal,” she said politely, and shared a nod with each of the attendants as well.
“I forgot about the meeting,” Bonton said, tugging at his small, greyish-skinned ear as he often did when agitated. “I’m late, I think I’m late.”
“No, Captain,” she said, “the meeting is still going on,” she gestured towards the door. “I merely stepped out for a short break.”
The meeting had, in fact, been almost three years in coming. They’d scheduled it as soon as the convoy had separated off from the rest of the Fleet and begun the final deceleration towards Earth, leaving the bulk of the Worldships in deep space to await further information and to smother the hideous racket the humans were making. And they’d been on final approach, and talking about little else but the contact meeting, for almost two months. But that was Bonton.
Bonton Doal was a first-generation sleeper, one of the few Bonshooni to actually count the suspended-animation canister as his origin rather than having been bred from the other Bonshooni who had emerged as a subspecies with the original Bonshoo and the Single Sigh cult. He’d been awakened from the remaining sleepers on Bonshoo (Third Iteration) some eight hundred years before and as best anyone could tell he had been about a thousand years old when he’d gone into the sleeper originally. It was really anyone’s guess, however, because tens of thousands of years of dependence on a sleeper designed for mere centuries of use had … broken him.
Captain Doal had relatively few physiological issues, aside from his distinctive Bonshoon stoutness and the shrivelled, leathery grey skin of his ear-webbing that was the result of some kind of nerve damage. There was still no known treatment for it, and Bonton – like most of his kind – refused transplants to replace the damaged tissue. If Bonton was a more complicated man, Char might have assumed he was keeping the defective organs as a mark of his standing. Without doubt, his status as one of the original Fleet passengers lent him a certain ancient gravitas, even if he had gone into the canister a Molran and come out a Bonshoon. That was just the way genetic drift worked.
Unfortunately, Bonton remembered nothing from the first days of the Fleet. Nothing coherent or useful, anyway. The sleep had devoured his memories just as surely as it had the connective tissue in his ears.
“Oh,” Bonton smiled at her. Always such a sweet, childlike smile. “I’m glad I didn’t miss it. I’m so sorry I’m late, Captain Char.”
“Not at all, Captain Doal,” she turned slightly and ushered him towards the door. “Please,” Doal and his aides hurried in, but Char didn’t follow immediately. Instead, she continued along the corridor until she reached the outer gallery.
The gallery was crowded, as usual, with citizens of the Enna Midzis all eager to stand and gaze at the Earth – at the whole system, really, but Earth was front-and-centre. The crowd parted for the Captain with informal but nevertheless respectful ease. Molren did not stand on ceremony, but there were few authorities higher than the Captain of a Fleet Worldship.
The rest of the Earth contact convoy was not visible from this gallery. Char’s own Enna Midzis, flagship of the Fleet, was currently the closest ship to Earth aside from a couple of discreet little scout vessels. Behind the Enna Midzis, she knew, Silent Midfrex and Vaulting Blue were in close formation, making up a standard travelling caravan. Added to that, a little further out were Big Shooey, Bosskra and Darkmas. Malakaar’s Worldship Garatron Maximum Security, and Doal’s Bonshoo (Third Iteration) completed the convoy.
The vast Worldships all hung in space rather than risk an attempted orbital insertion, although Char had high hopes for the future. The Earth’s own attendant mass of tech – and Mercil was right, it really did seem to come from every post-industrial era and from over a dozen wildly different cultural baselines, speaking worrying volumes about humanity’s diverse and chaotic nature – sheeted by before and below them, a safe stretch of empty space separating the Fleet from the so-called sovereign territory. Still, it wasn’t so thick as to hide the world from sight.
“Oh,” Gadrion Aran Char murmured, gazing down at the Earth, “you’re beautiful. You’re beautiful, and I will never, ever trust you.”
 Shooey (term has been fully integrated and is no longer considered Xidh): The final waste product of nuclear transpersion, the final leftover matter of super-refinement; dark grey or black with near-null chemical and physical properties, mud-like though devoid of moisture, lacking in taste, smell and texture; also called dead carbon or transpersed matter. Shooey is also a colloquialism for nonsense or nothingness.