Day 15. 54 pages, 22,091 words.
People always tended to focus on the Worldships. And sure, there was good reason for that. They were massive, the size of small moons, each one home to a billion Molren and ten times that in sleepers, at least according to the old Fleet specs. Massington didn’t know about that. He’d never counted them, and neither had Mer.
Anyway, everyone always oohed and aahed about the Worldships. And yes, granted, they were impressive. And the warships, the so-called enforcers, they were big and threatening. And the mass-transports and the other attendant craft, they were marvels of engineering. But the eight Worldships in the Earth contact convoy were accompanied by a ninth vessel, one that was always overlooked but was, in her way, more important than any of them.
The Right Sock, not much larger than a single-person living berth on a Worldship sub-deck, was like a Fergunakil juvenile torpedo with slightly improved aerodynamics and a bit of heat shielding. Technically, she could fly in atmosphere, but – aside from the occasional test-run in the Enna Midzis maintenance bays – she never had. She was overlooked by the humans. She was even overlooked by the Fleet Council.
“They didn’t even invite me to the meeting,” Massington said.
“You’ve known they weren’t going to invite us for a couple of months already,” Mer said reasonably. “Why sulk about it now? I transmitted the whole thing aboard for you to sit in on anyway.”
“I know,” Massington grumbled. “But we weren’t in the room. We couldn’t talk to them.”
“What would you have said?”
Massington rubbed the top of his head and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know,” he said. “I could have talked to Lalliard. Asked her if she’d be interested in accepting a courtship proposal.”
“No harm in asking.”
“Really? Lalliard Malakaar is a Blaran. If you try to court her…”
“I don’t care.”
“Mass, she’s also a couple of centuries short of her Third Prime.”
“She’s three thousand, nine hundred and forty years old.”
“And you’re seventeen.”
“My First Prime will last through her Third.”
“Mass,” Mer said forbearingly, “are you even listening to yourself? I’m glad they didn’t invite you. You might have started reciting bad poetry or listing your genetic line’s purity ratings.”
“Hey,” Massington tried to glower, but was unable to smother a grin. “My poetry is exceptional.”
“I’ve been around a while myself, Mass,” Mer said, “and I’ve never heard good poetry from a seventeen-year-old.”
“Maybe Earth will be the one,” Massington said. “According to those broadcasts we intercepted, the average life-span of a human – a human in one of the more prosperous nation-states – is a little over ninety years right now. My father has pants older than that.”
“Your father is a Deep-Initiated Third-Tier Ascetic,” Mer said. “They’re kicked out of the club if they turn up in new clothes.”
“Excellent purity ratings in the genes, though.”
Mer chuckled. “Well, I don’t see why having the life expectancy of a semi-decent air filter would make you a good poet.”
“Well, I imagine that being, say, ten years old and knowing that you’ve only got about eighty left would encourage you to develop fast,” Massington said, rising from his seat and flicking himself back towards the bridge. Food wrappers and thraba crumbs floated in his wake. The Right Sock didn’t have a gravity plane. When you were building a ship, you built her with gravity or you built her to make planetfall. You couldn’t really do both. “The longer you live, the less urgency there is to create anything wonderful.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally,” Mer said dryly, as Massington floated onto the bridge and flipped over into another seat. “So what makes your poetry burn with such a white flame? Are you planning on dying young?”
“Well, like you say,” Massington said. “Lalliard is a Blaran. When I successfully woo her, my life as a Molran will be over.”
“Your life as anything, if your parents find out,” Mer joked.
“Do you think she noticed that I named my ship in her honour?”
“My ship,” Mer said, “you’re just the Captain. And yes, I think everybody noticed. You’re lucky you weren’t censured and sent back to the cortex for another five years.”
“Oh,” Massington smiled at the console, “you never would have let that happen to me. Would you?”
“You’re not as charming as you think. How do you think it is going to play out? You show up at the next contact meeting, and hit them with some insightful wisdom about the human life-span and the vitally important missing piece of the puzzle that it represents in their psyche, and Malakaar says ‘oh my goodness, well I never, Captain Karturi, I never saw this side of you before’…”
“‘Perhaps to learn how these humans think, we should be wild and impulsive like them! I know, let’s kiss with our mouths the way they do, it’s so much more like biting, it’s so primitive! And then, while we both wait until our fertility cycles coincide, let me teach you everything I’ve learned in three thousand, nine hundred and forty years of life, and turn you into a true initiate of the criminal subspecies’…” Mer seemed to realise it had gone on long enough and Massington was genuinely stung. “Sorry.”
“I get enough of that stuff from everybody else,” Massington said with attempted dignity. “I don’t expect it from you.”
“Sorry, Mass,” Mer paused. “You know, there is something that might cheer you up.”
“I’m not in the mood for blind printer dare.”
“Not that. I’m synchronising.”
“What? We’re right next to the Midzis. There’s no way you could be unsynced.”
“I’m not syncing with my Midzis hub.”
Massington Karturi stared at the consoles in front of him, then raised his eyes to the viewscreens. “You mean…?”
“Yes,” Mer said. “Somewhere down there, there’s a machine mind. And in a few seconds it’ll be Mer. And I’ll be it.”
 Young Fergunak deemed unfit to live in Five Species society by a tribunal of school alphas are docked fin and tail, implanted with a hormone-inhibiting chemical distributor to prevent further growth, and are then installed in torpedo vessels. They have an organic-intelligence advantage over mechanical weapons and are quite devastating, but the majority die in storage during peacetime. Needless to say, it takes something rather special for a Fergunakil tribunal to decide a juvenile is irredeemable.
 On the Fleet vs. Earth calendar: This was naturally an obscenely complicated issue at first, but the Fleet has standardised protocols dealing with planets and civilisations and the local calendars or other time-keeping systems they use. In this case, the translation from Xidh also converts the calendar references to a contemporary standard set.
 Thraba: Protein- and nutrient-rich food bar produced by standard printers on smaller Fleet vessels; provide basic sustenance for Molranoid physiologies. Certain hacked printers are capable of printing variants with more exciting flavours and even mild narcotic effects.