Day 32. 112 pages, 49,393 words.
The humans went on arguing, went on sending requests for delays to the Fleet, went on offering apologies and explanations laced with seemingly-accidental threats that could quite easily – too easily – be written off as misunderstandings. They were all the more obnoxious for being wrapped up in the blandest, most meaningless platitudes imaginable. It became clear that before anyone got to sit down at a nice dinner to learn about each other, as Doal had so charmingly suggested, there was going to have to be a planning meeting.
A secret meeting, with just the important people. Char wasn’t sure if that was logical or unsettling. It made a certain sense to limit their exposure, given how hysterical and unpredictable the humans seemed to be and all the different groups involved. And there was a comforting bureaucracy behind it all, the planning and the pre-planning and the authorisations … it was just a little worrying to see the criteria by which the humans selected who was important. Every group had a different way of choosing who led them. A lot of them seemed to make no logical sense whatsoever.
And the moment the Fleet started meeting with these people, they would be legitimising power structures and tacitly assisting with agendas and affecting the balance of power in a civilisation that was – it had become increasingly obvious in the years of study on their approach and in the hours since their arrival – just a wrongly-timed nose-scratch away from dissolving into total war. And the fact that the humans wanted the planning to happen behind closed doors, away from the paranoid and aggressive eyes of their citizenry … there was nothing much that could be done about any of that, and the Fleet had been guilty of starting up a couple of private conversations of its own with the government of Terellia, and the less said about what Mer was doing, the better … it just all made Char feel obscurely unclean.
Well, it was up to her to find a way around that, wasn’t it?
Many of the Fleet citizens were excited and positive about the enormous diversity that seemed to be on display across the strange world of the humans. Experts were eagerly saying words like post-cultural and meta-racial and hyperindividualism and neotribalism. It was all terribly new and thrilling – indeed, it would be entirely fair to say that the smaller-scale planning meetings were going to be as useful to the Fleet as they were to the humans. It would give the desperately curious xenopologists time to get a lot of foolishness out of their systems.
Char wished she could be so starry-eyed about it all. She really did. She looked down at the Earth from their not-quite-orbit vantage point, and she heard the word post-cultural, and her brain whispered post-apocalyptic.
Still, what could they do? Her ship, Enna Midzis, was gasping her last. The beautiful old monster was, in the parlance of old Earth broadcast culture, running on fumes. And Big Shooey wasn’t just gasping, she was already dead. All her remaining power output went to maintaining basic life support. Even the gravity planes were out on half of her decks. She had no drive. Bosskra and Darkmas, in a wonderful meeting of engineering and sentiment, towed their old fellow Worldship through space.
And the Earth contact convoy wasn’t alone in the dire status of its Worldships. The Fleet was finished. They’d come too far out, and in was already off the table. In was a death sentence. If they didn’t find a solution here, they might as well fly into the Earth’s ferocious little sun. They might as well limp to the nearest habitable planet, send the rest of their sleepers into space with a muttered apology, and settle down to await the Cancer.
Because the Cancer was coming.
Be careful down there, Massington, she thought. The machine mind can’t bleed. Just be careful.