Hazael had a question for me. He wanted to be able to tell people in which cities and on what dates the ceremonies would take place. He knew what was normal in such cases; eight to sixteen ceremonies, in different cities of the planet, usually over twenty-five to thirty-five days. Plainly, the first and biggest ceremony would be in Washington. But no-one had given him a list of the rest. And he was well aware that some on Earth might feel a bit sour, if other people’s countries were awarded ceremonies, but theirs weren’t, without there being a clear reason why.
Normally, Hazael continued, this decision would be made by Bart Vorsprong, as project consultant. But Bart was away, travelling on a Naudar’I ship, and so not reachable. Hazael had tried Balzo, who had merely told him to ask me. So, if I could possibly..?
Actually, it didn’t take me long to work out a scheme. The members of the Team were from twelve different countries – if, as I did, you counted Hong Kong as separate from China. We had been selected, by Bart himself, to provide – among much else – wide geographical coverage. So, one ceremony in a major city in each of these countries would fit the bill. I decided, on a whim, to put the list – apart from Washington, which had to come first – in the same order in which we had been picked up. So the list of twelve I came out with was: Washington, London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Moscow, Sydney, Cape Town, Freetown, Delhi, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Beijing.
Maybe, I thought, I was being a bit tough on the South Americans, whose two planned Team members Gabriel had not managed to pick up. But on the other hand, it was the South Americans’ own fault, for firing the missiles that had delayed him.
I took the opportunity, provided by an unusually warm day for the time of year, to pay a final visit to Harv’I’s house. Harv’I was in a buoyant mood. He told me that, for his next project, he would base himself for a while on Earth. He planned to continue his father’s researches into what had happened to the Elo’I colony on Venus.
Harv’I told me that Hazael had negotiated long leases on several pieces of land in Virginia, in total a dozen or so square kilometres, to become a Galactic embassy and accommodation base. In this base, Galactic engineers would create environments for many different species. And, in particular, homes from home for those visiting species – such as Elo’I – who would not be comfortable if exposed directly to Earth conditions. Harv’I was now waiting only for them to build a house for him in the accommodation base.
Then there was the question of what to do with Kenny. It was not normal for pets to be accepted on Naudar’I ships. So, if Kenny travelled with us, he would have to be asleep for the whole voyage. Ray and Jenna eventually chose to have him Pushed back into the care of Paul and Melinda, who were now at home in Australia and – unlike most of the other trainees – had resumed their old lives.
The week and a half before we left Perinent were a time for looking back fondly. We had the final Friday ride – a repeat of Gabriel’s very first. And the last dinner, which, very conveniently, fell on a Sunday. Roast lamb, of course. Pulled from a different president’s store this time, in exchange for a case of Seraphim wine.
At that dinner, Gabriel told us that he had had exciting news. Rrrela Himself would be there at the ceremony, and would personally welcome us into the Galaxy! That was most unusual for a new Junior species.
“Who is Rrrela?” asked Ben. “The Galactic president? Or some kind of religious figure?”
“Not either, really,” Gabriel replied. “Rrrela is – you might say – the spirit of the Galaxy. In fact, some say that, in a sense, he is the Galaxy. After all, he owns most of it – everything that isn’t owned by anyone else. Which makes him No. 1 in the Galactic rich-list.”
Then, laughing, “I can see you’re confused. I know I’m not making myself at all clear here. But take it from me, Rrrela is a very powerful individual, in his own quiet way. He is indestructible, for one thing. And he’s a really nice guy.”
“Does he look like a big brown squirrel?” I asked.
Gabriel blinked. “Yes, he does. How did you know that?”
“I already met him,” I said. “When I took the train to Segment 24 to meet the Skobar. And I agree with you, he’s a really nice guy.”
We left on the Monday morning. While still on the ground, we were given a big dose of a very pleasant, slow acting sleep-gas, like the one we had taken for the Time of Storms. We were about half way out, when Michael took the ’mobile off and gave us, for the brief time until sleep overtook us, a ride to remember.
I woke next to Lily in a big, comfortable bed. The lights in the room were on, but the curtains were closed. As on the first ship, the room was recognizably a hotel room, and designed for Seraphim. But this hotel was clearly five-star. The furnishings were very plush, and everything was... just so. The one odd thing about the room was that it was long and thin, much thinner than normal for a hotel room.
We washed and dressed. Then we opened the curtains, to reveal picture windows, which looked out on a park-like landscape. And the landscape was moving slowly. Or – no, it wasn’t. Actually, we were moving. We were in a train!
We went out of the room, and found ourselves in a corridor. I saw Michael coming along the corridor from my right. “Welcome to the Naudar’Ient Express!” he said. “Or, to give it its proper name, the Naudar’I First Class Far Transport Vessel 4144-B. The dining room is to your left, two coaches along. Breakfast should just about be ready now.”
Good, I thought. I was hungry.
At breakfast, we learned more about the B-class ship we were in. While shaped like a cone, like the V-class in which we had travelled to Perinent, it was far, far smaller – only about forty kilometres long. And at the point where we were, a little above the middle, it was only twelve and a half kilometres around. It rotated about four times as fast as the other ship – one revolution every ninety seconds or so.
One reason, why the accommodation on Naudar’I first class ships took the form of trains, was to enable each group of passengers to choose a place in the ship where the gravity was exactly as they wanted it. Some liked to start at the gravity of the planet they had just left, and to move their train gradually towards the gravity of the planet they were going to. Others just picked whichever of the two was greater. We, for example, were now moving to park at the point where the gravity was the same as Earth’s. Aha, I thought, that is why I feel heavy today – I had got used to Perinent gravity, which was only ninety per cent of Earth’s.
A second reason for the trains was so that different groups of passengers could meet easily. When one group wanted to meet another, they simply agreed on a meeting point, and moved both their trains to that place. (There were many sidings at regular intervals along the track, some of which were reserved for trains to cross, and others provided places to park.)
We could, of course, get down from the train and go walking in any direction we chose. Though we had to be aware that the train might move off! Fortunately, it wasn’t common for the trains to move either very far at once, or very fast.
Michael and Gabriel’s ’mobile was stored in a hangar next to the tracks. On a ship this small, it was not permitted to fly a ’mobile inside. Instead, we had to take the ’mobile through the locks, and fly it outside the ship but within its envelope.
There was one thing I insisted we agreed on at that breakfast. From now, we would return ourselves to the Earthly day-cycle of 24 hours.
There were passengers on the ship for many destinations in the general direction of Earth, not only for Earth itself. But, as the journey went on, we met more and more individuals, who like us were headed for the celebrations on Earth.
Since Avoran was fairly close to Perinent, and not far away from the direction towards Earth, one of the first species we met were the Avor’I. A party from Avoran joined the ship a few Earth days after we did. Their train spent most of its time some way down-axis from ours, as the gravity on Avoran was fifteen per cent greater than on Earth. But it was easy to arrange a meeting. And so, at last, the Team met Balzo in person.
He was a very upright, tall, gnarled lizard with a light blue robe, a deep bass voice, a confident and direct manner, and a quick smile. He had with him also Olgal. She now wore a dark purple frill, which among Skobar was reserved for officers of the Company for Galactic Advancement, and was a badge of high status.
Balzo wanted to talk privately with me and Lily. So he came to our room.
He did not waste time. “I have a proposishun for u, Nil and Lily,” he said. “I have recently been promoted. I now have charge of all the Company does on Perinent. I am making a noo group to manage all the projects. I have already Lohman, and Odam has now jonned me. I have also Olgal and two Avor’I in my research group. Would u two like to jon my team?”
“What, specifically, would you want us to do?” I asked.
“I would like u both to spend about a third of ur time on Perinent,” Balzo replied. “To work with the local managers, project consultants and the candidate Teams. To monitor and check their progress, and to suggest what they might do for the better. For the rest of ur work, it is on our planet, Avoran. Nil, u can do the planning with Lohman and Odam. And Lily, I would like u to help in the research.”
Lily and I looked at each other. This sounded like an offer we would be dumb to refuse.
“Spondulix?” I asked Balzo. He looked confused, so I said “That is English for, ‘How much money?’”
“Oh, I see, which Galactic Scale,” he said. “Both ur posts will be well higher than the contracts u have now. I can confirm for u the numbers when we reach Earth.”
Lily and I looked at each other again. “Tap your right hand on the table, twice for yes, once for no,” I thought. She tapped twice.
“Very good,” I said to Balzo. “In principle, we accept your offer. There will be more details to agree. Let us discuss those when we reach Earth.”
Our time on the ship lasted twenty-five Earth days. At the end of it, we were again put under sleep-gas in the ’mobile. The next we knew, we were coming in for landing at the Galactic embassy in Virginia.