Stephen’s feet gently meet the ground in the city square, and he stands there for a few moments, watching the zombies watch him.
He and the puppy have been up to the outer rim of the Snarl. Partly to look for ships, not that he thinks there will be any; partly to go and talk to the Portmaster; but mostly to get some time to himself.
He had forgotten quite how dark it was out there. With the purple glow of the core far behind, the Snarl was filled with shadows. He felt uninclined to explore, even though now that he could fly, getting about was so much faster.
Stephen sighs. The Portmaster had been no help at all. He’s increasingly of the opinion that it’s not a person at all, and just a machine; its responses to Stephen’s questions had been muddled and self-contradictory, and eventually Stephen had just given up in disgust and walked away.
“At least we got out a bit, eh?” he says to the puppy, rubbing one hand along her back. She just looks back at him.
He supposes that they’d probably better get back. He ought to see how Night Wave was doing. And after the trip he’s thirsty and could use something to drink. But he feels reluctant to go back to the house. He’s honest enough with himself to realise that he doesn’t want to have to face Night Wave in a bad mood, and that this is unworthy of him, but still… he feels reluctant to go back.
Coffee, he thinks. If only there was coffee here, things wouldn’t seem so bad.
He sighs again, and a voice hisses out of the shadows: “I will kill you.”
“Hello, Reeearh,” says Stephen.
The huge creature slowly stalks towards them. Despite having four legs and a head in the usual place and in general having the same body plan as the animals that Stephen’s used to, there is something subtly not right about Reeearh. He’s tried to decide whether it’s more bear-like or cat-like, but in truth it’s like neither one of those: it is itself.
“The other prey is failing,” it says. “Soon it will not be worth hunting.”
Stephen’s heart sinks. If even Reeearh is noticing…
“No, she’s not well,” he says. “She doesn’t like being here.”
“I would kill her and give her a true ending,” says Reeearh. “But I choose not to.”
“You choose?” Stephen says.
“I choose not to attempt it.”
Reeearh is, Stephen knows, skating as close as it is able to come to the fact that it may not be able to hurt them through their suits. Reeearh can’t actually admit this to itself in case it loses its only motivation for living.
“I accept your choice and will not contest it,” Stephen says.
They’re in Reeearh’s favourite place, in the square at the edge of the overcity. It’s got an excellent view, and they sit in silence for a while, looking out over the complex abyss in the heart of the Snarl. After a while the puppy presents herself to Reeearh politely, and then when it deigns not to notice her, nestles herself in its fur.
The first time Stephen saw this, he nearly had a heart attack; but Reeearh appears to tolerate her, and after picking apart the self-deception which forms Reeearh’s thought processes he thinks that by not noticing her it’s indicating that it’s not treating her as prey, and so she isn’t relevant to its life, and therefore doesn’t need to act in a threatening manner to her. He has since noticed that Reeearh will seem to seek out situations where it can not notice the puppy. He thinks that means Reeearh likes her.
Trying to figure out what Reeearh’s thinking gives Stephen a headache. It must be so much worse to actually be Reeearh.
“When you got here, the robot was already here?” he asks.
“I did not witness the speaking tool’s arrival,” Reeearh growls. “It is not alive. It cannot be killed. It is beneath my notice.”
Stephen assumes that’s a yes.
“And no others came until we did,” he says.
“You are the only prey to have arrived here since my arrival,” it says. “Which is why you will die.”
“The robot has a theory,” Stephen says, and tells Reeearh the robot’s reasoning about visiting ships.
Reeearh is silent for a long time.
“I kill because it is my nature,” it says. “I revel in the pain and suffering of my victims because it is right that I do so. But I do not seek to cause pain and suffering for the sake of pain and suffering. …I now feel like I wish to do so. I will find them.”
Stephen should feel reassured that the huge predator’s attention is, for once, focused on someone other than him. Somehow he does not.
“What happened to your ship?” he says.
“Speak clearly, prey.”
“When you were stranded here,” he says. “You said that your ship failed and dropped you here. How did it fail?”
Reeearh thinks, absently scratching itself.
“Machines are beneath me, prey,” it says. “They are tools, and are no fit occupation for a hunter. My machine told me it was dying and it tried to find me a refuge. It would not have told me why.”
“So, what, it just dropped you here and left?” Stephen says.
“I cast myself into the void and fell to this hunting ground,” Reeearh says. “Where you are, prey.”
“And your ship?”
“There was a bright light behind me,” Reeearh says.
Stephen looks at the predator with new respect. Jumping out of an exploding spaceship, trusting to luck to land somewhere solid…
“The others drift still,” Reeearh says.
Stephen is silent for a moment. “You… were not alone?”
“There were three other hunters in the vessel,” Reeearh said. “One lost its desire to hunt and did not jump. The others and I aimed for this place. I won the prize.”
It had never even occurred to Stephen that Reeearh might have companions. Friends? Competitors? Family? He has no idea how to ask, or even if it’s a good idea. He finds himself wanting to comfort Reeearh, but has no idea how.
“A hunter as great as you could not be killed by such a trifle,” he says eventually. Reeearh instantly brightens.
“Not even death itself would dare to touch me, prey,” it says. “Beware, little creature, for soon I will be your doom.”
“You might find me more of a challenge than you think,” Stephen says.
Reeearh growls. “None escape me! None! You will die!”
“None?” Stephen says. “Let me tell you a story from my homeworld, of creatures that once lived there. One such creature was known as Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Tyrant King, and stood twice as tall as you at the shoulder…”
Stephen starts telling Reeearh about as many outlandish Earth animals as he can, so that Reeearh can dispute him at each point and explain exactly how it would kill each one; the puppy peers out behind one of Reeearh’s ears. It’s surprisingly fun.
Night Wave is moping again. She’s pulled back one of Stephen’s curtains, and is just staring into space. The bright star, the close one the robot is going to try to make for, is just visible beneath the edge of the ring overhead.
Stephen’s trying to make some notes on his laptop, but without real gravity he can’t find a way to comfortably type on it. He can’t concentrate anyway, and eventually he shuts it down and puts it away.
“Are you all right there?” he says. She doesn’t answer.
“Look, you’ve been staring out that window for two hours.” He puts a careful hand on where her shoulder would be, near one of her forward flippers. Her skin is cold and moist, but it always is; as their suit fields make contact her smell, sea-like but faintly chemical, fills his nostrils.
She blinks. “I’m fine,” she says, voice flat.
“No, you’re not,” he says, and stretches the curtain over the window again, gumming it down. “What’s wrong?”
She blinks again, and eventually turns.
“I want to go home,” she says.
“You are home,” Stephen says. “…you mean Home Waters.”
“I want to go home.”
“We’re working on it,” he says. “We’re collecting information. We know something’s going on. We’ll find out what it is, and when a ship comes we’ll find it and be on it.”
“Not in a hundred years’ time,” she says. “Now. I want to go home now.”
“Well, we can’t go now,” Stephen says, as gently as he can. “We’ll have to wait. You have to be ready for when the time comes.”
“I want to go home.”
He just sighs, and pats her again. She shivers under his hand, so he lets go.
“Look, why don’t you come with us and go and talk to Reeearh,” he says. “Or the robot. See how its rockets are going.”
“I don’t want to see them,” she says quietly and numbly. “I want to go home.”
“How about the plant?” Stephen says. “You haven’t even seen the plant. It might have something interesting for you.”
She just closes her eyes, before turning and nosing the curtain open again.
Stephen shakes his head, totally at a loss. He hates seeing her like this; it twists up his insides and makes his stomach hurt. Before, he’s managed to jolly her into some semblence of normality, but not this time.
The puppy is hiding behind him, clearly nervous. He takes her into one of the other rooms, to give Night Wave some privacy, and hugs her for comfort.
“We’ll just have to wait for her to come out of it,” he says to her. “And hope that she does. I wish I knew what to do…”
The plant lives in a building in the overcity, right round the other side from where their house is. The building is wide and flat, and has more buildings on its roof and sprouting from its walls, with crazy bridges connecting to the neighbouring buildings on several sides; but the core structure, a simple disc like an oversized coin, remains intact and unaltered.
Inside, it’s a single big room. The ceiling blazes golden-white, and illuminates the leaves of the plant.
Stephen’s first thought upon seeing it was that it was a mandala: concentric rings of circular and polygonal shapes, all layered one within the other, all a blaze of different but harmonious colours, which focus the eye towards a single, huge flower at the very middle. At first it looked like some intricate artwork; but then he saw that it is all made of leaves.
There’s a little gravity in here, and actual atmosphere: the far side of the room is slightly hazy. After the crystal-clear perspectives of the vacuum outside, it seems wrong, like a room filled with smoke.
“Hello, plant,” he says.
It does not reply.
“They tell me you’re sentient,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s true or not. You certainly don’t talk back. And I’ve never seen you move.”
He slowly walks around the perimeter, examining the patterns. The puppy is napping, floating in the air near the entrance; she has never shown any interest in the plant.
“Can you be sentient if you don’t communicate, and don’t interact with your environment?” Stephen says. “But for all I know, maybe you’re actually several people, all in there somewhere, debating furiously…”
He sighs. “Anyway, my name’s Stephan Hawke, and this is my friend the puppy. Hello.”
Stephen tries to collect his thoughts. “I’ve been stranded here about two weeks. I know the robot’s been here for three thousand years, so that gives me two sets of bounds. But I know you’ve been here longer, as the robot has said you were here when it arrived.”
The flower in the centre is strange. It is just the barest outline of a flower, picked out in thin tendrils or wires. It is a wireframe sculpture of a flower.
“My point is that you’ve seen a lot more of this place than I have,” he says. “Assuming you can see outside this room. You must have some kind of sensing ability, right?”
He hesitates. “Or maybe you’ve been stuck here, in this room, blind, for all that time. Maybe the reason you don’t talk is that your mind is gone and you’re just another zombie.”
Stephen shakes his head. “No. I don’t believe that. You’re a plant. Plants don’t get bored, right?”
He sighs again. “Anyway, I’ve been trying to find a way out of here. There’s something going on, and I think there’s a chance. But my friend Night Wave is falling apart…”
He trails off into nothing.
Eventually he tries again. “It makes me feel so helpless,” he says. “She says she can’t go insane, but… it just doesn’t look right. Is this how zombies are made? Am I going to see her one day just staring out the window or making illusory fish or something, and then realise that there’s nobody behind her eyes any more and that she died inside without me noticing? God, I wish I hadn’t even thought that. I like her. I want her back to normal again.”
He just stands for a while, staring at the plant.
“I have no idea why I’m telling you this,” he says. “It’s not like you’re going to give me advice, or talk back, or something. Maybe I’m saying this because I know that you won’t talk back. Maybe I’m just want to pray. Not that I think you’re God, and I’ve ever been religious, but it’s nice to think that something might be listening, and, well, you’re here… I wonder how many people have come in here and done exactly this over the millenia?”
“Anyway,” he says. “I’m Stephen. Thanks for listening. Let me know if I can do anything for you.”
He gives a little half-wave, and then grimaces and turns away.
“Come on,” he says to the puppy. “We should go home.”