It’s been a week.

“We need a plan,” Night Wave says.

It’s breakfast time. Night Wave has found a way to persuade the house’s lights to change from bright in dim in a rough day cycle, and Stephen feels a lot better now that his body clock has something to synchronise with. He’s just slept well for what feels like the first time since he left Earth.

“To escape?” he says. “I agree. What did you have in mind?”

Night Wave seems at a loss. “I don’t know,” she says. “But we have to do something.”

She’s been acting increasingly twitchy as the days have passed. The novelty of being on the Snarl is still enough for Stephen, and so far he’s finding that exploring the place and looking after the puppy is keeping him busy. He’s well aware of the spectre of endless ennui ahead of him, though.

But Night Wave is not taking it well.

“We can’t build a ship, right?” he asks.

“Your ‘robot’ is trying that,” she says. “I told you, I can’t make a warp field.”

“What about a rocket?” Stephen asks. “You can make matter, right?”

“Horribly polluting,” she says. “And still far too slow to do us any good.”

“Some sort of radio? Can we call for help?” he says.

“I still need a warp field,” she says. “I need to modulate it to generate the signal.”

“That’s FTL radio, right?” he says. She twitches. “What about ordinary radio?”

“Electromagnetic waves?” Night Wave says. “Don’t be ridiculous. Who listens to that any more?”

“We do,” Stephen says.

She snorts. “Your lot are a long way from here.”

Stephen’s voice has been slowly rising; hers has been flattening with stress. The puppy, busy with something that might be rawhide, looks up and stares at them.

“Well, I don’t know what’s possible,” Stephen says, trying keeping his voice calm. “I’m an ignorant native. The only world I know about I left a couple of weeks ago.”

There’s a long pause. “I know,” says Night Wave. “I’m sorry.”

Stephen has a bowl of cereal. As long as he’s holding it, it works fine. If he lets go, the suit’s faked gravity stops working and it floats away. He’s beginning to find the suit’s tricks second nature now, even to the extent that he’s letting it float him comfortably in the air away from the walls… but still with gravity inside the field. He takes another mouthful.

“Will anyone come looking for us?” he says.

“They’ll try,” says Night Wave. “They’ll try to find the spider who left us here. It knows where the Snarl is.”

“So we just need to wait,” Stephen says.

“It’ll take weeks before they realise we’re missing!” Night Wave says. “And by then the spider could be long gone… you only find them when they want to be found.”

“I’m amazed nobody’s found this place,” Stephen says, frowning. “We must be close to Thant High, right? Isn’t there a lot of traffic there?”

“Stephen,” Night Wave says, putting a lot of tiredness into her voice. “The galaxy is big. Out here is so much nothing you could fit a billion Earths and nobody would even notice. We fly between the stars, Stephen. We don’t stop half way.”

“The robot and Reeearh found it,” Stephen says. “By accident. There must be a a way.”

“I don’t know how long they’ve been here,” Night Wave says.

It takes Stephen a few seconds to realise what she means: with enough time, even the unlikely becomes probable. They could have been here for a very long time indeed. He imagines Reeealh endlessly walking the streets, always looking for prey that it knows isn’t there, keeping its mind focused on the glorious hunt which is to come tomorrow—always tomorrow, day after day after day…

A very, very long time. Time enough for even the most unlikely coincidence to happen.

“Let’s not wait for that,” he says. He’s suddenly not hungry. He drops the cereal bowl, and it blurs and vanishes as the life support circle dematerialises it.

The puppy has finished with whatever she was eating. She heads in for a head rub, and then starts swimming in circles around Stephen. She wants to go out and explore.

He changes the subject.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he says. “How long will it be until she starts learning to talk?”

“She won’t,” Night Wave says dispiritedly.

“Say again?”

“She won’t,” Night Wave repeats. “He brain doesn’t have any language centres.”

Stephen finds himself watching the puppy in utter surprise. She looks… like a sealin puppy; like the only one he’s ever seen.

“Is there anything,” he finds himself saying hesitantly, “wrong with her?”

“You mean,” says Night Wave, “is she deformed, or mutated, or disabled? No. She’s fine. She’s just a puppy. Her brain hasn’t been set up yet. She’s practically an animal.”

He takes a deep breath. “Can you expand?”

“You’re taking her to Home Waters,” she says exasperatedly, “to get her mind fixed after that… business… with the shark. Right? She’s also going to be educated. She’ll learn language, symbolism, logic, ethics, natural sciences, cultural biases, all the skills that make her a person. She… ahh, your stupid language doesn’t map on to this. Her brain will be changed. She’ll be… programmed is the closest word.”

“That’s horrible!” Stephen says.

“You’re being misled by your language,” she says. “The only appropriate word has emotional baggage. It’s not a bad thing.”

Stephen holds the puppy up, and stares into her eyes. She stares back curiously. There’s intelligence there, he knows, and reason. She’s not a animal.

“It sounds really bad,” he says.

“Don’t be so blinkered,” says Night Wave. “Human children are horrible, right? I’ve seen pictures. Stupid, cruel little psychopaths. You can only stand them because you’re culturally conditioned to like them. You have to spend years teaching them to be real people. We do the same thing, but faster.”

“You’re going to operate on her brain?”

“It’s not like she’ll be able to do any of this naturally,” Night Wave says.

“You don’t have any children, do you?” Stephen says. But Night Wave surprises him.

“One daughter,” she says. “For my clan. She’s on Home Waters. She didn’t want a technical role, and left home to became a dancer for a cousin-clan. Her name’s Swift Lightning.” For a moment there’s sadness in her voice. “I haven’t seen her for a long time.” Then her voice sharpens again. “So don’t presume to judge me.”

“I’m sorry,” Stephen mumbles.

The puppy squirms out of Stephen’s hands and loops playfully around Night Wave, incidentally stealing what’s left of her breakfast. Night Wave ignores her.

“We’re not humans, Stephen,” she says. “You don’t work the way we do. We live in the same universe you do, so you think like us, but you think differently. She’s not a pet. Stop treating her like one.”

The puppy wants to explore the undercity.

Stephen hasn’t spent much time here. His own explorations have mainly focused on the upper surface; the overcity. But this is the puppy’s turn, and she likes it here, so he lets her go where she will and follows along after.

He’s pretty sure he’s offended Night Wave, but can’t really spot where. No, that’s not true: there are several things he said which he shouldn’t have, but he can’t tell which one actually set her off.

The idea of young sealin being programmed and tweaked like some sort of machine is… repulsive. He finds himself watching the puppy, nosing around some sort of sculpture in the midde of the walkway. What will happen to her? Will she go in, lose all the exuberance and playfulness, and come out a sober adult ready to be fit into the workforce?

Except the sealin aren’t sober adults. Or even remotely machinelike. He thinks about Autumn Star: absent-minded and affectionate. Falling Bubble; chirpy, a bit silly, and a terrifyingly good pilot. The matriarch: simply terrifying. Night Wave herself; moody and bad-tempered.

The trouble is that they do such a good job of pretending to be human that he simply stops seeing the flippers, the snout with the little bristly whiskers, the enormous, soulful black eyes with the sober expression… but she was right: they aren’t human. Even their voices are faked. They don’t raise their voices when angry, or mutter under their breath when annoyed, or whisper when frightened. Or rather, they do, but they do it consciously, for effect.

Or do they? Maybe inflection is simply part of the language, to them. Would they really make any distinction between semantic and emotional content of speech? When Night Wave sounds angry, does she sound like that because that’s simply the right way to say the words when you’re angry? They are consumate linguists; all the Home Waters sealin are. Their language centres may be artifical, but they certainly work.

Stephen studied four languages at university. He finds himself rather jealous.

They’re in the district where the city meets the spiral fabric of the Snarl. The architecture is awkward here: a tangled mass of pseudo-gothic buttresses and towers and razor-sharp edges all mixed in with ornate bridges and staircases to nowhere. Some of the buildings have openings, but that just reveals smaller buildings inside like some insane fractal. The mass of architecture froths upwards and fills the wedge between the spiral and the circular city.

Stephen’s walked past here but couldn’t find a way through, and didn’t waste much time. He is therefore extremely embarrassed when the puppy doesn’t even try and simply swims up the side of one of the towers and across the gap.

He follows her. He’s found that with a bit of practice and—when he’s sure nobody is looking, a Superman pose—he can persuade the suit to let him fly. He tried swimming, like the two sealin do, but there’s no way he can keep up with them. Plus, the feel of invisible water against his hands and body while his head remains in air feels very strange.

The puppy’s heading straight for the underside of the spiral. As Stephen approaches, his local gravity shifts and the world spins about him. Now he’s diving headfirst towards the ground, blood rushing to his head.

It looks like some sort of park. It’s very dark here; the Snarl-light is hidden behind the ring, and the only illumination is the ever-present starlight. Stephen finds it surprisingly restful. In an environment where all there is is artificial light, a little honest dark goes a long way. Above, buildings hang upside down off the undercity.

“Did you know this was here?” he says in delight to the puppy. She looks round at him, but of course does not reply.

“I should teach you some signals,” he mutters. “What’s that, Lassie? Night Wave’s fallen down the well?”

She is not a pet. Don’t treat her like one.

Maybe not.

The park is full of more of the strange mould-like plants. In the dark they look more fitting and less unpleasant. Some of them are quite big, extending up to head height. The puppy noses through some of them, the fleshy, branching fronds parting before her without a hint of a rustle. What kind of plants can live in vacuum?

Stephen walks slowly through the park. As the spiral curves away from under the ring city, the Snarl opens up above him. The sky fills with shadowy structures hanging in space, full of purple highlights and hints of shape. There’s enough light for him to see that the ground is covered with the vegetation. Stephen flinches as he notices his feet sinking deeply into it, and checks behind him, afraid that he might be damaging it; but there’s no trace of his passage.

All around him there are shapes a few metres high rising out of the ground. Their form is indeterminate, and Stephen goes closer. As he approaches one he suddenly sees that it’s one of the three-legged zombies from the Town, sitting motionless with its legs curled up around itself.

It doesn’t seem to notice him, and then Stephen realises why: it’s a statue.

In the dim purple light he can’t make out exactly what colour it is, but it could be a dirty grey. It’s rough and porous, too. It couldn’t be further from the white marble of Earth. But it’s definitely representational art. The shape of the creature is stylised, with the legs abbreviated and ending in simple points; and the eyestalks are more like horns. Conversely, the torso is picked out in loving detail, and every indeterminate orifice on its body emphasised.

The body language is totally alien and unreadable but from the position of the eyestalks it’s staring out into empty space. Stephen follows its gaze out into the darkness. No… it’s staring at the bright star.

Two light years away, according to Night Wave. An impossible gulf.

Fascinated now, he walks from statue to statue, looking at each one. They’re all different and are obviously intended to be individuals. The poses vary slightly too, some with limbs upraised, some holding vaguely represented artifacts, some slumped and some standing tall, but they all seem to be staring longingly at the star. The statues are arranged in staggered ranks, each looking through the gaps in the rank in front, so that every statue has an unimpeded view.

“They’re all here,” a voice says.

The robot drifts smoothly over the park, the upright cylinder of its body sliding along above the ground.

“You’ve probably passed some of them in the Town. They’re all here.”

Stephen turns to face it. “These represent the zombies?”

“Yes,” the robot says. “Every one of the mindless husks roaming the streets there has a statue that represents it here.”


“I don’t know,” it says. “They were here when I arrived. I have a theory, though.”

“What’s that?” Stephen says.

“I think they’re the zombies’ souls,” it says. “Come with me.”

Stephen follows the robot across the park, the puppy following curiously behind. As he leaves the sculptures behind, he can’t help glancing back.

The robot leads them to the further corner of the park, right up against the outer curve of the spiral. Here, the vegetation stops at a low wall, maybe half a metre high. On the other side there’s a short gap of bare fabric and then the insane architecture boils up out of the ground.

“Here it is,” the robot says.

Running diagonally across the park is a pipe, maybe half a metre thick, supported a short distance above the surface on posts. The far end is too far away for Stephen to see, but the near end stops short just before the edge.

“What is it?” Stephen says.

“It’s my way out of here,” the robot says. “It’s an accelerator. I go in one end, pick up speed inside, and go flying out the other. I say the other end, but actually I’ll just enter this end and then the mechanism will carry me to the other before accelerating me back down this way. The far end is too inconvenient to get to.”

Stephen squints down the pipe. “How long is it?”

“About a hundred and fifty kilometers,” the robot says. “It extends all the way across the Snarl and sticks out the other side.”

The near end of the pipe is just an empty end. It looks to be wafer thin. The inside is very dark.

Stephen turns and looks to see where it’s firing. The bright star is straight out from the edge. “That’s your target?”

“It’s the closest,” the robot says simply. “I’m firing a test load. Want to see?”


The robot fusses around the open end of the pipe for a bit. It’s not doing anything that Stephen can identify; presumably it’s using a version of the same field-based engineer’s toolkit that Night Wave has. Eventually it seems satisfied.

“Here’s the payload,” it says, and a cylinder the size of a drinks can floats up in front of Stephen’s face.

“It’s very simple,” the robot says. “Motivator here, power system here, and this big thing on the front is the sensor package and an electromagnetic transceiver.” The robot isn’t pointing with anything that Stephen can see, and the cylinder looks completely undifferentiated. “Mass, about a gramme. The only reason it’s so large is to give the accelerator a bigger target. It’s not my best work.”

The cylinder leaps away from Stephen’s face and carefully inserts itself into the end of the pipe.

“Stand back,” says the robot. Stephen picks up the puppy and holds her carefully.

“First we have to run it down to one end,” says the robot, and the cylinder gets flicked away out of sight. “It’ll take a few minutes.”

“What’s it for?” Stephen says.

“It’s a sensor relay,” the robot says. “I send one off every day or so. When I finally leave, they’ll form a chain in front of me, each one scanning the sky. They’ll pass the information back one by one—I managed to figure out some sort of crude telemetry involving sending and receiving electromagnetic waves—and I’ll pick it up. That way I’ll know what I’m about to hit. Ah, we’re there. Ready… and…”

It pauses. “Fire!” it says.

Nothing seems to happen. Stepen belatedly realises that this is because it left the muzzle of the enormous rail gun far too fast to see.

“Ah, a good launch,” the robot says with satisfaction. “I get a bit of a spread because of poor tolerances in the launcher, which is one reason I’m sending so many. They’ve got limited manoueverability and I don’t like wasting it on lining them up. But this one’s right on course.”

It begins to move away. Stephen lets the puppy go, and follows it.

“They can manouever?” he said. “Night Wave said that you can’t build engines without a warp field, whatever that is.”

“We can’t build true space drives,” corrects the robot. “She’s better at this stuff than I am, and I was really hoping she had some cunning trick, but… oh, well. But it’s possible to cheat, a little. Each of those communicators has a couple of hundred metres per second of stored momentum.”

They’re following the pipeline across the park. Stephen touches it gently. It’s cold and hard against his fingers.

“You built all this yourself?” he says. “It’s very impressive.”

“It took a long time,” says the robot. “My toolkit is so painfully limited. No automation, no replication, very limited ability to make self-propagating tropisms… your friend could have done it in a fraction of the time. The workmanship’s shoddy, too. But it should work. I was rather sorry to build it here, because the sculpture park is rather beautiful, but it’s the biggest open space I could find.”

“How long did it take?” Stephen says.

“About three thousand years,” the robot replies.


“You’ve been here that long?” he says, with horrified awe.

“A little bit longer,” says the robot. “It took me a few weeks to come up with the idea.”

“And no ships have called here?”

“You know,” says the robot, “that’s a very interesting question. I used to think not. But recently there’s been evidence to the contrary.”

It’s moving just a little bit too fast for Stephen to comfortably keep up with, and he has to hurry to keep pace. “Like what?”

“You’re here,” the robot says.

Stephen doesn’t know what to say to this. After a moment the robot continues.

“Your ship obviously knew the Snarl was here,” it says. “Which implies that it, or another ship, has been here before. This ship equally obviously has no interest in finding any stranded passengers and rescuing them. I find myself getting very angry about that.”

Throught its speech, the robot’s voice is calm and level.

There’s a long, awkward silence.

“I have a question,” Stephen says.

“Oh yes?”

“Where did all this stuff come from?” He gestures around; at the rail gun pipe, nearly invisible behind him; the mad architecture of the Snarl; the only slightly more reasonable Town, now visible above the edge of the ring. “Can you people really just… make matter out of nothing?”

“Of course,” the robot says. “It’s easy. I don’t know your species; are you new in the galaxy? Just off your home world?”

“Sort of,” Stephen says.

“You’ll learn,” the robot says. “The sealin are very good. But the answer is basically yes. It’s harder for me than for your sealin friend, because she’s got a much better toolkit, but simple matter is fairly easy. It’s not very useful, but it’s easy. Tropisms and field effects are harder.”

“So why don’t you build a rocket?” Stephen asks.

The robot abruptly stops dead. It’s silent.

“Are you all right?” Stephen says.

“That is a fascinating idea,” the robot says. “I hadn’t come across it before. Ejecting matter under pressure just so you can exploit the momentum change side effect! It’s terribly wasteful, of course, but I can generate as much gas as I like. I wouldn’t want to use it anywhere civilised because of the pollution, but out here…”

It slowly begins to move again. “I will have to think about this,” it says. “I will really have to think about it.”

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