“You all right?” one of crewmen asks, leaning over Stephen.
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” he says, sitting up. The sight of the Builder crewman, as human as he, standing beside him looks strange for a few moments; he hasn’t seen another human since he left Île de Jardin. “What did you do to me?”
“Froze your suit,” the man says. He’s heavily built, with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail and a hawk-like nose. “Spent a bit too long in it and you blacked out.” He speaks with the characteristic not-quite-placeable Builder accent.
Stephen rubs his forehead. He’s got a splitting headache. He remembers…
“The puppy!” he cries, and looks around wildly, but the puppy is sitting on the deck next to him, looking around herself with interest.
“Fond of her, aren’t you?” says the crewman with a grin as he watches them. “Your other friend’s over there. Don’t disturb her.”
Night Wave’s asleep, curled up on the ground a little way off. There’s something odd about her, and it takes a few second for Stephen to realise that she, and the puppy, are no longer swimming through space but are actually lying flat on the ground. It looks totally wrong.
…the bracelet’s gone from his arm. He’s worn it for so long it feels like part of himself is missing. There’s a band of pale skin where it used to be.
“Orders,” the crewman says. “Tonauac didn’t want you fiddling with anything until we get home.”
Stephen barely hears him, because he’s looking up at the inside of the ship.
Most of the ships Stephen’s encountered have been big, and this one is no exception, being twenty of thirty metres wide; but this one is spherical, and the inside is one big open space. The hull is made up polygonal panels of the black glassy material the Builders are so fond of, now lit with circuit-like lines in primary colours that form maze-like tracks on the hull. The four of them are standing on one of the facets on one side of the ship. Almost upside down, inverted above them, Tonauac and the other crew member standing on the other side, arguing about something. At the very centre hangs a cluster of glowing machinery.
“Good, isn’t it?” says the crewman proudly. “Glad your angry friend didn’t break this.”
Stephen closes his mouth.
“Stay put,” the crewman says. “I’ll get you a drink.”
As the man walks away, Stephen is suddenly struck by the noise. The Snarl had been completely silent, except for people’s voices—and the occasional suit alarm. This ship… it hums gently, at the edge of hearing; there’s distantly the noise of moving air. Across the other side of the ship, Tonauac and the other woman are arguing about something in one of the Builder languages.
“To give them credit,” Night Wave says, “they did look after you quite well.”
She’s awake, and stretches. She begins humping across the floor towards him. It’s slow and laborious, an uncofortable contrast from her earlier grace.
“Are you all right?” he says. “What happened to your… swimming?”
“They’ve disabled our suits,” she says grimly. “It’s all right for you, they could just take it off you. For me… I’m practically brain-damaged. But yes, basically I’m fine.”
“What happened?” he says.
“Your suit stopped feeding you oxygen,” she says simply. “You blacked out. The puppy and I are fine because we can hold our breath longer than you can.”
Well, that explains his headache.
He remembers seeing the wrecked Builder ship and the two platforms fade away into the distance, before the darkness took him. Reeearh, shouting to the last.
“Reeearh’s quite something, isn’t it,” he says.
Night Wave shudders. “Remind me to stay on its good side.”
There’s a strange tapping sound, increasing in volume. Stephen blanks for a moment before he recognises the sound of footsteps. The crewman’s approaching, bowl in hand.
“Here,” the man says, handing it to Stephen. “Pick you up.”
It’s some kind of broth. It tastes medicated; Stephen mentally shrugs and drinks it anyway.
“Where are we?” says Night Wave.
“Shouldn’t say,” says the crewman.
Stephen doesn’t know him, but he knows the uniform. The man’s a member of one of the ubiquitous Builder quasimilitary organisations, probably a pilot or flight-related technician of some sort; Stephen’s frequently seen people just like him in the Builder diplomatic train. The white linen uniform has the white leather patches on the arms and shoulders which indicate an engineering or operations role, but he’s also wearing the white kilt which denotes rank.
The Builders like white. Conroy, when he was marooned on Garden, found the Hotel would mistake the dye in his clothes for dirt and clean it out for him.
Stephen’s headache is beginning to fade. Whatever’s in the soup is working.
“Thank-you,” he says.
“No trouble,” says the crewman. “My name’s Precotl.”
“I would say it’s a pleasure to meet you,” says Stephen, “but you did kidnap us.”
The man shrugs. “Had to be done. Tonauac’ll explain. I’ll tell him you’re awake.”
He disappears off again, the sharp tap of his footsteps fading away as he walks round the sphere. He seems to topple over backwads as he climbs, but never falls over. Stephen honestly thought that he was inured to the tricks which galactic technology could play with gravity. Apparently not.
“This ship is strange,” says Night Wave quietly. “The design is very unlike normal Builder ships. Before you woke up, they installed the warp core in that mess up there, and since then the engine’s been running.” She nods towards the glowing machinery at the core of the sphere. “I think it’s a prototype. Whatever that tweaked core does, this ship’s part of it.”
“Do you know what?” he says.
“No chance,” she says. “They didn’t just wreck my suit. My toolkit’s ruined, and most of my knowledge of field technology was in there. I really wasn’t kidding. Half my skills are just gone. I feel like my brain’s turned to soup.”
“Is it… fixable?” Stephen says.
“Sure,” she says. “Just not by me.”
They’re interrupted by approaching footsteps; Tonauac. Stephen climbs to his feet to meet him, a little unsteady but feeling much better now his headache has gone.
“How are you?” Tonauac says.
“Feeling much better, sir,” Stephen replies. “May I ask where we are? And why we are here?”
Stephen’s trying to be polite, but something in his voice isn’t ringing true. Tonauac purses his mouth. “We’re on the outskirts of the Thant High system, hiding in the shadow of a dark gas giant. And you’re here because I wanted an observer from Earth.”
“What for?” Stephen says.
“For this,” Tonauac replies, sweeping an arm across to indicate the ship.
“What is it?” Stephen asks.
“It’s a space drive,” Night Wave says.
Tonauac smiles at her. “Your information is good,” he says.
“What information?” says Night Wave. “You’re running your engines off it right now, aren’t you? I just don’t know what it is besides a space drive. It’s useless for communications; it can’t generate a sustained field. A weapon? Be serious.” She pauses for a moment. “What it did to the Snarl notwithstanding.”
Tonauac’s smile slips. “We left it on the Snarl,” he says, “because nobody was going to fiddle with it there. It was safe. …how did you get hold of it, anyway?”
“One of the zombies gave it to me,” Stephen says.
Tonauac frowns. “No,” he says. “The courier was programmed to give it me. Just me. What did you do? How did you find it?”
“No, seriously, that’s what happened,” Stephen says. “It followed me around for days, and then it walked up to me and handed the thing over. I have no idea why.”
Night Wave suddenly laughs. It’s not a sound Stephen has heard very often.
“Because he’s human!” she says. “Your zombie couldn’t tell the difference between you and him!”
Tonauac’s face falls. “That’s… quite plausible, actually. If we didn’t have to work with that idiot spider…” He sighs. “Well, we have it now. That’s the thing that matters. Although we’re having to bring the test forward…” He trails off, lost in thought.
“But what is it?” Stephen says, after a moment.
“Oh,” says Tonauac. “It’s an instant distance drive.”
Night Wave wags her head in digust. “Oh, please.”
Stephen glances between her and Tonauac. “What’s an instant distance drive?” he asks cautiously.
“An impossibility,” says Night Wave. “A myth. An old wive’s tale.”
“A working prototype,” says Tonauac.
“No, it’s not,” says Night Wave. “Because instant distance drives don’t work. You think they haven’t been tried? For millions of years. They’ve never worked.”
“This one does,” says Tonauac. “We’ve been teleporting loads on our test range for years. It works. We’ve done it. You’ve read Conroy’s diary, haven’t you? That first dead planet he visits? That was our test range.” He pauses. “He’s a lousy writer… anyway.” He makes an expansive gesture. “This is the result. The prototype ship. You’ll get to experience it for yourself soon.”
Stephen interrupts. “What’s an instant distance drive?”
“It’s a theoretical way,” Night Wave says heavily, “of getting from point A to point C without passing through point B in between. It’s impossible. The universe doesn’t allow it.”
“This is why we’ve been keeping it a secret,” Tonauac says to Stephen, ignoring Night Wave. She bristles.
“Because people would laugh at you?” Stephen says.
“No,” says Tonauac. “Because they would stop us. Look.” He begins to pace backwards and forwards in front of them. “The galaxy is old. It’s full of old species. Old and powerful and not wanting anything which would disturb the status quo. We, you and I, Stephen, we’re a young species. The accident which took us to Yotimtlan gave us a head start compared to the rest of you on Earth, but even we have only been in space for three hundred years. That’s an eyeblink to the likes of these.” He gestures at Night Wave, reared up and glaring balefully at him. “They have things working they way they want. They don’t want us disturbing that.”
“We don’t want you dying,” Night Wave says.
“So reasons would be found,” Tonauac says, “and pressure applied, and soon we’d find that we’d have to stop the research. It’s happened before. Well, it hasn’t happened this time. We made it work. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” He raises an eyebrow at Night Wave. “You’ll see for yourself soon. We’ll get you home, and you can tell everyone. We succeeded where you failed. You won’t be able to brush us under the carpet any more.”
He turns to Stephen. “And I want you to go back to Earth,” he says, “and tell them, too. Offer them an invitation. We want to share this with you. We are the same species, the same people. We want it to be yours too. We have a great deal to offer each other.”
He straightens, and studies them both for a moment. “I’ll let you know when we’re going to do the jump. You’ll see for yourself.”
Nodding, Tonauac turns. He’s just started walking when Stephen calls after him.
“Tonauac. Why didn’t you pick Reeearh up off the Snarl?”
“Who?” Tonauac says, turning.
“The big furry creature,” Stephen says. “You’ve been visiting the Snarl for a while now, haven’t you? You must have known it was there. The plant and the robot, too.”
Tonauac just stares at Stephen. “Can you blame us for not wanting to go near it?” He waves a hand vaguely, as if trying to point at the wrecked carrier, and just walks away, shaking his head.
“What was that about?” asks Night Wave quietly.
“He wrote the three of them off,” says Stephen. “He, or whoever else is in charge, judged their lives against this space drive project and decided that the project was more important. And so they were left there to rot.”
“You were testing his moral compass,” says Night Wave.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” says Stephen. “It’s not like they couldn’t have found somewhere else to hide their stuff, right? Or if they were worried about security, just taken them off and kept them somewhere safe which wasn’t the Snarl. They’d have been grateful. All it would have taken was some basic empathy!”
Night Wave says nothing, but just waits until Stephen calms down again. He doesn’t think she disapproves.
“Well, I have news,” she says. “If they try that jump, we’ll all die.”
“Die?” Stephen says.
“Listen,” says Night Wave. She looks around them; the three crew are around the other side of the ship, but she lowers her voice anyway. “This has been tried. Over and over again. Over and over and over again. He’s right about one thing; the galaxy is very old, and it’s got lots of old species in it, and all of those species have been trying to make this work. And it never does. Ever.”
“He said they had a working prototype,” Stephen says.
“I bet they were running that on a test track,” Night Wave says. “Thing is, this works in the lab. Look.”
She pauses to collect her thoughts. “This is not a matter of physics,” she says. “The physics work. You can build the drive. But the… metaphysics don’t work. That’s a stupid word, never mind. The important thing is that if you try to use the drive, the universe punishes you. Bad things happen.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of this,” says Stephen. “Cosmic censorship, right? The thing that prevents time travel?”
“No,” says Night Wave. “It’s totally different. Listen. You get punished for using the drive. You do not get punished for testing the drive. If you’re sitting, waiting for a test load to appear out of nowhere, and you’re expecting it and you know what’s in it, then it looks like it works. You’re not moving information, you’re not trying to get work out of it. The universe allows that. But if you try to do something useful with it…”
“So, what happens?” Stephen says.
“Any one of a lot of horrible things,” Night Wave says. “Every one of which leads to death. We have to stop them. Or if we can’t, we have to get off this ship.”
Stephen looks up at the other side of the ship. There are some rudimentary consoles; waist high pillars, with displays on their tops. Precotl is adjusting one of them while Tonauac and the other, nameless crew member talk, arms folded.
“I can’t prove it,” Night Wave says. “Not right now. I’m sorry, I don’t have any of the… look. I know he’s human too but you’re just going to have to trust me on this. This thing is suicide.”
“What?” says Stephen. “Of course I trust you. Why would I believe him over you?”
“I… just…” says Night Wave. “I thought… okay. Never mind.”
“But I don’t have a suit any more,” he says, holding up his left arm. “Is yours working? And the puppy’s?”
“No,” she says. “Unfortunately.”
“So what’s the plan?” he says.
The interior of the ship isn’t empty. Equipment and the occasional crate are strewn haphazardly around the interior. Some show signs of rough treatment, probably from when the ship got ejected from the carrier.
There are some suits; the three that the ship’s crew were wearing when they halted the Thantian platforms. They’ve been dumped on the ground not far from the controls. Even if Stephen could get to them without being seen, and then manage to put one on without being interrupted, they’re all human shaped and wouldn’t do the puppy or Night Wave any good.
There’s nothing which looks like a shuttle, or an EVA pod, or anything spaceworthy. At least Builder technology is sufficiently crude that Stephen stands a good chance of recognising one.
“Look at this,” says Night Wave.
She’s got her nose pressed against the floor. The deck is made up of black-glass panels, coloured lines embedded inside them forming intricate patterns.
“This is a step up from the usual Builder technology,” she says. “Maybe they’ll lose their matter fetish at some point… I can almost read them! If only I had my toolkit.”
She hauls herself forwards a few metres, and then adds: “Of course, if I had my toolkit I could build us new suits and then cut a hole in the floor and just drop us out.”
Stephen crouches down to look more closely. They’re just lines. “What are we seeing?”
“There’s a window here.” Night Wave humps forwards a bit more, the puppy following curiously, and uses her nose to indicate a circular geometric construction. Most of the circuit-diagram lines bypass it, and some go inside, but many lines trace the border.
Night Wave is adopting curious gestures, one after the other, aiming her snout at the circle. She seems to be concentrating. “What are you doing?” Stephen asks when he dares.
“Wanting,” she grunts. “It’s not working. I can’t get it open. You try.”
Stephen hesitates. “I don’t want to be sucked out into space,” he says. “Particularly not without a spacesuit.”
“No, no,” Night Wave says impatiently. “It’s a window, not a door. Try. Quickly.”
Stephen glances up. There’s no cover whatsoever, and all Tonauac has to do to see what they’re up to is to look up. He doesn’t. Stephen swallows, concentrates on the circle as hard as he can, and tries to want it to open.
The lines inside squirm and deform, pressing up against the rim; and then he’s looking at a circular glass porthole looking out into space. There’s nothing outside but blackness.
“Good, good!” exclaims Night Wish. “The ship’s not locked down against you! It probably thinks you’re one of them. Close it before they notice.”
Stephen glances out of the window—nothing but the occasional star—and wants it closed again. “You do have a plan,” he says.
“Not really, no,” she says. “Unless you count find something important and break it as a plan.”
“Works for me,” says Stephen. “Can you see anything important?”
The deck stretches out in all directions, packed with the intricate tracery of circuitry and subtle machinery. Beyond a few metres away the details are impossible to make out and it all blurs into incomprehensibility.
“Well, there’s the engine,” Night Wave says uncertainly.
It’s only about ten metres overhead, but it might as well be on Earth’s moon. It’s a massy and irregular lump of what looks like congealed glass, glowing gently in the primary colours which Stephen is beginning to recognise as being characteristic of Builder technology. The way it is always poised directly overhead, waiting to fall on him, no matter where in the sphere he goes, is getting on Stephen’s nerves.
“We’d need to be able to fly to get up there,” he says.
“Maybe there’s something else,” says Night Wave. “Let’s see.”
They start trudging round the sphere, putting the mass of the engine between them and Tonauac. It’s slow progress: Night Wave is big and heavy, and while she’s strong, she still can’t move herself very quickly. The puppy makes easier work of it, and tries to stay close to Stephen and Night Wave, looking about herself with worried eyes.
Poor kid, Stephen thinks. I wonder if you even remember what real ocean looks like? He does wonder how deep that ‘minor memory block’ of the matriarch’s went. Not far enough to stop the nightmares, that’s for certain…
“Here,” says Night Wave abruptly. “Change this.”
It’s a thick knot of coloured lines, twisting around each other in unfathomable complexity.
“What do you want me to do?” he says.
“Open it,” Night Wave replies.
Stephen crouches, puts his hand over the knot, and thinks open as hard as he can. Silently, the knot writhes, lines and conduits rearranging themselves to form straight links, disconnected from the other circuits.
“What is it?” he says.
“Control node,” Night Wave says shortly. “There are backups, but if we can disconnect enough of the ship’s systems… this way.” She heads off determinedly across the deck, following one of the lines.
Stephen and the puppy share a glance and follow her.
She finds another node, and Stephen unravels that one as well. Nothing seems to happen, and Night Wave mutters, “Backups, backups,” to herself before tracking down another one.
“Is this achieving anything?” Stephen says as he prepares to unravel the node.
“I hope so,” Night Wave says.
From here, by looking almost straight up, Stephen can see Tonauac and the control station on the other side of the sphere. They’re still arguing, but more importantly, they’re not looking up.
“If we can confuse the ship enough,” continues Night Wave, “it might not let them use the drive.”
Stephen wants at the knot, and it unties itself. The lines of glowing circuitry wriggle and begin to disentangle themselves, and then abruptly, one of them winks out, followed one by one by the others.
He slowly stands, as all around him lines of light fade. The three of them are at the centre of a glowing puddle of darkness as the ship’s systems unravel all around them. On the other side of the sphere, an alarm sounds, followed by shouts.
“Will that do it?” says Stephen.
“You idiots,” says Tonauac abstractedly. He’s focusing on the consoles. The Builders don’t really go in for buttons or switches. They prefer voice control, or psychic triggers, or in the rare occasions when they really want a physical control, beads on wires. One of the consoles looks like an abacus. The other crew member, a heavily-set woman, is expertly flicking them backwards and forwards with her fingers while watching the play of light above it.
There was nowhere to hide, of course, and they didn’t even try, instead following Precotl docilely to the control station, away from the blighted sector.
“It’ll take hours to regrow the control systems,” says Tonauac.
“If we can damage your ship to that extent,” says Night Wave, “with no equipment, no knowledge, and no skills, then possibly your design isn’t as solid as you think it is? Single point of failure, much?”
Tonauac turns away from the console to glare at her, and rubs his hands through his hair.
“Thanks to you,” he says, “we’re blind to a complete quarter of the sky, and our ability to manouevre is severely compromised. Given that I’m sure that your friends are looking for us, we won’t be able to stay hidden here much longer…” He smiles bitterly at Night Wave. “However, the instant distance drive works on a completely different set of systems. So we’re going to go to Yotimtlan. We’ll have all the time we need to make repairs there.”
“Tonauac, this is insanity,” Night Wave says urgently. “You haven’t even done any autonomous flights, have you? It’s all been bench testing. Admit it. We won’t get there. You’ll kill us all.”
“Will you be silent!” he shouts.
There’s a silence. The unnamed woman technician, standing at her console, is staring at Tonauac. He coughs and she hurriedly goes back to work, but Stephen sees her occasionally glancing up at Tonauac.
“You are quite right,” says Tonauac taughtly. “We were planning to do an exhaustive set of unmanned tests. However, you have forced my hand, due to your… friend… explosively dismantling my only other ship. So we are going to proceed with the full-scale test, and quickly, before we’re found by the Thant High trade fleet. You will be coming with us.”
He turns to Precotl, who is standing by their side, holding a small device in his hand which can only be a weapon. “…if she says anything, stun her,” he says. Precotl nods.
Stephen, the puppy huddled up against his leg, looks at Night Wave, and at Precotl, who’s looking worried and unhappy. Tonauac’s turned away, and is talking intently to the technician in the Builder language.
“Isn’t this a bit rushed?” says Stephen to Precotl, quietly.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Precotl replies, although his tone isn’t as confident as his words.
“I don’t want to die here,” says Night Wave. “I don’t want anyone to die, and that’s what’s going to happen if he goes through with this.”
Precotl raises the weapon. “Got my orders,” he says.
“Is there a way off?” Stephen says.
He’s watching Precotl carefully. The man doesn’t answer, but his eyes flicker down and to the left for a moment.
Tonauac returns. “We’re ready to go,” he announces. “It’s time to make history.”
“Sir,” Stephen says, and steps forward. “Can you at least let the puppy off? Whatever happens to us, she needs to go home and get medical treatment.”
Tonauac blinks, thought processes derailed. “I…” he says. “…I do not have time for this right now.” He turns to the technician. “Start the sequence.” She looks blank, and he blinks, and repeats himself in Builder.
Night Wave is twitching with agitation. Stephen nudges her and points her to where Precotl was looking. Her eyes go wide. Not far off one of the hexagonal deck plates is marked with a bright blue circle. Inside is more of the ubiquitous circuitry, but there also a word in the curly Builder script repeated around the edge. Stephen can speak a little Builder, and read a little more than that, and he can read this word. It says ‘ESCAPE’.
Above them, the engine is starting to glow more brightly.
“We’re on our way,” Tonauac says. “In about a minute we’ll be in the Yotimtlan system. It’ll be a speed record, I believe.”
Stephen kneels, and picks the puppy up. She squirms uneasily, but lets herself be carried; she’s very heavy.
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Tonauac says with exasperation. “I keep telling you, we know it works.” He glances at the consoles. “The field’s building, and the antigeometry metrics are fine. Everything’s fine. You won’t even notice when we get there.”
It’ll take a good few seconds for Stephen to get to the hatch, and Night Wave a few seconds more.
“We build the field, and at the moment of collapse capture the geometry pulse, shape it with the antigeometry metrics, and we get snapped across the universe…” Tonauac suddenly realises he’s rambling. He wipes his forehead; he’s sweating.
The woman is focused on her consoles. Tonauac is watching over her shoulder. Precotl is looking up at the engine, now beginning to pulse.
“Now,” says Stephen quietly.
He jumps for the circle; Night Wave follows him. Tonauac looks round.
“What are you doing?” he says, and then spots the circle. “Oh, no. You’re staying right here! Stop them!”
The woman glances up, worry in her eyes, but stays at the console; her eyes flick down again. Precotl lifts the gun, but then lowers it, and runs after them instead. Tonauac growls something in Builder, steps forward and straight-arms Precotl across the face; Precotl goes over backwards, and as the gun goes flying, Tonauac grabs it.
Stephen’s nearly at the circle now, but he dives forward, just in case. He lands awkwardly, and the puppy goes flying. She’s whining, but she’s landed inside the circle. Stephen frantically scrambles forwards on his hands and knees, and looks back over his shoulder.
Night Wave is hauling herself along, some way behind. Tonauac ignores her and steps forward beside her, levelling the gun—if it is a gun—at Stephen and the puppy. “Stop!” he screams. Behind, Precotl is climbing to his hands and knees.
Night Wave swings her body and smashes Tonauac to the ground. The gun goes skittering off into the distance.
Above, the engine is almost incandescent.
“Come on!” Stephen cries.
Night Wave puts on a burst of speed and makes it to the circle. Precotl’s on his feet, now, looking between them and Tonauac, with the technician staring in shock from behind her console.
“Are you coming?” Stephen shouts at them. The woman is frozen, but Precotl hesitates for a moment, visibly torn, before turning away and running over to where Tonauac is beginning to stir.
“Stephen, go!” Night Wave cries.
Belatedly, Stephen wishes to escape, as hard as he can, and suddenly they’re falling in darkness, a vast shadowy grey curve filling half the sky.
A faceted black sphere silently floats away from them; and then, very quietly, it’s just not there any more.
“What—” Stephen says.
A brilliant point of light flares out of the dark, impossibly distant, and brightens to a blue-white incandescence that’s almost unbearable. The entire curve of the planet below is illuminated: ribbons of green and purple are bathed in light for the first time since their creation. And then, almost before Stephen has time to cover his eyes, the light gutters out and is gone.
The core of the escape pod is the hexagonal decking plate, jettisoned from the ship and the circuitry glowing faintly as it provides them with a field to hold the air in, and a tiny amount of pull to keep them together. Stephen bumps into Night Wave and the puppy.
“Is that it?” Night Wave says very quietly. “Is it over now? Finally?”
Stephen holds the three of them together while they drift.
“I’m sure it is,” he says. “I’m sure it is.”
They wait quietly in the dark.
The Thantians are very efficient at finding them again. The fleet of police cruisers arrives less than an hour later.
“We need to stop meeting like this,” Mersyntil says as it escorts them onto the bridge.
Thant High is embarrassed, and determined not to be embarrassed again. This is no flimsy raft; from the outside, it’s a big, flattened ovoid of unrelieved grey, except for a ring of ominous ports around the equator. The inside is a single, huge chamber, crowded with mysterious machinery. The bridge is an open space deep in its heart, crowded with consoles, a spherical Thantian at each one. It looks so like the familiar science fiction concept of a spaceship bridge that Stephen could almost kiss it.
It’s dominated by the hulking shape of Reeearch, who paces tensely back and forward between the Thantian crew. No, not pacing: stalking. Its hackles are raised and it looks very dangerous. Its head swivels round as they approach.
“You,” it hisses. “You are mine. He dares to steal from me!”
“Hello, Reeearh,” Stephen says with relief; but there’s something very wrong with Reeearh’s body language.
“Where is he.”
“Tonauac?” Stephen says. “He’s—” In his mind’s eye, he suddenly sees that flare of light again. Until now he’s been relying on adrenaline and sheer momentum to keep going, but the realisation of what that light means abruptly hits him, and he sways.
“He’s dead,” he says flatly. “His ship exploded.” And killed him, and Precotl, and the woman who didn’t speak English. He never ever knew her name.
Reeearh is suddenly very still.
“Dead,” it repeats. “He escapes me, then.”
“I’m sorr—” Stephen begins, but Reeearh interrupts him.
“You will not escape me,” it says. It crouches, glittering eyes fixed on them. “Prepare yourself, prey. Run, and entertain me. I will—”
It abruptly breaks off. Reeearh blinks a few times, and then says, very quietly, “I will sleep now.”
And then as Stephen watches in confusion, Reeearh slowly slumps down onto its knees, sighs, and gently topples over.
“What was that?” says Night Wave.
The Thantians, being machines, don’t use life support circles themselves, but the ship has basic support for other species. There’s a simple nutritional synthesiser. It knows about both humans and sealin, and it produces a bowl of soup for Stephen and strips of something rubbery and fleshlike for the sealin. Just inhaling the vapour from the bowl makes Stephen feel like his brain has started to work again.
“Sorry,” Mersyntil says, for about the tenth time. “It did warn us ahead of time, but we were a bit late in stunning it. It’s a good thing it managed to cue us.”
Mersyntil has taken them off into a quiet corner while a team of Thantian crew carefully move Reeearh’s unconscious body out of the way using something which is probably an industrial cargo handler.
“I think it’s been holding itself together on sheer willpower,” Mersyntil continues. “It said that once everything was over, it might have some sort of breakdown and become dangerous. Of course, it didn’t say it like that. We had the strangest elliptical conversation.”
Stephen can imagine.
“It followed you here, do you know?” Mersyntil adds. “It’s got some very old and very peculiar technology in it. It was as if it was smelling out your warp trail. We’d never have found you so soon without it.”
“Not mine, please,” Stephen says. There’s gravity here; not much, but enough to settle his stomach. He’s sitting on the floor, leaning against Night Wave’s reassuring bulk and patting the puppy. He feels very tired.
“All right, their warp trail,” Mersyntil says. “And a very strange warp trail it was, too.”
It lowers itself down to Stephen’s head level. The sphere rotates and seems to look him over. Stephen can’t tell which of the ports is its eyes, or even if it has any; but he’s seen too much to care, at this point.
“The captain says we’ll keep looking for survivors,” it says. “But I don’t think we’re going to find anything. That blast… it looked very high energy. I don’t think they’ve gone to Yotimtlan.”
“Night Wave says that she thought that the ship’s mass got randomly turned into a matter/antimatter mix and dropped back into normal space,” Stephen says. “Or something like that. She wasn’t making a lot of sense at the time.”
Night Wave is lying quietly with her eyes closed; she’s not asleep, but is blocking the world out for a while. It’s not a relapse of her earlier catatonia; this is healing. “I just need to get my bearings back,” she had told Stephen. “Watch me, please.”
Mersyntil is quiet for a while.
“You know people live around here, don’t you?” it says. “Not many, but people live everywhere. We don’t think that explosion killed anyone, but out here on the edge of the system it’s dark, and you need sensitive eyes… a flash like that will have hurt. A lot. They were reckless and stupid. We’ll be officially complaining through channels. This was bad enough. It could have been a lot worse.”
“Have you heard anything from the wreckage of the Snarl?” Stephen asks.
“Yes, actually,” Mersyntil says. “They’ve picked up lots of live zombies. And, unfortunately, some dead ones. But those field suits are tough.”
“What about the plant?”
“Oh, yes!” it says. “I’m sorry, I meant to tell you: we found it, it’s fine. It was in a self-contained building drifting through the heart of the debris cloud. Everyone’s very excited; nobody’s seen one of those for a long time. At least we know what it is, unlike your furry friend.”
“Oh, good,” says Stephen. He only met the plant once. Why did it make such an impression on him? He sighs.
“It is sentient, then?”
“Definitely,” says Mersyntil.
“But it doesn’t talk?”
Stephen slowly finishes off his soup, now lukewarm. It’s very good. It must be, he belatedly realises, a Builder recipe. The Thantian’s ship is unlikely to have heard of Earth.
“What are you going to do with Reeearh?” he says.
“Look after it,” Mersyntil says. “You, too.”
But his body’s finally let the shock catch up with him, and he’s already fallen asleep.