“I am making a course change,” says the spider.
Stephen jumps. He’s in the middle of the latest installment of the long and increasingly convoluted story he’s telling the puppy, and hadn’t seen the spider coming.
“Oh—er, hello,” he says.
“I greet you,” says the spider, and then stops talking.
Stephen and the puppy are up at one end of the ship, watching the stars go by while Stephen talks. Stephen likes telling stories to the puppy; she’s an uncritical listener. Right now she’s hiding behind Stephen, peering around him at the spider. Night Wave is off prowling around the ship again.
“Where are we going?” Stephen asks eventually.
“I will be stopping at the Snarl en route to Thant High,” says the spider.
Thant High is a name Stephen has heard of; the plan was to change ships there. The Snarl is new to him.
“What’s the Snarl?” he says.
“It is a space station,” says the spider. “It will not inconvenience you.”
“All right,” Stephen says. “Thank you for telling us.”
The spider stops talking again. Its legs are trailing behind it again, making it look a little like a squid. Stephen can’t tell if it is looking at him or not.
“Do you gain aesthetic pleasure from the stars?” it suddenly says.
“I do, yes,” Stephen replies after a moment.
“I do not,” says the spider. “I gain aesthetic pleasure from you.”
“That’s, that’s nice?” says Stephen. This is—yes, creepy is a good word.
“You are so old,” says the spider.
Stephen is twenty-three. “I’m old?” he says.
“You are five billion years old,” says the spider. “You are Earth.”
“You mean—my species?” Stephen says, with increasing nervousness.
“Your oldness is almost unspoilt,” says the spider. “You have been new for only a few days. You are beautiful.”
To Stephen’s horror, it begins to reach out towards him with one extending leg. He leaps to his feet.
“Thank you for the news, I need to go and tell Night Wave, let us know when we’ll get there!” he babbles, backing away, and then scoops up the puppy and runs.
Behind him, the spider watches him go. Or maybe it just watches.
He finds Night Wave swimming slowly down one of the aisles near te other end of the ship, a few symbols glowing on her invisible helmet screen.
They blink out as he approaches. “Go away,” she says. He explains.
“Of course,” she says, voice flat. “We wouldn’t want anything to go right for us, would we.”
“What’s wrong?” Stephen asks.
“This ship is bizarre,” she says. “The drive’s producing some really peculiar readings, and the warp field geometry’s all over the place. I don’t understand how it even works. But that’s nothing to do with you.”
“Do I need to be concerned?” Stephen says, exasperated. Night Wave is frequently obtuse, but this is special.
“About the drive? No idea,” she says. “About the Snarl? No idea about that either. Just stay on the ship. I’m sure you’ll be fine here.”
“Except for the bloody spider,” Stephen mutters. “It just told me I was beautiful.”
There’s a spark of interest.
“Did it say why?”
“Apparently I’m old,” Stephen says. “I didn’t really understand what it was talking about.”
Night Wave stares into space, thinking. “Did it ever say what it was being paid with?”
“Come on,” Night Wave says suddenly, and she turns and swims off. Stephen runs after, the puppy following.
“What’s the problem?” he calls.
“Creepy spiders,” she says. “Didn’t you ever wonder what’s in these crates?”
They run into the spider somewhere near the middle of the ship. It’s doing its squid impression at the axis of the ship.
“Spider,” Night Wave says. “I hear we are stopping at the Snarl.”
“That is correct,” its thin voice says. As always, when the Spider speaks, nothing about it moves.
“Why are we stopping there?”
“I have a cargo to collect.”
“What is your cargo?” Night Wave says.
The spider suddenly moves, pulling itself down to ground level.
“Time,” it says. “I carry time.”
“What kind of time?”
“Stories. Histories. Continuation of presence.”
“What are in the crates?” Night Wave says.
“Time,” he says.
It suddenly extends its legs and moves over to one of the crates, and strokes it. The crate slowly begins to glow from inside and turn translucent.
“This is three thousand, four hundred and seventeen years,” the spider says. “It has had aesthetic value to recorded individuals for that entire time. The graph of influence spans four worlds.”
It reaches into the crate, the walls apparently offering no resistance, and pulls out a broken clay cup. It holds it out to them, but then draws it back when Stephen extends a hand.
“Histories must remain separate,” it says, and puts the cup back into the crate.
“Thank you for showing us,” Night Wave says.
“I gain aesthetic pleasure.”
“When will be arriving at the Snarl?” she says. “How long will we be staying there?”
“Seven hours. Three hours.”
“Thank you,” she repeats, and moves away. As she passes Stephen she says quietly, “Follow me.”
She leads them to the end of the ship. Beyond the empty circlar opening the stars slide by silently.
“Stay away from the spider,” she says.
“Why?” asks Stephen. “What was it talking about?”
She stares out at the stars for a moment. “Spiders collect intangibles. This one collects histories. It thinks you’re valuable. If it decides that you’re its payment it may want to make you stay.”
Stephen’s heart drops. “Stay here? Why?”
“You’re one of the first humans to leave your planet since you evolved there,” Night Wave says. “You represent an unbroken chain of life and death that’s a billion years old. Having you in its collection would be a big coup in spider society, if they have one.”
Stephen looks back at the ship, behind them; a long featureless metal pipe full of crates. “I’m not staying here.”
“It may not be that simple,” Night Wave says. “Spiders are strange but not totally unempathic. Now that you’ve left your planet you’re not getting any more valuable, so it may just decide to extract your intangibles from you and let you go.”
“Can it do that? I thought you said it wasn’t dangerous!” Stephen’s skin crawls.
“Maybe?” Night Wave says. “It can do something. They’re strange.”
Stephen looks back again. There’s no sign of the spider, but it’s so small he can’t see it from a distance. “What do you suggest?”
“Stay out of its way,” Night Wave says. “Let’s see if there are any other ships at this Snarl place. If not, it should only be a day or so to Thant High.”
Outside, the stars are slowing down as the ship decelerates. This part of the galaxy is dark: the Milky Way, which dominates the sky of Earth, has diffused into invisibility. The sky is barren and empty.
They haven’t seen the spider for a while. Stephen has collected all his belongings and they’re ready to jump as soon as they arrive.
“I don’t know this Snarl place,” Night Wave says suddenly. “That worries me.”
Stephen glances at her. “You know the entire galaxy?”
“Of course,” she says, and then adds, “Prosthetic memory. Sort of. But this Snarl isn’t in my memory.”
“The spider said it was a space station,” Stephen says.
“Translator error,” Night Wave says glumly. “It was probably just trying to tell you it’s not a planet. Space stations are a… primitive concept. Better just to use the word ‘place’.”
Stephen did know that his suit translates for him, but he keeps forgetting. Everything he hears is in perfect idiomatic English; and it’s not like Night Wave or the spider have any lips to sync… Night Wave probably speaks English, as all the Home Waters sealin do. But he has no idea whether she’s actually speaking it to him now.
“I read his diary, you know,” Night Wave says distractedly.
“Whose?” says Stephen.
“James Conroy’s,” she says. “He was an idiot. He nearly died, oh, so many times, and it was all his fault every time. He was lucky all his mistakes cancelled out.”
Outside, the stars have stopped moving past. Stephen doesn’t know anything about how starships work, other than a few vague notions from popular science articles about warp drives and fields, the vocabulary all stolen from Star Trek; but he’s guessing that they’ve slowed down to way below light speed.
Suddenly the stars start moving again, sliding past in a bloc. The ship is slewing. A bright star goes past. “What’s that?” he asks.
“How should I know?” says Ngiht Wave. “There, look.”
There’s a distant shape, a spark of violet light surrounded by shadows. Slowly, it expands as they approach.
“Is that it?” he says.
“I have a horrible feeling it is,” says Night Wave.
It’s a twisted horn of strips of dirty fabric, spiralling out from the blazing pin-prick at its centre. Inside the open mouth, spiderwebs criss-cross it in all directions, with nodules of dull light at every intersection. The main structure is a twisted, patchy ribbon, light up by violet highlights, and the shadows are full of intricate detail.
They slowly approach the rim, and perspective makes the horn swell and shift. It’s huge; kilometres wide and tens of kilometres long. The violet light in its centre is abruptly eclipsed by part of its structure, and in the sudden gloom Stephen can see more lights all throughout.
“It’s a doldrum,” Night Wave says.
“What’s a doldrum?”
“It’s a place where nobody goes,” she replies.
The world spins again, disorientingly, as the spider’s ship lines up with the rim, and Stephen’s stomach churns. It settles down at a perverse angle and they run around the edge of the ship until it’s underfoot again. Close up, the Snarl’s rim is an undulating strip of something which looks like coarsely woven fabric, full of gaping holes. It looks lake a Dali sketch of a landscape, infinitely thin and lit from below.
The ship comes to a halt. “Come on,” Night Wave says, and swims out.
The spider’s ship hasn’t quite touched the Snarl’s edge, and there’s a gap of maybe half a metre. Stephen gingerly steps over, the puppy swimming across the gap. The ground is solid underfoot.
Night Wave is waiting for him a little way off. Stephen hurries to meet her. Glancing back, the spider ship shines a dull silver under the bleak, star-filled sky.
“We’ve got three hours,” Night Wave says. “Let’s try and find a ship. Anything will do. But I’m not hopeful.”
The fabric surface seems to have things growing out of it, unclear in the dim light. They’re low, scrubby bushes, looking more like mould than any healthy plant. Stephen avoids them. Walking on the coarse, undulating surface is like some nauseating dream: their local down is always perpendicular to the surface, and the universe twists and bobs around them. One moment they’re on the summit of a hill, and the next they’re in a deep valley, even though the ground is always flat. Sometimes the spider’s ship behind them is a silver tower, and sometimes a pier, jutting out into the void. The surface is full of holes, yawning windows into an endless abyss. Stephen stays well clear of them.
There’s no sign of movement anywhere.
“What is this place?” he mutters.
“It’s supposed to be the docking area,” Night Wave says. “Don’t think anyone’s docked here for a long time.”
One of the spiderweb strands connects to the surface nearby, and they head towards it. Close up, it’s a ribbon a few metres wide, shooting across the horn’s open mouth to a nodule far below/across/above. Lights glimmer on the nodule, shining through the ever-present violet glare.
“Let’s try this,” Night Wave says. “There may be someone over there.”
She casually swims off the edge and out alongside the strand. Stephen looks at the ribbon, a bridge over a bottomless abyss. Night Wave turns, lit from below in the harsh violet light. “Don’t just stand there. Come on.”
Stephen tentatively steps out onto the ribbon. It’s rock solid, just… narrow. The puppy swims in circles around his head but he’s too busy watching his balance to worry about her.
“Oh, for… you can’t fall off!” Night Wave says. “The only gravity here is being faked by your suit! Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
Night Wave swims back to him. “It’s giving a surface to walk on, because that’s what you expect, you idiot. Look here.”
Horrifyingly, she rams him, knocking him over. Her snout is hard and she’s very strong. Stephen teeters on the edge in sudden panic before finally falling… into something soft and supportive.
He’s lying at an angle, his feet on the edge of the ribbon, and nothing whatsoever below him.
“See?” says Night Wave. “Now get up and come on.”
Frozen in sudden terror which has nothing to do with reason, Stephen looks down. Whatever’s supporting him is completely invisible, and the view down is… horrifying. The forced perspective of the Snarl’s spiral draws his eye endlessly downwards, leading it irresistably towards the blinding violet glare at its centre. It’s impossible to gauge how far down it is. Every detail is crystal sharp—there’s no atmosphere to make distance haze.
There is something supporting him.
Stephen closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and levers himself up off the empty air. It’s just the same as the mattress, he tells himself. You sleep on it every night. But this is somehow different. When he reaches out, it’s solid, but when he fell on it, it was soft and cushiony. Is it changing its texture depending on what he wants to do? Builder technology can read minds; did it deliberately make it soft so he wouldn’t hurt himself? The puppy is swimming back and forth overhead, clearly disturbed by what she sees as violence; he takes a moment to rub her head, calming her down, before realising that he’s standing in the middle of the ribbon again.
Night Wave is a long way off, leaving him behind. He follows after her, not running, but making much better progress than he was previously.
The ribbon is not completely straight, and curves and twists unpredictably. Stephen finds that it isn’t so bad if he keeps his eyes on the ground in front of him.
He catches up with Night Wave as they approach the nodule. It’s bigger than it looked from the rim; a huge sphere, wrinkled and corrugated like a brain. A pale golden light shines out of it from deep inside. The ribbon dives deep inside through a narrow tunnel.
“What is it?” says Stephen, in horrified fascination.
“It’s nothing,” snaps Night Wave. “Irrelevant. A distraction.”
She looks about, and then leaves the ribbon and swims away, curving around the nodule’s surface. “Is there anyone here?” she calls. “Where are you?”
Stephen looks up at the surface of the sphere. It’s perpendicular to the path, like a cliff.
“There’s only one way to try this,” he says to the puppy.
Nervously, he reaches one hand out to the surface—it’s hard and slightly warm—and then slowly shifts his weight until he’s leaning on it, only one foot on the ribbon. It’s a very long way down. But then suddenly, without moving, he’s lying full length on it, and the ribbon shoots out of a well next to him and up into the sky.
“I hope,” he says as he shakily climbs to his feet, “I never get used to this.”
Walking on the surface of the sphere is, if anything, even more disorienting like the ribbon. The horizon’s only ten metres away and the way the Snarl spins around him as he moves makes it hard to walk in a straight line. He eventually finds Night Wave staring at another smaller sphere, hanging a short way off the surface of the nodule like a tiny moon.
“What’s that?” he says tiredly.
“The portmaster,” says Night Wave. “I hope it still works. Portmaster. Wake up.” She’s talking to the sphere.
“Welcome,” it says. The voice is silver and reedy. Like the spider’s, it feels like it’s not quite there, but this time there’s a mechanical tint to it. “How may I be of service?”
“I want passage off,” she says. “Are there any ships going to Thant High?”
“There are no scheduled ships departing for the foreseeable future,” says the portmaster. “Not to Thant High or to any other destination.”
“What about unscheduled ships?” she says. “How often do they turn up?”
“Never,” says the portmaster. “No ships ever call here.”
“They must come sometimes,” says Night Wave.
“No. We have never been visited by any ship.”
“We just got off one, you idiot!” she shouts.
“That is incorrect,” says the portmaster. “No ships have visited here, recently, or ever. Therefore you cannot have arrived by ship. You must be a native.”
“It’s senile,” Night Wave says with disgust.
“I assure you I am perfectly sane,” says the portmaster. “No ships have arrived here because there is nowhere for them to arrive from. We are the only place which exists in the universe; the stars are merely an illusion. Therefore you, and your friends, must be natives.”
Night Wave ignores it. “This place hasn’t been visited for a very, very long time,” she says.
“So we’re unlikely to find a ride here,” Stephen says.
“No. This was a stupid idea. I actually think we’d be better off with the spider.”
From here, the huge funnel of the Snarl rises up overhead, tier upon tier converging on the tiny violet core. There are structures everywhere, built on the main fabric, hanging chandelier-like in all directions from the webbing…
“I agree,” says Stephen. “I thought that the spider was creepy, but this place…”
“Back to the ship,” says Night Wave. “This way. I think.”
They walk around to the other side. Stephen carefully moves across onto the ribbon, Night Wave watching impatiently, and then he hesitates.
“Is this the right ribbon?” Stephen says. “I’ve lost my bearings.”
Night Wave sudden looks uncertain. “Where’s the ship?” she says.
“I can’t see it from this angle,” he says.
“We’ll just have to pick a ribbon.”
She turns slowly, scanning the sky around them. “That… looks familiar,” she says. “So… it is this one. I think.”
They set off down the ribbon, leaving the nodule behind. The puppy is as nervous as Stephen is, and is staying close beside him, between him and Night Wave.
“What happened here?” he asks.
“Someone made it,” says Night Wave. “Or some thing. Some people lived here, for a while. Then… it was forgotten. Nobody came any more.”
“Are there still people here?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows?” she says bitterly. “Nobody comes here. Nobody leaves. Oh, ships will turn up every now and again. Some people will know this place exists. But the universe is big, Stephen. Here between the stars there’s space for anything. There are trillions of places like this.”
They continue on in silence for a while.
“You and I,” Night Wave suddenly says. “We live in the light. Close by the stars. On the natural worlds. This is the dark.”
The ribbon curves gently; as Stephen walks around the curve, the rim opens up around him.
“…I don’t see the ship,” Stephen says.
“It must be on the other side,” Night Wave replies.
“We can see the entire rim from here.”
They turn, scanning the rim. Stephen strains to try and make out the silver splinter of the spider’s ship, standing out from the edge. There’s nothing.
“I thought you people had perfect memories,” he says.
“Only when I’m warned!” Night Wave snaps, getting increasingly agitated. “Where is it?”
The puppy is cowering next to Stephen. He puts his arm around her, grateful for the comfort. “Can you… detect it, or something? You’re an engineer, right?”
Night Wave freezes for a moment. “Yes. Yes. I can. Wait.” Symbols start to flicker around her head again. After a few moments the light blurs in front of her and a glass cube appears there. Some lights move inside it. Then it goes dark.
“There’s nothing,” Night Wave says.
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“There’s nothing that is generating a warp field within detection range,” she says. Her voice is completely flat.
Stephen looks up at the stars overhead. “You mean the ship’s gone without us?” he says.
After a while Night Wave dismisses the cube, which dissolves into nothingness. Then, very slowly, she begins to whine.