The thing Stephen has the hardest time adjusting to is the silence.
He knows why: they’re in vacuum. Their invisible, magical space suits hide this from them, but even so, just the other side of the intangible field boundary there is no air. The suits communicate, carrying people’s translated voices via some mysterious mechanism, but they don’t reproduce sound.
The trouble is that the city shouldn’t be silent. It’s full of movement and activity. Some of the figures moving through the streets are even people.
Over the next few days, Reeearh introduces them. Their closest neighbour, a kilometre or so around the city, is a robot, a simple rounded cylinder about a metre high with no obvious moving parts; in design it must be related to the portmaster, although Stephen doesn’t need Night Wave’s warning not to point this out. There’s a plant. It lives up on the bright side, the overcity, inside a building like an indoor greenhouse, and is a circular patch of broad leaves about ten metres wide. It is allegedly sentient, although Stephen never hears it speak.
The robot has a plan to escape.
Night Wave finds the word ‘robot’ amusing, as she doesn’t seem to distinguish between people who are machines and people who are what Stephen would traditionally call ‘people’, but it doesn’t seem to have a name. The handle sticks, at least in Stephen’s head.
It was marooned on the Snarl in much the same way that Reeearh was: its ship’s drive failed in some way, and with the last vestige of motive power it flung the robot at the nearest mass. Stephen doesn’t ask how long ago that was.
Its plan for escape is to build a device that will catapult itself towards the nearby star. The star is quite close, only about two light years away; which means the voyage will take about a hundred thousand years.
“Seriously?” says Stephen.
“It’s better than being here,” says the robot.
It and Night Wave have had a desultory technical conversation about propulsion. Stephen doesn’t follow the details but apparently neither of their basic engineering toolkits are capable of building anything like a true space drive.
“Moving near a mass is one thing,” says the robot. “Out in deep vacuum? Totally different kettle of fish.”
It’s going to fall through the distant star system broadcasting a distress signal and will hope someone will pick it up.
“Sorry it won’t work for you three,” it says. “But you’re too heavy. Plus breathing, food, and so on.”
“It’s crazy,” Stephen says to Night Wave as they head back to the house. “A hundred thousand years! If it’s prepared to wait that long, why doesn’t it do it here, where there’s far more chance of being discovered!”
“Because ships do call, sometimes, right?” Night Wave says. “You’re right. It’s a dream, Stephen. It’ll never leave.”
“It’s like Reeearh,” Stephen suddenly says. “It’ll keep putting it off, and putting it off, because that’s the only thing that’s keeping it going…”
They’re moving through a district of the Town now which all slanting pillars. They have no obvious meaning or purpose, but occasionally there are little knots of cubical buildings, from which some of the three-legged creatures apathetically watch them go past.
“You people don’t go mad,” says Stephen. “You just go strange, instead.”
Night Wave glances at him. “Based on a sample size of how many?”
“Enough,” Stephen mutters.
“You’re right, though,” she says. “It’s a design flaw.”
They head on for a while.
“It can’t do it,” Night Wave says. “It’s too much like dying. It won’t be able to bring itself to actually jump.”
Stephen thinks back to what Reeearh had said: Everyone dies here, who is able. He shivers.
Then there are the zombies.
The puppy is largely oblivious to the aura of despair that fills the Snarl. She enjoys poking around in the empty buildings and exploring all the strange corners and weird angles. She’s fascinated with Reeearh, and whenever it’s around spends a lot of time peeking out from behind Stephen’s back at it. The robot she can take or leave; it just doesn’t seem to interest her much, but whether that’s because it’s a machine or whether it’s just because it has no moving parts or obvious limbs Stephen can’t quite decide.
But she really doesn’t seem to like the zombies, and Stephen can’t really blame her.
“Imagine what it’s like to live forever,” Night Wave says. “And you’re in a place where nothing matters and nothing ever happens.”
They are resting at the edge of the square, watching the crowd slowly mill. Stephen holds the puppy tightly. She’s half-fascinated, half-terrified.
“Are they insane?” Stephen asks.
“That’s a bad question,” says Night Wave. “Well designed minds don’t go insane. But they still need exercise. These have been doing the same thing for so long that there’s nothing left but the repetition.”
One of the three-legged stalkers is nearby. It walks slowly across the square, pausing half way to stare at them. Then it turns round and walks back, pausing half way to stare at them. Then it turns and walks slowly across the square…
“Don’t they get tired? Or hungry?” Stephen says.
“Sleeping and eating’s probably just part of the pattern,” Night Wave replies.
They watch for a while longer. “I think I’d rather die,” says Stephen.
“You will,” says Night Wave. When she sees Stephen’s uncomfortable glance, she adds: “Your body evolved naturally and is full of flaws. It’ll wear out. Mine won’t.”
Stephen’s horror slowly builds. “You mean… you could end up being one of those? Could she?” The puppy whines.
“I could,” Night Wave says bleakly. “The puppy… I don’t know. Her mind hasn’t been formatted yet and is still malleable.”
They watch the zombies.
“What’s that one doing?” Stephen says.
One three-legged zombie is standing and watching them, like so many of the others, but it’s not behaving quite like the rest. It keeps looking away, and then back towards them. Every now and again it will take a few paces forwards.
“I don’t know,” says Night Wave. “And I don’t really care. I want to go home. This place is horrible.”
As they leave, Stephen glances behind. The lone watcher is now standing motionless, watching them go.
Reeearh comes around to talk, every now and again. Despite the continual blood-soaked rhetorical death threats, Stephen slowly realises that the huge predator is lonely and helpless.
There’s a tower that projects high above the overcity. The way up is easy, which is to say that Stephen lies flat on his back on the ground with his feet on the side until his local down changes, and then just walks. There’s a good view out into the heart of the Snarl; all violet shadows and highlights and abandoned, surreal architecture. They sit side by side on the slanting roof. For once, Stephen’s left the puppy behind with Night Wave.
“…a fine chase,” it says. “The prey ran for days. Clever it was, and almost it eluded me, but no mere prey can outwit my glorious mind. It led me deep into the forest, where nothing goes for fear of the giant thunder birds. Nothing other than myself can stand up to their mighty bladed wings, and it is a fierce battle even for myself; but the prey ran straight into their nest and between the legs of the bull. I, of course, followed and found myself facing the enraged bird…”
Stephen tunes out the rest of Reeearh’s frankly unlikely hunting story, making sure to make appreciative noises at the right places. He’s found that if he keeps emphasising how puny and weak the three of them are, Reeearh remains calm and relatively affable. The sheer size of it is imposing, and Stephen can’t help flinching every time it moves near him, but there’s a careful civilisation underneath the rough exterior that undermines any true sense of fear. Besides, he’s growing quite fond of the huge creature.
“Who built the city?” he says once Reeearh has finished.
“Prey animals,” Reeearh says dismissively. “Hunters do not build. Building is easy. We only kill.”
“Why did they do it?” Stephen asks. “Nobody lives there.”
Reeeah hesitates. “It is an abandoned lair,” it says. “There was death there once. No more.”
“How long has it been empty?”
“Longer than than my life,” it says. “Longer than the lives of any I know. Longer the lives of my kind.”
It studies him, slit eyes under long-lashed eyelids. “Longer than my kind.”
It’s not talking about killing any more. That means it’s upset. Stephen wants to know more, but he also really needs to change the subject.
“Tell me about your species,” he says.
It almost visibly brightens. “We are known everywhere,” it says. “We are the Ones Who Kill. This galaxy fears our very name, and many more cower at our reputation! Our world is out on the rim: it is a quiet place, peaceful and with good hunting; the prey there is clever and wily. Only the greatest of us can catch it…”
As it continues, Stephen looks out at the Snarl, laid out in front of him. He’s looking out along the spiral of it; an open-ended trumpet made out of slices of city, all lit in violet and indigo. Outside the trumpet’s bell is the universe, caught in a purple spiderweb. The pure white stars in the distance have never looked more desirable. He sighs.