The two pilots work the controls urgently, talking quietly between themselves.
“I don’t recognise the configuration.” “Not a coincidence. Not a coincidence.” “The radio’s not working.” “Are they jamming us? Seriously?” “No, it’s that damned cube. It’s twisting the field.” “Dodge?” “In this? You’ve got to be joking.”
“They are hunting,” Reeearh shouts from the other ship.
“You think they’re hunting us?” he calls to it.
“If they do, they will regret it!” it shouts back. “I am not prey!”
It’s pacing back and forwards on the confined space of the flying platform, significantly inconveniencing its pilots.
Night Wave’s staring silently at the Thantian’s displays, on the floor of the platform. Stephen hopes she can get more out of them than him; all he can see is a squiggle of multicoloured lines. Instead he scans the sky. Futile, he knows, as the approaching ship is most likely still so far away that the distance has to be measured in terms of the speed of light.
“Here it comes,” says Mersyntil. “I do hope it’s friendly. We’d never live down meeting pirates this close to home.”
Stephen’s actually looking in the right direction to see it come. A moving dot against the sky, suddenly and shockingly swelling into a shape, and then almost without a perceptible transition it’s gone past them and is gone. He gasps, and clutches the puppy in his arms, who wriggles in protest.
“No!” shouts Mersyntil in sudden fury. “The bastards!”
It’s at this point that Stephen sees that the stars are slowly rotating about them. Their ship is tumbling.
“They blew our fields,” says Night Wave. “Probably not friendly, then?”
The two Thantians work furiously, but all they can achieve is to draw close to the other platform before the alien ship approaches again.
It’s much more what Stephen would recognise as a spaceship; big, blocky, and horseshoe shaped, with a wraparound line of black glass windows around the curved bow. Its shining white hull gleams in the dim light from Thant High’s sun, now a lot nearer than it was, but not near enough. Enclosed within the horseshoe is a thing like a geodesic ball of shining blackness, but it’s difficult to make out.
Stephen finds himself thinking that it looks thoroughly old fashioned. But he does recognise the construction. Anyone on Earth would, from endless hours of television footage. The shape is unusual, but the colours and design are classic Builder.
It slowly turns. A big port on its side is open, white light silhouetting a humanoid figure.
“We won’t hurt you,” says a sourceless voice. “You just have something we want. Stay where you are and don’t move.”
Stephen sighs deeply. It’s one thing to have a theory. It’s another to have it confirmed, and realise that it means something you really wish wasn’t true.
“Hello, Tonauac,” he says.
There’s a shocked silence. “Stephen Hawke?” says the voice. “What… what are you doing here?”
The figure jumps out into space, and gracefully sails across the gap towards them. It’s a space suit: not an invisible field like Stephen’s, but a proper suit, gloves, padding, bubble helmet and everything. It comes down gently on the edge of the platform, and its visor clears.
“I might ask you the same question,” says Stephen to Tonauac.
“You didn’t arrive on Thant High,” says Tonauac. “We thought… oh. You got off at the Snarl.”
“Your pet spider abandoned us,” says Night Wave bitterly.
Tonauac glances at her. “I did try to warn you,” he says. “Well. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. But now I want the core. Where is it?”
They all look at each other; human to sealin to machine. Reeearh is glaring at them from the other platform, head down and ruff up.
Two other figures have left the Builder ship. They’re drifting nearby, holding devices in their hands that can only be weapons.
“Here,” says Mersyntil, holding out the cube on a tendril of field.
“Thank-you,” breathes Tonauac, taking it. “You have no idea what we went through to get this.”
“It’s a death trap,” says Night Wave.
“We picked up a big warp pulse from the Snarl,” says Tonauac. “And then there was nothing but rubble, crawling with Thant ships. The core should have been safe there. I don’t suppose that… accident… had some help? From you, perhaps?”
Night Wave simply wilts. Stephen rests one hand on her back.
“I’m actually glad to see you,” Tonauac says to Stephen. “We can use you. Come with us. You can leave the others, they’ll be fine. The Thantians will pick them up within the hour.”
It’s on the tip of Stephen’s tongue to tell him to go to hell, but he’s reminded of something which he was told in training: always do what the guy with the gun says. Always.
“No,” he says.
Tonauac looks from Stephen, standing trembling with the puppy cradled across his chest, to Night Wave, cowering against him. “I do not have time for this,” he says. “Bring all three of them.”
Stephen’s about to protest when he’s suddenly falling. He grabs reflexively—and his arms won’t move. The gut panic dies a moment later when his eyes tell him he hasn’t moved, but is replaced with an entirely conscious terror. It feels like he’s in a straightjacket.
He’s still got the puppy pressed up against him. She’s wriggling desperately, caught in the same invisible vice and him. “It’ll be all right,” he finds himself saying. “It’s just a, a…” He’s not remotely convincing her, let alone himself. Stephen can move one hand a little and tries to pat her on the side.
Something grabs him by a shoulder and he spins. It’s one of the other spacesuits, towing him and the puppy off the platform. The other one has Night Wave, who’s locked rigid too. The two Thantians, left behind, are just staring after them.
Then the world fills with a hideous, screaming roar: not a machine, but an animal, in a rage and terror which promises an inevitable, violent death. Stephen stops breathing, stops thinking—he feels like his heart has stopped, too, and he almost soils himself. But then he sees the source: Reeearh, screaming and leaping from its platform. The huge creature flies past him and out of view.
“What the—?” he hears Tonauac say, in panic. “What is that thing—what’s it doing… no, ignore those two! Stop the big one!”
Stephen’s let go, and he starts tumbling head over heels. The Builder ship comes into view; Reeearh is perched on its side, three legs fastened to the hull, one great paw raised. Its claws are extended—are they glowing?—and then it swipes; and a strip of white hull material peels away, shattered and complex machinery tumbling out of the hole. Stephen giggles hysterically; it’s all Earth can do just to cut that stuff.
Two of the anonymous suited figures approach cautiously, but Reeearh just roars again and raises a threatening paw and they back off. Stephen doesn’t blame them.
The third figure, presumably Tonauac, comes into Stephen’s point of view. It’s got its hands to its head in a gesture of total bewilderment. Reeearh is now tunnelling deep into the Builder ship, fragments of shredded machinery behind it. The big black-glass window splits across the middle and blows out in several pieces. Vapour swirls around Reeearh as the ship’s atmosphere explodes into vacuum, and its thick fur blows in the short-lived wind.
Reeearh lifts its head out of the hole in the side of the ship.
“You left me there!” it bellows. “You knew of the Snarl, and you left me there!” Its rage is terrifying. “You left me there and for this I will kill you!”
Tonauac’s backing away now.
“Jettison the experimental ship,” he shouts. “Jettison it! Get it clear! We’ll escape in that, that, that thing’s only got a field-suit, it can’t follow us…” He’s babbling, but the other suited figures, now given orders, are moving briskly. The big black sphere falls away from the disintegrating ship and disappears into the dark while hands grab Stephen by the shoulder again and pull him after. Reeearh struggles out of the hole to jump after them, but by the time he gets clear they’re too far away.
Tiny now, Reeearh rears up against the sky. “You cannot escape me!” it roars, its voice, carried perfectly by the suit, undulled by distance. “I will hunt you down! I will track you to the ends of the universe! I will find you and rip you apart like rotten wood! I WILL KILL YOU!”