First things first.
Stephen doesn’t want to leave Night Wave, but she’s listless and unresponsive. But there’s nothing where they are: the Snarl’s rim is completely empty. They need food and water and shelter… well, maybe not shelter, not with these magical space suits, but Stephen is personally in desperate need of some sort of psychological security.
Eventually he manages to persuade Night Wave to follow him back to the nodule, although she won’t talk. The puppy is desperate, obviously aware that something is very wrong, and keeps darting out to nuzzle Night Wave before returning to Stephen’s dubious safety.
Once there he clambers out onto the brain-like surface and finds the portmaster again.
“Wake up,” he says.
“Welcome,” it says. “Did you find your ship?”
“No,” he replies. “It left without us.”
“There was no ship. I am the portmaster; I would know,” it says smugly. “It was simply a figment of your imagination.”
Stephen breathes deeply, staring at the featureless metal sphere which is the portmaster. From here it’s about head height. It’s about the size of his head as well. He mentally sketches an invisible body attached to the spherical head, standing in front of him, and then wishes he hadn’t.
“You’re right,” he says. “I am a native, and I imagined the whole thing.”
“I am pleased to hear that,” the portmaster says. “I would not like to be wrong; it would make me doubt my own sanity.”
Is this thing a person? Stephen thinks. Or just some sort of malfunctioning machine?
“Unfortunately I seem to have lost my memory,” he says. “Are there any life support circles here?”
“Of course!” says the portmaster. “There are many further inward towards to centre. I will give you a guide.” A golden firefly slowly appears. “Please follow this. And I am sorry to hear about your memory. I hope it returns soon.”
“So do I,” says Stephen.
The firefly leads them around the sphere and along one of the ribbons heading deeper down into the heart of the Snarl. It’s a long way, and Stephen finds himself wishing he’d asked about some sort of rapid transit system.
He’s seen the Snarl as a well, sucking him down; and he’s seen it as a tower, the light shining down on him from high overhead. Now he’s seeing it as a tunnel. The great loops of fabric sweep overhead and underfoot, forming concentric rings that focus down on the violet light at the centre. It looks like it should be bright, but it’s not. Is there something strange about the light, or is is space suit protecting him?
Around them the turns of the spiral slowly go past. Stephen hesitates to call the cancerous encrustations that cover them buildings, although clearly that’s what they are. There’s no organisation or reason to them. There’s simply structure built on top of structure on top of structure. Some of the intricate layering of architecture is lit, but there’s no sign of movement anywhere. The webbing of ribbons is growing denser here and they pass one of the chandeliers they saw earlier. It’s strikingly beautiful, a gently glowing arabesque of crystal and mirrors, but it, too, looks deserted. And when Stephen looks closer some of the surfaces are marred by the same mould-like bushes he had seen on the rim.
The light is growing brighter, now—or at least, more intense. The ribbon is no longer heading straight for it but is drifting off to one side, and Stephen can just make out its destination. A ring runs completely around the Snarl, perpendicular to its axis, intersecting uncomfortably with the angles of the spiral. It looks different, somehow. Less chaotic, more lived in. And as they approach, Stephen finally sees movement.
The ribbon comes down at the centre of an open space, and in that area there are…
There are tall, spindly ones, slowly walking on three legs, watching them with clusters of eyes on stalks; there’s a wheel, with glossy black domes where the axle should be, turning so as to keep them in view; there’s something huge and furry, with legs and claws and teeth, which watches him through binocular predator vision; there are some simple spheres, floating in the air, which don’t react in any way, but he’s sure they are watching them too. They are all motionless and staring.
Stephen, Night Wave and the puppy halt at the end of the ribbon. There’s a complete silence.
“Hello,” says Stephen. There is no response.
“We’re looking for the life support circle,” he says. “The portmaster sent us here. See?” He indicates the firefly, waiting patiently in front of them. Still nothing.
“Our ship left us here by mistake?” he says, his voice breaking.
There’s a response this time; most of the figures slowly turn away and shamble off.
“Prey,” comes a voice. It’s rich and deep, with a hint of a snarl to it. It belongs to the huge furred monster, which slowly pads towards them.
“You are my prey,” it says. “I will hunt you and kill you. I have been waiting so long for prey.”
Its fur is a rich golden brown, full of nightmare violet highlights from the light above. Its mouth opens and a black tongue caresses its teeth.
“You will get no help from these,” it says. “They have been here too long and their minds are hollow shells. They are not worthy to be hunted. But you will scream and flee in terror. I will hunt you.”
It stops in front of them. Its front shoulder is at least at Stephen’s head height. He belatedly realises that he should be running, but pure fear has frozen his feet to the ground.
The firefly of light gutters, and goes out.
Leaning forward, the creature extends its tongue and samples the air in front of Stephen and Night Wave. Night Wave has her eyes closed and is muttering to herself. At least, Stephen thinks, she won’t see it coming… The puppy is frozen motionless behind Stephen.
“You are weak,” says the monster. “Before I kill you, you must regain your strength and your spirit, so that your suffering may be great. Follow me.”
To Stephen’s relief, it turns, revealing a long, flowing tail, and heads back across the open space. The other figures drifting about all part before it, leaving a corridor. “Follow to your death!” it calls after them.
To his total surprise, Stephen does so.
The monster leads them away from the edge of the ring city. There are streets here, and it walks slowly but confidently down the centre of them, clearing a path through the crowds. Stephen and Night Wave follow in its wake.
The figures here—Stephen does not know whether to call them ‘people’—will either turn and stare, or else ignore them entirely. None make any attempt to communicate. One of the wheels at one point seems to approach, but it passes between them and the monster and off again to one side. Stephen wonders whether it even noticed them.
The monster talks.
“I was hunting,” it says. “My vehicle failed. I sniffed for prey and all I could scent was this place. There are no acceptable prey here, none at all. So I lie in wait for something worthy to arrive, that I might kill it.”
“How…” Stephen swallows. “How long have you been here?”
“I hunt, and hunt, and hunt,” it snarls, “And always in vain! There will be death! I will leave this place and I will roam the stars and the killing will be glorious!”
Abruptly it stops. “Here. Here is where you will strengthen yourselves.”
There’s another small, open space here, between buildings, and in the centre is the welcome sight of a glowing orange circle. Stephen steps inside. Water, he thinks desperately, and holds out his hand; and then there is a cup in it.
He drinks deeply, almost shuddering with relief, and then cups some in his hand for the puppy. Night Wave is floating inert, still with her eyes closed. Stephen eyes the monster, which is standing outside the circle watching them intently, violet highlights glinting off its eyes.
Fish, he thinks as hard as he can. Raw fish. Sashimi. Smoked salmon. Lox… A plate appears in his hand, with a dressed fish which might be a trout on it. He picks it up, drops the plate, which evaporates, and slowly waves the fish in front of Night Wave’s nostrils. They flare.
Very slowly, she opens her eyes, and then gently takes it into her mouth.
“I am not superstitious,” she says, her voice unmuffled by the food.
And then she shouts, deafeningly: “I AM NOT SUPERSTITIOUS!”
She closes her jaws. The fish goes crunch and her eyes snap open again. “I will not believe,” she says softly, glaring at Stephen, “that this is your fault. It is not! I will not!” She shouts again. “I will not!”
“First Conroy,” she says in a much more normal voice. “Accidentally finds himself on a Builder starship. Gets marooned on Garden. Picked up by a Scavanger ship, and goes through hell, dragging two sealin along with him. Now it’s you. And I’m caught up in the middle of it. Me and that stupid puppy. The matriarch must have been insane to send me here. What is it about you people?”
“Well,” she says. “Now what?”
Stephen waits until his heart stops pounding, and caresses the puppy.
“Well,” he repeats. “I think, first, we get to eat and refresh ourselves.”
“And then,” he says, “I believe that person over there would like to kill us.”
It doesn’t kill them.
It waits patiently while they eat and drink, lying down on all fours like a cat. One ear twitches at intervals.
“I have no idea what it is,” Night Wave says at last, very quietly.
“Is that your prosthetic memory speaking?” says Stephen.
“It must be very rare or very old,” she says, ignoring his jibe. “I hope it’s rare.”
“How dangerous is it?” Stephen whispers.
She hesitates. “I don’t know,” she mutters. “It probably can’t get through our suit fields. Probably…”
The creature’s paws are huge, with scythe-like retractable claws. It blinks at them lazily.
“There’s a thing I’ve heard of,” Night Wave adds. “Mindsets so alien that our translators have trouble with them.”
“Vermin such as you cannot understand true speech,” it says proudly.
“You mean,” says Stephen carefully, “that it doesn’t want to kill us?”
“I will kill you,” it snarls. “I will tear you limb from limb. I will rip out your guts and suck out your brains. I will kill you and devour you.” It’s starting to drool. The saliva evaporates before it hits the ground.
“It wants to kill us,” says Night Wave.
“But for now I will let you live,” it says. “As yet you are not worthy prey for one such as me.”
“…but not now,” says Night Wave.
“Yes, thanks,” says Stephen.
Despite the monster’s presence, and its words, the fear is leaving Stephen. There’s something very strange here, and it doesn’t feel dangerous. The puppy feels it too, and pokes her head over his shoulder.
“I’ve heard of this,” repeates Night Wave. “There are predator species which are so focused on hunting that they cannot even think of anything else. This must be one. …maybe?”
“To kill is to live,” says the monster. “I kill. I live. You die.”
“So they’ve learnt to keep putting it off,” Night Wave says. “That lets them talk to others… I’ve never met one, though.”
The monster bristles. “I will kill you! You will die! This will happen! Not now, but soon! You will never escape me!” It’s leaning forwards, practically roaring in Stephen’s face, but while he can hear its voice he cannot feel its breath. The suit doing its magic, again. He wonders what kind of air it’s breathing.
“But for now,” he says, mind working furiously, “you must let us live. Or you will waste the opportunity.”
The monster calms almost instantly. “Yes,” it says. “Yes. You will not be wasted. You will be savoured.”
“How did you do that?” Night Wave says quietly.
“A hunch,” he mutters to her. “It’s looking for excuses to let us live, right?”
Out loud he asks, “Do you have a name?”
“I have many names,” it says. “Names to be feared. Names to be shouted in rage. Names to be honoured. Names to be screamed in mortal agony and rage. My victims at their last know me as… ####.”
Stephen blinks. The monster’s voice blurs in his head and, while he heard it clearly, meaning escapes him.
“I… didn’t quite…” he begins, but as the monster starts to rear up again, tries to reproduce the non-sound he heard. “Reeearh?”
It settles down again. “Mock me as you will, vermin,” it says.
“Is there a way off this place?” Night Wave says.
“This is a trap,” Reeearh replies. It settles back on its haunches and speaks quietly, intensely. “There is no escape from here save through death. It is a place of madness and solitude and there is no other worthy prey here save you, and a few others. When I kill you, you will be grateful.”
“Ships must come here some time!” she says. “We came here on a ship!”
“You came,” it says. “But you do not go.”
Night Wave sags in the air.
“Do you know anywhere where we can rest?” Stephen asks.
Reeearh studies them. “You are weak prey,” it says. “You must have a den. Follow.”
Reeearh leads them away from the orange circle, down a ramp and round a corner, and suddenly they are underneath the city walking on a wide walkway above nothingness. Inverted buildings hang down on each side. The light of the violet pseudo-star doesn’t reach here and Stephen suddenly realises how tired it was making his eyes. The crowds from the streets above don’t make it here, and everything is still.
“Here,” Reeearh says after a few moments, and indicates with one massive fore-paw a bulbous mass hanging from the ring structure above. “This a den fit for the likes of you.”
Stephen’s first impression is that it is a wasp’s nest: a bulbous, lumpy mass the size of a small house, with a rough and somewhat unappetising texture. A few circular holes show only darkness inside.
“It must be joking,” says Night Wave quietly.
“I do not mock,” Reeearh growls. “I only kill.”
One of the holes is reachable from the edge of the walkway. Stephen casts an apprehensive eye at Reeearh—is it genuinely angry, or is this more compensation?—and reaches forward. Light blooms inside, and he peers in.
“You have to see this,” he says.
It’s a house.
There is one large chamber inside, with three small ones connecting from it. They’re all irregular and organically shaped, with curved sides and no observable up or down; the walls are a quietly iridescent mother of pearl and the doors are simply circular openings from one chamber to another. A sourceless golden light fills the entire place.
But it’s a house. It feels warm and comforting, and Stephen feels his eyes relax after the endless, harsh violet glare of the Snarl. It’s completely empty, without even dust anywhere, but in one of the chambers they find a glowing orange ring on one wall…
“Thank-you!” says Stephen, leaning out one of the windows into the dark beyond. Reeearh is waiting patiently on the walkway beyond. “It’s perfect! How did you know it was here?”
“This is my territory,” it says. “I hunt here. I know it all.”
“Who made it?” Stephen asks. “What happened to them?”
Reeearh meets his eyes. “They were prey. They died. Everyone dies here, who is able.”
For once, Reeearh isn’t making a threat. It’s a simple statement of fact. It seems somehow… wistful.
“We, we should to rest,” Stephen says eventually.
“I will find you,” Reeearh says, and walks away.