The ships from Thant High rescue them a couple of hours later.

They don’t look like spaceships. They’re just flat, flying rafts: no hull, just a circular platform surrounded by a low railing, with some obscure machinery populating the underside.

“We homed in on your suit fields,” says one of the Thantians, after they are pulled aboard. Its name is Mersyntil, and it’s a spherical machine form with a few sensor ports on one side, the exact image of some of the machine zombies from the Snarl. At least that’s one minor mystery cleared up, Stephen finds himself thinking.

“And there was this,” Mersyntil adds, holding out a familiar looking cube on a filament of coloured force field. “It was producing a very strange fingerprint on our sensor grid.”

“Keep it,” says Night Wave bitterly.

The fake sun’s final paroxyms had consumed the rest of the Snarl, sucking the spiral into itself. Only the city, tumbling end over end and slowly disintegrating, was spared, mercifully; Stephen doesn’t even know how to start guessing how. After the final explosion of light, there was nothing but a slowly growing cloud of spinning fragments.

After that, there was just the darkness and the stars. The four of them had huddled together in silence, drifting through the emptiness. There was nothing to say.

“You’re the only ones we can reach,” Mersyntil says. “There’s a lot more suits operating near the centre of… that.” It doesn’t have any limbs to gesture with but its meaning is obvious nevertheless.

“You think some of the zombies survived?” Stephen says dully. The suit’s warming him, but the little ship has no life support circle, and he finds himself desperately missing that age old solution to any Earth-human crisis: a cup of tea. Instead he sits on the ground, the puppy in his arms, leaning up against Night Wave’s side.

“Probably,” says the other Thantian; it’s called Pantchuok. “Field suits are pretty robust.”

“We’ll check,” says Mersyntil.

“At least, the factory ship will,” says Pantchuok. “We’re not equipped to go in there.”

The four Thantians had taken one horrified look at the massive debris field and had called for all the backup they could manage. Apparently Thant High is sending an entire orbital construction complex, as being the best equipment they have to deal with a catastrophe of this scale. “We’re going to pick up every piece,” Mersyntil had said grimly. They seem to be shocked not only by the destruction, but also by the fact that a doldrum had been hiding on their doorstep for their entire recorded history.

“I wonder if the plant made it,” says Stephen. “And the portmaster.”

After Stephen explains, Pantchuok says, “I couldn’t possibly say. It sounds like this plant had its own environmental support system. If it’s intact, it should be fine. If not…”

“We’ll look,” says Mersyntil. “That’s all I can say.”

Stephen sighs. The puppy is quiet in his arms, watching the two spherical machine people with dark eyes.

The other platform is drifting a few metres away, tipped up at an angle from Stephen’s point of view. Reeearh is sprawled on it, only just leaving room for the two Thantian pilots. The big predator has its eyes closed and answers in monosyllables when they talk to it, when it replies at all: delayed shock, most likely, and not just from the recent catastrophe. The predator’s millennia-long nightmare is finally over.

Its crew are examining Reeearh, moving carefully to avoid disturbing it. Something about it has sparked the Thantians’ interest, and the two pilots have been fielding continual requests for information from Thant High, much to their annoyance.

Mersyntil fiddles with some of their own platform’s controls, tentacles of coloured light flickering out from one of its sensor ports and adjusting the instruments. Stephen approves. He can actually tell what it’s doing, unlike the invisible telekinesis of the sealin toolkit.

“The factory’s here,” it says. It gestures up at the sky, towards the bright star of Thant High. Nearby, a dark shadow is sliding slowly across the Milky Way. As Stephen watches, it lights up, revealing itself to be a insanely complex shape of struts and girders, easily half as large as the Snarl was. It begins to shed a swarm of smaller lights.

“They’ll take over now,” says Mersyntil. “Do you want to stay while we start the search? Is there anyone else here we should be looking for?”

They’ve asked this several times. “No,” Stephen says. “It’s just us.”

“I want to see a real sun again,” says Night Wave.

“Me too,” says Stephen.

Mersyntil and Pantchuok rotate towards each other to share a glance.

“All right then,” says Pantchuok. “Home it is.”

Night Wave sighs.

“Are you all right?” Stephen says to Night Wave while the pilots fuss over the controls. With his back against her, he can’t see her face, but he knows that she finds his weight against her comforting.

“I’m cursed,” she says.

“I thought you weren’t superstitious?” he asks.

“I’m not,” she says. “I’m just picking the simplest hypothesis that fits the available evidence.”

“It could be me, you realise,” says Stephen. “It doesn’t have to be all about you. I could be the one who made this all happen.”


After a moment, Stephen says, “The cube. The warp core. There was something wrong with it, wasn’t there?”

“Yes,” she says. “Or no. I don’t know. It’s certainly not a warp core of a kind I’ve ever worked with before. It’s… like it’s tuned to deliberately generate unstable warp fields.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Stephen admits. “But its presence can’t be a coincidence.”

“No,” says Night Wave thoughtfully. “…I wonder. We talked about secrets. Was that it?”

“The warp core?” says Stephen. “You think it was being hidden on the Snarl? Why?”

“Because the Snarl was hidden?” says Night Wave. “Doldrums are hard to find at the best of times, but the Snarl was invisible…”

“And it’s close to Thant High,” says Stephen. The little platform’s moving, leaving the debris field and the factory ship behind. Stephen is very glad to see it go. The other platform is matching their course at a distance of a few hundred metres; a small, precise shape light up by its own lights.

One of their pilots doesn’t look busy, so Stephen leans forward. “Mersyntil,” he says. “Can you people track spaceships at a distance? Would you notice if anyone stopped at the Snarl?”

“I’m Pantchuok, actually,” says the Thantian. “But yes, and no. We watch the ships in our system itself, but why bother keeping track further? They leave our system and then they’re in the long dark. Everyone we actually care about is either heading to our ports or leaving again. We’re a hub. Why would anyone want to hang around nearby?”

“But you may be sure,” says Mersyntil, “that now we’re going to be searching the space around here really well. If there’s any more of these goddamned places out here we want to know.”

“It’ll take forever,” Pantchuok says with grim satisfaction. “Generations of trade cadets will curse your name.”

“It’ll do them good,” says Mersyntil, and turns back to the controls.

“Tonauac,” says Night Wave suddenly.

Stephen turns to her. “What about him?”

“He didn’t want you on the spider ship,” she says. “You talked about that.”

“Yes,” says Stephen. “But we didn’t know why. But we do now.”

“Because the spider was stopping at the Snarl,” says Night Wave.

Stephen nods. “And the Snarl was where the warp core was hidden?”

“No,” says Night Wave. “Because the spider was delivering the warp core to the Snarl. Remember those weird engine readings I was getting? Parasitic resonance of the warp core.”

“Is this something we should know about?” Pantchuok suddenly says, turning away from the controls.

“It didn’t bother the spider,” says Night Wave, uneasily. “But spider ships are weird. Check your engines?”

“Will do,” says Pantchuok, and starts working the controls again.

There’s a long silence.

“The matriarch thought the spider was up to something, right?” says Stephen eventually. “That’s why she sent you. And us along with you to cause a distraction.”

“So she gets things wrong occasionally,” says Night Wave uncomfortably. “But yes.”

“Okay,” says Stephen. “So someone’s been using the Snarl as a covert drop-off point. The spider was carrying the warp core there for the Builders. Presumably someone would come to pick it up. Tonauac? He said he was going be near Thant High. Wait a minute, I’ve just remembered something.”

Stephen fishes his phone out of his pocket and impatiently closes the chess app. It still says NO SIGNAL, but he hunts through the incoming documents until he finds the itinerary which Tonauac so casually sent him, all those lifetimes ago on the shore of Île de Jardin, back on distant Earth.

It’s a simple list of places and dates. There are a lot of them, but Stephen recognises three of the names.

“He went to Yotimtlan,” he says. “Then he was going to Thant High. Then Earth.”

Night Wave thinks. “The direct route from Yotimtlan to Earth doesn’t go anywhere near here,” she says.

“…our warp field is distorted,” says Pantchuok suddenly. “The automation is coping, but that’s just because we’re going so slowly. I’m reducing speed, just to be sure. It’ll take another hour to get there.”

Night Wave twitches. “I’m sorry!” she blurts. “I should have warned you… that thing is, is…”

“Cursed?” says Mersyntil.

“Maybe,” says Night Wave dejectedly. Stephen rubs her on the top of the head.

The two Thantian ships are going at what counts as dead slow for galactic technology—only thirty or forty thousand times the speed of light, Stephen thinks tiredly—and there’s no visible sign of motion. The two ships could be hanging motionless in space for all he can tell.

“If this were a real spaceship,” Pantchuok says, “and not just a runabout, I think our warp field would have collapsed by now. Can I borrow that thing? I know some some people back home who would love to figure out how it works.”

“That does explain why this Tonauac character didn’t pick it up near your Earth,” Mersyntil adds. “Because it would have played havoc with his engines. But this spider of yours was able carry it safely.”

“…because spider ships are weird,” says Night Wave.

“So,” says Stephen slowly, “how would he transport it away from the Snarl?”

There’s a silence.

“In another spider ship?” suggests Mersyntil.

“In a ship powered by spider engines?” says Stephen.

“He wasn’t going to transport it,” says Night Wave. “He was going to use it right here.”

“But for what?” says Stephen. “What’s the use of a warp core that won’t… warp?”

Night Wave has picked herself up off the deck and is swimming round the platform in circles thinking, now. The other platform has approached and is trailing them ten metres or so away. Reeearh is awake now, sitting watching them. Stephen wonders how much of their conversation it heard.

“It warps,” says Night Wave. “It just won’t sustain a continuous field. It may be designed not to. …in fact, the more I think of it, I think it’s designed to be unstable. You pump it up, and then it collapses, producing a burst of pure geometry.”

Stephen shakes his head in frustration. “Can you make a spaceship go with that?”

“I don’t know,” says Night Wave. “But I can think of any number of very dangerous things to do with it.”

“Speaking of spaceships,” says Pontchuok. “We’re being approached by one, and it’s not identifying itself.”

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