It’s a long way to the core.
They find a ribbon that connects on to the ring and S-curves through its centre. It bypasses the worst of the overgrown architecture and will get them back onto the spiral a lot further in, where the loops aren’t nearly as big.
The universe slowly swings back and forth as they walk along the curves. For a while Stephen can see the square where they met Reeearh; then it’s behind them. Ahead the violet glare of the light shines into their faces. Around them, the spiral moves in enormous curves, blocking out the sky, encrusted with buildings.
“Do you think there’s anything in those buildings?” he says, mostly to pass the time.
“No,” Night Wave says instantly.
“Why not?” he asks.
“Because they were made by desperate people,” she says. “Maybe the zombies. When they realised they were becoming zombies. They made those buildings to try and drag themselves out of their rut, doing deliberately strange and random things just so there was something new in their lives.” She’s speaking very intensely.
“But it didn’t work,” says Stephen. It’s not a question.
“They just kept building, and building, until it became a habit, and then an ingrained pattern…”
That’s why there are so many, and why they are so densely packed. There would be a point where they would be unable to see an empty space without placing a building in it, of some kind. Stephen shivers, again. “But they stopped,” he says.
“There’s still plenty of space,” Night Wave says slowly. “There must be a reason.”
She’s getting morose again, so Stephen says, “Are you from Home Waters?”
“No,” she says. “I’m from Hope. White Bird clan. Why the sudden interest?”
“You never talk about yourself,” he says.
“Nobody’s ever interested,” she replies.
“Really,” she says flatly. “Well, then. My full name is Night Wave of the White Bird of Hope. Originally, at least.”
“Where’s Hope?” he asks.
“It’s not far from Home Waters,” she says. “You won’t see it.”
“But you live on Home Waters now.”
“Not really,” she says. “I used to live on Home Waters. White Bird married me into a cousin-clan there, Blue Horizon. Then I… decided to leave. Dark Cloud is a cousin-clan of Blue Horizon’s, and I wanted to try starships, so I applied. They took me on as a cousin for a while.”
“Looking forward to going back?” he says.
“No,” she replies. “I won’t go back to Blue Horizon and White Bird doesn’t have many other friends there.” She flicks her tail. “I was trying to better myself, you see. Get myself off Hope and onto the home world, marry myself into more prestigious clans… that worked out so well for me.”
The sheer verticality of the views here never ceases to astonish Stephen. He knows that his own personal up and down is simply a figment of the suit’s imagination; but nevertheless, the way the sightlines reach in all directions and lead the eye up to the zenith or down beneath his feet is a revelation to someone who grew up with horizons. It both makes him feel insignificant, and strangely liberated. And right now he’s walking along a bridge from nowhere, right through the middle of it.
Being marooned here isn’t all bad, but he’s not going to say that to Night Wave.
“What’s Home Waters like?” he says instead. “They were sending me there, but it’s not like I know anything about it.”
“What it’s like?” she repeats. “You want to know what an entire planet is like? It’s big, that’s what it’s like.”
“You know what I mean,” he says.
She seems to sigh, and thinks. “It’s old,” she says. “Old and complex and lived in. There’s history everywhere. On the surface there’s very little that’s new.”
“What about Hope?” he asks. “Is that old too?”
“Nothing like Home Waters,” she says. “It’s quiet. There’s never any urgency about anything. No grand projects, no deadlines. I couldn’t stand it. Garden will be like that in a few hundred years.”
There’s a thoughtful silence.
“My turn for the personal questions,” she says. “Where are you from?”
“Me?” says Stephen. “Didn’t you get dossiers on all the embassy staff?”
“You think I read them?” she says. “So tell me.”
He reflects. “Born in London,” he says. “Grew up there. Oxford University. Joined the diplomatic service… then Conroy’s Scavenger ship came down. I was in the right place at the right time and got drafted into the UNAE.”
Then he adds, “I was on holiday in Australia at the time. I saw the thing land. Scared the living daylights out of me. I thought the world was ending.”
“All those places,” Night Wave says. “Just the one planet.”
“Yes, thanks,” he says. “But I like it.”
“Our planets have places on them too,” she says. “Most planets do.”
“What about her?” Stephen says, gesturing at the puppy. “Where is she from? And Autumn Star, of course.”
“Autumn Star?” Night Wave says. “Dark Cloud of Home Waters. Lots of generations. She was, well, you’d probably call her aristocracy but that’s not accurate. She had a lot of history. The spider would have liked her.”
The puppy doesn’t react to her mother’s name. Stephen wonders whether she remembers her mother at all; she hasn’t seemed to have had any more nightmares since that one on the spider’s ship.
“The puppy’s Home Waters too,” says Night Wave. “Probably be Dark Cloud for the rest of her life. Assuming she has one.”
“They told me back home that you people choose your own name,” Stephen says.
“Yes, but we cheat,” Night Wave says. “My mother suggested mine. I liked it and kept it. …you’ll probably have to suggest hers.”
“Huh.” Stephen watches the puppy, swimming patiently alongside and admiring the view. “No pressure, then.”
“I’m sure someone will recommend one to you,” Night Wave adds.
“And…” Stephan hesitates, wondering whether asking this is wise. But he goes ahead anyway. “Your father’s the clan patriarch, right?”
“Ah, yes,” says Night Wave. “White Bird. I hope he’s still patriarch. I really liked him. Our matriarch was a terror, but I loved White Bird.”
“…your clans are named after their patriarch?”
“Other way around,” she says. “The patriarch’s named after the clan. Do you have a… mate?” She says the word like she’s not entirely sure what it means.
“No,” says Stephen, a little ruefully. “Not for lack of trying, though.”
“Can’t find a clan to marry into?” she says. “But I know you people work differently. Not that it seems any less weird, mind. No offense intended.”
“None taken,” he says. “You’re weird too.”
“That’s why Earth-humans and sealin get along so well,” she says.
“Because we’re both weird?”
“Absolutely.” They both laugh a little, and Stephen’s mood lifts.
The ribbon meets up with the spiral on the edge of a plain of pyramids.
The Snarl is much narrower here, and it’s only about a kilometre to a circuit. Ahead, the spiral tights rapidly and is lost in the glare.
The pyramids come in all colours, glowing faintly where the purple light doesn’t drown them out; some of them have openings like windows and doors, arranged randomly. But inside they’re all hollow.
“Art?” Stephen suggests.
“You can explain anything with art,” Night Wave says. “Somebody pretending to be mad?”
“You can explain anything with insanity,” Stephen replies. “Besides, this isn’t insanity. That’s insanity.” He gestures behind them to the ring.
“True,” Night Wave concedes. They move on.
The pyramids dwindle in size until the last few are little more than bumps in the ground. Then they are gone.
They are replaced with an empty field of corrugations, running from edge to edge of the fabric. They’re a good ten to twenty centimetres high.
Stephen examines them with trepidation—he doesn’t want to fall and twist an ankle; assuming his suit will let him—and eventually steps on one. The corrugation below his feet collapses inwards with an audible crunch. It’s the first sound he’s heard that’s not a voice for ages.
“What is this?” he says. “I don’t want to damage it.”
Night Wave examines his footprint. “I have no idea,” she says. “But there’s no way round. For you, at least. I can swim… hey. When did you learn to do that?”
Stephen is floating off the ground, in one of his flying poses. The secret is, he’s found, to pretend he’s flying as hard as he can; then he is. “A few days ago. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
“You should have told me!” Night Wave says. “You walk so slowly! We could be there by now. Come on.”
She accelerates out across the corrugations.
“I like walking!” shouts Stephen, and then concentrates and darts out after her, the puppy racing along behind.
They skim over the surface of the spiral, the ground sliding away behind them. The corrugations are replaced with a stretch of barren fabric, some more of the bushes speckling its surface, and then it’s full of enormous circular fountain-like shapes of all different sizes, each with its edge just meeting the next. After that the landscape slowly shifts to towers.
Following Night Wave is difficult but strangely exhilerating. She’s not moving in anything like a straight line, instead ducking and swooping and looping round some of the larger buildings for no particular reason other than it’s fun. Stephen follows as best he can but he’s hopelessly outmatched; they continue to race into the glare.
Eventually Night Wave slows down, and Stephen comes to a halt, floating gently beside her.
The spiral’s diameter is no more than a few hundred metres now. Ahead, it narrows and tightens, forming a tight vortex that disappears into the violet glare of the light.
There’s a lot of light. Their suits protect them from most of it, so it’s never more than uncomfortably bright, but what little makes it through still fills half the universe. Squinting into the centre, Stephen can just make out the spiral as mere dark lines, curling inwards until they’re washed out by the glare.
“How safe is it to go?” he asks.
“Your suit won’t let you get too close,” Night Wave says distractedly. After a few moments realises that she’s using her toolkit; the glowing symbols around her head are almost invisible.
Stephen watches while one of the cubes appears, rotates slowly in a couple of different directions, and then disappears again.
“I don’t know what it is,” Night Wave announces. “It’s not just a light, I can tell that. But there’s more to it.”
“Anything that can help us?” Stephen says.
“Not from here,” she says. “I want to get closer.”
They push forwards. After a few moments, Stephen realises that he is pushing; the medium is slowly growing somehow thick, and at the same time there’s a gentle rushing sound, gradually getting louder.
“Do you hear that?” he says.
“Suit alarm,” Night Wave says. “It doesn’t like you being here. Move slowly.”
They’re deep in the heart of the light now. Nearly the entire world is a washed-out, incandescent violet. Night Wave is just a faint shadow.
“Where’s the puppy?” he shouts over the noise.
“Stayed behind,” he hears Night Wave call. “She’s not stupid.”
Stephen passes one of the curves of the spiral, and reaches out and grabs it. The strip of fabric is barely a metre wide at this point, and under his hands it’s unnaturally rigid, without the slightest give to it. He rests for a moment. Ahead the spiral is just a faint line in the glare, winding around and around in endless tightening watch-spring coils into nowhere.
“It doesn’t want to talk to me,” Night Wave shouts. “I’m having trouble analysing it.”
“We should back off!”
“A few more moments… got it.”
Stephen lets go, and now he’s not fighting the current finds himself tumbling head over heels as he’s blown backwards.
The puppy is waiting for them back where it’s safe, darting backwards and forwards in agitation. Stephen rubs her head, feeling oddly comforted. “So. What is it?”
Night Wave’s head is at the centre of a hurricane of glowing symbols.
“Well, there’s the light,” she says. “It’s really complex. Monochromatic, too. I’m not sure why there’s so much precision defining the colour—it’s not a normal star colour.”
“Ugly, too,” Stephen says.
“Very,” she says. “Then there’s a field a few hundred kilometres wide. It’s discontinuous, a boundary effect. But the light’s tied up in that too. There’s another field, bigger than that, but that’s standard—it’s to push away drifting debris. I’ll need to work on this.”
“I want to search the area,” Stephen says. “Then leave. This place is horrible.”
“I agree,” Night Wave says.
They send some time examining the spiral out to about a kilometre from the light. It’s largely featureless, simply raw fabric, mottled and woven-looking. The only thing they find is a low wall not far from where they first stopped. It casts a long, dark shadow against the fabric.
“It’s a shelter,” Night Wave said as they rest in the shadow. “It’s for people doing exactly this.”
There is so much reflected light that the shadow would be as bright as day anywhere else, but compared to the sleet of purple light beyond the wall, it might as well be pitch black.
“Of course we aren’t the first here,” Stephen says.
After a moment, Night Wave says, “I want to see the sky. I want to see the sky on the other side of that damned light.”
“How far can our suits take us from, well, solid land?” Stephen says.
“About three hundred metres,” Night Wave says. “Come on.”
They skim along the outside of the Snarl, keeping their distance; but that’s limited by the suits, which will gently push them back if they get too far away. They’re planning to try to circle behind the light, but instead they find a piece of the spiderweb ribbon which extends straight out to one side, away from the bulk of the Snarl.
“We’re still not the first,” Night Wave says with resignation. “Someone’s thought of this before. Coming?”
They head out along the ribbon, which provides matter for whatever is driving their suits to push against. It must be most of a kilometre long, and at the far end just stops dead in space. From here, the Snarl is laid out below them, a nightmare tracery of light and shadow that fills half the sky.
But now they can see beyond the light, and see the sky beyond it.
It’s just more stars.
They stay for a long time, and then Stephen says, “Let’s go home.”
“I’ve got it,” Night Wave says.
They’re on the way home now; swimming and flying slowly back along the spiral. Stephen thinks Night Wave may be cheating, as she’s too busily engrossed in decoding the field structure of the light to swim a lot of the time, but is still making good progress. The puppy swims more conventionally along beside.
“You know what it is?” Stephen says.
“Yes,” she replies. She sounds… flat. Numb.
“That boundary condition,” she says. “It’s tied in with the light generation. What I missed is that it’s not emitting light. It’s absorbing it.”
A slow suspicion begins to dawn on Stephen.
“Light’s generated near the centre,” Night Wave says. “Photons appearing in space, of one particular frequency. The position’s randomised so they appear in a cloud. Not a point source. But each one is logged. Then… when they pass through that boundary… they’re recognised, and dematerialised. That light can’t illuminate anything outside the field!”
“No wonder nobody’s found this place,” Stephen says.
“But it’s worse than that!” Night Wave continues. She’s sounding a little hysterical now, and is swimming up close to him. “If one of the photons hits something, it’s reflected and its frequency shifts a bit. But the individual photons are all logged. The boundary still recognises them! So not even reflected light can escape!”
“The Snarl is invisible,” Stephen says slowly.
“And we can’t even build our own light source!” she says. “That boundary condition’s really just a faint force field, intangible. Doesn’t interact with matter. Except if there’s a large photon flux from inside! Then it goes solid, opaque. We’re only allowed to see the stars if we’re dark!”
She’s beginning to shake.
“Hey, calm down,” he says. The puppy nuzzles her from the other side. Night Wave slowly settles down.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I was just…”
They’re near their turnoff onto the ribbon which will take them back to the ring. Stephen settles down onto the ground. He wants to feel some weight under his feet, even if it’s fake weight.
“I was hoping we’d find something,” she says eventually. “Something helpful. Instead we found it’s worse.”
“That force field, it doesn’t stop matter, right?” Stephen says.
“Only when triggered,” she replies.
“Then at least we’re not locked in,” he says. “Ships can get in and out.”
Night Wave thinks. “True,” she says. “We’ve got that.”
“Can you change it?” he asks. “Modify the settings, or something?”
“Not a chance,” Night Wave says. “It was all I could do just to read it.”
“Okay,” says Stephen. “At least we know where we stand, now.”
“Speak for yourself,” says Night Wave, floating in front of him. “You’re the one who has legs.” She sounds wobbly, but better.