Stephen is playing chess on his phone.
Somehow, mysteriously, the battery remains fully charged. It’s something to do with his suit, he thinks. If it’s capable of magically making air and gravity for him, then topping up the phone’s battery should be easy for it. But it’s an unnerving reminder of the casual way in which galactic technology does the impossible.
It’s a work-issue smartphone, given to him when he joined the UNAE, replacing his unreliable and rather elderly Motorola; he’s not much of a gadget person, and mainly uses it for phone calls, texting and the occasional email. He did, however, take the time to load some basic board game apps onto it, something he is now very glad about.
Stephen’s winning, which he shouldn’t be. He’s not that good at chess and the chess app is on its most difficult setting. He briefly ponders whether the app is somehow getting worse, but that’s simply wishful thinking, and eventually he has to face the truth: he’s getting better. He’s been playing a lot of chess since he left Earth.
Eventually he takes the app’s queen, leaving it with only a couple of pawns left. The app’s too stupid to resign and he can’t be bothered to finish up so he just quits it and closes the phone.
It’s the middle of the afternoon, according to their rough daytime cycle. He and the puppy have already been out for their daily ramble, it’s not late enough to eat, he doesn’t feel like sleeping, and he’s run out of books. He’s bored.
There are some things he should probably be doing—making copious notes on his laptop for the Secretary, for one, but he can’t face trying to type without gravity again. He’s thought about trying to make voice recordings but both his phone and the laptop are impossible to figure out.
After a while he goes looking for Night Wave.
She is, predictably, back at the house, watching the puppy while she has her afternoon nap; Stephen’s quite sure that the puppy can take care of herself, but he thinks Night Wave needs something to do.
In fact, the older sealin is floating by one of the windows, staring at the unchanging view outside.
“Hey,” he says. She blinks but doesn’t reply.
“I’ve had a thought,” he continues. “We know the spider was up to something, or it wouldn’t have come here, right? Well, Tonauac tried quite hard to make me take a different ship. Do you think he knew?”
She blinks again. “Tonauac? The Builder diplomat?”
“That’s him,” says Stephen. “He told me some story about how dangerous spiders were. He offered me a lift on his own ship.”
She looks away from him, turning her whole head. “Spiders aren’t dangerous.”
Stephen realises that neither of them have talked about her ill-fated attempt to manipulate him on the spider ship since her admission a couple of weeks ago. She obviously still feels very bad about it.
“Well, yes,” he says awkwardly, and tries to recollect his thoughts. “So why did Tonauac tell me they were?”
After a moment, he adds, “He said some odd things about the Dark Cloud matriarch, too.” Tonauac’s comments about Night Wave herself hover on the tip of his tongue but stay safely unsaid.
“Posturing?” she says eventually. Night Wave is an an engineer, not a diplomat.
“I don’t know,” Stephen says. “I thought it was more than the usual back-and-forth between the Builders and the sealin.”
There’s another long pause. “I don’t know either,” she says.
It dawns on Stephen that he’s carrying the bulk of the conversation himself.
“So, um,” he says. “Do you think he knew about, well, this?” He gestures at the Snarl around them.
There’s another pause, even longer this time. She’s still not making eye contact. He thinks; her pupil-less black eyes could be looking anywhere, but her head is pointing out the window, and she’s usually pretty consistent with her body language. “I couldn’t say.”
Stephen’s suddenly doesn’t care at all about what Tonauac says or thought.
“I, uh, I just thought you should know,” he says. She doesn’t reply.
He glances at the puppy, peacefully asleep while sprawled in the centre of the room, and flees.
Sitting on the edge of the street, out of Night Wave’s line of sight, he holds his head in his hands and tries not to think.
“Stephan Hawke,” says the robot.
“Hi,” says Stephen. “What’s up?”
“I’ve been making progress,” it says. “I think I have a working design and I’m going to make a test flight. Do you want to watch?”
It’s waiting outside their house again. Reeearh’s there too, towering over the small machine.
“Of course,” he says.
He turns. Night Wave is, not exactly better, but at least moving and talking again. “You should come,” he says.
“All right,” she says listlessly.
Scooping up the puppy, they head outside.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” says the robot as they head across to the park. “About hot gases. And I’ve been running some experiments. It works; it’s a lot more effective than the mercury, and considerably less antisocial as the gasses just dissipate after I eject them.”
“Oh, good,” says Stephen. “You know mercury’s poisonous, right? Well. To me, at least.”
“I wouldn’t know,” says the robot. “But creating really hot gas is harder than you might think. I’ve been abusing a life support system to actually create the matter, and of course they’re designed to work within a limited temperature range.”
“Yes, most life only exists below a thousand kelvin or so. I experimented with chemistry, but it’s just too complicated. You’d be amazed how many combinations of molecules there are. But I found an alternative!”
“What’s that?” Stephen says warily.
Beside him, Night Wave makes an odd little coughing sound. “You’re not serious,” she says.
“Oh, yes,” says the robot cheerfully. “I generate a stream of gas—I settled on methane on the end, because it’s not polluting—and inject a little antimatter into it. I can boost the temperature as much as I like.”
“You’re making antimatter?” she says.
“Persuading the synthesiser to make it was surprisingly easy,” says the robot. “I had to adjust a few safety mechanisms, but it was much easier than trying to produce hot gas directly.”
“That’s because nobody touches the stuff!” she says.
“It’s fine,” says the robot. “It’s not as if I’m stockpiling it. I inject it straight into the matter stream. It’s all under complete control.”
“…what’s the problem with antimatter?” Stephen asks. Something which even the sealin won’t touch sounds… dangerous.
“It’s useless, dangerous junk,” says Night Wave. On the plus side, she sounds back to normal again; nothing like an engineering problem to get her going again… “The only thing it’s good for is making explosions.”
“But I am making an explosion,” says the robot.
“Well…” says Night Wave. “Yes. But. Antimatter? Seriously?”
“The acceleration seems pretty much unlimited,” says the robot. “It’s not a real space drive, of course, so it’s all simple mechanical force which pushes everything along, but I think I can get ten to fifteen gravities out of it. Do you know what that means? I can be there in under ten years!”
Night Wave says nothing for a few moments. “The turnaround speed is going to be very high.”
They continue bickering, getting gradually more and more technical. Stephen exchanges a glance with the Reeearh, who has been listening in silence.
Eventually they arrive at the robot’s test site. It’s even more cluttered than it was when Stephen last saw it; more of the anonymous blocky shapes, some on their side, and pieces of what Stephen actually recognises to be machinery everywhere. There’s also a number of disturbing-looking blackened spots and blast marks.
“I did build some small prototypes,” the robot says. “But they’re just too fast. I can’t control them remotely from enough distance to be useful. So I’m going to fly this one myself.”
“Is that safe?” Stephen says. “If antimatter is so dangerous…”
“Oh, it’s fine,” the robot says. “I can get some thrust out of just the matter stream, so I’m going to head well away from the Snarl before I add the antimatter. You four don’t react well to high energy photons, do you?”
Sitting by itself is a surprisingly small vehicle which to Stephen looks a little like an eggcup. On the top there’s a socket, sized to fit the robot. Underneath there’s a familiar-looking rocket bell. Between is a spherical module covered in pipes. Night Wave examines it dubiously.
“Besides,” add the robot, “I’m desperate to get even a few thousand kilometres from this place.”
It nestles itself into the socket and some clamps latch closed. “Stand back.”
“This is not a good idea,” says Night Wave as they retreat. “Really it’s not.”
“You worry too much,” the robot says. “Okay, starting up the methane stream.”
Vapour squirts out from under the rocket bell and the robot’s little ship drifts upwards, and then turns and slowly accelerates out into the void. The rocket bell faces towards them and mist billows around them for a few moments, before clearing as the ship recedes. “Everything looks good so far.”
“This is top acceleration, believe it or not,” it says. They watch as it slowly disappears into the distance. “I’m going to give it ten kilometres or so before starting up the antimatter, so it may be a while.”
The ship’s so small that it vanishes into the darkness almost immediately. They watch for a few minutes, and then sit at the edge of the spiral, looking outwards at the stars.
“Ten years,” Stephen says. “That’s… almost manageable.”
In ten years Stephen will be thirty-four. It seems an age away. He’ll end up having spent a third of his life on the Snarl. He’s got good food and drink, company, plenty of space, endless strange places to explore… there are plenty of people back on Earth who would consider it heaven. But the Snarl is, to him, still a prison. And it’s obvious that Night Wave is unlikely to last the rest of the month without some kind of crisis, let alone ten years.
The bright, close star is directly out from where they are sitting. Stephen doubts it is coincidence that the robot’s test flight is taking it that way.
Reeearh says thoughtfully: “Whose hunting ground is that star?”
“That’s Thant High,” says Night Wave. “Before we got… left… here, our ship was going to stop there. It’s civilised. They’d send help. I’m sure.”
“The Snarl looks so small from here,” comes the robot’s voice out of the nothingness. Stephen jumps. “You have no idea how good it feels to be away from it. Even if it’s just temporary. I’ve never been here before! Do you hear me? I’m somewhere new!”
Reeearh says, very quietly, “A new territory.”
“Okay,” says the robot. “I should be far enough away by now.”
“You’re going to try the antimatter?” Night Wave says.
“Yes,” says the robot. “Don’t worry, I built prototypes. I know it’ll work. Here we go.”
Not far from the bright star which is Thant High, a tiny pinpoint of light appears. Stephen finds himself leaning forwards.
“My acceleration is up,” says the robot. “I’m going to try some more.”
The light brightens, and becomes a blue-white glare which drowns out the stars.
“Wow,” says the robot. “Look at me go! The acceleration’s even better than I thought.”
The robot’s drive is now so bright that Stephen has to look away. The rest of the Snarl is lit up as if with a flashbulb; Reeearh is a nightmare of black and white, squinting into the light; Night Wave a sleeker shape outlined with light. The blue-white glare is lighting up all the Snarl’s shadows in uncompromising detail.
“Everything’s fine,” says the robot. “I don’t think I want to try full throttle. I think I’m at about fifteen gravities as it is. Reaction temperature is stable, and… something’s happened to the stars?”
“Turn!” Night Wave suddenly shouts. “Turn and decelerate! Quickly!”
The blazing point of light stretches to a scratch of blue-white incandescence against the sky, and then shrinks again, as the robot spins its ship around. “Decelerating now,” it says, sounding worried. “What’s…”
Then there’s just a flare, and fading sparks against the blackness.
As if reading Stephen’s mind, the stars quietly come back.
There is silence.
“The barrier,” Night Wave says numbly. “It was too bright. It was too bright…”
“What has happened?” asks Reeearh.
“It was too bright!” Night Wave repeats.
“Calm down,” says Stephen, worried. “Robot? Can you hear us?”
“It was too bright…”
“Explain this, prey.”
“Quiet, everyone!” Stephen shouts. There is silence, broken only by the puppy’s whining.
“Robot?” he says. “Are you all right?”
There is no response.
“It’s dead,” Night Wave says. “It was too bright. The barrier came up and it ran into it. It’s dead.”
“The edge effect you found, right?” says Stephen.
“Triggered by brightness,” says Night Wave. “The antimatter flare. It was too bright…”
“What do you know of this, prey?” demands Reeearh. “Speak now.”
“We went to look at the source of the light,” says Stephen, uncertainly. “Night Wave found something there. About how the light works. There’s some kind of force field around the Snarl, triggered by light…”
“We hadn’t told the robot about it,” Night Wave says. “It didn’t know.”
The sky is dark. Just stars, with nothing moving.
“Do you think there’s anything left?” Stephen says. “Should we go out and look? You can build another rocket, right, Night Wave?”
“It’s dead,” she repeats.
They stare out at the sky for a long time. Then Reeearh just turns and walks away.
Night Wave is mumbling and shaking. Stephen takes her home, and leaves her there. He feels like he should put her to bed, or put a blanket round her and feed her chicken soup, or at least do something that would help; but as she’s a three-metre long half seal/half dolphin and there’s no gravity, his options are limited.
So he eventually leads her into one of the small rooms in the house, reasoning that she’ll feel more secure there, and then talks to her quietly until she stops twitching too badly. But now he needs some time to clear his head, so he leaves the puppy with her and goes for a walk.
The robot’s dead. Three thousand years working on its escape system, and then he has to go and mention rockets to it. And now it’s dead.
How old was it? He never got round to asking what it had done before it was marooned on the Snarl. What was it’s life like before it came here, such that it could so calmly take on a project of such length? Sure, the whole idea was desperate, and reeked of dubious rationality, but even so… and now it’s just gone.
The ring city is tilted towards the light. On the light side, in the overcity, the ground seems to rise up in all directions and arches overhead, but here on the dark side, the undercity, it curves away. The horizon is only a few hundred metres distant. As he walks through the dark streets, buildings seem to leap up from below the horizon and then fall away behind.
Has he done this? Is it actually his fault? He was the one who introduced the robot to the whole concept of rockets. If he hadn’t, then it would probably have continued tinkering with its accelerator for another thousand years, launching test probes and refining the plan, but never getting round to actually starting the whole insane, millenia-long trip, because deep down it knew it wouldn’t work. But once it knew about rockets… then it had a realistic plan. A desperate one, but one that might actually be feasible. Ten years! It would have reached Thant High in a mere ten years! A mere eyeblink compared to the time it had already spent on the Snarl. Of course it was going to leap at the chance.
But if it is his fault, is it not Night Wave’s as well? They both knew about the Snarl’s invisibility shield, and the way it reacted to bright light. They could have mentioned it to the robot. But neither of them did. They’d just forgotten, because they hadn’t realised it would be important.
What-ifs. Futile to dwell on, Stephen knows. Neither of them knew that the robot’s drive was going to be so bright. Neither of them knew it was going to set it off so close to the barrier. Had it waited just another few minutes, it would have been safely beyond it.
But still. If Stephen hadn’t told the robot about rockets, it would still be alive.
There’s a passage through the structure of the ring here; a twisted loop that doubles back on itself. Stephen walks around it, the Snarl spinning around him as his local down shifts. He ends up in the overcity, the sickly violet light streaming down. He’s growing to hate it.
This is a district of cubes, piled all around in unorganised heaps. Some of them have the bush-like mould plants growing on them. Others have structures that look like melted Greek temples attached to every flat surface, horizontal or otherwise. The zombies slowly mill around their base.
Stephen eyes the crowd, and pulls himself up onto one of the piles, and then continues to climb on to the summit. He knows this is unnecessary; he can fly, or just keep shifting his personal gravity and walking, but for now he wants the distraction of exercise. Once at the top, out of breath and sweaty, he sits on the edge and watches the zombies.
One of them is standing motionless, looking back at him. It means nothing, he knows. The zombies are not truly seeing him, but are instead just reacting to his novelty. The ingrained patterns that have replaced their minds do not have an indoctrinated response to his presence, so they just stand and stare until something happens which they can deal with.
At least he won’t turn into one of them. He’ll die, instead.
Is that better? Is the half-life of a mind-lost zombie really worse than death?
In the distance, Reeearh prowls around a corner between two streets. It’s moving slowly and carefully, looking down every alley and corner. For such a huge creature, it’s surprisingly stealthy. There’s no sound, of course, but its shape somehow eludes the eye, and if Stephen takes his eyes off it, finding it again takes a few moments. From his vantage point he can see Reeearh carefully stalking down the street, picking its way between the oblivious zombies, examining everything.
Reeearh is hunting.
It must have been down this street thousands of times before. If not, millions. There’s never anything here, but it keeps trying nevertheless. Because there might be something here. Because the hope that maybe, just maybe, there will, this time, be some sort of prey which it can chase down and kill. Because Reeearh lives for the future: an impossible future which will never come, but which it cannot permit itself to lose belief in.
We all cope as best we can, Stephen thinks.
Reeearh passes below him, turns a corner and is gone.