It was a good day for Spinner-of-Rope.
She found a large hive high in a tree. The bees buzzed in alarm as she approached, but she circled the trunk warily, keeping away from their vicious stings. She set a small fire in a notch in the bark a little below the fat, lumpy form of the hive, and piled the flames high with moist leaves; she let the thick smoke waft up and over the hive. The bees, disoriented and alarmed, came flooding out into the smoke and scattered harmlessly.
Spinner, whooping in triumph, clambered back to the abandoned hive, broke it open with her axe of Underman metal, and dug out huge handfuls of comb, dripping with thick honey. She feasted on the rich, golden stuff, cramming it into her mouth; the honey smeared over her face and splashed her round spectacles. There would be more than enough to fill the two leather sacks she carried at her waist.
…Then, sitting on her branch, eating the honey, she found herself shivering. She frowned. Why should she be cold? It wasn’t even noon yet.
She dismissed the odd sensation.
In a nearby tree, a hundred yards from Spinner, a man sat. He wore a battered coverall, and his face looked tired, lined, under a thatch of gray hair. He was eating too: a fruit, a yam, perhaps. He smiled and waved at her.
He was a friend. She waved back.
She rinsed her face in a puddle of water inside a fat bromeliad, and climbed down to the ground.
She ran lightly across the level, leaf-coated floor of the forest. Arrow Maker would be tending his bamboo clumps, she knew; there were only a few groves of the species which provided the six-feet-long straight stems Arrow Maker needed to manufacture his blowpipes, and Maker cultivated the clumps with loving care, guarding them jealously from his rivals. Spinner would run up to him and show him the honey treat she’d found, and then -
Spinner-of-Rope. I know you’re awake.
Come on, Spinner, talk to me.
Spinner slowed to a halt.
With regret she glanced down once more at the honey she would not be able to enjoy, and issued a soft, subvocal command.
Out of the air, the environment suit congealed over her limbs like some web made of silvery cloth, and the bulky couch materialized around her body. Like a skull poking through decaying flesh, the darkness of space, the harsh telltale lights of her waldoes, emerged through the forest dream.
Her heart beat as rapidly as a bird’s. “Yes, Louise.”
“I’m sorry I had to dig you out of your Virtual like that. You, ah, you didn’t want to come back to us, I don’t think.”
Spinner grunted as the suit went into its daily sonic bath routine. “Well, can you blame me for wanting to escape?” She let the bleakness outside the cage flood into her mind. How wonderful it had been to be ten years old again, to have no greater horizon than a day’s frog-hunting with her father! But she wasn’t ten years old; more than five decades had worn away since those honey hunting days, and since then immense responsibilities had descended on her. The renewed awareness of who she was settled over her like a tangible weight: a weight she’d been carrying around for all this time — but which she’d forgotten to notice.
She shivered again — and became suddenly, sharply suspicious. She hissed out brief subvocal commands and called up a display of her environment suit air temperature. It was around eighteen degrees Celsius. Not exactly ice cold, but still noticeably cool. She called up a faceplate graphic of how her suit temperature had varied over the last few days.
The coldness she’d felt in her dream had been real. The suit temperature had been changed. For more than a week it had been maintained at twenty-five degrees — fully seven degrees warmer than today.
“Louise,” she said sternly.
She heard Louise sigh. “I’m here, Spinner-of-Rope.”
“What in Lethe is going on? What have you been trying to do, cook me to death?”
“No, Spinner. Look, we’ve come to understand — a bit belatedly, maybe — how hard this trip is for you. I wish, now, we’d found some other solution: someone else to relieve you, perhaps. But it’s too late for that. We’ve got ourselves into a situation in which we’re very dependent on you, and your continued good functioning out in that cage, Spinner.”
“And the heat?”
“Heat acts as a mild sedative, Spinner-of-Rope. As long as your fluid balance isn’t affected — and we’re monitoring that — it’s quite harmless. I thought it was a good solution to the problem…”
Spinner rubbed her cheek against the lining of her helmet. “Right. So you were sedating me, without my consent. Louise Ye Armonk, engineer of human bodies and souls…”
“I guess I should have discussed it with you.”
“Yes, I guess you should,” Spinner said heavily. “And now?”
Louise hesitated. “It was becoming harder and harder to dig you out of your fantasies, Spinner. I was afraid we might lose you altogether… lose you to a dream of the forest.”
A dream of the forest.
With a sigh she straightened her posture in her couch. “Don’t worry, Louise. I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t, Spinner.” Louise sounded nervous, excited uncharacteristically so. “Spinner-of-Rope… it’s the fifty-first day. Look around you.”
Spinner loosened her restraints; she glared around at her surroundings, at first seeing only emptiness. Irritated, she snapped out subvocals, and the faceplate began to enhance her naked-eye images.
“Spinner, we’ve traveled a hundred and fifty million light years. We’re reaching the end of the programmed hyperdrive jumps…
“It’s nearly over, Spinner-of-Rope. We’re almost there.”
As the faceplate worked, dim forms emerged — the moth-like forms of galaxies, far away, all around her. She saw spirals, ellipticals, gigantic irregulars: huge clusters of galaxies in their characteristic threads and sheets, the whole vision looking impossibly fragile.
But there was something odd about the pale images.
“We’ve arrived, Spinner-of-Rope,” Louise said. “We are at the center of things.”
Blue shift, Spinner-of-Rope. Blue shift, everywhere… Can you see it?
Yes. The galaxies — all around her sky — were tinged blue, she realized now. Blue shift.
She had come, at last, to the place all the galaxies were falling into.