Whoops, watch out, The Critic is trying to edit the past

Fuck this, I was supposed to be finishing a story today but I guess this is what’s happening on my computer instead.

facebook (3)

So this is happening. The Critic (I won’t link to the story but you can find it if you have to) has announced that there is a “myth” about the UK’s reaction to the Covid-19 crisis. The myth is that at first, they tried to keep things open and running as usual, knowing a large number of people would get infected, but that this would give them herd immunity.

The article actually can’t quite bring itself to deny this, because it’s – you know – it’s what fucking happened. And yes, it admits, this approach could be seen as a form of “aiming for herd immunity”, even though nobody said that at the time (except – you know – they fucking did). But they insist that the UK government did this on the urging of scientists.

And like I say, that’s entirely possible. Herd immunity is a thing. It’s how vaccines work. Nobody knew the best way to handle (or even frame) this pandemic and there were lots of schools of thought about it. I don’t doubt there were scientists – especially at the start, when little was known and there was a strong incentive to find economy-saving answers – willing to bank on herd immunity. We know this. Fucking Sweden tried it (thanks Tegnell!) and now we live next door to a plague pit. But whatever. Time will tell on what the best approach is and was.

But don’t tell us the business-as-usual model was scientifically supported and the lockdown was politically motivated with support from scientists with an economic bias. It’s the other way around, and it always was, because we were fucking there and we saw it fucking happen.

Don’t shit in my lap and tell me it’s a napkin.

Posted in Kussa mun hopoti? | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Light Australian History Lesson

This is worth a look, I’d already learned about Whitlam but wasn’t aware of the US’s involvement to this degree.

Posted in Office Posts, Random | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Riddlespawn

This got pretty long, and quite complicated as the distant past of the Void Dimension and the ancient species that live there began coming out of the woodwork. I won’t say careful readers of my published works should be able to put any of this together, although of course I am always ready to be pleasantly surprised. That sounds bitter but I’m really not – this was a lot of fun to write and I hope you find it interesting.


 

The nimble little amber-furred creature strode into the docking area ahead of her handsome bushy tail and stood, fists on hips, grinning up at the crew of the Conch. Her teeth, sharp and white except for one fang which was gold, gleamed in her pointy little muzzle. Her uniform was as regal and crimson and ostentatiously-gold-decorated as ever. She had a large bag slung over one shoulder – or a least it looked large as she set it down next to her boots. It wasn’t actually much longer than Galana’s forearm.

“Roney,” Hartigan said happily. He went down on one knee and shook the Boze’s hand. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Good to see you too, biggums,” she said. She greeted Galana, Chillybin, Bonty, Devlin, and tipped a little salute at Wicked Mary’s giela. “You’ve been busy, eh? Taking it nice and easy, seeing the sights.”

“Our ship isn’t as fast as yours,” Hartigan reminded her.

“I bet you’ve found a lot of lichen and algae,” Roney said. “Not much else to be found in this stretch of space. That’s why they call it the Sludge Corridor.”

“Who calls it that?” Galana asked.

“Y’know, maybe if you were to give us a map…” Hartigan said. “Just before you left last time, you mentioned a place called High Elonath that-”

“No time for that,” Roney interrupted, “and you don’t want to go near High Elonath anyway. Come on, let’s eat. Grab this for me,” she poked the bag with the toe of her boot. “I’ve brought some real food. Even a little something for Bloody Mary.”

“Oh?” the giela clicked forward and picked up the bag.

“A ferocious little critter called a pepper shrimp,” the Boze replied. “Fast, cunning, and packs a real punch. I’m pretty sure it’s still alive in its jar,” she added, “so handle with care, hm?”

“That doesn’t sound very regulation-friendly,” Galana said.

“You’re really not going to like the rest of the stuff I brought aboard, then,” Roney grinned.

They went down to the aquarium deck, and sat around a table Scrutarius assembled quickly out of storage crates. Roney laid out her offerings, introducing each one as she went, and Bonty rather worriedly checked each one and listed its approximate ingredients and danger levels.

“These are death pearls from the chasm of Nid.”

“There’s an awful lot of solid-state defragmented mercury in them.”

“And this is a holy mushroom pie made by the monks of the Wailing Dark.”

“A very small slice will probably be fine for us, but the Captain would probably enter a permanent state of psychotropic hallucination.”

“Fruit from the Tree of Thunder. They must be sliced just so, removing the skin and the seeds, otherwise they’re quite deadly.”

“These have at least three kinds of complex sugars that the scanner doesn’t recognise, but they’re probably harmless.”

“And this is a gourd of Prothagnian flavour seeds. I think I already picked out all the blue and purple ones.”

“I’d advise against anyone eating the red ones either, but the yellow and green ones are probably okay. Not for you, Captain.”

“Oh I say, poor form.”

“Don’t worry, Basil,” Roney announced. “I remembered what a delicate little giant fellow you are, and I brought you a roll of pixie wubblebread from the secret court of the King in Lavender.”

“It … won’t kill you,” Bonty announced. “You might want to have a drink handy to wash it down, though.”

For a little while, then, the reunited friends sat and ate, and watched Wicked Mary flash and sweep around her aquarium hunting the tiny, many-legged black shape of the pepper shrimp. Eventually the great shark stunned it between the wall and her great mottled-grey tail, devoured it in a rapid clashing of jaws, then was briefly unable to control her giela due to her gastronomic distress. She then recovered and declared the shrimp to be a delightful experience, but not one she relished the idea of passing all the way through her digestive system. Roney laughed and applauded this heartily.

“Speaking of the last time we were all together, and not speaking at all of digesting small creatures,” Scrutarius said, “how are … my gift, did you take care of it?”

Roney waved a fuzzy hand. “Oh yes, excellent care,” she said, “nothing to worry about there. Very funny it was, too. But perhaps a story for another time.”

“Alright,” Hartigan said, and took a large mouthful of the doughy pale-purple bread. “You said you needed our help with something – Karl’s bloody mittens!” he lunged for his drink and gulped it down while Roney and Devlin laughed. “It’s a spicy little bugger,” he burbled sheepishly.

“Alright, to business,” Roney wiped her eyes and chuckled as Hartigan glared at her over the rim of his glass. “You remember, last time we met, the star serpent – the big fiery beastie we faced together?”

“Hardly something we’re likely to forget,” Galana replied. She picked up a piece of the pale pink Thunder fruit, and chewed it. It was cloyingly sweet.

“Right, then you’ll remember it wasn’t really a creature,” Roney said. “It wasn’t intelligent, it was just a force of nature without a guiding hand.”

“Yes,” Galana replied. “You said it was a weapon used by some ancient hostile species. The Riddlespawn?” she glanced at Chillybin, who nodded slowly.

“The buggers who destroyed the Empire of Gold,” Hartigan recovered his voice, “and turned it into High Elonath. But didn’t you say they’d been gone as long as the Empire of Gold had? They were basically a myth?”

“Turns out I was wrong about that,” Roney said with unaccustomed solmemnity.

Galana and Basil exchanged a look of surprise. It was so strange to hear the witty Boze admit to being wrong about something, Galana was a little disoriented by it.

“You found them?” Chillybin said, with a low rumble from inside her suit that was even more unusual than Roney’s admission. “They are here?”

“One,” Roney said grimly. “Or a part of one. Sort of.”

“A part of one?” Galana asked.

Sort of?” Hartigan added. Roney flicked her huge ears enigmatically. “And you need us to face it, what?” he went on eagerly.

“And who is ‘we’ exactly?” Bonty asked. “The Boze?”

“Look, I just thought,” Roney said. “I figured, what with how you put paid to the star serpent, how ingeniously you make do with all this terrible technology of yours, and are still out here trying to fly around the galaxy, you’d be good allies to bring into this. Only … when we meet them, maybe we’ll just not tell them I found you still wading through the Sludge Corridor.”

“Tell who?” Hartigan demanded.

“I take it you’re interested?” Roney asked. “We’re about two weeks away from the gathering spot. I can explain on the way.”

“In my experience, just because you can explain doesn’t mean you will,” Galana pointed out. “Quite the contrary, in fact.”

“Alright, you got me there,” Roney said. “But if you want to make friends – friends who might be willing to come and pull you out of High Elonath when you inevitably blunder in there with your pants down – this is your chance,” she leapt up to stand on the box she was using as a seat, and extended her hand to Basil. “What do you say, biggums?”

Hartigan barely glanced around. “Let’s do it, by jingo!” he clasped Roney’s tiny furry hand firmly between two fingers and a thumb.

“Will your friends be able to give us more pepper shrimp?” Wicked Mary asked.

“All you can eat, my horrifying aquatic friend,” Bonty said.

“So one, then,” Devlin grinned. “When do we start?”

“We already have,” Roney announced. “The Bastard took us into the grey ten minutes ago.”

“Computer?” Galana said with a little sigh.

“Oh, look at that,” the Conch said mildly. “I thought it had gotten very soft-spacey out there.”

Their journey from the ‘Sludge Corridor’ to wherever Roney was taking them was as uneventful as all flights through the grey were. The Boze remained aboard with them, spending most of her time up in the Captain’s quarters or mooching around the bridge asking what the consoles did and why they didn’t do other, far more fun, usually impossible things.

“Do you know the story of the Riddlespawn?” she asked during one lull period while Basil, Galana and Chillybin were relaxing in Hartigan’s lounge. “What we’re facing, precisely?”

“Nothing,” Galana said. “Only that they were supposed to be gone for twenty million years, and they used star serpents as weapons.”

“Weapons, pets,” Roney shrugged. “Hard to say, really,” she looked at Chillybin. “What about you, frosty? What’s the aki’Drednanth perspective?”

“You tell me, Captain Pelsworthy,” Chillybin said. “You have spoken with other aki’Drednanth about this.”

Galana looked at Roney sharply.

The little alien shrugged, her great white-furred ears turning down. “A few,” she said. “None of them give a straight answer.”

“That must be frustrating,” Chillybin said, the mechanical voice from her glove flat and emotionless. Galana stifled a laugh, and Hartigan spluttered into his drink. “Will there be other aki’Drednanth at this gathering?”

“No,” Roney said with a little grunt. She jumped to her feet and began pacing the room. “You lot are like mothers telling their children not to throw rocks at the plaznok nest. ‘Leave the Riddlespawn alone,’ you say. ‘Nothing good will come of it,’ you say. ‘You are inviting ruination and destruction down upon your heads like the last great lords of the Empire of Gold,’ you say. Almost exactly like a mother warning her pups about plaznoks, in fact. The point is, the aki’Drednanth have never had anything useful to say.”

“That all sounds quite useful to me,” Galana disagreed.

“The Riddlespawn were weapons themselves,” Chillybin said. “The chosen children of a dark and violent force, they were savage and deadly. Our kind did battle with them, but seldom. And never when we had a choice. Most other enemies, we could face. But the Riddlespawn were like nightmares brought to life,” the great figure shifted slowly in her armour. “Our name, aki’Drednanth, means nightmare in flesh,” she said. “But it is just a name. We move from our Dreamscape and into the world of the living and back again, and we are formidable when we need to be, but not like the Riddlespawn.”

“That’s more or less what the other aki’Drednanth told me,” Roney said. She was standing on a chair now, fiddling with the little collection of decorations and souvenirs on Hartigan’s shelves. “A species of monsters that live in some kind of nether-Hell until called forth by the terrible entity that they were children to. They’d come rampaging out, smash everything to pieces, fling around their fiery star serpents, then wink back into nothingness. Without a trace. No way to follow them back to their lair and take them down once and for all.”

“The star serpent was the better part of a solar system in size,” Galana said. “If a Riddlespawn is big enough to fling one around…”

Roney shook her head. “No, they’re not much bigger than one of you lot,” she said. “Although there are all sorts of legends. I think they can be as big and dangerous as the story needs them to be. They’re terribly inconsistent. The one on Palothane is even smaller – not much bigger than little old me, actually. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m the one who found it, or ‑ ”

“Palothane,” Hartigan said. “That’s the name of the planet we’re heading to?”

“That’s the one,” Roney said.

“The one where your friends are waiting,” Chillybin said.

“That’s – yeah,” Roney said, and picked up the large, thick golden coin Hartigan had pocketed from the dragon hoard the Conch had almost been added to. “Hey,” she said, sounding surprised. She turned and waggled the gleaming disc with the disturbing spidery shape engraved on one side. “You lot had dealings with the Web? And they gave you a favour? I knew I’d come to the right people.”

“Hmm?” Hartigan said. “Oh. No, can’t say we ever met the Web. We got that from the Fudzu. They had a mountain of ’em.”

“The Fudzu aren’t real,” Roney said with a dismissive wave of her paw, and put the coin back. “But alright, be that way. We’ll get to Palothane in another few days, and that’s when the fun starts.”

“Fun like the star serpent?” Galana asked.

“Better,” Roney declared.

Galana suspected that there was something Roney wasn’t telling them about the group that would apparently be meeting them at Palothane, but the Boze was as elusive and difficult as ever. She did confess that she needed them for more than just their peculiar genius with inferior technology, but it was all wrapped up in her usual confusing layers of misleading information. And was all based in myths twenty million years old, just to make it worse.

All the Boze would reveal was that her mysterious allies couldn’t get close to the Riddlespawn, and even though she’d managed to find it she hadn’t been able to do anything on her own, and she suspected the crew of the Conch could help. Then there was a lot of unhelpful rambling about an ancient tablet, and a prophecy, and a family long divided, and the more she danced around the explanation, the more impenetrable the infuriating little creature made the whole subject.

“What do you think of this prophecy?” Galana asked Chillybin one night-shift. She was visiting with her friend in the icebox, the large refrigerated deck they’d converted for the aki’Drednanth just like they’d made the aquarium on the deck below for the Fergunakil. She didn’t visit often – Chilly was not fond of playing host, and preferred to be left alone to remove her freezer suit and run and roll in the cold.

“Not many prophecies can last twenty million years,” the aki’Drednanth said. It was a little jarring to hear Chilly speak when she was out of her armour. The words, formed by the movements of the electronic webbing she still wore on one great clawed hand, still came from the open suit that stood near the door. Chilly herself, meanwhile, rolled and scratched herself luxuriantly in the drifts of crushed ice. “Even the Drednanth dream grows confused over such a long time. But you heard what Captain Pelsworthy said about the Riddlespawn. About them being the chosen children of an ancient entity.”

“Children of … what, a God?” Galana asked. Such superstitions were not unusual among the various alien races. Even Blaran and Bonshoon groups had their share of stories.

“Not a God,” Chillybin lay in the ice on her back, great black-horned feet in the air, her hand moving lazily as it formed the words. “Something greater than a God. A natural law of the universe, with a conscious will and infinite power.”

“Aren’t Gods said to have infinite power?” Galana asked.

“Only by those like us,” Chilly said with a woof of amusement from her great shaggy chest, “who cannot see the difference between great power and infinite power, because both are so far above us we cannot see them. The Infinites were said to have been ten in number, and each were said to have taken a mortal species as children.”

“Who said all these things?” Galana asked with a smile behind her thermal mask, although she remembered Roney using the word, Infinites, before. If the Infinites had wanted you to get from place to place faster, she’d said, They would have introduced you to the Boze before now.

“Enough people, over a long enough period of time, that it seems a funny coincidence,” Chilly said. “But the funniest thing is, your species were also said to be the chosen children of an Infinite.”

“Molren?” Galana asked in surprise.

“So it was said,” Chilly said. “Molren, Bonshooni, Blaren, Fergunak, even humans.”

“And aki’Drednanth?” Galana asked.

Chillybin rolled, and regarded her with a glittering crystalline eye.

“No,” she said. “Of all the Six Species, the aki’Drednanth were the only children without an Infinite to be our parent. Ours is a … different family.”

“What about the Boze?” Galana asked.

Chillybin gave another deep laugh. “Perhaps they are,” she said. “I seem to recall a tale of a scattered and lost race called the Potádi, the Hounds of Mayhem. The Boze might be some remnant of them. Our friend Captain Pelsworthy certainly seems to fit the bill, doesn’t she?”

“She did say she was able to get close to the Riddlespawn,” Galana said thoughtfully. “Do you think that’s why?”

“I honestly have no idea,” Chillybin admitted. “But it is a strange universe.”

After two weeks at relative speed, they were really none the wiser about Roney’s plan or the terrible empire-destroying monster they were meant to be facing. They emerged from the grey as abruptly and without warning as they’d entered it, Roney marched onto the bridge and struck a bold pose in front of the main viewscreen. One by one, the others made their way to their stations.

“Alright,” Hartigan took his seat, “what have we got?”

“Standard solar system, red giant star, six rocky planets, only one seems to be habitable,” the Conch told them. “Not very habitable, though – you will need breathers and protective suits.”

“Palothane?” Galana asked.

“Palothane,” Roney confirmed grimly.

“There are seven ships in orbit,” Chillybin added. “Each one different, all of them alien of course. They have not seen us, as far as I can tell. We came out of soft-space a fair distance away and we may be running too quietly for them to notice us.”

“Aha, that’s the beauty of your ships and your communication devices,” Roney said. “So slow and steady and unobtrusive.”

“Captain Judderone,” Galana said, “I take it these seven alien ships are our ‘friends’ that you were telling us about?”

“Sort of,” Roney said. “They’re the Seven Sisters. The Pirate Queen’s elite guard.”

“They’re the bally what?” Hartigan demanded.

“Well, you know how you lot are the Six Species?” Roney said. “The Pirate Queen rules a similar bunch, only there are … ooh, at last count there were something like fifty-three species. Or representatives from them, anyway. The Seven Sisters are … okay, there’s one Gastronid, one Agony Worm, one Soulfeeder, two Cold Fingers Of Fate … and two representatives of the Boze.”

“Well, they all sound awful,” Devlin said.

“Except the Boze,” Bonty added loyally.

“Now, let’s not go making exceptions,” Devlin murmured.

Roney grinned, showing once again just how good her hearing was. “You’re right,” she said, “all seven of them are perfectly dreadful, and the Boze are two of the worst.”

“I thought you said you were the last Boze,” Galana reminded her.

“I am the last,” Roney said. “But I told you there were others. Look,” she went on awkwardly while Galana attempted to process this, “I … I may have misled you about how welcoming this group was going to be.”

“I think we were all pretty sceptical about that,” Galana said.

I wasn’t,” Hartigan said indignantly. “What about the friends who were going to turn up and help us when we get into trouble in High Elonath?”

“Well, I was more talking about me,” Roney said. “I’d be your friend. I mean, still. I’m already your friend, but I don’t know that I’d go into High Elonath for you. But, if that’s what you feel like you have to do, then helping with this will definitely be good practice, hmm?”

“Roney ‑ ” Bonjamin said, stern and grandmotherly.

“Look, I’m here to push the Riddlespawn back into Hell,” Roney said. “These cretins want to bring it the rest of the way out.”

“You’ve had two weeks to tell us about this,” Galana said. “Why didn’t you ‑ ”

“I did tell you. By Bozanda, you never listen. Here’s what we’re going to do,” Roney went on, speaking slowly and clearly. “I’m going to get in the Bastard and fly into the Seven Sisters, and get in a big noisy argument with them. You are going to fly this beautiful quiet old ship of yours down to the surface of Palothane and wait for me there,” she turned and headed for the main bridge doors. “I’ll give you the coordinates of the temple. Once they let me land ‑ ”

“Wait, did you say temple?” Scrutarius repeated. “Is it a spooky temple?”

Roney stopped and grinned over her shoulder. “Pretty spooky,” she said. Then she was gone with a swish of her tail.

“Tactically,” Galana said to the bridge in general, “this whole plan leaves a lot to be desired.”

“Maybe,” the Conch agreed, “but getting a lift from Captain Pelsworthy has cut almost five years off our journey.”

“Five years?” Bonty exclaimed.

“We are forty-seven thousand light years from our last stop,” the computer said. “We’ve crossed a distance greater than the breadth of all of Six Species space in just two weeks.”

“That would place us … ” Hartigan breathed.

“Very close to halfway around the galaxy from Declivitorion-On-The-Rim,” the Conch confirmed.

“That puts us close to where the alicorn is meant to be,” Hartigan said in excitement. “This High Elonath place.”

“Perhaps,” the Conch agreed. “Certainly we could fly on from here, since we have not yet been spotted by this so-called Pirate Queen ‑ ”

“What, and leave Roney in the lurch?” Hartigan exclaimed.

“The Splendiferous Bastard is away,” Chillybin reported.

“Separate the Nella,” Hartigan said. “We’re going in. Devlin, give us as close to absolute dark and silent running as you can.”

“Pretend you’re stealing something,” Bonty suggested. Scrutarius favoured her with a narrow look, but began entering commands into his console.

“I will remain here with Wicked Mary,” Chillybin said, and headed for the doors. “I feel this is a … family affair. I do not think I would be welcome down there.”

Galana frowned. Of course, it was probably a good idea for somebody to remain on the main body of the ship with the Fergunakil anyway, but it was always good to have a reason you could say out loud. “Do you think you can prepare some responses in case the Seven Sisters decide to attack?” she asked.

Chillybin paused in the doorway. “I can protect you against the other vessels,” she said, “even if their minds are alien to me. At least the Boze minds are somewhat familiar. And Wicked Mary, of course, will have tactical control.”

“What about down on the surface?” Bonty asked. “The Riddlespawn? Anything down in this temple?”

“I cannot sense any minds aside from the aliens in the ships,” Chillybin said. “But we have never had much success in sensing the Riddlespawn.”

“This is such a bad idea,” Scrutarius said, although he sounded delighted.

“Captain Pelsworthy seems to have gotten the attention of the Seven Sisters,” Wicked Mary’s giela announced. “If we are going to separate and attempt to land, we should do it now.”

“Running silent,” Scrutarius reported.

They crept towards Palothane, which was a blasted-looking little ball of rock under the baleful red fire of the sun. The location of the ‘temple’, according to Roney’s coordinates, lit up on the screens as a tiny red dot.

“Chilly seemed to know more about this than I do,” Hartigan said uneasily to Galana. “Did Roney tell you what we’re meant to be doing down here? How are we meant to push this Riddlespawn bugger back into Hell?”

“Roney didn’t tell me anything,” Galana said. “I actually got more information from Chillybin’s ancient aki’Drednanth ancestral memory.”

Basil whistled through his moustache. “That’s really saying something.”

They descended through the thin, howling atmosphere and landed on the shattered plain near the edge of the temple. It seemed to have been built in the middle of a crater that had probably been quite impressive a few million years ago but had since been worn away by the elements. Once they were down, they peered out at the temple through the Nella‘s screens – it was barely visible as a line of weathered blocks, the wind and sand and noxious gases obscuring the view.

They hastily donned protective gear and breathers, staggered off the shuttle and headed towards the weathered ruins, Galana and Bonty and Devlin supporting Hartigan and Wicked Mary, both of whom seemed in danger of blowing away in the sandstorm.

“Delightful place!” Basil shouted over the comm.

“I can see why you’d want to build a temple here!” Scrutarius agreed.

They climbed up onto the temple foundation and over the tumbled, sand-heaped remains of the outer walls, finding a broad depression not much different to the surrounding plains, although at least the wind was a little calmer. Rounded stone objects that could have been statues stuck out of the sand here and there. None of them were particularly pleasant-looking shapes. One of them was unsettlingly similar to the spider-like shape stamped on the coin Hartigan had found in the Fudzu hoard. What had Roney called them? The Web? That sounded about right.

“There is an opening over there,” Wicked Mary said, and pointed. A protected area between two statues and a broken section of internal walls held a darker patch that revealed itself to be a set of stairs descending below the surface. They staggered over and down the stairs, which were eroded almost to the point of being a ramp, and stopped once they reached a small chamber where the stairway doubled back and continued deeper. The wind receded at this point, although the air was still toxic, and Galana checked that they were still in contact with the Nella, and from the Nella the Conch.

“Still reading you loud and clear,” Chillybin reported. “You have gone below the surface but there is nothing in the surrounding stone to interfere with the signal.”

“Keep an eye on the signal, looks like we’re about to go deeper,” Hartigan said, stepping away from Devlin’s supporting grip with a little pat of thanks, and peering down into the darkness of the temple bowels.

“I am still in full control of my giela,” Wicked Mary reported, “so I imagine if the signal begins to fail I will notice that almost immediately.”

“Good point,” Hartigan said. “How are you doing up there otherwise? How’s Roney getting on?”

“Captain Pelsworthy is holding position among the Seven Sisters’ ships,” Wicked Mary reported, “and they seem to be communicating. They have given no indication that they are aware of our presence. She must be giving them a good argument.”

“I bet she is,” Hartigan said, and put a booted foot on the top step. “D’you think there’ll be traps down here?”

“If there are, Roney would have tripped them already,” Scrutarius said. “But you go first, just in case. I mean because you’re the Captain.”

Muttering irritably, Basil clumped down the stairs. The others followed, Holding up arm-lamps as the darkness became almost total. They reached another little landing-space, and the stairs doubled back again and went deeper.

“Where is this thing?” Bonty murmured.

The next flight of stairs ended in a short tunnel, which in turn ended at a wide opening ringed with what looked disturbingly like a great clotted mass of dried blood under their lamps. Closer inspection revealed that it was some kind of metal, long since corroded and worn down by the atmosphere. Galana guessed that the passage might have been sealed by a huge pair of imposing metal doors once upon a time, but they were gone now.

“Look,” Hartigan said excitedly, and pointed at the wall next to the door. More weeping rusty stuff had leaked out of worn-down holes in the stone here, and the hardened sludge and dust on the floor covered a shape that was clearly a petrified skeleton of some kind, although it was entirely alien in appearance. “I bet there were traps,” he said, “but they’ve all just broken down. This poor blighter was the last person to set one off.”

“Spooky temples these days,” Scrutarius tutted. “Where’s the workmanship?”

They stepped through into a wide, high-ceilinged chamber that Galana estimated was directly beneath the centre of the temple ruins above. It was dark, and Galana could hear a soft, disturbing sound echoing inside the space – something scraping and flopping repetitively against stone, she thought. Perhaps a small trapped animal … although by all reports this planet had been deserted and uninhabitable for a very long time.

There was no immediate sign of what might have been making the noise, which was drowned out by their own footsteps and voices as they entered the chamber anyway. There was a lot of broken stone and more of the rusted-down metal threaded through the space, they saw as they raised their lamps, but if there were more rooms or tunnels or stairs, they were not immediately visible. The centre of the chamber was dominated by another statue, this one in much better repair than the ones on the surface due to its sheltered position. It was also streaked with dark stains of corroded metal, and more broken and melted pieces of debris were heaped around its great muscular knees where it knelt, but the stone of which it was made seemed quite smooth. Galana frowned at the immense figure.

The shape of the thing hadn’t escaped Hartigan’s eye either. “I say,” he whispered, “is that … that’s not meant to be a human, is it?”

The statue was definitely humanoid, with its single pair of arms and its round head. It was much bigger than a human, or even a Molran – Galana estimated that it would have been twice her height if it had been standing rather than kneeling on one titanic knee and one huge splayed foot. It looked, from the mess around the statue’s base, that it might have been wearing clothes at some point but they were long gone. Behind the huge figure, rising from its bulging and gleaming shoulders, a pair of huge dark-feathered wings spread over the dusty floor.

“Those teeth aren’t human,” Scrutarius noted, pointing at the big jutting tusks the statue’s face was sporting. “And I haven’t seen a human with wings since the last time I ate whoop-whoop frogs,” he glanced sidelong at Galana. “Not that I ever ate whoop-whoop frogs,” he added, “since they’re definitely illegal.”

“I’ll overlook it this time,” Galana said dryly, and turned back to her study of the statue. Only … she wasn’t entirely sure it was a statue. Something about it reminded her of the remains they’d found outside the chamber. “Could this be the Riddlespawn?” she pondered out loud.

“No,” Wicked Mary said from around behind the gigantic shape. “I believe this is the Riddlespawn.”

They hurried around to where the giela was standing between the wings where they lay across the uneven stones of the chamber floor. There, squirming and writhing on the floor, was the source of the strange sound Galana had heard when they’d entered the room.

The Riddlespawn wasn’t humanoid. If anything, the body looked vaguely like that of a Molran, with four long arms and two legs, all of which were in motion, slapping and flopping as the creature thrashed in place between the huge figure’s wings. It was the size of a young child, Galana judged in horror, its skin coated in fine yellow-pink scales that occasionally rasped against one another or the stones of the floor as it moved. It was hard to imagine such a tiny and pitiful thing being a threat, and yet there was something … horrible about it at the same time. The way it moved, vague and helpless and yet unendingly, like an insect that had been poisoned but was too tough to simply die.

The reason it wasn’t able to move more purposefully was readily – and horribly – apparent. The squirming figure didn’t have a head. From the way it was flexing and twisting, it looked like it actually had its head stuck in something and was trying to escape, but neither the head nor whatever it was stuck in were visible, so the neck just sort of ended hanging in the air above the temple floor, a meaty amber-coloured wound that looked raw and terrible but was not actually bleeding. Galana remembered Roney saying they’d found part of a Riddlespawn, and that the Pirate Queen and her followers wanted to bring it all the way out. Was its head already stuck in the Hell that Riddlespawn came from?

“Look at the floor,” Bonty said in horror.

Glana leaned back and took in the wider area at a glance, and realised what her friend already had. The stones between the statue’s wings were worn down in a shallow depression, free of dust but clearly eroded. The Riddlespawn shifted and flailed in this depression, hanging by its neck from its invisible bonds, and it was impossible to dismiss the idea that it had worn down the stone over time, just with the patient, mindless movement of its limbs.

“Well,” Basil said a little queasily, “this isn’t something they covered in AstroCorps training. Anyone else got any thoughts? Thoughts they can express without starting to scream and then maybe not stopping, that is?”

“It’s no wonder Chilly couldn’t find a brain down here to latch onto,” Scrutarius started.

“Thank you Devlin. Anyone else?”

“The delicious morsel Captain Pelsworthy has finished arguing with the Seven Sisters and is descending towards the surface,” Wicked Mary reported.

“The alien ships still appear to be holding position,” Chillybin added. “I find it hard to believe they haven’t spotted the Nella down on the surface no matter how quiet we were, but I am attempting to keep their attention from focussing too closely on you. It is difficult when I am unfamiliar with many of the species involved. Fortunately, Wicked Mary has also got some electronic interference in place ‑ ”

“Hey,” Bonty said, “this looks like a Molranoid, doesn’t it?”

The others were only too happy to look away from the Riddlespawn for a moment and turn their attention onto the carvings on the walls. These were also worn down and obscured by the general collapse of the whole place, but it was easy to see that the carvings – old as they were – were much younger than the temple itself. There were crude outlines of figures that could be humanoid, others that looked like Molranoids, and others still that didn’t look like anything much. There was even one that Scrutarius pointed out, a long wormlike thing with fins that he insisted could be an artistic impression of a primitive Fergunakil.

“Roney mentioned that there was an ancient tablet, or a prophecy, or something,” Bonty said. “Didn’t she? Something about an ancient family of races?”

“The chosen mortal species of ten mythical entities,” Galana agreed. “The Riddlespawn were supposed to be one, as were Molren, humans, Fergunak … ”

There was really nothing to be learned from the carvings, and there was no sign of a tablet or anything remotely resembling writing anywhere in the chamber. They were still attempting to analyse the giant statue and the disturbing thrashing shape of the Riddlespawn when Wicked Mary announced that Roney had landed. Hartigan was beginning to mutter apprehensively about his breather running low, and Devlin and Bonty had decided that the Riddlespawn were so named because their whole existence was an unsolveable and very annoying puzzle. A few minutes later the irrepressible Boze marched into the temple, her narrow furry face hidden behind the gleaming golden visor of her red suit helmet. It was just as shiny and decorative as the rest of her uniform.

“Good,” she said, “so you found it.”

“Bit hard to miss,” Hartigan replied, “what with there being only one staircase and one room.”

“Ah, don’t sell yourselves short,” Roney said, striding past the Captain and giving him a hearty clap on the thigh. “I’m sure you could have gotten lost if you’d really set your minds to it. I’m joking, I’m joking,” she chuckled and held up her gloved hands. “What do you think of the place?”

“It’s horrible,” Galana surprised herself by saying. “But we have cautiously established that this whole thing was a much older building that has been … redecorated. Probably sometime in the past twenty to forty thousand years.”

“Very good,” Roney agreed.

“Which is confusing us a bit,” Scrutarius added, “because you said the Riddlespawn destroyed the Empire of Gold twenty million years ago, not twenty thousand.”

“Quite so, quite so,” Roney said, and pointed at the giant figure kneeling in the middle of the floor. “What do you make of the big wingèd fellow?”

“Looks like an Angel,” Hartigan said, “mythical Earth creature, basically an immortal human with wings. Only this chap’s a lot bigger, and he’s got a nasty set of choppers, don’t y’know.”

“You know, he does look a bit like a human doesn’t he?” Roney said in surprise. “But no, he’s not human, although he is rather mythical. In the days of the Empire, these lads – and lasses – were called Drakspars. The regular kind were pretty tough, but the kind with wings were – well, a bit like your alicorn, see. They were glorified. Immortal, all sorts of powers, you name it. They were the soldiers of the Empire, if you like.”

“And the Riddlespawn beat them?” Galana asked, glancing from the massive kneeling figure to the pathetic, flopping shape behind it.

“Easy as kicking a spugget off a log,” Roney replied grimly. “Did you happen to notice this place was built in the middle of a crater?” they nodded. “Legend has it that the crater was made by this fellow,” she gestured at the Drakspar. “It got blasted so hard it flew all the way here through space, landed on Palothane, and then – I don’t know, fell asleep or something. Drakspars were supposed to go dormant if they weren’t on holy ground, not sure whether that means all of the Empire was holy ground or what. Anyway, they tried building this temple around him, but he still didn’t wake up.”

Galana looked up at the fiercely scowling face with its great jutting teeth. They hadn’t managed to identify the substance the figure was made of, but it certainly hadn’t scanned as organic. “It doesn’t look like it’s asleep,” she said.

Roney laughed. “That’s what I said,” she replied. “Apparently, this is about as unconscious as Drakspars got.”

“So the Empire of Gold was destroyed,” Bonty said, “and the Riddlespawn went back to wherever they came from ‑ ”

“Except for the star serpent we took down,” Devlin added.

“Right, except for the star serpent,” Bonty agreed. “And this temple was built to commemorate the, um, fallen Drakspars and what have you … and then this Riddlespawn showed up?” she waved her left hands at the flailing headless shape. “Thirty thousand years ago or so?”

“That’s the best I’ve been able to figure out,” Roney agreed. “Good job.”

Bonty looked at Galana, and shook her head.

“We still have no idea what’s going on,” Galana admitted. “And what we’re supposed to do with this. Maybe if you told us more about the prophecy ‑ ”

“Well, it’s not exactly a prophecy,” Roney admitted.

“Of course it isn’t,” Galana sighed.

“All I know is, when this Riddlespawn was dragged out and maimed, it was left in this temple as a – a grim joke,” the Boze went on. “Like a way of saying look, we won after all, who’s afraid of the big bad Riddlespawn?

Galana stared at the pathetically squirming creature on the floor. It looked neither big nor bad as far as she could tell. “‘Dragged out’?” she echoed. “Dragged out of Hell?”

“No,” Roney said. “And yes. Not exactly.”

“Roney, I swear ‑ ” Hartigan said in exasperation.

“It was dragged out of a dark and terrible place it was already crawling from,” Roney explained.

“I don’t understand,” Bonty said.

None of us bally well understand,” Hartigan snapped.

“Of course not,” Roney sighed, although she sounded more regretful than frustrated. “Bozanda knows I don’t understand either. The Riddlespawn live in some unknown place, right? This one was trapped somewhere, somewhere in this sphere of existence, and if it had escaped from the trap intact it would have become something terrible. Instead, it was dragged out of the trap but in doing so it was … damaged.”

“Damaged?” Devlin exclaimed. “It’s got no head.”

“Not here anyway,” Roney shrugged. “Like a wounded animal torn out of a snare, it just wants to return home.”

“Home … back to wherever the other Riddlespawn are?” Hartigan asked. Roney nodded.

“Back to where its head is?” Scrutarius added.

Roney turned her golden visor in his direction. “You seem a bit fixated on the whole ‘head’ detail.”

“I think it’s a detail worth getting fixated on,” the Blaran retorted.

“But in short, it wants to go home,” Basil cut off the developing argument. “To heal, and get ready to charge forth and demolish the next empire that comes along and gets too big for its boots?”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Roney said. “We’re all pretty small-time compared to the Empire of Gold. The Riddlespawn don’t come out and play with just anybody, you know,” she pointed at the towering shape of the Drakspar. “Look at this big magnificent bastard.”

“So what do we do?” Bonty asked.

Roney shook her head. “If the Seven Sisters manage to get close, if they manage to pull it the rest of the way into this world and fix it, they think they’ll be able to make an ally of it. But it will never do what the Pirate Queen wants. It will be unstoppable. It might have taken a bunch of Riddlespawn and star serpents to bring down the Empire of Gold, but this tiddler right here would make short work of anything this galaxy has to throw at it, in this day and age.”

Galana narrowed her eyes. “Why can’t the Seven Sisters get close anyway?”

Roney shrugged. “They can’t land. The last time anyone tried, twenty-odd years ago, this thing screamed and the star serpent showed up and burned everyone right out of orbit. Made this planet even more attractive than it was already.”

“It screamed?” Devlin pointed. “It’s got no head.”

“Yeah yeah,” Roney waved this off.

“The star serpent is dead now,” Bonty frowned.

“Right,” Roney pointed at the ceiling. “But they don’t know that. Right now, they just think I’ve come up with some clever way of sneaking down,” she gestured around at the group in general. “You know, the whole ‘family of races’ thing. Which it looks like I was right about, by the way.”

“Hang about, you didn’t know we were the right species,” Hartigan objected.

“I was reasonably sure,” Roney said.

“What if this thing could have called another star serpent?” Bonty asked.

Roney tilted her head. “I never thought of that,” she admitted. “But look, it’s not yelling. It trusts us more than the Sisters, see? Family of races.”

“It’s got no head,” Devlin repeated.

“Listen, sooner or later Her Majesty is going to figure out that it’s safe, and she’ll order them to attempt a landing, and that’s when this whole thing is going to get messy,” Roney said. “We need to send this thing back to Hell before that happens.”

Galana spread her hands helplessly. “And how are we supposed to do that, exactly?” The satisfaction of watching Captain Pelsworthy squirming in an attempt to avoid saying ‘I don’t know’ was quite small in comparison to the mounting alarm Galana was feeling about this whole situation. She looked around at the others. “Suggestions?”

“There is a very mild but unknown energy field immediately surrounding the Riddlespawn’s severed neck,” Wicked Mary reported. The little silver giela was standing directly under the Drakspar’s wings and had been prodding at the Riddlespawn’s neck-stump with a sensor built into her finger while the others talked. “If we pretend Captain Pelsworthy’s story is true ‑ ”

“Hey,” Roney objected.

“ ‑ we can imagine this is a sort of wormhole, or gateway the Riddlespawn is using to come and go between this world and its own,” Wicked Mary went on calmly. “It got its head in, and then got stuck. I could boost the amount of energy that gateway is receiving, and increase its size. The only problem is … ”

“Its head could just as easily pop out on this side as the rest of its body pop in on that one,” Hartigan finished. “More easily, if it really is just a hole it’s got its – its head stuck in. Its head is probably smaller than its body and if it isn’t, I absolutely don’t want to know about it,” he added fervently.

“Yes,” Wicked Mary said, “that is the problem. Anything we do to help it get home could backfire and result in it being pulled fully into this world, the way the Pirate Queen wants.”

“Can you just … neutralise the energy field?” Galana asked.

They turned and stared at her.

“That would cut its head off for real,” Bonty said, then looked down at her boots. “Oh. You knew that already.”

“Yes,” Galana said. “The question is, if we can close the hole it is stuck in, would that kill it? Or would having its head cut off for real just make it angry?”

“Not as stupid a question as it sounds,” Roney said, “knowing even as little as I do about Riddlespawn.”

“The Seven Sisters are changing formation,” Chillybin reported. “They may be preparing to send a landing party.”

“Well, it doesn’t seem like we have much choice, and we’re running out of time,” Galana told Roney. “You brought us here because you thought we could help.”

“So you can really do this?” Roney asked Wicked Mary in surprise.

“Of course, morsel,” Wicked Mary said. “Our civilisation is designed around getting nowhere as slowly as possible, after all, so we are in a perfect position to get this unfortunate creature nowhere after thirty thousand years,” Roney laughed, and Wicked Mary gestured at the squirming shape. “Should I proceed?”

“Do it,” Hartigan said unexpectedly. Galana looked at him. “We don’t want this thing alive in either sphere,” he said with a shrug. “Do we?”

Wicked Mary performed some swift, complicated rearrangements on her giela‘s machinery, then leaned back over the Riddlespawn. The lights set into her gleaming metal carapace flickered, and the headless torso stiffened – and then flailed more frantically. A high, raucous shriek sounded, making Galana and the others flinch. The sound wasn’t audible inside the temple, but over their communicators.

“It’s calling for the star serpent!” Roney shouted over the din.

Wicked Mary’s lights flickered again, the scream cut off and the body fell limp into the depression it had worn down over the past thirty thousand years. With a final slither of scales, it collapsed … and then collapsed further, darkening and cracking until it dissolved into a faint black smudge on the stones.

“Is everything alright down there?” Chillybin’s voice asked. “The Seven Sisters just turned their ships around and jumped into soft-space like their loading bays were on fire.”

“We’re fine,” Galana reported. “They probably heard that scream and assumed the star serpent was on its way.”

“Let’s get out of here before they realise it’s not,” Roney suggested.

Excellent notion, young Captain Pelsworthy,” Hartigan declared.

***

Soon, in The Blind Time Traveller:

Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer, stayed with them for a short time after their victory on Palothane and their retreat to a safe distance a few light years away. She came up with a variety of excuses – “I want to be sure another star serpent isn’t going to show up,” “I want to keep an eye on things in case the Riddlespawn come back,” “You’ll want me nearby in case the Seven Sisters come after you,” – but after a few days it became pretty clear that she just enjoyed the AstroCorps crew’s company.

“You know,” Hartigan said one evening-shift as they were sitting and enjoying another meal of mixed Six Species and Boze rations, and Basil was puffing on one of his rare cigars, “if you wanted to travel with us you’d be very welcome.”

“I thought you had to do this little circumnavigation thing yourself,” Roney said. “Hardly counts if I carry you most of the way, does it?”

“Oh carry us, now is it?” Basil laughed, but had to concede the point. The Boze had given them a five-year lift over the course of the past couple of weeks. “Well, if you don’t mind taking it casually, you’d be welcome to dock with us and carry on at our pace. I’m sure we have a lot to teach each other.”

“About High Elonath, for example,” Roney said, a wily expression on her amber-and-white-furred face.

“Well, among other things, certainly,” Hartigan said. “You know an awful lot about the galaxy. Even if you can’t share your marvellous technology with us poor biggumses, you must be able to help fill out our charts a bit, give us a few pointers.”

“It would be nice to know more about mobs like the Pirate Queen, too,” Devlin added. “So we don’t go blundering into enemy territory unawares.”

“Ah, you only want to blunder into enemy territory with complete awareness, eh?” Roney flashed her gold fang in a grin.

“Exactly,” Scrutarius nodded. “No, wait ‑ ”

“I’ll give you a few notes,” the Boze promised, “but you have to know it’s a dangerous and ever-changing thing, space. And I’ve got my own path. Don’t worry, though,” she added, and raised her glass. “I have no doubt it will cross with yours again. Many times.”

“No need for our paths to split again quite yet, though,” Bonty insisted. “Surely?”

“Absolutely not,” Roney agreed. “Oh, and that reminds me – here, I picked up something for you to add to your little souvenir collection,” she jumped off her couch, stepped over to the table in the middle of the Captain’s lounge, and drew a long, jagged grey-black shape from a pouch in the back of her uniform. At first Galana thought it was a blade of some sort, but then Roney set it down on the table and she realised it was a feather.

Hartigan leaned forward, eyes widening. “Is that … ?”

“A Drakspar feather,” Roney said proudly. “I plucked a couple off the big fellow down on Palothane. One for you, one for me.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Basil said, his voice wobbling sentimentally.

“I’m glad it didn’t wake up when you plucked it,” Devlin remarked.

Roney grinned and was about to say something else, when the Conch’s computer interrupted them with a polite chime.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Basil,” it said, “but a ship has just emerged from soft-space in our vicinity.”

Everyone jumped to their feet at once.

“The Seven Sisters?” Hartigan asked.

“Can’t be,” Roney tapped at one of the little devices built into her uniform sleeves. “My computer would have told me if they’d shown back up. It would have let me know if anything in my databanks had shown up.”

“So what is this?” Galana asked.

Roney frowned at her sleeve.

“Something else,” she said.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Wheel of Time casting, questions of ethnicity, and so on

Thanks to my dude Beer Rot for linking this to me. I’m sure Aaron already saw it too, he’s been all over this channel and the Wheel of Time TV remake.

Interesting watch. I could already have guessed the sorts of comments the casting of this show would get. Hell, I remember all too well a debate over whether Mat could have been played by Will Smith (back in the days of yore when Will Smith could have played a young-ish adult). I was staunchly on the side of “No”, mainly because of the way the skin tones of various characters and races were described in the books. It seems like it would have been something Jordan – known bad describer of things – would have mentioned.

On the other hand, he did also lay between-the-lines groundwork for the Two Rivers being something of a melting pot, and for skin colour to not be as important as other things (for some places). Which is really cool. I’m happy to change my vote on this one, although Will Smith is definitely too old now. And of course I am therefore heavily invested in the “not everyone objecting to a casting choice is automatically racist” argument, because I want to avoid that. Although I was only objecting to a casting suggestion, I don’t know how I would have reacted to actual casting back in the ’90s and early ’00s.

Still. Here we are. Actual casting is happening.

I had to chuckle at the “Moiraine will turn up and see the one white guy” joke-attempt. I mean, in the books it was worse, she turned up and saw the one thirteen-foot-tall ginger. Even in Caemlyn people were going “Light, look at that Aielman!” But okay, whatever. Amusing, but not in any way a point against the cast.

And there it is, 15:08 onwards, the Woke Plot. Of course, we knew this was coming.

As a style note, I love Matt Hatch’s shirt. That’s amazing.

Posted in Hatboy's Movie Extravaganza | Tagged , , , , , , | 21 Comments

The push continues

It’s unfortunate when someone you otherwise agree with turns out to have an opinion you don’t share, but it’s also inevitable. Because people are all different. You can’t realistically expect to align with someone on every point. I disagree with basically everyone I know and love, about something. And that’s alright. It’s not the end of the world and it doesn’t make them horrible people. It can be an opportunity for self-reflection and critical thinking, if you just relax and let a million years of spectacular brain-complexity evolution do its thing.

Of course, the more things tally up on the “wrong” side of the ledger, the more difficult it can get to convince ourselves that it’s fine. Enough things on that side of the ledger and you generally find that those people aren’t even in the bubble of “know and love” anyway. They’re scary kooks you’ve ended up associating with for some reason. And that’s alright too. It’s a delicate balance we all need to work with, in one way or another.

Did you think I was talking about someone I knew? Nah. I was talking about this entertaining bit of comedy from the witty and inventive mind of JP Sears, who has long been a satirist of the … I want to say extreme left? Or whatever vegans and essential oilers and yoga people and the more unbearably Karen-y SJWs are. He’s been doing it all along and it was funny.

And it still is! What worries me a little is the tone of the people in the comments on this video, and how emboldened they are. But you know, never read the comments I guess.

JP hasn’t crept right (or if he has, he’s always been there and this is a symptom of the normalisation and enabling of the right and it’s all way too subtle to be worth analysing), because he’s still sending up a very small and practically fictionalised segment of “blue pill” culture. There is no functional difference between the two extremes. They’re both pills and you’re taking one or the other completely uncritically.

Let me see if I can summarise it.

So, you “believe everything the [leftist] media tells you.” You’re going to stay at home, protect yourself, and let the economy tank. You happily relinquish your liberty and rights to free assembly, you submit to government tracking and control, and you trust politicians and shady for-profit organisations to decide what you should do because they know better than you do about your own body and you don’t believe in taking responsibility for your own actions. That’s definitely how it looks from the outside.

On the other hand, if you “believe everything the [right-wing] media tells you,” you’re fixing to get back out there just as we’re starting to learn about this pandemic. You’re ignoring the WHO (fine, they have their problems) and the vast majority of doctors, nurses and emergency responders. You’re doing exactly what the politicians and corporate nobility want, and jump-starting their money machines by going back to contagion-risking business as usual. JP doesn’t need to satirise this because it’s already a satire of itself. That’s how that looks from the outside.

Aren’t we all, ultimately, responsible for the consequences of our own actions? And aren’t we all, ultimately, going to make decisions based on input from some authority or other? What do you think our psyches are actually formed by? I’ll give you a clue, it’s sociocultural input.

Everyone thinks they are the only independent and responsible thinker in a world filled with frightened sheep. Everyone takes a pill.

Oh, and if you’re opposed to “mandatory vaccinations” I have some bad news for you. You’re probably all fired up about this video and won’t want to listen to the “expert”. Well, that sucks.

The flu vaccine is not mandatory, not even in vaccination-happy Finland. I doubt the covid-19 vaccine will be mandatory but I guess there’s still a lot more to learn about the virus so maybe it can be wiped out this way. In either case, I’m sure a lot of people on the left and the right will want it. They didn’t make SARS or swine flu vaccinations mandatory, although I seem to recall that I voluntarily went in for a flu shot around the time of the swine (or possibly avian) flu. I may have been about to go into chemo and surgery, and didn’t want to risk a case of the flu interfering with that, short-term. It was my choice.

There are some vaccinations we’re “forced” to give our kids – you know, for one-off diseases we’re doing our best to eradicate – but the flu is so seasonal and changeable that you can’t give a baby a single shot and make them and the community safe for life – at least this is my understanding, which in turn is the level of knowledge on which I am basing my decisions and I take responsibility for the consequences of that.

So they’re voluntary. Shit, even tetanus shots are voluntary.

Remember when “the government is controlling us with vaccines” was an X-Files plot? Or fringe lunacy of the contrailest kind? Well, here it comes. Into the mainstream. Along with the 5G conspiracy.

Maybe we just let all this run its course. Take the warning labels off everything and let the stupids die. Because this is embarrassing.

Posted in Hatboy's Nuggets of Crispy-Fried Wisdom, Kussa mun hopoti? | Tagged , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

The Fang o’ God (reboot)

Because this is my blog and I can.

Just in case you didn’t read the first version, here is the edited second version with the tertiary plotline replaced with a more standard shipwreck. And it let me add in a second level of “the computer is acting weird”, for later pay-off. Those of you who paid extra special attention in The Final Fall of Man and some other blog posts here may already know where we’re heading with the Conch‘s computer.

Anyway, here is the full story again.


 

“What’s going on, old girl?” Captain Hartigan asked as they took their places on the bridge. “We’re not due to come out of the grey for another week yet, are we?”

“No, Captain,” the Conch said formally, “but I have reason to believe we should perhaps stop here, make a quick scan, and set a new course.”

Galana exchanged worried looks with Basil, then Chillybin, then Wicked Mary. The aki’Drednanth and the Fergunakil didn’t bring much to the worried-looks table, since one wore a helmet and the other was a robot.

“Stop here?” Hartigan said worriedly. “We’re in the middle of a jump. That’s a fancy bit of footwork. Why bother?”

“Well,” the Conch said, “as you know, we were headed in this direction because of a signal we received at our last stop.”

“Bit of a strong way of putting it,” Basil said. “It was – what did you call it, Fen? An echo of a shadow of something that might have been a signal once upon a time?”

“It was very poetic, I thought,” Scrutarius said from the engineering console. “You know, for a Molran.”

“I take exception to that,” Galana said, although she and Devlin regularly made fun of one another in a friendly manner. “What we picked up was something that might have been a signal from a ship in trouble, but it was coming from several hundred light-years away and so if it was a distress call we were probably well and truly too late.”

“Still, interesting enough to make it worth checking out,” Bonty said. “Slimy fungus doesn’t send a detectable signal across that sort of distance.”

“Not unless it’s really slimy,” Devlin agreed.

“So why are we stopping now?” Hartigan prompted.

“That’s just it,” the computer said quickly. “I managed to reconstruct the signal, and it was just a random pulse, nothing that would suggest it was a ship. I’d hate for you to arrive and be depressed to find nothing.”

“We’ve survived so far,” Hartigan said casually. “I don’t see why we should stop now. If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there. Let’s check it and see.”

“Unless you think there’s some danger?” Galana asked the computer.

“There might be,” the Conch said. “If the signal was a ship, and it was brought down by something…”

“We don’t run away from things like that, old girl,” Hartigan declared. “We’re AstroCorps, not the…” he waved a hand. “Help me out, Dev.”

“The Buxland Squealy-runners,” Scrutarius supplied promptly.

“We’re AstroCorps, not the Buxland Squealy-runners,” Hartigan said with relish. “Oh, that’s a good one. Who are the Buxland Squealy-runners?”

“They’re nothing,” Scrutarius said. “I just made it up.”

“Oh.”

It was another week to their destination. In that time, they performed as many emergency drills as Basil and Galana felt were necessary, but there really wasn’t much they could do to prepare. The computer, giving every sign of being in a bit of a sulk about the whole thing, didn’t find out anything more about the signal they were chasing.

Finally the day arrived and they all gathered on the bridge.

“It is an ordinary-looking solar system,” the Conch reported as they emerged from soft-space. “No big tech in orbit around the planets or the sun. Only one planet appears to be habitable. Some small technology signatures on the surface,” it added in what Galana could have sworn was a grudging tone. “Nothing too complex.”

“More complex than a slimy fungus though,” Bonty said enthusiastically.

“Yes, but no ship,” the Conch said. “Maybe we should just-”

“Oh come now-” Hartigan said in exasperation.

“I am … in contact,” Chillybin said unexpectedly, before the Captain and the ship’s computer could get into an argument.

“Chilly?” Galana said. “I’m not seeing any comms from the surface.”

“No, it is – the presence of intelligent creatures,” the aki’Drednanth explained. “I recognise the shapes of their minds.”

“Oh,” Hartigan said excitedly, “I thought it usually took a while for you to do that. Are these aliens you’re already familiar with, then?”

“I should say so, Captain,” Chillybin replied. “They’re humans.”

There was a shocked silence.

“I thought you said you sensed intelligent creatures,” Scrutarius said. Hartigan turned and gave him a narrow look. “Sorry,” Devlin added. “Couldn’t resist.”

“You monkeys really do get everywhere,” Bonty said, “don’t you?”

“Now we are receiving a transmission,” the Conch said while Hartigan was still opening and closing his mouth. “The language … interesting.”

“What is it?” Galana asked.

“It is a human language spoken on Coriel, but it took me a moment to recognise it,” the computer explained. “I would say that they started with Coriane as it was several hundred years ago and developed it from there, in a quite different way to how it has developed on Coriel.”

“I don’t speak modern Coriane,” Hartigan finally managed to say. He sounded disgruntled.

“Neither do I,” Galana admitted. The Porticon, her home Worldship, occasionally visited Coriel but she’d never really spent much time down there. The Coriane were a strange lot – and that was just the few Molren who lived there. “And there are only humans down there?” she glanced at Chillybin for confirmation.

Chilly nodded. “Several thousand of them, I would say.”

“That sounds right,” the Conch agreed, then paused for a long moment. “The main settlement is the source of the tech readings. It could be the remains of a dismantled starship,” it admitted. “Its distress-call days are long behind it, though.”

Galana nodded to herself. “Once we establish full contact,” she told the Conch, “it may be a good idea to just send the Captain’s image until we can be sure the sight of aliens won’t upset them. These must be the descendants of a human shipwreck. It’s been known to happen – just not so far from Six Species space.”

“Opening a channel,” the Conch said.

Galana looked down at what appeared to be a fairly normal human being, although she had to admit she wasn’t familiar with many humans aside from their Captain. This one didn’t have fur on its face, although it still had a tidy mane on the top of its head. It seemed flushed and out of breath, and Galana imagined it had come running to respond to the hails of the starship in orbit.

“I am Misrepresentation Fizzschlifft, voice of the Gunumban people,” the computer translated the high-speed jabbering of the human and even overlaid it in an approximation of the human’s gruff voice. “It is a great surprise and very exciting to see a human face … ” the sound cut off at that point, and the human talked animatedly for several more seconds before stopping and waiting expectantly. “I am sorry,” the Conch went on in the computer’s normal voice, “I seem to have lost the audio feed. Attempting to compensate. The real-time translation may have been too much for the data buffers … ”

Galana frowned as the computer continued to explain, using more and more pointless technical jargon. After it had tried to stop them even arriving at this system, it was hard to believe this was just another accident. But what should she do about it? What could she do about it?

“‘Misrepresentation’?” Hartigan asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I believe the word was ‘Calumny’,” Wicked Mary said, “but it was a name and perhaps not intended to be translated.”

Galana called up the received transmission, but it was all chopped up and incomplete – and it didn’t look like a system glitch. It looked edited. She glanced across at Wicked Mary, who had obviously been receiving and translating the message from the surface using some equipment of her own that she had set up without their knowledge. The giela returned her look with its collection of sensors, completely impossible to read.

“Yes, yes it was Calumny Fizzschlifft, and I am ready to translate your response now, Captain,” the Conch was saying. “I will attempt to re-establish a link and get the rest of the previous transmission. I’m sorry about this.”

“Alright old girl, not to worry,” Hartigan said mildly. “We got the important bits, what?” he cleared his throat. “Greetings, Calumny Fizzschlifft and the Gunumban people,” he went on officially. “I am Captain Basil Hartigan, and on behalf of AstroCorps and the Six Species, I bid you greetings from your long-lost cousins a – gosh, what, it must be just about a third of the way around the bally galaxy by this point, eh Fen?”

“Yes, Captain,” Galana replied, hoping they weren’t about to show her in the transmission and freak out the poor unsuspecting Gunumbans.

“I have translated the greeting into the Coriane dialect, well, I suppose we should refer to it as Gunumban at this point,” the Conch said, sounding a bit less anxious. Galana suspected it was because the computer was getting the hang of whatever trick it was trying to pull on them.

Their whole mission, the whole issue of speaking with aliens, was at stake if they could not trust what the computer told them the aliens were saying. Wicked Mary, as unreliable as she was, might be their only source of unedited information. And that was more than a little worrying.

The Captain and Calumny Fizzschlifft exchanged a few more enthusiastic but questionable messages. The Gunumbans were aware, from the ‘old stories’ of their ancestors, of the Six Species and even had some archived images of Molren, aki’Drednanth, Bonshooni, Blaren, and even Fergunak. They were very excited to hear that there was one of each of the fabled creatures aboard the Conch, and eagerly invited them to land.

“What do you think, Fen?” Hartigan asked her.

She paused, watching the Captain carefully. He knew, she realised. He knew there was something strange going on with the computer. But he was pretending it was fine. Why? It couldn’t be to protect the machine’s feelings. But then, she realised, she was doing the same herself.

“We should be careful,” she said. “You are at risk of contracting any diseases the locals might have, since you are the same species.”

“Oh come now,” Hartigan said. “You don’t think there’s any risk of that, do you?”

“I am not certain, Captain,” Galana said. “I would feel better if the Conch – and Doctor Bont, of course – could perform a full analysis.”

“Yes,” the computer agreed quickly, while Basil was still frowning and opening his mouth, “yes, that would be sensible. We don’t want anyone turning into a cake, do we? Ha ha.”

Galana wondered when she had first started treating the Conch’s computer like a slightly unstable person, and realised it had been happening for a while now. “Bonty?” she asked.

“I’ll run some tests,” Bonjamin said. “Of course, we’ll need to land and send out a sample probe before we can be sure … ”

“The ship they arrived here in was called the Garla Gunumbous,” Chillybin said. “Human and Molran crew, probably. The nameplate was preserved and they included a picture of it in the unscrambled part of their transmission.”

“Guess that’s why they call themselves Gunumbans,” Scrutarius remarked.

“The ship has long since been taken apart for the technology they are using to run their main settlement,” Chilly went on. “The power cells, medical facilities, even the hull plates.”

“Is there any record of the Garla Gunumbous in our database?” Galana asked the computer.

“Only the mythical figure,” the Conch replied. “Garla Gunumbous, Goddess of Plenty … I’m afraid I don’t have a record of every lost ship in Six Species history.”

“Some of their oldest computer records are still intact and accessible,” Wicked Mary said. “However, at the moment I am unable to read that data for a reason I have not fully made up yet.”

“Excuse me?” Galana turned to the giela with a lift of her ears.

“Forgive me, Commander,” the Conch said. “This is my fault. I know my behaviour is erratic, but I am attempting to find the best way to introduce … difficult information.”

“Are you attempting to protect us from something we may find distressing?” Galana asked. A number of things began to make sense. “Something about this place and its original settlers?”

“Yes,” the Conch said, sounding very unhappy.

“I have often found that the best way to deal with an uncomfortable situation is to get as much of it out in the open as possible,” Galana suggested, “rather than hiding it until it is too late – and has possibly been made worse.”

“I know,” the Conch said, “but if I’m wrong, then it seems pointless to bring it up for no reason. With Wicked Mary’s help I will make certain of what we are facing, and then we can deal with it. I asked her to help me stall. She did not do a very good job,” she added a little sternly.

“I am uncomfortable hiding things from my crewmates,” Wicked Mary lied with appalling lack of shame.

Basil, Galana noticed, had been frowning vaguely and looking at the planet through the viewscreen. “Captain?” she asked.

“Hmm?” Hartigan blinked and turned to her. “Oh, I was just thinking about how funny it is that there’s only ever the one settlement or bunch of people on these planets for us to meet,” he said. “We never have to deal with a whole planet full of different cultures, it’s all jolly convenient. Why, the closest we’ve ever come to a diverse group was the Nyif Nyif.”

“I suppose … ” Galana said cautiously.

“Anyway, what have we got here?” Hartigan went on crisply. “Descendants of some old settlers or shipwreck, and the computer’s got herself all worked up that we might be about to find out something that will make us sad. I say, d’you suppose the humans ate all the Molren or something?”

“I find it far easier to believe that the Molren would have eaten the humans, to be honest,” Galana said. “A human wouldn’t get much nutritional value from a Molran.”

“A Molran wouldn’t get much nutritional value from a human, for that matter,” Bonty commented. “Terribly fatty and low in fibre.”

“Easier to farm, though,” Devlin added.

“Oh, granted, they’re easier to farm ‑ ” Bonty agreed.

“Right, well as far as I’m concerned this all adds up to a simply spiffing mystery,” Hartigan went on loudly, “and there’s nothing for it but to toddle on down there as fast as we jolly well can, what?” he tapped his controls. “Unless you really think the Gunumbans and I are going to give each other a dose of the pox?”

“No,” the Conch said, “I shouldn’t think there’s much risk of that. But Bonjamin should run some tests to be absolutely sure.”

“Right. And while Bonty’s doing that, you can tell us what’s so bally dreadful about this place that you thought pulling the old ‘does not compute’ gag was the best way to break it to us,” Hartigan declared. He stood up. “Galana, Devlin, with me. Chilly, Bloody Mary, I want a full accounting of the technology we’re looking at and any potential combat situations we might face, you know the drill. We’ll leave the comm open so you can listen in. Carry on.”

They ascended to the Captain’s quarters, and Scrutarius went immediately to Hartigan’s little bar and made a round of drinks.

“You already know what this is about,” Galana asked as she sat down, “both of you. Don’t you?”

“I have no idea,” Devlin said, although Galana could tell from the set of his upper shoulders and the sharp downward angle of his ears that this was a half-truth at best. “All I know is, if it’s got the computer this rattled, then it’s drinks time.”

“As for me, let’s say I’ve got a hunch,” Hartigan said. “Let’s see if I was right. Computer? Our shipwrecked friends down below wouldn’t happen to be there because of the Fang o’ God, now would they?”

“Yes, Basil,” the Conch said in a strange little voice. Galana looked from Basil to Devlin, seeing the human’s grim nod and the Blaran’s further stiffening. “Yes, they are.”

“Right,” Hartigan clapped his hands briskly. “Drinks it is.”

“The Fang o’ God?” Galana said in bafflement. “You mean the mythical weapon, or warship, or whatever it was, from old Earth legends?”

“Back before Dev and I knew each other, I was Captain of another AstroCorps ship and crew,” Hartigan said, “as you are aware, Fen. Ah, thanks,” he took the drink Devlin offered, and took a deep draught as Scrutarius handed another glass to Galana and sat down with his own. “We were a bit more of a standard crew in a bit more of a standard ship – me as Captain, and my wife Nella as XO … although you really couldn’t say she was an XO. She would have been court-martialled for insubordination fifteen times before we even broke dock,” he laughed fondly. “Anyway, we were a great team. I had a lot of friends on that crew.

“We were searching, as you know, for the Last Alicorn. Among other things. A lot of wonders to explore, a lot of space to travel, and all the time in the universe …

Ah, but then we heard tales of the Fang o’ God. Some of the greatest spacefaring human families come from the lines that descended from that – that ship, or whatever it was. And, it was said, when the Last Alicorn parted company with the Molran Fleet, it was with the Fang o’ God that it went. Or if it didn’t go with the Fang o’ God, then at least there was some connection, a lead. So, naturally, we added it to our list of things that we simply had to explore. A lot of piffle, don’t y’know, but worth checking out. No stone unturned, all of that.

“Our search led us to a place they call the bonefields,” Hartigan stopped and took another large gulp from his glass, finishing his drink. He looked lost and frightened for a moment, and then laughed helplessly. “Still not at all sure I want to talk about it, to be honest.”

“I’ve heard the legend,” Scrutarius said. “Never anything specific, but it always sounds bad. You may have let slip once or twice, Baz, especially in connection to – to Nella. That was why I suspected that’s what this was about.”

“I’ve also heard stories about the bonefields,” Galana said, “but I never thought it was real. Wasn’t there something about how you can only ever go there once?”

“Believe me, you’d only ever want to go there once,” Hartigan said. “If we’d known we were going to wind up there and what would happen, we wouldn’t have gone at all. Oh, but we were on a grand adventure, don’t y’know,” he laughed bitterly. “There aren’t many stories about the bonefields because nobody wants to tell stories about it. That’s how my crew’s accident got marked down in the AstroCorps records as – as … well, I don’t even know what it was marked down as,” he looked at Galana. “You tell me, Fen.”

Galana shook her head. “There were no details,” she said, “just a ‘ship lost with all hands’ and a suggestion that you might have been venturing too close to the Core in your search for the alicorn.”

“Makes sense,” Basil said. “When in doubt, blame the Cancer and make it that much less likely that anyone else will dare to go anywhere near ‘em. But no, it was nothing to do with the Core. We flew into the bonefields, the floating bones took apart our ship and butchered our crew, and there was nothing in the middle to show for it. No alicorn, no Fang o’ God, no nothing. Just blood and screams and death. Nella and I managed to get out of there in the remains of the ship, after half our crew took to the escape pods and those were taken apart too. While we watched,” he shuddered, and tried to take another drink, but found his glass empty. “We decided to go down with the ship because that’s what Captains do, and that’s how we survived. Pure bally luck.”

“But … ” Galana said hesitantly.

“Nella died of her injuries,” Devlin told her quietly when Hartigan didn’t speak again. “That was … shortly after they returned to charted space. Isn’t that right, Baz?”

“Hm? Oh,” Basil nodded, his eyes still staring into nothingness. “Oh, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Basil,” Galana said sincerely. “I’m very sorry.”

“Ah well,” Basil shook himself, and forced a smile. “There you have it, anyway. Now you know. The ghastly and pointless truth about how I got my first crew killed. All of them, lost on a fruitless search for the legendary Fang o’ God. Fitting you should learn about it on our tenth space anniversary, what? Telling each other deep dark secrets and all that. But what about these poor blighters? The Gunumbans?”

“The Garla Gunumbous was recorded as a supertanker carrying farm equipment and supplies,” Wicked Mary’s voice replied over the comm, “led by a Molran command crew. They were not explorers or adventurers. How they wandered into the bonefields, let alone how they ended up this far from Six Species space, does not seem to have survived in the databanks or the Gunumbans’ myths. But they definitely seem to have encountered the bonefields and it had a significant impact on them. Even generations later, phrases like the field of bones, the floating bones and even the great tooth are part of their speech patterns.”

“That was the point at which I edited the initial transmissions,” the Conch said apologetically. “I realised there was a connection and was trying to find the best way to break it to you.”

“You knew before that,” Hartigan said affectionately. “Didn’t you? You figured it out from that shadow of an echo of the old distress signal, hundreds of light-years out.”

“Yes,” the computer admitted.

“The Garla Gunumbous was critically damaged,” Wicked Mary went on, “the Molren were killed, and they fled through soft-space to this location. That is about all the information we have managed to reassemble.”

“That’s pretty good, for data you’ve managed to pick up from a centuries-old shipwreck while we’re still in orbit,” Devlin said supportively.

“I suspect that the ship’s purpose may have been a little less noble,” Wicked Mary said, “although with a Molran crew it was probably still operating inside the law.”

“But we have no evidence of this,” Bonty added in a pained voice over the comm, “and so there is no reason to dishonour the memory of the dead by making accusations until we find out more from the Gunumbans. Which we can do whenever you like. The scans are all clear.”

“Safe to land?” Galana jumped at the opportunity to avoid talking about the ancient supertanker and whatever nefarious work it may have been about when it went down. “We should still do a final check-”

“Yes, once we land,” Bonty said. “That is, if you feel like landing.”

“Absolutely,” Hartigan jumped to his feet. Galana looked down at her drink, which she hadn’t actually had a chance to taste yet, and set it on the table with a little shrug. “We can hardly come all this way and find humans and not bally well drop in and say hello, can we? Or whatever it is they say instead of ‘hello’.”

Kädun,” the Conch supplied helpfully.

“There you go. We can’t come all this way and not drop in and say kädun,” Hartigan declared. “And us bonefields survivors have to stick together, what?”

They quickly made their preparations, then returned to the bridge and detached the Nella for landing. Scrutarius had packed a large, round-cornered crate and an assortment of food and spare equipment from engineering, but wouldn’t go into specifics about what any of it was. Stuff they might have missed in the past few hundred years, was all he would say.

“An awkward thought occurs,” Galana said as they were descending through the atmosphere.

“Is it about long-forgotten Molran skulduggery aboard the Garla Gunumbous?” Scrutarius asked.

“No. What if the Gunumbans do want to go home?”

“We can’t very well bring them all with us,” Hartigan said, “even if they aren’t exactly a planet-full.”

“And we don’t have enough equipment to leave them so they can build their own starship, either,” Devlin agreed. “The pieces they have left are basically keeping their main settlement lights on. We’re not going to get them off the ground.”

“And we can’t leave them with detailed directions back to Six Species space,” Galana said. “That would be a grave security risk.”

“True, but surely something like ‘it’s that way, just keep going around the galactic rim widdershins until you start seeing Bounce-Bounce Burger signs’ would be fine,” Hartigan objected.

“Maybe this is something we can worry about if they ask us,” Galana suggested.

The Gunumbans met them when they landed. It was strange to be surrounded by humans again, to see their funny pointy faces looking up at her and the tops of their furry little heads as they jostled and jabbered. Galana looked across the bobbing heads at Bonty, and shared a grin with her friend. It was almost like coming home, even though Galana had to admit that if this many humans had shown up on the Worldship Porticon, the locals would have contacted pest control.

The humans, for their part, were awestruck and a little frightened by the towering aliens. No living Gunumban had seen a Molranoid or an aki’Drednanth in the flesh. It must have felt like the drawings and stories of Gunumban history stepping living and breathing into the real world. They were spared having to see Wicked Mary in person, as she had remained in orbit.

Still, the humans were wide-eyed and didn’t seem hostile. They babbled excitedly in their strange ancient-Coriane dialect, and the Conch translated for them as efficiently as possible. Galana had made the conscious decision, at this point, to once again trust that the computer was feeding them accurate information. She was left with little alternative.

“This is Jelter Qade, the … I suppose spiritual leader is the best term,” the Conch said. “She bids you welcome in the name of the Benevolent Sky, which is possibly a deity of some kind. And this is Calumny Fizzschlifft, we spoke on the comm…”

Fizzschlifft, more an administrator and general public servant than a leader, also welcomed them to ‘Gunumba’ and immediately hit it off with Basil Hartigan despite the fact that kädun was the only word the Captain knew. He added a second word to his repertoire when Jelter Qade gave him a ceremonial gift, and a piece of it came loose and swung down and hit him between the legs. After that he could also say nädjgenitals. There was much laughter, and the terrifying spectre of the visitors from the stars was dispelled. A good bit of physical comedy, Bonty noted, was more effective than a century of xenopological study.

The Gunumbans were content to stay on the planet, Galana was relieved to learn almost immediately. They had no interest in returning to Six Species space even though they were delighted to learn that the Six Species – or Many Peoples Under Many Benevolent Skies – was still out there.

They showed the crew of the Conch around the most important buildings and features of their central settlement, including the assorted ancient and well-worn buildings and mechanisms that ran their little civilisation. Devlin declared it all exceptionally well maintained, and said there was little he could teach them, although some of the repair equipment and compounds he’d brought with him would help. The part of the ship that had sent out the distress signal they’d caught the forlorn edge of was long gone, beyond even Devlin’s ability to reconstruct.

While the others were jabbering happily about the machinery, Galana slipped away to study one of the weathered old hull segments that now acted as a foundation stone. She concluded her examination and returned before anyone missed her, although she saw Wicked Mary’s giela regarding her as unreadably as ever.

The central Gunumban origin story, as recited stirringly by Jelter Qade at the obligatory feast that night, confirmed their theories as much as such stories could. The Gunumbans, it was said, had been driven out of their lands of birth and carried into great danger by the classic great metal bird of spacefaring origin-myth. Their great heroes had then tamed the bird and flown here. If this wasn’t a story of a long-forgotten shipwreck told by the survivors’ great-great-great-grandchildren, Galana decided, then there was no point even trying to make sense of it.

Even as the Gunumban leader spoke of their long-lost birthland, however, it was clear that they still had no intention of going back there.

“It would be like walking in circles, or going back a step instead of forward,” Bonty said once the Conch had translated. “That’s odd. Most origin myths, like the Fleet tales of the gates of space, talk about lost places that we would go back to if we could. The Gunumbans seem perfectly content.”

“Not a bad way to be,” Scrutarius noted. “Especially since we can’t help them.”

“Well, your gear will keep them comfortable for a few generations yet,” Hartigan said. “And at least it doesn’t have a swinging bit that catches you in the nädj, what?” There was more hilarity at this. “And what about that other box of yours?”

“Ah yes,” Devlin stood up from the table and went over to the large rounded box he’d brought down, quite separate to the equipment he’d already given the lost humans. Galana recognised it as similar to ones he’d given away previously – to the Man-Apes, for example, several years ago now.

“Jelter Qade wants to know what it is,” the Conch said when the Gunumban leader took the box from the Blaran and jabbered a short statement in acceptance.

“Diversity,” Devlin said cryptically. “Just in case you or your descendants ever do find your way back to Six Species space, this might give you some … valuable lessons. But you mustn’t open it until we have returned to the Benevolent Sky,” he added in a warning tone, and finished off his speech with a wiggle of the fingers of his upper hands and a playful, “ooooo,” that made the locals laugh again.

After an enjoyable feast and even more enjoyable after-feast celebration and drink-fuelled exchange of dances, the crew returned to the Nella and ascended regretfully into orbit.

“I tell you,” Hartigan said, “nobody throws a party like humans. You Blaran chaps are alright, Dev, but you’re just going to have to be satisfied with second place on this one.”

“I can live with that,” Scrutarius said in amusement. The Captain was clearly feeling a little fragile, but the drinks on offer hadn’t been strong enough to have any real effect on Molran, Blaran, Bonshoon or aki’Drednanth physiology.

“But listen here,” the Captain went on, “I’ve only gone and bared my soul for our tenth space anniversary. Told you all about the bonefields and the Fang o’ God and the passing of my dear wife.”

“You also told us that your childhood nickname was Spazzle Fartigan,” Devlin said.

What?” Hartigan croaked. “No I didn’t!”

“I’m afraid you did, Captain,” Galana said. “You were telling Calumny about it last night.”

“You were very drunk,” Chillybin agreed.

“Fine, jolly good,” Hartigan grumbled, then fixed his Chief Engineer with an accusing look. “Well?”

Scrutarius raised his ears. “Well what?”

“You were going to tell us about your special secret Blaran alteration,” Bonty said. “You said it was ancient spacefaring tradition.”

Did I? You’d think I’d remember something like that,” Devlin said vaguely. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure Fen said the whole thing was just made up.”

“Oh fine,” Bonty said, “I’ll start. I tell everyone I’m three-and-a-half thousand years old, but the truth is, I don’t know how old I am because I don’t remember. And I know, you all knew that already,” she added impatiently. “What you don’t know is, I know I’m actually quite a lot older than that. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years older. The doctors don’t know because I have genetic disorders that have messed up my aging process. I’m still getting older, sorry to say, and I’m not immortal, but I’ll probably just go on looking like this until I keel over. And it could happen tomorrow.”

“That’s … something I would have liked to know before taking you on a fifty-year jaunt around the galaxy, to be honest,” Basil said.

“Tough,” Bonty replied with a flick of her ears.

“I killed my sisters,” Chillybin said. They all turned and stared at the huge armoured figure. “It is the way of my species,” she went on. “In a litter of ten newborns, all of them fight and kill one another for food and shelter and only one or two will survive to grow into adolescents. It is a test, of sorts. I was the only survivor of my litter,” she concluded. “And I killed them all.”

“Bloody Hell,” Devlin said shakily. “Not sure I can top that.”

“I think I can,” Wicked Mary raised a slender metal hand.

“Oh boy,” Devlin said.

“I am defective,” the Fergunakil said. “On eighteen occasions so far, I have had the chance to cut each of you off from major ship systems and flood the decks with water, converting the Conch into an aquatic vessel and then hunting you for sport and nutrition. At first, I thought it was only the computer stopping me, but after the fifth time I realised I was sabotaging my own efforts, making excuses to not carry out the attack. I was failing on purpose.”

“Failing to kill us all,” Bonty said flatly.

“I would appreciate it if you did not judge me harshly,” Wicked Mary said in a prim tone.

“Fine,” Hartigan said, “jolly good. Bloody Mary, thanks for sharing. Fen, you’re up.”

Galana paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “I examined one of the hull plates from the Garla Gunumbous, down on the surface,” she eventually said.

“Even for a Molran that’s lamer than I expected,” Scrutarius announced.

“It was a very specific configuration,” she went on. “My own family – my parents and grandparents – used to crew similar vessels. Wicked Mary was correct. They were called supertankers, but they were more like livestock transports. Lower Fleet ranks would take ships like this out, and they would carry large cargoes of humans, in appalling conditions. The humans agreed to it because the Fleet had the most dependable ships and they would get to fly to their own planets and colonise them. The Fleet used them as – as slave labour, essentially, to construct new settlements.”

“Farm equipment,” Hartigan said quietly. “It was right there on the manifest.”

Galana nodded. “It is widely known, but nobody ever speaks of the treatment after the fact. Humans have a … useful habit of forgetting, and looking back at the past with a very rosy filter after the previous generations have died. Whatever happened in the bonefields, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ancient Gunumbans took the opportunity to overthrow the Molran crew and seize the ship. I would not have blamed them. Certainly I was relieved that no memory of it seemed to remain with the community we just met.”

“They might have sacrificed us to the Benevolent Sky,” Bonty said lightly, although her eyes were sad. She had known, at least in vague terms, this detail of Galana’s family life. But not the complete truth. The supertankers were a dirty little Fleet secret, known by many but never faced.

“That is why I joined AstroCorps,” Galana concluded. “I could not be part of a lie so monstrous. We call ourselves the Six Species, but the Fleet has never believed it. AstroCorps is the only way humans will ever stand with us as equals, rather than as useful semi-sentient beasts of burden.”

They sat in reflective silence for a while after Galana’s speech.

“I’d feel a little shallow showing you my inflatable pecs after all this,” Scrutarius declared.

“Hang about, your inflatable what?” Bonty exclaimed.

“I want to see them,” Chillybin said.

“Me too,” Galana added.

“Oh and look, we’re docking,” Devlin strolled away from his console. “I’d better go and check the connector bolts and get the relative field calibrated…”

“Devlin!” Hartigan raised his voice.

“Long way still to go,” Scrutarius called from down the hall. “Lots of space to explore.”

“Chief Engineer Able Belowdecksman Devlin bally Scrutarius you get back here right bally now!” Basil shouted.

The Blaran’s merry laughter echoed over the bridge as he vanished into the ship.

***

Soon, in The Riddlespawn:

Bonjamin and Devlin were finishing up a fairly boring survey of another empty solar system when the Conch announced that a second ship had entered the volume.

“But there’s nothing here,” Galana said in puzzlement. The system had three planets that could potentially have supported life, but only one of them had so much as a microbe on it. And Bonty had just concluded that they weren’t very interesting microbes. “No technological relics, no settlements. The only thing here is us, and nobody else knew we would be here.”

“The ship is moving in swiftly on an approach heading,” the Conch said. “It is sending us a comm signal on a known wavelength.”

Galana strode quickly to her console, the rest of the crew hurrying onto the bridge behind her. “Fleet or AstroCorps?” she asked.

“Neither,” the Conch replied.

“It is the Splendiferous Bastard,” Chillybin said.

What?” Galana blurted.

“Oh, jolly good!” Captain Hartigan exclaimed.

Moments later the bridge viewscreens were dominated by the narrow, furry little face and great pointed ears of Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer.

There you are,” she said loudly. “Golly, you haven’t gotten very far, have you? I’ve been looking for you all over the place.”

“Roney, you wily little blighter,” Hartigan said happily. “What brings you sniffing around again? Admit it, you missed us.”

“Wish it was that simple, biggums,” Roney said. “I need your help.”

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Rage Against It

Posted in Hatboy's Nuggets of Crispy-Fried Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments