A Railgun Brain, Part X

Sometimes I ponder the [chalice / urn], and the unquiet [evil, poison, also markers for a struggle, the fight between grace and damnation, check the Old Sloane Concordance for notes on the Angelic and the Demonic, facets of human nature] within. Does it suffer? Does it [live? Life / awareness icon, seems to be plural though?? If it’s not the Gund-based plural, a lot of contemporary interpretation is going to need to be rethought]?

The [electrical blue / house of ice] would surely [fall, perish, hull breach? Careful, this isn’t a Who Sabotaged Truck’s Ship mystery, Elan!], should the [poison / acid / corrosive compound, similar markers to the hound gas thing earlier so they might still just be talking about stinky shipmates] escape its prison of [pottery? Nonconductive ceramic / insulator, could be a material or just another reference to the electrical blue – literal electrical insulator? Or something darker, like a tomb reliquary]. Its danger is [maybe not literal, maybe spiritual or psychological, but maybe entirely literal and chemical but there are no markers for any sort of chemical composition aside from the ceramic (arguable), so no place to start], the [dead??] are [unquiet again / not dead?? This whole passage needs to take a good long look at itself, honestly]. These things, this [terrible gift / curse / dark blessing bestowed upon unwilling / grudging / obligated, or maybe just … just a present, actually] given by [the Vengeful? Emptiness? Check this full list of icons, something not matching up], why has it been left to me to decide their fate? I, so full of darkness, [long marches of evil years and deeds, familiar Sloanic concept and framing]. The [universe, but again plural? Greater plural-singular collective form, over-universe – again, if this isn’t plural, we’ve got a lot of rebranding to do] has a sense of humour.

One thing I know. Eternal torment should mean what it says on the [package – this translates too precisely to mean anything else, but could be an enduring concept – it means what it says on the box – or a reference to something written on the memorial urn. Inscription? Glyphs? Check Declivitorion grave-scratch, Jover’s Buried Blades of the Elves].

[Most of the rest of this is entirely indecipherable or open to whatever optimistic interpretation I want to put on it, utterly undependable]

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A Railgun Brain, Part IX

The Fleet cruiser Broker had somehow finagled for his personal use was really very nice. Elan didn’t think he’d been aboard any private or pleasure vessel that was more luxurious, not that he had been aboard that many. He moved in circles, generally speaking, to which starships and shuttles were more of a way from A to B than a means of impressing people on the way.

He’d seen the name of the vessel as Broker had piloted their little shuttle up to lock in a secure dock on the cruiser’s underside. Kadana Laar, the utilitarian angular Xidh icons had spelled out. It translated roughly as a long and tiring story, which was a little lyrical for a Fleet ship. Elan detected the four subtle hands of Commander Viator Broker behind the designation.

He enjoyed a nice breakfast of eggs and cream-pepper sausages as the Kadana Laar got underway. He didn’t get into space that often, aside from his bounces up to the Carbuncle in orbit, but even he was aware that Fleet rations – particularly their concession to human beings on Fleet ships – were notoriously bland. Broker, however, had taken matters into his own hands and brought in the good stuff from … well, from somewhere. Not Þursheim, Elan judged. Maybe the Separatists just stocked a more interesting larder than their Fleet cousins.

“So we’re off to speak to a Repositorium,” he said, but only after breakfast and his first cup of coffee were behind him. Actual coffee, none of the assorted alternatives that Molranoids usually favoured, like zolo. Broker had offered him tea, but for all that Elan quietly preferred tea to coffee, he felt it was more spacefarer-y – not to mention a bit less good old traditional Mygonite-y – to drink coffee. “Maybe it’s time to … I don’t know … tell me some stuff?” he smiled winningly. “What do you say?”

Viator pondered for a time. It wasn’t like they didn’t have several hours to the Hades line, so Elan let him have his big old generous Molranoid pause. He poured himself another coffee in the meantime.

“How much do you know about the Repositoria, and the Repositoriad?” the Blaran eventually asked.

Elan shrugged. “The former is – was – a collection of biomechanical memory cores, borderline synthetic intelligence, but regenerative like living things,” he said. “There were a few of them taken off the old Fleet homeworld. Three, the old stories say – but the old stories always say there’s three of things.”

“Fair,” Viator said. “The really old stories say there’s ten of things, but you’d probably know more about the old academic forms than I.”

“Well however many there were, there was only one left functional as far as I was ever told,” Elan said. “But you’d know more about that than I do. And – again, as far as I was ever told – it was broken down with age and more or less unintelligible, its data inaccessible except in a bunch of nonsensical riddles that need to be heavily interpreted. Which brings us to the latter,” he smiled. “The Repositoriad, I feel safe saying in this company, are a bunch of terminally pompous old Molren in dorky robes, who control access to the Repositorium and interpret its ancient wisdom and knowledge for the good of the Fleet.”

“You’ve pretty much nailed it,” Broker agreed easily.

“But your Repositorium is different,” Elan sipped his coffee. “It’s a Separatist Repositorium.”

“Well, as to that, it’s really more of a Fleet Repositorium that I stole, on behalf of the New Fleet Separatists,” Broker admitted. “There really is no Fleet or Separatist Repositoria. They are the memory of our lost world – Molran, Blaran, Bonshoon. They belong to all of us. The Fleet, the Molren turned them into Worldship flight log databases, and that’s why they started to go mad and die. They were meant to hold our story,” he sighed. “But they were corrupted, edited. Their minds were clipped, and the tragedy of what they were losing … broke them.”

“Is that why you stole it?” Elan asked.

“Actually, I stole it when I was a child of no more than sixty years of age,” Viator smiled.

“A mere infant,” Elan said wryly. The Blaran grinned and flicked his ears in acknowledgement of the human’s twenty-two entire years of life. “So what was it? A dare?”

“More or less,” Viator said. “I did it to win a bet.”

“You don’t say.”

“Some of the most impressive feats of my life were the result of stupid bets,” Viator said, then grew serious once more. “The Repositoria are not machine minds – not synth instances – and they’re not organic. They’re an incredibly ancient melding of the two, like an organic brain rendered in solid and durable minerals. But even that makes them sound like something terrible and crazy, like Horatio Bunzo.”

“It would explain why the Fleet has always been so insistent that everybody stop trying to transcribe living minds into the electronic,” Elan said. “If the Molran version of it was the ancient and abiding and admittedly slightly barmy Repositoria, but the human attempt resulted in Horatio Bunzo’s Funtime Happy World … ”

“That’s a whole other debate,” Viator said, but then his brief amusement faded. “The Repositoria aren’t transcribed minds. They’re an organic data storage and communication matrix, and like any organ, if they’re used for the wrong thing long enough, they stop being able to do anything.”

“Okay,” Elan said. Something in the Blaran’s tone, something cold and sad, made him shiver slightly despite the warm coffee and the pleasant temperature on board the ship. He pulled his cardigan more securely around himself. At that moment he was grateful for his mum’s silly insistence on the cosy top.

“The Repositoria were carried off Dema in the evacuation,” Broker resumed, “and they’re some of the only things to have survived the exodus and the Cancer and – well, all of it. The only things that aren’t inanimate Worldship hardware.”

“Dema?” Elan said, then his brain held up a helpful flashcard. “The old Fleet homeworld,” he answered his own question, “from the starship elegies.”

“Right,” Broker said. “Before there were Molren and Blaren and Bonshooni. Also known as Grandis 459, at least according to the Repositoria. But they disagree with the elegies as often as they agree with them.”

“The City in the Centre of the Universe?” Elan attempted to keep up. The records and myths he’d read had played pretty fast and loose with details concerning the world the Molranoid species had allegedly come from, which was why ‘Dema’ had momentarily failed to tell him anything.

Broker shook his head. “Most Molranoids not involved in quasi-religious institutions don’t believe the City even existed,” he said. “Dema was just a planet, although it must have been a nice one since the Fleet hasn’t really wanted to settle down anywhere since leaving it. It doesn’t really matter. The record is imperfect, because the Repositoria are broken. This urn the Butterfly talks about,” he switched paths abruptly, and reached out to open Elan’s notes once more. “What else does it say? Was it remains? Ashes? Just a piece of old iconography? From what you’ve written, it seems to have been quite small. Not, say, a sarcophagus.”

“Not a sarcophagus, no,” Elan said, although he wasn’t even certain of that anymore. There were parts of the text that actually did make it sound as if the Butterfly had a casket of some kind. “It’s hard to say for sure, since there’s no dependable scale notes,” he leaned back in his chair and smoothed his cardigan, attempting to shake the superstitious chill Viator seemed to have set in him. “Is that what you have? Sloane’s ashes? Did you pilfer them along with the Butterfly’s texts?”

“Pilfer? I do not pilfer,” Viator said.

“Sorry.”

“What I have,” the Blaran went on, “is going to be quite a challenge to reconcile with what the Butterfly was apparently talking about. But I’m hoping you’re going to be up to the task.”

“I hope so too,” Elan said.

A few hours later, they arrived.

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A Railgun Brain, Part VIII

They talked long into the night, going back and forth over the Butterfly’s strange story and the seemingly endless interpretations enabled by the accompanying texts Elan had collected. Broker, of course, had no need of sleep but was actually beginning to look a little worn out nevertheless, his ears a bit limp. Elan, for his part, was definitely beginning to feel the effects of the all-nighter / all-dayer sandwich he’d bitten down on, even if the intellectual meat therein had sustained him nicely.

“So what do we have, in the final analysis?” the Blaran summarised. “This is either the preserved journal of a perfectly normal human refugee and her friends and family and family pets, fleeing into space in an aki’Drednanth ship and so utterly dependent on cultural markers and references to which there are no longer dependable translations that it is basically unreadable,” he paused to gather himself. “Or else it is the final testament of a monster primeval that heralded or perhaps even caused the destruction of Earth, then escaped into Six Species space in Truck’s ship along with an assortment of nightmarish creatures of myth and folklore. And also Sloane was there,” he concluded, “possibly in a box.”

“Or anywhere in between those two poles,” Elan agreed wanly. “Maybe Truck ferried a group of Sloanic scholars to Declivitorion in the Last Days, along with a copy of the Book and a wide array of obscure titles and nicknames that made perfect sense at the time, and one of them fancied herself worthy of writing the Book’s final chapter – or himself, if it was actually Tiakmet and assuming Tiakmet was male – and another fancied herself even more and decided to write a superior sequel to a work she considered the words of a madman. And one of them had a baby and two of them had gas,” he sat back with a heavy sigh. His mother had bidden them an amiable goodnight some hours ago, and headed to bed with a final admonition that Mister Broker not keep her Elan awake too much longer if he pleased. “Anyway, that’s it,” he said, and gestured wearily at the book and its codex. “I could sit with it for another week – or another decade – and not get much further. What’s there is there, without any additional information or context,” he waited, watching the Blaran but actually focussing most of his attention on not nodding off.

Commander Viator Broker – if that was his real name, and Elan knew damn well it wasn’t – sat and mused until Elan’s eyelids did in fact droop. Then he straightened, ears standing resolutely and the Molranoid equivalent of fatigue dropping away with an immediacy that Elan knew was just plain biology but still seemed shockingly unfair.

“How much notice will you need to ship out?” Broker asked. Elan blinked. “Come with me to the Repositorium,” he elaborated. “It’s close, out by the Þursheim Hades line. We can be there and back in a couple of days.”

“I can go whenever you like,” Elan said in surprise, “just need to get the usual clearances and all, but I assume you will have taken care of those. Is there any reason we can’t wait around and ship out in the morning? I could tell mum where I’m going … ”

“No, no reason,” Broker said. “But like you say, you’ve done what you can here and it’s obvious you’re going to need to see what else is going on before you can help with my actual problem – the existence of which you figured out almost immediately.”

“So there is something else,” Elan said in excitement.

“Plus, you clearly need some sleep and it would be more efficient to do that in transit than to do it here and then sit twiddling your thumbs while we fly to the edge of the system,” Viator added. “But I know that sleep and efficiency are often mutually exclusive ‑ ”

“Well I’m hardly going to be able to just go upstairs and go to sleep now,” Elan said crossly, “am I?”

“I sort of suspected not,” Viator admitted.

Elan stood, and was pettily gratified to see the Blaran jump to his feet eagerly.

But I’m going to try, though,” he said. Broker’s ears drooped, and Elan almost laughed sympathetically. “I’m not going to leave without telling mum,” he explained. “And then I’ll be awake and alert while we’re flying out to the Hades line, so you can tell me all the stuff you haven’t told me yet,” he clapped and rubbed his hands dynamically. “How’s that for efficient?” Viator looked positively deflated, and Elan smiled. “This discovery has waited eight thousand years,” he said. “It can wait a few more hours.”

“That’s not a very human attitude, MagaXidh Ende,” the Blaran said with a hint of his usual good humour.

Elan chuckled. “Isn’t that why you contacted me?”

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A Railgun Brain, Part VII

The [grey nothing] is making the [hounds? Hounds / Giela of Perdition, same iconography as the old Terellian texts, could be a joking title?] restless. They pace, and [sing / weep / whine? Actual canines? Check the Six Species Zoological Index for animal types believed to have been brought off Earth, making note of live organisms vs. gene stock and embryos], and create [noxious / biohazard / blasphemy] of the most unthinkable intensity. I need to consult [strong machine] about their diet. If she can feed me, surely she can feed them.

In contrast, [the pallid babe / child … serpent? Wyrm? Last Days icon for the apocalyptic Conquest – the symbols here suggest killer, and offspring of killer, and scion of great monsters] seems soothed by the [grey nothing]. She sleeps, and feeds, and only [cries / hisses / blossoms?] when we enter the [black nothing / real space]. Unfortunately, her [wrath] only serves to distress the [hounds] further. Their protective impulse is heightened when she is in [distress / rage], so there is no time when we have peace from the two [fools / villains – this reminds me of a narrative device used in some old plays, these could just be mirrors of soliloquy].

To take my mind off the noise, I offer to these pages a full accounting of our [crimes / deeds, seems to flip between heroism and villainy arbitrarily] on [the world that is no more – Earth?].

In [sand, fire, spiders / snakes, the context implies a planet or landmass on a planet, maybe the origin of Gund alphabet? Could also be a more artistic reference to perdition or damnation, a Hell from which the creatures escaped?], I walked with [Arch-destructor, placeholder icon Oræl, cross-check this against the ballads / Oræl Rides to War, Larouchel may have been onto something(!)] the Vengeful, together we gathered the wastrels [actual icon is like the one for person but with a gap struck through it – incomplete person? Actual misbegotten creature??] and sought the [darkness / unmaking / waters]. We joined with [Ghoan runes here, of all things – Jorg Flod? Best guess] and [pallid serpent / gorgon / wyrm / Last Days icon for the apocalyptic Spite] and [boy / vessel of flame / Last Days icon for the apocalyptic Emptiness, this is all probably a cultural reference or even a joke that no longer translates, did the apocalyptic riders have Hell Hounds? Or is this just a bunch of friends and a pair of dogs??].

Together, and in the land of [broken minds / insane / violent, this is where there’s a strong Mygoni and maybe Old Jalahi influence, check the text fragments], we did murder on [beautiful things / higher beings / undead abominations? Undead slaves?? Sheesh, B-fly, pick a theme!].

The [stinging / burning plant] said a strange thing in my ear before I killed [it / her … some kind of prophetic vision? The burning tree of God? Or … see The Thorns of the Garden, cross-check medical journals on hallucinogenic plant toxins from the settling of Gethsemane]. [It / she] told me how to kill a man already dead. [Sad / Sorry – and then almost complete Xidh lettering, Jom? This might be a reference to the dead / alive remains of Sloane, the implication of many lives in sequence, the regrets and apologia often expressed in Sloanic verse].

It was strange, and simple, like a [eulogy in compact theria form – poem?]. Perhaps I will commit it to words here. Perhaps it is better than forgetting, when I [die / brain death / sleep or memory fades, literally the butterfly is fleeting].

You never know.

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A Railgun Brain, Part VI

What student of sentience hadn’t heard of the aki’Drednanth Truck? Her interactions with humanity at the time of the First Feast had become the stuff of legend.

“Naturally,” Elan went on, “I was very cautious once it started to look as if this was a traveller’s account of flying with Truck. There’s way too much wishful thinking involved there, starting with the amazing good fortune of the account apparently not being written on kashta, and going from there.”

Truck’s ship was said to be one of the last to have departed Earth. It was said that she had watched the world die.

It was also said that she hadn’t done so alone.

“Some accounts name Truck’s private vessel as the Myrael, others as the Silver Bane,” Elan explained, “which was what I started out thinking this ‘silver toothed’ thing was referring to. But Myrael and Silver Bane are more reliably listed elsewhere as aki’Drednanth contemporaries – maybe even as nicknames of Truck herself. So maybe, I thought, the ‘grey building’ and the ‘silver toothed / fearful’ are all just ways of referring to Truck, and she was the one working on the Book. However,” he went on, “our old pals the Mygoni Historical Society call Truck’s ship the Loadnum Gatoush: the ship of partial or lost fiends.”

“Indeed, misbegotten creatures?” Broker suggested.

“I was fairly sure the connection had been drawn before in some old flight ballad or the classic registry of starship elegies, but I couldn’t find the reference I was thinking of,” Elan said in frustration. “I was cautious of it anyway because it seemed too neat – and also like a bit of a cheese-off-the-Molren risk, if you know what I mean.”

“Mm, can’t go casting aspersions at the noble aki’Drednanth,” Viator agreed.

“I’ve never met an aki’Drednanth,” Dora put in meditatively, and Elan was amused to see the Blaran’s ears flick as if he’d forgotten Elan’s mother was even sitting with them. “I once saw that big old suit of black armour Hibernos Rex wore, on display in the Fleet Council of Captains museum. Terrifying-looking thing it was – but of course, she wasn’t in it at the time,” she raised her glass reflectively, then lowered it. “I say, wasn’t Truck supposed to have taken the last Molren and what have you off the Earth before it was destroyed?”

“So it was said,” Viator nodded, “although by all accounts, all the Five Species representatives left when the Fleet did. She might have taken some Fergunak,” he added thoughtfully. “It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to mythologise those into monsters, and it wouldn’t be the first time the aki’Drednanth saved Fergunak, either,” he smiled. “The Book of Misbegotten Creatures lore, such as it is, suggests that the ship carried things off Earth that should have been left to die there. And as for Truck, some folklorists suggest that when the Cult of Karl destroyed her ship it was ‑ ”

“Hey now, that was never confirmed,” Ende said mildly. “If anyone really thought a bunch of human nutters had killed an aki’Drednanth … ”

“If you believe the stories about the aki’Drednanth, one could just ask Truck herself,” Dora added.

There was a considering silence at this.

“I suspect we’d get a cryptic answer at best,” Elan noted lightly.

“Well, be that as it may,” Viator said, “we know Truck’s ship wasn’t lost until well after her flight from Earth. She carried the Book of Sloane to Declivitorion where the first temple was built. I mean, there’s some genuinely disturbing stuff in that book, but I’d hardly say it’s the work of monsters.”

“It’s all a lot of metaphors anyway,” Elan nodded. “Ancient human scholar-poets, like Sloane, had this lyrical way of framing history as though they had lived through it in a line of consecutive lifetimes rather than telling it from a third person perspective, so the whole thing is very figure-of-speech. Has to be. Of course, we only really have a sample of one, even if it’s a jolly big one, so it would be more academically pure to say that Sloane had this approach, but it wasn’t necessarily a style,” he paused, considering his words, then amended, “although, I guess you could say there are fragmentary examples of logs and epic mission verse in the old archives now controlled by AstroCorps that have similar life-after-life first-person formats, so it could be … but that’s all – well, rather a tangent,” he admitted with a chuckle. “Like mum says, the only folks who arguably do the many-incarnations thing for real are the akis, and they’re not big journal writers.”

“True,” Broker conceded.

“Big almost everything else, though,” Dora added cheerfully.

“Also true,” the Blaran agreed with a grin.

“So either way, thinking about what you must have found, where you must have gotten this transcript and where the original text had been … ” Elan continued, “it can’t have been found on Truck’s ship, since it was destroyed. Rumour, like you said, put the blame on Karlist cult extremists, which is nice and easy. She also came apart at relative speed, leaving a convenient lack of material evidence. Of course, if we make the wishful but staggeringly un-academic assumption that this is the journal of someone sitting in Truck’s ship while she’s transporting the Book of Sloane to Declivitorion in the first place, and watching the final pages being written and working on a sequel of sorts … then why was the Second Book of Sloane not found with the first? Short of asking Truck herself, like mum says … well, we have nowhere to start from. Unless you can tell me more?”

Broker smiled for a while, staring into his glass of dark house-mead that Elan’s mother brewed herself from an old family recipe. Elan had never cared for it, but their guest had been very polite.

“Do you know what the Repositorium said about you, Elan?” Viator asked eventually.

Elan laughed. “Oh, now you’re just giving me a big head. The Repositorium doesn’t talk about me.”

“No, it’s true,” Broker leaned back in his seat, and when he next spoke his voice had changed. The normal pleasant two-toned harmony of the Molranoid dual windpipe had become higher, breathier. For the first time, Commander Viator Broker sounded as old as he looked. “A human is born who can speak to the dead, a human who hears Cantaña’s pain, a human with answers to every question, a human is born with a railgun brain.”

“A railgun brain?” Elan echoed, not sure if he was pleased or frightened. “What does that mean?”

“Damned if I know,” Broker admitted, “but I ran the numbers. It recited that particular riddle about six hours after your birth.”

“Six hours is a pretty arbitrary amount of time between two events,” Elan scoffed gently. “There must have been a few other humans born in that period, across all of Six Species space?”

“Hundreds of thousands,” Viator confirmed. “But only one Elan Ende.”

Elan laughed. “Well it’s jolly interesting, but I can’t speak to the dead,” he said. “Unless you’re talking about dead languages. And as for hearing Cantaña’s pain – Cantaña Áqui? – I only wish I’d had a chance to read those old archives. Does that count?” Broker shrugged his upper shoulders easily, and Elan realised the Blaran had quite neatly shifted focus from his questions about where this whole thing had come from. “So,” he veered casually back, “Truck, we were already reasonably sure, carried the Book of Sloane from Earth to Declivitorion in some kind of digital storage. From this text, we can be … how certain exactly? … that this was the same ship, and someone called Grey Building or possibly the Silver Toothed was writing the finishing touches to the Book and presumably adding it to the database.”

“The Book of Sloane is already so disjointed and fragmentary and covered in scholars’ annotations that it’s impossible to tell if part of it was appended by someone else,” Viator said. “The oldest known piece of Sloanic defacement was the tale of  Tiakmet the Demon’s Servant, a Blaran academic vandal who allegedly uploaded his story directly into the Book at the source after burglarising the monastery on Declivitorion. I always felt his exploits were a bit exaggerated by the sourcats of academia. Tiakmet was probably a Blaran acolyte who folded a book open too hard and was literally demonised for it.”

“Folding old vellums open too hard should be an offence punishable by relegation to the ranks of misbegotten creatures,” Elan said seriously, then smiled. “It’d be a laugh if this Silver Toothed person was actually Tiakmet, and the tale of the Demon Slayers was actually true.”

“It’d be a laugh alright,” Viator grinned. “As in ‘laughed right out of Jathan’s Carbuncle’.”

“Alright,” Elan said, “but this isn’t about the Book of Sloane. At the same time this was happening, and apparently on the same ship – if we’re really going to make that assumption part of our foundation – someone else called the Butterfly was writing some kind of sequel, and Sloane himself was dead already and the Butterfly had his remains in an urn.”

“There was a lot going on in this ship,” Broker agreed. “The Butterfly, the Silver Toothed, the unquiet ghost of Sloane, this aki’Drednanth who may or may not have been Truck … and then there’s the rest of them.”

“Mm,” Elan said. This was where his confidence in his translation, already fairly shaky, took a sharp downturn. And his scribbled notes began to outweigh the actual text in earnest. “The Hounds of Perdition, and the Pallid Child.”

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A Railgun Brain, Part V

Broker spent the evening with Elan and his mother. Conversation was subdued, mainly due to the fact that the Blaran was poring over Elan’s preliminary translation notes, skimming backwards and forwards, reading and rereading, occasionally switching to the electronic codex and skimming through its texts. He did, however, pause for dinner and was impeccably polite throughout.

“So, Ms. Ende,” he said respectfully. “How long has your family run this ranch?”

“Oh, three generations now, mister Broker,” Elan’s mother replied happily, “four if you count my Elan – but we don’t really do that, do we Elan? He’s got such grand things in his future, he really just comes here to visit his old mum.”

“Grand things,” Elan said in embarrassment.

“There’s just not much for him on the ranch,” she went on. “Although it’s a lovely place to come and relax and just be alone with your thoughts. Not that you’re not very welcome here, mister Broker.”

“It certainly is a lovely place,” Viator said with a smile. “I can see the appeal, and I do hope I’ll be out of your fur soon.”

“Hair,” Elan corrected him wryly.

“The Mygonites tried to take it away from us, back in the bad old days,” Dora continued happily. “The ranch, that is. Not our fur,” she twinkled. “But my Noel, and my mother Ismælla, they weren’t having it. He passed away just last year, Noel did; and Izzy’s long gone, of course – but not before assuring the property remained in our control.”

“All a lot of bureaucracy and messing around more than anything else,” Elan said. “The local council didn’t exactly send out a posse to chase us off the land. It was all very civil, and dad and Granny Iz took care of it.”

“And Elan’s been looking after me ever since our Noel left us, in among the rest of his work,” Dora gave Broker a bright look, and Elan felt a momentary sympathy for the Blaran. He was completely charmed – and completely taken in by her daffy old lady routine. Noel Ende might have been a brilliant communicator, but Dora was the true source of any Mygon-given gift Elan had been born with. “How’s his work with you going, by the way? He was up all night last night you know, tapping away and chattering to his computer pad and pacing up and down … ”

“It’s – well, I don’t like to talk shop while we’re enjoying such a nice ‑ ”

“Oh, nonsense. Talk shop, unless it’s top secret shop of course.”

“It’s … ” Viator looked rather hopelessly back and forth between the two humans.

Elan took pity on him. “She can be trusted with the historic discovery of an ancient text that will be of interest to a couple of dozen mythologists and Sloanic scholars across Six Species space,” he said.

“Of – of course,” Broker faltered again, but was now clearly well aware that Elan was watching him for some sign of what was really going on, and so he nodded and let himself get caught up in the excitement of the moment. “It’s quite extraordinary, he’s – Elan, you – your son has made incredible progress in just a few hours,” he said, once again looking back and forth between the two Endes. He shifted his plate to one side and put the book on the table, leafing through it with his left hands while continuing to eat tidily with his rights. “All these things, these – names? Nicknames? Electrical blue, blue star, grey building, grey nothing, black nothing, strong machine, silver toothed – we never got close to making sense of them.”

“It was tricky,” Elan acknowledged, “because by its nature the language of the butterfly folds all of them under a sort of umbrella-marking for names, and then refers to different elements of the umbrella rather than writing them all out in full. In that sense it is almost like a shorthand. They all get sort of jumbled up if you’re not careful, or I suppose if you don’t translate them in the right contexts. I was hesitant at the start because it felt like fitting a translation into an existing theory, too convenient. But the grey nothing is probably soft-space. There’s no record of where Earth’s solar system actually was in the galaxy, and that’s if you ignore the wilder myths about it being outside the galaxy, a flat or chalice-shaped world beyond the Bonshoon veil … ”

“But if the blue star is Taras Talga,” Viator put in, “and that is generally accepted as the closest star system to Old Sol…” he shook his head. “Of course, the fact that it’s not just Earth that’s gone, but the entire system – and the fact that the best explanations we have are children’s stories like Zed and the Sun Thief … ”

“I’ve got three separate versions of that tale in the codex, acting as a stellar cartographic reference,” Elan said with a chuckle.

“I saw that.”

“And then you get bogged down in just what the veil is,” Elan went on. “Contemporary science identifies it quite simply – it’s just the extragalactic void, nothing more and nothing less. Beyond a certain point past the edge, relative fields don’t work properly, ship engines don’t function right. I don’t pretend to be a transpersion physicist, but I know the basics.”

“You’re being modest,” Dora spoke up firmly. “My Elan is forever taking calls and visits from the Corps Sci fellows about why their engines are so inefficient, how they’re arranging the doodads all wrong so there’s all this missed energy, I barely understand a word of what they talk about but he helps them every time.”

“Okay, but I know transpersion dynamics in an extremely specialised theoretical way, as interpreted by transperse nuclei forming a communication bond, and by conceptualising a transpersion core as a language construct,” Elan stressed. “It’s not mechanics, it’s linguistics.”

“You see?” Dora said proudly. “Hardly a word.”

“Well the upshot here is,” Elan went on, “any ship to fly out too far past the edge of the galaxy either … well, there’s different stories, different cases. Some come back years later, after their relative drives conked out and they had to fly back on subluminals. Others, well, they’re technically still out there, on their way to whatever the next galaxy is. We can see them from observation stations on the edge. The fact that we can see them suggests that their drives also conked out and they’ve decided to continue on at subluminal speeds. It’ll take them a while to reach the next galaxy over at one-third light speed, but there you go. But if Old Sol was out there – and nobody has ever found any evidence of that – that might explain why a three-hour trip took three months, without us having to interpret doom-and-gloom stuff about the Face of the Deep and the Darkness on the Waters and all that.”

“Doesn’t explain why the system has never been found again,” Broker said. “All the millennia of exploration around Declivitorion, and nothing.”

“True,” Elan said, and waited for Broker to volunteer some more information. Broker just went back to leafing through the notes, and Elan realised that he was at a considerable disadvantage against the Blaran in any sort of waiting game. A human is given two hundred good years if she’s lucky, he remembered Granny Iz saying once, when he was a small child. A flat-top can spend that long waiting for a dinner order and not get cross. An exaggeration, to be sure – and as charmingly slur-riddled as most wisdom of her generation – but one that had stuck with him. “Of course, nobody really considers that the Bonshoon veil might be a real thing,” he went on lightly. “Maybe they are just trapped in it, like flies in amber. No way to really know.”

“So these lensed space-time effects, standing wave castle physics,” Broker said, “are you saying they could be extragalactic space, as described by someone eight thousand years ago or so? The Face of the Deep, that’s the void – or the veil?”

“I don’t know,” Elan admitted. “It doesn’t feel right to me. Close, but not right. I don’t think it matters, though. What does matter is, once I got some of these concepts semi-translated, I was able to confirm why they were so familiar.”

“Oh?”

Elan nodded. “Some of the oldest and most interesting accounts of early relative-speed travel, either Fleet or human, are also very fragmentary,” he said. “It’s because of the electronic kashta interface papyrus that was used by the old space-dogs, you see. A lot of it broke down – in the cold. And that happened almost exclusively on aki’Drednanth ships, which were some of the most free-range and daring of the spacefaring explorers. Some of the most,” he added, with a smile at the Blaran.

Viator lifted his ears but didn’t react to the implication. “Well,” he said after chewing another mouthful of food, “who’s going to bother an aki’Drednanth when she goes walkabout?”

“Indeed,” Elan agreed.

Broker nodded thoughtfully, and sipped his drink. “Historians can usually tell authentic records from fabrications,” he confirmed, “from the state of the papyrus. It was even a bit of an adventure trope for a while, the old ice-corrupted kashta star chart. The treasure planet, all that,” he chuckled.

“I never understood why those old charts were always so damaged,” Dora remarked. “Couldn’t they just keep them warm the same way they kept passengers from freezing?”

“They tried giving a dusty piece of kashta papyrus a bloodstream once,” Elan said. “You remember that old professor who came to visit from Jathan’s a few months back?”

Dora tsked and smacked her son’s arm, but her eyes were twinkling. “You’re terrible.”

Broker smiled, then went on seriously. “But this wasn’t written on kashta – not even the original, from what we could tell.”

“No. But from the sound of it, a lot of the day-to-day life and practices are the same. Compartments and special gear for the warm-bodied crew or passengers, the stops so the pilot can talk to her sisters, the odd way akis have of talking to non-akis, like a lot of strange riddles and pronouncements. It would also explain the solid integration of tech that would really have been an anachronism in a lot of other ships. Minimal-torus relative generators, fabrication capacity … a lot of stuff that a refugee ferry would have. The Fleet superstitiously didn’t keep tabs on aki ships or ask questions about where they got their tech from.”

“True,” Viator said. “So, this Butterfly is a passenger, although whether an innocent Earthly refugee or a monstrous allegorical human evil personified we’re not certain. Who was his pilot?”

“The strong machine,” Elan said. “I think it was none other than Truck herself.”

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A Railgun Brain, Part IV

Late the next affernoon, Elan met Viator Broker at the ranch gates. The sleek grey-black Fleet skimmer from the landing site pulled up in a small cloud of dust, and Elan pulled open the door before it could slide open automatically. Broker looked up at him in clear surprise.

“Afternoon,” Elan said happily. “Sleep well? Figure of speech, figure of speech, I didn’t sleep either,” he stepped back and extended a hand to pointlessly help the Blaran out of the skimmer. His other hand was curled protectively around the book he’d spent all night poring over, scribbling notes about, and sticking different-coloured bookmarks in. Somehow, the old school approach had seemed like the right one … although he had created a rudimentary codex in a second electronic book, containing as many of the old texts and references as he could find.

“You’ve found something,” Broker said, sounding no less excited than Elan felt. “A clue as to how to translate the book?”

“Oh yes, well, that wasn’t difficult,” Elan waved a hand. “The tricky bit was making sure it wasn’t all just … seeing what we wanted to see, you know? Here,” they set out along the path to the main building, and Elan opened the book at the first marker he’d placed. “Alright, so for a start, your linguist friends were right. This isn’t a language as we typically understand it. It’s a cipher created by a single person, a … well, calling it a shorthand would be misleading, because it’s more complex than simplified. It’s a personalised language. I’ve seen a few examples of it in my time – put together a few of my own, too, as thought experiments and complexity studies,” he glanced up at the towering, serious-faced old Blaran. “And as a fancy way of encrypting private diary entries,” he added confidentially.

“So this was Sloane’s way of encrypting his private diary?”

“No. Even back then, if they’d just wanted this to be private, there were encryption programs and electronic forms they could have used. I mean, they’re in space, in a superluminal starship – or so it seems. So they’d probably have some way of writing secret diaries so snoops couldn’t get in and read them, without having to resort to creating a whole new language. I would guess that there was some other motivation or mentality at work.”

“But you did establish that it was written on board a starship?” Broker asked idly.

Elan eyed Broker, then nodded. “With a fair degree of certainty,” he replied. He held up the book. “You said this is a transcript, an electronic copy, of an original that was written in a more low-tech way,” he went on, “right?”

“I didn’t say that,” Broker said, beginning to sound a little uneasy for some reason, “only that I found this transcript – I was able to verify that it was genuine, though ‑ ”

“Oh, it’s genuine alright,” Elan agreed. “Or if it’s a hoax, it’s a really impressive hoax. I’m talking ‘better than the Gospel of Azymandus’ impressive.”

“Right,” Broker agreed again. “As to the most likely format of the original, we can still only guess … but it did look like this transcript had been taken from a very low-tech source. We wondered about that, since the earliest archives of the Book of Sloane were in ancient solid-state electronic data storage cubes. Definitely Earth-tech. This one, judging by the method of transcription … ” he hesitated. “This had been hand-written, fortunately on a medium and in an environment that made preservation easy. And even then … ”

Elan turned back to the book, but continued to study Broker in his periphery. There was something the Blaran wasn’t telling him … but that was hardly a surprise. Quite aside from the whole official and top-secret side of Fleet and Separatist dealings, once you got to be a few thousand years old Elan imagined it was very difficult to say anything without leaving out some important historical context or other.

There was an old saying that went if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything. It was an interesting concept, but a dramatic oversimplification. And if you lived as long as a Molranoid, let alone a Blaran of Viator’s ilk, the things you had to remember must be overwhelming.

“The trick with a cipher is to find out what language the writer would normally be writing in,” he decided to launch into his explanation and let Broker join in when he felt comfortable, “because most of the time that’s what they’re translating from. Find the language they were thinking in, and it doesn’t matter how complicated their code is. You’re halfway there.

“The Gund was the starting point, the first thread to come loose,” he continued. “The cuneiform might have just been a – a book cover that got put on after the fact, a metadata tag added by some long-gone Declivitorion librarian … but Gund, yep. That’s there. That’s real.

“Then, well, there’s the fact that this person knew Xidh. There’s too much in common between Xidh and the structure of this language of the butterfly to be a coincidence. It’s not that unusual for humans to speak Xidh as a second or third language these days, but humans only started learning Xidh when the Fleet arrived, unless you believe the weird old stories about alien contact with Earth before the First Feast. The first veil, the sack of Heaven, all that deep-down stuff.

“So, anyway, that gives us our timeframe. Gund pulled over a Xidh skeleton – that’s Last Days level. Fits with Sloane’s time, even though there are only a very few passages of the Book of Sloane that were written in Xidh and those are highly contested.

“But yes, I was wary. You already told me that this is the Book of Misbegotten Creatures, and that you’d mostly arrived at that conclusion by wishful thinking, so anything I found confirming it needed to be subjected to scrutiny. Otherwise I’d just be telling you what you already knew. Or guessed, or deduced, or however you want to say it.

“So what does the Book of Misbegotten Creatures actually mean? What was the story?”

Broker, who had been walking alongside Elan and waiting politely for the human to stop nattering, said mildly, “I believe it is a mythical tome describing the last exodus of beasts and monstrosities from Earth in its final hours, scattering into Six Species space like a scourge upon the poor innocent human race. It’s generally seen as an allegory for human curiosity, human fallibility, human refusal to take responsibility for their own actions … ” he lifted his ears in amusement. “That’s one of the nicer ways I’ve heard Molran scholars describe it, anyway.”

“Harsh but fair,” Elan conceded. “I’d concur. And a lot of what Sloane talked about in his poetry, his philosophy, his allegorical lifetimes as he translated history through different human lenses … it was heavily about the failings of humanity, our weaknesses, our … well, about the opportunities we had to ascend and become greater, but how we kept on missing the chance – or squandering it,” he smiled. “A great believer in human potential, was our friend Sloane. But as harsh a critic as any Molran.”

“And the Book of Misbegotten Creatures is his final treatise?” Broker asked. “Condensing the evils of humankind out of that long line of metaphorical human lifetimes into a collection of metaphorical … inhuman beasts?”

“Hm?” Elan shook his head. “No. No, not really. I mean, have you really not … ? Honestly, I’d assumed you just wanted to compare my translation to yours, and you were being a bit cagey about it for reasons of intellectual hygiene.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Well, the way you’ve brought me into this is flattering and all, and I’m aware I have a bit of a reputation in obscure circles, and I’m very gratified you came to me … but you lot aren’t exactly Spooky Troop ghoulies here,” Elan said.

“I … don’t know what that means,” Broker confessed. “I’m old and deeply out of touch.”

“I mean, you know what you’re doing,” Elan said. “You’ve had this transcript for a while, even if the originals are lost,” Broker didn’t respond to this subtle reaction-poke, but he didn’t respond so hard it was almost a reaction in and of itself. “And the language of the butterfly has never been dependably translated?” Elan went on sceptically. “And of the undependable translations, your Separatist Repositorium’s version is the best you have?”

“Yes,” Broker said, more clearly genuine now. “And like most of what the Repositoria have said since before the First Feast, it was more like a series of bad riddles.”

Elan was still fairly sure there was something he was missing, but had little choice but to take Broker at face value. “So this is really the first time it’s been translated?” Broker turned and looked at him, ears rising and shoulders lowering in palpable – and very artful, if it was faked – excitement and relief. “Partially translated,” Elan amended in a cautioning tone. “And I still wouldn’t stake my reputation on dependably.”

“I assure you,” Broker said. “Whatever Sloane was trying to tell us all this time, your efforts will be the first ‑ ”

“But that’s the thing,” Elan interrupted. “It wasn’t written by Sloane.”

Broker stopped in his tracks, dust scuffing around his ankles. “What?”

“None of this was written by Sloane,” Elan held up the book. “It was written by the Butterfly. One of the rats that fled the sinking ship, the things that Sloane was trying to warn us about. It was written by one of the Misbegotten Creatures.”

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A Railgun Brain, Part III

Today I fed on an [inferior, unclean, artificial / fabricated?? Check data on early fabrication. Fleet Veterinary Compendium, Abyl Darkoe’s Fyrste Gloryous Toure] human for the first time. It seemed as good a day as any to start a journal.

There are other reasons, I suppose. Better reasons. I’ll be damned if I let that dead-eyed maniac’s [scribblings, ravings, scrapbook? Sloane self-reference, check the darker interpretations, start with Sloane: Poet or Convict?] be the last example of the written word carried from the dying world [Earth? The form used is closer to platform or construct. Staging area? World-as-flat mythos??]. Not that I suppose this is much better.

I’ll be damned. Well, I probably will, at that.

We’re [two segments / months? Weeks?] out from [the world]. I waited as long as I could bear, too long to really be safe, because I thought the trip would be shorter. It is another three [months makes more sense here] to the [blue fire / blue star. Taras Talga? Closest inhabited system to Earth in the Ganan Gyran Agaa, and is a blue star], or so the [strong machine / vessel? Some kind of synth? Strong machine reads like a nickname, later context suggests person?] says. We stop every few [days / hour-clusters] because there is something wrong with the [probably stardrive, although this can also mean song, or breathing apparatus. Something wrong with ship systems?] or something else, something about the [strong machine]. She is communicating with someone – a [sister? Aki’Drednanth? If referring to vessel, comms with other ships? WATCH YOUR CONFIRMATION BIAS‼]? – and she cannot do it at [faster-than-real / outside-everything / probably reference to relative speed, which reinforces aki’Drednanth guess but also ship comms guess].

It was [two years / years of light, probably light-years but may still refer to time] to the [blue fire / blue star], which we should have been able to cover in a matter of [hours], but she says that this is a misunderstanding of [no idea about this part, best guess lensed space-time / standing wave / castle physics? Not sure what castle might refer to, maybe universal stellar structure? Dark matter??] across [The Face of the Deep, this is a direct symbol-lift from Book of Mygon, see if mum has a copy of the old unabridged, the only available copies are modernised]. The [grey building / grey and fearful, this is another nickname, may be the strong machine again but in different context] says it is [Mark of the Adversary, another direct symbol-lift, plus albedo for some reason]. The [strong machine] says it is a dangerous passage, full of turbulence and [storms? Seems to be storms], but this is the [black nothing / void, probably interstellar space], is it not? I don’t understand what she’s talking about most of the time, and she’s meant to be better than most of her kind at talking to [aliens / children / animals? Passengers? Leaning towards aliens, if this is an aki’Drednanth].

I think she is trying to decide what to do with us. Perhaps she was waiting for me to starve, or to see what I did when I fed.

We can’t see the [cursèd wheel, pretty sure, galactic disc / Core? / stars in general]. When we are at [faster-than-real?], there is only the [grey nothing / second realm? Probably soft-space in context] outside the [electrical blue / house or manor of ice / the hands that cup protectively. Probably the name of the ship? Misbegotten Creatures lore has a ‘bestiary’ of ships but no matching name]. When we stop, there is only the [black nothing / void]. No stars, not the way the [electrical blue / house of ice] is facing, not in this [The Face of the Deep] that we are in. We only have the [strong machine]’s word that we are stopping or moving, there are no windows, only the [this says windows again, or maybe eyes. Viewscreens??].

I haven’t rested. I’m as wakeful as the [silver toothed, this could be a Silver Bane reference but it might also be grey building by another context nickname from the connections]. I go [every day / with the flowers?] into my [sleeping place / final rest? In context it could be sepulchre but I think this means bed or cabin], but nothing happens. I stare at the [ceiling, bunk, lid], and nothing. When we stop, or return to the [grey nothing], there is a churning inside me but it passes quickly.

The [water, liquor, blood] hurt inside me. There was nothing wrong with it – it seemed [normal / sacred / symbol of blessing], nothing set it apart. I know [water … could this relate to the feeding above? Fabricated flesh? Condensed water?]. But it hurt. It burned. It was strange. I haven’t burned like this since the [princess, but framed like the sign for disease / biohazard] came to us. I think I can live on it. We will have to see. The [grey building / silver toothed] and the [strong machine] say they can alter the [cunning artifice, machinery. Fabricator?], change the recipe, it is intended for [medical?] use [implied holy, old usage, may be confusing religious sanctuary with hospital] and was not designed to make [full humans, true life, image-of-God … ables?? Fabrication technology doesn’t line up], and it doesn’t really – not real ones. Maybe I can learn to feed from an artificial [dispenser / fount]. Maybe that will dull the fire.

It makes three [months, pretty sure now] to the [blue star] seem a very long time. It makes [eternity? Xidh cora laar but with the ghåålic infinite frame] seem … unthinkable.

The [silver toothed, grey building / fearful?] is adding a final appendix, a closing chapter to the maniac’s ramblings. A final series of [events / adventures, lies] that he didn’t get a chance to write down, telling of the end of his long story. Closure, perhaps. I don’t know why she does it. Why does she consider it worth doing? The [grey building] is strange. But no stranger than the rest of us, I suppose.

I sometimes take out the [vessel? Cell, womb (artificial)? Ceremonial urn maybe, what was that book about old Earth funerary customs…?] that is all that remains of him. Is he the last human? The last [purebreed / wild strain / unaltered]? The [strong machine] says no, that there are many, that they thrive out here in the [black nothing]. I hope this is true, and at the same time I hope it is a lie. I wonder if [he / the maniac? Sloane’s remains? Check the Declivitorion catechism] is aware of where he is. I wonder if he hurts. Part of me hopes he does, part of me hopes he does not [re-check this part, if it’s a funerary urn then he can’t hurt / be alive? This may be poetic form]. The same parts, perhaps, as those that hope [humanity, but this is a non-sentient / cattle marking?] is no more, or hope that it survives and prospers. Those parts are different each [day / flowering with implied pain], sharing and relinquishing dominance within me.

I don’t understand how the [grey building, silver toothed] can write his final chapter when I [hold it in my hand?].

I wonder if he will [abstract future point] emerge. I wonder if I should empty the [urn] into the [black nothing], or throw it whole from the [electrical blue, in this context could be the airlock mechanism, maybe it has blue markings and is electrically operated?]. I don’t know which is the right course, and whether there is any difference. I only know that if we are taking the [dead flowers / last words / epitaph?] off the dying [world], and those [words] are going to belong to him, then they cannot be the only [words].

He can’t be all there is.

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A Railgun Brain, Part II

Elan leaned over still further and peered at the book. It was a plain, if old, electronic vellum print. It looked like an antique bound book of paper pages, with carved wooden covers, but the vellum leaves within would be durable and capable of changing what they displayed in order to convey the illusion of reading an ancient manuscript, but with the capacity to hold potentially hundreds of thousands of texts.

“What is this?” he asked in fascination. The writing on the cover, if writing it was, didn’t seem to be Xidh or any of the classic Mygoni or Zhraakyn pictographic languages he was familiar with. Its style was that of Declivitorion cuneiform, the clay-tablet and leaden-monolith markings found in the oldest sites of human habitation, and even older non-human sites. But that was the thing. Declivitorion cuneiform at this style-stage was Áea, so-called Elvenscript, not human at all. There had been conclusive comparative examples found in the Barnalk system. And these markings were … something else.

“Some call it the Book of Misbegotten Creatures,” Broker said. “Some call it the Zisfrex Agn Mogak, the things neither mortal nor divine. Others – ”

Ah,” Elan breathed. “The legendary Second Book of Sloane,” Broker nodded. “I thought it was lost – well, in fact I thought it was just a bedtime story antiquarian mummies and daddies told their little antiquarian children,” he reached out to touch the artificial wooden cover, and Broker gently interjected an upper hand. Elan smiled. “Ah,” he said again. “Not even this is the job? You fellows do like your melodrama. What do you need from me, that’s worth the Second Book of Sloane and an interview with a secret Separatist Repositorium in payment?”

“This transcript came into my hands some time ago on what I will call a treasure-hunting trip,” Broker said, “although that makes it sound a lot more ‘maps and clues and booby traps’ and a lot less ‘months and months flying from place to place and filing reports with interchangeable sourcats’ than it actually was. It’s written in a language I don’t recognise, and neither did any of the experts previously involved in its study.”

“So how do you know it’s the Second Book?” Elan asked.

Broker looked pained. “Partly the other stuff I found with it,” he said, “partly the Repositorium’s assessment. Partly – no; largely, I have to confess – wishful thinking.”

“Well…” Elan frowned. “In a way, that should make it easier than Sloane’s original texts, which – as you know – were written in a hodgepodge of dead languages from Terellian to Old Meg to Middle Mygoni American.”

“Right,” Broker said, “and you clever little buggers still managed to translate that.”

“Well, I didn’t personally, of course,” Elan demurred, “bit before my time … but some other frightfully bright translator types did, certainly. And I guess it was largely a human effort, since Sloane was a human scholar-poet and wrote in old Earth languages. So, this book isn’t written in any of the languages found in part one?”

Broker shook his head. “Completely different. Nobody has a clue. There are hints of Declivitorion cuneiform, as you may have recognised from the cover, but there are also signs of Gund influence in some fragments, enough that – like I say – we were able to establish the book’s identity, at least with excusable optimism. The rest…” he sighed. “The Repositorium calls it the language of the butterfly,” he concluded, “which is very pretty but tells us precisely stonk-all.”

The language of the butterfly,” Elan murmured. “That is pretty, isn’t it? Of course, you know if this is an old Earth language that wasn’t in the Book of Sloane, chances are any hope we might’ve had of deciphering it went up in smoke when the Zhraaki burned the Library of the Still-Beating Heart and built the Dome on top of its ashes, right?” he smiled at Broker’s grim expression. “I don’t think either of us were around to prevent that, if your comment about your age earlier on was accurate … but it’s still something of a sore point for academics.”

“True,” Broker admitted, “and that was what my linguistic experts said as well. The Cantaña Áqui Codex in the Library of the Heart was probably the last place in Six Species space to have any record of this language, and even that would have been a long shot. Most of the experts I’ve reached out to – not that there have been as many as I’m making it sound like, since this is the sort of discovery that could very easily turn into a circus if word got around, and my circumstances aren’t generally suited to being thrust into the middle of a circus – most of them were of the opinion that it’s not even a language spoken by any Earthly culture, but is some sort of code, a secret language Sloane developed while writing the original texts.”

“Book one was a lot of playing around with language and form,” Elan said thoughtfully, “so by book two he’d consolidated his art into a special language of his own? That would mean,” he fought down a surge of excitement. “That might mean the first book is – is some kind of draft, a collection of notes, and this,” he gestured at the book in Broker’s lap, “this is the final product. Sloane’s masterclass,” is that what the language of the butterfly means? The final form of a work of which the Book of Sloane was the larval stage? His thoughts immediately spun off, but he tried to keep his theorising as internalised as possible. Blaren had a bit more patience for rambling human freeform association, but only compared to Molren.

“That’s what the academics I talked to concluded,” Broker said, then added wryly, “after about eighteen months of hemming and hawing.”

And you haven’t actually let me touch the book yet, Elan stopped himself from adding. “Well, they obviously did a lot of the legwork for me,” he said instead. “And Molranoids do have more time on their hands. More hands too, for that matter. But it’s really not much of a conclusion, is it? More like an excited guess based on a whole lot of wishful thinking – like you also said. If the Book of Sloane was a collection of notes and this was the finished product, you’d expect Sloane to be of some use in translating Sloane 2: The Sloanening,” he smiled at Broker’s politely baffled look. “Sorry. I get a bit carried away when I’m excited. But you see my point.”

“This was precisely the obstacle we encountered,” Broker admitted.

“But wait, you can’t mean your boffins haven’t translated any of this,” Elan objected. “Why does the Repositorium call it the language of the butterfly if it hasn’t actually cracked the language?”

“Because that’s how the Repositorium does business,” Broker said moodily. “When I tell you that the Repositorium has been our main translation resource, and our most successful one to date, and I’m here with proverbial hat in hand … ” he lifted the book out of the case, brushed imaginary dust off it with one hand, and passed it to Elan. “We were hoping you might be able to provide us with one of those wild monkey miracles you lot are so good at,” he said.

Elan took the book and gazed at it admiringly. He pulled the strand of well-chewed grass out of his mouth and let it fall. Wild monkey miracles. “Give me a day,” he replied, eyes still fixed on the cover. The language of the butterfly. “If I haven’t made progress by then, I’m not going to.”

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A Railgun Brain, Part I

The Hell with it. I’m up to about Part XV of this novella and nothing seems to be kicking it into final gear, so maybe posting it on the Hatstand will at least inspire me a little.

A Railgun Brain is one of the four stories I will be putting into the next anthology, tentatively entitled The Clown God, just as soon as I’ve finished this and two other damn stories for it. The first story, of course, is Grendel’s Grief.

 


The weather at the ranch was almost as glorious as the view. This was funny because the whole region was famed, not just nationally but across known space, as having abysmal weather. If it wasn’t hailing horizontally in Mpoda, it was said, you should walk straight to the nearest piece of scenery and push it over because you were definitely the butt of some kind of elaborate deception.

Well, it wasn’t said often, but it should be.

Elan was feeling particularly bucolic that afternoon, sitting in his squashy old swing-chair with a large, floppy sun hat on his head and a long strand of chewin’ grass between his teeth. He was working, technically, on an essay about mutual negation paradoxes in pure translation theory … but he wasn’t working very hard. The weather was too nice, the sun shining right down the sediment rainbow curves of Sweetnature Chasm and turning every building and research station embedded in its walls into gleaming jewels.

A movement from the main homestead in his periphery caught his attention, and he turned to see his mum standing on the porch next to a Molran fellow. Elan guessed he was a Molran, although of course you could never be sure at a distance – some Blaren and Bonshooni seemed very Molranny until they started to talk. Standing next to Dora Ende and towering head, shoulders and shoulders above her, the dark-suited chap made her seem even smaller and plumper than she was.

She pointed towards the bottom of the property where Elan was sitting. The Molran’s triangular, flat-topped head turned in his direction, delicate webbed ears opening and closing once, swiftly. Muted excitement, Elan judged. He was about to be gushed over by a fan. That, for a Molran, meant that he was about to be subjected to a barrage of impeccably polite questions designed to establish just how he was passing off ideas too complicated for a human to have come up with as his own, without somehow managing to technically be insulting. Courteous incredulity was a Molran’s admiring babble. It wasn’t their fault. He smiled and raised a hand in greeting.

The Molran chap inclined his head politely to Elan’s mum, then turned and strolled serenely down the gentle slope towards the edge of the Sweetnature. He was carrying a small, sleek metal case in one of his four hands, but was otherwise unencumbered. His crisp dark garments – slightly ranch-dusty now – were Molran Fleet Command attire, Elan recognised, but…

MagaXidh Elan Ende, I presume?” the chap said when he was within earshot. “Commander Viator Broker, at your service.”

Elan smiled. MagaXidh was arguably the highest academic honour a Corps Sci graduate could earn. It translated as almost a Molran. And that just about said it all, didn’t it? Broker stopped in front of the swing-chair and inclined his head as he had to Elan’s mum, and Elan nodded back.

“Welcome to the ranch, Commander Broker,” he said. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Broker pulled a second chair across and set it at a diagonal from Elan’s, so they could face one another and yet Elan’s view of the chasm would not be obstructed. Precise and proper … and yet Elan was pretty sure he was the only one who was even ‘almost a Molran’ here. And if Viator Broker was a real name, Elan would eat his jolly hat.

The tall, slender fellow – Elan deemed him to be old but not necessarily ancient, at least as Molranoids judged such things – folded easily into the swing-chair and set his carry-case beside a dusty yet well-kept black boot. He settled back, and for a moment seemed to just be taking in the view. He gave a contented, admiring little sigh and shook his head. It was the most horrendous display of attempted Molranity Elan had seen since his graduation party, when one of his classmates had gotten drunk and gone full batface as a joke.

“Quite a view, ain’t she?” Elan said around his grass-stem. It wasn’t a chance one got very often.

“It – ah, she – certainly is,” Broker said, then with an effort managed to summon up a half-hearted little snipe. “I was under the impression that a ranch was supposed to have livestock of some kind.”

Elan shrugged lazily. “We drove a good-sized herd of mygoni’say down the chasm from the hills just last month.”

“What’s a – ah,” Broker smiled, his long eye teeth gleaming. “‘Better muddle through, golly me, good old days,’ things of that nature I expect.”

“Just a little rancher humour,” Elan said. “What can I do for you, Commander Broker?”

Broker folded his left hands over his rights. “I’m here on behalf of the Repositoriad.”

Elan let his grass stem sag a little, because he couldn’t whistle with a piece of chewin’ grass in his mouth. He’d tried. It had been dribbly and undignified. “The Repositoriad? The ancient academic order dedicated to the study and preservation of the Fleet Repositorium?” he said softly. “I thought it was just a ceremonial posting. I’d give a great deal to chat with one of those fellows.”

“It can be arranged,” Broker said in a placid voice. “Of course, it’s one thing to interview a member of the Repositoriad, and another – I would imagine – to speak with the thing itself. Hmm?”

“And you can arrange that too?” Elan asked. Broker inclined his head again, slowly. “And how would a Blaran of your quality and lineage arrange such a conversation?”

“Excuse me?” Broker’s ears lifted and flared slightly. Controlled affront – very well done, but utterly fraudulent.

“It’s a common human misconception that Blaren are all … umbrellas unfolding from the heads and skin that flashes neon,” Elan said. “Just about all of you are born almost indistinguishable from Molren. A lot of you are born Molren, after all, and skinswitch out of the species. And quite a few of you remain indistinguishable … at least on the surface.”

“You don’t say,” Broker said quietly.

“Some of you keep your augmentations hidden,” Elan went on. “Others don’t have augmentations at all, for various reasons. Makes it easier to pass yourselves off as Molren to unwitting folks, perhaps. There are tiny differences, physiological variations that Molren and Blaren and Bonshooni can pick up on but my own rather dull senses – and sensibilities, hah – cannot. There are genetic markers, for official purposes. I can’t pick them up either, of course,” he smiled at the pinch-nostrilled man in the Fleet uniform, and shifted the stem of chewin’ grass from one corner of his mouth to the other. “And none of you have a very high opinion of human intelligence.”

“Now that’s not – ”

“And you’re right, of course,” Elan raised a hand. “I don’t take offence. By most objective measures, as hideously complicated as that concept is, Molranoids are considerably more intelligent than humans. Even Bonshooni, who have the unfortunate reputation as the flawed cousin of the superspecies … Molranoid brains are denser, more efficiently constructed, capable of retaining and recalling more information, more accurately. They’ve got to be, really, to keep working as long as they have to. Your synapses and neurons and all the various chemical membranes are faster and cleaner. A Molranoid of twenty years of age is easily the match, intellectually, for a human who has been training their minds for a hundred years – and unlike a hundred-year-old human, a Molranoid of twenty, or a hundred for that matter, won’t be halfway to the grave the way a hundred-year-old human is. Even at the lowest points before your regenerative Prime periods – and I rather think you yourself are nowhere near such a slump, Commander – your minds are quite simply sharper than ours. You don’t sleep, and your brains continue to sort information flawlessly while our own would start poisoning themselves within days. With each Prime – ”

“Do you have more of this?” Broker asked politely.

“Lots,” Elan said. “This is my area.”

“Human intuition and creativity frequently surpasses Molranoid capacity,” Broker said. “And intelligence tests are notoriously undependable and culturally biased.”

“And yet, everyone seems to know a fucking idiot when one opens their mouth,” Elan smiled whimsically.

“Well…”

“I’m just saying, compared to most Molren, Blaren and Bonshooni, most humans are pretty thick,” Elan went on. “There’s nothing wrong with that being true. It’s all the rubbish piled up around it that causes problems. And when you live for thousands of years, you must get a pretty good baseline idea of how easy a human is to fool.”

“Fair to say,” Broker conceded.

“But you’re not a Molran and you’re definitely not a Fleet Commander,” Elan said firmly. “And judging by the splendid clever name you’ve given yourself, if I had to guess at your actual identity, putting it together with your age…” he squinted at the fellow, whose ears were now slowly lowering on either side of his head like sails on a becalmed yacht. “You’d be a good thousand years from your most recent Prime and five hundred from your next,” he went on, “and given that your last Prime wasn’t your Final Prime and it certainly wasn’t your First…”

“I’m younger than the Zhraak Dome, but older than its first renovation job,” Broker said dryly. “And I’m Fleet Separatist.”

“I rather gathered you were.”

“I rather gathered you’d gathered,” Broker grinned.

“I must admit I’m curious how you found out about me,” Elan went on. “It was strange enough that the Fleet would know of such an obscure Corps Sci academic. For the Fleet Separatists to know, that’s both strange and a little bit shady, yes? Much like my hat.”

“I’ve been researching into some very obscure areas lately,” Broker said, “and your name came up. And the so-called Fleet Repositoria is a Twin Species relic, not a Four, Five or Six Species institution.”

“What are you saying?” Elan asked. “Is there another Repositorium left … alive?”

Broker inclined his head again. “A Separatist site,” he said, “a short space flight from here.”

“I’ll get my cardigan,” Elan said, then grinned at Broker’s confusion. “My mum insists on me wearing it when I go into space. The cold, you see,” he eyed the Blaran again. “Why the charade? Was it a test?”

“Partly,” Broker admitted. “Partly, it was necessary to get myself a meeting with you. Partly, to get into the Þursheim system without announcing myself to the authorities. Seeing as how you’ve already guessed my identity – ”

“I wouldn’t say guessed,” Elan said comfortably.

“Seeing as how you’ve already brilliantly deduced my identity,” Broker amended, and Elan beamed around his grass stem, “I suppose I am already at your mercy.”

“It’s all part of the wonderful interdependent energy network that is sentient communication as far as I’m concerned, nothing to get litigious about,” Elan said cheerfully. “I’m just amazed you made it this far in a Fleet Commander’s uniform.”

“Oh, Commander Viator Broker is quite real,” Broker said. “I’ve had to embed myself quite deep in order to remain invisible over the years, and if the Molren have a defining talent it is the ability to look directly at something that upsets their worldview and see nothing. Still, I appreciate your discretion.”

Elan sat back in his seat, and swung thoughtfully. “You’re not really here on behalf of the Repositoriad,” he said. “Or if you are, you’ve turned it around – you’ve defined yourself as a Separatist Repositoriad of sorts, and cheekily granted yourself permission to invite me for a chat with your Separatist Repositorium … but that’s not what you’re here for. That’s what you’re here to offer me. In return for what, I wonder?”

Viator Broker leaned forward, extended a lower hand, and picked up the case at his ankle. He lifted it into his lap, pressed a fingertip to an old-fashioned bio-reader in the clasp, and swung the smooth metal top open. Elan leaned forward eagerly.

Inside was a book.

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