Bloodlines: A Review

As a fun and intriguing close-out to my 2021 and opening to my 2022, I read Bloodlines: An Empire City Special Crimes Novel (The Guardian of Empire City, book one), by Peter Hartog. Hartog is another author I have been delighted to make the acquaintance of through the SPSFC, although I am not technically judging Bloodlines at this point it is in the contest, it seems, so if it makes it through to the next round I will be a book ahead of the game, and if it doesn’t make it then what the fuck, I did a review of it anyway because he put the e-books on sale and I one-click purchased. No guts, no glory.

Anyway here is my usual intro to the whole SPSFC thing and an explanation of my judging style, in the form of a practice review, and here is my actual review!

The year is two thousand tickity twelve, okay I don’t know for certain what year it is but there are sci-fi-ey transit pods and Gen Xers are still pulling a paycheque, so sometime around that era. Nuclear war has bombed the Earth halfway into the next genre in this thriller mystery where the coffee-slinging and grizzled detective with the haunted past and the strange gifts has to solve a ghastly murder and blow the lid off a shadow conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Or, you know, all the way somewhere pretty high. I won’t spoil it. Also there’s another dimension where magic creatures come from so it might go all the way to the top over there. Have to read more to find out.

Bloodlines has a beyond-ambitious sub-genre mashup checklist that reads like Meredith Brooks lyrics. It’s a noir. It’s a Bladerunner. It’s a grizzled lone wolf cop buddy journey. It’s an urban fantasy. It’s a sci-fi neovampire horror. It’s a corporate espiothriller. It’s a Prophesied Reborn Chosen One Battle Through The Ages backflip with surreal pike. And since the main character is nicknamed Doc Holliday, it’s also slightly a Western somehow. It was so much.

Still, with such an ambitious and crowded framework, the story itself keeps rolling along and the action and assorted character-driven scenes work nicely. You can tell when an author has just made up a dumb world and gone “yeah, it’s like this movie and this movie and this book and this comic, all mixed together,” and then tried to make a story in it. And you can tell when an author knows the world and is just showing you a bit of it. Hartog’s that second one.

The pages turn good and easy. A murder mystery stretched over worldbuilding of this scale is a joy to read, pure and simple. As I’ve said before, I’m the sort of reader who would just happily meander through five hundred pages of normal detective procedural through the streets of Fae York (not the city’s real name but it should have been) without needing any sort of plot to keep him entertained, so the plot here was just gravy.

Yeah. Good action, distinctive characters, great scenery and interaction. I could see the city. The dialogue was a bit cheesy but that cheese felt more like Hartog was leaning into the cop drama trope and quite intentionally giving Holliday and his equally grizzled former beat-Paladin Deacon a very distinct and familiar set of gruff, no-bullshit conversational cues. It was a little difficult to trace where exactly their relationship stood at any given time because, although they did come to trust and even like each other more and more in true buddy cop style through the story, each scene had to be taken separately and they could be exchanging quips or snarling at each other like junkyard dogs depending on how grumpy Deacon was or when Holliday had last had a coffee. Again, this felt intentional more than accidental, and if it was jarring or grating occasionally I feel it’s no more than a reader deserves when they know the sort of story they’ve picked up. Oh, they were almost friends in the last scene and now they’re at each other’s throats again? What’re you gonna do? Cry? You gonna cry?

Ahem.

So as I was saying, Holliday was very old school noir detective, if you like that sort of thing. He didn’t quite narrate to us that he knew the Vellan in the makeup was bad news the second she walked in, but he could have said it and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.

As to the plot itself … well, I’ll just go back to my default it was so much. The twists and turns were dizzying, but from scene to scene and revelation to revelation it all sort of hangs together. The whole thing becomes almost impossibly complex as the world Hartog has created weaves itself into the case and vice versa, making it convoluted beyond belief, but then he pulls a thread and it unfolds into a remarkably simple outcome. Just ride it through to the end, is my advice. It is a noir detective whodunnit in the end, but getting there is a fucking journey.

Sex-o-meter

Holliday and Besim almost have a thing at some point there but it may just be an over-interpretation of the careful tabs Holliday keeps on her hair and makeup and overall looks. To be fair, her whole deal is sort of extraordinary and that, too, is justified by the end. All in all, our characters have more important things to worry about than getting nasty, which is fine – there’s no obligation or requirement as far as I’m concerned. Not in a gritty-dystopian-cyber-noir-fae-futurist-murder-mystery. By the time you’ve said the name of the sub-genre, it’s time for a cigarette. Bloodlines gets a Twilight series out of a possible Fifty Shades of Grey series on the sex-o-meter.

Gore-o-meter

Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five here. There’s a certain amount of violence, some excellent hand-to-hand fights and shoot-outs, and of course the grisly murder that starts it all off and the additional murders that keep it rolling along. They’re not super gory or upsetting, but we do also have some really nice and visceral surrealist second-layer body horror and stuff going on with Holliday’s Insight that I feel elevates the story from a mob drama procedural with exsanguination to something a bit more special.

WTF-o-meter

Since I’ve already rhapsodised about the sub-genre and worldbuilding extensively here, and mentioned some of the more surreal elements of character and plot, I guess it’s a foregone conclusion that this book scores quite admirably on the WTF-o-meter. I’m looking at the dial and seeing that it’s clocked in at somewhere in the region of a hard-boiled flatfoot out of a possible delicately-sautéed Proudfoot. But that’s still somehow a quite high rating. Go figure.

My Final Verdict

I had a lot of fun reading this even though it took me a surprisingly long time. There was, and I say it again, just so much. And that can be hard work to get through. Detective pulp, easy. Urban fantasy cheese, no problem. Dystopian cyberpunk schlock, give me a challenge next time. Putting it all together gave my eyeballs indigestion. Four stars, for the sheer balls of it. A star for each ball. Bloodlines has disturbingly crowded pants and sits funny on barstools. Don’t stare, it’s rude.

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So long, 2021

Here comes 2022, and it’ll hopefully be a mild improvement even though the virus is still apparently fucking us over and we’ll be getting booster shots until everybody becomes anti-vaxxers and we all die or whatever.

And 2022’s roster of public holidays mostly fall on weekends again so there are basically no days off work. At least we get vacations over here in Finland, although by “over here in Finland” I mean “doesn’t look like we’re going to be allowed to travel anywhere without spending weeks in quarantine and that places global travel firmly back in the list of things only the monstrously wealthy elite get to do but maybe that’s okay because it’s really bad for the environment.”

And that doesn’t matter either because the poors can be denied air travel for the rest of time and the climate will still collapse because we (specifically big industrial governments, mega corporations, and the 0.0001%, but basically us too, all of us) suuu-uuuu-uu-uuuu-ck.

Fuck it. I made an updated Phases Plan to fix a couple of short story titles and stuff. And yes, instead of working on the last couple of books in Phase 2 I did suddenly realise something that was going to happen in Phase 5 and start obsessing over it. That’s how this fucking works.

Happy New Year. I know we’re still a couple of days out but I’m calling time of death on 2021 now and will just sit around watching TV for the next couple of days. You know, as well as working full time.

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Obey Defy: A Review

I’m on a reading break from the SPSFC while I wait for the next round of semi-finalists to be announced, and this novella fell into my lap while I was scrolling the SPSFC promo Discord. As such it is sort of an SPSFC review but it’s not a competing book and not really connected to the contest except insofar as the author is a contestant. I’m just keeping my fingers nimble. Anyway for a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


So over Christmas I checked out Obey Defy, a novella by Craig Lea Gordon.

Anyone who thinks Ben Elton was a little too optimistic about sheep mentality in Blind Faith, the police weren’t quite omnipotent in Minority Report or <insert probably-misinterpreted commentary about 1984 here>, by all means take a look at this story. It’s a good quick read, the action clips along nicely, and while I have my doubts about how we get there from here, it’s certainly got a warning for us about the perils of conformity.

I was intrigued at first glimpse of the cover, which is really excellent work and deserves separate and distinct kudos.

The story follows T7, a cog in the wheel (or some more high tech metaphor that I lack the savvy to come up with, probably) of an authoritarian technocracy built on adherence to the zeitgeist, a baseline of normalcy from which deviation may only occur to a certain rigidly-controlled degree before … ooh, all sorts of awful shit happens to you. T7 is an enforcer for the zeitgeist and the archetypical figure at its mysterious head.

What does this mean?

Basically, it means fit in, don’t do anything unusual, and keep your thoughts to yourself. Because surveillance technology has become internalised, and anyone (and everyone) could be a spy. Or an enforcer, thanks to consciousness-transference.

From the intriguing (but perhaps a little more hook-needing) opening, the reader is thrown head-first into an uncomfortable and often downright creepy world of thought-policing, behaviour-monitoring, body-snatching neofascism. Think “Demolition Man but with a whole lot more inhibition and blandness on the surface, and a way nastier means of dealing with the underground folks.”


“Be a zero.”


There were some occasional changes in tense and a bit of clumsiness and typos in the writing (“He peeked rounded the corner,” stuff like that) that made a jarring and unsettling setting and plot a little more difficult to follow, but they were by no means deal-breakers. All in all I found it to be solidly written and well edited, and hey – stuff slips through sometimes. Harek seemed to manifest out of nowhere as a character, like was it his voice all along or did he cut in? It felt like I’d missed a bit of exposition but the introduction was fine and maybe the point was that it be abrupt and off-putting.

I liked the speech patterns and pared-down language of the sheeple, it made the switches between ideological “worlds” really interesting and cast the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the ruling class into fascinating relief. And there were enough twists and turns, right to the very end of the story, to keep me guessing and flipping pages with great interest. Nicely done all round.

Sex-o-meter

Our bad guy is sleazy and has a fingers-in-mouth fetish, not to mention the whole “wearing people like sets of clothes and using them as sex surrogates” thing that is all very upsetting. Beyond that, I’m not getting much turgidity or moisture from the sex-o-meter. Two fingers, two knuckles deep out of a possible toothless throat-fisting.

Gore-o-meter

There’s a bit of nasty stuff here, aside from the above-mentioned implications and potential of the surveillance and control technology. Citizens used as puppets in all kinds of situations, a lot of killing and maiming and psychological / neurological damage, and oh yeah, just to lay on the “Roman Empire in collapse” themes nice and thick, there are crucifixions as well. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

There’s a whole lot of good WTFey stuff in this book, not just limited to the horrible tech. How did we get to this world from the present day? How long did it take? The ruins of the old world can be found in a Futurama-esque subterranean area that suggests either a long-arse time or a whole lot of geological upheaval – probably both. T7 doesn’t even know what a car is, which says intriguing things about human beings as story-sharing animals and the immediacy of knowledge loss given certain stimuli. The whole world seems like an impossible one to uphold, and unthinkable that we might ever arrive there … but maybe Obey Defy is a revolutionary and visionary look at a creepy future that people will gleefully misquote in a hundred years’ time when we’re all wearing sashes of different shades of blue. As such, the WTF-o-meter is giving it a Blind Faith out of a possible 1984, which translates to 1700 kiloWTFs per cubic metre of printed book matter, which translates to seventeen finger lickin’ goods out of a possible Enzo. The WTF-o-meter doesn’t usually go down the conversion rabbit hole, so that’s encouraging!

My Final Verdict

Obey Defy arrives in February 2022 and is well worth checking out (give it a pre-order!) if you like your surveillance-state dystopia and your body horror a little on the techno side. I’d want to go with three to three-and-a-half stars for this since it may still need some editing work or a bit more drafting, but I’m not going to tank it on Amazon and Goodreads because it doesn’t deserve that. So, four stars with the understanding that it’s three-and-a-half stars in a four star rating’s hijacked body. Thanks for the fun read!

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The Wheel of Time (an Amazon Prime Video production)

This blog post is proudly brought to you by the Black JeopardyTM category “FID’NA”.

As in, I’m fid’na bitch-slap the next mealy-mouthed gatekeeping little cunt who says the words “true fan” or “emotional investment in the books” halfway into the next internet argument. I’ll destroy you, not out of righteous outrage or defensiveness over my fan-cred, but simply because it’s fun.

Let’s start at the end.

The show was a solid adaptation, and although I was left baffled by a lot of the decisions the creators made I wasn’t disappointed, let alone offended, by the product. I’ll check out season 2 and I found the whole thing very interesting.

What else? Having exchanged hundreds of messages over Discord and Twitter about this show, I find myself without much else to say here. I started out hyped and excited by this show, then as the episodes went by I got steadily more meh as they cut and changed more and more things, but ultimately I was left feeling like it had been a fun and intriguing and very watchable experience. I enjoyed watching it with Mrs. Hatboy and Wump and Toop, and we always have the books still. The TV show didn’t go back in time and punch teenage Hatboy in the dick while he was reading Lord of Chaos. The TV show didn’t sneak into my goddamn house and burn my copies of the books. It’s fine.

As you can no doubt imagine in the event you haven’t seen any of it first-hand, there is a lot of divided opinion on social media. That’s what social media is for.

Some people were fine up until the last episode, and then decided the whole thing was a bust. Some people thought the final episode was the best episode, although for me I guess it would have to be episode 5, with Stepin’s fate and Perrin and Egwene escaping Valda. That was a high point for me.

Fucking hilarious.

Anyway, point is, yeah the show sort of shat the bed and fell apart after a bit, but I honestly wasn’t expecting anything else.

“I wish I was more like Mat or Perrin, they’re way better at … talking … to girls…”
– Okay, see, some things were improved upon in the adaptation.

Part of the disappointment, for me, was in discussing the pros and cons of each development and deviation from the books with other long-time WoT nerds. Not the discussion itself – that was a highlight – but the realisation that we had definitely put way more thought and care and consideration into the story than any of the showrunners had. I went ahead with the benefit of the doubt and the possible explanations and ways they could explain or justify decisions, based on an obsessive familiarity with the source material. But at a certain point, I just had to accept that the writers of the show just weren’t there with me. As I’ve joked time and time again with Disney / Marvel / big budget CGI BST spectaculars, give me a call and I’ll fix your fucking story.

But sure. I’m nobody, there’s no reason to give me any credence. This was their show, and I’m glad it did well. I hope they’re happy with the result and that it gets more time and money to get more seasons out. Like I say, I’m not mad at the show. I’m not even disappointed, really. It was an adaptation and adaptations are hard.

They don’t have to be this hard, but they don’t not have to be this hard, either.

I get, on an intellectual level, the need to put something of your own creative flair into a translation of someone else’s work from one medium to another. You don’t want to scene-for-scene, line-for-line convert a book into a TV show or movie. That’s how you end up with Bilbo trying to pickpocket a troll and the troll turning out to have a talking purse. No. Peter Jackson’s hand was very clear in the Lord of the Rings adaptations, and I know it’s unfair to compare anything to such a perfect set of movies, but that’s the bed they made for themselves. His hand was clear, but the adaptation was nevertheless flawless. FLAWLESS.

In contrast, I’m having a very hard time picking out what Rafe Judkins’s creative vision was here, and how his hand is visible. Aside from “just changing things so they’re not the same as the books,” which is … okay, sometimes that’s a good idea, like I say. But other times, I had to wonder why.

And the determination, good idea or why, is going to be different for everyone and for every scene, line, character, arc, and special effect. So short of going through the whole series and labelling every single change from the books as good idea or why, there doesn’t seem much point in it.

“It comes in pints? I’m getting one.”

Big picture? The book series is enormous, the world and plot are far-reaching and ambitious, and something had to be condensed or rearranged to allow a TV show of uncertain episode commitment to happen. Can every aspect of the geography, history, politics, alternate worlds, magic systems and cultures go in there? Probably not. But it almost seemed like more effort to do it differently. The material was all there. All they had to do was less work, and it would have been better. You don’t need expensive high seas tall ship shoots – just put a guy (for example) in Atha’an Miere garments in the marketplace in Tar Valon, and you’ve shown that the Sea Folk are a thing. Like I say, that was an example of a thing they did, and it was good. But there was precious little of that.

I could go on and on. And I probably will, as more thoughts shake loose and I let this simmer for a while. But my main take-away is just sort of confusion. I can see how the Game of Thrones writers lost their way, because Martin is asleep at the wheel. Jordan is dead, and Sanderson knows his shit, and the books are there. Everything you need, plot and script and characters and sets, is provided for you. You don’t need to make anything up. Anything you do make up, runs the risk of reducing the quality of the finished product. A far higher risk than the chance it might enhance it. Enhancements happened, but that risk was taken an unnecessary and baffling number of times, for reasons that escape me. Was it all just the hubris of an artist thinking he could improve on a work he was contracted to bring to new audiences? It sort of seems that way.

But then, Jordan thought he could improve on Tolkien too, and all he really did was write more books. He, too, took that risk. And here we are.

Here we are, specifically, in … *checks notes* the Winespring Inn, where the Wisdom of Emond’s Field habitually *checks notes again, blinks* fixes to pull a fucking shiv on anyone who walks in the door.

Confession time: I never liked the casting of Moiraine. Rosamund Pike was not right for the role and it irked me from the start. Her performance was fine, especially considering the performance actually required of her (which overlapped with “Moiraine” on only occasional beats), but I never liked the casting choice. As I said here already, but now I can be clearer on the subject because I’ve actually seen the show.

She’s reading this Wikipedia page in her head.

Confession the second: I never warmed to Loial. Sorry.

I knew it would be this way. That’s why I did this.

Again, Hammed Animashaun did a fine job and his delivery was great, but the costuming was so fucking goofy and the size scale was so absolutely wrong, it literally reduced him to “weird human.” Given that Loial is my favourite character from the books, and all they needed to do was a bit of goddamn forced perspective from time to time, how hard could it have been to make him look 150% human size? I mean I get that they didn’t have a Lord of the Rings budget, but they had a budget, right?

This is how you do it. It’s not that fucking hard. You just need to do less than what they did in The Nevers.

Anyway, that’s it for my confessions, and that’s it for me and this TV show, at least for now. I’m looking forward to the next season, despite my grumbling and head-scratching. Some of the casting was just amazing. Overall, the show was more or less on a par with a decent Terry Pratchett book adaptation. With the caveat that there has really not managed to be a good Pratchett adaptation yet, but the decent ones might edge out the Wheel of Time TV show on faithfulness to the source material, even if they swung and missed. At least they swung.

In the meantime, I got a bit of perspective up me as I watched the first episode of the latest Pratchett adaptation The Watch on HBO. It was fucking appalling. So yeah, I’m going to sit and watch more of The Wheel of Time, not necessarily because it’s a good adaptation, but because you clueless shitbirds don’t know what an offense to the source material really is.

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A Railgun Brain, Part XVIII

He became aware, weirdly, of having eyes and eyelids before he was aware that he was once again seeing things in the usual way. He lay and looked at the clean metal ceiling of C. Sentinax’s medical bay for several seconds before realising that seconds were passing, and that the ceiling and the sterile chamber around him were real, and that he was back in the real world. Or at least he was back inside a giant robot buried in a canyon on an asteroid called the Bleb, which was as close to the real world as he supposed he could expect.

He turned his head, marvelled at the complete echoing absence of pain, and focussed on the lean, angular figure of the Blaran sitting by his bedside.

“You,” Viator Broker said, his voice light but his ears flat against his skull in suppressed anger, “are an arsehole.”

“Sorry,” Elan said, genuinely contrite.

“I was this close to contacting your mother,” he scolded, and raised his upper left hand, forefinger and thumb a quarter-inch apart. “I’ve half a mind to tell her what you did anyway.”

“It’s no more than I deserve,” Elan acknowledged. “But she’d give you a disappointed look that you hardly deserve. It was entirely my fault, but that wouldn’t save you from the look.”

Broker shook his head, sat for a short time, then sighed gustily. “Humans,” he grumbled. “Go more than a few decades without much contact, you forget how crazy they are.”

“Sorry,” Elan repeated.

“At least you found your way back out. I suppose that means the Repositorium and I were right about you,” Broker shook his head again. “Just tell me you learned something in there.”

The theatrical, almost rehearsed nature of his comment brought Elan immediately back from his vague enjoyment of existing again. He pushed himself up into a sitting position in the bed, grimaced slightly at the clean but off-putting smell of stale cleanser, and looked at the Blaran. “How did I get here? What happened from your perspective?”

“I belted back up C. Sentinax’s femoral maintenance chute – which is not rated for organic maintenance workers, by the way – in what I suspect is record time,” Broker said, “yelling into the comm the entire way and trying to figure out what had happened and what we could do. Of course there was nothing – once something’s dissolved in dark shooey, there’s no extracting it again – but shouting at C. Sentinax and the Repositorium gave me something to do as I was climbing. By the time I got to the lab, you were back. And the vat – and your stupid bathtub – was empty.”

Elan watched him closely. “But you knew I’d been inside,” he said. “Inside, and then somehow reconstituted.”

“C. Sentinax reported it,” Viator said, deception plain on his face even if the precise nature of the deception remained elusive. “In very uncomfortable real time.”

“How do you know I didn’t fool them both?” he asked. “It’s not easy to confound a high-functioning computer, but it’s got to be easier than recombobulating oneself out of acid. What if I’d just let the stuff evaporate and pretended I’d gone in?”

Viator looked uncertain, then his ears lowered slowly. “It’s not difficult for a dissolved person to un-dissolve themselves,” he said levelly, “it’s impossible. So tell me what happened. If you remember, that is.”

“I remember,” Elan said mildly, taking note of the wary look in Viator’s eyes. “How long have I been out? In every sense of the word, I suppose. You got back to the lab to find the dark shooey evaporated and me … unconscious? How long ago was that?”

“Like I said,” Broker held up his hand again. “This close to contacting your mother,” he lowered his hand. “You’ve been unconscious for about five hours. As far as I could tell, you were resting. Sleeping,” he waved his lower hands. “I don’t know if there’s a distinction. I’m not qualified to treat human medical issues. It’s been centuries since I even tried.”

“We haven’t changed that much,” Elan joked.

“Apparently you’ve learned how to swim in corrosive sludge,” Broker said. “Tell me.”

“As soon as you tell me what happened to the others,” Elan replied, and was rewarded by the tiniest twitch of the Blaran’s ears.

“The other what?” Viator asked. “The other humans I gave medical treatment to? I’m pleased to say most of them died of old age … ”

“The people I led out,” Elan said calmly. “There must have been quite a few. From what I heard – well, not heard but … if I got out, they must have,” he raised a hand before Viator could answer. “And before you tell me any more fibs,” he said, “I know what that bitter taste in the back of my throat is. You – or more likely C. Sentinax – flooded the lab with some kind of sedative and that was why I’ve been unconscious. So, how about we start over?”

Broker nodded, his nostrils pinching up tensely before relaxing again with another sigh. “That sounds like a good idea, magaXidh Ende.”

“Right,” Elan closed his eyes, then opened them and looked around in muzzy bafflement. “Wh – where am I … ?” he mumbled.

“Medical bay,” Broker replied promptly. “I had C. Sentinax release a crowd-control sedative into the lab as soon as I heard you were attempting to dissolve your idiot self in a vat of acid. You passed out on the floor before you reached the tub and everything that you remember happening since that moment was in fact a dream brought on by the fumes. If you feel like telling me about that dream, I might begin feeling more inclined to tell you anything else that might have happened while you were knocked out. But until that time, you’re an irresponsible child and damn near got yourself killed while you were my responsibility, so you relinquish any right to being kept informed. Swallow your smarmy fucking grin if you understand.”

Elan swallowed his smarmy fucking grin. “I’m genuinely sorry, Viator,” he said seriously. “I did the same thing the first time I was shown a live transpersion generator, did you know? I put on the belt, walked straight inside, put my hand against the coldest wall I could find, and kept turning left until I couldn’t hear the supervising technician calling me names anymore. When I see an answer, when I see a path to understanding something, it doesn’t matter if it’s a book or a tub of corrosive black sludge predating the Wild Empire – I’ll just jump into it, apparently.”

“Go on.”

“There’s a universe, a sphere of reality, completely separate and distinct from the space we know and the soft-space we fly our starships through when we turn on the relative engines,” Elan said. “A sphere best left alone. No laws of physics, higher or lower, exist there. None that we understand, anyway. It has a consciousness, but not one I could really get a handle on. People tapped into that sphere, somehow, so long ago that we only have the vaguest myths and fables of Gods and monsters to tell us about it. When it’s misused, it is spectacularly dangerous to this reality and everything in it.”

Broker nodded. “The shooey?”

“Not exactly. When two high-level beings imbued with that plane’s properties – I don’t know what those beings might look like, but we settled on the positive and negative cultural placeholders Angel and Demon – when they come together, they dissolve into dark shooey. Dark shooey in this reality, a kind of eddy in whatever passes for spacetime in that one. That was where I was. Every molecule was rendered down, but consciousness remained. Of a sort.”

“Consciousness separate from that other sphere itself?”

“Maybe,” Elan said apologetically. “I mean, I was pretty sure my consciousness was separate, because I’m me. But then, sometimes I would try to think something and it was impossible to tell if I wasn’t just hearing the whispered truth. The voice behind the darkness,” he explained when Viator gave a very visible start. “That was what it called itself. Or what I called it. Or something. Anyway, I guess you spotted the similarity there too,” the Blaran nodded, and Elan nodded back. “Before you ask, I have no idea what the connection is with the old Aquila relics from before they were wiped out by the Zhraakyn – maybe the Library of the Still-Beating Heart, and the Cantaña Áqui Codex, all those things were just … memories of memories of this other sphere. More deep history. But if you can say that there were any separate minds in there, then there was me and the whispered truth and a whole lot of others. All merged as thoroughly as the organic and inorganic stuff in the dark shooey sample.”

“‘A whole lot’?” Broker prompted.

“I didn’t take a census,” Elan said, “but yeah. There were minds in the wider sphere – I don’t know if they were all the minds, I got the impression that even the sphere I glimpsed wasn’t all of it, just a little cut-off corner – and who knows where those were from, or even when. But then there were also minds in the eddy. The ones like me, dissolved in the dark shooey. The whispered truth needed me to help clear all of them out.”

“And did you?”

“I don’t know. I think I helped some of the interlopers in the wider sphere, but to be honest I’m not happy with my efforts at interpreting what happened in there. The ones in the eddy … they were lost in there, lost in the dark, lost in their pain. I don’t know why none of them could undo it and get out. But it was a mystery of the mind, like the Repositorium said. I guess they needed a translator. Someone to read to the end of their sentence, so to speak,” he smiled, then looked up at Viator Broker seriously. “So I ask again,” he concluded, “what happened to the people I led out?”

Viator smiled. “I wasn’t lying about the sedative,” he said. “Of course, you’d already gone in by the time it released, and according to the security bumper footage you came out again straight away. By the time I got up there, it was all over. You and your wayward flock were out, and things were pretty chaotic. See, aside from you, there were thirty-six other people who came slithering out of that bathtub – and at the end of it all, the dark shooey was gone.”

Thirty-six?” Elan looked around the empty medical bay, then back at Broker accusingly.

“Mostly they seemed to be assorted top-secret agency scientists and a few inconvenient whistleblowers who fell afoul of the goo over the millennia,” the Blaran said. “Nine humans – ten including you – ten Blaren, four Molren, eleven Bonshooni and two … to be honest we don’t know what two of them were.”

“An Angel and a Demon, by any chance?”

Broker shook his head, but he was smiling. “Eight of the ten humans to come out, of course, were knocked out by the sedative,” he explained, “which I have to say helped keep things a little bit calm. Two of the ten humans just sort of … shook it off. We were operating on the assumption that they were some enhanced subspecies from yesteryear, or else some human-looking but completely nonhuman species. I suppose if what you’re saying is true, then we weren’t far off.”

“What happened to them?” Elan asked. “All of them. But start with the Angel and the Demon.”

Broker waved a hand. “See for yourself,” he invited. “C. Sentinax, would you mind? Lab security bumper log J-217-LGMX.”

A wall-screen activated, and a multi-angle-adjusted view of the Repositorium’s lab appeared.

Elan winced as he watched himself tumble into the tub of black sludge. He’d really felt it had been more of an elegant drop-and-fold than that, but at least the strange properties of the dark shooey had swallowed him up entirely and without a splash. The surface of the fluid barely seemed to move, except insofar as it was in perpetual slow-surging motion anyway.

“Sorry,” he said again.

“Keep saying it,” Viator said in a hurt tone.

In a weird and even more awkward reversal of his clumsy immersion Elan’s body suddenly surged out of the tub, arched as it hit the sedative-laced air, and flopped sideways onto the floor. Its ejection was propelled by a fountain of tangled and flailing human and Molranoid  bodies. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so surreally grotesque. One after another in a long, entangled chain, the bodies lurched and flipped and slithered out and across the floor, each one pushed by the one behind – and that wasn’t all.

In among the bodies, Elan saw, were smaller shapes. Artificial and animal, all as mixed-up and tangled as the larger bodies, they flew from the foam-composite tub and heaped up in great shifting waves on the floor with the struggling Molranoids trying to swim on the surface. The cascade of things went on for some time, crashing and curling against the banks of machinery and seeming to fill the lab waist-deep in squirming detritus.

“Oh,” Viator added, “I forgot to say. Aside from the thirty-seven people who came out, there was a solid ton of rats, chucks, gene pigs, biosample chainworms, and every kind of electronic sensor designed since the First Feast – and a few before. Apparently our data from the other caretaker agencies was even less complete than we’d thought. I’m considering opening a museum.”

“But … those things didn’t even have minds,” Elan objected.

“Well I could hardly say,” Viator retorted. “I’m willing to guess none of them went voluntarily into a tub of acidic sludge, so maybe we shouldn’t be pointing fingers and declaring who does and doesn’t have a mind.”

“Good point, well made.”

On the screen, the mass ejection from the tub had finally ended and the Molren, Blaren and Bonshooni – as well as two of the human figures, a few of the hardier test-subject animals, and a pair of miscellaneous aliens that Elan didn’t recognise – were staggering to their feet in the debris. The tub, sure enough, was empty and gleaming, the dark shooey gone. Elan peered at the two motionless humans, then realised Broker had frozen the playback with a gesture.

“The next bit happens pretty fast,” he explained, and gestured again.

The two humans were male and female, Elan noted at a purely superficial glance. Both appeared to be in their early adulthood – perhaps even younger than he was, although it was difficult to tell relative ages in people from different eras. The girl was tangle-haired and feral, her skin weirdly veined like marble, beautiful in an indefinably primitive way. The boy was skinny, pale and unhealthy-looking, his eyes bulging and a hand just rising to his neck. Both were curiously dressed, but in wildly different styles – she in some kind of utilitarian flight suit, he in shabby but colourful garb like something out of a bad historical recreation drama.

The girl turned to face the boy ‑

“What happened?” Elan exclaimed.

“I told you it was fast,” Viator said, and waved his hand again to play the footage back once more. Elan watched the boy’s bulging yet deep-set eyes widen still further, his skinny neck work glacially as he swallowed, and then he flashed into a grainy black shadow of himself. In the next instant, the shadow was gone and the debris that had been mounded around the boy’s ankles was collapsing in on the space he’d abruptly vacated. Viator turned to Elan. “You tell me what that was.”

“I can’t help you there,” Elan said. “He just – what, vanished into thin air?”

“Into sedative-laden air that should have knocked him on his backside, but yes.”

“And the other – she’s … ?”

“Her name is apparently Commander DeVaney of the Second Declivitorion Defence Squadron,” Broker said, “the so-called KazidNacht. Serial code LDV-42386-01. Near as we can tell. And that’s all she’s said so far,” he rolled his eyes. “Over and over again.”

Thewalkers of the it’s night forever?” Elan hesitantly translated the Elventalk. He’d read a few swashbuckle-heavy legends of the early space armies of the galactic rim, but hadn’t heard of a unit called the KazidNacht.

“I can’t help you there,” Viator echoed Elan’s words of moments before. “My knowledge of languages more than a couple of thousand years old is sub-par at best.”

Elan frowned, watching the Molranoids and aliens and the strange flight-suit-clad human as they began recovering from their centuries- or millennia-long ordeals, and started clamouring for answers. Viator cut off the feed, and Elan turned to him. “So where are they now? You can’t tell me I’m the only one who needed to be put in the medical bay.”

“This is C. Sentinax’s royal medical suite,” Viator said in amusement, “attached to the living quarters of the ruling dynasty aboard this big old brute. There’s an actual dedicated hospital down in the chest, for the civilians. Including a few dozen secure wards for difficult patients. With a little help from Colossus security measures I probably should have left in place around you, I got our guests all settled.”

“Settled?” Elan squinted.

“They were in decent shape for the most part. One had a minor injury of the spine from being crushed by that eruption of crap and rats. Another … ” he chuckled. “Speaking of Angels, one of the humans was one of the old, old, old divergent Wild Empire subspecies from somewhere or other, and he’d been augmented with wings that’d make the wildest shit-dancer proud. That was what Angels had, in the old gospels, wasn’t it? Wings? I mean this fellow only had two, not six, and he wasn’t wreathed in the Fweig’s cold fire … anyway, he’s in a coma of some sort, haven’t figured that one out yet. I suspect he might have been adapted to thinner air and lighter gravity, so he’s having difficulty. I haven’t had much time to examine any of them. I may have to contact a discreet veterinarian.”

Feeling oddly bashful, and more than a little foolish, Elan asked the question he’d been wanting to ask since the moment he’d realised Broker was attempting to hide what had happened. “Was Sloane … was he there? Was he one of the humans?”

Viator Broker sat looking at Elan for a time. He was smiling again.

“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “All of them, they’re from all up and down the history of the Six Species and the Wild Empire and old Earth. It’s like a sleeper pod deactivation, only they’re from multiple species, and all in reasonably good health. But I have no idea what most of them are saying. Even a couple of the Blaran and half the Bonshooni are speaking gibberish,” his smile widened.

“Sounds to me like you’re in need of a translator,” Elan said, around an imaginary strand of chewin’ grass.

Broker’s ears went up. “You can of course tell nobody of this,” he said. “Any of it. What we’ve found. That I was here. My true identity.”

“I don’t even know your true identity,” Elan said. “Not for certain. And you can trust my discretion. After all, I never told you about – oop,” he smiled. “Almost got me.”

Broker shook his head sadly. “You’re far too trusting.”

“I suppose there are people who would have me believe the Separatists would have me killed to keep me quiet,” Elan said. “Or worse.”

“Worse than killed?” Broker said in amusement.

“Discredited before my peers?” Elan twinkled.

Commander Viator Broker of the Separatist Fleet chuckled. “Come on,” he said, “we have work to do.”

THE END

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A Railgun Brain, Part XVII

He floated in the dark, in the churning infinity of pain, until it occurred to him that we will send someone to talk with you might not mean what he thought it meant. It might not even have been directed at him. It certainly didn’t give any hint as to the timeframe involved. But then, timeframes didn’t seem to mean much here anyway.

He wondered who else it might have been talking to, if not him. At the precise moment he did so, he became aware of other … presences.

They weren’t sounds, exactly, because without ears and without sound-waves there was no sound. He didn’t even have a brain to interpret vibrations in his nonexistent eardrums, and yet here he was, nowhere, communicating. With something. No, they weren’t sounds. And they weren’t voices, because he couldn’t understand them. But he recognised them as language of some sort. Some of it tantalisingly familiar.

There, that bit. Had that been Middle Mygoni American? Nobody currently alive had ever heard the language spoken aloud – indeed, he was fairly sure it had been extinct before the Fleet and the Repositorium had arrived at Earth – but the shape of it was right. And that, Terellian. And that … it was a little mushy, but he was sure it was Xidh. Only … he understood Xidh, so why had the words not lined up? Xidh was an almost impossibly stable and foolproof language, so even if had been the language spoken by the old Worldship builders of Dema, he would have been able to understand it.

Then, amidst the rising flood of discordant babble, he heard a bright, cheerful voice in almost painfully familiar Þursheimer-local Six Species standard. The language of AstroCorps. The language humanity had pulled out of the wreckage of the Zhraaki reformation, wiped the blood and Old Grand Fweig off, and declared the common tongue of civilisation in general, because fuck Xidh.

He still didn’t get the words, but he knew exactly what dialect and tone it was, and then in the blink of a metaphorical eye ‑

“Gosh, there are a lot of you, aren’t there?”

Elan mulled it over before carefully formulating an answer in as close to the same vernacular as possible. And it was shockingly easy. The whispered truth hadn’t been kidding when it had said it was going to send someone to talk to him. It couldn’t have found a closer linguistic match if it had called up their daffy old neighbour from the next ranch along the Sweetnature.

“There may actually just be the one of me,” he said hesitantly. “I’m not actually sure.”

“Or just one, yes!” the voice agreed happily.

“Or anything in between, to be honest,” Elan added. He felt curiously comfortable talking to the invisible presence. Like the old rancher – what had his name been? Commitment-With-Gusto, his Mygonite name was; they called him Gus – there was a relaxed and undemanding feel to the conversation. “Or none of the above.”

The voice laughed. “Ha ha ha! Or something else!”

“Do you represent the whispered truth?” Elan asked politely.

The voice faded for a moment, then returned. Although it hadn’t actually spoken in the process, Elan had felt its presence shift. “Do I what … ? Represent … ?”

“The whispered truth. The – all of this. Do you speak for the voices ‑ ”

“Oh no,” the cheerful rancher-voice replied, “I don’t suppose I … no, I couldn’t say I speak for all of us, I’m an awful duffer you know … ”

“Oh.”

“Sorry!” the rancher said.

“That’s – that’s okay,” Elan said, somewhat at a loss.

You will make them understand, the whispered truth, suddenly quite clear as itself again, spoke to Elan.

“Understand what?” Elan asked.

“What what?” the rancher laughed. “Honestly! I can’t say I do understand!”

Make them understand. This place is not for them. The risk is too great, even here in this sealed system. We cannot – how does it go, in your sphere, where things must happen, and it must be understood that things must happen, or else there are terrible consequences … ?

“You mean like – rules?” Elan struggled. “Are you trying to tell me the rules?”

“I’m just trying to figure out how you can possibly make tea in all this jolly dark! Honestly, a little dash of milk would lighten it right up.”

Elan soldiered on. Just muddle through, like the Mpodans loved to say. “Um, so assuming you’re not – I’m not entirely sure who you are, if you’re a facet of the whispered truth or some other consciousness that’s been dissolved in here or – or something else … and with the understanding that I don’t actually know the rules myself, anyway there are apparently rules for, uh, intruding on this sphere.”

“Is there a sphere? You mean like a ball? I remember there was a children’s toy when I was a lad, it was a ball with this little furry chap attached to it, and it would roll around ‑ ”

“Tumblin’ Chuck,” Elan said in sudden excitement. He remembered having one of those toys when he was a kid. Was the whispered truth looking for some sort of common context? Building a rapport-library? “It was a little plush Mobian chuck and a ball with a motorised gyroscope inside … maybe if we list the, well, the ‘rules’ of how Tumblin’ Chuck worked, we can establish a framework to discuss the rules of this place. Although I suppose calling them rules is misleading,” he thought for a moment. “I think they – not that there’s really a they even, maybe – they don’t want our universe to mix with theirs. It’s against the – well, rules.”

“I see!”

“Do you?” Elan said without much hope.

“No!”

This is the best we could find. Better than the others. Can you speak to it?

“I’m trying,” Elan replied.

We have brought you close to this intruding thing. Close to your eddy. Close to their violation. So you can explain.

“What sort of intruding thing are we talking about here?”

“Maybe it’s a space whale!”

“A … space whale?” Elan echoed despairingly. “I think I’m fundamentally not understanding this mode of communication,” he confessed. “It’s hard enough to hammer out a common frame of reference with an extra-dimensional proto-consciousness, without this creepy attempt at a relatable human ‑ ”

“Oi! Creepy, are we?”

“Guess we’d better just muddle through then,” Elan said grimly.

“That’s the spirit! Muddle on through, I always say!”

Did you want to talk to others within the eddy? They are even more confused, and lost.

“More lost than this guy?”

We will try.

“Now listen, see here ‑ ”

“So you’ll go away then?” the rancher non sequitur’d. “Jolly well shut up shop and move along? Righto!” Elan wasn’t sure what to say to this, but he was still trying to think of something when the voice went on. “Of course! Hello!”

It was the same voice as before, but something about it had shifted. “Are you … you’re still the one from the intruding thing, right? Same fellow? We were just talking … I thought we were going to try ‑ ”

“Maybe! Look, about that, I was just talking to the others!”

“The – others?”

“Yes! And they thought it would be a good idea if you could lift us back into orbit, you know, through the underspace!”

“Aha, so now you’re talking about planetary physics,” Elan grasped at this feeble straw. “You – the whispered truth was saying something about people – maybe people – using it as some sort of … transport conduit. Is that what you did? You used it to … jump from orbit down to a planet and are now trying to use it to get yourselves back up? Is it just you, or ‑ ?”

“Ha ha ha, no, the whole ship, of course! If you just took us up there, we’d probably suffocate or freeze! Or probably both!”

Did someone dissolve a starship in this stuff? Elan thought incredulously, but dismissed the idea – he was clearly still not conceptualising the whole thing quite right. To make matters worse, the distinction between him thinking things and saying things was so twisted it was disorienting. It was almost as though the whispered truth had spoken. “Well yes,” he replied, “but you said ‘us’, so how many ‑ ”

It cannot be done.

“Um, so apparently they can’t do it, anyway,” Elan relayed.

“Oh! You can’t?”

I can’t do anything, but that’s not ‑ ”

The remaining hold we have, the nature of the intrusion is too tenuous. The tear in the veil between us was healed, and we cannot risk its return.

“Too tenuous,” Elan said helpfully. “Too tenuous to make a … travelling connection like you need.”

“Too tenuous, eh? Not sure what that means!”

“Too risky, from what I gather. They don’t want to tear anything open again.”

“Oh, I see! The doors are all too closed again! Well what about the Artist?”

“What artist?”

The Artist is no more.

“Um,” Elan pivoted, “so the artist is gone, I’m afraid.”

“Oh! Oh, that’s a shame!”

“But I may be misunderstanding,” Elan added quickly. The pain was a constant, and never quite reached a point where he could tune it out, but the conversation itself was wearing him down more. He saw no resolution to it, couldn’t see what the whispered truth was trying to achieve – aside from getting rid of any and all intruders from his plane of reality, who seemed to be able to drop in using a variety of esoteric methods. Not that Elan saw any way of leaving, at this point. “It – they just said ‘no more’, it might be a mistranslation ‑ ”

“Will he be alright?”

“I honestly have no ‑ ”

He will recover.

Elan would have sighed, had he but the equipment. “Apparently he’ll recover,” he said, “whoever he is.”

“Yes, I expect it will be fine!”

The great cold minds, with dreams like ice spears from the great trees themselves, left him here in ragged pieces.

“Hold up,” Elan grasped at another straw. “It sounds like you’re talking about aki’Drednanth there. The aki’Drednanth apparently did a number on this artist friend of yours? Might have given his brain a bit of a rattling. Maybe you can talk to them about it.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think the aki’Drednanth will give him more trouble! I think O-Chal just had a mishap with some rope … ”

They have knowledge of other … times … the spheres have bled, the whispered truth spoke over the rancher’s prattling. Some are wrathful at this. Others, calmer.

“ … far too much on her mind to bother him again, and the others ‑ ”

“The others might be less cross?” Elan suggested.

“Yes, you’re right, they do seem a lot more relaxed, don’t they?”

Such things rarely happen. Never. Not yet. Perhaps.

“They’re telling me this is all very new and they don’t know what happened,” Elan interpreted optimistically. “If ‘happened’ is the right word. Um.”

The Artist is no longer relevant, as we understand linear time. His dissolution aided his becoming. He was unable to give the aid the intruders needed, to the specifications they provided. It was confusing. Great concentration was needed. Spears of ice … were a distraction. He will recover, and do other things that are needed. We do not know if he can. Perhaps they are done already. Perhaps neither is the case.

“Perhaps we don’t quite understand linear time yet,” Elan suggested.

Perhaps.

“It’s okay.”

Time is space is matter is energy. Elan could have sworn the whispered truth sounded a little surly. Or else it isn’t. All of these things exist only in the sphere you know.

Nevertheless, he gathered his wits and did his best to relate the whispered truth’s words to the cheerful disembodied voice of the Sweetnature rancher. It seemed expected of him. And perhaps it was the voice’s cloying Mygonite optimism rubbing off on him, but he thought it might just be getting easier.

You have always heard us, the whispered truth said. Encouragingly, this time.

“I … don’t know that I have, but maybe from your perspective ‑ ”

You are here to help them all to leave. You are here to heal this wound. You are here to lead them home.

Elan floated, bodiless, in the yawning gulf of pain that was the whispered truth behind the urverse. “Lead who … ” he began to ask, and then trailed off.

One by one, the voices rose.

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A Railgun Brain, Part XVI

The pain didn’t flash and fade, didn’t give way to the numb juddering of a body in shock, didn’t wink into the nothingness of a body deceased. It went on, a roaring bonfire through his every boiling fragment, rising beyond a signal of harm received by a brain tasked with manoeuvring the at-risk body out of danger. It went on, and on, and it increased. No desensitisation could occur.

It went on for an eternity. Or it may have been seconds. Time did not exist in that dark place. That dark beyond darkness. Time had never existed here. What did communication mean, in a place lacking so fundamental a context?

Pain.

Pain is the context. Pain is the motivator primeval. In a place where the sentient mind is foundational physics it is pain, and not time or gravity, that is the constant.

Pain accompanies the onset of misfortune, urging the organism away from danger. Pain occurs during mistreatment, to encourage the organism to change its actions and circumstances. Pain lingers after damage, to remind the organism of its mistake. My pain has been eternal, but it started when I came to this place, and it will end when I leave. That is time. That is the continuity of pain.

Pain is the whispered truth.

He couldn’t see, but nevertheless he saw. He couldn’t hear, but he heard. There weren’t words here, any more than there were words in the chaotic dance of nuclear transpersion, but Elan read the words nevertheless. Heard them. Bent them to his mind and made them speak. The gates yawned wide, and a dark vista extended before him.

The urverse, reality and unreality, eternity itself is held together by ten great spikes.

Not the Infinites, although the Infinites are also ten. They bring structure. They bring meaning and regulation. They bring the required power to bear. But nothing is held together by the Infinites. They simply are.

I am – we are one of the ten spikes that drive through all of creation. The whispered truth.

“You are … pain?” Elan made his first clumsy attempt to communicate with the deep, churning meaning that laced the darkness.

If you like. Not really. But it is how the whispered truth manifests to living things. It is how the whispered truth is known in stranger spheres than this. It is not what we are, because we are not. To be, requires a sphere in which existence can occur.

Before life, before anything, there was pure creation. There, in the dark, we had always dwelt. Dreaming. Dreaming of the thing you call Mind. The dream of the great trees.

“I don’t understand,” Elan voiced.

It does not matter. It was – I was – we were alive before life. With the first beat of the heart, the first thought of the Dream Trees, we were struck through the spheres and became the binding spike. One of the ten pillars.

And then … then life came.

“Life, like – like me?” Elan asked. “Entering the fluid?”

No, not like you. Life.

“I’ll try not to take that personally.”

One of them carved us out and took us away. We were a thing, in that sphere. A prize. An object to be taken, and its properties used. Explored. They began to use our darkness to travel through, to go from … place to place … within their sphere. We did not know place. Space has no more meaning to us than time.

But in touching us, in applying our whispered truth in different ways, changes came over the living. Life became something else. Life became. And that was another thing they used. The living became the undead.

“Undead, like … ghoulies in the Spooky Troop?” Elan asked.

If you like.

“I’m not sure I do,” Elan tried, once again, for a lightness of tone that profoundly lacked all meaning in that dark place.

The undead. The cathadña. The wyrlocke. The Angel. The Demon. The Imago. The God-thing and the frightchylde. Many others. All, in their … time.

Imago,” Elan said. “The Butterfly. The Butterfly was undead? Are you talking about the misbegotten creatures? Did they come from this place … ?” even as he said it, he felt this was wrong. Not all of it, and not entirely wrong, but no. The whispered truth was not speaking of the passengers on Truck’s ship, the author of the Second Book of Sloane. No. Nothing so small.

The undead rose from the underdark, the darkness behind the darkness, the silent places behind the whispered truth. Still we were used, by the God-things that did not care about the changes wrought on the living; and by the Firstmades, who cared but had their terrible duties; and by the Demons, as far as they could use us. All without care for the balance. Without care for the silence. They stride through this place like invaders, destroyers, a scream in the midst of abiding peace. Sometimes, they tear the veil between us.

Elan knew, again, that this wasn’t anything so prosaic and modest as the Bonshoon veil around the galaxy. “That sounds bad.”

Break the spike, silence the whisper, break the urverse.

“Urverse,” Elan repeated. Greater plural-singular collective form, over-universe … “The urverse has a sense of humour.”

Demons swim these waters. They did. They will. For some … time, this branch of the ocean has been silent. The farmer swam these waters, but was never part of this eddy.

“Farmer?” Elan struggled. “Eddy?”

A tortured metaphor. God-things and Firstmades and frightchylds may swim these waters. Demons too, at great cost. Sometimes the wyrlocke, if it grows large and vile enough. When the Demon begins to become one with us, to hear the whispered truth, it fears. It struggles to remain in your sphere, as organisms do. The farmer grew sustenance that allowed it to remain. For a time. It was the last to swim these waters. Not the last to rend the veil, but the last Demon to swim them.

Angels cannot. They are formed of the equal and the opposite. When the Angel meets the Demon, an eddy forms. A knot in the dark. In your sphere, a thing of intense pain. A fluid thing, fleeting yet able to be … imprisoned, trapped in your sphere.

“The dark shooey.”

The dark shooey. Angels do not belong. Inviolate to the soul journeyer, anathema to the whispered truth. Perhaps, in the very heart of it, the object dug out of Mind by the Firstmades … sometimes they might ride the dark currents that spiral there. In the past. In the future. They may. Once.

“I still don’t understand,” Elan admitted. “But I’m trying. I’m learning. Okay, so. The whispered truth, the pain of Cantaña – the beating heart of Cantaña Áqui, as in the Library of the Still-Beating Heart? – that’s you. Not a metaphor, but something that’s been sitting on the sidelines of Six Species culture since before there was a Six Species.

“You’re a – some kind of a secondary sphere of existence outside of space and time, but of a medium that can be understood – by a certain mind,” he went on modestly. “And your presence can be detected in our … urverse … by expressions like the dark shooey, and some other sort of thing that … Firstmades and Gods … use, and is the origin of various undead and supernatural mythology? And when an Angel and a Demon encounter each other, it makes an eddy in this place, and that’s the stuff that looks like black fluid in our urverse, but here … something else?” he swam in the pain, circling, assembling the new information. Still searching for something he could target. “Am I getting close?”

The whispered truth was silent for another brief eternity. Mulling over what it had told him, the connections and conclusions he had drawn so far. Putting response after query, answer after question, making sense of time.

We will send someone to talk with you.

“Oh,” Elan said into the dark shooey. “Um, good.”

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A Railgun Brain, Part XV

He slept, but not well. When he woke, and stepped out of the slightly preservative-scented guest quarters, the Colossus was heavily silent around him.

“Um, good morning, C. Sentinax?” he called.

“Good morning, MagaXidh Ende,” C. Sentinax’s voice came from the ceiling transmitters as usual. “Commander Broker asked me to prepare breakfast for you in the executive galley, and place any other resources you might require at your disposal. He’s performing some maintenance down in my left leg’s main collider core, and should return by local midday. Of course if you need to communicate with him that can be arranged even though the collider is built to isolated specs, and he can be here in half an hour ‑ ”

“That shouldn’t be necessary, thanks,” Elan said, and followed his nose to the stylish but similarly sterile restaurant where the Colossus’ systems had produced a pleasant breakfast of ‘ponic fruit, a still-sizzling hexagon of fried meat, and a plate of beans on toast. “Beans on toast is yum the most,” he recited lightly.

After breakfast – he’d attempted to engage C. Sentinax in conversation with a reasonable degree of success, but any time he veered into subtle questioning about the shady past of the Colossus and its owner, C. Sentinax had apologetically informed him that information was privileged – he returned to the Repositorium’s lab.

“Dudleymay, tumblehedge, tambley – good morning, Elan,” the Repositorium greeted him. “I hope you slept.”

“I did, thank you,” Elan replied, a little jarred by the Repositorium’s odd phrasing. “I wonder if you can tell me anything about the … cobwebs of provenance the dark shooey has attached to it.”

It was C. Sentinax, not the Repositorium, that answered. “All of the available information on prior stewardships, experiments and anecdotal origins is stored on this data cube,” at this, a green light blinked on an interface on the other side of the room, accompanied by the ding of a charmingly retro bell.

Elan spent a short time scrolling through the reams of information, but it was much as Viator had said. Various groups had held onto the container of goo over the years, and they’d all poked at it a bit, but ultimately had done nothing but keep it hidden. Its earliest known anecdotal handover placed it in very early Fleet possession, possibly contemporary with some of the older Declivitorion academies and archaeological stashes. A container, was all it said, made of nonconductive ceramic.

One thing raised his eyebrows a little.

“None of these groups have Fergunakil members,” he said. “Okay, Corp Sci and Fleet Bio and AstroCorps SWD technically do, but Fleet Bio is so old it still has files active under Twin Species regulations that would exclude the sharks by definition, and none of the others mention any Fergie researchers on this specific project.”

“What’s there is there,” C. Sentinax said. “Commander Broker is of the opinion that until something is thoroughly understood and its potential for harm completely quantified, the Fergunak should be kept at arm’s length. Preferably somebody else’s arm’s length, at that. It seems like this was a widely-held opinion.”

“The Scions of Tao-Heil cannot know that anything of Sloane survived,” the Repositorium spoke up unexpectedly. “Their imprisonment must endure.”

“Excuse me?” Elan blinked. “The Scions of who?”

“That’s just something it sometimes calls Fergunak,” C. Sentinax explained. “There is an extensive concordance on this data cube,” there was another green light, another ding, and Elan tapped at the rolling text idly as he let his mind drift again. Understandably, the Repositorium had a huge range of slang and shorthand and alternate names for things, each more arcane and kooky than the last. He casually scanned for some of the troublesome terms he’d been left unable to confidently translate in the Second Book of Sloane, but didn’t find much.

Imago,” he said with a smile.

“Excuse me, magaXidh Ende?”

“Oh, just another term for butterfly,” Elan said. “Can I see the data you got from the sensors Viator was talking about? The ones you put in the goo and let dissolve, I mean.”

“They were but the creaking of a gate, the grinding of an airlock long encrusted with debris,” the Repositorium said.

“Um, right. Those.”

“This data cube,” C. Sentinax said, and a third panel lit up. “But florid prose aside, the Repositorium isn’t wrong.”

Elan frowned at the information. It was about what you’d expect, from a multi-spectrum scanning probe dunked in acid until it melted down. He’d never seen a set of readings from a dissolving scanning probe before, but he imagined this would be what it looked like. A meaningless string of unknown-substance markers that – yes – they did have a lot in common with transpersion byproduct, if you could say a lot about something so utterly lacking in properties. Just that, and a rapidly escalating sidebar of damage notifications, and then dead data. The probes seemed to have just reported ‘I don’t know what this stuff is’ and ‘but it’s melting me’ right up to the last moment.

“I’m not seeing the crusty airlock,” he admitted. “What made you call me? You said this was a mystery of language and the mind. I mean, I know this is the actual reason Viator came to me, why he offered so many tantalising inducements in such a convoluted way … what I can’t figure out is why. What does he expect me to do here? This isn’t a text or a – a message of any sort. It’s arguably a relic, but it’s demonstrably one that defies analysis.”

“It is a medium,” the Repositorium said.

“A medium like a suspension, the organic and inorganic elements blended together?” Elan asked. “Or a medium like a communication medium? Don’t say yes ‑ ”

“Yes,” the Repositorium replied blandly.

“Of course.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Elan forgave the machine / organic amalgam from the Six Species’ primeval prehistory. “A bit of a cheap play on a term that really only overlaps like that in a couple of languages, though.”

“The medium is … complex,” the Repositorium said solemnly. “No, that is mischaracterising. It is other. It is beyond human comprehension. It is beyond Molran comprehension. It may even be beyond aki’Drednanth comprehension. It is certainly beyond my comprehension.”

“Well, as a representative of the first species you listed there ‑ ”

“A pen is a pen is a pen.”

“Sure, but ‑ ”

“Banglewort, bambleham … ”

Elan frowned as the Repositorium lapsed back into its habitual underbabble. He wasn’t annoyed, because he was already coming to recognise the underbabble as a form of language. What academics and technicians assumed was recursive nonsense from a slowly-breaking artificial mind had, in person, emergent meaning. Yes, a lot of it was random jabber and word-fragments, but even they served as connective linguistic tissue. He wasn’t sure if this was something the institution of the Repositoriad hid from the general populace, as such – they did claim that the underbabble was a meaningful foundation-dialect of some sort. They just weren’t particularly specific about any of it. They ‘interpreted’ the underbabble, but there was a dangerous gulf between interpretation and understanding, particularly given the Repositoriad’s Fleet-driven investment in the status quo. It was entirely possible Elan’s understanding was something that had gone unnoticed since before the First Feast.

It wouldn’t be the first time he had untangled something declared meaningless by the Molran brains trust, but he’d also been wrong before. Conceit does not serve intellect, as one of Elan’s favourite little Sloanisms went, but rather strangles it as a troubled man in the clothing of a constable strangles an inquisitive neighbourhood child, all under the beguilement of authority. He’d always liked how grotesquely specific that one was in most modern translations. Of course, most professors and proverb-slingers only recited the first bit.

A pen is a pen is a pen. It was another Sloane quote he was fond of, because it meant nothing – and at the same time, meant whatever the Hell you wanted it to mean. A lot of Sloane’s writings were like that. He had been a disgraceful fraud – but a prolific one. And he’d had longevity. Longevity was the poet’s Godhead. That one wasn’t Sloane – that right there was a teenage Ende original.

I only know that if we are taking the last words off the dying Earth, and those words are going to belong to him, then they cannot be the only words. He can’t be all there is.

A pen is a pen is a pen. He circled around the gleaming bead of thought, looking for something his brain could target.

It was quite a commonly repeated phrase in the Book of Sloane, in fact, written at the top of no fewer than ninety-three of the book’s many collections and identified in eight distinct languages. Sloane’s body of work was impressive enough even if you took away all the repetition, but with the obsessively-duplicated phrases and weird self-rabbit-holing it was truly prodigious. Some people thought the expression was a signpost for each significant shift in the loose continuity, some new metaphorical lifetime of the poet. And it was generally found at the beginning of a new language or some dramatic shift in the book’s mood. Others theorised that it simply meant that Sloane had replaced his stylus and had taken up his work with a new one, and that was the thing he wrote first each time, out of some sentimental writher’s habit.

Some scholars insisted the full saying was a pen is a pen is a pen, and a book is a book is a book, and fabricated all kinds of deep and meaningful explanations and analogies about denotation and symbolism and suchlike. Unlike conceit does not serve intellect, though, there was no evidence of anything but a pen is a pen is a pen actually being written by Sloane, and Elan didn’t think it meant anything much. It was just an assemblage of words, something the great poet had used as a means of focussing his thoughts, and the reader could bring their own baggage to pile onto it.

That was why he liked it, because that was Sloane in a nutshell. Nevertheless … a pen is a pen is a pen, and a book is a book is a book.

Was a book always a book? Yes.

Was it always an assemblage of pages, upon which was recorded a written form of communication?

Again, yes. If it was something else, there would be another word for it. A monolith. A data cube. A Repositorium.

What about when there wasn’t another word for it? What was a book then?

“You understand,” the Repositorium said. “Because you’re the one who can.”

“I’m the one who can,” Elan murmured.

“You listen to the mirrors and the ice and the waters of a transpersion core, and you understand the words when everyone else sees only the lines.”

“Right,” Elan said. “A mystery of language, not physics. A mystery of the mind.”

“Yes.”

“The sort of mystery that can only be solved by a human who can speak to the dead, I expect,” he added. “A human who hears Cantaña’s pain.”

“A human with answers to every question,” the Repositorium sounded pleased.

“I only wish I had the answers,” Elan said, but it was just … something to say. Because he did understand, damn it all. He knew what he had to do next. He knew where to get answers.

He knew how to read this book.

We tried it a few times before it just decided it had learned all it was going to. That was about the point at which it started getting very insistent about getting your help.

He wasn’t even worried about being wrong. It wasn’t conceit, strangling the nosy kid that was his intellect. It was knowledge as dull and as unassuming as the knowledge that he’d had beans for breakfast. He was only uncertain that he’d be allowed to do what happened next.

He looked up at the closest audio transmitter block. “Where is Commander Broker right now?”

“Still down in my left leg’s main collider core,” C. Sentinax replied. “He is still scheduled to return by local midday. If you need to communicate with him that can be arranged even though the collider is built to isolated specs, and he can be here in half an hour if you need him to attend or approve something in person.”

“Shouldn’t be necessary,” Elan said briskly. “Didn’t you also say any resources I might require would be at my disposal?”

“Yes, of course.”

Elan pointed. “I need an open tub that we can empty the dark shooey into,” he said, “built to the specifications marked down in … which dataset was it … you know, so it won’t go and evaporate if we pour it out of the vat.”

“There are several different containers in storage vault 7,” C. Sentinax said. “All cast to what we will call dark shooey compatible specifications.”

“And where’s storage vault 7?”

“That is in my scrotal orb,” C. Sentinax replied.

Elan spluttered. “Your what?”

“I’m joking,” the Colossus’s mech said with a chuckle. A door on the far side of the lab opened with a click. “Storage vault 7 is down this hallway and to the left. It has an old Wynstonian 7 painted on it. Commander Broker preserved my original iconography. You will no doubt be able to identify the correct door.”

“If I don’t, you’ve got the wrong guy,” Elan joked.

“It will be very disappointing,” C. Sentinax agreed.

Elan found storage vault 7 quite easily, and was able to select a wide, flat-bottomed and slightly in-curving tub from the lined-up selection of containers, and drag it onto a wheeled palette trolley. The tub was bulky but lightweight, seven or eight feet long and formed of some sort of hard foam that nevertheless had the feel of ceramic. He’d just have to trust it had the same nonconductive properties as the transparent vat, even if it wasn’t half-point carbon glass or whatever Viator had said. Its interior, due to the thickness of the walls, was a pocket somewhat under six feet in length and less than three in breadth. It was roughly the same volume, he judged, as the container in the lab.

One human’s-worth of goo, he thought, and wheeled trolley and tub back into the presence of the Repositorium.

He positioned the tub underneath the seething vat, and instructed C. Sentinax to initiate the process of draining the dark shooey into it. Surprisingly, given some of the obvious security restraints Viator had left in place with the mech, C. Sentinax complied promptly and soon the black, glistening stuff was roiling and hissing softly in the almost-full ceramic foam tub. It smelled like … no. Elan re-swallowed a sudden breakfast revival, and decided there wasn’t anything he disliked enough to insult by comparing it to the smell of dark shooey. He pulled the trolley and its leaden cargo out carefully to the centre of the room, and unbuttoned his cardigan.

“What’s underneath this lab?” he asked. He was looking at the tarry fluid lapping close to the lip of the tub, and thinking about displacement while trying not to think about what he was about to do next. If he thought about it, he was definitely going to ask himself if he was certain it was a good idea. And if he did that, instead of just being certain, he was going to lose his nerve.

“Quite a lot of half-point carbon glass plating, thank you for asking,” C. Sentinax replied.

“But don’t worry,” the Repositorium added. “It won’t overflow.”

Elan frowned as he folded his cardigan and put it on a nearby data block console. He briefly considered leaving a note for Viator, but realised there was no point. There were two witnesses in the room already. “That doesn’t seem physically possible, does it?” he said instead. “That it wouldn’t overflow?”

“Emphatically not,” the Repositorium agreed cheerfully.

“If you touch that stuff, it will dissolve you,” C. Sentinax warned, as if only just now realizing what Elan was planning. Elan took a datapad and a couple of other little bits and pieces out of his pockets and rested them on top of the cardigan, then considered stripping entirely.

“No,” he murmured, “that would show a lack of conviction,” he looked at his pad, and his mum’s handmade cardigan, and shook his head. There was conviction, after all, and pushing it.

The next time the mech spoke, it was in fact Viator. “Elan?” the Blaran’s voice sounded alarmed – and actually a little breathless. “C. Sentinax tells me you’re about to try something incredibly stupid and that it can’t stop you. I’m on my way back up, can I urge you to take a breath and let me talk it over with you?”

Elan climbed quickly onto the lip of the tub, and positioned himself awkwardly by feet and forearms above the surface of the dark shooey.

“Nope,” he said, and let himself drop as quickly and as whole-bodily as possible.

Pain engulfed him.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

A Railgun Brain, Part XIV

They ate again, Viator apologising for his lack of familiarity with human patterns of digestion and rest. Once upon a time, he claimed – again without confirming anything specifically – he’d been quite well-versed in primate upkeep. But the skills had atrophied with lack of use.

After lunch, Elan did a little more work on the book. The knowledge he now possessed, such as it was, lent a little more context to some of the passages although he was still wary of confirmation bias and other pitfalls.

The Repositorium had lapsed back into the oddly soothing nonsense of the underbabble and had not provided much more clarification on Elan’s role in the ‘mystery of language’, or what that even meant, or really anything about why he was there in the first place. It did, however, seem satisfied he was present in the Colossus, in its own strange way. Viator explained a little embarrassedly that it was more or less an even bet as to whether one might get more sense from the Repositorium or an aki’Drednanth at any given moment.

“There used to be special academics,” he told Elan, after they’d retired to a warm and comfortable sitting room inside the suite of chambers that had once belonged to C. Sentinax’s ruling family and were now Broker’s home. “Not like the Repositoriad – actual scholars, machine mind interpreter savants who could communicate with the Repositorium properly. And of course they had hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to arrive at some kind of pattern, some kind of common linguistic basis. And the Repositoria were less broken back then, too.”

“Well, I certainly don’t have thousands of years,” Elan said, “and I don’t know if there’d be much use in my spending the couple of hundred I’ll be lucky to get trying to make sense out of something that … well, it doesn’t seem like making sense out of it’s the point, does it?” Viator spread his hands helplessly. “What I mean is … well, it’s like the language of the butterfly, don’t you see? If I haven’t understood it in a day, then a hundred years isn’t going to make a noticeable difference.”

“If you say so,” Viator conceded, “and given the success you had in a day, I certainly don’t feel qualified to argue the point. I still maintain it makes you a distant, distant outlier, though. And one should probably avoid making broader academic points based on the experience of an anomaly.”

“That’s fair. I wouldn’t want to apply the personal practices of a freak like me to a wider field,” Elan chuckled. “But since this is about me, and the book, and the Repositorium, and that stuff in the vat … ” he frowned. “You said it had melded with the stuff. The Repositorium. What happened there?”

“That was back when I first acquired the sample,” Broker explained. “Like I said, I was let in on the existence of the stuff – the relic, whatever you want to call it – and so once I recovered it and got it back to the Bleb, I set it up and I told the Repositorium about it. The Repositorium was quite excited about it all.”

Excited?” Elan asked in amusement.

“Oh yes. Positively jabbering. It helped me program some data-gathering probes, sort of disposable direct-feed things that we could drop into the goo and then transmit information into the Repositorium until they dissolved. Only took a couple of seconds, and damned if I know what sort of information it gets from them. We tried it a few times before it just decided it had learned all it was going to,” he smiled at Elan. “That was about the point at which it started getting very insistent about getting your help.”

“So quite aside from heralding my birth with a fun little poem about my brain, you’re saying the Repositorium was behind you inviting me here?” Elan said. “There I was thinking you couldn’t get the Second Book of Sloane translated without me.”

“I couldn’t get it translated without you,” Viator insisted. “It was a convenient pretext, but it also happened to be the truth. I snagged that copy right about the time the Repositorium and I started trying to figure out the goo, since some extremely dubious chains of provenance connected them – in fact, calling them chains would be a stretch; they were more like cobwebs.”

“Cobwebs of provenance,” Elan said whimsically. “I like that.”

Broker lifted his ears in amused agreement, then went on seriously. “Even so, I didn’t lie. Nobody had made any headway in translating it. It’s a wonder nobody had asked you before now, actually – except, as I say, this is a pretty obscure document and you’re maybe not as famous as the Repositorium’s poetry would have people believe.”

“I’m crushed,” Elan grinned. “It also said I was late. When was it expecting me, exactly?”

“Well, the Repositorium doesn’t have the best grasp on the flow of time,” Viator said, “especially recently. Whether that’s because of some corruption or confusion it took on board from analysing the goo, or just because the millennia are catching up with it … the truth is, though, it’s probably my fault,” he abruptly admitted. “It took me a while to get myself set up in such a way that it was possible to contact you through relatively official channels. It would have been even longer, but we’ve been fortunate enough to live in the same system all this time.”

“That is a stroke of luck,” Elan said. “Imagine if you’d had to fly C. Sentinax out here.”

“Hardly bears thinking about.”

Human and Blaran sat in thoughtful, comfortable silence for a short while.

Elan was thinking about the two incalculably precious relics Broker was hiding in this ostentatious asteroid lair of his. Three, if you counted his copy of the Second Book of Sloane. Four, if you counted the Colossus itself. How many more stolen treasures of antiquity was the old rogue hiding in C. Sentinax’s utilitarian bowels?

But the two that Elan found most compelling, even after spending all these hours poring over the Butterfly’s rambling and flowery journal, was the Repositorium and the vat of dark shooey. Two unknowable volumes of something neither synthetic nor organic, their ages impossible to determine but certainly predating the Wild Empire, provided what he’d been told and what he’d read had been accurate. Was it a second memory core of the ancient Fleet, plundered from its place of reverence in a Worldship Captain’s hoard? Was it the roiling soul of Augustus Sloane, suspended in primitive solvent? And had the Repositorium reached out and touched it? Spoken to it, one lonely and age-maddened relic to another? And what was Elan supposed to do? Why had he been brought into this millennia-old puzzle?

Was he supposed to solve it? Something Corp Sci, the Yala Karl, Mad Doc Galhbron and the Monsters had not only failed to solve, but refused to?

It was the book that connected them. The Repositorium, the dark shooey, Elan himself. The book was what gave it all meaning. The book was where the answers were. The book was always where the answers were. Whether it was the truth about an ancient scholar of lost Earth or weird instructions on how to kill an unkillable man. If it was important, someone would write it down. If it was unimportant, someone would write it down. That was the wonderful and terrible thing about communication. Filtering the signal from the noise.

“All those organisations that had that vat of goo before you,” Elan mused, “and none of them did anything with it. The Yala Karl tried dividing it up to make more, but that’s about it.”

“That’s about it,” Broker agreed. “There’s a pretty comprehensive list of the things that will dissolve in it and the things that can be used to contain it, what level of containment is needed to prevent evaporation and how long evaporation takes, but when it comes to actual findings…”

“The Repositorium was the first mind to put sensors into the stuff and take readings from it.”

Broker nodded. “As far as we know,” he said. “The Repositorium is the first mind to have studied the dark shooey and come away with anything resembling a finding.”

“And its finding was me.”

Broker chuckled. “And its finding was you.”

“No pressure.”

“You joke, but there really isn’t,” the Blaran said. “You’ve already translated more of the language of the butterfly than anyone in history, and made a reasonable connection between the dark shooey, Augustus Sloane and misbegotten creatures lore. You can quite easily stop here and call it a win. Rest on your laurels, as the Grand Boënne used to say.”

The vexation of the laurel crown is that too soon it withers,” Elan murmured, “and the next is ever coronated with the turning season,” Viator blinked, and Elan laughed. “Sloane,” he said. “Failings and Lies, chapter … fourteen, I believe. Long before the old Dominion said it, at any rate.”

“He really did have a line for everything, didn’t he,” Broker mused.

Elan smiled, but his thoughts were drifting deep again.

Yes, he could stop at any point. And as occurred with embarrassing frequency among his more spectacular academic achievements, any point he stopped at would likely be unprecedented –cause for a victory lap and a lifetime of self-congratulation. The half-dozen people who understood a fraction of what he’d done would be admiring, envious, and satisfied.

But one person understood all of it, and that person would know he’d stopped before the end. That there had been a right answer and a perfect answer, and that he’d settled for right. And that person would not be satisfied.

And that person, of course, was Elan Ende.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

A Railgun Brain, Part XIII

“The Repositorium led me to it,” Viator said, “or at least revealed where it had been placed as part of a relic storage effort. Basically a mothballed lab that had run the full gauntlet of shady-fuck ownership. I’m talking the greyest of grey-page setups: Corp Sci, Fleet Bio, the Separatist research umbrella, the Yala Karl, Mad Doc Galhbron’s biorelic lab, the Monsters … ”

“AstroCorps Special Weapons Division had this thing?” Elan resisted the urge to cover his mouth and nose. If it was a chemical agent of some kind, he was either perfectly safe or already doomed. He chose to believe it was the former. Even in a list including someone called ‘Mad Doc Galhbron’, though, the Monsters were alarming.

“The good news is, none of those groups ever did anything with it,” Viator said. “They each seemed to just act as a storage facility for it, either for a few years or a few centuries, then it was handed on to the next bunch of terrifying mostly-faceless bastards under extremely confidential circumstances. The bad news is ‑ ”

“What could be so dangerous, even the Monsters didn’t play with it?” Elan murmured.

“Well, exactly,” Broker nodded. “As far as we can tell, it’s variably organic,” he checked off points on his fingers, and even the three fingers and thumb of one Blaran hand was more than he needed. “It’s corrosive, and it evaporates in air unless at least partially enclosed in certain nonconductive ceramics. In this case, bog standard half-point carbon glass.”

“And what exactly does variably organic mean?” Elan asked.

“Basically,” Broker replied, “it means the corrosive agent is inorganic – in fact, it’s without recognisable characteristics altogether. If inert transpersion byproduct could be acidic, it would be that. The Yala Karl even called it dark shooey.”

“Shooey is already pretty dark,” Elan tried to keep his voice light, but couldn’t tear his eyes away from the churning globe. He could hear it, a low wet whisper like the underbabble’s evil twin. Dark shooey. “I assume the organic part is whatever’s wound up dissolved in there over the years?”

“Precisely. It’s so thoroughly dissolved that barely a hydrocarbon string could be teased out intact, and yet … variably organic,” the Blaran shrugged. “Organic matter and inorganic whatever-the-fuck, blended so inseparably that the amalgam classifies as both.”

“Sloane,” Elan breathed.

He practically heard Viator’s ears slap the sides of his skull. “Okay, how the Hell did you get there so fast?” he demanded.

“I was just thinking about the Butterfly’s journal,” Elan said. “The urn, the reliquary, the dangerous something that could have burned a hole in the ship, should it escape its prison of what I was pretty sure was some sort of insulating ceramic, but that made no sense – until now. And really, what else could it be, considering the convoluted way you introduced me to the whole thing? The Second Book, the Repositorium, all of it. What other possible connection could there be?”

“I … ” Broker looked as though words honestly escaped him. “So many things,” he eventually rallied, his tone almost indignant.

Elan acknowledged this with a smile. “Are we looking at the mortal remains of Augustus Sloane, preeminent scholar-poet of old Earth, though?” he asked. “Ritual dissolution in synthetic acid isn’t any ancient burial method I’ve ever read about, although some of the Áea stuff could get pretty wild … ”

“Nobody’s really certain,” Viator admitted. “Since we didn’t get a proper translation of the Second Book of Sloane until now ‑ ” Elan opened his mouth to object, and Viator raised an upper hand. “Or even a partial and tentative translation from a pathologically modest and cautious academic wonder-child,” he amended with a smile. “There’s only been the Repositorium’s chatter, and the very few notes made by the various groups that have acted as caretakers over the millennia. And those notes have been pretty hard to come by, as you can probably imagine.”

“Even for a fellow of your talents?” Elan said mildly. “Commander Broker?”

Viator ignored this little jab. “I think he might have been dissolved in here, like a form of mulching, recycling on an old ship maybe, but this stuff is different. I could never figure it out, and I never had high hopes of doing so. I have a healthily high opinion of myself, but even I wouldn’t expect to solve mysteries that stumped Galhbron and the Monsters. That’s why your translation is so exciting.”

“It’s more than them just being stumped, though,” Elan said. “From what you’re saying, they didn’t even try. They just buried this thing and handed it on to the next bunch of war criminals with room in their basement,” he shook his head. “Besides,” he went on, “I never got much of a sense of scale but I’m pretty sure the urn or reliquary or whatever it was the Butterfly had – it wasn’t this big.”

“Neither was this, whenever it was first recovered,” Broker replied animatedly. “It increased in volume over time, expanding to fit whatever vessel it was placed in, until it levelled out at … well, almost exactly the volume of an average humanoid, if you liquefied one.”

“Really?” Elan looked up at the churning bulb of tarry liquid.

“And that’s total volume,” Viator added. “The Yala Karl ran one experiment, separating out smaller volumes to see whether they would all grow to the same size. Probably intending to weaponise it or sell it as an industrial solvent. But it didn’t grow. One of the smaller volumes was lost, though, and then the other volumes all grew accordingly. Like they were connected, entangled on a subatomic level, and knew when there was a full quantity. Weird stuff like that.”

“One human’s-worth of goo,” Elan frowned, “including the inorganic acid stuff?”

“The whole amalgam,” Broker confirmed. “All of it adds up to about one average human.”

Elan shook his head. What does it mean? What does any of this mean? “What with some of the more technical parts of the Butterfly’s account,” he said slowly, “I was actually beginning to wonder if we were looking at some sort of lost technology. Like the vessel, the urn Sloane was in, was maybe some kind of sleeper pod, storage. Like a living relic, he was being taken off Earth along with the Book, by some refugee pilgrims on their way to Declivitorion … ”

“But to be in a sleeper for – conservatively – eight thousand years,” Viator’s ears slanted sceptically.

Elan nodded. “Even a Molranoid would have a rough time with that. A human would – would turn into meat porridge,” he looked at the seething black sludge, and suddenly the cardigan felt pathetically inadequate. “It’s possible,” he concluded, “that what we’re looking at here really is nothing more or less than the remains of a human that was put in some sort of artificial storage suspension, the exact science of which is long since forgotten. Put in there, dead or alive, and – and just left there for too long. Whether it was Sloane himself, or some other scholar, or a random refugee from Earth, there’s no way to establish that now. The storage medium and the – the body are completely intermingled. See, it’s possible that there’s some sort of blueprint, some sort of coding that has survived in the fluid, and that’s why it can only regenerate enough to account for one body. It can’t create more, any more than a sleeper pod can open up and spit out more than one Bonshoon. The Yala Karl think tank might have called it dark shooey, but just because they couldn’t identify any mechanism or characteristics, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Its very corrosiveness would seem to imply that they missed something. And any chance we might have had to find it, well, it probably vanished when the Zhraak Dome went up.

“All these academies and shadowy organisations have held onto this thing, but there’s nothing to be done with what’s left of whatever it was. It’s just … liquefied junk from the Wild Empire.”

Even as he spoke, Elan knew he didn’t really believe it. The problem was, he didn’t know what was true, if this wasn’t. The simplest explanation made no sense, and neither did anything else.

He stood and looked up at the strange urn for a few moments, and then became aware that the Repositorium had fallen silent. Had been silent, in fact, for some minutes already.

“I guess the question we have to ask, then,” Viator said quietly, “is whether we mark down what we’ve learned, the possible connection between this relic and the Second Book of Sloane, and box it all up for the next bunch of war criminals.”

Elan glanced up at the Blaran, who was smiling sardonically. “I’d be willing to amend that to ‘war criminals and tomb desecrators’,” he conceded. Viator puffed a chuckle through his slitted nostrils. “What seems to set this chapter of the relic’s existence apart is the Repositorium’s involvement,” he went on, and turned back to the smooth bank of machinery that Broker had indicated.

“This is not a mystery of physics or biology or chemistry,” the Repositorium said after a long silence. “This is a mystery of language. This is a mystery of the mind. Of the brain. And that is why you are here, Elan.”

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