Day 33. 112 pages, 49,990 words.
Her cheerfully-glowing advertising blimp still bobbing obediently along behind, the Right Sock descended right onto a patch of battered old paving in front of the storage building. She crunched down on a final puff of compressed air and sat in full view, hissing and plinking quietly as she cooled down from atmospheric insertion.
Massington examined the building, the surrounding area, cautiously through the screens. It was dazzlingly bright out there, and the console readouts said it was hot, at least by Worldship standards. Whatever was going on in this world’s atmosphere, this Gundabaal place appeared to be more exposed to the sunlight. The building they’d landed in front of was in a relatively deserted area, although the structure itself was only partway to the outskirts of the city of Vanjing. He couldn’t see any sign of life. Far from making him feel more secure, the thought of hidden eyes watching him was impossible to shake.
“So,” he said, “Mer. Why have we-”
The airlock doors hissed open and warm, sharp-smelling air wafted into the Right Sock. Massington was assailed by a sudden and vivid memory, of his father’s brief experiments in cheese-making when Massington had been a child. The results had smelled somewhat similar, although the air of Gundabaal had slightly more burned-metal to it.
“Relax,” Mer said. Massington realised he must have squeaked, or gasped, or covered his mouth. “You’ll live.”
“Is it clean?” Massington asked, lowering his upper hands from his face.
“Clean? Heck no,” Mer said. “It’s filthy. But you’ll live.”
With a final glare at the console Massington stood, settled himself into the Earth’s gravity with a roll-and-counterroll of his shoulders, and crossed to stand in the open airlock.
“I won’t be seen?”
“What makes you think that?” Mer said in a singularly unhelpful tone. “You’re not invisible. You should go inside.”
Blinking in the too-bright sunlight, Massington stepped out onto the cracked paving. The heat baked up through his soft shoes. The smell was hardly noticeable now, the air warm and muggy and somehow soupy, but otherwise neutral. There was a sound in the distance that he cautiously identified as machinery of some kind. And not machinery that was running particularly smoothly.
Behind him, above the Right Sock, the blimp rose and glided serenely away.
“If we leave it hanging over the warehouse,” Mer explained, “even the most incurious locals might start meandering over to see if there’s something worth stealing.”
“Stealing, really?” Massington kept his ears folded tightly and his nose-slits unconsciously pinched, and strode quickly towards the building. “I assume you’ll lock the ship.”
“I’ll keep an eye on it.”
“So, this place is a warehouse, you said?”
“That’s right,” Mer replied.
“And your instance, the machinery is in there?”
“And humans? Are there humans in there?”
Mer didn’t need to reply to this, because the warehouse door had opened.
And so it was that while the leaders of the great nations of Earth bickered and the Fleet Captains floated far above, the first face-to-face meeting between human and Molran took place outside a warehouse in Vanjing.