Day 34. 115 pages, 51,035 words.
“I wasn’t ready for this,” Massington said through clenched teeth as he stepped as boldly as he could towards the warehouse and the stocky figures standing in its wide, dark doorway. “I was not ready for this, Mer.”
“You’ll do fine,” Mer said from the communicator at his collar. “Remember, these are the people who are watching over my instance on Earth. They’re practically family.”
“When did you tell them about me?”
“About the same time I told you about them.”
“You didn’t tell me about them.”
“They’re carrying it well, aren’t they?”
Massington hissed quietly, and then it was too late for further recrimination. He stopped in front of the three humans.
He hadn’t expected them to be so little. The Fleet had been picking up human broadcasts for centuries, but it was hard to get a read on relative sizes – not in any way that compared to actually seeing a human with one’s own eyes. They were … well, they were primates. Nothing wrong with primates, but they were definitely primates. Little hairy primates that stood about as tall as his lower shoulders – or, in the case of the largest of the three, his upper shoulders.
Massington swiftly plumbed his mind for something to say. He’d picked up a few of the more common human languages in his seventeen years, but there hadn’t been many popular broadcasts or relevant comms out of Gundabaal. Gund, he thought. The primary language of Gundabaal is Gund. Why didn’t I bother to learn any Gund?
“Greet,” he said awkwardly, “I am peace.”
“I could translate in real-time, if your studies aren’t up to the task,” Mer said softly enough for only Massington’s ears to pick up. “Although, on another hand…”
“Hark! Welcome!” the central human suddenly intoned in horribly-accented, ludicrously antique Xidh. “Are my words […]-” here it said a pair of words simply too convoluted and ancient for Massington to grasp, but ending on a polite Xidh inquisitive.
“‘Understood?’,” Mer murmured the translation.
“I understand,” Massington said gratefully. “Do you understand me?”
“Aye,” the human said, baring its small square teeth ferociously. Massington chose to assume it was a smile, and gave one of his own. All three of the humans flinched visibly and the taller of the three took a step back, uttering one of the few Gund words Massington knew – female reproductive organ, a curse – before getting control of itself. Massington realised that to a being with teeth like a human’s, the elongated eye teeth of a Molranoid were probably a bit unsettling. He did his best to look friendly and harmless, and the central human rallied and continued to speak, the occasional almost-Xidh dialect-phrase peppering its statements just to confuse matters. “Aye, indeed for thou art most welcome, […] may I perish lest my words ring false, for […] friendship warm.”
“Thank you,” Massington said, and put his left hands to his torso. “I am Captain Massington Karturi.”
“Hark! […], Massington Karturi-Captain,” the human said, put its single left hand on its wide chest and bowed its round, furry head. “I be Adithol Wren, […] the long years […] Vanjing.”
“Boriel Belal,” said the second human, mimicking Adithol’s gesture, “[…] the long years […] Vanjing.”
“Hark! I be Katter Boylson,” said the tallest human, “assistant […] cleaning and carrying of faecal matter, also archiving.”
“I suppose that faecal matter isn’t going to archive itself,” Massington heard himself say as if from a great and horrified distance.
“Come hither, friend Massington Karturi-Captain,” Adithol said with a sweeping gesture towards the welcoming shadows of the warehouse. “Thy vessel […] the perils and pitfalls of […] lawless scum and […] yon rapscallions and vagabonds.”
Frankly, Massington thought it sounded as though the Right Sock was going to have a more enjoyable time than he was, but he refrained from saying so. “You speak Xidh,” he said instead, looking around as the humans ushered him into the warehouse with every indication of great deference. It was a welcoming respite from the brightness and heat of the sun when they crossed the threshold, but it hardly had the hallowed atmosphere the humans seemed to be attempting to impart. “How is it that you speak Xidh?”
“This is a thing handed down,” Adithol explained, “the tongues of yore, ye ancient times and bygone […] murderous […] alas, lost to the folly of the ages.”
Murderous? Massington thought uneasily.
The warehouse had looked large enough from the outside, but its crowded interior gave it an even greater illusion of size. Towering stacks of crates and chests filled the building almost to the corrugated ceiling, aside from aisles running here and there through the maze of mysterious articles. Some of the looming structures were shelves rather than piles of boxes, and every available scrap of space on those shelves was crowded with … well, junk.
A lot of it looked like old engine parts or other heavy smelted-metal machinery, all of it surely old enough to belong in a museum. Massington wondered if that was what this was – some sort of museum of early Industrial-Age technology. Perhaps it just never got any visitors because nobody in Vanjing was interested in seeing its exhibits anymore. They were probably-
He stopped. At one end of the nearest aisle, on a ground-level shelf, there was … something. He didn’t know what it was. It was about the size and roughly the shape of a human head, made of oxidised and battered metal that Massington hesitantly identified as iron. It appeared to be built in two pieces, with crude bolts holding it together and fixing a pair of battered metal handles to its sides. One end was flared like a Qastrian horn, and out of it…
That was where Massington’s ability to guess failed him. A beam of reddish light emitted from the horn, like the ray of a spotlight – but it drooped. Spreading out in a cone-shaped funnel from the object, it curved up and then back down to the pitted artificial stone of the floor as though too weary to actually illuminate the upper wall towards which the device was aimed. It was like a spray of softly-glowing red light, with its pressure turned all the way down to a trickle. He stepped towards it, mesmerised.
“I wouldn’t,” Mer said quietly at his collar.
“Hm?” Massington looked around.
“Be ye a reader of minds, a collector of dreams, a […] pathways lost?” Adithol asked, noticing the Molran’s fascination with the little fountain of red light. Now that he was looking, Massington saw several more of the rounded, horn-and-handles-affixed pieces of metal arranged on the ground under that shelf, but none of them had any light coming from them. No, wait … one of them did, a feeble red haze around the mouth of the horn, all but guttering out. What is this place? “Hark! ‘Twould be best ne’er to lay thy hands against yon […] surely you would be […].”
Massington decided he didn’t want to know what would happen if he touched the object. “Is it radioactive?” he asked Mer.
“Not exactly,” Mer replied. “It probably wouldn’t do anything to you, but the artefacts have been known to do strange things to humans with latent telepathic abilities.”
“Telepathic abilities?” Massington murmured.
“Ah!” Adithol said with another flash of its teeth. “Speak ye a-certain with Sage Osrai.”
“Osrai…?” Massington blinked, then nodded. “Yes,” he said, finally beginning to feel as though he was catching up. He remembered what the machine mind had told him about its Earthly instance. “We call it Mer. The machine mind.”
“Aye,” Adithol nodded. “Manifold are the things he knoweth.”
Oh boy, he said ‘knoweth’, Massington thought. Not for the first time, it occurred to him that his father really should be the one who’d landed here. “So, please,” he went on, “can you tell me-”
This was when his ears detected a change in the ambient sound.
The city’s vague machinery-noise had faded when they’d stepped into the warehouse’s cool interior, but Massington had still been able to hear it, rising and falling like some great cardiovascular engine. Occasional clanks and crashes and grinding sounds punctuated the mechanical drone. Now, however, he became aware of a more regimented clanking – heavy metallic footsteps, he thought, on the artificial stone of the warehouse floor. And then, just as he was asking can you tell me, they emerged.
There were two of them, huge robotic things in clanking armour, steam hissing from their crudely-articulated joints. They stamped across, moving on short metal-plate-coated legs and assisting themselves with great heavy-gauntleted arms, and stopped in front of Massington and the three humans. And Massington realised several things at once.
They weren’t robots. And they weren’t puffing steam. It was frost vapour. And he’d seen these gigantic things before.
They were aki’Drednanth.
“What,” he said faintly.
“Hark!” Adithol said, and gestured towards the enormous suited figures as if Massington could possibly have missed them. “Friend Massington Karturi-Captain, here are Big Thundering Bjørn and Fat Tuesday.”
“They are the Þurs,” Adithol said proudly. “They are the Ogres.”