Day 35. 117 pages, 52,054 words. Halfway point.
The two aki’Drednanth – no, not aki’Drednanth; Ogres, they were Ogres, whatever that meant – conferred with the humans in Gund for a few moments, while Massington attempted to regain his bearings.
“Are you in a position to explain any of this, Mer?” he asked the machine mind. “Or Osrai, if you like. Since we’re here.”
“Mer is fine,” Mer said in amusement. “Big Thundering Bjørn and Fat Tuesday aren’t really aki’Drednanth. Well, they’re related, in the same way Molren and Blaren and Bonshooni are related, only more distantly. At some point in the distant past, they came to Earth. Or these are an older progenitor species, and the aki’Drednanth of the Five Species moved on to inhabit the Great Ice in the galactic Core. It doesn’t really matter. The aki’Drednanth of the Great Ice developed their capacity to exist as a non-corporeal collective, their telepathic lives more real to them than their flesh existence.”
“And these ones?”
“Oh, these big lads went the other way. Or stayed the way they were all along. They’re most emphatically not telepathic, they don’t have a shared consciousness, and they don’t communicate with one another on a gestalt level. They barely even communicate using Gund, if you must know the truth,” it said affectionately. “It’s mostly grunts and punching. They are immortal, though. Or at least so long-lived as to make it a moot point. They don’t reincarnate from the Drednanth into the aki’Drednanth the way your Five Species version is theorised to do. They just … heal, and hibernate, and carry on. Bjørn and Tuesday here are older than I am. Older than Osrai, that is. Older than Mer. Older than any civilisation I … well.”
“Old enough to tell us what exactly is going on with this crazy world?”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Mer advised. “Their memories don’t extend back the way Drednanth memories apparently do. Not that Drednanth mass-memories are much use either, with all the interpretation needed and the cultural gaps … but these are even worse. They’re patchy. They come and go according to their physiological revitalisation. And everything in between is like … like events seen through a heavy mist, by a young child, from some completely alien world.”
“So not factually sound.”
“You said ‘lads’,” Massington went on hesitantly. “Our aki’Drednanth all use the female pronoun because their genders are irrelevant.”
“Well, Bjørn and Tuesday are definitely boys,” Mer said.
The conference between the humans and the Ogres seemed to have run its course – indeed, Massington had noticed in his peripheral hearing that it seemed to have gone in circles a couple of times while he’d been talking with Mer. The big fellows didn’t seem to be particularly bright. The humans turned back to Massington with tooth-exposing smiles, and the pair of Ogres raised armoured hands to their enormous gunmetal helmets and unlatched them. With a roll of frigid steam, Big Thundering Bjørn and Fat Tuesday bared their heads.
They were definitely some relative to the Five Species aki’Drednanth. The pale, shaggy fur was the same, the huge shovel-jaws and rows of long, curved, age-chipped tusks, the small crystalline eyes down at the junction of head and neck near the openings of their crude freezer-suits. There were some differences – the Ogres’ heads were slightly smaller, and they had small, thick, curving horns above their eyes – but Massington had only seen two aki’Drednanth out of their suits in his entire life. For all he knew, all the male ones had horns.
“Hello,” he said with a nervous wave.
Big Thundering Bjørn raised a gauntlet in a mimicking gesture. He was the one Massington had assumed was Big Thundering Bjørn, anyway – the one Adithol had seemed to be pointing at when he made the introductions. And he was noticeably larger than the other, although both Ogres were considerably taller than Massington and immensely broader, contributing all the more to the three humans looking rather puny amidst the stacks and shelves.
“‘lo,” Big Thundering Bjørn rumbled, the word coming mushily through the frosty grey lips and the wall of tusks, but quite intelligibly. That was when another thing Mer had told him filtered through to Massington’s overwrought brain. They barely even communicate using Gund, if you must know the truth…
“They speak Gund,” he blurted. “They can speak. They can speak? Without a manual transcription device? I thought aki’Drednanth vocal cords and palates-”
“You’re going to have to get used to saying Ogre,” Mer advised. “It’s not hard, you know. It’s got half the syllables of aki’Drednanth.”
“The number of syllables really isn’t the issue.”
“Different physiology allows them a limited verbal range,” Mer said, “and limited … cognitive faculties afford them a somewhat stunted vocabulary. Their warmth-adaptedness may have something to do with it: Ogres can survive quite comfortably in temperatures all the way up to just-above-freezing. They get sluggish and tend to fall asleep when it gets warmer, but they don’t suffer permanent damage. Nothing they can’t recover from, anyway, with a bit of rest and rejuvenation. The suits are for comfort, mostly. And it helps them to … pass themselves off as robots, or statues, or what have you. Deniability.”
Massington could also hear, now that he was listening for it, the low mutter of another voice speaking in Gund. It was coming from a device that Katter Boylson, the faeces-archive human, was holding in its hand. Presumably this was Osrai, and it was explaining things about the Five Species to the Earthlings just as it was explaining the Earthlings to him. He was moderately curious to know what Osrai was telling them about Molren, but not upset about it. On this level, in this situation, the machine mind’s protocols about sharing information seemed inapplicable, and Massington wasn’t about to argue with that.
“Wait,” he back-tracked suddenly. “They can live in warmer climates, and that means their brains aren’t as crystalline and intricate as those of the aki’Drednanth. So they’re … well, a bit thicker.”
“Right. They have to get by with the usual organic fall-back,” Mer said in amusement. “Which seems to be a lump of fat with a lot of blood running through it, unless I’m mistaken.”
“Yeah yeah. You also said they used the suits to hide.”
“I did say that, didn’t I?”
“Hide from whom?”
“Well, from the humans, of course,” Mer replied.
“Aside from this little cult who look after the warehouse, nobody on Earth knows Bjørn and Tuesday are even here,” Mer explained. “Any more than they know about me,” it laughed. “Can you imagine how quickly they’d all lose their minds if they found them? Doesn’t bear thinking about.”