Day 25. 85 pages, 41,975 words.
The humans stiffened and their eyes widened, and Katter Boylson bounced to his feet with an exclamation that Massington took to be outrage. At the same time, completely overwhelming whatever paltry reaction the primates were displaying, both Fat Tuesday and Big Thundering Bjørn roared in bestial fury. The two Ogres surged forward and upright and slammed their gauntleted hands on the table hard enough to make it shudder and bounce – testimony to its superior workmanship – all while uttering the most dreadful deep-throated growls imaginable.
Massington had never been on the wrong end of an angry aki’Drednanth, and had never planned to be. His current situation, knowing what he did about this odd subspecies, was a far more alarming prospect.
It was all over rather quickly, although the tension took a great deal longer to pass. It was just that, when two of the people who were upset with you were Ogres, it tended to dominate the overall atmosphere far more than it logically should. As to the dictates of logic, however … Bjørn and Tuesday were really enraged, so the logical thing to do was to be very, very worried about those two individuals in particular.
Truck had reacted quickly, rising and half-interposing herself between Bjørn and Massington, not quite extending a hand to push at the rumbling Ogre. Massington knew, instinctively, that if she had actually made contact with Bjørn, there would definitely have been a fight and he had no desire to see that. He wondered if Truck would even be capable of subduing an Ogre, let alone two of them. Almost certainly not physically, he thought – and probably not mentally, given the abrupt nature of their introduction to the aki’Drednanth. Were their brains familiar enough for her to get inside? Too primitive to affect? Would she even try? Massington knew that aki’Drednanth might fight – indeed, they did fight, a lot – but they only used their esoteric psychic abilities on one another in the most exceptional and culturally-circumscribed of situations.
While the Ogres raged and Truck attempted to face them down, Adithol Wren had leaned forward urgently and begun talking in loud, fast Gund. Mer, or Osrai, also started to babble swiftly. Boriel Belal, meanwhile, sat and stared in trembling horror at Massington and the argovision picture-box in turn.
Slowly, one looming grunt of menace and unclenching fist at a time, peace reasserted itself on the mixed Earth folk. Massington sat quite still, all four hands flat on the tabletop, and kept his eyes meekly on the platter of cakes. He was determined – and quite happy – to stay that way until further notice.
“A misunderstanding I should have foreseen,” Mer said, “I’m very sorry. It didn’t even occur to me. After months and months of lexicon-building and cultural analysis, this should never have gotten through the screening process. The Xidh word we use for the robotic avatars of the Fergunak … on Earth, the term has survived as a … an extraordinarily vulgar and superstitiously hostile curse. Indeed, it is so virulently antagonistic that it is almost never used in broadcasts, which is why it passed unnoticed in our studies. Needless to say, I am passing on a surreptitious but very urgent message to the party in Detroit, and to the rest of the Fleet, to not under any circumstances use the term until we can introduce and talk about the Fleet’s modern Xidh usage in a measured and inoffensive manner. I am confident that this will make an excellent diplomatic example in time, illustrating how a word can have the power to create such tension and misunderstanding … for now, however, I think such tensions and misunderstandings should be minimised.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Massington said unsteadily. Mer hadn’t really explained, yet, how the humans spoke archaic Xidh in the first place, but he wasn’t about to start throwing accusations around now. “Please let our friends know that I have absolutely no knowledge of the negative meanings of the word, which incidentally I will never say out loud again and may in fact have just spontaneously forgotten.”
Adithol sat back in his chair with a shaky little exhalation that might have been a laugh, as the Ogres settled on their haunches with continuing low rumbles and Katter slumped back into his seat. “That, this … yea, most unfortunate,” he said, and mopped a glistening nervous excretion from the skin of his head. “Yea, most unfortunate indeed, my friend.”
“I’m sorry,” Massington said. “Of course, I had no idea.”
“The … the giela,” Adithol said, lowering his voice almost to a whisper as he spoke the wicked word, “is a thing most dark and terrible, a God forcèd into flesh, an expression of the will of the Imprisonèd Infinite. It is the warped and twisted homunculus of an evil so abiding and foul that it has infected the very bones of humanity and driven us from the graces of the Pinian Brotherhood.”
“Oh,” Massington said, as calmly as he could given his total confusion. “Well, um, not that one,” he pointed at the argovision. “That one is a remote-controlled ambulatory collection of sensors and transmitters with a pair of manipulator arms, so a big fish can interact with landbound species,” he paused, thinking, while Mer translated this for added certainty. “Not a very nice fish, though,” he conceded, “so there might be a grain of common etymology there…”
“Not helping, Mass,” Mer said softly into Massington’s communicator.
“Sorry,” Massington raised his voice. “I’m sorry. I apologise for this misunderstanding.”
Adithol waved it aside, although he still seemed shaken. “It was […] mere surprise,” he said, and Massington appreciated the evidently-more-than-trivial stretching of the truth. “For the Þurs, in greater part, ‘tis a word of great import, for their memories extend far into the mists of time and […] origins […] the Angels fell and […] was sealed away beyond the eyes of man in the Prison Angelic and […] yea, e’en before those dark times, to the rule of […].”
“Don’t like giela,” Big Thundering Bjørn summarised in a growl, his battered metal helmet turned towards Massington in a decidedly unfriendly way.
“This is going to make the Fergunak way more difficult to introduce than we’d initially expected,” Massington noted.
“That thought had occurred to me,” Mer replied.