Day 106. 117 pages, 50,114 words.
The thing that emerged from the gastroclave was difficult to make out, at best a shadowy silhouette that humped up in front of the interface’s pale glow. It was shapeless, rounded, somewhat less than knee-high, and appeared to have a pair of doughy forelimbs which it used to pull itself along. Its surface seemed smooth and slick, and its colouration a pale grey – although that might have just been the interface itself. The misprint appeared to have crawled from the machine’s produce slot above and to one side of the interface like any other piece of food, and then slid down onto the floor. Predericon was just as happy not to be able to see it very clearly.
It slithered quietly away across the floor towards the darker shadows, stopping at Predericon’s pack. A lumpy forelimb reached for the bag and she heard a wet snuffling sound. Whether from some organ at the end of the limb or somewhere on the main body, she couldn’t tell.
The misprint probed and snorted at her pack for a while, but was apparently unable to get it open. Either that, or it was unwilling to try. After a few more seconds it made a low, hauntingly sentient mewling sound and dragged itself around the pack, deeper into the darkness. Thinking that this must represent a sluggish and harmless example of its kind, but willing to accept that initial appearances and impressions could be deceiving and that she was ultimately ignorant, Predericon cautiously stepped over to the gastroclave.
“You don’t seem to have a passenger profile,” the interface murmured blithely. “Would grwzzzz me to grwzzzz for you?”
Predericon waited for the misprint, which was now a barely-visible lump on the far side of the gastroclave, to launch itself head-height at terrifying speed, or perhaps swell to ten times its original size or unfold to reveal it was full of razor-sharp teeth. It did none of those things, just continued to slither around and let out the occasional phlegmy yowl.
“Yes please,” Predericon breathed, and tapped the interface. This time, there didn’t seem to be a processing job in line to interfere with the initiation of the profile.
“This will only take grwzzzz minutes,” the gastroclave assured her.
“Help me no.”
Predericon froze, staring at the barely-visible shape of the misprint on the far side of the room. The words, high and warbly and childlike, had without doubt come from the same source as the mewling. And they had also been completely intelligible, and relatively modern, and Xidh.
“Do you … understand me?” she was powerless to avoid whispering to the listlessly-moving thing.
Maybe it was just a random selection of phrases, she mused optimistically. Something out of the gastroclave’s lexicon, or some recording from a previous user that had been glitched into the misprint’s central nervous system, and hooked up haphazardly to its rudimentary vocal organs.
This supposition struck Predercon as insanely unlikely, but there had to be some explanation and supposition was very much her research brief lately. Unless the gastroclave had once been capable of producing fully-sentient life-forms for consumption, and had then been scrambled by the general degeneration of Segment Thirteen until the misprints were all that could-
“No no no you can’t you mustn’t don’t.”
Predericon sighed to herself, then leaned over the interface to check its progress. It appeared to be almost done, although this too was an optimistic guess.
“Don’t put me in there?” the misprint’s voice was suddenly a lot closer, and Predericon looked up to see it had dragged itself back towards the gastroclave. It was still safely on the far side of the device, if safely was the right term … but it had slithered across the floor with unexpected speed, and quietly. “Don’t don’t,” it added in a piping, inquisitive tone. “No don’t?” it prodded at the side of the gastroclave with its forelimbs, and Predericon got a closer look at the ends of the stumpy appendages. They were textured, covered in hair or cilia, but there was a gleam of something else inside the puckered tips. Teeth, or claws, or something. It was almost a relief to see something conventionally dangerous in the entity. “Please no you can’t.”
She watched the misprint in helpless fascination. A moment later it withdrew and slithered back into the shadows once more, and the gastroclave interface winked.
“All grwzzzz,” it said. “Would you like to check out your grwzzzz before grwzzzz to eat?”
“Reset gastroclave system,” Predericon whispered.
“Resetting,” the gastroclave declared. “See grwzzzz while.”
Predericon swore under her breath as the interface dimmed, then went out altogether. Utter velvety blackness swept back in from the edges of the chamber.
“No help no,” the misprint warbled. Was it closer? Had it moved so the gastroclave was no longer between them? Or was that the work of her anxious imagination?
Predericon edged back again, groping for her pack. Her right hands found it, and fumbled it open. She lifted a cake from the top of her supply.
“Please don’t?” This time the voice was definitely closer.
She tossed the cake blindly towards the source of the sound.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while walking to the metro.