Day 51. 64 pages, 30,172 words.
The dome was dimly-lit, and felt dank and wet even though it had long since been drained and cleared. The floor was discoloured and the viewing panels had only been partially replaced, leaving a lot of heavy plating that increased the space’s resemblance to some sort of subaquatic structure or vehicle.
Pod 9 didn’t have any of the requisite experience to know what a subaquatic structure or vehicle would look like, but the instinctive feeling was nevertheless persistent. As he followed Happy Gretchen into the shadowy chamber and the distance between himself and the door increased, so too did his uneasiness. When Happy Gretchen stopped, and he came abreast of her to confront Happyface’s mysterious guest, his uneasiness became full-blown, albeit fleeting alarm.
For a split-second, the figure in front of them looked like a hull breach. In the gloom of the poorly-lit dome, the combination of jet-black skin and glittering silvery markings looked like a Molran-shaped gash in the hull, despite the fact that they were standing a good distance from the intersection of dome and deck. The dark shape was not composed of star-speckled space, however. His gleaming black skin was decorated with an assortment of symbols and lines and geometric shapes, nothing really like stars at all. In the place of Molranoid ears, the Blaran – he could only be a Blaran, with such outlandish augmentations – sported a pair of thick, curled silver horns.
He looked slender and delicate even next to Pod 9, let alone Happy Gretchen. Slender, delicate, and terribly vulnerable in his complete nakedness. But – and this was something Pod 9 did have the requisite experience to assert – he stood with more self-assurance than any naked person had a right to. If a man could cloak himself in the cold inevitability of death in space, Pod 9 thought, here was a man who had done just that.
“Pod 9,” Happy Gretchen said, and there were worryingly unfamiliar notes in her voice. As unfamiliar as the giddiness in her mental aspect. “Grendel’s Grief, most recently of Corp Sci’s Graham Stover-Quigley. Grief, Pod 9, of the Children of Jathan.”
When Grendel’s Grief spoke, it was with an entirely normal Molranoid voice. “When Gretchen says ‘most recently of Corp Sci’s Graham Stover-Quigley‘, she makes it sound far more like I was a crewmember than a prisoner in their brig, which is nice of her but unnecessary. Pleasure to meet you, Pod 9,” he said, then turned strange silvery eyes on Happy Gretchen. “The Children of Jathan?”
“Our understanding is that it is an institution of sorts-” Happy Gretchen explained.
“I know about Jathan’s Carbuncle,” Grief shocked Pod 9 by interrupting her. Pod 9 wasn’t sure he’d ever heard somebody interrupt Happy Gretchen.
“No,” she said, barely even sounding irritated by the impertinence, “the original school. The pre-Twin-Species institution, from the lost homeworld-”
“That’s a myth,” Grief said, guaranteeing his place in Pod 9’s personal history books. He’d definitely never heard somebody interrupt Happy Gretchen twice. “You might as well say he’s a Vahoon from the city in the middle of the universe.”
“You’re very sceptical, Grief,” Happy Gretchen said, “for someone who came barrelling into my cho’gule with tall tales about aki’Drednanth murderers and Fergunakil ghosts and Damorakind super-weapons.”
“That’s fair, that’s fair,” Grendel’s Grief acknowledged. “So,” he stepped forward and studied Pod 9. “I hear you have a remarkable talent for reading moods – and for doing certain other things, if you have the right … equipment.”
“I think,” Pod 9 said, “maybe yes.”
“What am I feeling right now?” Grendel’s Grief asked.
Pod 9 blinked uncertainly.
“Sceptical…?” he hazarded.
Happy Gretchen gave an audible sigh while Grendel’s Grief laughed. “You know perfectly well that he doesn’t operate this way,” she said, “and even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to affect you. I doubt even an aki’Drednanth could.”
“Perhaps not,” Grendel’s Grief said seriously, although there was still a chuckle in his voice. “Sleet may not have been trying very hard, though. I think she liked me.”
“Pod 9’s services will be available to you after our transaction is complete, and not before,” Happy Gretchen declared.
“Our transaction is complete,” Grendel’s Grief said calmly. “If it turns out Pod 9 can’t help me, I’ll take back the schematics I’ve given you.”
“The schematics were offered in exchange for a meeting with Pod 9,” Happy Gretchen finally began to sound irritated. “Here he is.”
“Yes,” Grendel’s Grief said, “and the schematics I gave you have critical procedural back-loops in them. You’ll never untangle them without my key. Which I will give you when I am satisfied that Pod 9 can do the job I have for him. I will be on my way, and you will be a power in the near arm. A permanent power.”
“And you are sure?” Happy Gretchen asked. If Pod 9 had to guess – and he generally did – he would have said that she was not so much unhappy with the convoluted deal-making the black-and-silver Blaran was performing, as she was … regretful. And worried. It was very puzzling. “You are sure you want to do this?”
“Frankly no,” Grendel’s Grief replied, “but I made a promise and this is one of the ones I intend to keep. Whatever the cost. Believe me when I say I have my reasons. And I’m not going back to the Storm’s Eye. Don’t worry,” he went on, “the grey fire will be yours, as agreed.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about, Grief,” Happy Gretchen said. “I’m worried you’ve finally lost your mind.”
“Ah, well, you can set your mind at ease on that score. Now,” Grendel’s Grief took another slow step towards Pod 9, and extended his lower hands. The silvery patterns on his lower left forearm uncoiled and for a moment it was as though the entire limb was peeling open and unwinding like a … Pod 9 didn’t know what it was like.
The Blaran withdrew something, a pearly shape tapered at both ends, about the length of a Molranoid hand. He held it delicately between the gleaming black fingers of his lower hands.
“What is?” Pod 9 asked.
“Well, you remember how Gretchen mentioned Fergunakil ghosts a moment ago?” Grendel’s Grief said. Pod 9 nodded, and Grendel’s Grief’s smile widened. His teeth were also silver, or perhaps they just looked that way in the darkness. “This is one of them. His name, appropriately enough, is Deadflesh.”