Magdus folded his upper arms, planted his lower fists on his hips, and gave an appreciative whistle. In spite of really, really not wanting to be, he found he was impressed.
“Mighty pretty,” he congratulated Stansgaard. “Don’t quite get how it proves you’re a Vahoon and I’m not an idiot, but she’s mighty pretty.”
“You should have seen her in her prime,” Strangle said sadly. “She’s lived the cora laar since then, sorry to say.”
“What is she? Shuttle? Fighter? Doesn’t really look like either one,” Magdus circled the elegant nose of the ship and the heavy, scarred block of … well, some sort of engine component, that arguably detracted somewhat from the overall aesthetic. He knew pretty when he saw it, but would be the first to admit he didn’t have much experience with starships. “She’s not a prototype like the Þurskip. They didn’t make any more prototypes after the retrofit started.”
“No,” Stansgaard replied. “She doesn’t have a classification. Not one you’d recognise. She’s one of a kind.”
“The Fleet only builds vessels of standardised classifications…” Magdus said, then paused. “She’s not made by the Fleet at all,” he whispered. “Is she human?”
“Ah,” Stansgaard smiled sidelong at Magdus, then went back to looking up at his ship. “That’s where we begin to get to the point.”
“Humans didn’t build her,” Stansgaard said. “Humans didn’t build a lot of the things they have down there. In fact, they didn’t really know what they had. Which made it all even more convenient for us – politically speaking.”
It was actually easier to accept that some other non-Fleet dumblermar had constructed the vessel than to countenance the possibility that the adys oko had. Let alone some fantastical ancient ancestors thereof, as some of the Fleet xenopologists were fond of speculating. But that still left a very pressing follow-up question. “Then who did build her?” Magdus demanded.
Stansgaard made another of those curiously rehearsed-looking gestures. Let’s put that line of discussion on hold for the moment. “She’s been the source of the Fleet’s eyes-closed plausible-deniability inspiration,” he said. “For the retrofit. Getting you back into Cursèd’s Playground as quickly and tidily as possible.”
Magdus took note of that you. There were strict agreements about where the Worldships of the Fleet flew. Not even the Blaren were questioning that. Not even the Separatists. Some had tried. Some had gone against the Fleet’s decision. The aki’Drednanth had put an end to it. Not that there’d been much fight left in anyone, after the First Feast.
If Strangle was harbouring some intention of defying Fleet protocols and policy, Magdus didn’t want to know about it. “You reverse-engineered the Worldship relative field generators using this?” he asked. If he squinted, he could sort of see it. The ship did have large grey-black bumper extensions that could have been some kind of relative torus. To be honest, they looked retrofitted onto this ship too.
“To an extent. Of course a lot of it we figured out on our own, and we’ve been steadily improving since the commissioning of the Þurskip. Certainly things have progressed in – pardon the expression – leaps and bounds since Margan Karturi’s first disastrous attempt. I mean, we don’t destroy solar systems hardly at all when we decelerate out of relative speed now.”
Magdus spared Strangle a narrow look. “I thought all the Þurskip data came from Earth,” he said, “not a weird secret prototype. And certainly not from Margan’s time.”
“A certain amount was made possible by the science corps and the Vanjing think-tank,” Stansgaard agreed, “but scaling up for Fleet requirements … it may have escaped your notice, but we have a bit of a power generation problem that the humans don’t have to worry about.”
“Because they’re living on a giant slab of pure energy,” Magdus grunted.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was pure, but yes,” Stansgaard said easily. “Bridnaks will only get us so far. Which is why this is as much about the transpersion plant as it is about the relative generator. Getting the Worldships moving without turning them into giant ghost-filled geodes like the Shoo, or needing to tow a second Worldship full of Bridnaks behind each one,” he gestured at the ship. His ship, Magdus was prepared to accept for the time being. Although it seemed preposterous that any non-officer, non-aki’Drednanth, would just be given such a thing. Even a Vahoon. “She’s the convenient template we’ve used so we didn’t need to go begging to the humans or admit to ignorance too much. Imagine the shame, the ignominy.”
“Doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“We jest, but it’s the simple truth,” Stansgaard said seriously. “The Fleet Council of Captains will allow us to commit just about any violation of the Twin Species Social Code in the name of avoiding being beholden to the monkeys. As long as nobody asks. Nobody questions. As long as they don’t have to ever see their dirty deeds held up in front of their pristine innocent faces.”
At least he was back to saying us, Magdus reflected. The less said about the rest of his pronouncements, however, the better. “Can you be demoted from Vahoon to Blaran?” he asked. “This conversation is starting to sound like a good way to find out.”
“Ah yes,” Stansgaard said, “I did sort of imply that I was about the get to the point about that whole Vahoon thing, didn’t I?”
“You did very heavily imply that,” Magdus said, “and we’re none of us getting any younger.”
“A little cruel, coming from a Primer,” Stansgaard said with injured dignity, “but I’ll allow it. Very well. What would you say if I were to tell you, Magdus Foylaa, that I am a Vahoon – that it is the quite literal truth? That the legends are simple fact? And that, at the same time, they are absolute shooey from beginning to end, and I am just a regular – albeit clever, and admittedly a bit on the ungainly side – Molran?”
“I’d say you were clearly dragging your feet in circles around the damn point,” Madgus said, “in the hopes that I would figure it out based on the clues you’re dropping, but it looks like I’m destined to disappoint you.”
“Ah,” Stansgaard put on a mournful expression. “Disappointment may be my lot in life, it’s true. I’ve done my best to come to terms with that.
“Very well,” he repeated, brightening, and turned back to look up at the bizarre, lovely, damaged vessel. “I will cease to drag my feet around the point, then, and I will do so using my ship as an illustration. But first, if you will indulge me just one more time … tell me, have you heard the human myth about the Sun Thief, and Zed of the Silent Spaces?”