“Captain?” Galana tapped on the comms panel again. “Captain Hartigan?” there was no response. She looked up at the ceiling. “Computer,” she said, “is the Captain awake?”
“Not fully,” the Conch replied smoothly. “I have begun the process of waking him up with a priority alert, but you know how the Captain is before he has his zolo.”
“Perhaps he can bring his zolo to the bridge,” Galana suggested, “and the current situation will help to wake him up a little faster.”
“I was not aware of a situation, Commander,” the computer said.
“Yes,” Galana said, “that is part of the situation. External sensors and several key computer channels have been … interfered with somehow. We are descending towards an unknown planet, and unless Basil joins us on the bridge I will be forced to separate the Nella in the hopes that the rest of the ship can regain orbit. We can of course do this without the Captain on board, but ‑ ”
“Alright, alright Fen, I’m up, what is it?” Hartigan, still in his dressing gown and holding a large glass of blue-black zolo in one hand, shambled onto the bridge. He had also stepped into his uniform boots, although the overall effect was somehow shabbier than if he’d gone barefoot. “What are we ‑ ” he stopped next to Bonty, who was staring out of the for’ard viewscreens, and stared along with her.
“Captain,” Galana reported, “we are being towed into a landing pattern, and I doubt the Conch will survive planetfall seeing as how it is designed purely for space travel. Recommend we detach the Nella and have Scrutarius and Wicked Mary pull the main body of the ship back into orbit.”
“Yes, but Fen,” Hartigan pointed. “What ‑ ”
“We have to do it soon, and we have to do it almost entirely manually,” Galana added, “because something has disrupted the Conch’s computer control over key systems. If we don’t act soon, the whole ship will be dragged down.”
“What are they?” Hartigan demanded, waving his glass at the viewscreen. Zolo slopped onto the floor of the bridge.
Galana turned and looked at the screens, at the large curve of planet rapidly flattening out into a landscape below them, and the pair of huge, pale creatures apparently gripping the ship between them and guiding it downwards. “Oh,” she said, “they would appear to be the local life-forms, Captain.”
“We have not currently made contact with them,” Chillybin added from the Comms console, “but they seem … if not hostile, then at least neutral in a way that is very likely to kill us all.”
They stood, human and Molran, Bonshoon and aki’Drednanth, and gazed out at the enormous beasts on either side of the main screen.
“Finally,” Hartigan said in delight, “dragons.”
“I’m not sure what you’re so happy about, Captain,” Galana said. “Wasn’t the star serpent more than enough dragon for you?”
“That was a great big weird alien energy anomaly,” Hartigan said dismissively. He sat down at the helm, still wearing his dressing gown and uniform boots, still holding half a glass of zolo, and still staring enraptured out of the viewscreen. “These are … dragons.”
Galana eyed the creatures on either side of the ship. She had to admit, she was having a hard time describing them as anything else. She’d estimated they were about twice the length of the Conch, and that was about as accurate as she could be with the sensors acting up. They were gleaming white, with long scaly necks and tails, huge webbed wings, talons … they were dragons, plain and simple. How exactly they were managing to lift such enormous bodies into the air – let alone into high orbit, which was where they’d intercepted the ship – was just one of many things Galana had no idea about.
“Their precise nature is a fascinating topic for a less urgent time,” she said. “I’m detaching.”
“Hmm? Oh, oh yes,” Hartigan snapped briefly out of his daze. “Yes, of course. Detach. Get the Conch up into high orbit if you can. Dev?”
“On it, Captain,” Scrutarius said over the comm. “Of course, if they drop the Nella and grab the rest of the Conch instead, I can’t promise our Tactical Officer doesn’t have some nasty surprises ready.”
“Detaching,” Galana said. Nothing happened. “The clamps are jammed,” she reported. “Blowing emergency separation bolts,” she hit a control, there was a hollow boom and the floor shuddered, but again the Nella didn’t separate.
“Looks like they’re still with us,” Hartigan said, and gazed out at the creatures again. Between the dragons, the curve of planet flattened still further and the bright fire of atmospheric insertion flared. The creatures’ gleaming white scales appeared to be made of some sort of fireproof material. Galana supposed that made sense, for dragons.
“We’re still with you too,” Scrutarius reported tensely from engineering. “Heat shields and hull plates seem to be holding, but it’s going to get choppy. I could try to manually detach you but I suspect it’d be no more successful than the bolts.”
“Bloody Mary, status?” Hartigan asked.
“I have also experienced some network disruption, Captain,” the little mechanical giela replied from the tactical console, “but I am still in control. Would you like me to fire something a little more persuasive from the lateral turrets?”
“I would suggest we not annoy them,” Galana said. “They flew into orbit and are apparently physically dragging a starship to the ground.”
“I tend to agree,” Hartigan said.
“I am uncomfortable with not shooting them,” Wicked Mary said, “but if those are your orders … ”
“We won’t get back into orbit even if they let us go now,” Scrutarius announced. “Not without losing the toruses and half the hull. And we’ve got a belly full of water, remember.”
The giela stirred. “I am in no danger of forgetting,” she said. “If we are to crash, we should strike them with a final ‑ ”
“No,” Galana interrupted. “Right now, these … dragons … are the only thing that are going to get us to the ground in one piece. The Conch wasn’t made to land.”
“That she wasn’t,” Hartigan agreed, frowning in concern. “And what about the computer?”
“I am undamaged, Basil,” the Conch reported. “But I have now identified some issues with my sensors and data feeds. You were of course aware of them before I was, due to the nature of the shutdown but I am attempting to get to the bottom of it. It must have been an emergency action that I can no longer remember taking because the decision was locked out. Most interesting.”
“Most interesting,” Hartigan agreed, his frown deepening.
“It is an inconvenience, Basil, nothing more,” the computer went on. “It is rather like being blind.”
“Well don’t worry, old dear,” the Captain said with surprising tenderness. “We’ll be your eyes.”
The fire of atmospheric insertion faded and was replaced with the steady rumble of air roaring past the ship. Scrutarius powered down the engines and gravity plates, and let the ship play dead. The land below approached at a deceptively slow glide. Galana saw mountains and forested valleys, the gleam of water, and … she frowned and leaned forward.
One long, winding ridge of pale stone, tapering at either end, looked suspiciously like another dragon. But it couldn’t have been. They were still too far up, it would have had to be thirty times the size of the dragons carrying them down. Fifty times. That was … well, she would have said that was impossible, but Galana Fen was coming to realise that her idea of what was impossible wasn’t in possession of all the facts.
The land and water and occasional white crescent of possible-dragon swept by, seeming to speed up as they descended. As he’d promised he would, Captain Hartigan continued a low, steady description of what they were seeing, for the blind computer’s benefit.
“Coming down lower over some hills now, everything looks a bit barren now and – golly, yes, look at that – it’s burned, all of it, burned quite black, the hills are like glass … wait, there’s another dragon, and another … I say, that’s a bally big one … hang about, they’re bringing us lower, there’s something shiny on the horizon, maybe another hill? A little cluster of – of mountains perhaps? It’s – I say – I don’t know.”
Basil fell silent as the dragons on either side of them slowed, banked, and approached the huge glittering slope. Another few moments, and the Conch was grounded. The bridge rocked lightly underneath them, and came to rest at a slight slope. The ship groaned.
“The hull is holding,” Scrutarius reported with some relief.
“The reinforcement in the aquarium was very well done,” Wicked Mary’s giela complimented them.
“Alright,” Hartigan said, “we’re down, and it looks like we’re down to stay … next question is, where?”
“I think,” Galana said hesitantly, “we’ve been added to the dragons’ hoard.”
“What … ” Hartigan started, then trailed off in awe. They all stepped forward and stared out of the for’ard screens.
The Conch had been placed on the top of a hill, a foothill near the base of the mountain that was the main trove. The hills were formed of great masses of shining metal shapes and glittering polished stones. It was difficult to make out individual pieces but there appeared to be carvings, artworks, as well as heaps of smaller objects and what looked like great melted masses of raw metal. It was impossible to see the peak of the highest hill from where the ship had been laid.
“Righto,” Hartigan said. “Suggestions?”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Scrutarius joined them on the bridge. “Getting off the ground and through the atmosphere will tear us apart. The Conch wasn’t made to take off any more than she was made to land,” he glanced at the Captain. “Nice dressing gown there, Baz. Goes well with the boots.”
“We could still detach and leave in the Nella,” Galana said, “but there’s nowhere to go without the main body of the ship.”
Hartigan turned to Chillybin and made an obscure little gesture with his zolo glass. “Chilly, can you … ?”
“I can sense nothing,” Chillybin said. “This troubles me.”
“Well, doesn’t it normally take a few days for you to figure out what makes alien brains tick?”
“Yes, but I normally have some sense that there is a brain, even if it is too alien for me to recognise.”
“Nothing much for it, then,” Hartigan stood. “Let’s go out there and say hello to the dragons,” he turned from the screens and nodded to Scrutarius. “Dev, can you get the computer hooked back up?”
“I won’t know until I figure out what the actual problem is,” Scrutarius replied. “It looks like an automatic lock-out due to some kind of nearby data event, perhaps a – I don’t know, a computer of such complexity that ours had to shut down rather than risk connecting up to it. The problem is, it’s even hidden the action from itself so there’s a lot of confusion,” he shook his head. “If it’s more than just the data connections – if the computer itself is damaged, Baz, you know that’s ‑ ”
“I’m fine, Devlin,” the computer said. “Just blinkered. I think perhaps you were right about the data influx risking overload. I’ll talk you through the blind spots.”
“There, you see? Jolly good,” Hartigan patted Wicked Mary’s giela on the top of its head. “Bloody Mary, weapons options?”
“Everything except the rail cannon is operational, Captain,” Wicked Mary said, “although I am not sure how well the firing mechanisms will operate in atmosphere. Simulations look promising. I can run everything from the aquarium without the use of my giela.”
“Good, then your giela’s with me,” Hartigan said. “Fen, Chilly, you too. Bonty … if you want to come, this looks like something that’d be right up your xenobiologist alley.”
“Are you going to … change into your uniform, Captain?” Galana asked as Basil strode off the bridge.
Hartigan snorted. “Uniform’s for aliens that haven’t shipwrecked us, Fen,” he declared. “And besides, I wouldn’t want them to mistake me for a piece of treasure, what?”
“I don’t think there’s much danger of that,” Galana murmured, and followed Hartigan out.
There were no dragons in sight as they disembarked. The planet seemed hospitable enough, although it was uncomfortably hot. More, Galana thought, a result of heat rising from the ground and the metals reflecting and focussing the warmth of the sun than anything to do with the climate. They scrambled down the slope upon which the Conch was beached, and up to the next foothill along.
From there, the ship really did look like a great exotic seashell. Galana had never imagined she would see it on the ground. From the warped look of the hull plates and the damage to the subluminal engines, Scrutarius was right – they’d never manage to take off again.
Although it was a shipwreck and in all likelihood the end of their mission – and probably their lives – she had to admit it looked rather beautiful. A worthy addition to any dragon’s treasure trove.
“Are you still alright in there?” she asked Wicked Mary.
“The aquarium is holding,” the giela reported.
“Look at this stuff,” Hartigan said in excitement. “Look at these,” he’d picked up a pair of hefty discs of yellowish metal, each the size of his hand. The slope he was toiling and backsliding his way up was covered in them. “What are they? They look like old-style money-tokens, what were they called … ”
“Coins?” Galana hazarded.
“Right, coins. But they’re too big.”
“Too big for a human or a Molranoid,” Bonty said, picking up one of the discs and turning it over. One side was stamped with an unsettling spider-like shape. She held it up and pointed at the image. “Maybe these fellows were big enough to carry around a little purse of them, hmm?”
“I say, that’s reassuring,” Hartigan chuckled. He dropped one of the coins with a clunk and put the other absentmindedly into his dressing gown pocket. “D’you think the dragons brought any of them down the way they did with us? Or just their coin collection? I wonder ‑ ”
“What is that?” Wicked Mary pointed towards the pinnacle of the central treasure-mountain, which reared another thousand feet or so above them across a shining valley littered with flattened, melted-looking metal shapes. The heat rising from the cleft was positively infernal. The others shaded their eyes and looked.
“I can’t make it out,” Hartigan said. “Looks like a big spiky chap with his hand up in the air,” he squinted. “The sun’s right behind it though.”
“It’s more like a tentacle than a hand,” Galana said. The strange figure was almost humanoid from the waist up, except for its strange elongated head that not even Galana could make out in detail. Instead of legs, its body continued and swelled into a coiled serpentine mass, and its upthrust tentacle-arm was holding some kind of crystal ball. “It’s a statue, I’d say. Two, maybe three times the size of a Molran. Made out of some kind of metal. Gold?”
“Yes, gold,” Wicked Mary confirmed. “What is it holding?”
The little robot took a slow step down towards the shimmering-hot valley between their hill and the central mound.
“Tactical Officer Mary,” Galana said warningly. “The temperature in the valley ‑ ”
“It’s within my giela’s tolerances,” Wicked Mary said.
“Let’s stay together for now, eh?” Hartigan suggested. Wicked Mary continued towards the valley. “Mary?”
“I am experiencing communication issues,” the giela said. Galana recognised this as Wicked Mary’s code for I don’t want to do what the Captain says right now. “I think it is the heavy metal content in this region. If I get to the higher slopes I should be able to re-establish contact.”
“A likely bally story,” Hartigan said. Wicked Mary clicked and clattered down into the valley. “You just want to ‑ ” he paused, scowling. “Come to mention it, I don’t even know what you want to do,” he muttered, and mopped his sweaty forehead with the sleeve of his dressing gown. “Blasted Fergunak.”
“There is a dragon coming,” Chillybin announced.
“Hang on, I thought you couldn’t sense ‑ ” Hartigan started.
By then, though, Galana and Bonty had both heard it. The almost industrial sound of an enormous hard-scaled creature dragging itself swiftly across the hot metallic ground. It approached fast, swiftly reaching a volume human hearing could pick up, and rapidly became almost deafening. The temperature also increased, and Galana and the others took a few hasty steps back from the slope. Whether the heat was coming from melted metal, dragonfire, or the creature itself, it was intense.
Just before the sound and the heat reached painful levels, the huge white dragon slithered into view around the mountain, dragged itself up the valley and stopped, its neck curling back and its head rearing high above the tiny silvery shape of Wicked Mary’s giela.
The robot tilted its own head up just in time for the dragon to raise a huge foreclaw.
“I ‑ ” Wicked Mary said.
The claw came down, mashing the giela into the rest of the melted metal that made up the valley floor and obliterating it completely.
“ ‑ assume that my giela was just destroyed,” Wicked Mary continued smoothly from the comm system.
“Yes,” Galana said as calmly as she could. “Yes it was.”
“Stand by,” Bonty quavered. “We might be about to join it.”
The dragon was about the same size as the ones that had brought them down – may actually have been one of them. It was about twice the length of the Conch, plated in huge scales of white material like some sort of ceramic. The scales would have to share some properties with ceramic, Galana noted in the clinical thoughts of near-panic, just to deal with the heat. She’d thought the same thing as she watched them flame their way into the atmosphere.
Certain parts of the creature’s body, especially the rims of its vast jet-engine nostrils and its great jagged mouth, were discoloured – most likely from the even greater heat of the dragon’s fire. For some reason, the side of its immense wormlike body behind and beneath its left wing, which was all they could see from its current position, was similarly heat-scorched. Galana wondered if maybe the monster had vents, or gills of some sort to shoot more flame from beneath its wings. It would, she thought, explain how they’d managed to get airborne and even fly out into nearby space. Jet-powered, in truth.
She realised that her final moments had gone on long enough for her to start analysing the life-form, and that this might mean they weren’t her final moments after all. She looked up at the huge, mad, craggy white face of the dragon.
“You dare to approach the Idol!” the dragon’s voice was an ear-splitting roar far louder than the sound of it dragging itself through the treasure hills. Galana, Basil and Bonjamin clapped their hands to their ears, and Chillybin rocked back a little on her great armoured feet.
The voice was also speaking quite understandable Fleet-standard words.
“You’re not serious – they’re speaking Fleet too?” Hartigan exclaimed.
“It is a universal language,” Galana said doubtfully. “I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this universal, though.”
The dragon tilted its great head and rumbled threateningly, the heat from its slightly-parted jaws like an open furnace. Hartigan staggered back and Bonty slipped a hand under the human’s arm and propped him up. Even for the Molranoids, the heat was overwhelming. Galana wondered how long Chilly’s suit would hold up.
To her surprise, Hartigan pulled himself upright and held to Bonty’s arm – and, raising his voice, addressed the monster. “I am Captain Basil Hartigan of the ACS Conch,” he called in loud, clear Grand Boënne. “We are on a peaceful mission of exploration ‑ ”
“What is the mammal jabbering about?!” the dragon thundered. “Make it be silent!”
“We are peaceful explorers,” Galana switched to the Fleet language the dragon apparently understood. “We had no intention of trespassing, and if you hadn’t brought us to the surface ‑ ”
“Intruders are not allowed to leave!” the dragon interrupted once more. “We want no interference from The Centre here!”
“Did it just say something about the Core?” Hartigan asked. “I think I heard the word for ‘centre’ in there, didn’t I?”
Galana nodded, and raised a hand to politely forestall the floundering Captain. “We’re not from the Core, that is, The Centre,” she explained hurriedly. She attempted to adjust to the dragon’s strange phrasing on the fly. “We have nothing to do with The Centre, as a matter of ancient law.”
“We’re actually from fairly close to the edge of the galaxy ourselves,” Bonty added. “Our region of space ‑ ”
“Doctor,” Galana said warningly.
“Well, right – anyway my point is, we’re definitely not from The Centre,” Bonty continued.
“Far from it,” Galana agreed.
“Perish the thought,” Bonty added.
“We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to come here,” Galana went on, “and we would have gone on our way if you hadn’t brought us down. We didn’t want to get too close to your … your Idol either.”
“You lie!” the dragon rumbled. “You seek the glory of the Idol of Nnal! You would take the Orb for yourselves!” Galana and Bonty exchanged a shocked look – the Orb of Nnal, Galana thought, wasn’t that the relic those crazy Fergie crusaders were looking for? – and apparently the dragon was perceptive enough to recognise the look. “Ah!” it hissed, its head lowering and moving forward until Basil cried out and Galana felt her own skin blistering, “yes, your intentions are quite transparent to us!” to Galana’s relief, it reared back again. Even if it was about to crush them, it was blessedly cool as the terrible head swept back. “Even the Elder Races are like children to the Fudzu!”
It may have been the stress of the situation, but Galana almost laughed at how silly the name sounded. At least Bonty, still holding an apparently unconscious Captain Hartigan in her left arms, managed to respond more professionally than Galana had. “Fudzu – is that what you are?” she shielded her own head from the heat with her upper right arm. “We have creatures like you in some of our myths, we call you dragons ‑ ”
“Dragons,” the Fudzu echoed scornfully. “Dragons are but a shade of our kind! We ruled long before any such pale imitations crept out to play in the ruins of our empire! Dragon is just a word for inferior! Insufficient! Imitation! Such pitiful creatures would never be worthy custodians of the Idol, would never … ”
Galana once again found herself analysing while the creature ranted on. Now that Bonjamin had mentioned old myths, she did recall hearing of a thing called Fudzu before. Had it been a human myth about some kind of fire demons from unreality? A Bonshoon fable? She didn’t remember. Bonty, at least, hadn’t seemed to recognise it. She’d have to ask the others, in the unlikely event of their survival.
The Fudzu’s head snapped up further still, its diatribe trailed off, and it hissed – and at the same moment, Galana became aware of a softer sound from behind them.
The Nella had detached from the main body of the Conch and was rising into the air.
“Devlin?” Galana called into the comm.
“It’s not me,” Scrutarius reported. “The computer is still curled up and trying to hide from this alien data thing, and it looks like Wicked Mary has stepped into the gap.”
“Tactical Officer Mary?” Galana went on as the shuttle rose and began to manoeuvre sideways, away from the rumbling Fudzu but in the general direction of the pinnacle of the treasure-mountain. There was no response from Wicked Mary, and Galana had to admit she hadn’t really expected one.
The Fudzu, growling terrifyingly, reared up onto its thick hind legs and opened its jaws. Eye-jarring pink light, like nothing Galana had ever seen, played around its teeth, but fortunately the creature’s mouth was so high above them she couldn’t see inside. Even so, it looked like it could almost swallow the Nella whole.
The shuttle whispered forward … and at that moment the lateral pulse turrets on the main body of the ship still slumped on the hilltop behind them opened up. A searing broadside of weapons-fire baked across the tops of the crews’ heads and struck the Fudzu’s exposed belly.
As they’d predicted in the course of their shipwrecking, this didn’t harm the vast creature so much as annoy it – but for a couple of seconds it was very distracted. With a screech it fell back against the mountainside, its flailing legs and tail almost smashing the cowering crewmembers on the foothill. Galana looked up again in time to see the Nella dart forward, elegant and fishlike under Wicked Mary’s natural-born and cybernetically-enhanced control, and scoop the golden Idol of Nnal into the air with a pair of heavy-duty cargo claws.
“No!” the Fudzu shrieked.
It spread its wings and more unearthly pink light gathered between its scales down either side of its body. Galana had a split-second to note that she’d been correct about its jet-venting ability to provide flight power, and another split-second to realise that if it took off from the valley it was definitely going to incinerate them, when a second barrage from the Conch’s turrets hit the Fudzu. This time Wicked Mary targeted the great webbed wings themselves.
The gunfire once again didn’t do much visible damage but the Fudzu’s takeoff was botched as it was distracted and enraged a second time. Apparently the shock of seeing its precious Idol get snatched had been enough to make the Fudzu momentarily forget that the Conch was still on the ground and ready to fight.
“Fen,” Bonty cried urgently, and Galana followed her friend’s gaze. On the heat-shimmering horizon, past the edge of the treasure hoard and out over the blackened landscape beyond, the unmistakable shapes of more Fudzu were rapidly approaching. They may have still been a fair distance away, but they were coming fast – and the fact that they were already visible meant they were big. Far larger than the one that was bare moments away from flattening them.
Galana looked helplessly at their approaching doom, then turned to Bonty.
“We achieved a satisfactory percentage of our mission,” she told the wide-eyed Bonshoon.
The Fudzu straightened with a final furious lash of its tail, sending shards of hot metal and precious stones whizzing past them. The Nella, which Galana had expected to make for orbit no matter how futile that might have been, instead swept around to hover in front of and just above the snarling creature’s head. The Fudzu opened its mouth again.
“Return the ‑ ” it started.
The cargo arms unfolded, and utter stillness fell over the mountainside. One claw was holding the Idol securely near the top of the golden figure’s body, so only its tentacle-like arm and the shining crystal Orb was visible above the mechanism. The other claw was fastened to a heavy metal-composite cargo container designed for low-orbit drops.
Wicked Mary’s voice spoke then, through the comms system and from a loudspeaker in the Nella’s open cargo bay.
“I liked that giela.”
And then, in the frozen moment of absolute silence that followed the Fergunakil’s pronouncement, the cargo arms swung together. The armoured crate smashed into the Orb of Nnal, and with a powdery little sound the crystal relic exploded into a million pieces.
The silence and stillness returned after this, during which Wicked Mary opened the second claw and carelessly dropped the bent, flattened golden Idol at the Fudzu’s great white feet. It landed with a clonk, the torso part breaking away entirely from the coiled serpentine base.
Galana stood, one hand on Bonty’s back and the other on Chillybin’s painfully hot armoured arm, and waited to die.
The Fudzu’s head lowered slowly, its mad glittering eyes fixed on the smashed Idol far below. When it spoke, for the first time its voice was quiet. It was practically a whisper.
“What … ” it mumbled. “What did you do?”
“Fudzu,” Chillybin said with a deliberate movement of her gauntlet, “meet Fergunakil.”
Some hours later, the crew was gathered once again in the Captain’s quarters. The oddly reassuring grey nothingness of soft-space once again pressed in on them, and they were back underway – considerable repairs still pending, but at least they’d been able to generate a relative field.
“‘We achieved a satisfactory percentage of our mission’?” Devlin promptly, and with real outrage in his voice, got to the most important matter. “That was what you decided your last words needed to be?”
“I didn’t realise you’d heard,” Galana admitted.
“Believe me, I wish I hadn’t,” Scrutarius replied. “Mind you, could we really expect anything better from a Molran?”
“Yes we bally well could,” Hartigan, as red as a spicy ration wafer and smothered in skin-graft bandages from his experiences with the Fudzu, smacked a fist down on the arm of his couch, then added, “ouch.”
“Be careful, Captain,” Bonty said mildly. “If that skin doesn’t take, it’s going to be several very uncomfortable hours before I can brew up a new batch.”
“Fen, you will formulate a list of heroic final statements,” Basil went on, “ranging from inspirational to defiant, all of them worthy of the history books. That’s an order. Have ‘em on my desk by shipboard morning.”
“Also, the next time you lot feel like you’re getting a little bit of a sunburn from being too close to something hot, consider taking me a bit of a jolly old safe distance from it, what? I’m not wrapped in whatever wonderful preposterous bullplop you are in the skin department.”
“Yes, Captain,” Galana repeated.
“Or get me a suit like hers,” he added, waving his arm painfully at Chillybin. “My dressing gown is absolutely ruined.”
“I will start building you one immediately, Captain,” Chilly promised.
“Good,” Hartigan scratched moodily at one of the bandages on the back of his hand. “Now why in the name of Old Linda’s Handbag d’you think they let us go?”
Galana had been thinking about that. She was quite sure they all had. To say she’d been surprised would be an understatement. The Fudzu hadn’t just let them go – they had, with great care and diffidence, allowed them to return to their ship and the Nella to reattach, and had then very delicately carried them back up into orbit and released them into space like they were some kind of rare and fragile insect. And by that stage the big Fudzu had arrived. Any one of them could have wrapped a claw around the Conch and crushed it to oblivion.
“As near as I can guess, Captain,” Bonty spoke for them, “they were in shock. They couldn’t imagine anyone with a more heightened level of violence and ferocity than themselves, with such destructive disregard for its own life. They’d never encountered anything more aggressive than they were.”
“There may be a little more to it than that,” the Conch remarked. The computer had returned to normal, seemingly at the same moment Wicked Mary had smashed the Orb of Nnal and the golden Idol that had been holding it. “I was of course unable to save any of the data that had forced my lockdown, but from what we know about the Orb of Nnal, the Fergunak consider it their rightful property – their destiny, in fact.”
“Whoops,” Scrutarius said.
“Yes,” the computer agreed solemnly. “Regardless of the truth of the matter, the Fudzu may have somehow recognised that Wicked Mary was the rightful owner of their sacred relic, and as such she had the right to keep it or destroy it as she pleased.”
“I was also unable to absorb much of the data that was apparently built into the Orb,” Wicked Mary’s voice said from the comm system. She was the only one who was not technically present, since even the option of attending the gathering through her giela was now gone. They’d offered to hold the get-together down on the aquarium deck, but the great shark had politely declined. She would, she said, immediately get to work building a new giela. Galana had already made a mental note to keep an eye on that project. Just in case.
“But you absorbed some information?” she asked.
“Not exactly, little flesh,” Wicked Mary replied. “The Orb itself was empty – just a hollow vessel. What it was supposed to contain, and the data that might have been somehow encoded into the crystal … that is what I may still be able to learn, given time to study the brief flashes I was able to save.”
“You know, if you’d held onto the Orb, you could have studied it at a bit more leisure,” Bonty pointed out.
“The Fudzu would almost certainly have incinerated us if she had tried,” Galana said, when the silence had extended long enough to convince her that Wicked Mary was simply too flabbergasted by the idea to respond. To a Fergunakil, quite simply, not destroying the most precious cultural relic of a civilisation responsible for mildly inconveniencing her was just utterly incomprehensible.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Hartigan said. “If we ever run into those Fergies – what were they called again? The Searching, Starving, Lost?”
“They’re the ones,” Bonty agreed.
“Let’s maybe not tell them that Bloody Mary smashed their Orb,” Hartigan suggested. “Hm?”
“Excellent notion, young Basil,” Chillybin said, deadpan behind her envirosuit helmet.