“What’s going on, old girl?” Captain Hartigan asked as they took their places on the bridge. “We’re not due to come out of the grey for another three weeks, are we?”
“No, Captain,” the Conch said formally, “but we have received a signal.”
“A signal?” Galana frowned. “In soft-space?”
“It is like no technology I’ve ever encountered, and yet it is somehow compatible with our own,” the Conch said. “It seems to be some kind of pulse, introducing a … potential change in our field configuration.”
“What does that mean?” Hartigan demanded.
“It means that we can acknowledge this signal and allow it to alter our relative field, curving our flight path. Or we can ignore it, make no change in our course, and continue on our way.”
“The complexity of changing course in the middle of a relative jump … ” Galana shook her head.
Hartigan also looked troubled, but he held up a hand to hold off Galana’s objections. “Where will this magical soft-space ship magnet leave us when we pop out of the grey?” he asked.
“Unknown,” the Conch said, a little irritably. “The calculations, as Commander Fen says, are very complex and I can only make an estimation – somewhere within a volume containing several star systems. We did not perform any analyses of them beyond adding them to our charts, because we hadn’t planned on visiting them.”
“I will see if I can narrow it down,” Wicked Mary said. “Relative speed trajectories are … kind of our thing.”
“It is, if nothing else, definitely the work of an intelligent entity,” the Conch said. “There is no known natural way for such an interaction to work within soft-space.”
“No known natural way,” Bonty echoed.
“Indeed,” the Conch agreed. “If it is a natural phenomenon, it completely rewrites what we know about soft-space and relative speed travel. Even being artificial, it challenges a lot of our assumptions.”
“Sounds like a pretty compelling reason to check out the new coordinates,” Hartigan said. “How far off-course will it take us?”
“A short distance further in from the galactic rim than we otherwise would have gone,” the Conch replied, “but not significantly off the plotted course of our circumnavigation. We would lose days, I think, rather than weeks or months. Of course, it depends on where specifically it leaves us, and how much we are delayed by whatever awaits us there.”
“You think a trick like this is more likely to be friendly or hostile?” Hartigan asked.
“Unsure,” the Conch replied.
“It appears to be a request for contact,” Galana said. “My immediate assumption is that a hostile species would not invite visitors in such a way … but we have been drawn in and trapped by hostile life-forms before. I think, given how alien this technology is to us, it would be impossible to predict the psychology behind it. And yet, it was familiar enough to be compatible with our field, which may support any assumption we make about its motives-”
“Fen, if you don’t know then just say you don’t know,” Hartigan advised.
“Of course I don’t know,” Galana replied in surprise. “I thought you were calling for wild speculation.”
“I think it is a cry for help,” Chillybin said. “I cannot pick up any minds in soft-space,” she added, before anyone could ask, “but a distress call in the grey would have to include some way of helping a passing ship to find the location. Otherwise there would be little point to it.”
“I agree,” Wicked Mary said.
“Well, I for one am agog with curiosity,” Hartigan declared. “Let’s go and say hello.”
It was another week to the system to which the Conch had been redirected. In that time, they didn’t learn anything else about the signal. Speculation ran wild, and they performed as many emergency drills as Basil and Galana felt were necessary, but there really wasn’t much they could do to prepare.
Finally the day arrived and they all gathered on the bridge.
“It is an ordinary-looking solar system,” the Conch reported as they emerged from soft-space. “No big tech in orbit around the planets or the sun. Only one planet appears to be habitable. Some small technology signatures on the surface, nothing too complex.”
“Anything that looks like a soft-space interference beam?” Scrutarius asked. “Not that we know what one of those might look like … ”
“No, Devlin,” the computer said. “It may not even be detectable outside of soft-space. But it is definitely down there.”
“I am … in contact,” Chillybin said unexpectedly.
“Chilly?” Galana said. “I’m not seeing any kind of communication.”
“No, it is – the presence of intelligent creatures,” the aki’Drednanth explained. “It is not an exchange as such, but I am aware of them and recognise the shapes of their minds.”
“Oh,” Hartigan said excitedly, “I thought it usually took a while for you to do that. Are these aliens you’re already familiar with, then?”
“I should say so, Captain,” Chillybin replied. “They’re humans.”
“I thought you said you sensed intelligent creatures,” Scrutarius said into the shocked silence. Hartigan turned and gave him a narrow look. “Sorry,” Devlin added. “Couldn’t resist.”
“You monkeys really do get everywhere,” Bonty said, “don’t you?”
“Now we are receiving a transmission,” the Conch said while Hartigan was still opening and closing his mouth. “The language … interesting.”
“What is it?” Galana asked.
“It is the human tongue of Coriel, but it took me a moment to recognise it,” the computer explained. “I would say that they started with the Coriane language as it was several hundred years ago and developed it from there, in a quite different way to how it has developed on Coriel.”
“I don’t speak modern Coriane,” Hartigan finally managed to say. He sounded disgruntled.
“Neither do I,” Galana admitted. The Porticon, her home Worldship, occasionally visited Coriel but she’d never really spent much time down there. The Coriane were a strange lot – and that was just the few Molren who lived there. “And there are only humans down there?” she glanced at Chillybin for confirmation.
Chilly nodded. “Several thousand of them, I would say.”
“That sounds right,” the Conch agreed. “There seem to be three small settlements, two small and one larger, the majority of the technology centred around the larger one. It could be the remains of a dismantled starship.”
Galana nodded to herself. “Once we establish full contact,” she told the Conch, “it may be a good idea to just send the Captain’s image until we can be sure the sight of aliens won’t upset them. These must be the descendants of some human shipwreck. It’s been known to happen – just not so far from Six Species space.”
“Not that we’ve ever heard about, anyway,” Bonty murmured.
“Opening a channel,” the Conch said.
The transmission from the surface appeared on all of their consoles even though only the Captain’s image would be sent in the other direction for the time being. Galana looked down at what appeared to be a fairly normal human being, although she had to admit she wasn’t familiar with many humans aside from their Captain. This one didn’t have fur on its face, although it still had a tidy mane on the top of its head. It seemed flushed and out of breath, and Galana imagined it had come running from elsewhere in the central settlement down below to respond to the hails of the starship in orbit.
“I am Misrepresentation Fizzschlifft, voice of the Gunumban people,” the computer translated the high-speed jabbering of the human and even overlaid it in an approximation of the human’s gruff voice. “It is a great surprise and very exciting to see a human face … ” the sound cut off at that point, and the human talked animatedly for several more seconds before stopping and waiting expectantly. “I am sorry,” the Conch went on in the computer’s normal voice, “I seem to have lost the audio feed. Attempting to compensate. The real-time translation may have been too much for the data buffers … ”
Galana frowned as the computer continued to explain. It must have been her imagination, but the machine seemed … flustered, somehow. It wasn’t the first time the highly complex computer had suffered from emotion-like reactions that had hampered its performance. She checked the comm system. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the audio or the data buffers or anything the Conch was babbling about.
“‘Misrepresentation’?” Hartigan asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I believe the word was ‘Calumny’,” Wicked Mary said, “but it was a name and perhaps not intended to be translated.”
Galana called up the received transmission, but it was all chopped up and incomplete – and it didn’t look like a system glitch. It looked edited. She glanced across at Wicked Mary, who had obviously been receiving and translating the message from the surface using some equipment of her own that she had set up without their knowledge. The giela returned her look with its collection of sensors, completely impossible to read.
“Yes, yes it was Calumny Fizzschlifft, and I am ready to translate your response now, Captain,” the Conch was saying. “I will attempt to re-establish a link and get the rest of the previous transmission. I’m sorry about this.”
“Alright old girl, not to worry,” Hartigan said mildly. “We got the important bits, what?” he cleared his throat. “Greetings, Calumny Fizzschlifft and the Gunumban people,” he went on officially. “I am Captain Basil Hartigan, and on behalf of AstroCorps and the Six Species, I bid you greetings from your long-lost cousins a – gosh, what, it must be just about a third of the way around the bally galaxy by this point, eh Fen?”
“Yes, Captain,” Galana replied, hoping they weren’t about to show her in the transmission and freak out the poor unsuspecting Gunumbans.
“I have translated the greeting into the Coriane dialect, well, I suppose we should refer to it as Gunumban at this point,” the Conch said, sounding a bit less anxious. Galana suspected it was because the computer was getting the hang of juggling the transmission and only providing translations once they’d been sufficiently cleaned up. But why? What was the computer doing, and how could they prove it was doing it? Even if they went down to meet the humans face to face at this point, it would be difficult to trust what was being said until they’d learned the language. The computer would be providing their translations even then.
Their whole mission, the whole issue of speaking with aliens, was at stake if they could not trust what the computer told them the aliens were saying. Wicked Mary, as unreliable as she was, might be their only source of unedited information. And that was more than a little worrying.
The Captain and Calumny Fizzschlifft exchanged a few more enthusiastic but questionable messages, which fortunately cleared up – or at least it probably did – the question of whether the Gunumbans were ready to meet aliens. They were aware, from the ‘old stories’ of their ancestors, of the Six Species and even had some archived images of Molren, aki’Drednanth, Bonshooni, Blaren, and even Fergunak. They were very excited to hear that there was one of each of the fabled creatures aboard the Conch, and inevitably the invitation to land and meet the whole Gunumban nation was soon to follow.
“What do you think, Fen?” Hartigan asked her.
She paused, watching the Captain carefully. He knew, she realised. He knew there was something strange going on with the computer. But he was pretending it was fine. Why? It couldn’t be to protect the machine’s feelings. But then, she realised, she was doing the same herself.
“We should be careful,” she said. “You are at risk of contracting any diseases the locals might have, since you are the same species.”
“And they may be at risk of catching things from you,” Bonjamin added. “No offence, Captain.”
“And of course we should make certain that there were no members of the other species with them when they arrived here – and if there were, whether they died of natural causes or something that might affect us,” Galana continued.
“Oh come now,” Hartigan said. “You don’t think there’s any risk of that, do you?”
“I am not certain, Captain,” Galana said. “I would feel better if the Conch – and Doctor Bont, of course – could perform a full analysis and present their findings and recommendations to us before we go rushing down to the surface.”
“Yes,” the computer agreed quickly, while Basil was still frowning and opening his mouth, “yes, that would be sensible. We don’t want anyone turning into a cake, do we? Ha ha.”
Galana wondered when she had first started treating the Conch’s computer like a slightly unstable person, and realised it had been happening for a while now. “Bonty?” she asked.
“I’ll run some tests,” Bonjamin said. “Of course, we’ll need to land and send out a sample probe before we can be sure … ”
“It looks like the ship they arrived here in was called the Garla Gunumbous,” Chillybin said. “The nameplate was preserved and they included a picture of it in the unscrambled part of their transmission.”
“Guess that’s why they call themselves Gunumbans,” Scrutarius remarked.
“The ship has long since been taken apart for the technology they are using to run their main settlement,” Chilly went on. “The power cells, medical facilities, even the hull plates.”
“What about the soft-space beacon which brought us here?” Galana asked. “Did they build that themselves? Some sort of prototype?”
“It doesn’t look like it,” Chilly replied. “There is no sign of it now, as the computer said – it must only resonate at relative speed. But I would guess it is some unrelated piece of technology, perhaps something alien they picked up – maybe even connected to why they are out here in the first place.”
“Is there any record of the Garla Gunumbous in our database?” Galana asked the computer.
“Only the mythical figure and Her representations in popular culture,” the Conch replied. “Garla Gunumbous, Goddess of Plenty … I’m afraid I don’t have a record of every lost ship in Six Species history, and that’s even assuming they were lost rather than, say, slipping away across the border to make a life for themselves out here.”
“Their old computer files are corrupted but accessible,” Wicked Mary said. “That will probably be our best source of information. However, at the moment I am unable to access that data for a reason I have not fully made up yet.”
“Excuse me?” Galana turned to the giela with a lift of her ears.
“Forgive me, Commander,” the Conch said. “This is my fault. I know my behaviour is erratic, but I am attempting to find the best way to introduce … difficult information.”
“Are you attempting to protect us from something we may find distressing?” Galana asked. A number of things began to make sense. “Something about this place and its original settlers?”
“Yes,” the Conch said, sounding very unhappy. “At least, I think so. I am still collecting information.”
“I have often found that the best way to deal with an uncomfortable situation is to get as much of it out in the open as possible,” Galana suggested, “rather than hiding it until it is too late – and has possibly been made worse.”
“I know,” the Conch said, “but if I’m wrong, then it seems pointless to bring it up for no reason. With Wicked Mary’s help I will make certain of what we are facing, and then we can deal with it. I asked her to help me stall. She did not do a very good job,” she added a little sternly.
“I am uncomfortable hiding things from my crewmates,” Wicked Mary lied with appalling lack of shame.
Basil, Galana noticed, had been frowning vaguely and looking at the planet through the viewscreen. “Captain?” she asked.
“Hmm?” Hartigan blinked and turned to her. “Oh, I was just thinking about how funny it is that there’s only ever the one settlement or bunch of people on these planets for us to meet,” he said. “We never have to deal with a whole planet full of different cultures, it’s all jolly convenient. Why, the closest we’ve ever come to a diverse group was the Nyif Nyif.”
“I suppose … ” Galana said cautiously.
“Anyway, what have we got here?” Hartigan went on crisply. “Descendants of some old settlers or shipwreck, called us here using some technology or whatnot that doesn’t seem to be part of their broken-down old setup, and the computer’s got herself all worked up that we might be about to find out something that will make us sad. I say, d’you suppose the humans ate the Molren or something?”
“I find it far easier to believe that the Molren would have eaten the humans, to be honest,” Galana said. “A human wouldn’t get much nutritional value from a Molran.”
“A Molran wouldn’t get much nutritional value from a human, for that matter,” Bonty commented. “Terribly fatty and low in fibre.”
“Easier to farm, though,” Devlin added.
“Oh, granted, they’re easier to farm ‑ ” Bonty agreed.
“Right, well as far as I’m concerned this all adds up to a simply spiffing mystery,” Hartigan went on loudly, “and there’s nothing for it but to toddle on down there as fast as we jolly well can, what?” he tapped his controls. “Unless you really think the Gunumbans and I are going to give each other a dose of the pox?”
“No,” the Conch said, “I shouldn’t think there’s much risk of that. But Bonjamin should run some tests to be absolutely sure.”
“Right. And while Bonty’s doing that, you can tell us what’s so bally dreadful about this place that you thought pulling the old ‘does not compute’ gag was the best way to break it to us,” Hartigan declared. He stood up. “Galana, Devlin, with me. Chilly, Bloody Mary, I want a full accounting of the technology we’re looking at and any potential combat situations we might face, you know the drill. We’ll leave the comm open so you can listen in. Carry on.”
They ascended to the Captain’s quarters, and Scrutarius went immediately to Hartigan’s little bar and made a round of drinks.
“You already know what this is about,” Galana asked as she sat down, “both of you. Don’t you?”
“I have no idea,” Devlin said, although Galana could tell from the set of his upper shoulders and the sharp downward angle of his ears that this was a half-truth at best. “All I know is, if it’s got the computer this rattled, then it’s drinks time.”
“As for me, let’s say I’ve got a hunch,” Hartigan said. “Let’s see if I was right. Computer? Our shipwrecked friends down below wouldn’t happen to be there because of the Fang o’ God, now would they?”
“Yes, Basil,” the Conch said in a strange little voice. Galana looked from Basil to Devlin, seeing the human’s grim nod and the Blaran’s further stiffening. “Yes, they are.”
“Right,” Hartigan clapped his hands briskly. “Drinks it is.”
“The Fang o’ God?” Galana said in bafflement. “You mean the mythical weapon, or warship, or whatever it was, from old Earth legends?”
“Back before Dev and I knew each other, I was Captain of another AstroCorps ship and crew,” Hartigan said, “as you are aware, Fen. Ah, thanks,” he took the drink Devlin offered, and took a deep draught as Scrutarius handed another glass to Galana and sat down with his own. “We were a bit more of a standard crew in a bit more of a standard ship – me as Captain, and my wife Nella as XO … although you really couldn’t say she was an XO. She would have been court-martialled for insubordination fifteen times before we even broke dock,” he laughed fondly. “Anyway, we were a great team. I had a lot of friends on that crew.
“We were searching, as you know, for the Last Alicorn. Among other things – a lot of wonders to explore, a lot of space to travel, and all the time in the universe …
“Ah, but then we heard tales of the Fang o’ God. Some of the greatest spacefaring human families come from the lines that descended from that – that ship, or whatever it was. And, it was said, when the Last Alicorn parted company with the Molran Fleet, it was with the Fang o’ God that it went. Or if it didn’t go with the Fang o’ God, then at least there was some connection, a lead. So, naturally, we added it to our list of things that we simply had to explore. A lot of piffle, don’t y’know, but worth checking out. No stone unturned, all of that.
“Our search led us to a place they call the bonefields,” Hartigan stopped and took another large gulp from his glass, finishing his drink. He looked lost and frightened for a moment, and then laughed helplessly. “Still not at all sure I want to talk about it, to be honest.”
“That’s a legend I’ve heard of now and again,” Scrutarius said. “Never anything specific, but it always sounds bad. You may have let slip once or twice, Baz, especially in connection to – to Nella. That was why I suspected that’s what this was about.”
“I’ve also heard stories about the bonefields,” Galana said, “but I never thought it was real. Wasn’t there something about how you can only ever go there once?”
“Believe me, you’d only ever want to go there once,” Hartigan said. “If we’d known we were going to wind up there and what would happen, we wouldn’t have gone at all. Oh, but we were on a grand adventure, don’t y’know,” he laughed bitterly. “There aren’t many stories about the bonefields because nobody wants to tell stories about it. That’s how my crew’s accident got marked down in the AstroCorps records as – as … well, I don’t even know what it was marked down as,” he looked at Galana. “You tell me, Fen.”
Galana shook her head. “There were no details,” she said, “just a ‘ship lost with all hands’ and a suggestion that you might have been venturing too close to the Core in your search for the alicorn.”
“Makes sense,” Basil said. “When in doubt, blame the Cancer and make it that much less likely that anyone else will dare to go anywhere near ‘em. But no, it was nothing to do with the Core. We flew into the bonefields, the floating bones took apart our ship and butchered our crew, and there was nothing in the middle to show for it. No alicorn, no Fang o’ God, no nothing. Just blood and screams and death. Nella and I managed to get out of there in the remains of the ship, after half our crew took to the escape pods and those were taken apart too. While we watched,” he shuddered, and tried to take another drink, but found his glass empty. “We decided to go down with the ship because that’s what Captains do, and that’s how we survived. Pure bally luck.”
“But … ” Galana said hesitantly.
“Nella died of her injuries,” Devlin told her quietly when Hartigan didn’t speak again. “That was … shortly after they returned to charted space. Isn’t that right, Baz?”
“Hm? Oh,” Basil nodded, his eyes still staring into nothingness. “Oh, yes.”
“I’m sorry, Basil,” Galana said sincerely. “I’m very sorry.”
“Ah well,” Basil shook himself, and forced a smile. “There you have it, anyway. Now you know. The ghastly and pointless truth about how I got my first crew killed. All of them, lost on a fruitless search for the legendary Fang o’ God. Fitting you should learn about it on our tenth space anniversary, what? Telling each other deep dark secrets and all that. But what about these poor blighters? The Gunumbans?”
“The Garla Gunumbous was recorded as a supertanker carrying farm equipment and supplies,” Wicked Mary’s voice replied over the comm, “led by a Molran command crew. They were not explorers or adventurers. How they wandered into the bonefields, let alone how they ended up this far from Six Species space, does not seem to have survived in the databanks or the Gunumbans’ myths. But they definitely seem to have encountered the bonefields and it had a significant impact on them. Even generations later, phrases like the field of bones, the floating bones and even the great tooth are part of their speech patterns.”
“That was the point at which I edited the initial transmissions,” the Conch said apologetically. “I realised there was a connection and was trying to find the best way to break it to you.”
“You did fine,” Devlin said supportively.
“The Garla Gunumbous was critically damaged,” Wicked Mary went on, “the Molren were killed, and they fled through soft-space to this location. That is about all the information we have managed to reassemble.”
“That’s pretty good, for data you’ve managed to pick up from a centuries-old shipwreck while we’re still in orbit,” Devlin said supportively.
“I suspect that the ship’s purpose may have been a little less noble,” Wicked Mary said, “although with a Molran crew it was probably still operating inside the law. There is a lot of space inside the law for … unpleasant activities, and vessels were often labelled as ‘supertankers’ when ‘slave galley’ was reserved for Blaran crews.”
“But we have no evidence of this,” Bonty added in a pained voice over the comm, “and so there is no reason to dishonour the memory of the dead by making accusations until we find out more.”
“Chillybin thinks the relative drive that carried the Gunumbans here, and the technology that led us to them, came from another ship entirely,” Wicked Mary added. “An alien one.”
“Perhaps the same aliens that were behind the bonefields?” Galana jumped at the opportunity to avoid talking about the ancient supertanker and whatever nefarious work it may have been about when it went down. “The Fang o’ God itself, maybe?”
“Chillybin seems fairly sure the bonefields were not the source of the technology,” Wicked Mary said. “She won’t explain why she’s so sure. She just gets all mysterious and aki’Drednanthy about it.”
“We can find out more from the Gunumbans,” Bonty spoke up again. “The biosphere is safe, and we can make final checks when we land. That is, if you feel like landing.”
“Absolutely,” Hartigan jumped to his feet. Galana looked down at her drink, which she hadn’t actually had a chance to taste yet, and set it on the table with a little shrug. “We can hardly come all this way and find humans and not bally well drop in and say hello, can we? Or whatever it is they say instead of ‘hello’.”
“Kädun,” the Conch supplied helpfully.
“Right. We can’t come all this way and not drop in and say kädun,” Hartigan declared. “And us bonefields survivors have to stick together, what?”
They quickly made their preparations, then returned to the bridge and detached the Nella for landing.
“I have a theory,” Bonty said. “It’s a bit complicated, but Bloody Mary and the computer say the technology checks out – from what little we know about the technology, anyway.”
“Let’s hear it, doc,” Scrutarius invited. “And the more long-forgotten Molran skulduggery you fit in there, the better.”
“There’s no Molran skulduggery,” Bonty protested.
“I think the Garla Gunumbous ran into trouble in the bonefields,” Bonty said. “That much is obvious, of course. The ship was crippled and the Molren on board were killed. They ran into another ship in there, from somewhere else, in similar trouble. These humans, these … irrepressible humans ‑ ”
“Or their ancestors, at least,” the Conch interjected.
“ ‑ Or their ancestors,” Bonty agreed, “must have put together a relative drive and flown here in a mashed-together assembly of both ships. Probably without any navigation, which is why they ended up so far from home. And the tech left an eddy – the signal that we followed in.”
“Probably lucky nobody else found it,” Scrutarius noted, “considering some of the nasties we’ve flown past,” he had packed a large, round-cornered crate and an assortment of food and spare equipment from engineering, but wouldn’t go into specifics about what any of it was. Stuff they might have missed in the past few hundred years, was all he would say.
“I don’t think anyone else could have followed this signal,” Wicked Mary replied. “Only Six Species technology would have resonated, which makes sense if the delicious doctor’s theory is correct about the ship being cobbled together from Six Species and alien tech. But it is possible that the signal is a little more accessible than we think, and it has just gone unheard because this is such a quiet corner of the galaxy.”
“We should probably shut it down for them,” Galana said, “provided they don’t need help and didn’t know the signal was beaming into soft-space anyway.”
“I felt certain you would feel that way, Commander,” Wicked Mary noted.
“That raises another … awkward point, though,” Galana went on. “And that is, what if the Gunumbans do want to go home?”
“We can’t very well bring them all with us,” Hartigan said, “even if they aren’t exactly a planet-full.”
“And we don’t have enough equipment to leave them so they can build their own starship, either,” Devlin agreed. “The relics they have left are basically keeping their main settlement lights on, and that’s about it. We’re not going to get them off the ground.”
“And we can’t leave them with detailed directions back to Six Species space,” Galana said. “That would be a grave security risk.”
“True, but surely something like ‘it’s that way, just keep going around the galactic rim widdershins until you start seeing Bounce-Bounce Burger signs’ would be fine,” Hartigan objected.
“Maybe this is something we can worry about if they ask us,” Galana suggested.
The Gunumbans met them when they landed. It was strange to be surrounded by humans again, to see their funny pointy faces looking up at her and the tops of their furry little heads as they jostled and jabbered. Galana looked across the bobbing heads at Bonty, and shared a grin with her friend. It was almost like coming home, even though Galana had to admit that if this many humans had shown up on the Worldship Porticon, the locals would have contacted pest control.
The humans, for their part, were awestruck and a little frightened by the towering aliens. No living Gunumban had seen a Molranoid or an aki’Drednanth in the flesh. It must have felt like the drawings and stories of Gunumban history stepping living and breathing into the real world. They were spared having to see Wicked Mary in person, as she had remained in orbit.
Still, the humans were wide-eyed and didn’t seem hostile. They babbled excitedly in their strange ancient-Coriane dialect, and the Conch translated for them as efficiently as possible. Galana had made the conscious decision, at this point, to once again trust that the computer was feeding them accurate information. She was left with little alternative.
“This is Jelter Qade, the … I suppose spiritual leader is the best term,” the Conch said. “She bids you welcome in the name of the Benevolent Sky, which is possibly a deity of some kind. And this is Calumny Fizzschlifft, we spoke on the comm…”
Fizzschlifft, more an administrator and general public servant than a leader, also welcomed them to ‘Gunumba’ and immediately hit it off with Basil Hartigan despite the fact that kädun was the only word the Captain knew. He added a second word to his repertoire when Jelter Qade gave him a ceremonial gift of some kind, and a piece of it came loose and swung down and hit him between the legs. After that he could also say nädj – genitals. There was much laughter, and the terrifying spectre of the visitors from the stars was dispelled more effectively than a century’s-worth of xenosociology could have managed.
The Gunumbans were content to stay on the planet, Galana was relieved to learn almost immediately. They had no interest in returning to Six Species space even though they were delighted to learn that the Six Species – or Many Peoples Under Many Benevolent Skies – was still out there.
They showed the crew of the Conch around the most important buildings and features of their central settlement, including the assorted ancient and well-worn buildings and mechanisms that ran their little civilisation. Devlin declared it all exceptionally well maintained, and said there was little he could teach them, although some of the repair equipment and compounds he’d brought with him would help. The Gunumbans were very pleased with the gift, and while they were exclaiming over it Galana slipped away to study one of the weathered old hull segments that now acted as a foundation stone. She concluded her examination and returned before anyone missed her, although she saw Wicked Mary’s giela regarding her as unreadably as ever.
More and more people began trickling in. Soon there was a crowd, but they were remarkably well-controlled. Devlin murmured to her that the Benevolent Sky might be a bit of a stickler for good manners.
The Gunumbans couldn’t tell them which parts of their infrastructure were Six Species and which were alien, but Galana and the others could recognise the alien technology simply by the fact that they didn’t recognise it. Bonty, it seemed, had been right – there was little that was functional anymore, and there wasn’t enough left of it to rebuild, but the machinery was very cunningly merged. Devlin declared this, too, to be excellent work.
They located the piece of odd, twisted equipment that was making the soft-space beacon they had followed. Jelter Qade said it was a Thing Of The Bones, which was also interesting but it didn’t seem to be holy or forbidden in any way and they had no objection to Scrutarius fiddling with it and eventually shutting it down. Whether it was actually something from the bonefields – Hartigan shivered and said it looked nothing like the floating bones he remembered – or had just been folded into the Gunumbans’ history, nobody could say. Still, if Bonty was right and the ancient Gunumbans had encountered an alien ship in the bonefields, and used their technology to get to safety, it made sense that a piece of it would be associated with that mythical horror.
The central Gunumban origin story, as recited stirringly by Jelter Qade at the obligatory feast that night, bore this out. The Gunumbans, it was said, had been driven out of their lands of birth and carried into great danger by the classic great metal bird of spacefaring origin-myth. With the help of the Things Of The Bones, they had tamed the bird and flown here. If Bonty’s explanation wasn’t the truth, Galana decided, then there was no point even trying to make sense of it.
Even as the Gunumban leader spoke of their long-lost birthland, however, it was clear that they still had no intention of going back there.
“It would be like walking in circles, or going back a step instead of forward,” Bonty said once the Conch had translated. “How interesting. Most origin myths, like the Fleet tales of the gates of space, talk about lost places that we would go back to if we could, or that we must strive to better ourselves so that we might earn a place there. The Gunumbans seem perfectly content.”
“Not a bad way to be,” Scrutarius noted.
Still, with the alien beacon deactivated, even the option of going back was gone. Hartigan gave Jelter Qade a small self-contained beacon of more modern design.
“It will send a secure nod to any Six Species ship to enter this volume,” he explained, “without getting the attention of any other nasties. When we get home, we’ll put your coordinates in our report and … well to be honest it’s unlikely AstroCorps or the Fleet will let anyone else come out here, but we’ll see. And at least it doesn’t have a swinging bit that catches you in the nädj, what?”
There was more hilarity at this.
Scrutarius handed over his own gift, quite separate to the equipment he’d already given them. It was a large rounded box that Galana recognised as similar to ones he’d given away previously – to the Man-Apes, for example, several years ago now.
“Diversity,” he said cryptically when Jelter Qade expressed curiosity. “Just in case you or your descendants ever do find your way back to Six Species space, this might give you some … valuable lessons. But you mustn’t open it until we have returned to the Benevolent Sky,” he added in a warning tone, and finished off his speech with a wiggle of the fingers of his upper hands and a playful, “ooooo,” that made the locals laugh again.
After an enjoyable feast and even more enjoyable after-feast celebration and drink-fuelled exchange of dances, the crew returned to the Nella and ascended regretfully into orbit.
“I tell you,” Hartigan said, “nobody throws a party like humans. You Blaran chaps are alright, Dev, but you’re just going to have to be satisfied with second place on this one.”
“I can live with that,” Scrutarius said in amusement. The Captain was clearly feeling a little fragile, but the drinks on offer hadn’t been strong enough to have any real effect on Molran, Blaran, Bonshoon or aki’Drednanth physiology.
“But listen here,” the Captain went on, “I’ve only gone and bared my soul for our tenth space anniversary. Told you all about the bonefields and the Fang o’ God and the passing of my dear wife.”
“You also told us that your childhood nickname was Spazzle Fartigan,” Devlin said.
“What?” Hartigan croaked. “No I didn’t!”
“I’m afraid you did, Captain,” Galana said. “You were telling Calumny about it last night.”
“You were very drunk,” Chillybin agreed.
“Fine, jolly good,” Hartigan grumbled, then fixed his Chief Engineer with an accusing look. “Well?”
Scrutarius raised his ears. “Well what?”
“You were going to tell us about your special secret Blaran alteration,” Bonty said.
“Was I? You’d think I’d remember something like that,” Devlin said vaguely. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure Fen said the whole tradition was just made up.”
“Oh fine,” Bonty said, “I’ll start. I tell everyone I’m three-and-a-half thousand years old, but the truth is, I don’t know how old I am because I don’t remember. And I know, you all knew that already,” she added impatiently. “What you don’t know is, I know I’m actually quite a lot older than that. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years older. The doctors don’t know because I have a genetic disorders that have messed up my aging process. I’m still getting older, sorry to say, and I’m not immortal, but I’ll probably just go on looking like this until I keel over. And it could happen tomorrow.”
“That’s … something I would have liked to know before taking you on a fifty-year jaunt around the galaxy, to be honest,” Basil said.
“Tough,” Bonty replied with a flick of her ears.
“I killed my sisters,” Chillybin said. They all turned and stared at the huge armoured figure. “It is customary in my species,” she went on. “In a litter of ten newborns, all fight and kill one another for food and shelter and only one or two will survive to grow into adolescents. It is a test, of sorts. I was the only survivor of my litter,” she concluded. “And I killed them all.”
“Bloody Hell,” Devlin said shakily. “Not sure I can top that.”
“I think I can,” Wicked Mary raised a slender metal hand.
“Oh boy,” Devlin said.
“I am defective,” the Fergunakil said. “On eighteen occasions so far, I have had the chance to cut each of you off from major ship systems and flood the decks with water, converting the Conch into an aquatic vessel and then hunting you for sport and nutrition. At first, I thought it was only the computer stopping me, but after the fifth time I realised I was sabotaging my own efforts, making excuses to not carry out the attack. I was failing on purpose.”
“Failing to kill us all,” Bonty said flatly.
“I would appreciate it if you did not judge me harshly,” Wicked Mary said in a prim tone.
“Fine,” Hartigan said, “jolly good. Fen, you’re up.”
“I examined one of the hull plates from the Garla Gunumbous, down on the surface,” Galana said.
“Even for a Molran that’s pretty lame,” Scrutarius announced.
“It was a very specific configuration,” she went on. “My own family – my parents and grandparents – used to crew similar vessels. Wicked Mary is correct. They were called supertankers, but they were more like livestock transports. Lower Fleet ranks would take ships like this out, and they would carry large cargoes of humans, in appalling conditions. The humans agreed to it because the Fleet had the most dependable ships and they would get to fly to their own planets and colonise them. The Fleet used them as – as slave labour, essentially, to construct new settlements.”
“Farm equipment,” Hartigan said quietly. “It was right there on the manifest.”
Galana nodded. “It is widely known, but nobody ever speaks of the treatment after the fact. Humans have a … useful habit of forgetting, and looking back at the past with a very rosy filter. Whatever happened in the bonefields, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ancient Gunumbans took the opportunity to overthrow the Molran crew and seize the ship. I would not have blamed them. Certainly I was relieved that no memory of it seemed to remain with the community we just met.”
“They might have sacrificed us to the Benevolent Sky,” Bonty said sadly. She had known, at least in vague terms, this detail of Galana’s family life. But not the complete truth. The supertankers were a dirty little Fleet secret, known by many but never faced.
“That is why I joined AstroCorps,” Galana concluded. “I could not be part of a lie so monstrous. We call ourselves the Six Species, but the Fleet has never believed it. AstroCorps is the only way humans will ever stand with us as equals, rather than as useful semi-sentient cattle.”
They sat in reflective silence for a while after this.
“I’d feel a little shallow showing you my inflatable pecs after all this,” Scrutarius declared.
“Hang about, your inflatable what?” Bonty exclaimed.
“I want to see them,” Chillybin said.
“Me too,” Galana added.
“Oh and look, we’re docking,” Devlin strolled away form his console. “I’d better go and check the connector bolts and get the relative field calibrated…”
“Devlin!” Hartigan raised his voice.
“Long way still to go,” Scrutarius called from down the hall.
“Chief Engineer Able Belowdecksman Devlin bally Scrutarius you get back here right bally now!” Basil shouted.
The Blaran’s merry laughter echoed over the bridge as he vanished into the ship.
Soon, in The Riddlespawn:
Bonjamin and Devlin were finishing up a fairly boring survey of another empty solar system when the Conch announced that a second ship had entered the volume.
“But there is nothing here,” Galana said in puzzlement. The system had three planets that could potentially have supported life, but only one of them had so much as a microbe on it. And Bonty had just concluded that they weren’t very interesting microbes. “No technological relics, no settlements. The only thing here is us, and nobody else knew we would be here.”
“The ship is moving in swiftly on an approach heading,” the Conch said. “It is sending us a comm signal on a known wavelength.”
Galana strode quickly to her console, the rest of the crew hurrying onto the bridge behind her. “Fleet or AstroCorps?” she asked.
“Neither,” the Conch replied.
“It is the Splendiferous Bastard,” Chillybin said.
“What?” Galana blurted.
“Oh, jolly good!” Captain Hartigan exclaimed.
Moments later the bridge viewscreens were dominated by the narrow, furry little face and great pointed ears of Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer.
“There you are,” she said loudly. “Golly, you haven’t gotten very far, have you? I’ve been looking for you all over the place.”
“Roney, you wily little blighter,” Hartigan said happily. “What brings you sniffing around again? Admit it, you missed us.”
“Wish it was that simple, biggums,” Roney said. “I need your help.”