The Hell with it. I’m up to about Part XV of this novella and nothing seems to be kicking it into final gear, so maybe posting it on the Hatstand will at least inspire me a little.
A Railgun Brain is one of the four stories I will be putting into the next anthology, tentatively entitled The Clown God, just as soon as I’ve finished this and two other damn stories for it. The first story, of course, is Grendel’s Grief.
The weather at the ranch was almost as glorious as the view. This was funny because the whole region was famed, not just nationally but across known space, as having abysmal weather. If it wasn’t hailing horizontally in Mpoda, it was said, you should walk straight to the nearest piece of scenery and push it over because you were definitely the butt of some kind of elaborate deception.
Well, it wasn’t said often, but it should be.
Elan was feeling particularly bucolic that afternoon, sitting in his squashy old swing-chair with a large, floppy sun hat on his head and a long strand of chewin’ grass between his teeth. He was working, technically, on an essay about mutual negation paradoxes in pure translation theory … but he wasn’t working very hard. The weather was too nice, the sun shining right down the sediment rainbow curves of Sweetnature Chasm and turning every building and research station embedded in its walls into gleaming jewels.
A movement from the main homestead in his periphery caught his attention, and he turned to see his mum standing on the porch next to a Molran fellow. Elan guessed he was a Molran, although of course you could never be sure at a distance – some Blaren and Bonshooni seemed very Molranny until they started to talk. Standing next to Dora Ende and towering head, shoulders and shoulders above her, the dark-suited chap made her seem even smaller and plumper than she was.
She pointed towards the bottom of the property where Elan was sitting. The Molran’s triangular, flat-topped head turned in his direction, delicate webbed ears opening and closing once, swiftly. Muted excitement, Elan judged. He was about to be gushed over by a fan. That, for a Molran, meant that he was about to be subjected to a barrage of impeccably polite questions designed to establish just how he was passing off ideas too complicated for a human to have come up with as his own, without somehow managing to technically be insulting. Courteous incredulity was a Molran’s admiring babble. It wasn’t their fault. He smiled and raised a hand in greeting.
The Molran chap inclined his head politely to Elan’s mum, then turned and strolled serenely down the gentle slope towards the edge of the Sweetnature. He was carrying a small, sleek metal case in one of his four hands, but was otherwise unencumbered. His crisp dark garments – slightly ranch-dusty now – were Molran Fleet Command attire, Elan recognised, but…
“MagaXidh Elan Ende, I presume?” the chap said when he was within earshot. “Commander Viator Broker, at your service.”
Elan smiled. MagaXidh was arguably the highest academic honour a Corps Sci graduate could earn. It translated as almost a Molran. And that just about said it all, didn’t it? Broker stopped in front of the swing-chair and inclined his head as he had to Elan’s mum, and Elan nodded back.
“Welcome to the ranch, Commander Broker,” he said. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you,” Broker pulled a second chair across and set it at a diagonal from Elan’s, so they could face one another and yet Elan’s view of the chasm would not be obstructed. Precise and proper … and yet Elan was pretty sure he was the only one who was even ‘almost a Molran’ here. And if Viator Broker was a real name, Elan would eat his jolly hat.
The tall, slender fellow – Elan deemed him to be old but not necessarily ancient, at least as Molranoids judged such things – folded easily into the swing-chair and set his carry-case beside a dusty yet well-kept black boot. He settled back, and for a moment seemed to just be taking in the view. He gave a contented, admiring little sigh and shook his head. It was the most horrendous display of attempted Molranity Elan had seen since his graduation party, when one of his classmates had gotten drunk and gone full batface as a joke.
“Quite a view, ain’t she?” Elan said around his grass-stem. It wasn’t a chance one got very often.
“It – ah, she – certainly is,” Broker said, then with an effort managed to summon up a half-hearted little snipe. “I was under the impression that a ranch was supposed to have livestock of some kind.”
Elan shrugged lazily. “We drove a good-sized herd of mygoni’say down the chasm from the hills just last month.”
“What’s a – ah,” Broker smiled, his long eye teeth gleaming. “‘Better muddle through, golly me, good old days,’ things of that nature I expect.”
“Just a little rancher humour,” Elan said. “What can I do for you, Commander Broker?”
Broker folded his left hands over his rights. “I’m here on behalf of the Repositoriad.”
Elan let his grass stem sag a little, because he couldn’t whistle with a piece of chewin’ grass in his mouth. He’d tried. It had been dribbly and undignified. “The Repositoriad? The ancient academic order dedicated to the study and preservation of the Fleet Repositorium?” he said softly. “I thought it was just a ceremonial posting. I’d give a great deal to chat with one of those fellows.”
“It can be arranged,” Broker said in a placid voice. “Of course, it’s one thing to interview a member of the Repositoriad, and another – I would imagine – to speak with the thing itself. Hmm?”
“And you can arrange that too?” Elan asked. Broker inclined his head again, slowly. “And how would a Blaran of your quality and lineage arrange such a conversation?”
“Excuse me?” Broker’s ears lifted and flared slightly. Controlled affront – very well done, but utterly fraudulent.
“It’s a common human misconception that Blaren are all … umbrellas unfolding from the heads and skin that flashes neon,” Elan said. “Just about all of you are born almost indistinguishable from Molren. A lot of you are born Molren, after all, and skinswitch out of the species. And quite a few of you remain indistinguishable … at least on the surface.”
“You don’t say,” Broker said quietly.
“Some of you keep your augmentations hidden,” Elan went on. “Others don’t have augmentations at all, for various reasons. Makes it easier to pass yourselves off as Molren to unwitting folks, perhaps. There are tiny differences, physiological variations that Molren and Blaren and Bonshooni can pick up on but my own rather dull senses – and sensibilities, hah – cannot. There are genetic markers, for official purposes. I can’t pick them up either, of course,” he smiled at the pinch-nostrilled man in the Fleet uniform, and shifted the stem of chewin’ grass from one corner of his mouth to the other. “And none of you have a very high opinion of human intelligence.”
“Now that’s not – ”
“And you’re right, of course,” Elan raised a hand. “I don’t take offence. By most objective measures, as hideously complicated as that concept is, Molranoids are considerably more intelligent than humans. Even Bonshooni, who have the unfortunate reputation as the flawed cousin of the superspecies … Molranoid brains are denser, more efficiently constructed, capable of retaining and recalling more information, more accurately. They’ve got to be, really, to keep working as long as they have to. Your synapses and neurons and all the various chemical membranes are faster and cleaner. A Molranoid of twenty years of age is easily the match, intellectually, for a human who has been training their minds for a hundred years – and unlike a hundred-year-old human, a Molranoid of twenty, or a hundred for that matter, won’t be halfway to the grave the way a hundred-year-old human is. Even at the lowest points before your regenerative Prime periods – and I rather think you yourself are nowhere near such a slump, Commander – your minds are quite simply sharper than ours. You don’t sleep, and your brains continue to sort information flawlessly while our own would start poisoning themselves within days. With each Prime – ”
“Do you have more of this?” Broker asked politely.
“Lots,” Elan said. “This is my area.”
“Human intuition and creativity frequently surpasses Molranoid capacity,” Broker said. “And intelligence tests are notoriously undependable and culturally biased.”
“And yet, everyone seems to know a fucking idiot when one opens their mouth,” Elan smiled whimsically.
“I’m just saying, compared to most Molren, Blaren and Bonshooni, most humans are pretty thick,” Elan went on. “There’s nothing wrong with that being true. It’s all the rubbish piled up around it that causes problems. And when you live for thousands of years, you must get a pretty good baseline idea of how easy a human is to fool.”
“Fair to say,” Broker conceded.
“But you’re not a Molran and you’re definitely not a Fleet Commander,” Elan said firmly. “And judging by the splendid clever name you’ve given yourself, if I had to guess at your actual identity, putting it together with your age…” he squinted at the fellow, whose ears were now slowly lowering on either side of his head like sails on a becalmed yacht. “You’d be a good thousand years from your most recent Prime and five hundred from your next,” he went on, “and given that your last Prime wasn’t your Final Prime and it certainly wasn’t your First…”
“I’m younger than the Zhraak Dome, but older than its first renovation job,” Broker said dryly. “And I’m Fleet Separatist.”
“I rather gathered you were.”
“I rather gathered you’d gathered,” Broker grinned.
“I must admit I’m curious how you found out about me,” Elan went on. “It was strange enough that the Fleet would know of such an obscure Corps Sci academic. For the Fleet Separatists to know, that’s both strange and a little bit shady, yes? Much like my hat.”
“I’ve been researching into some very obscure areas lately,” Broker said, “and your name came up. And the so-called Fleet Repositoria is a Twin Species relic, not a Four, Five or Six Species institution.”
“What are you saying?” Elan asked. “Is there another Repositorium left … alive?”
Broker inclined his head again. “A Separatist site,” he said, “a short space flight from here.”
“I’ll get my cardigan,” Elan said, then grinned at Broker’s confusion. “My mum insists on me wearing it when I go into space. The cold, you see,” he eyed the Blaran again. “Why the charade? Was it a test?”
“Partly,” Broker admitted. “Partly, it was necessary to get myself a meeting with you. Partly, to get into the Þursheim system without announcing myself to the authorities. Seeing as how you’ve already guessed my identity – ”
“I wouldn’t say guessed,” Elan said comfortably.
“Seeing as how you’ve already brilliantly deduced my identity,” Broker amended, and Elan beamed around his grass stem, “I suppose I am already at your mercy.”
“It’s all part of the wonderful interdependent energy network that is sentient communication as far as I’m concerned, nothing to get litigious about,” Elan said cheerfully. “I’m just amazed you made it this far in a Fleet Commander’s uniform.”
“Oh, Commander Viator Broker is quite real,” Broker said. “I’ve had to embed myself quite deep in order to remain invisible over the years, and if the Molren have a defining talent it is the ability to look directly at something that upsets their worldview and see nothing. Still, I appreciate your discretion.”
Elan sat back in his seat, and swung thoughtfully. “You’re not really here on behalf of the Repositoriad,” he said. “Or if you are, you’ve turned it around – you’ve defined yourself as a Separatist Repositoriad of sorts, and cheekily granted yourself permission to invite me for a chat with your Separatist Repositorium … but that’s not what you’re here for. That’s what you’re here to offer me. In return for what, I wonder?”
Viator Broker leaned forward, extended a lower hand, and picked up the case at his ankle. He lifted it into his lap, pressed a fingertip to an old-fashioned bio-reader in the clasp, and swung the smooth metal top open. Elan leaned forward eagerly.
Inside was a book.