Late the next affernoon, Elan met Viator Broker at the ranch gates. The sleek grey-black Fleet skimmer from the landing site pulled up in a small cloud of dust, and Elan pulled open the door before it could slide open automatically. Broker looked up at him in clear surprise.
“Afternoon,” Elan said happily. “Sleep well? Figure of speech, figure of speech, I didn’t sleep either,” he stepped back and extended a hand to pointlessly help the Blaran out of the skimmer. His other hand was curled protectively around the book he’d spent all night poring over, scribbling notes about, and sticking different-coloured bookmarks in. Somehow, the old school approach had seemed like the right one … although he had created a rudimentary codex in a second electronic book, containing as many of the old texts and references as he could find.
“You’ve found something,” Broker said, sounding no less excited than Elan felt. “A clue as to how to translate the book?”
“Oh yes, well, that wasn’t difficult,” Elan waved a hand. “The tricky bit was making sure it wasn’t all just … seeing what we wanted to see, you know? Here,” they set out along the path to the main building, and Elan opened the book at the first marker he’d placed. “Alright, so for a start, your linguist friends were right. This isn’t a language as we typically understand it. It’s a cipher created by a single person, a … well, calling it a shorthand would be misleading, because it’s more complex than simplified. It’s a personalised language. I’ve seen a few examples of it in my time – put together a few of my own, too, as thought experiments and complexity studies,” he glanced up at the towering, serious-faced old Blaran. “And as a fancy way of encrypting private diary entries,” he added confidentially.
“So this was Sloane’s way of encrypting his private diary?”
“No. Even back then, if they’d just wanted this to be private, there were encryption programs and electronic forms they could have used. I mean, they’re in space, in a superluminal starship – or so it seems. So they’d probably have some way of writing secret diaries so snoops couldn’t get in and read them, without having to resort to creating a whole new language. I would guess that there was some other motivation or mentality at work.”
“But you did establish that it was written on board a starship?” Broker asked idly.
Elan eyed Broker, then nodded. “With a fair degree of certainty,” he replied. He held up the book. “You said this is a transcript, an electronic copy, of an original that was written in a more low-tech way,” he went on, “right?”
“I didn’t say that,” Broker said, beginning to sound a little uneasy for some reason, “only that I found this transcript – I was able to verify that it was genuine, though ‑ ”
“Oh, it’s genuine alright,” Elan agreed. “Or if it’s a hoax, it’s a really impressive hoax. I’m talking ‘better than the Gospel of Azymandus’ impressive.”
“Right,” Broker agreed again. “As to the most likely format of the original, we can still only guess … but it did look like this transcript had been taken from a very low-tech source. We wondered about that, since the earliest archives of the Book of Sloane were in ancient solid-state electronic data storage cubes. Definitely Earth-tech. This one, judging by the method of transcription … ” he hesitated. “This had been hand-written, fortunately on a medium and in an environment that made preservation easy. And even then … ”
Elan turned back to the book, but continued to study Broker in his periphery. There was something the Blaran wasn’t telling him … but that was hardly a surprise. Quite aside from the whole official and top-secret side of Fleet and Separatist dealings, once you got to be a few thousand years old Elan imagined it was very difficult to say anything without leaving out some important historical context or other.
There was an old saying that went if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything. It was an interesting concept, but a dramatic oversimplification. And if you lived as long as a Molranoid, let alone a Blaran of Viator’s ilk, the things you had to remember must be overwhelming.
“The trick with a cipher is to find out what language the writer would normally be writing in,” he decided to launch into his explanation and let Broker join in when he felt comfortable, “because most of the time that’s what they’re translating from. Find the language they were thinking in, and it doesn’t matter how complicated their code is. You’re halfway there.
“The Gund was the starting point, the first thread to come loose,” he continued. “The cuneiform might have just been a – a book cover that got put on after the fact, a metadata tag added by some long-gone Declivitorion librarian … but Gund, yep. That’s there. That’s real.
“Then, well, there’s the fact that this person knew Xidh. There’s too much in common between Xidh and the structure of this language of the butterfly to be a coincidence. It’s not that unusual for humans to speak Xidh as a second or third language these days, but humans only started learning Xidh when the Fleet arrived, unless you believe the weird old stories about alien contact with Earth before the First Feast. The first veil, the sack of Heaven, all that deep-down stuff.
“So, anyway, that gives us our timeframe. Gund pulled over a Xidh skeleton – that’s Last Days level. Fits with Sloane’s time, even though there are only a very few passages of the Book of Sloane that were written in Xidh and those are highly contested.
“But yes, I was wary. You already told me that this is the Book of Misbegotten Creatures, and that you’d mostly arrived at that conclusion by wishful thinking, so anything I found confirming it needed to be subjected to scrutiny. Otherwise I’d just be telling you what you already knew. Or guessed, or deduced, or however you want to say it.
“So what does the Book of Misbegotten Creatures actually mean? What was the story?”
Broker, who had been walking alongside Elan and waiting politely for the human to stop nattering, said mildly, “I believe it is a mythical tome describing the last exodus of beasts and monstrosities from Earth in its final hours, scattering into Six Species space like a scourge upon the poor innocent human race. It’s generally seen as an allegory for human curiosity, human fallibility, human refusal to take responsibility for their own actions … ” he lifted his ears in amusement. “That’s one of the nicer ways I’ve heard Molran scholars describe it, anyway.”
“Harsh but fair,” Elan conceded. “I’d concur. And a lot of what Sloane talked about in his poetry, his philosophy, his allegorical lifetimes as he translated history through different human lenses … it was heavily about the failings of humanity, our weaknesses, our … well, about the opportunities we had to ascend and become greater, but how we kept on missing the chance – or squandering it,” he smiled. “A great believer in human potential, was our friend Sloane. But as harsh a critic as any Molran.”
“And the Book of Misbegotten Creatures is his final treatise?” Broker asked. “Condensing the evils of humankind out of that long line of metaphorical human lifetimes into a collection of metaphorical … inhuman beasts?”
“Hm?” Elan shook his head. “No. No, not really. I mean, have you really not … ? Honestly, I’d assumed you just wanted to compare my translation to yours, and you were being a bit cagey about it for reasons of intellectual hygiene.”
“Well, the way you’ve brought me into this is flattering and all, and I’m aware I have a bit of a reputation in obscure circles, and I’m very gratified you came to me … but you lot aren’t exactly Spooky Troop ghoulies here,” Elan said.
“I … don’t know what that means,” Broker confessed. “I’m old and deeply out of touch.”
“I mean, you know what you’re doing,” Elan said. “You’ve had this transcript for a while, even if the originals are lost,” Broker didn’t respond to this subtle reaction-poke, but he didn’t respond so hard it was almost a reaction in and of itself. “And the language of the butterfly has never been dependably translated?” Elan went on sceptically. “And of the undependable translations, your Separatist Repositorium’s version is the best you have?”
“Yes,” Broker said, more clearly genuine now. “And like most of what the Repositoria have said since before the First Feast, it was more like a series of bad riddles.”
Elan was still fairly sure there was something he was missing, but had little choice but to take Broker at face value. “So this is really the first time it’s been translated?” Broker turned and looked at him, ears rising and shoulders lowering in palpable – and very artful, if it was faked – excitement and relief. “Partially translated,” Elan amended in a cautioning tone. “And I still wouldn’t stake my reputation on dependably.”
“I assure you,” Broker said. “Whatever Sloane was trying to tell us all this time, your efforts will be the first ‑ ”
“But that’s the thing,” Elan interrupted. “It wasn’t written by Sloane.”
Broker stopped in his tracks, dust scuffing around his ankles. “What?”
“None of this was written by Sloane,” Elan held up the book. “It was written by the Butterfly. One of the rats that fled the sinking ship, the things that Sloane was trying to warn us about. It was written by one of the Misbegotten Creatures.”