Broker spent the evening with Elan and his mother. Conversation was subdued, mainly due to the fact that the Blaran was poring over Elan’s preliminary translation notes, skimming backwards and forwards, reading and rereading, occasionally switching to the electronic codex and skimming through its texts. He did, however, pause for dinner and was impeccably polite throughout.
“So, Ms. Ende,” he said respectfully. “How long has your family run this ranch?”
“Oh, three generations now, mister Broker,” Elan’s mother replied happily, “four if you count my Elan – but we don’t really do that, do we Elan? He’s got such grand things in his future, he really just comes here to visit his old mum.”
“Grand things,” Elan said in embarrassment.
“There’s just not much for him on the ranch,” she went on. “Although it’s a lovely place to come and relax and just be alone with your thoughts. Not that you’re not very welcome here, mister Broker.”
“It certainly is a lovely place,” Viator said with a smile. “I can see the appeal, and I do hope I’ll be out of your fur soon.”
“Hair,” Elan corrected him wryly.
“The Mygonites tried to take it away from us, back in the bad old days,” Dora continued happily. “The ranch, that is. Not our fur,” she twinkled. “But my Noel, and my mother Ismælla, they weren’t having it. He passed away just last year, Noel did; and Izzy’s long gone, of course – but not before assuring the property remained in our control.”
“All a lot of bureaucracy and messing around more than anything else,” Elan said. “The local council didn’t exactly send out a posse to chase us off the land. It was all very civil, and dad and Granny Iz took care of it.”
“And Elan’s been looking after me ever since our Noel left us, in among the rest of his work,” Dora gave Broker a bright look, and Elan felt a momentary sympathy for the Blaran. He was completely charmed – and completely taken in by her daffy old lady routine. Noel Ende might have been a brilliant communicator, but Dora was the true source of any Mygon-given gift Elan had been born with. “How’s his work with you going, by the way? He was up all night last night you know, tapping away and chattering to his computer pad and pacing up and down … ”
“It’s – well, I don’t like to talk shop while we’re enjoying such a nice ‑ ”
“Oh, nonsense. Talk shop, unless it’s top secret shop of course.”
“It’s … ” Viator looked rather hopelessly back and forth between the two humans.
Elan took pity on him. “She can be trusted with the historic discovery of an ancient text that will be of interest to a couple of dozen mythologists and Sloanic scholars across Six Species space,” he said.
“Of – of course,” Broker faltered again, but was now clearly well aware that Elan was watching him for some sign of what was really going on, and so he nodded and let himself get caught up in the excitement of the moment. “It’s quite extraordinary, he’s – Elan, you – your son has made incredible progress in just a few hours,” he said, once again looking back and forth between the two Endes. He shifted his plate to one side and put the book on the table, leafing through it with his left hands while continuing to eat tidily with his rights. “All these things, these – names? Nicknames? Electrical blue, blue star, grey building, grey nothing, black nothing, strong machine, silver toothed – we never got close to making sense of them.”
“It was tricky,” Elan acknowledged, “because by its nature the language of the butterfly folds all of them under a sort of umbrella-marking for names, and then refers to different elements of the umbrella rather than writing them all out in full. In that sense it is almost like a shorthand. They all get sort of jumbled up if you’re not careful, or I suppose if you don’t translate them in the right contexts. I was hesitant at the start because it felt like fitting a translation into an existing theory, too convenient. But the grey nothing is probably soft-space. There’s no record of where Earth’s solar system actually was in the galaxy, and that’s if you ignore the wilder myths about it being outside the galaxy, a flat or chalice-shaped world beyond the Bonshoon veil … ”
“But if the blue star is Taras Talga,” Viator put in, “and that is generally accepted as the closest star system to Old Sol…” he shook his head. “Of course, the fact that it’s not just Earth that’s gone, but the entire system – and the fact that the best explanations we have are children’s stories like Zed and the Sun Thief … ”
“I’ve got three separate versions of that tale in the codex, acting as a stellar cartographic reference,” Elan said with a chuckle.
“I saw that.”
“And then you get bogged down in just what the veil is,” Elan went on. “Contemporary science identifies it quite simply – it’s just the extragalactic void, nothing more and nothing less. Beyond a certain point past the edge, relative fields don’t work properly, ship engines don’t function right. I don’t pretend to be a transpersion physicist, but I know the basics.”
“You’re being modest,” Dora spoke up firmly. “My Elan is forever taking calls and visits from the Corps Sci fellows about why their engines are so inefficient, how they’re arranging the doodads all wrong so there’s all this missed energy, I barely understand a word of what they talk about but he helps them every time.”
“Okay, but I know transpersion dynamics in an extremely specialised theoretical way, as interpreted by transperse nuclei forming a communication bond, and by conceptualising a transpersion core as a language construct,” Elan stressed. “It’s not mechanics, it’s linguistics.”
“You see?” Dora said proudly. “Hardly a word.”
“Well the upshot here is,” Elan went on, “any ship to fly out too far past the edge of the galaxy either … well, there’s different stories, different cases. Some come back years later, after their relative drives conked out and they had to fly back on subluminals. Others, well, they’re technically still out there, on their way to whatever the next galaxy is. We can see them from observation stations on the edge. The fact that we can see them suggests that their drives also conked out and they’ve decided to continue on at subluminal speeds. It’ll take them a while to reach the next galaxy over at one-third light speed, but there you go. But if Old Sol was out there – and nobody has ever found any evidence of that – that might explain why a three-hour trip took three months, without us having to interpret doom-and-gloom stuff about the Face of the Deep and the Darkness on the Waters and all that.”
“Doesn’t explain why the system has never been found again,” Broker said. “All the millennia of exploration around Declivitorion, and nothing.”
“True,” Elan said, and waited for Broker to volunteer some more information. Broker just went back to leafing through the notes, and Elan realised that he was at a considerable disadvantage against the Blaran in any sort of waiting game. A human is given two hundred good years if she’s lucky, he remembered Granny Iz saying once, when he was a small child. A flat-top can spend that long waiting for a dinner order and not get cross. An exaggeration, to be sure – and as charmingly slur-riddled as most wisdom of her generation – but one that had stuck with him. “Of course, nobody really considers that the Bonshoon veil might be a real thing,” he went on lightly. “Maybe they are just trapped in it, like flies in amber. No way to really know.”
“So these lensed space-time effects, standing wave castle physics,” Broker said, “are you saying they could be extragalactic space, as described by someone eight thousand years ago or so? The Face of the Deep, that’s the void – or the veil?”
“I don’t know,” Elan admitted. “It doesn’t feel right to me. Close, but not right. I don’t think it matters, though. What does matter is, once I got some of these concepts semi-translated, I was able to confirm why they were so familiar.”
Elan nodded. “Some of the oldest and most interesting accounts of early relative-speed travel, either Fleet or human, are also very fragmentary,” he said. “It’s because of the electronic kashta interface papyrus that was used by the old space-dogs, you see. A lot of it broke down – in the cold. And that happened almost exclusively on aki’Drednanth ships, which were some of the most free-range and daring of the spacefaring explorers. Some of the most,” he added, with a smile at the Blaran.
Viator lifted his ears but didn’t react to the implication. “Well,” he said after chewing another mouthful of food, “who’s going to bother an aki’Drednanth when she goes walkabout?”
“Indeed,” Elan agreed.
Broker nodded thoughtfully, and sipped his drink. “Historians can usually tell authentic records from fabrications,” he confirmed, “from the state of the papyrus. It was even a bit of an adventure trope for a while, the old ice-corrupted kashta star chart. The treasure planet, all that,” he chuckled.
“I never understood why those old charts were always so damaged,” Dora remarked. “Couldn’t they just keep them warm the same way they kept passengers from freezing?”
“They tried giving a dusty piece of kashta papyrus a bloodstream once,” Elan said. “You remember that old professor who came to visit from Jathan’s a few months back?”
Dora tsked and smacked her son’s arm, but her eyes were twinkling. “You’re terrible.”
Broker smiled, then went on seriously. “But this wasn’t written on kashta – not even the original, from what we could tell.”
“No. But from the sound of it, a lot of the day-to-day life and practices are the same. Compartments and special gear for the warm-bodied crew or passengers, the stops so the pilot can talk to her sisters, the odd way akis have of talking to non-akis, like a lot of strange riddles and pronouncements. It would also explain the solid integration of tech that would really have been an anachronism in a lot of other ships. Minimal-torus relative generators, fabrication capacity … a lot of stuff that a refugee ferry would have. The Fleet superstitiously didn’t keep tabs on aki ships or ask questions about where they got their tech from.”
“True,” Viator said. “So, this Butterfly is a passenger, although whether an innocent Earthly refugee or a monstrous allegorical human evil personified we’re not certain. Who was his pilot?”
“The strong machine,” Elan said. “I think it was none other than Truck herself.”