What student of sentience hadn’t heard of the aki’Drednanth Truck? Her interactions with humanity at the time of the First Feast had become the stuff of legend.
“Naturally,” Elan went on, “I was very cautious once it started to look as if this was a traveller’s account of flying with Truck. There’s way too much wishful thinking involved there, starting with the amazing good fortune of the account apparently not being written on kashta, and going from there.”
Truck’s ship was said to be one of the last to have departed Earth. It was said that she had watched the world die.
It was also said that she hadn’t done so alone.
“Some accounts name Truck’s private vessel as the Myrael, others as the Silver Bane,” Elan explained, “which was what I started out thinking this ‘silver toothed’ thing was referring to. But Myrael and Silver Bane are more reliably listed elsewhere as aki’Drednanth contemporaries – maybe even as nicknames of Truck herself. So maybe, I thought, the ‘grey building’ and the ‘silver toothed / fearful’ are all just ways of referring to Truck, and she was the one working on the Book. However,” he went on, “our old pals the Mygoni Historical Society call Truck’s ship the Loadnum Gatoush: the ship of partial or lost fiends.”
“Indeed, misbegotten creatures?” Broker suggested.
“I was fairly sure the connection had been drawn before in some old flight ballad or the classic registry of starship elegies, but I couldn’t find the reference I was thinking of,” Elan said in frustration. “I was cautious of it anyway because it seemed too neat – and also like a bit of a cheese-off-the-Molren risk, if you know what I mean.”
“Mm, can’t go casting aspersions at the noble aki’Drednanth,” Viator agreed.
“I’ve never met an aki’Drednanth,” Dora put in meditatively, and Elan was amused to see the Blaran’s ears flick as if he’d forgotten Elan’s mother was even sitting with them. “I once saw that big old suit of black armour Hibernos Rex wore, on display in the Fleet Council of Captains museum. Terrifying-looking thing it was – but of course, she wasn’t in it at the time,” she raised her glass reflectively, then lowered it. “I say, wasn’t Truck supposed to have taken the last Molren and what have you off the Earth before it was destroyed?”
“So it was said,” Viator nodded, “although by all accounts, all the Five Species representatives left when the Fleet did. She might have taken some Fergunak,” he added thoughtfully. “It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to mythologise those into monsters, and it wouldn’t be the first time the aki’Drednanth saved Fergunak, either,” he smiled. “The Book of Misbegotten Creatures lore, such as it is, suggests that the ship carried things off Earth that should have been left to die there. And as for Truck, some folklorists suggest that when the Cult of Karl destroyed her ship it was ‑ ”
“Hey now, that was never confirmed,” Ende said mildly. “If anyone really thought a bunch of human nutters had killed an aki’Drednanth … ”
“If you believe the stories about the aki’Drednanth, one could just ask Truck herself,” Dora added.
There was a considering silence at this.
“I suspect we’d get a cryptic answer at best,” Elan noted lightly.
“Well, be that as it may,” Viator said, “we know Truck’s ship wasn’t lost until well after her flight from Earth. She carried the Book of Sloane to Declivitorion where the first temple was built. I mean, there’s some genuinely disturbing stuff in that book, but I’d hardly say it’s the work of monsters.”
“It’s all a lot of metaphors anyway,” Elan nodded. “Ancient human scholar-poets, like Sloane, had this lyrical way of framing history as though they had lived through it in a line of consecutive lifetimes rather than telling it from a third person perspective, so the whole thing is very figure-of-speech. Has to be. Of course, we only really have a sample of one, even if it’s a jolly big one, so it would be more academically pure to say that Sloane had this approach, but it wasn’t necessarily a style,” he paused, considering his words, then amended, “although, I guess you could say there are fragmentary examples of logs and epic mission verse in the old archives now controlled by AstroCorps that have similar life-after-life first-person formats, so it could be … but that’s all – well, rather a tangent,” he admitted with a chuckle. “Like mum says, the only folks who arguably do the many-incarnations thing for real are the akis, and they’re not big journal writers.”
“True,” Broker conceded.
“Big almost everything else, though,” Dora added cheerfully.
“Also true,” the Blaran agreed with a grin.
“So either way, thinking about what you must have found, where you must have gotten this transcript and where the original text had been … ” Elan continued, “it can’t have been found on Truck’s ship, since it was destroyed. Rumour, like you said, put the blame on Karlist cult extremists, which is nice and easy. She also came apart at relative speed, leaving a convenient lack of material evidence. Of course, if we make the wishful but staggeringly un-academic assumption that this is the journal of someone sitting in Truck’s ship while she’s transporting the Book of Sloane to Declivitorion in the first place, and watching the final pages being written and working on a sequel of sorts … then why was the Second Book of Sloane not found with the first? Short of asking Truck herself, like mum says … well, we have nowhere to start from. Unless you can tell me more?”
Broker smiled for a while, staring into his glass of dark house-mead that Elan’s mother brewed herself from an old family recipe. Elan had never cared for it, but their guest had been very polite.
“Do you know what the Repositorium said about you, Elan?” Viator asked eventually.
Elan laughed. “Oh, now you’re just giving me a big head. The Repositorium doesn’t talk about me.”
“No, it’s true,” Broker leaned back in his seat, and when he next spoke his voice had changed. The normal pleasant two-toned harmony of the Molranoid dual windpipe had become higher, breathier. For the first time, Commander Viator Broker sounded as old as he looked. “A human is born who can speak to the dead, a human who hears Cantaña’s pain, a human with answers to every question, a human is born with a railgun brain.”
“A railgun brain?” Elan echoed, not sure if he was pleased or frightened. “What does that mean?”
“Damned if I know,” Broker admitted, “but I ran the numbers. It recited that particular riddle about six hours after your birth.”
“Six hours is a pretty arbitrary amount of time between two events,” Elan scoffed gently. “There must have been a few other humans born in that period, across all of Six Species space?”
“Hundreds of thousands,” Viator confirmed. “But only one Elan Ende.”
Elan laughed. “Well it’s jolly interesting, but I can’t speak to the dead,” he said. “Unless you’re talking about dead languages. And as for hearing Cantaña’s pain – Cantaña Áqui? – I only wish I’d had a chance to read those old archives. Does that count?” Broker shrugged his upper shoulders easily, and Elan realised the Blaran had quite neatly shifted focus from his questions about where this whole thing had come from. “So,” he veered casually back, “Truck, we were already reasonably sure, carried the Book of Sloane from Earth to Declivitorion in some kind of digital storage. From this text, we can be … how certain exactly? … that this was the same ship, and someone called Grey Building or possibly the Silver Toothed was writing the finishing touches to the Book and presumably adding it to the database.”
“The Book of Sloane is already so disjointed and fragmentary and covered in scholars’ annotations that it’s impossible to tell if part of it was appended by someone else,” Viator said. “The oldest known piece of Sloanic defacement was the tale of Tiakmet the Demon’s Servant, a Blaran academic vandal who allegedly uploaded his story directly into the Book at the source after burglarising the monastery on Declivitorion. I always felt his exploits were a bit exaggerated by the sourcats of academia. Tiakmet was probably a Blaran acolyte who folded a book open too hard and was literally demonised for it.”
“Folding old vellums open too hard should be an offence punishable by relegation to the ranks of misbegotten creatures,” Elan said seriously, then smiled. “It’d be a laugh if this Silver Toothed person was actually Tiakmet, and the tale of the Demon Slayers was actually true.”
“It’d be a laugh alright,” Viator grinned. “As in ‘laughed right out of Jathan’s Carbuncle’.”
“Alright,” Elan said, “but this isn’t about the Book of Sloane. At the same time this was happening, and apparently on the same ship – if we’re really going to make that assumption part of our foundation – someone else called the Butterfly was writing some kind of sequel, and Sloane himself was dead already and the Butterfly had his remains in an urn.”
“There was a lot going on in this ship,” Broker agreed. “The Butterfly, the Silver Toothed, the unquiet ghost of Sloane, this aki’Drednanth who may or may not have been Truck … and then there’s the rest of them.”
“Mm,” Elan said. This was where his confidence in his translation, already fairly shaky, took a sharp downturn. And his scribbled notes began to outweigh the actual text in earnest. “The Hounds of Perdition, and the Pallid Child.”