A Railgun Brain, Part XI

The darkness beyond the Hades line was complete, once again making Elan irrationally glad of his mum’s cardigan. With Þursheim’s sun far, far behind them and the closest stars – if he had to guess, from the slightly larger pinpricks amidst the scattering – being Prufrock and Vole, and those not particularly close, there was nothing to illuminate their surroundings. The ship’s sensors picked out a small collection of rocks and debris just barely clinging to an orbit, and outlined them on the main viewscreen. It was towards one of these that Broker piloted them.

Elan felt the first stirrings of genuine unease as the soft red outline centred itself in the viewscreen and began to grow, confirming itself as their destination. He’d said his usual carefree farewells, and accepted the traditional space garment from his mother, but not really taken any particular precautions. He was young, and smart, and was going to live forever. He was Elan Ende, with the railgun brain.

The asteroid grew and revolved as they curled into an approach, until the Kadana Laar’s lights were illuminating its craggy surface without the need for enhancement. They swept in closer and pulled into a powered orbit above a craggy curve of rock and ice that wasn’t quite big enough to call itself a landscape. It did still boast some sizeable outcrops and a jagged ravine very nearly as impressive as Sweetnature Chasm. Geology could be pretty dramatic without gravity getting in the way.

“The Bleb doesn’t really have enough mass to keep a cruiser this size from getting bored and spinning off into interstellar space,” Broker explained, “but the Kadana Laar will hold position here based on a spot-scan of the surface. We can take the shuttle the rest of the way.”

“‘The Bleb’?” Elan smiled.

Broker grinned and shrugged his upper shoulders. “I never really committed to a name for the rock I was parked on,” he said, “but then it turned out to be such a good rock, I never left – and then one day the Repositorium underbabble said ‘plustervane, ulcerant, I live on a bleb, we live on a bleb, bleb bleb fusty-bleb,’ and that was when I decided to call this asteroid ‘the Bleb’.”

Elan laughed and shook his head. “I’m glad this is the great and infallible mind in which we have put all our faith.”

They returned to the shuttle and descended into the tight, angular scenery of the Bleb. It was still mostly pitch-dark aside from whatever arcs of grey, glittering mineral were illuminated by the shuttle lights, but Elan was getting used to it. They rolled easily into the ravine that formed an appreciable dent in the asteroid’s overall shape, and Broker piloted them along it and under the great sharp overhangs of ice with evidently long familiarity.

As we walked with heads and voices raised / Our hearts gave lie our steely gaze, Elan thought with a superstitious little shudder, All ‘neath the world’s dark eaves. He’d definitely been reading too much Sloane.

Then they rounded a bend in the crevasse, and Elan almost yelped as the lights illuminated a vast, ice-encrusted face.

What ‑ !” he exclaimed, and even if he wasn’t yelping he had to stop and take a breath after the word emerged rather too high and loud. He looked at Broker, and found the Blaran grinning as only a Molranoid could grin. “I should probably have expected this.”

The face, all great flex-moulded slabs of ancient composite and treated stone, was connected to a body just as immense and squared-off. It wasn’t quite humanoid, wasn’t precisely Molranoid either, but was somehow … dwærvyn, Elan thought, as the sight of the monstrous construct called to mind all the stories he’d been trying to avoid thinking of. The deep-down myths of the industrious dwarf-folk, the Engineer Kings of old … the restless barrow-bilges of the Wynstone Rex. He looked at the huge sad eyes. Now they were close enough, he could see that they were actually comms and receiving arrays, massive round dishes of dusty reflective metal, glassy domes surrounded by heavy-duty lighting systems. If the hunched shape had been lying on its back, Broker could have landed the shuttle in the cup of one of those eyes. Hell, he could have landed the Kadana Laar in one.

“Welcome to my humble abode,” Viator said.

The machine – for it was a machine, Elan knew, as well as a habitat – had four thick, heat-scarred arms crossed over the strangely-folded stumps of legs that were mostly massive boots of what looked like warship hull material. It crouched there, wedged deeply into the asteroid’s native ice, like a primitive idol carved by inexplicably robot-obsessed worshippers of some bygone era. The shuttle decelerated and approached, and the sheer scale of the thing became clear. The crevasse they’d flown into was eight or ten miles deep, and the machine – even crouching – reached about halfway from the floor of shattered blocks to the overhanging top. Elan realised that it was occupying a niche in the asteroid that it had made for itself. By hand.

“It’s a Colossus,” he breathed. “Is it … is it the Colossus? As in, don’t set fire to the Rogue Colossus of Wynstone until you know he’s going to burn? That Colossus?”

Viator’s smug grin faltered. “No,” he said, “that one wasn’t me. The Scarta Majaal – that is, the Blaran community operating around old Wynstone – look, it’s a long story.”

Kadana Laar. “I don’t imagine you have any other kind,” Elan said in amusement. He was aware of some of the old tales, of course. As well as another ancient proverb, from which the Scarta Majaal had taken their name. Ghååla tchera, scartata majaael. “The Infinites are cruel,” he recited. “Keep your dreams small.”

Broker looked at him in surprise, and his grin returned to its previous levels of confidence. “And nobody who ever saw a Colossus stomping around on Wynstone ever accused anyone involved of dreaming small.”

Elan shook his head. They flew closer and closer to the Colossus, until its shape was no longer discernible and they might as well have been flying at a natural cliff face. They were, he deduced, going to land in the fifty-foot-high by hundred-foot-wide slot that was the machine’s mouth.

The Colossi, according to history that was irredeemably melded with folklore at this stage, had been tools of a Wild Empire civilisation on a planet now known as Wynstone’s Attic. Using every unholy scrap of ill-advised technology and all the arrogance of the human race over the course of generations, they had torn the planet open and had attempted to convert it into a relative-capable starship. Elan had seen some of the ancient specifications tablets.

The Engineer Kings had fallen. The world had burned, and was uninhabitable to this day. The only settlement now was the Attic itself, a series of vast orbital structures that had been intended as components of Wynstone Überhub, a part of the great Godless machine … but were now barely capable of supporting a couple of farms and a handful of deeply weird residents and a staging area for a re-terraforming effort that nobody expected to really go anywhere but at least kept a few hundred humans from making nuisances of themselves.

Whether the Scarta Majaal had been involved in the downfall of Wynstone Überhub and the Engineer Kings, nobody really knew. The Molren would always blame Blaren, but the whole thing smacked of a Next Time Listen To The Molren lesson to Elan. The Colossi had found their way into Six Species myth in various forms, most famously the Rogue Colossus, but this …

“Well whatever the case,” Elan said, “I’ve never seen a Colossus before and never thought I would, so it’s jolly impressive. Does it have a name?”

“C. Sentinax,” Viator told him in proud tones. “Eight miles tall when fully extended, but it’s been a while since we went for a stroll. It’s been folded up for so long in its five-by-three-mile crouch, it may not even be able to stand up anymore. Although I have taken pretty good care of it over the years.”

Elan shook his head. It was said that humans loved nothing more than playing God. The humans who had waded the boiling surface of Wynstone in these machines hadn’t been playing. “I’m afraid I’ve never heard of C. Sentinax,” he felt the need to apologise.

“Well, that is kind of the point,” Broker said with a modest wave of his lower hands.

“And they – nobody’s found it?”

“Hades-line space is pretty damn big,” Viator replied. “And I’ve adopted cold-running techniques and shielding that make the Bleb, and C. Sentinax, and everything inside, look like a piece of ice floating in the black from a few hundred miles off. It’s important to be invisible when you’re carrying a payload this precious.”

“Right,” Elan said. “The Repositorium.”

“Exactly.”

“Still,” Elan said as they decelerated and crept closer, deeper, into the shadows of C. Sentinax’s face and the true scale of the ancient machine outgrew his brain’s ability to accept it, “something like this … a Repositorium, a Colossus … it sounds like the sort of thing that’d be hard to keep quiet.”

“You’d be surprised what the Fleet can keep quiet,” Broker laughed. “I flew C. Sentinax right into an ambush of the Worldship holding the Repositorium. I punched through the hull, walked in, robbed the place and then flew out again – I wish they hadn’t covered it up. It was amazing.”

Elan chuckled, fairly sure at this point that he was being made sport of. “So, relative-capable as well as space-capable?”

“Maybe once upon a time,” Viator replied, then squinted at Elan. “Are you collecting data to share with the authorities when you get back?”

“I think we both know I won’t be telling anyone about this,” Elan said. “I’m not a member of the Þursheim police force or the Fleet Repositoriad, and everyone would laugh at me if I told even a fraction of what I’ve seen so far. And even if they didn’t, you would just hate to rob the galaxy of such a keen an incisive mind as this one,” he tapped the side of his head.

“That is true,” Viator conceded.

They landed in the gloomy cavern of C. Sentinax’s mouth, double-rows of massive airlock-teeth ascended and descended from floor and ceiling, and the shuttle powered down.

About Hatboy

I’m not often driven to introspection or reflection, but the question does come up sometimes. The big question. So big, there’s just no containing it within the puny boundaries of a single set of punctuationary bookends. Who are these mysterious and unsung heroes of obscurity and shadow? What is their origin story? Do they have a prequel trilogy? What are their secret identities? What are their public identities, for that matter? What are their powers? Their abilities? Their haunted pasts and troubled futures? Their modus operandi? Where do they live anyway, and when? What do they do for a living? Do they really have these fantastical adventures, or is it a dazzlingly intellectual and overwrought metaphor? Or is it perhaps a smug and post-modern sort of metaphor? Is it a plain stupid metaphor, hedged around with thick wads of plausible deniability, a soap bubble of illusory plot dependent upon readers who don’t dare question it for fear of looking foolish? A flight of fancy, having dozed off in front of the television during an episode of something suitably spaceship-oriented? Do they have a quest, a handler, a mission statement, a department-level development objective in five stages? I am Hatboy. https://hatboy.blog/2013/12/17/metalude-who-are-creepy-and-hatboy/
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