“Welcome back, Commander Broker,” a gravelly human-male voice spoke from a dark, chilly corner of the landing bay as they disembarked and headed for the back of C. Sentinax’s throat.
Elan looked up, then turned to Broker and jerked a thumb at the ceiling. “Is it … ?”
Broker shook his head. “The Colossi used to have synth hubs – the mech, they used to call it back in the day – but the technology sort of predated the synthetic intelligence as we know it,” he explained. “C. Sentinax doesn’t sync with the synths that pass by, anyway. It’s just a computer.”
“You convinced MagaXidh Ende to accompany you, I see,” C. Sentinax said.
Again Elan glanced up at Viator, and the Blaran smiled. “It’s a very sophisticated computer,” he said, and raised his voice a little. “That’s right,” he said. “C. Sentinax, Elan Ende. Elan, C. Sentinax.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Elan said, on the basis that it never hurt to be polite to a machine that could talk back and also, just maybe, punch a hole in a Worldship.
“Howi,” the gravelly voice said in a tone too solemn to be anything but humorous in intent. Elan felt a laugh blurt out of him at the ludicrously antiquated and formal dialect. It was a military acknowledgement or greeting, according to his studies – AstroCorps had programmed their deckhand clones to say it when they came out of the printer, to signify that they were properly completed.
Broker led Elan through the dimly-lit and surprisingly grimy interior of the Colossus. It was impossible to distinguish anything in the structure that said giant megaengineering robot rather than, say, refinery or power plant. They crossed echoing metal walkways and corridors, rode an elevator that sounded as though it ran on clockwork, and passed several huge dark-greased pylons like windowless high-rise buildings in the phospho-lit gloom. Eventually they moved into warmer, better-illuminated passageways that were clearly where Viator spent most of his time.
Elan heard the underbabble before they even reached the room where the Repositorium was stored.
“ … sidneyrex, port-a-clade, pandleymar, premleyfoo, premium roast, premium roast, premium roast keeps you at your post, but beans on toast is yum the most.”
The underbabble was a sort of linguistic placeholder, sentience-by-standing-wave, composed of sounds and fragments and free-associating statements. It was the foundation on which the Repositorium’s communication model was built, and many of Elan’s human peers were of the opinion that no actual communication model existed – just the underbabble. Of course, a lot of Elan’s Molran peers believed the same of humans – that they were just repeating back noises they’d heard and that any illusion of sentience this bestowed was a fluke of association and wishful interpretation. So human opinions of the Repositorium underbabble could usually be dismissed as surliness. It wasn’t as if many humans ever got the opportunity to interview the strange old mind.
Minds, Elan reminded himself.
“Yum the most, yum the chum, chum chum chumblermar, dumblermar – ah, you’re here.”
Elan wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting but the large, well-lit laboratory in marbled cream gothic was not it. Huge slabs of computing systems and solid-state databases could have been part of the Colossus or might have been added in later. They seemed more Fleet-y than the factory-like setting through which they’d walked to get here, but just because they were smoother didn’t mean they were modern by any means.
Dominating the room, though, and braced by heavy curved arms of sensors and support manipulators, was a great bole of clear glass or some kind of plastic or clear crete. Inside it, like some mad scientist’s experiment that very much fit the large room’s aesthetic, a mass of seething black stuff glistened as it churned, seeming to boil despite the absence of a visible heat source.
“Hambley made, undreycrumb, squidney gage and tik-tray-teb-tab,” the voice of the Repositorium said, its tone turning oddly querulous. “You are late. You are Elan Ende and you are late.”
“Old railgun brain himself, at your service,” Elan found his voice, and bowed a little hesitantly to the great vat of dark fluid. “I’m flattered that my reputation precedes me.”
“Everything preceded you,” the Repositorium snapped. “You’re late.”
“I had no idea it looked like this,” he murmured to Broker. “It’s not solid at all, is it? It’s … what is it?”
“Ah,” Viator smiled, “there, I’m afraid, I’ve led you to the wrong conclusion and perhaps given you the mistaken impression that I even know. The Repositorium, you see, is this right here,” he crossed to one of the pale, round-cornered blocks of machinery and patted it affectionately. There was absolutely nothing in its appearance to set it aside from the computers to either side, or indeed any of the other machinery in the room. “It’s partially integrated with C. Sentinax’s comms system, sharing the dataload and – well, I programmed them with different voices just so I could tell them apart, on the rare occasions they both speak coherently. But it’s also partly melded with this,” he concluded, looking up at the globe of squirming darkness.
And this is … ?” Elan prompted.
“That’s rather what I was hoping you’d tell me,” Viator said.