“The Repositorium led me to it,” Viator said, “or at least revealed where it had been placed as part of a relic storage effort. Basically a mothballed lab that had run the full gauntlet of shady-fuck ownership. I’m talking the greyest of grey-page setups: Corp Sci, Fleet Bio, the Separatist research umbrella, the Yala Karl, Mad Doc Galhbron’s biorelic lab, the Monsters … ”
“AstroCorps Special Weapons Division had this thing?” Elan resisted the urge to cover his mouth and nose. If it was a chemical agent of some kind, he was either perfectly safe or already doomed. He chose to believe it was the former. Even in a list including someone called ‘Mad Doc Galhbron’, though, the Monsters were alarming.
“The good news is, none of those groups ever did anything with it,” Viator said. “They each seemed to just act as a storage facility for it, either for a few years or a few centuries, then it was handed on to the next bunch of terrifying mostly-faceless bastards under extremely confidential circumstances. The bad news is ‑ ”
“What could be so dangerous, even the Monsters didn’t play with it?” Elan murmured.
“Well, exactly,” Broker nodded. “As far as we can tell, it’s variably organic,” he checked off points on his fingers, and even the three fingers and thumb of one Blaran hand was more than he needed. “It’s corrosive, and it evaporates in air unless at least partially enclosed in certain nonconductive ceramics. In this case, bog standard half-point carbon glass.”
“And what exactly does variably organic mean?” Elan asked.
“Basically,” Broker replied, “it means the corrosive agent is inorganic – in fact, it’s without recognisable characteristics altogether. If inert transpersion byproduct could be acidic, it would be that. The Yala Karl even called it dark shooey.”
“Shooey is already pretty dark,” Elan tried to keep his voice light, but couldn’t tear his eyes away from the churning globe. He could hear it, a low wet whisper like the underbabble’s evil twin. Dark shooey. “I assume the organic part is whatever’s wound up dissolved in there over the years?”
“Precisely. It’s so thoroughly dissolved that barely a hydrocarbon string could be teased out intact, and yet … variably organic,” the Blaran shrugged. “Organic matter and inorganic whatever-the-fuck, blended so inseparably that the amalgam classifies as both.”
“Sloane,” Elan breathed.
He practically heard Viator’s ears slap the sides of his skull. “Okay, how the Hell did you get there so fast?” he demanded.
“I was just thinking about the Butterfly’s journal,” Elan said. “The urn, the reliquary, the dangerous something that could have burned a hole in the ship, should it escape its prison of what I was pretty sure was some sort of insulating ceramic, but that made no sense – until now. And really, what else could it be, considering the convoluted way you introduced me to the whole thing? The Second Book, the Repositorium, all of it. What other possible connection could there be?”
“I … ” Broker looked as though words honestly escaped him. “So many things,” he eventually rallied, his tone almost indignant.
Elan acknowledged this with a smile. “Are we looking at the mortal remains of Augustus Sloane, preeminent scholar-poet of old Earth, though?” he asked. “Ritual dissolution in synthetic acid isn’t any ancient burial method I’ve ever read about, although some of the Áea stuff could get pretty wild … ”
“Nobody’s really certain,” Viator admitted. “Since we didn’t get a proper translation of the Second Book of Sloane until now ‑ ” Elan opened his mouth to object, and Viator raised an upper hand. “Or even a partial and tentative translation from a pathologically modest and cautious academic wonder-child,” he amended with a smile. “There’s only been the Repositorium’s chatter, and the very few notes made by the various groups that have acted as caretakers over the millennia. And those notes have been pretty hard to come by, as you can probably imagine.”
“Even for a fellow of your talents?” Elan said mildly. “Commander Broker?”
Viator ignored this little jab. “I think he might have been dissolved in here, like a form of mulching, recycling on an old ship maybe, but this stuff is different. I could never figure it out, and I never had high hopes of doing so. I have a healthily high opinion of myself, but even I wouldn’t expect to solve mysteries that stumped Galhbron and the Monsters. That’s why your translation is so exciting.”
“It’s more than them just being stumped, though,” Elan said. “From what you’re saying, they didn’t even try. They just buried this thing and handed it on to the next bunch of war criminals with room in their basement,” he shook his head. “Besides,” he went on, “I never got much of a sense of scale but I’m pretty sure the urn or reliquary or whatever it was the Butterfly had – it wasn’t this big.”
“Neither was this, whenever it was first recovered,” Broker replied animatedly. “It increased in volume over time, expanding to fit whatever vessel it was placed in, until it levelled out at … well, almost exactly the volume of an average humanoid, if you liquefied one.”
“Really?” Elan looked up at the churning bulb of tarry liquid.
“And that’s total volume,” Viator added. “The Yala Karl ran one experiment, separating out smaller volumes to see whether they would all grow to the same size. Probably intending to weaponise it or sell it as an industrial solvent. But it didn’t grow. One of the smaller volumes was lost, though, and then the other volumes all grew accordingly. Like they were connected, entangled on a subatomic level, and knew when there was a full quantity. Weird stuff like that.”
“One human’s-worth of goo,” Elan frowned, “including the inorganic acid stuff?”
“The whole amalgam,” Broker confirmed. “All of it adds up to about one average human.”
Elan shook his head. What does it mean? What does any of this mean? “What with some of the more technical parts of the Butterfly’s account,” he said slowly, “I was actually beginning to wonder if we were looking at some sort of lost technology. Like the vessel, the urn Sloane was in, was maybe some kind of sleeper pod, storage. Like a living relic, he was being taken off Earth along with the Book, by some refugee pilgrims on their way to Declivitorion … ”
“But to be in a sleeper for – conservatively – eight thousand years,” Viator’s ears slanted sceptically.
Elan nodded. “Even a Molranoid would have a rough time with that. A human would – would turn into meat porridge,” he looked at the seething black sludge, and suddenly the cardigan felt pathetically inadequate. “It’s possible,” he concluded, “that what we’re looking at here really is nothing more or less than the remains of a human that was put in some sort of artificial storage suspension, the exact science of which is long since forgotten. Put in there, dead or alive, and – and just left there for too long. Whether it was Sloane himself, or some other scholar, or a random refugee from Earth, there’s no way to establish that now. The storage medium and the – the body are completely intermingled. See, it’s possible that there’s some sort of blueprint, some sort of coding that has survived in the fluid, and that’s why it can only regenerate enough to account for one body. It can’t create more, any more than a sleeper pod can open up and spit out more than one Bonshoon. The Yala Karl think tank might have called it dark shooey, but just because they couldn’t identify any mechanism or characteristics, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Its very corrosiveness would seem to imply that they missed something. And any chance we might have had to find it, well, it probably vanished when the Zhraak Dome went up.
“All these academies and shadowy organisations have held onto this thing, but there’s nothing to be done with what’s left of whatever it was. It’s just … liquefied junk from the Wild Empire.”
Even as he spoke, Elan knew he didn’t really believe it. The problem was, he didn’t know what was true, if this wasn’t. The simplest explanation made no sense, and neither did anything else.
He stood and looked up at the strange urn for a few moments, and then became aware that the Repositorium had fallen silent. Had been silent, in fact, for some minutes already.
“I guess the question we have to ask, then,” Viator said quietly, “is whether we mark down what we’ve learned, the possible connection between this relic and the Second Book of Sloane, and box it all up for the next bunch of war criminals.”
Elan glanced up at the Blaran, who was smiling sardonically. “I’d be willing to amend that to ‘war criminals and tomb desecrators’,” he conceded. Viator puffed a chuckle through his slitted nostrils. “What seems to set this chapter of the relic’s existence apart is the Repositorium’s involvement,” he went on, and turned back to the smooth bank of machinery that Broker had indicated.
“This is not a mystery of physics or biology or chemistry,” the Repositorium said after a long silence. “This is a mystery of language. This is a mystery of the mind. Of the brain. And that is why you are here, Elan.”