They ate again, Viator apologising for his lack of familiarity with human patterns of digestion and rest. Once upon a time, he claimed – again without confirming anything specifically – he’d been quite well-versed in primate upkeep. But the skills had atrophied with lack of use.
After lunch, Elan did a little more work on the book. The knowledge he now possessed, such as it was, lent a little more context to some of the passages although he was still wary of confirmation bias and other pitfalls.
The Repositorium had lapsed back into the oddly soothing nonsense of the underbabble and had not provided much more clarification on Elan’s role in the ‘mystery of language’, or what that even meant, or really anything about why he was there in the first place. It did, however, seem satisfied he was present in the Colossus, in its own strange way. Viator explained a little embarrassedly that it was more or less an even bet as to whether one might get more sense from the Repositorium or an aki’Drednanth at any given moment.
“There used to be special academics,” he told Elan, after they’d retired to a warm and comfortable sitting room inside the suite of chambers that had once belonged to C. Sentinax’s ruling family and were now Broker’s home. “Not like the Repositoriad – actual scholars, machine mind interpreter savants who could communicate with the Repositorium properly. And of course they had hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to arrive at some kind of pattern, some kind of common linguistic basis. And the Repositoria were less broken back then, too.”
“Well, I certainly don’t have thousands of years,” Elan said, “and I don’t know if there’d be much use in my spending the couple of hundred I’ll be lucky to get trying to make sense out of something that … well, it doesn’t seem like making sense out of it’s the point, does it?” Viator spread his hands helplessly. “What I mean is … well, it’s like the language of the butterfly, don’t you see? If I haven’t understood it in a day, then a hundred years isn’t going to make a noticeable difference.”
“If you say so,” Viator conceded, “and given the success you had in a day, I certainly don’t feel qualified to argue the point. I still maintain it makes you a distant, distant outlier, though. And one should probably avoid making broader academic points based on the experience of an anomaly.”
“That’s fair. I wouldn’t want to apply the personal practices of a freak like me to a wider field,” Elan chuckled. “But since this is about me, and the book, and the Repositorium, and that stuff in the vat … ” he frowned. “You said it had melded with the stuff. The Repositorium. What happened there?”
“That was back when I first acquired the sample,” Broker explained. “Like I said, I was let in on the existence of the stuff – the relic, whatever you want to call it – and so once I recovered it and got it back to the Bleb, I set it up and I told the Repositorium about it. The Repositorium was quite excited about it all.”
“Excited?” Elan asked in amusement.
“Oh yes. Positively jabbering. It helped me program some data-gathering probes, sort of disposable direct-feed things that we could drop into the goo and then transmit information into the Repositorium until they dissolved. Only took a couple of seconds, and damned if I know what sort of information it gets from them. We tried it a few times before it just decided it had learned all it was going to,” he smiled at Elan. “That was about the point at which it started getting very insistent about getting your help.”
“So quite aside from heralding my birth with a fun little poem about my brain, you’re saying the Repositorium was behind you inviting me here?” Elan said. “There I was thinking you couldn’t get the Second Book of Sloane translated without me.”
“I couldn’t get it translated without you,” Viator insisted. “It was a convenient pretext, but it also happened to be the truth. I snagged that copy right about the time the Repositorium and I started trying to figure out the goo, since some extremely dubious chains of provenance connected them – in fact, calling them chains would be a stretch; they were more like cobwebs.”
“Cobwebs of provenance,” Elan said whimsically. “I like that.”
Broker lifted his ears in amused agreement, then went on seriously. “Even so, I didn’t lie. Nobody had made any headway in translating it. It’s a wonder nobody had asked you before now, actually – except, as I say, this is a pretty obscure document and you’re maybe not as famous as the Repositorium’s poetry would have people believe.”
“I’m crushed,” Elan grinned. “It also said I was late. When was it expecting me, exactly?”
“Well, the Repositorium doesn’t have the best grasp on the flow of time,” Viator said, “especially recently. Whether that’s because of some corruption or confusion it took on board from analysing the goo, or just because the millennia are catching up with it … the truth is, though, it’s probably my fault,” he abruptly admitted. “It took me a while to get myself set up in such a way that it was possible to contact you through relatively official channels. It would have been even longer, but we’ve been fortunate enough to live in the same system all this time.”
“That is a stroke of luck,” Elan said. “Imagine if you’d had to fly C. Sentinax out here.”
“Hardly bears thinking about.”
Human and Blaran sat in thoughtful, comfortable silence for a short while.
Elan was thinking about the two incalculably precious relics Broker was hiding in this ostentatious asteroid lair of his. Three, if you counted his copy of the Second Book of Sloane. Four, if you counted the Colossus itself. How many more stolen treasures of antiquity was the old rogue hiding in C. Sentinax’s utilitarian bowels?
But the two that Elan found most compelling, even after spending all these hours poring over the Butterfly’s rambling and flowery journal, was the Repositorium and the vat of dark shooey. Two unknowable volumes of something neither synthetic nor organic, their ages impossible to determine but certainly predating the Wild Empire, provided what he’d been told and what he’d read had been accurate. Was it a second memory core of the ancient Fleet, plundered from its place of reverence in a Worldship Captain’s hoard? Was it the roiling soul of Augustus Sloane, suspended in primitive solvent? And had the Repositorium reached out and touched it? Spoken to it, one lonely and age-maddened relic to another? And what was Elan supposed to do? Why had he been brought into this millennia-old puzzle?
Was he supposed to solve it? Something Corp Sci, the Yala Karl, Mad Doc Galhbron and the Monsters had not only failed to solve, but refused to?
It was the book that connected them. The Repositorium, the dark shooey, Elan himself. The book was what gave it all meaning. The book was where the answers were. The book was always where the answers were. Whether it was the truth about an ancient scholar of lost Earth or weird instructions on how to kill an unkillable man. If it was important, someone would write it down. If it was unimportant, someone would write it down. That was the wonderful and terrible thing about communication. Filtering the signal from the noise.
“All those organisations that had that vat of goo before you,” Elan mused, “and none of them did anything with it. The Yala Karl tried dividing it up to make more, but that’s about it.”
“That’s about it,” Broker agreed. “There’s a pretty comprehensive list of the things that will dissolve in it and the things that can be used to contain it, what level of containment is needed to prevent evaporation and how long evaporation takes, but when it comes to actual findings…”
“The Repositorium was the first mind to put sensors into the stuff and take readings from it.”
Broker nodded. “As far as we know,” he said. “The Repositorium is the first mind to have studied the dark shooey and come away with anything resembling a finding.”
“And its finding was me.”
Broker chuckled. “And its finding was you.”
“You joke, but there really isn’t,” the Blaran said. “You’ve already translated more of the language of the butterfly than anyone in history, and made a reasonable connection between the dark shooey, Augustus Sloane and misbegotten creatures lore. You can quite easily stop here and call it a win. Rest on your laurels, as the Grand Boënne used to say.”
“The vexation of the laurel crown is that too soon it withers,” Elan murmured, “and the next is ever coronated with the turning season,” Viator blinked, and Elan laughed. “Sloane,” he said. “Failings and Lies, chapter … fourteen, I believe. Long before the old Dominion said it, at any rate.”
“He really did have a line for everything, didn’t he,” Broker mused.
Elan smiled, but his thoughts were drifting deep again.
Yes, he could stop at any point. And as occurred with embarrassing frequency among his more spectacular academic achievements, any point he stopped at would likely be unprecedented –cause for a victory lap and a lifetime of self-congratulation. The half-dozen people who understood a fraction of what he’d done would be admiring, envious, and satisfied.
But one person understood all of it, and that person would know he’d stopped before the end. That there had been a right answer and a perfect answer, and that he’d settled for right. And that person would not be satisfied.
And that person, of course, was Elan Ende.