He slept, but not well. When he woke, and stepped out of the slightly preservative-scented guest quarters, the Colossus was heavily silent around him.
“Um, good morning, C. Sentinax?” he called.
“Good morning, MagaXidh Ende,” C. Sentinax’s voice came from the ceiling transmitters as usual. “Commander Broker asked me to prepare breakfast for you in the executive galley, and place any other resources you might require at your disposal. He’s performing some maintenance down in my left leg’s main collider core, and should return by local midday. Of course if you need to communicate with him that can be arranged even though the collider is built to isolated specs, and he can be here in half an hour ‑ ”
“That shouldn’t be necessary, thanks,” Elan said, and followed his nose to the stylish but similarly sterile restaurant where the Colossus’ systems had produced a pleasant breakfast of ‘ponic fruit, a still-sizzling hexagon of fried meat, and a plate of beans on toast. “Beans on toast is yum the most,” he recited lightly.
After breakfast – he’d attempted to engage C. Sentinax in conversation with a reasonable degree of success, but any time he veered into subtle questioning about the shady past of the Colossus and its owner, C. Sentinax had apologetically informed him that information was privileged – he returned to the Repositorium’s lab.
“Dudleymay, tumblehedge, tambley – good morning, Elan,” the Repositorium greeted him. “I hope you slept.”
“I did, thank you,” Elan replied, a little jarred by the Repositorium’s odd phrasing. “I wonder if you can tell me anything about the … cobwebs of provenance the dark shooey has attached to it.”
It was C. Sentinax, not the Repositorium, that answered. “All of the available information on prior stewardships, experiments and anecdotal origins is stored on this data cube,” at this, a green light blinked on an interface on the other side of the room, accompanied by the ding of a charmingly retro bell.
Elan spent a short time scrolling through the reams of information, but it was much as Viator had said. Various groups had held onto the container of goo over the years, and they’d all poked at it a bit, but ultimately had done nothing but keep it hidden. Its earliest known anecdotal handover placed it in very early Fleet possession, possibly contemporary with some of the older Declivitorion academies and archaeological stashes. A container, was all it said, made of nonconductive ceramic.
One thing raised his eyebrows a little.
“None of these groups have Fergunakil members,” he said. “Okay, Corp Sci and Fleet Bio and AstroCorps SWD technically do, but Fleet Bio is so old it still has files active under Twin Species regulations that would exclude the sharks by definition, and none of the others mention any Fergie researchers on this specific project.”
“What’s there is there,” C. Sentinax said. “Commander Broker is of the opinion that until something is thoroughly understood and its potential for harm completely quantified, the Fergunak should be kept at arm’s length. Preferably somebody else’s arm’s length, at that. It seems like this was a widely-held opinion.”
“The Scions of Tao-Heil cannot know that anything of Sloane survived,” the Repositorium spoke up unexpectedly. “Their imprisonment must endure.”
“Excuse me?” Elan blinked. “The Scions of who?”
“That’s just something it sometimes calls Fergunak,” C. Sentinax explained. “There is an extensive concordance on this data cube,” there was another green light, another ding, and Elan tapped at the rolling text idly as he let his mind drift again. Understandably, the Repositorium had a huge range of slang and shorthand and alternate names for things, each more arcane and kooky than the last. He casually scanned for some of the troublesome terms he’d been left unable to confidently translate in the Second Book of Sloane, but didn’t find much.
“Imago,” he said with a smile.
“Excuse me, magaXidh Ende?”
“Oh, just another term for butterfly,” Elan said. “Can I see the data you got from the sensors Viator was talking about? The ones you put in the goo and let dissolve, I mean.”
“They were but the creaking of a gate, the grinding of an airlock long encrusted with debris,” the Repositorium said.
“Um, right. Those.”
“This data cube,” C. Sentinax said, and a third panel lit up. “But florid prose aside, the Repositorium isn’t wrong.”
Elan frowned at the information. It was about what you’d expect, from a multi-spectrum scanning probe dunked in acid until it melted down. He’d never seen a set of readings from a dissolving scanning probe before, but he imagined this would be what it looked like. A meaningless string of unknown-substance markers that – yes – they did have a lot in common with transpersion byproduct, if you could say a lot about something so utterly lacking in properties. Just that, and a rapidly escalating sidebar of damage notifications, and then dead data. The probes seemed to have just reported ‘I don’t know what this stuff is’ and ‘but it’s melting me’ right up to the last moment.
“I’m not seeing the crusty airlock,” he admitted. “What made you call me? You said this was a mystery of language and the mind. I mean, I know this is the actual reason Viator came to me, why he offered so many tantalising inducements in such a convoluted way … what I can’t figure out is why. What does he expect me to do here? This isn’t a text or a – a message of any sort. It’s arguably a relic, but it’s demonstrably one that defies analysis.”
“It is a medium,” the Repositorium said.
“A medium like a suspension, the organic and inorganic elements blended together?” Elan asked. “Or a medium like a communication medium? Don’t say yes ‑ ”
“Yes,” the Repositorium replied blandly.
“It’s alright,” Elan forgave the machine / organic amalgam from the Six Species’ primeval prehistory. “A bit of a cheap play on a term that really only overlaps like that in a couple of languages, though.”
“The medium is … complex,” the Repositorium said solemnly. “No, that is mischaracterising. It is other. It is beyond human comprehension. It is beyond Molran comprehension. It may even be beyond aki’Drednanth comprehension. It is certainly beyond my comprehension.”
“Well, as a representative of the first species you listed there ‑ ”
“A pen is a pen is a pen.”
“Sure, but ‑ ”
“Banglewort, bambleham … ”
Elan frowned as the Repositorium lapsed back into its habitual underbabble. He wasn’t annoyed, because he was already coming to recognise the underbabble as a form of language. What academics and technicians assumed was recursive nonsense from a slowly-breaking artificial mind had, in person, emergent meaning. Yes, a lot of it was random jabber and word-fragments, but even they served as connective linguistic tissue. He wasn’t sure if this was something the institution of the Repositoriad hid from the general populace, as such – they did claim that the underbabble was a meaningful foundation-dialect of some sort. They just weren’t particularly specific about any of it. They ‘interpreted’ the underbabble, but there was a dangerous gulf between interpretation and understanding, particularly given the Repositoriad’s Fleet-driven investment in the status quo. It was entirely possible Elan’s understanding was something that had gone unnoticed since before the First Feast.
It wouldn’t be the first time he had untangled something declared meaningless by the Molran brains trust, but he’d also been wrong before. Conceit does not serve intellect, as one of Elan’s favourite little Sloanisms went, but rather strangles it as a troubled man in the clothing of a constable strangles an inquisitive neighbourhood child, all under the beguilement of authority. He’d always liked how grotesquely specific that one was in most modern translations. Of course, most professors and proverb-slingers only recited the first bit.
A pen is a pen is a pen. It was another Sloane quote he was fond of, because it meant nothing – and at the same time, meant whatever the Hell you wanted it to mean. A lot of Sloane’s writings were like that. He had been a disgraceful fraud – but a prolific one. And he’d had longevity. Longevity was the poet’s Godhead. That one wasn’t Sloane – that right there was a teenage Ende original.
I only know that if we are taking the last words off the dying Earth, and those words are going to belong to him, then they cannot be the only words. He can’t be all there is.
A pen is a pen is a pen. He circled around the gleaming bead of thought, looking for something his brain could target.
It was quite a commonly repeated phrase in the Book of Sloane, in fact, written at the top of no fewer than ninety-three of the book’s many collections and identified in eight distinct languages. Sloane’s body of work was impressive enough even if you took away all the repetition, but with the obsessively-duplicated phrases and weird self-rabbit-holing it was truly prodigious. Some people thought the expression was a signpost for each significant shift in the loose continuity, some new metaphorical lifetime of the poet. And it was generally found at the beginning of a new language or some dramatic shift in the book’s mood. Others theorised that it simply meant that Sloane had replaced his stylus and had taken up his work with a new one, and that was the thing he wrote first each time, out of some sentimental writher’s habit.
Some scholars insisted the full saying was a pen is a pen is a pen, and a book is a book is a book, and fabricated all kinds of deep and meaningful explanations and analogies about denotation and symbolism and suchlike. Unlike conceit does not serve intellect, though, there was no evidence of anything but a pen is a pen is a pen actually being written by Sloane, and Elan didn’t think it meant anything much. It was just an assemblage of words, something the great poet had used as a means of focussing his thoughts, and the reader could bring their own baggage to pile onto it.
That was why he liked it, because that was Sloane in a nutshell. Nevertheless … a pen is a pen is a pen, and a book is a book is a book.
Was a book always a book? Yes.
Was it always an assemblage of pages, upon which was recorded a written form of communication?
Again, yes. If it was something else, there would be another word for it. A monolith. A data cube. A Repositorium.
What about when there wasn’t another word for it? What was a book then?
“You understand,” the Repositorium said. “Because you’re the one who can.”
“I’m the one who can,” Elan murmured.
“You listen to the mirrors and the ice and the waters of a transpersion core, and you understand the words when everyone else sees only the lines.”
“Right,” Elan said. “A mystery of language, not physics. A mystery of the mind.”
“The sort of mystery that can only be solved by a human who can speak to the dead, I expect,” he added. “A human who hears Cantaña’s pain.”
“A human with answers to every question,” the Repositorium sounded pleased.
“I only wish I had the answers,” Elan said, but it was just … something to say. Because he did understand, damn it all. He knew what he had to do next. He knew where to get answers.
He knew how to read this book.
We tried it a few times before it just decided it had learned all it was going to. That was about the point at which it started getting very insistent about getting your help.
He wasn’t even worried about being wrong. It wasn’t conceit, strangling the nosy kid that was his intellect. It was knowledge as dull and as unassuming as the knowledge that he’d had beans for breakfast. He was only uncertain that he’d be allowed to do what happened next.
He looked up at the closest audio transmitter block. “Where is Commander Broker right now?”
“Still down in my left leg’s main collider core,” C. Sentinax replied. “He is still scheduled to return by local midday. If you need to communicate with him that can be arranged even though the collider is built to isolated specs, and he can be here in half an hour if you need him to attend or approve something in person.”
“Shouldn’t be necessary,” Elan said briskly. “Didn’t you also say any resources I might require would be at my disposal?”
“Yes, of course.”
Elan pointed. “I need an open tub that we can empty the dark shooey into,” he said, “built to the specifications marked down in … which dataset was it … you know, so it won’t go and evaporate if we pour it out of the vat.”
“There are several different containers in storage vault 7,” C. Sentinax said. “All cast to what we will call dark shooey compatible specifications.”
“And where’s storage vault 7?”
“That is in my scrotal orb,” C. Sentinax replied.
Elan spluttered. “Your what?”
“I’m joking,” the Colossus’s mech said with a chuckle. A door on the far side of the lab opened with a click. “Storage vault 7 is down this hallway and to the left. It has an old Wynstonian 7 painted on it. Commander Broker preserved my original iconography. You will no doubt be able to identify the correct door.”
“If I don’t, you’ve got the wrong guy,” Elan joked.
“It will be very disappointing,” C. Sentinax agreed.
Elan found storage vault 7 quite easily, and was able to select a wide, flat-bottomed and slightly in-curving tub from the lined-up selection of containers, and drag it onto a wheeled palette trolley. The tub was bulky but lightweight, seven or eight feet long and formed of some sort of hard foam that nevertheless had the feel of ceramic. He’d just have to trust it had the same nonconductive properties as the transparent vat, even if it wasn’t half-point carbon glass or whatever Viator had said. Its interior, due to the thickness of the walls, was a pocket somewhat under six feet in length and less than three in breadth. It was roughly the same volume, he judged, as the container in the lab.
One human’s-worth of goo, he thought, and wheeled trolley and tub back into the presence of the Repositorium.
He positioned the tub underneath the seething vat, and instructed C. Sentinax to initiate the process of draining the dark shooey into it. Surprisingly, given some of the obvious security restraints Viator had left in place with the mech, C. Sentinax complied promptly and soon the black, glistening stuff was roiling and hissing softly in the almost-full ceramic foam tub. It smelled like … no. Elan re-swallowed a sudden breakfast revival, and decided there wasn’t anything he disliked enough to insult by comparing it to the smell of dark shooey. He pulled the trolley and its leaden cargo out carefully to the centre of the room, and unbuttoned his cardigan.
“What’s underneath this lab?” he asked. He was looking at the tarry fluid lapping close to the lip of the tub, and thinking about displacement while trying not to think about what he was about to do next. If he thought about it, he was definitely going to ask himself if he was certain it was a good idea. And if he did that, instead of just being certain, he was going to lose his nerve.
“Quite a lot of half-point carbon glass plating, thank you for asking,” C. Sentinax replied.
“But don’t worry,” the Repositorium added. “It won’t overflow.”
Elan frowned as he folded his cardigan and put it on a nearby data block console. He briefly considered leaving a note for Viator, but realised there was no point. There were two witnesses in the room already. “That doesn’t seem physically possible, does it?” he said instead. “That it wouldn’t overflow?”
“Emphatically not,” the Repositorium agreed cheerfully.
“If you touch that stuff, it will dissolve you,” C. Sentinax warned, as if only just now realizing what Elan was planning. Elan took a datapad and a couple of other little bits and pieces out of his pockets and rested them on top of the cardigan, then considered stripping entirely.
“No,” he murmured, “that would show a lack of conviction,” he looked at his pad, and his mum’s handmade cardigan, and shook his head. There was conviction, after all, and pushing it.
The next time the mech spoke, it was in fact Viator. “Elan?” the Blaran’s voice sounded alarmed – and actually a little breathless. “C. Sentinax tells me you’re about to try something incredibly stupid and that it can’t stop you. I’m on my way back up, can I urge you to take a breath and let me talk it over with you?”
Elan climbed quickly onto the lip of the tub, and positioned himself awkwardly by feet and forearms above the surface of the dark shooey.
“Nope,” he said, and let himself drop as quickly and as whole-bodily as possible.
Pain engulfed him.