He became aware, weirdly, of having eyes and eyelids before he was aware that he was once again seeing things in the usual way. He lay and looked at the clean metal ceiling of C. Sentinax’s medical bay for several seconds before realising that seconds were passing, and that the ceiling and the sterile chamber around him were real, and that he was back in the real world. Or at least he was back inside a giant robot buried in a canyon on an asteroid called the Bleb, which was as close to the real world as he supposed he could expect.
He turned his head, marvelled at the complete echoing absence of pain, and focussed on the lean, angular figure of the Blaran sitting by his bedside.
“You,” Viator Broker said, his voice light but his ears flat against his skull in suppressed anger, “are an arsehole.”
“Sorry,” Elan said, genuinely contrite.
“I was this close to contacting your mother,” he scolded, and raised his upper left hand, forefinger and thumb a quarter-inch apart. “I’ve half a mind to tell her what you did anyway.”
“It’s no more than I deserve,” Elan acknowledged. “But she’d give you a disappointed look that you hardly deserve. It was entirely my fault, but that wouldn’t save you from the look.”
Broker shook his head, sat for a short time, then sighed gustily. “Humans,” he grumbled. “Go more than a few decades without much contact, you forget how crazy they are.”
“Sorry,” Elan repeated.
“At least you found your way back out. I suppose that means the Repositorium and I were right about you,” Broker shook his head again. “Just tell me you learned something in there.”
The theatrical, almost rehearsed nature of his comment brought Elan immediately back from his vague enjoyment of existing again. He pushed himself up into a sitting position in the bed, grimaced slightly at the clean but off-putting smell of stale cleanser, and looked at the Blaran. “How did I get here? What happened from your perspective?”
“I belted back up C. Sentinax’s femoral maintenance chute – which is not rated for organic maintenance workers, by the way – in what I suspect is record time,” Broker said, “yelling into the comm the entire way and trying to figure out what had happened and what we could do. Of course there was nothing – once something’s dissolved in dark shooey, there’s no extracting it again – but shouting at C. Sentinax and the Repositorium gave me something to do as I was climbing. By the time I got to the lab, you were back. And the vat – and your stupid bathtub – was empty.”
Elan watched him closely. “But you knew I’d been inside,” he said. “Inside, and then somehow reconstituted.”
“C. Sentinax reported it,” Viator said, deception plain on his face even if the precise nature of the deception remained elusive. “In very uncomfortable real time.”
“How do you know I didn’t fool them both?” he asked. “It’s not easy to confound a high-functioning computer, but it’s got to be easier than recombobulating oneself out of acid. What if I’d just let the stuff evaporate and pretended I’d gone in?”
Viator looked uncertain, then his ears lowered slowly. “It’s not difficult for a dissolved person to un-dissolve themselves,” he said levelly, “it’s impossible. So tell me what happened. If you remember, that is.”
“I remember,” Elan said mildly, taking note of the wary look in Viator’s eyes. “How long have I been out? In every sense of the word, I suppose. You got back to the lab to find the dark shooey evaporated and me … unconscious? How long ago was that?”
“Like I said,” Broker held up his hand again. “This close to contacting your mother,” he lowered his hand. “You’ve been unconscious for about five hours. As far as I could tell, you were resting. Sleeping,” he waved his lower hands. “I don’t know if there’s a distinction. I’m not qualified to treat human medical issues. It’s been centuries since I even tried.”
“We haven’t changed that much,” Elan joked.
“Apparently you’ve learned how to swim in corrosive sludge,” Broker said. “Tell me.”
“As soon as you tell me what happened to the others,” Elan replied, and was rewarded by the tiniest twitch of the Blaran’s ears.
“The other what?” Viator asked. “The other humans I gave medical treatment to? I’m pleased to say most of them died of old age … ”
“The people I led out,” Elan said calmly. “There must have been quite a few. From what I heard – well, not heard but … if I got out, they must have,” he raised a hand before Viator could answer. “And before you tell me any more fibs,” he said, “I know what that bitter taste in the back of my throat is. You – or more likely C. Sentinax – flooded the lab with some kind of sedative and that was why I’ve been unconscious. So, how about we start over?”
Broker nodded, his nostrils pinching up tensely before relaxing again with another sigh. “That sounds like a good idea, magaXidh Ende.”
“Right,” Elan closed his eyes, then opened them and looked around in muzzy bafflement. “Wh – where am I … ?” he mumbled.
“Medical bay,” Broker replied promptly. “I had C. Sentinax release a crowd-control sedative into the lab as soon as I heard you were attempting to dissolve your idiot self in a vat of acid. You passed out on the floor before you reached the tub and everything that you remember happening since that moment was in fact a dream brought on by the fumes. If you feel like telling me about that dream, I might begin feeling more inclined to tell you anything else that might have happened while you were knocked out. But until that time, you’re an irresponsible child and damn near got yourself killed while you were my responsibility, so you relinquish any right to being kept informed. Swallow your smarmy fucking grin if you understand.”
Elan swallowed his smarmy fucking grin. “I’m genuinely sorry, Viator,” he said seriously. “I did the same thing the first time I was shown a live transpersion generator, did you know? I put on the belt, walked straight inside, put my hand against the coldest wall I could find, and kept turning left until I couldn’t hear the supervising technician calling me names anymore. When I see an answer, when I see a path to understanding something, it doesn’t matter if it’s a book or a tub of corrosive black sludge predating the Wild Empire – I’ll just jump into it, apparently.”
“There’s a universe, a sphere of reality, completely separate and distinct from the space we know and the soft-space we fly our starships through when we turn on the relative engines,” Elan said. “A sphere best left alone. No laws of physics, higher or lower, exist there. None that we understand, anyway. It has a consciousness, but not one I could really get a handle on. People tapped into that sphere, somehow, so long ago that we only have the vaguest myths and fables of Gods and monsters to tell us about it. When it’s misused, it is spectacularly dangerous to this reality and everything in it.”
Broker nodded. “The shooey?”
“Not exactly. When two high-level beings imbued with that plane’s properties – I don’t know what those beings might look like, but we settled on the positive and negative cultural placeholders Angel and Demon – when they come together, they dissolve into dark shooey. Dark shooey in this reality, a kind of eddy in whatever passes for spacetime in that one. That was where I was. Every molecule was rendered down, but consciousness remained. Of a sort.”
“Consciousness separate from that other sphere itself?”
“Maybe,” Elan said apologetically. “I mean, I was pretty sure my consciousness was separate, because I’m me. But then, sometimes I would try to think something and it was impossible to tell if I wasn’t just hearing the whispered truth. The voice behind the darkness,” he explained when Viator gave a very visible start. “That was what it called itself. Or what I called it. Or something. Anyway, I guess you spotted the similarity there too,” the Blaran nodded, and Elan nodded back. “Before you ask, I have no idea what the connection is with the old Aquila relics from before they were wiped out by the Zhraakyn – maybe the Library of the Still-Beating Heart, and the Cantaña Áqui Codex, all those things were just … memories of memories of this other sphere. More deep history. But if you can say that there were any separate minds in there, then there was me and the whispered truth and a whole lot of others. All merged as thoroughly as the organic and inorganic stuff in the dark shooey sample.”
“‘A whole lot’?” Broker prompted.
“I didn’t take a census,” Elan said, “but yeah. There were minds in the wider sphere – I don’t know if they were all the minds, I got the impression that even the sphere I glimpsed wasn’t all of it, just a little cut-off corner – and who knows where those were from, or even when. But then there were also minds in the eddy. The ones like me, dissolved in the dark shooey. The whispered truth needed me to help clear all of them out.”
“And did you?”
“I don’t know. I think I helped some of the interlopers in the wider sphere, but to be honest I’m not happy with my efforts at interpreting what happened in there. The ones in the eddy … they were lost in there, lost in the dark, lost in their pain. I don’t know why none of them could undo it and get out. But it was a mystery of the mind, like the Repositorium said. I guess they needed a translator. Someone to read to the end of their sentence, so to speak,” he smiled, then looked up at Viator Broker seriously. “So I ask again,” he concluded, “what happened to the people I led out?”
Viator smiled. “I wasn’t lying about the sedative,” he said. “Of course, you’d already gone in by the time it released, and according to the security bumper footage you came out again straight away. By the time I got up there, it was all over. You and your wayward flock were out, and things were pretty chaotic. See, aside from you, there were thirty-six other people who came slithering out of that bathtub – and at the end of it all, the dark shooey was gone.”
“Thirty-six?” Elan looked around the empty medical bay, then back at Broker accusingly.
“Mostly they seemed to be assorted top-secret agency scientists and a few inconvenient whistleblowers who fell afoul of the goo over the millennia,” the Blaran said. “Nine humans – ten including you – ten Blaren, four Molren, eleven Bonshooni and two … to be honest we don’t know what two of them were.”
“An Angel and a Demon, by any chance?”
Broker shook his head, but he was smiling. “Eight of the ten humans to come out, of course, were knocked out by the sedative,” he explained, “which I have to say helped keep things a little bit calm. Two of the ten humans just sort of … shook it off. We were operating on the assumption that they were some enhanced subspecies from yesteryear, or else some human-looking but completely nonhuman species. I suppose if what you’re saying is true, then we weren’t far off.”
“What happened to them?” Elan asked. “All of them. But start with the Angel and the Demon.”
Broker waved a hand. “See for yourself,” he invited. “C. Sentinax, would you mind? Lab security bumper log J-217-LGMX.”
A wall-screen activated, and a multi-angle-adjusted view of the Repositorium’s lab appeared.
Elan winced as he watched himself tumble into the tub of black sludge. He’d really felt it had been more of an elegant drop-and-fold than that, but at least the strange properties of the dark shooey had swallowed him up entirely and without a splash. The surface of the fluid barely seemed to move, except insofar as it was in perpetual slow-surging motion anyway.
“Sorry,” he said again.
“Keep saying it,” Viator said in a hurt tone.
In a weird and even more awkward reversal of his clumsy immersion Elan’s body suddenly surged out of the tub, arched as it hit the sedative-laced air, and flopped sideways onto the floor. Its ejection was propelled by a fountain of tangled and flailing human and Molranoid bodies. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so surreally grotesque. One after another in a long, entangled chain, the bodies lurched and flipped and slithered out and across the floor, each one pushed by the one behind – and that wasn’t all.
In among the bodies, Elan saw, were smaller shapes. Artificial and animal, all as mixed-up and tangled as the larger bodies, they flew from the foam-composite tub and heaped up in great shifting waves on the floor with the struggling Molranoids trying to swim on the surface. The cascade of things went on for some time, crashing and curling against the banks of machinery and seeming to fill the lab waist-deep in squirming detritus.
“Oh,” Viator added, “I forgot to say. Aside from the thirty-seven people who came out, there was a solid ton of rats, chucks, gene pigs, biosample chainworms, and every kind of electronic sensor designed since the First Feast – and a few before. Apparently our data from the other caretaker agencies was even less complete than we’d thought. I’m considering opening a museum.”
“But … those things didn’t even have minds,” Elan objected.
“Well I could hardly say,” Viator retorted. “I’m willing to guess none of them went voluntarily into a tub of acidic sludge, so maybe we shouldn’t be pointing fingers and declaring who does and doesn’t have a mind.”
“Good point, well made.”
On the screen, the mass ejection from the tub had finally ended and the Molren, Blaren and Bonshooni – as well as two of the human figures, a few of the hardier test-subject animals, and a pair of miscellaneous aliens that Elan didn’t recognise – were staggering to their feet in the debris. The tub, sure enough, was empty and gleaming, the dark shooey gone. Elan peered at the two motionless humans, then realised Broker had frozen the playback with a gesture.
“The next bit happens pretty fast,” he explained, and gestured again.
The two humans were male and female, Elan noted at a purely superficial glance. Both appeared to be in their early adulthood – perhaps even younger than he was, although it was difficult to tell relative ages in people from different eras. The girl was tangle-haired and feral, her skin weirdly veined like marble, beautiful in an indefinably primitive way. The boy was skinny, pale and unhealthy-looking, his eyes bulging and a hand just rising to his neck. Both were curiously dressed, but in wildly different styles – she in some kind of utilitarian flight suit, he in shabby but colourful garb like something out of a bad historical recreation drama.
The girl turned to face the boy ‑
“What happened?” Elan exclaimed.
“I told you it was fast,” Viator said, and waved his hand again to play the footage back once more. Elan watched the boy’s bulging yet deep-set eyes widen still further, his skinny neck work glacially as he swallowed, and then he flashed into a grainy black shadow of himself. In the next instant, the shadow was gone and the debris that had been mounded around the boy’s ankles was collapsing in on the space he’d abruptly vacated. Viator turned to Elan. “You tell me what that was.”
“I can’t help you there,” Elan said. “He just – what, vanished into thin air?”
“Into sedative-laden air that should have knocked him on his backside, but yes.”
“And the other – she’s … ?”
“Her name is apparently Commander DeVaney of the Second Declivitorion Defence Squadron,” Broker said, “the so-called KazidNacht. Serial code LDV-42386-01. Near as we can tell. And that’s all she’s said so far,” he rolled his eyes. “Over and over again.”
“The … walkers of the it’s night forever?” Elan hesitantly translated the Elventalk. He’d read a few swashbuckle-heavy legends of the early space armies of the galactic rim, but hadn’t heard of a unit called the KazidNacht.
“I can’t help you there,” Viator echoed Elan’s words of moments before. “My knowledge of languages more than a couple of thousand years old is sub-par at best.”
Elan frowned, watching the Molranoids and aliens and the strange flight-suit-clad human as they began recovering from their centuries- or millennia-long ordeals, and started clamouring for answers. Viator cut off the feed, and Elan turned to him. “So where are they now? You can’t tell me I’m the only one who needed to be put in the medical bay.”
“This is C. Sentinax’s royal medical suite,” Viator said in amusement, “attached to the living quarters of the ruling dynasty aboard this big old brute. There’s an actual dedicated hospital down in the chest, for the civilians. Including a few dozen secure wards for difficult patients. With a little help from Colossus security measures I probably should have left in place around you, I got our guests all settled.”
“Settled?” Elan squinted.
“They were in decent shape for the most part. One had a minor injury of the spine from being crushed by that eruption of crap and rats. Another … ” he chuckled. “Speaking of Angels, one of the humans was one of the old, old, old divergent Wild Empire subspecies from somewhere or other, and he’d been augmented with wings that’d make the wildest shit-dancer proud. That was what Angels had, in the old gospels, wasn’t it? Wings? I mean this fellow only had two, not six, and he wasn’t wreathed in the Fweig’s cold fire … anyway, he’s in a coma of some sort, haven’t figured that one out yet. I suspect he might have been adapted to thinner air and lighter gravity, so he’s having difficulty. I haven’t had much time to examine any of them. I may have to contact a discreet veterinarian.”
Feeling oddly bashful, and more than a little foolish, Elan asked the question he’d been wanting to ask since the moment he’d realised Broker was attempting to hide what had happened. “Was Sloane … was he there? Was he one of the humans?”
Viator Broker sat looking at Elan for a time. He was smiling again.
“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “All of them, they’re from all up and down the history of the Six Species and the Wild Empire and old Earth. It’s like a sleeper pod deactivation, only they’re from multiple species, and all in reasonably good health. But I have no idea what most of them are saying. Even a couple of the Blaran and half the Bonshooni are speaking gibberish,” his smile widened.
“Sounds to me like you’re in need of a translator,” Elan said, around an imaginary strand of chewin’ grass.
Broker’s ears went up. “You can of course tell nobody of this,” he said. “Any of it. What we’ve found. That I was here. My true identity.”
“I don’t even know your true identity,” Elan said. “Not for certain. And you can trust my discretion. After all, I never told you about – oop,” he smiled. “Almost got me.”
Broker shook his head sadly. “You’re far too trusting.”
“I suppose there are people who would have me believe the Separatists would have me killed to keep me quiet,” Elan said. “Or worse.”
“Worse than killed?” Broker said in amusement.
“Discredited before my peers?” Elan twinkled.
Commander Viator Broker of the Separatist Fleet chuckled. “Come on,” he said, “we have work to do.”