Whoops, watch out, The Critic is trying to edit the past

Fuck this, I was supposed to be finishing a story today but I guess this is what’s happening on my computer instead.

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So this is happening. The Critic (I won’t link to the story but you can find it if you have to) has announced that there is a “myth” about the UK’s reaction to the Covid-19 crisis. The myth is that at first, they tried to keep things open and running as usual, knowing a large number of people would get infected, but that this would give them herd immunity.

The article actually can’t quite bring itself to deny this, because it’s – you know – it’s what fucking happened. And yes, it admits, this approach could be seen as a form of “aiming for herd immunity”, even though nobody said that at the time (except – you know – they fucking did). But they insist that the UK government did this on the urging of scientists.

And like I say, that’s entirely possible. Herd immunity is a thing. It’s how vaccines work. Nobody knew the best way to handle (or even frame) this pandemic and there were lots of schools of thought about it. I don’t doubt there were scientists – especially at the start, when little was known and there was a strong incentive to find economy-saving answers – willing to bank on herd immunity. We know this. Fucking Sweden tried it (thanks Tegnell!) and now we live next door to a plague pit. But whatever. Time will tell on what the best approach is and was.

But don’t tell us the business-as-usual model was scientifically supported and the lockdown was politically motivated with support from scientists with an economic bias. It’s the other way around, and it always was, because we were fucking there and we saw it fucking happen.

Don’t shit in my lap and tell me it’s a napkin.

Posted in Kussa mun hopoti? | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Light Australian History Lesson

This is worth a look, I’d already learned about Whitlam but wasn’t aware of the US’s involvement to this degree.

Posted in Office Posts, Random | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Riddlespawn

This got pretty long, and quite complicated as the distant past of the Void Dimension and the ancient species that live there began coming out of the woodwork. I won’t say careful readers of my published works should be able to put any of this together, although of course I am always ready to be pleasantly surprised. That sounds bitter but I’m really not – this was a lot of fun to write and I hope you find it interesting.


 

The nimble little amber-furred creature strode into the docking area ahead of her handsome bushy tail and stood, fists on hips, grinning up at the crew of the Conch. Her teeth, sharp and white except for one fang which was gold, gleamed in her pointy little muzzle. Her uniform was as regal and crimson and ostentatiously-gold-decorated as ever. She had a large bag slung over one shoulder – or a least it looked large as she set it down next to her boots. It wasn’t actually much longer than Galana’s forearm.

“Roney,” Hartigan said happily. He went down on one knee and shook the Boze’s hand. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Good to see you too, biggums,” she said. She greeted Galana, Chillybin, Bonty, Devlin, and tipped a little salute at Wicked Mary’s giela. “You’ve been busy, eh? Taking it nice and easy, seeing the sights.”

“Our ship isn’t as fast as yours,” Hartigan reminded her.

“I bet you’ve found a lot of lichen and algae,” Roney said. “Not much else to be found in this stretch of space. That’s why they call it the Sludge Corridor.”

“Who calls it that?” Galana asked.

“Y’know, maybe if you were to give us a map…” Hartigan said. “Just before you left last time, you mentioned a place called High Elonath that-”

“No time for that,” Roney interrupted, “and you don’t want to go near High Elonath anyway. Come on, let’s eat. Grab this for me,” she poked the bag with the toe of her boot. “I’ve brought some real food. Even a little something for Bloody Mary.”

“Oh?” the giela clicked forward and picked up the bag.

“A ferocious little critter called a pepper shrimp,” the Boze replied. “Fast, cunning, and packs a real punch. I’m pretty sure it’s still alive in its jar,” she added, “so handle with care, hm?”

“That doesn’t sound very regulation-friendly,” Galana said.

“You’re really not going to like the rest of the stuff I brought aboard, then,” Roney grinned.

They went down to the aquarium deck, and sat around a table Scrutarius assembled quickly out of storage crates. Roney laid out her offerings, introducing each one as she went, and Bonty rather worriedly checked each one and listed its approximate ingredients and danger levels.

“These are death pearls from the chasm of Nid.”

“There’s an awful lot of solid-state defragmented mercury in them.”

“And this is a holy mushroom pie made by the monks of the Wailing Dark.”

“A very small slice will probably be fine for us, but the Captain would probably enter a permanent state of psychotropic hallucination.”

“Fruit from the Tree of Thunder. They must be sliced just so, removing the skin and the seeds, otherwise they’re quite deadly.”

“These have at least three kinds of complex sugars that the scanner doesn’t recognise, but they’re probably harmless.”

“And this is a gourd of Prothagnian flavour seeds. I think I already picked out all the blue and purple ones.”

“I’d advise against anyone eating the red ones either, but the yellow and green ones are probably okay. Not for you, Captain.”

“Oh I say, poor form.”

“Don’t worry, Basil,” Roney announced. “I remembered what a delicate little giant fellow you are, and I brought you a roll of pixie wubblebread from the secret court of the King in Lavender.”

“It … won’t kill you,” Bonty announced. “You might want to have a drink handy to wash it down, though.”

For a little while, then, the reunited friends sat and ate, and watched Wicked Mary flash and sweep around her aquarium hunting the tiny, many-legged black shape of the pepper shrimp. Eventually the great shark stunned it between the wall and her great mottled-grey tail, devoured it in a rapid clashing of jaws, then was briefly unable to control her giela due to her gastronomic distress. She then recovered and declared the shrimp to be a delightful experience, but not one she relished the idea of passing all the way through her digestive system. Roney laughed and applauded this heartily.

“Speaking of the last time we were all together, and not speaking at all of digesting small creatures,” Scrutarius said, “how are … my gift, did you take care of it?”

Roney waved a fuzzy hand. “Oh yes, excellent care,” she said, “nothing to worry about there. Very funny it was, too. But perhaps a story for another time.”

“Alright,” Hartigan said, and took a large mouthful of the doughy pale-purple bread. “You said you needed our help with something – Karl’s bloody mittens!” he lunged for his drink and gulped it down while Roney and Devlin laughed. “It’s a spicy little bugger,” he burbled sheepishly.

“Alright, to business,” Roney wiped her eyes and chuckled as Hartigan glared at her over the rim of his glass. “You remember, last time we met, the star serpent – the big fiery beastie we faced together?”

“Hardly something we’re likely to forget,” Galana replied. She picked up a piece of the pale pink Thunder fruit, and chewed it. It was cloyingly sweet.

“Right, then you’ll remember it wasn’t really a creature,” Roney said. “It wasn’t intelligent, it was just a force of nature without a guiding hand.”

“Yes,” Galana replied. “You said it was a weapon used by some ancient hostile species. The Riddlespawn?” she glanced at Chillybin, who nodded slowly.

“The buggers who destroyed the Empire of Gold,” Hartigan recovered his voice, “and turned it into High Elonath. But didn’t you say they’d been gone as long as the Empire of Gold had? They were basically a myth?”

“Turns out I was wrong about that,” Roney said with unaccustomed solmemnity.

Galana and Basil exchanged a look of surprise. It was so strange to hear the witty Boze admit to being wrong about something, Galana was a little disoriented by it.

“You found them?” Chillybin said, with a low rumble from inside her suit that was even more unusual than Roney’s admission. “They are here?”

“One,” Roney said grimly. “Or a part of one. Sort of.”

“A part of one?” Galana asked.

Sort of?” Hartigan added. Roney flicked her huge ears enigmatically. “And you need us to face it, what?” he went on eagerly.

“And who is ‘we’ exactly?” Bonty asked. “The Boze?”

“Look, I just thought,” Roney said. “I figured, what with how you put paid to the star serpent, how ingeniously you make do with all this terrible technology of yours, and are still out here trying to fly around the galaxy, you’d be good allies to bring into this. Only … when we meet them, maybe we’ll just not tell them I found you still wading through the Sludge Corridor.”

“Tell who?” Hartigan demanded.

“I take it you’re interested?” Roney asked. “We’re about two weeks away from the gathering spot. I can explain on the way.”

“In my experience, just because you can explain doesn’t mean you will,” Galana pointed out. “Quite the contrary, in fact.”

“Alright, you got me there,” Roney said. “But if you want to make friends – friends who might be willing to come and pull you out of High Elonath when you inevitably blunder in there with your pants down – this is your chance,” she leapt up to stand on the box she was using as a seat, and extended her hand to Basil. “What do you say, biggums?”

Hartigan barely glanced around. “Let’s do it, by jingo!” he clasped Roney’s tiny furry hand firmly between two fingers and a thumb.

“Will your friends be able to give us more pepper shrimp?” Wicked Mary asked.

“All you can eat, my horrifying aquatic friend,” Bonty said.

“So one, then,” Devlin grinned. “When do we start?”

“We already have,” Roney announced. “The Bastard took us into the grey ten minutes ago.”

“Computer?” Galana said with a little sigh.

“Oh, look at that,” the Conch said mildly. “I thought it had gotten very soft-spacey out there.”

Their journey from the ‘Sludge Corridor’ to wherever Roney was taking them was as uneventful as all flights through the grey were. The Boze remained aboard with them, spending most of her time up in the Captain’s quarters or mooching around the bridge asking what the consoles did and why they didn’t do other, far more fun, usually impossible things.

“Do you know the story of the Riddlespawn?” she asked during one lull period while Basil, Galana and Chillybin were relaxing in Hartigan’s lounge. “What we’re facing, precisely?”

“Nothing,” Galana said. “Only that they were supposed to be gone for twenty million years, and they used star serpents as weapons.”

“Weapons, pets,” Roney shrugged. “Hard to say, really,” she looked at Chillybin. “What about you, frosty? What’s the aki’Drednanth perspective?”

“You tell me, Captain Pelsworthy,” Chillybin said. “You have spoken with other aki’Drednanth about this.”

Galana looked at Roney sharply.

The little alien shrugged, her great white-furred ears turning down. “A few,” she said. “None of them give a straight answer.”

“That must be frustrating,” Chillybin said, the mechanical voice from her glove flat and emotionless. Galana stifled a laugh, and Hartigan spluttered into his drink. “Will there be other aki’Drednanth at this gathering?”

“No,” Roney said with a little grunt. She jumped to her feet and began pacing the room. “You lot are like mothers telling their children not to throw rocks at the plaznok nest. ‘Leave the Riddlespawn alone,’ you say. ‘Nothing good will come of it,’ you say. ‘You are inviting ruination and destruction down upon your heads like the last great lords of the Empire of Gold,’ you say. Almost exactly like a mother warning her pups about plaznoks, in fact. The point is, the aki’Drednanth have never had anything useful to say.”

“That all sounds quite useful to me,” Galana disagreed.

“The Riddlespawn were weapons themselves,” Chillybin said. “The chosen children of a dark and violent force, they were savage and deadly. Our kind did battle with them, but seldom. And never when we had a choice. Most other enemies, we could face. But the Riddlespawn were like nightmares brought to life,” the great figure shifted slowly in her armour. “Our name, aki’Drednanth, means nightmare in flesh,” she said. “But it is just a name. We move from our Dreamscape and into the world of the living and back again, and we are formidable when we need to be, but not like the Riddlespawn.”

“That’s more or less what the other aki’Drednanth told me,” Roney said. She was standing on a chair now, fiddling with the little collection of decorations and souvenirs on Hartigan’s shelves. “A species of monsters that live in some kind of nether-Hell until called forth by the terrible entity that they were children to. They’d come rampaging out, smash everything to pieces, fling around their fiery star serpents, then wink back into nothingness. Without a trace. No way to follow them back to their lair and take them down once and for all.”

“The star serpent was the better part of a solar system in size,” Galana said. “If a Riddlespawn is big enough to fling one around…”

Roney shook her head. “No, they’re not much bigger than one of you lot,” she said. “Although there are all sorts of legends. I think they can be as big and dangerous as the story needs them to be. They’re terribly inconsistent. The one on Palothane is even smaller – not much bigger than little old me, actually. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m the one who found it, or ‑ ”

“Palothane,” Hartigan said. “That’s the name of the planet we’re heading to?”

“That’s the one,” Roney said.

“The one where your friends are waiting,” Chillybin said.

“That’s – yeah,” Roney said, and picked up the large, thick golden coin Hartigan had pocketed from the dragon hoard the Conch had almost been added to. “Hey,” she said, sounding surprised. She turned and waggled the gleaming disc with the disturbing spidery shape engraved on one side. “You lot had dealings with the Web? And they gave you a favour? I knew I’d come to the right people.”

“Hmm?” Hartigan said. “Oh. No, can’t say we ever met the Web. We got that from the Fudzu. They had a mountain of ’em.”

“The Fudzu aren’t real,” Roney said with a dismissive wave of her paw, and put the coin back. “But alright, be that way. We’ll get to Palothane in another few days, and that’s when the fun starts.”

“Fun like the star serpent?” Galana asked.

“Better,” Roney declared.

Galana suspected that there was something Roney wasn’t telling them about the group that would apparently be meeting them at Palothane, but the Boze was as elusive and difficult as ever. She did confess that she needed them for more than just their peculiar genius with inferior technology, but it was all wrapped up in her usual confusing layers of misleading information. And was all based in myths twenty million years old, just to make it worse.

All the Boze would reveal was that her mysterious allies couldn’t get close to the Riddlespawn, and even though she’d managed to find it she hadn’t been able to do anything on her own, and she suspected the crew of the Conch could help. Then there was a lot of unhelpful rambling about an ancient tablet, and a prophecy, and a family long divided, and the more she danced around the explanation, the more impenetrable the infuriating little creature made the whole subject.

“What do you think of this prophecy?” Galana asked Chillybin one night-shift. She was visiting with her friend in the icebox, the large refrigerated deck they’d converted for the aki’Drednanth just like they’d made the aquarium on the deck below for the Fergunakil. She didn’t visit often – Chilly was not fond of playing host, and preferred to be left alone to remove her freezer suit and run and roll in the cold.

“Not many prophecies can last twenty million years,” the aki’Drednanth said. It was a little jarring to hear Chilly speak when she was out of her armour. The words, formed by the movements of the electronic webbing she still wore on one great clawed hand, still came from the open suit that stood near the door. Chilly herself, meanwhile, rolled and scratched herself luxuriantly in the drifts of crushed ice. “Even the Drednanth dream grows confused over such a long time. But you heard what Captain Pelsworthy said about the Riddlespawn. About them being the chosen children of an ancient entity.”

“Children of … what, a God?” Galana asked. Such superstitions were not unusual among the various alien races. Even Blaran and Bonshoon groups had their share of stories.

“Not a God,” Chillybin lay in the ice on her back, great black-horned feet in the air, her hand moving lazily as it formed the words. “Something greater than a God. A natural law of the universe, with a conscious will and infinite power.”

“Aren’t Gods said to have infinite power?” Galana asked.

“Only by those like us,” Chilly said with a woof of amusement from her great shaggy chest, “who cannot see the difference between great power and infinite power, because both are so far above us we cannot see them. The Infinites were said to have been ten in number, and each were said to have taken a mortal species as children.”

“Who said all these things?” Galana asked with a smile behind her thermal mask, although she remembered Roney using the word, Infinites, before. If the Infinites had wanted you to get from place to place faster, she’d said, They would have introduced you to the Boze before now.

“Enough people, over a long enough period of time, that it seems a funny coincidence,” Chilly said. “But the funniest thing is, your species were also said to be the chosen children of an Infinite.”

“Molren?” Galana asked in surprise.

“So it was said,” Chilly said. “Molren, Bonshooni, Blaren, Fergunak, even humans.”

“And aki’Drednanth?” Galana asked.

Chillybin rolled, and regarded her with a glittering crystalline eye.

“No,” she said. “Of all the Six Species, the aki’Drednanth were the only children without an Infinite to be our parent. Ours is a … different family.”

“What about the Boze?” Galana asked.

Chillybin gave another deep laugh. “Perhaps they are,” she said. “I seem to recall a tale of a scattered and lost race called the Potádi, the Hounds of Mayhem. The Boze might be some remnant of them. Our friend Captain Pelsworthy certainly seems to fit the bill, doesn’t she?”

“She did say she was able to get close to the Riddlespawn,” Galana said thoughtfully. “Do you think that’s why?”

“I honestly have no idea,” Chillybin admitted. “But it is a strange universe.”

After two weeks at relative speed, they were really none the wiser about Roney’s plan or the terrible empire-destroying monster they were meant to be facing. They emerged from the grey as abruptly and without warning as they’d entered it, Roney marched onto the bridge and struck a bold pose in front of the main viewscreen. One by one, the others made their way to their stations.

“Alright,” Hartigan took his seat, “what have we got?”

“Standard solar system, red giant star, six rocky planets, only one seems to be habitable,” the Conch told them. “Not very habitable, though – you will need breathers and protective suits.”

“Palothane?” Galana asked.

“Palothane,” Roney confirmed grimly.

“There are seven ships in orbit,” Chillybin added. “Each one different, all of them alien of course. They have not seen us, as far as I can tell. We came out of soft-space a fair distance away and we may be running too quietly for them to notice us.”

“Aha, that’s the beauty of your ships and your communication devices,” Roney said. “So slow and steady and unobtrusive.”

“Captain Judderone,” Galana said, “I take it these seven alien ships are our ‘friends’ that you were telling us about?”

“Sort of,” Roney said. “They’re the Seven Sisters. The Pirate Queen’s elite guard.”

“They’re the bally what?” Hartigan demanded.

“Well, you know how you lot are the Six Species?” Roney said. “The Pirate Queen rules a similar bunch, only there are … ooh, at last count there were something like fifty-three species. Or representatives from them, anyway. The Seven Sisters are … okay, there’s one Gastronid, one Agony Worm, one Soulfeeder, two Cold Fingers Of Fate … and two representatives of the Boze.”

“Well, they all sound awful,” Devlin said.

“Except the Boze,” Bonty added loyally.

“Now, let’s not go making exceptions,” Devlin murmured.

Roney grinned, showing once again just how good her hearing was. “You’re right,” she said, “all seven of them are perfectly dreadful, and the Boze are two of the worst.”

“I thought you said you were the last Boze,” Galana reminded her.

“I am the last,” Roney said. “But I told you there were others. Look,” she went on awkwardly while Galana attempted to process this, “I … I may have misled you about how welcoming this group was going to be.”

“I think we were all pretty sceptical about that,” Galana said.

I wasn’t,” Hartigan said indignantly. “What about the friends who were going to turn up and help us when we get into trouble in High Elonath?”

“Well, I was more talking about me,” Roney said. “I’d be your friend. I mean, still. I’m already your friend, but I don’t know that I’d go into High Elonath for you. But, if that’s what you feel like you have to do, then helping with this will definitely be good practice, hmm?”

“Roney ‑ ” Bonjamin said, stern and grandmotherly.

“Look, I’m here to push the Riddlespawn back into Hell,” Roney said. “These cretins want to bring it the rest of the way out.”

“You’ve had two weeks to tell us about this,” Galana said. “Why didn’t you ‑ ”

“I did tell you. By Bozanda, you never listen. Here’s what we’re going to do,” Roney went on, speaking slowly and clearly. “I’m going to get in the Bastard and fly into the Seven Sisters, and get in a big noisy argument with them. You are going to fly this beautiful quiet old ship of yours down to the surface of Palothane and wait for me there,” she turned and headed for the main bridge doors. “I’ll give you the coordinates of the temple. Once they let me land ‑ ”

“Wait, did you say temple?” Scrutarius repeated. “Is it a spooky temple?”

Roney stopped and grinned over her shoulder. “Pretty spooky,” she said. Then she was gone with a swish of her tail.

“Tactically,” Galana said to the bridge in general, “this whole plan leaves a lot to be desired.”

“Maybe,” the Conch agreed, “but getting a lift from Captain Pelsworthy has cut almost five years off our journey.”

“Five years?” Bonty exclaimed.

“We are forty-seven thousand light years from our last stop,” the computer said. “We’ve crossed a distance greater than the breadth of all of Six Species space in just two weeks.”

“That would place us … ” Hartigan breathed.

“Very close to halfway around the galaxy from Declivitorion-On-The-Rim,” the Conch confirmed.

“That puts us close to where the alicorn is meant to be,” Hartigan said in excitement. “This High Elonath place.”

“Perhaps,” the Conch agreed. “Certainly we could fly on from here, since we have not yet been spotted by this so-called Pirate Queen ‑ ”

“What, and leave Roney in the lurch?” Hartigan exclaimed.

“The Splendiferous Bastard is away,” Chillybin reported.

“Separate the Nella,” Hartigan said. “We’re going in. Devlin, give us as close to absolute dark and silent running as you can.”

“Pretend you’re stealing something,” Bonty suggested. Scrutarius favoured her with a narrow look, but began entering commands into his console.

“I will remain here with Wicked Mary,” Chillybin said, and headed for the doors. “I feel this is a … family affair. I do not think I would be welcome down there.”

Galana frowned. Of course, it was probably a good idea for somebody to remain on the main body of the ship with the Fergunakil anyway, but it was always good to have a reason you could say out loud. “Do you think you can prepare some responses in case the Seven Sisters decide to attack?” she asked.

Chillybin paused in the doorway. “I can protect you against the other vessels,” she said, “even if their minds are alien to me. At least the Boze minds are somewhat familiar. And Wicked Mary, of course, will have tactical control.”

“What about down on the surface?” Bonty asked. “The Riddlespawn? Anything down in this temple?”

“I cannot sense any minds aside from the aliens in the ships,” Chillybin said. “But we have never had much success in sensing the Riddlespawn.”

“This is such a bad idea,” Scrutarius said, although he sounded delighted.

“Captain Pelsworthy seems to have gotten the attention of the Seven Sisters,” Wicked Mary’s giela announced. “If we are going to separate and attempt to land, we should do it now.”

“Running silent,” Scrutarius reported.

They crept towards Palothane, which was a blasted-looking little ball of rock under the baleful red fire of the sun. The location of the ‘temple’, according to Roney’s coordinates, lit up on the screens as a tiny red dot.

“Chilly seemed to know more about this than I do,” Hartigan said uneasily to Galana. “Did Roney tell you what we’re meant to be doing down here? How are we meant to push this Riddlespawn bugger back into Hell?”

“Roney didn’t tell me anything,” Galana said. “I actually got more information from Chillybin’s ancient aki’Drednanth ancestral memory.”

Basil whistled through his moustache. “That’s really saying something.”

They descended through the thin, howling atmosphere and landed on the shattered plain near the edge of the temple. It seemed to have been built in the middle of a crater that had probably been quite impressive a few million years ago but had since been worn away by the elements. Once they were down, they peered out at the temple through the Nella‘s screens – it was barely visible as a line of weathered blocks, the wind and sand and noxious gases obscuring the view.

They hastily donned protective gear and breathers, staggered off the shuttle and headed towards the weathered ruins, Galana and Bonty and Devlin supporting Hartigan and Wicked Mary, both of whom seemed in danger of blowing away in the sandstorm.

“Delightful place!” Basil shouted over the comm.

“I can see why you’d want to build a temple here!” Scrutarius agreed.

They climbed up onto the temple foundation and over the tumbled, sand-heaped remains of the outer walls, finding a broad depression not much different to the surrounding plains, although at least the wind was a little calmer. Rounded stone objects that could have been statues stuck out of the sand here and there. None of them were particularly pleasant-looking shapes. One of them was unsettlingly similar to the spider-like shape stamped on the coin Hartigan had found in the Fudzu hoard. What had Roney called them? The Web? That sounded about right.

“There is an opening over there,” Wicked Mary said, and pointed. A protected area between two statues and a broken section of internal walls held a darker patch that revealed itself to be a set of stairs descending below the surface. They staggered over and down the stairs, which were eroded almost to the point of being a ramp, and stopped once they reached a small chamber where the stairway doubled back and continued deeper. The wind receded at this point, although the air was still toxic, and Galana checked that they were still in contact with the Nella, and from the Nella the Conch.

“Still reading you loud and clear,” Chillybin reported. “You have gone below the surface but there is nothing in the surrounding stone to interfere with the signal.”

“Keep an eye on the signal, looks like we’re about to go deeper,” Hartigan said, stepping away from Devlin’s supporting grip with a little pat of thanks, and peering down into the darkness of the temple bowels.

“I am still in full control of my giela,” Wicked Mary reported, “so I imagine if the signal begins to fail I will notice that almost immediately.”

“Good point,” Hartigan said. “How are you doing up there otherwise? How’s Roney getting on?”

“Captain Pelsworthy is holding position among the Seven Sisters’ ships,” Wicked Mary reported, “and they seem to be communicating. They have given no indication that they are aware of our presence. She must be giving them a good argument.”

“I bet she is,” Hartigan said, and put a booted foot on the top step. “D’you think there’ll be traps down here?”

“If there are, Roney would have tripped them already,” Scrutarius said. “But you go first, just in case. I mean because you’re the Captain.”

Muttering irritably, Basil clumped down the stairs. The others followed, Holding up arm-lamps as the darkness became almost total. They reached another little landing-space, and the stairs doubled back again and went deeper.

“Where is this thing?” Bonty murmured.

The next flight of stairs ended in a short tunnel, which in turn ended at a wide opening ringed with what looked disturbingly like a great clotted mass of dried blood under their lamps. Closer inspection revealed that it was some kind of metal, long since corroded and worn down by the atmosphere. Galana guessed that the passage might have been sealed by a huge pair of imposing metal doors once upon a time, but they were gone now.

“Look,” Hartigan said excitedly, and pointed at the wall next to the door. More weeping rusty stuff had leaked out of worn-down holes in the stone here, and the hardened sludge and dust on the floor covered a shape that was clearly a petrified skeleton of some kind, although it was entirely alien in appearance. “I bet there were traps,” he said, “but they’ve all just broken down. This poor blighter was the last person to set one off.”

“Spooky temples these days,” Scrutarius tutted. “Where’s the workmanship?”

They stepped through into a wide, high-ceilinged chamber that Galana estimated was directly beneath the centre of the temple ruins above. It was dark, and Galana could hear a soft, disturbing sound echoing inside the space – something scraping and flopping repetitively against stone, she thought. Perhaps a small trapped animal … although by all reports this planet had been deserted and uninhabitable for a very long time.

There was no immediate sign of what might have been making the noise, which was drowned out by their own footsteps and voices as they entered the chamber anyway. There was a lot of broken stone and more of the rusted-down metal threaded through the space, they saw as they raised their lamps, but if there were more rooms or tunnels or stairs, they were not immediately visible. The centre of the chamber was dominated by another statue, this one in much better repair than the ones on the surface due to its sheltered position. It was also streaked with dark stains of corroded metal, and more broken and melted pieces of debris were heaped around its great muscular knees where it knelt, but the stone of which it was made seemed quite smooth. Galana frowned at the immense figure.

The shape of the thing hadn’t escaped Hartigan’s eye either. “I say,” he whispered, “is that … that’s not meant to be a human, is it?”

The statue was definitely humanoid, with its single pair of arms and its round head. It was much bigger than a human, or even a Molran – Galana estimated that it would have been twice her height if it had been standing rather than kneeling on one titanic knee and one huge splayed foot. It looked, from the mess around the statue’s base, that it might have been wearing clothes at some point but they were long gone. Behind the huge figure, rising from its bulging and gleaming shoulders, a pair of huge dark-feathered wings spread over the dusty floor.

“Those teeth aren’t human,” Scrutarius noted, pointing at the big jutting tusks the statue’s face was sporting. “And I haven’t seen a human with wings since the last time I ate whoop-whoop frogs,” he glanced sidelong at Galana. “Not that I ever ate whoop-whoop frogs,” he added, “since they’re definitely illegal.”

“I’ll overlook it this time,” Galana said dryly, and turned back to her study of the statue. Only … she wasn’t entirely sure it was a statue. Something about it reminded her of the remains they’d found outside the chamber. “Could this be the Riddlespawn?” she pondered out loud.

“No,” Wicked Mary said from around behind the gigantic shape. “I believe this is the Riddlespawn.”

They hurried around to where the giela was standing between the wings where they lay across the uneven stones of the chamber floor. There, squirming and writhing on the floor, was the source of the strange sound Galana had heard when they’d entered the room.

The Riddlespawn wasn’t humanoid. If anything, the body looked vaguely like that of a Molran, with four long arms and two legs, all of which were in motion, slapping and flopping as the creature thrashed in place between the huge figure’s wings. It was the size of a young child, Galana judged in horror, its skin coated in fine yellow-pink scales that occasionally rasped against one another or the stones of the floor as it moved. It was hard to imagine such a tiny and pitiful thing being a threat, and yet there was something … horrible about it at the same time. The way it moved, vague and helpless and yet unendingly, like an insect that had been poisoned but was too tough to simply die.

The reason it wasn’t able to move more purposefully was readily – and horribly – apparent. The squirming figure didn’t have a head. From the way it was flexing and twisting, it looked like it actually had its head stuck in something and was trying to escape, but neither the head nor whatever it was stuck in were visible, so the neck just sort of ended hanging in the air above the temple floor, a meaty amber-coloured wound that looked raw and terrible but was not actually bleeding. Galana remembered Roney saying they’d found part of a Riddlespawn, and that the Pirate Queen and her followers wanted to bring it all the way out. Was its head already stuck in the Hell that Riddlespawn came from?

“Look at the floor,” Bonty said in horror.

Glana leaned back and took in the wider area at a glance, and realised what her friend already had. The stones between the statue’s wings were worn down in a shallow depression, free of dust but clearly eroded. The Riddlespawn shifted and flailed in this depression, hanging by its neck from its invisible bonds, and it was impossible to dismiss the idea that it had worn down the stone over time, just with the patient, mindless movement of its limbs.

“Well,” Basil said a little queasily, “this isn’t something they covered in AstroCorps training. Anyone else got any thoughts? Thoughts they can express without starting to scream and then maybe not stopping, that is?”

“It’s no wonder Chilly couldn’t find a brain down here to latch onto,” Scrutarius started.

“Thank you Devlin. Anyone else?”

“The delicious morsel Captain Pelsworthy has finished arguing with the Seven Sisters and is descending towards the surface,” Wicked Mary reported.

“The alien ships still appear to be holding position,” Chillybin added. “I find it hard to believe they haven’t spotted the Nella down on the surface no matter how quiet we were, but I am attempting to keep their attention from focussing too closely on you. It is difficult when I am unfamiliar with many of the species involved. Fortunately, Wicked Mary has also got some electronic interference in place ‑ ”

“Hey,” Bonty said, “this looks like a Molranoid, doesn’t it?”

The others were only too happy to look away from the Riddlespawn for a moment and turn their attention onto the carvings on the walls. These were also worn down and obscured by the general collapse of the whole place, but it was easy to see that the carvings – old as they were – were much younger than the temple itself. There were crude outlines of figures that could be humanoid, others that looked like Molranoids, and others still that didn’t look like anything much. There was even one that Scrutarius pointed out, a long wormlike thing with fins that he insisted could be an artistic impression of a primitive Fergunakil.

“Roney mentioned that there was an ancient tablet, or a prophecy, or something,” Bonty said. “Didn’t she? Something about an ancient family of races?”

“The chosen mortal species of ten mythical entities,” Galana agreed. “The Riddlespawn were supposed to be one, as were Molren, humans, Fergunak … ”

There was really nothing to be learned from the carvings, and there was no sign of a tablet or anything remotely resembling writing anywhere in the chamber. They were still attempting to analyse the giant statue and the disturbing thrashing shape of the Riddlespawn when Wicked Mary announced that Roney had landed. Hartigan was beginning to mutter apprehensively about his breather running low, and Devlin and Bonty had decided that the Riddlespawn were so named because their whole existence was an unsolveable and very annoying puzzle. A few minutes later the irrepressible Boze marched into the temple, her narrow furry face hidden behind the gleaming golden visor of her red suit helmet. It was just as shiny and decorative as the rest of her uniform.

“Good,” she said, “so you found it.”

“Bit hard to miss,” Hartigan replied, “what with there being only one staircase and one room.”

“Ah, don’t sell yourselves short,” Roney said, striding past the Captain and giving him a hearty clap on the thigh. “I’m sure you could have gotten lost if you’d really set your minds to it. I’m joking, I’m joking,” she chuckled and held up her gloved hands. “What do you think of the place?”

“It’s horrible,” Galana surprised herself by saying. “But we have cautiously established that this whole thing was a much older building that has been … redecorated. Probably sometime in the past twenty to forty thousand years.”

“Very good,” Roney agreed.

“Which is confusing us a bit,” Scrutarius added, “because you said the Riddlespawn destroyed the Empire of Gold twenty million years ago, not twenty thousand.”

“Quite so, quite so,” Roney said, and pointed at the giant figure kneeling in the middle of the floor. “What do you make of the big wingèd fellow?”

“Looks like an Angel,” Hartigan said, “mythical Earth creature, basically an immortal human with wings. Only this chap’s a lot bigger, and he’s got a nasty set of choppers, don’t y’know.”

“You know, he does look a bit like a human doesn’t he?” Roney said in surprise. “But no, he’s not human, although he is rather mythical. In the days of the Empire, these lads – and lasses – were called Drakspars. The regular kind were pretty tough, but the kind with wings were – well, a bit like your alicorn, see. They were glorified. Immortal, all sorts of powers, you name it. They were the soldiers of the Empire, if you like.”

“And the Riddlespawn beat them?” Galana asked, glancing from the massive kneeling figure to the pathetic, flopping shape behind it.

“Easy as kicking a spugget off a log,” Roney replied grimly. “Did you happen to notice this place was built in the middle of a crater?” they nodded. “Legend has it that the crater was made by this fellow,” she gestured at the Drakspar. “It got blasted so hard it flew all the way here through space, landed on Palothane, and then – I don’t know, fell asleep or something. Drakspars were supposed to go dormant if they weren’t on holy ground, not sure whether that means all of the Empire was holy ground or what. Anyway, they tried building this temple around him, but he still didn’t wake up.”

Galana looked up at the fiercely scowling face with its great jutting teeth. They hadn’t managed to identify the substance the figure was made of, but it certainly hadn’t scanned as organic. “It doesn’t look like it’s asleep,” she said.

Roney laughed. “That’s what I said,” she replied. “Apparently, this is about as unconscious as Drakspars got.”

“So the Empire of Gold was destroyed,” Bonty said, “and the Riddlespawn went back to wherever they came from ‑ ”

“Except for the star serpent we took down,” Devlin added.

“Right, except for the star serpent,” Bonty agreed. “And this temple was built to commemorate the, um, fallen Drakspars and what have you … and then this Riddlespawn showed up?” she waved her left hands at the flailing headless shape. “Thirty thousand years ago or so?”

“That’s the best I’ve been able to figure out,” Roney agreed. “Good job.”

Bonty looked at Galana, and shook her head.

“We still have no idea what’s going on,” Galana admitted. “And what we’re supposed to do with this. Maybe if you told us more about the prophecy ‑ ”

“Well, it’s not exactly a prophecy,” Roney admitted.

“Of course it isn’t,” Galana sighed.

“All I know is, when this Riddlespawn was dragged out and maimed, it was left in this temple as a – a grim joke,” the Boze went on. “Like a way of saying look, we won after all, who’s afraid of the big bad Riddlespawn?

Galana stared at the pathetically squirming creature on the floor. It looked neither big nor bad as far as she could tell. “‘Dragged out’?” she echoed. “Dragged out of Hell?”

“No,” Roney said. “And yes. Not exactly.”

“Roney, I swear ‑ ” Hartigan said in exasperation.

“It was dragged out of a dark and terrible place it was already crawling from,” Roney explained.

“I don’t understand,” Bonty said.

None of us bally well understand,” Hartigan snapped.

“Of course not,” Roney sighed, although she sounded more regretful than frustrated. “Bozanda knows I don’t understand either. The Riddlespawn live in some unknown place, right? This one was trapped somewhere, somewhere in this sphere of existence, and if it had escaped from the trap intact it would have become something terrible. Instead, it was dragged out of the trap but in doing so it was … damaged.”

“Damaged?” Devlin exclaimed. “It’s got no head.”

“Not here anyway,” Roney shrugged. “Like a wounded animal torn out of a snare, it just wants to return home.”

“Home … back to wherever the other Riddlespawn are?” Hartigan asked. Roney nodded.

“Back to where its head is?” Scrutarius added.

Roney turned her golden visor in his direction. “You seem a bit fixated on the whole ‘head’ detail.”

“I think it’s a detail worth getting fixated on,” the Blaran retorted.

“But in short, it wants to go home,” Basil cut off the developing argument. “To heal, and get ready to charge forth and demolish the next empire that comes along and gets too big for its boots?”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Roney said. “We’re all pretty small-time compared to the Empire of Gold. The Riddlespawn don’t come out and play with just anybody, you know,” she pointed at the towering shape of the Drakspar. “Look at this big magnificent bastard.”

“So what do we do?” Bonty asked.

Roney shook her head. “If the Seven Sisters manage to get close, if they manage to pull it the rest of the way into this world and fix it, they think they’ll be able to make an ally of it. But it will never do what the Pirate Queen wants. It will be unstoppable. It might have taken a bunch of Riddlespawn and star serpents to bring down the Empire of Gold, but this tiddler right here would make short work of anything this galaxy has to throw at it, in this day and age.”

Galana narrowed her eyes. “Why can’t the Seven Sisters get close anyway?”

Roney shrugged. “They can’t land. The last time anyone tried, twenty-odd years ago, this thing screamed and the star serpent showed up and burned everyone right out of orbit. Made this planet even more attractive than it was already.”

“It screamed?” Devlin pointed. “It’s got no head.”

“Yeah yeah,” Roney waved this off.

“The star serpent is dead now,” Bonty frowned.

“Right,” Roney pointed at the ceiling. “But they don’t know that. Right now, they just think I’ve come up with some clever way of sneaking down,” she gestured around at the group in general. “You know, the whole ‘family of races’ thing. Which it looks like I was right about, by the way.”

“Hang about, you didn’t know we were the right species,” Hartigan objected.

“I was reasonably sure,” Roney said.

“What if this thing could have called another star serpent?” Bonty asked.

Roney tilted her head. “I never thought of that,” she admitted. “But look, it’s not yelling. It trusts us more than the Sisters, see? Family of races.”

“It’s got no head,” Devlin repeated.

“Listen, sooner or later Her Majesty is going to figure out that it’s safe, and she’ll order them to attempt a landing, and that’s when this whole thing is going to get messy,” Roney said. “We need to send this thing back to Hell before that happens.”

Galana spread her hands helplessly. “And how are we supposed to do that, exactly?” The satisfaction of watching Captain Pelsworthy squirming in an attempt to avoid saying ‘I don’t know’ was quite small in comparison to the mounting alarm Galana was feeling about this whole situation. She looked around at the others. “Suggestions?”

“There is a very mild but unknown energy field immediately surrounding the Riddlespawn’s severed neck,” Wicked Mary reported. The little silver giela was standing directly under the Drakspar’s wings and had been prodding at the Riddlespawn’s neck-stump with a sensor built into her finger while the others talked. “If we pretend Captain Pelsworthy’s story is true ‑ ”

“Hey,” Roney objected.

“ ‑ we can imagine this is a sort of wormhole, or gateway the Riddlespawn is using to come and go between this world and its own,” Wicked Mary went on calmly. “It got its head in, and then got stuck. I could boost the amount of energy that gateway is receiving, and increase its size. The only problem is … ”

“Its head could just as easily pop out on this side as the rest of its body pop in on that one,” Hartigan finished. “More easily, if it really is just a hole it’s got its – its head stuck in. Its head is probably smaller than its body and if it isn’t, I absolutely don’t want to know about it,” he added fervently.

“Yes,” Wicked Mary said, “that is the problem. Anything we do to help it get home could backfire and result in it being pulled fully into this world, the way the Pirate Queen wants.”

“Can you just … neutralise the energy field?” Galana asked.

They turned and stared at her.

“That would cut its head off for real,” Bonty said, then looked down at her boots. “Oh. You knew that already.”

“Yes,” Galana said. “The question is, if we can close the hole it is stuck in, would that kill it? Or would having its head cut off for real just make it angry?”

“Not as stupid a question as it sounds,” Roney said, “knowing even as little as I do about Riddlespawn.”

“The Seven Sisters are changing formation,” Chillybin reported. “They may be preparing to send a landing party.”

“Well, it doesn’t seem like we have much choice, and we’re running out of time,” Galana told Roney. “You brought us here because you thought we could help.”

“So you can really do this?” Roney asked Wicked Mary in surprise.

“Of course, morsel,” Wicked Mary said. “Our civilisation is designed around getting nowhere as slowly as possible, after all, so we are in a perfect position to get this unfortunate creature nowhere after thirty thousand years,” Roney laughed, and Wicked Mary gestured at the squirming shape. “Should I proceed?”

“Do it,” Hartigan said unexpectedly. Galana looked at him. “We don’t want this thing alive in either sphere,” he said with a shrug. “Do we?”

Wicked Mary performed some swift, complicated rearrangements on her giela‘s machinery, then leaned back over the Riddlespawn. The lights set into her gleaming metal carapace flickered, and the headless torso stiffened – and then flailed more frantically. A high, raucous shriek sounded, making Galana and the others flinch. The sound wasn’t audible inside the temple, but over their communicators.

“It’s calling for the star serpent!” Roney shouted over the din.

Wicked Mary’s lights flickered again, the scream cut off and the body fell limp into the depression it had worn down over the past thirty thousand years. With a final slither of scales, it collapsed … and then collapsed further, darkening and cracking until it dissolved into a faint black smudge on the stones.

“Is everything alright down there?” Chillybin’s voice asked. “The Seven Sisters just turned their ships around and jumped into soft-space like their loading bays were on fire.”

“We’re fine,” Galana reported. “They probably heard that scream and assumed the star serpent was on its way.”

“Let’s get out of here before they realise it’s not,” Roney suggested.

Excellent notion, young Captain Pelsworthy,” Hartigan declared.

***

Soon, in The Blind Time Traveller:

Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer, stayed with them for a short time after their victory on Palothane and their retreat to a safe distance a few light years away. She came up with a variety of excuses – “I want to be sure another star serpent isn’t going to show up,” “I want to keep an eye on things in case the Riddlespawn come back,” “You’ll want me nearby in case the Seven Sisters come after you,” – but after a few days it became pretty clear that she just enjoyed the AstroCorps crew’s company.

“You know,” Hartigan said one evening-shift as they were sitting and enjoying another meal of mixed Six Species and Boze rations, and Basil was puffing on one of his rare cigars, “if you wanted to travel with us you’d be very welcome.”

“I thought you had to do this little circumnavigation thing yourself,” Roney said. “Hardly counts if I carry you most of the way, does it?”

“Oh carry us, now is it?” Basil laughed, but had to concede the point. The Boze had given them a five-year lift over the course of the past couple of weeks. “Well, if you don’t mind taking it casually, you’d be welcome to dock with us and carry on at our pace. I’m sure we have a lot to teach each other.”

“About High Elonath, for example,” Roney said, a wily expression on her amber-and-white-furred face.

“Well, among other things, certainly,” Hartigan said. “You know an awful lot about the galaxy. Even if you can’t share your marvellous technology with us poor biggumses, you must be able to help fill out our charts a bit, give us a few pointers.”

“It would be nice to know more about mobs like the Pirate Queen, too,” Devlin added. “So we don’t go blundering into enemy territory unawares.”

“Ah, you only want to blunder into enemy territory with complete awareness, eh?” Roney flashed her gold fang in a grin.

“Exactly,” Scrutarius nodded. “No, wait ‑ ”

“I’ll give you a few notes,” the Boze promised, “but you have to know it’s a dangerous and ever-changing thing, space. And I’ve got my own path. Don’t worry, though,” she added, and raised her glass. “I have no doubt it will cross with yours again. Many times.”

“No need for our paths to split again quite yet, though,” Bonty insisted. “Surely?”

“Absolutely not,” Roney agreed. “Oh, and that reminds me – here, I picked up something for you to add to your little souvenir collection,” she jumped off her couch, stepped over to the table in the middle of the Captain’s lounge, and drew a long, jagged grey-black shape from a pouch in the back of her uniform. At first Galana thought it was a blade of some sort, but then Roney set it down on the table and she realised it was a feather.

Hartigan leaned forward, eyes widening. “Is that … ?”

“A Drakspar feather,” Roney said proudly. “I plucked a couple off the big fellow down on Palothane. One for you, one for me.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Basil said, his voice wobbling sentimentally.

“I’m glad it didn’t wake up when you plucked it,” Devlin remarked.

Roney grinned and was about to say something else, when the Conch’s computer interrupted them with a polite chime.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Basil,” it said, “but a ship has just emerged from soft-space in our vicinity.”

Everyone jumped to their feet at once.

“The Seven Sisters?” Hartigan asked.

“Can’t be,” Roney tapped at one of the little devices built into her uniform sleeves. “My computer would have told me if they’d shown back up. It would have let me know if anything in my databanks had shown up.”

“So what is this?” Galana asked.

Roney frowned at her sleeve.

“Something else,” she said.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Wheel of Time casting, questions of ethnicity, and so on

Thanks to my dude Beer Rot for linking this to me. I’m sure Aaron already saw it too, he’s been all over this channel and the Wheel of Time TV remake.

Interesting watch. I could already have guessed the sorts of comments the casting of this show would get. Hell, I remember all too well a debate over whether Mat could have been played by Will Smith (back in the days of yore when Will Smith could have played a young-ish adult). I was staunchly on the side of “No”, mainly because of the way the skin tones of various characters and races were described in the books. It seems like it would have been something Jordan – known bad describer of things – would have mentioned.

On the other hand, he did also lay between-the-lines groundwork for the Two Rivers being something of a melting pot, and for skin colour to not be as important as other things (for some places). Which is really cool. I’m happy to change my vote on this one, although Will Smith is definitely too old now. And of course I am therefore heavily invested in the “not everyone objecting to a casting choice is automatically racist” argument, because I want to avoid that. Although I was only objecting to a casting suggestion, I don’t know how I would have reacted to actual casting back in the ’90s and early ’00s.

Still. Here we are. Actual casting is happening.

I had to chuckle at the “Moiraine will turn up and see the one white guy” joke-attempt. I mean, in the books it was worse, she turned up and saw the one thirteen-foot-tall ginger. Even in Caemlyn people were going “Light, look at that Aielman!” But okay, whatever. Amusing, but not in any way a point against the cast.

And there it is, 15:08 onwards, the Woke Plot. Of course, we knew this was coming.

As a style note, I love Matt Hatch’s shirt. That’s amazing.

Posted in Hatboy's Movie Extravaganza | Tagged , , , , , , | 21 Comments

The push continues

It’s unfortunate when someone you otherwise agree with turns out to have an opinion you don’t share, but it’s also inevitable. Because people are all different. You can’t realistically expect to align with someone on every point. I disagree with basically everyone I know and love, about something. And that’s alright. It’s not the end of the world and it doesn’t make them horrible people. It can be an opportunity for self-reflection and critical thinking, if you just relax and let a million years of spectacular brain-complexity evolution do its thing.

Of course, the more things tally up on the “wrong” side of the ledger, the more difficult it can get to convince ourselves that it’s fine. Enough things on that side of the ledger and you generally find that those people aren’t even in the bubble of “know and love” anyway. They’re scary kooks you’ve ended up associating with for some reason. And that’s alright too. It’s a delicate balance we all need to work with, in one way or another.

Did you think I was talking about someone I knew? Nah. I was talking about this entertaining bit of comedy from the witty and inventive mind of JP Sears, who has long been a satirist of the … I want to say extreme left? Or whatever vegans and essential oilers and yoga people and the more unbearably Karen-y SJWs are. He’s been doing it all along and it was funny.

And it still is! What worries me a little is the tone of the people in the comments on this video, and how emboldened they are. But you know, never read the comments I guess.

JP hasn’t crept right (or if he has, he’s always been there and this is a symptom of the normalisation and enabling of the right and it’s all way too subtle to be worth analysing), because he’s still sending up a very small and practically fictionalised segment of “blue pill” culture. There is no functional difference between the two extremes. They’re both pills and you’re taking one or the other completely uncritically.

Let me see if I can summarise it.

So, you “believe everything the [leftist] media tells you.” You’re going to stay at home, protect yourself, and let the economy tank. You happily relinquish your liberty and rights to free assembly, you submit to government tracking and control, and you trust politicians and shady for-profit organisations to decide what you should do because they know better than you do about your own body and you don’t believe in taking responsibility for your own actions. That’s definitely how it looks from the outside.

On the other hand, if you “believe everything the [right-wing] media tells you,” you’re fixing to get back out there just as we’re starting to learn about this pandemic. You’re ignoring the WHO (fine, they have their problems) and the vast majority of doctors, nurses and emergency responders. You’re doing exactly what the politicians and corporate nobility want, and jump-starting their money machines by going back to contagion-risking business as usual. JP doesn’t need to satirise this because it’s already a satire of itself. That’s how that looks from the outside.

Aren’t we all, ultimately, responsible for the consequences of our own actions? And aren’t we all, ultimately, going to make decisions based on input from some authority or other? What do you think our psyches are actually formed by? I’ll give you a clue, it’s sociocultural input.

Everyone thinks they are the only independent and responsible thinker in a world filled with frightened sheep. Everyone takes a pill.

Oh, and if you’re opposed to “mandatory vaccinations” I have some bad news for you. You’re probably all fired up about this video and won’t want to listen to the “expert”. Well, that sucks.

The flu vaccine is not mandatory, not even in vaccination-happy Finland. I doubt the covid-19 vaccine will be mandatory but I guess there’s still a lot more to learn about the virus so maybe it can be wiped out this way. In either case, I’m sure a lot of people on the left and the right will want it. They didn’t make SARS or swine flu vaccinations mandatory, although I seem to recall that I voluntarily went in for a flu shot around the time of the swine (or possibly avian) flu. I may have been about to go into chemo and surgery, and didn’t want to risk a case of the flu interfering with that, short-term. It was my choice.

There are some vaccinations we’re “forced” to give our kids – you know, for one-off diseases we’re doing our best to eradicate – but the flu is so seasonal and changeable that you can’t give a baby a single shot and make them and the community safe for life – at least this is my understanding, which in turn is the level of knowledge on which I am basing my decisions and I take responsibility for the consequences of that.

So they’re voluntary. Shit, even tetanus shots are voluntary.

Remember when “the government is controlling us with vaccines” was an X-Files plot? Or fringe lunacy of the contrailest kind? Well, here it comes. Into the mainstream. Along with the 5G conspiracy.

Maybe we just let all this run its course. Take the warning labels off everything and let the stupids die. Because this is embarrassing.

Posted in Hatboy's Nuggets of Crispy-Fried Wisdom, Kussa mun hopoti? | Tagged , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

The Fang o’ God (reboot)

Because this is my blog and I can.

Just in case you didn’t read the first version, here is the edited second version with the tertiary plotline replaced with a more standard shipwreck. And it let me add in a second level of “the computer is acting weird”, for later pay-off. Those of you who paid extra special attention in The Final Fall of Man and some other blog posts here may already know where we’re heading with the Conch‘s computer.

Anyway, here is the full story again.


 

“What’s going on, old girl?” Captain Hartigan asked as they took their places on the bridge. “We’re not due to come out of the grey for another week yet, are we?”

“No, Captain,” the Conch said formally, “but I have reason to believe we should perhaps stop here, make a quick scan, and set a new course.”

Galana exchanged worried looks with Basil, then Chillybin, then Wicked Mary. The aki’Drednanth and the Fergunakil didn’t bring much to the worried-looks table, since one wore a helmet and the other was a robot.

“Stop here?” Hartigan said worriedly. “We’re in the middle of a jump. That’s a fancy bit of footwork. Why bother?”

“Well,” the Conch said, “as you know, we were headed in this direction because of a signal we received at our last stop.”

“Bit of a strong way of putting it,” Basil said. “It was – what did you call it, Fen? An echo of a shadow of something that might have been a signal once upon a time?”

“It was very poetic, I thought,” Scrutarius said from the engineering console. “You know, for a Molran.”

“I take exception to that,” Galana said, although she and Devlin regularly made fun of one another in a friendly manner. “What we picked up was something that might have been a signal from a ship in trouble, but it was coming from several hundred light-years away and so if it was a distress call we were probably well and truly too late.”

“Still, interesting enough to make it worth checking out,” Bonty said. “Slimy fungus doesn’t send a detectable signal across that sort of distance.”

“Not unless it’s really slimy,” Devlin agreed.

“So why are we stopping now?” Hartigan prompted.

“That’s just it,” the computer said quickly. “I managed to reconstruct the signal, and it was just a random pulse, nothing that would suggest it was a ship. I’d hate for you to arrive and be depressed to find nothing.”

“We’ve survived so far,” Hartigan said casually. “I don’t see why we should stop now. If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there. Let’s check it and see.”

“Unless you think there’s some danger?” Galana asked the computer.

“There might be,” the Conch said. “If the signal was a ship, and it was brought down by something…”

“We don’t run away from things like that, old girl,” Hartigan declared. “We’re AstroCorps, not the…” he waved a hand. “Help me out, Dev.”

“The Buxland Squealy-runners,” Scrutarius supplied promptly.

“We’re AstroCorps, not the Buxland Squealy-runners,” Hartigan said with relish. “Oh, that’s a good one. Who are the Buxland Squealy-runners?”

“They’re nothing,” Scrutarius said. “I just made it up.”

“Oh.”

It was another week to their destination. In that time, they performed as many emergency drills as Basil and Galana felt were necessary, but there really wasn’t much they could do to prepare. The computer, giving every sign of being in a bit of a sulk about the whole thing, didn’t find out anything more about the signal they were chasing.

Finally the day arrived and they all gathered on the bridge.

“It is an ordinary-looking solar system,” the Conch reported as they emerged from soft-space. “No big tech in orbit around the planets or the sun. Only one planet appears to be habitable. Some small technology signatures on the surface,” it added in what Galana could have sworn was a grudging tone. “Nothing too complex.”

“More complex than a slimy fungus though,” Bonty said enthusiastically.

“Yes, but no ship,” the Conch said. “Maybe we should just-”

“Oh come now-” Hartigan said in exasperation.

“I am … in contact,” Chillybin said unexpectedly, before the Captain and the ship’s computer could get into an argument.

“Chilly?” Galana said. “I’m not seeing any comms from the surface.”

“No, it is – the presence of intelligent creatures,” the aki’Drednanth explained. “I recognise the shapes of their minds.”

“Oh,” Hartigan said excitedly, “I thought it usually took a while for you to do that. Are these aliens you’re already familiar with, then?”

“I should say so, Captain,” Chillybin replied. “They’re humans.”

There was a shocked silence.

“I thought you said you sensed intelligent creatures,” Scrutarius said. Hartigan turned and gave him a narrow look. “Sorry,” Devlin added. “Couldn’t resist.”

“You monkeys really do get everywhere,” Bonty said, “don’t you?”

“Now we are receiving a transmission,” the Conch said while Hartigan was still opening and closing his mouth. “The language … interesting.”

“What is it?” Galana asked.

“It is a human language spoken on Coriel, but it took me a moment to recognise it,” the computer explained. “I would say that they started with Coriane as it was several hundred years ago and developed it from there, in a quite different way to how it has developed on Coriel.”

“I don’t speak modern Coriane,” Hartigan finally managed to say. He sounded disgruntled.

“Neither do I,” Galana admitted. The Porticon, her home Worldship, occasionally visited Coriel but she’d never really spent much time down there. The Coriane were a strange lot – and that was just the few Molren who lived there. “And there are only humans down there?” she glanced at Chillybin for confirmation.

Chilly nodded. “Several thousand of them, I would say.”

“That sounds right,” the Conch agreed, then paused for a long moment. “The main settlement is the source of the tech readings. It could be the remains of a dismantled starship,” it admitted. “Its distress-call days are long behind it, though.”

Galana nodded to herself. “Once we establish full contact,” she told the Conch, “it may be a good idea to just send the Captain’s image until we can be sure the sight of aliens won’t upset them. These must be the descendants of a human shipwreck. It’s been known to happen – just not so far from Six Species space.”

“Opening a channel,” the Conch said.

Galana looked down at what appeared to be a fairly normal human being, although she had to admit she wasn’t familiar with many humans aside from their Captain. This one didn’t have fur on its face, although it still had a tidy mane on the top of its head. It seemed flushed and out of breath, and Galana imagined it had come running to respond to the hails of the starship in orbit.

“I am Misrepresentation Fizzschlifft, voice of the Gunumban people,” the computer translated the high-speed jabbering of the human and even overlaid it in an approximation of the human’s gruff voice. “It is a great surprise and very exciting to see a human face … ” the sound cut off at that point, and the human talked animatedly for several more seconds before stopping and waiting expectantly. “I am sorry,” the Conch went on in the computer’s normal voice, “I seem to have lost the audio feed. Attempting to compensate. The real-time translation may have been too much for the data buffers … ”

Galana frowned as the computer continued to explain, using more and more pointless technical jargon. After it had tried to stop them even arriving at this system, it was hard to believe this was just another accident. But what should she do about it? What could she do about it?

“‘Misrepresentation’?” Hartigan asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I believe the word was ‘Calumny’,” Wicked Mary said, “but it was a name and perhaps not intended to be translated.”

Galana called up the received transmission, but it was all chopped up and incomplete – and it didn’t look like a system glitch. It looked edited. She glanced across at Wicked Mary, who had obviously been receiving and translating the message from the surface using some equipment of her own that she had set up without their knowledge. The giela returned her look with its collection of sensors, completely impossible to read.

“Yes, yes it was Calumny Fizzschlifft, and I am ready to translate your response now, Captain,” the Conch was saying. “I will attempt to re-establish a link and get the rest of the previous transmission. I’m sorry about this.”

“Alright old girl, not to worry,” Hartigan said mildly. “We got the important bits, what?” he cleared his throat. “Greetings, Calumny Fizzschlifft and the Gunumban people,” he went on officially. “I am Captain Basil Hartigan, and on behalf of AstroCorps and the Six Species, I bid you greetings from your long-lost cousins a – gosh, what, it must be just about a third of the way around the bally galaxy by this point, eh Fen?”

“Yes, Captain,” Galana replied, hoping they weren’t about to show her in the transmission and freak out the poor unsuspecting Gunumbans.

“I have translated the greeting into the Coriane dialect, well, I suppose we should refer to it as Gunumban at this point,” the Conch said, sounding a bit less anxious. Galana suspected it was because the computer was getting the hang of whatever trick it was trying to pull on them.

Their whole mission, the whole issue of speaking with aliens, was at stake if they could not trust what the computer told them the aliens were saying. Wicked Mary, as unreliable as she was, might be their only source of unedited information. And that was more than a little worrying.

The Captain and Calumny Fizzschlifft exchanged a few more enthusiastic but questionable messages. The Gunumbans were aware, from the ‘old stories’ of their ancestors, of the Six Species and even had some archived images of Molren, aki’Drednanth, Bonshooni, Blaren, and even Fergunak. They were very excited to hear that there was one of each of the fabled creatures aboard the Conch, and eagerly invited them to land.

“What do you think, Fen?” Hartigan asked her.

She paused, watching the Captain carefully. He knew, she realised. He knew there was something strange going on with the computer. But he was pretending it was fine. Why? It couldn’t be to protect the machine’s feelings. But then, she realised, she was doing the same herself.

“We should be careful,” she said. “You are at risk of contracting any diseases the locals might have, since you are the same species.”

“Oh come now,” Hartigan said. “You don’t think there’s any risk of that, do you?”

“I am not certain, Captain,” Galana said. “I would feel better if the Conch – and Doctor Bont, of course – could perform a full analysis.”

“Yes,” the computer agreed quickly, while Basil was still frowning and opening his mouth, “yes, that would be sensible. We don’t want anyone turning into a cake, do we? Ha ha.”

Galana wondered when she had first started treating the Conch’s computer like a slightly unstable person, and realised it had been happening for a while now. “Bonty?” she asked.

“I’ll run some tests,” Bonjamin said. “Of course, we’ll need to land and send out a sample probe before we can be sure … ”

“The ship they arrived here in was called the Garla Gunumbous,” Chillybin said. “Human and Molran crew, probably. The nameplate was preserved and they included a picture of it in the unscrambled part of their transmission.”

“Guess that’s why they call themselves Gunumbans,” Scrutarius remarked.

“The ship has long since been taken apart for the technology they are using to run their main settlement,” Chilly went on. “The power cells, medical facilities, even the hull plates.”

“Is there any record of the Garla Gunumbous in our database?” Galana asked the computer.

“Only the mythical figure,” the Conch replied. “Garla Gunumbous, Goddess of Plenty … I’m afraid I don’t have a record of every lost ship in Six Species history.”

“Some of their oldest computer records are still intact and accessible,” Wicked Mary said. “However, at the moment I am unable to read that data for a reason I have not fully made up yet.”

“Excuse me?” Galana turned to the giela with a lift of her ears.

“Forgive me, Commander,” the Conch said. “This is my fault. I know my behaviour is erratic, but I am attempting to find the best way to introduce … difficult information.”

“Are you attempting to protect us from something we may find distressing?” Galana asked. A number of things began to make sense. “Something about this place and its original settlers?”

“Yes,” the Conch said, sounding very unhappy.

“I have often found that the best way to deal with an uncomfortable situation is to get as much of it out in the open as possible,” Galana suggested, “rather than hiding it until it is too late – and has possibly been made worse.”

“I know,” the Conch said, “but if I’m wrong, then it seems pointless to bring it up for no reason. With Wicked Mary’s help I will make certain of what we are facing, and then we can deal with it. I asked her to help me stall. She did not do a very good job,” she added a little sternly.

“I am uncomfortable hiding things from my crewmates,” Wicked Mary lied with appalling lack of shame.

Basil, Galana noticed, had been frowning vaguely and looking at the planet through the viewscreen. “Captain?” she asked.

“Hmm?” Hartigan blinked and turned to her. “Oh, I was just thinking about how funny it is that there’s only ever the one settlement or bunch of people on these planets for us to meet,” he said. “We never have to deal with a whole planet full of different cultures, it’s all jolly convenient. Why, the closest we’ve ever come to a diverse group was the Nyif Nyif.”

“I suppose … ” Galana said cautiously.

“Anyway, what have we got here?” Hartigan went on crisply. “Descendants of some old settlers or shipwreck, and the computer’s got herself all worked up that we might be about to find out something that will make us sad. I say, d’you suppose the humans ate all the Molren or something?”

“I find it far easier to believe that the Molren would have eaten the humans, to be honest,” Galana said. “A human wouldn’t get much nutritional value from a Molran.”

“A Molran wouldn’t get much nutritional value from a human, for that matter,” Bonty commented. “Terribly fatty and low in fibre.”

“Easier to farm, though,” Devlin added.

“Oh, granted, they’re easier to farm ‑ ” Bonty agreed.

“Right, well as far as I’m concerned this all adds up to a simply spiffing mystery,” Hartigan went on loudly, “and there’s nothing for it but to toddle on down there as fast as we jolly well can, what?” he tapped his controls. “Unless you really think the Gunumbans and I are going to give each other a dose of the pox?”

“No,” the Conch said, “I shouldn’t think there’s much risk of that. But Bonjamin should run some tests to be absolutely sure.”

“Right. And while Bonty’s doing that, you can tell us what’s so bally dreadful about this place that you thought pulling the old ‘does not compute’ gag was the best way to break it to us,” Hartigan declared. He stood up. “Galana, Devlin, with me. Chilly, Bloody Mary, I want a full accounting of the technology we’re looking at and any potential combat situations we might face, you know the drill. We’ll leave the comm open so you can listen in. Carry on.”

They ascended to the Captain’s quarters, and Scrutarius went immediately to Hartigan’s little bar and made a round of drinks.

“You already know what this is about,” Galana asked as she sat down, “both of you. Don’t you?”

“I have no idea,” Devlin said, although Galana could tell from the set of his upper shoulders and the sharp downward angle of his ears that this was a half-truth at best. “All I know is, if it’s got the computer this rattled, then it’s drinks time.”

“As for me, let’s say I’ve got a hunch,” Hartigan said. “Let’s see if I was right. Computer? Our shipwrecked friends down below wouldn’t happen to be there because of the Fang o’ God, now would they?”

“Yes, Basil,” the Conch said in a strange little voice. Galana looked from Basil to Devlin, seeing the human’s grim nod and the Blaran’s further stiffening. “Yes, they are.”

“Right,” Hartigan clapped his hands briskly. “Drinks it is.”

“The Fang o’ God?” Galana said in bafflement. “You mean the mythical weapon, or warship, or whatever it was, from old Earth legends?”

“Back before Dev and I knew each other, I was Captain of another AstroCorps ship and crew,” Hartigan said, “as you are aware, Fen. Ah, thanks,” he took the drink Devlin offered, and took a deep draught as Scrutarius handed another glass to Galana and sat down with his own. “We were a bit more of a standard crew in a bit more of a standard ship – me as Captain, and my wife Nella as XO … although you really couldn’t say she was an XO. She would have been court-martialled for insubordination fifteen times before we even broke dock,” he laughed fondly. “Anyway, we were a great team. I had a lot of friends on that crew.

“We were searching, as you know, for the Last Alicorn. Among other things. A lot of wonders to explore, a lot of space to travel, and all the time in the universe …

Ah, but then we heard tales of the Fang o’ God. Some of the greatest spacefaring human families come from the lines that descended from that – that ship, or whatever it was. And, it was said, when the Last Alicorn parted company with the Molran Fleet, it was with the Fang o’ God that it went. Or if it didn’t go with the Fang o’ God, then at least there was some connection, a lead. So, naturally, we added it to our list of things that we simply had to explore. A lot of piffle, don’t y’know, but worth checking out. No stone unturned, all of that.

“Our search led us to a place they call the bonefields,” Hartigan stopped and took another large gulp from his glass, finishing his drink. He looked lost and frightened for a moment, and then laughed helplessly. “Still not at all sure I want to talk about it, to be honest.”

“I’ve heard the legend,” Scrutarius said. “Never anything specific, but it always sounds bad. You may have let slip once or twice, Baz, especially in connection to – to Nella. That was why I suspected that’s what this was about.”

“I’ve also heard stories about the bonefields,” Galana said, “but I never thought it was real. Wasn’t there something about how you can only ever go there once?”

“Believe me, you’d only ever want to go there once,” Hartigan said. “If we’d known we were going to wind up there and what would happen, we wouldn’t have gone at all. Oh, but we were on a grand adventure, don’t y’know,” he laughed bitterly. “There aren’t many stories about the bonefields because nobody wants to tell stories about it. That’s how my crew’s accident got marked down in the AstroCorps records as – as … well, I don’t even know what it was marked down as,” he looked at Galana. “You tell me, Fen.”

Galana shook her head. “There were no details,” she said, “just a ‘ship lost with all hands’ and a suggestion that you might have been venturing too close to the Core in your search for the alicorn.”

“Makes sense,” Basil said. “When in doubt, blame the Cancer and make it that much less likely that anyone else will dare to go anywhere near ‘em. But no, it was nothing to do with the Core. We flew into the bonefields, the floating bones took apart our ship and butchered our crew, and there was nothing in the middle to show for it. No alicorn, no Fang o’ God, no nothing. Just blood and screams and death. Nella and I managed to get out of there in the remains of the ship, after half our crew took to the escape pods and those were taken apart too. While we watched,” he shuddered, and tried to take another drink, but found his glass empty. “We decided to go down with the ship because that’s what Captains do, and that’s how we survived. Pure bally luck.”

“But … ” Galana said hesitantly.

“Nella died of her injuries,” Devlin told her quietly when Hartigan didn’t speak again. “That was … shortly after they returned to charted space. Isn’t that right, Baz?”

“Hm? Oh,” Basil nodded, his eyes still staring into nothingness. “Oh, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Basil,” Galana said sincerely. “I’m very sorry.”

“Ah well,” Basil shook himself, and forced a smile. “There you have it, anyway. Now you know. The ghastly and pointless truth about how I got my first crew killed. All of them, lost on a fruitless search for the legendary Fang o’ God. Fitting you should learn about it on our tenth space anniversary, what? Telling each other deep dark secrets and all that. But what about these poor blighters? The Gunumbans?”

“The Garla Gunumbous was recorded as a supertanker carrying farm equipment and supplies,” Wicked Mary’s voice replied over the comm, “led by a Molran command crew. They were not explorers or adventurers. How they wandered into the bonefields, let alone how they ended up this far from Six Species space, does not seem to have survived in the databanks or the Gunumbans’ myths. But they definitely seem to have encountered the bonefields and it had a significant impact on them. Even generations later, phrases like the field of bones, the floating bones and even the great tooth are part of their speech patterns.”

“That was the point at which I edited the initial transmissions,” the Conch said apologetically. “I realised there was a connection and was trying to find the best way to break it to you.”

“You knew before that,” Hartigan said affectionately. “Didn’t you? You figured it out from that shadow of an echo of the old distress signal, hundreds of light-years out.”

“Yes,” the computer admitted.

“The Garla Gunumbous was critically damaged,” Wicked Mary went on, “the Molren were killed, and they fled through soft-space to this location. That is about all the information we have managed to reassemble.”

“That’s pretty good, for data you’ve managed to pick up from a centuries-old shipwreck while we’re still in orbit,” Devlin said supportively.

“I suspect that the ship’s purpose may have been a little less noble,” Wicked Mary said, “although with a Molran crew it was probably still operating inside the law.”

“But we have no evidence of this,” Bonty added in a pained voice over the comm, “and so there is no reason to dishonour the memory of the dead by making accusations until we find out more from the Gunumbans. Which we can do whenever you like. The scans are all clear.”

“Safe to land?” Galana jumped at the opportunity to avoid talking about the ancient supertanker and whatever nefarious work it may have been about when it went down. “We should still do a final check-”

“Yes, once we land,” Bonty said. “That is, if you feel like landing.”

“Absolutely,” Hartigan jumped to his feet. Galana looked down at her drink, which she hadn’t actually had a chance to taste yet, and set it on the table with a little shrug. “We can hardly come all this way and find humans and not bally well drop in and say hello, can we? Or whatever it is they say instead of ‘hello’.”

Kädun,” the Conch supplied helpfully.

“There you go. We can’t come all this way and not drop in and say kädun,” Hartigan declared. “And us bonefields survivors have to stick together, what?”

They quickly made their preparations, then returned to the bridge and detached the Nella for landing. Scrutarius had packed a large, round-cornered crate and an assortment of food and spare equipment from engineering, but wouldn’t go into specifics about what any of it was. Stuff they might have missed in the past few hundred years, was all he would say.

“An awkward thought occurs,” Galana said as they were descending through the atmosphere.

“Is it about long-forgotten Molran skulduggery aboard the Garla Gunumbous?” Scrutarius asked.

“No. What if the Gunumbans do want to go home?”

“We can’t very well bring them all with us,” Hartigan said, “even if they aren’t exactly a planet-full.”

“And we don’t have enough equipment to leave them so they can build their own starship, either,” Devlin agreed. “The pieces they have left are basically keeping their main settlement lights on. We’re not going to get them off the ground.”

“And we can’t leave them with detailed directions back to Six Species space,” Galana said. “That would be a grave security risk.”

“True, but surely something like ‘it’s that way, just keep going around the galactic rim widdershins until you start seeing Bounce-Bounce Burger signs’ would be fine,” Hartigan objected.

“Maybe this is something we can worry about if they ask us,” Galana suggested.

The Gunumbans met them when they landed. It was strange to be surrounded by humans again, to see their funny pointy faces looking up at her and the tops of their furry little heads as they jostled and jabbered. Galana looked across the bobbing heads at Bonty, and shared a grin with her friend. It was almost like coming home, even though Galana had to admit that if this many humans had shown up on the Worldship Porticon, the locals would have contacted pest control.

The humans, for their part, were awestruck and a little frightened by the towering aliens. No living Gunumban had seen a Molranoid or an aki’Drednanth in the flesh. It must have felt like the drawings and stories of Gunumban history stepping living and breathing into the real world. They were spared having to see Wicked Mary in person, as she had remained in orbit.

Still, the humans were wide-eyed and didn’t seem hostile. They babbled excitedly in their strange ancient-Coriane dialect, and the Conch translated for them as efficiently as possible. Galana had made the conscious decision, at this point, to once again trust that the computer was feeding them accurate information. She was left with little alternative.

“This is Jelter Qade, the … I suppose spiritual leader is the best term,” the Conch said. “She bids you welcome in the name of the Benevolent Sky, which is possibly a deity of some kind. And this is Calumny Fizzschlifft, we spoke on the comm…”

Fizzschlifft, more an administrator and general public servant than a leader, also welcomed them to ‘Gunumba’ and immediately hit it off with Basil Hartigan despite the fact that kädun was the only word the Captain knew. He added a second word to his repertoire when Jelter Qade gave him a ceremonial gift, and a piece of it came loose and swung down and hit him between the legs. After that he could also say nädjgenitals. There was much laughter, and the terrifying spectre of the visitors from the stars was dispelled. A good bit of physical comedy, Bonty noted, was more effective than a century of xenopological study.

The Gunumbans were content to stay on the planet, Galana was relieved to learn almost immediately. They had no interest in returning to Six Species space even though they were delighted to learn that the Six Species – or Many Peoples Under Many Benevolent Skies – was still out there.

They showed the crew of the Conch around the most important buildings and features of their central settlement, including the assorted ancient and well-worn buildings and mechanisms that ran their little civilisation. Devlin declared it all exceptionally well maintained, and said there was little he could teach them, although some of the repair equipment and compounds he’d brought with him would help. The part of the ship that had sent out the distress signal they’d caught the forlorn edge of was long gone, beyond even Devlin’s ability to reconstruct.

While the others were jabbering happily about the machinery, Galana slipped away to study one of the weathered old hull segments that now acted as a foundation stone. She concluded her examination and returned before anyone missed her, although she saw Wicked Mary’s giela regarding her as unreadably as ever.

The central Gunumban origin story, as recited stirringly by Jelter Qade at the obligatory feast that night, confirmed their theories as much as such stories could. The Gunumbans, it was said, had been driven out of their lands of birth and carried into great danger by the classic great metal bird of spacefaring origin-myth. Their great heroes had then tamed the bird and flown here. If this wasn’t a story of a long-forgotten shipwreck told by the survivors’ great-great-great-grandchildren, Galana decided, then there was no point even trying to make sense of it.

Even as the Gunumban leader spoke of their long-lost birthland, however, it was clear that they still had no intention of going back there.

“It would be like walking in circles, or going back a step instead of forward,” Bonty said once the Conch had translated. “That’s odd. Most origin myths, like the Fleet tales of the gates of space, talk about lost places that we would go back to if we could. The Gunumbans seem perfectly content.”

“Not a bad way to be,” Scrutarius noted. “Especially since we can’t help them.”

“Well, your gear will keep them comfortable for a few generations yet,” Hartigan said. “And at least it doesn’t have a swinging bit that catches you in the nädj, what?” There was more hilarity at this. “And what about that other box of yours?”

“Ah yes,” Devlin stood up from the table and went over to the large rounded box he’d brought down, quite separate to the equipment he’d already given the lost humans. Galana recognised it as similar to ones he’d given away previously – to the Man-Apes, for example, several years ago now.

“Jelter Qade wants to know what it is,” the Conch said when the Gunumban leader took the box from the Blaran and jabbered a short statement in acceptance.

“Diversity,” Devlin said cryptically. “Just in case you or your descendants ever do find your way back to Six Species space, this might give you some … valuable lessons. But you mustn’t open it until we have returned to the Benevolent Sky,” he added in a warning tone, and finished off his speech with a wiggle of the fingers of his upper hands and a playful, “ooooo,” that made the locals laugh again.

After an enjoyable feast and even more enjoyable after-feast celebration and drink-fuelled exchange of dances, the crew returned to the Nella and ascended regretfully into orbit.

“I tell you,” Hartigan said, “nobody throws a party like humans. You Blaran chaps are alright, Dev, but you’re just going to have to be satisfied with second place on this one.”

“I can live with that,” Scrutarius said in amusement. The Captain was clearly feeling a little fragile, but the drinks on offer hadn’t been strong enough to have any real effect on Molran, Blaran, Bonshoon or aki’Drednanth physiology.

“But listen here,” the Captain went on, “I’ve only gone and bared my soul for our tenth space anniversary. Told you all about the bonefields and the Fang o’ God and the passing of my dear wife.”

“You also told us that your childhood nickname was Spazzle Fartigan,” Devlin said.

What?” Hartigan croaked. “No I didn’t!”

“I’m afraid you did, Captain,” Galana said. “You were telling Calumny about it last night.”

“You were very drunk,” Chillybin agreed.

“Fine, jolly good,” Hartigan grumbled, then fixed his Chief Engineer with an accusing look. “Well?”

Scrutarius raised his ears. “Well what?”

“You were going to tell us about your special secret Blaran alteration,” Bonty said. “You said it was ancient spacefaring tradition.”

Did I? You’d think I’d remember something like that,” Devlin said vaguely. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure Fen said the whole thing was just made up.”

“Oh fine,” Bonty said, “I’ll start. I tell everyone I’m three-and-a-half thousand years old, but the truth is, I don’t know how old I am because I don’t remember. And I know, you all knew that already,” she added impatiently. “What you don’t know is, I know I’m actually quite a lot older than that. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years older. The doctors don’t know because I have genetic disorders that have messed up my aging process. I’m still getting older, sorry to say, and I’m not immortal, but I’ll probably just go on looking like this until I keel over. And it could happen tomorrow.”

“That’s … something I would have liked to know before taking you on a fifty-year jaunt around the galaxy, to be honest,” Basil said.

“Tough,” Bonty replied with a flick of her ears.

“I killed my sisters,” Chillybin said. They all turned and stared at the huge armoured figure. “It is the way of my species,” she went on. “In a litter of ten newborns, all of them fight and kill one another for food and shelter and only one or two will survive to grow into adolescents. It is a test, of sorts. I was the only survivor of my litter,” she concluded. “And I killed them all.”

“Bloody Hell,” Devlin said shakily. “Not sure I can top that.”

“I think I can,” Wicked Mary raised a slender metal hand.

“Oh boy,” Devlin said.

“I am defective,” the Fergunakil said. “On eighteen occasions so far, I have had the chance to cut each of you off from major ship systems and flood the decks with water, converting the Conch into an aquatic vessel and then hunting you for sport and nutrition. At first, I thought it was only the computer stopping me, but after the fifth time I realised I was sabotaging my own efforts, making excuses to not carry out the attack. I was failing on purpose.”

“Failing to kill us all,” Bonty said flatly.

“I would appreciate it if you did not judge me harshly,” Wicked Mary said in a prim tone.

“Fine,” Hartigan said, “jolly good. Bloody Mary, thanks for sharing. Fen, you’re up.”

Galana paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “I examined one of the hull plates from the Garla Gunumbous, down on the surface,” she eventually said.

“Even for a Molran that’s lamer than I expected,” Scrutarius announced.

“It was a very specific configuration,” she went on. “My own family – my parents and grandparents – used to crew similar vessels. Wicked Mary was correct. They were called supertankers, but they were more like livestock transports. Lower Fleet ranks would take ships like this out, and they would carry large cargoes of humans, in appalling conditions. The humans agreed to it because the Fleet had the most dependable ships and they would get to fly to their own planets and colonise them. The Fleet used them as – as slave labour, essentially, to construct new settlements.”

“Farm equipment,” Hartigan said quietly. “It was right there on the manifest.”

Galana nodded. “It is widely known, but nobody ever speaks of the treatment after the fact. Humans have a … useful habit of forgetting, and looking back at the past with a very rosy filter after the previous generations have died. Whatever happened in the bonefields, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ancient Gunumbans took the opportunity to overthrow the Molran crew and seize the ship. I would not have blamed them. Certainly I was relieved that no memory of it seemed to remain with the community we just met.”

“They might have sacrificed us to the Benevolent Sky,” Bonty said lightly, although her eyes were sad. She had known, at least in vague terms, this detail of Galana’s family life. But not the complete truth. The supertankers were a dirty little Fleet secret, known by many but never faced.

“That is why I joined AstroCorps,” Galana concluded. “I could not be part of a lie so monstrous. We call ourselves the Six Species, but the Fleet has never believed it. AstroCorps is the only way humans will ever stand with us as equals, rather than as useful semi-sentient beasts of burden.”

They sat in reflective silence for a while after Galana’s speech.

“I’d feel a little shallow showing you my inflatable pecs after all this,” Scrutarius declared.

“Hang about, your inflatable what?” Bonty exclaimed.

“I want to see them,” Chillybin said.

“Me too,” Galana added.

“Oh and look, we’re docking,” Devlin strolled away from his console. “I’d better go and check the connector bolts and get the relative field calibrated…”

“Devlin!” Hartigan raised his voice.

“Long way still to go,” Scrutarius called from down the hall. “Lots of space to explore.”

“Chief Engineer Able Belowdecksman Devlin bally Scrutarius you get back here right bally now!” Basil shouted.

The Blaran’s merry laughter echoed over the bridge as he vanished into the ship.

***

Soon, in The Riddlespawn:

Bonjamin and Devlin were finishing up a fairly boring survey of another empty solar system when the Conch announced that a second ship had entered the volume.

“But there’s nothing here,” Galana said in puzzlement. The system had three planets that could potentially have supported life, but only one of them had so much as a microbe on it. And Bonty had just concluded that they weren’t very interesting microbes. “No technological relics, no settlements. The only thing here is us, and nobody else knew we would be here.”

“The ship is moving in swiftly on an approach heading,” the Conch said. “It is sending us a comm signal on a known wavelength.”

Galana strode quickly to her console, the rest of the crew hurrying onto the bridge behind her. “Fleet or AstroCorps?” she asked.

“Neither,” the Conch replied.

“It is the Splendiferous Bastard,” Chillybin said.

What?” Galana blurted.

“Oh, jolly good!” Captain Hartigan exclaimed.

Moments later the bridge viewscreens were dominated by the narrow, furry little face and great pointed ears of Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer.

There you are,” she said loudly. “Golly, you haven’t gotten very far, have you? I’ve been looking for you all over the place.”

“Roney, you wily little blighter,” Hartigan said happily. “What brings you sniffing around again? Admit it, you missed us.”

“Wish it was that simple, biggums,” Roney said. “I need your help.”

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Rage Against It

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The Fang o’ God

“What’s going on, old girl?” Captain Hartigan asked as they took their places on the bridge. “We’re not due to come out of the grey for another three weeks, are we?”

“No, Captain,” the Conch said formally, “but we have received a signal.”

“A signal?” Galana frowned. “In soft-space?”

“It is like no technology I’ve ever encountered, and yet it is somehow compatible with our own,” the Conch said. “It seems to be some kind of pulse, introducing a … potential change in our field configuration.”

“What does that mean?” Hartigan demanded.

“It means that we can acknowledge this signal and allow it to alter our relative field, curving our flight path. Or we can ignore it, make no change in our course, and continue on our way.”

“The complexity of changing course in the middle of a relative jump … ” Galana shook her head.

Hartigan also looked troubled, but he held up a hand to hold off Galana’s objections. “Where will this magical soft-space ship magnet leave us when we pop out of the grey?” he asked.

“Unknown,” the Conch said, a little irritably. “The calculations, as Commander Fen says, are very complex and I can only make an estimation – somewhere within a volume containing several star systems. We did not perform any analyses of them beyond adding them to our charts, because we hadn’t planned on visiting them.”

“I will see if I can narrow it down,” Wicked Mary said. “Relative speed trajectories are … kind of our thing.”

“It is, if nothing else, definitely the work of an intelligent entity,” the Conch said. “There is no known natural way for such an interaction to work within soft-space.”

“No known natural way,” Bonty echoed.

“Indeed,” the Conch agreed. “If it is a natural phenomenon, it completely rewrites what we know about soft-space and relative speed travel. Even being artificial, it challenges a lot of our assumptions.”

“Sounds like a pretty compelling reason to check out the new coordinates,” Hartigan said. “How far off-course will it take us?”

“A short distance further in from the galactic rim than we otherwise would have gone,” the Conch replied, “but not significantly off the plotted course of our circumnavigation. We would lose days, I think, rather than weeks or months. Of course, it depends on where specifically it leaves us, and how much we are delayed by whatever awaits us there.”

“You think a trick like this is more likely to be friendly or hostile?” Hartigan asked.

“Unsure,” the Conch replied.

“It appears to be a request for contact,” Galana said. “My immediate assumption is that a hostile species would not invite visitors in such a way … but we have been drawn in and trapped by hostile life-forms before. I think, given how alien this technology is to us, it would be impossible to predict the psychology behind it. And yet, it was familiar enough to be compatible with our field, which may support any assumption we make about its motives-”

“Fen, if you don’t know then just say you don’t know,” Hartigan advised.

“Of course I don’t know,” Galana replied in surprise. “I thought you were calling for wild speculation.”

“I think it is a cry for help,” Chillybin said. “I cannot pick up any minds in soft-space,” she added, before anyone could ask, “but a distress call in the grey would have to include some way of helping a passing ship to find the location. Otherwise there would be little point to it.”

“I agree,” Wicked Mary said.

“Well, I for one am agog with curiosity,” Hartigan declared. “Let’s go and say hello.”

It was another week to the system to which the Conch had been redirected. In that time, they didn’t learn anything else about the signal. Speculation ran wild, and they performed as many emergency drills as Basil and Galana felt were necessary, but there really wasn’t much they could do to prepare.

Finally the day arrived and they all gathered on the bridge.

“It is an ordinary-looking solar system,” the Conch reported as they emerged from soft-space. “No big tech in orbit around the planets or the sun. Only one planet appears to be habitable. Some small technology signatures on the surface, nothing too complex.”

“Anything that looks like a soft-space interference beam?” Scrutarius asked. “Not that we know what one of those might look like … ”

“No, Devlin,” the computer said. “It may not even be detectable outside of soft-space. But it is definitely down there.”

“I am … in contact,” Chillybin said unexpectedly.

“Chilly?” Galana said. “I’m not seeing any kind of communication.”

“No, it is – the presence of intelligent creatures,” the aki’Drednanth explained. “It is not an exchange as such, but I am aware of them and recognise the shapes of their minds.”

“Oh,” Hartigan said excitedly, “I thought it usually took a while for you to do that. Are these aliens you’re already familiar with, then?”

“I should say so, Captain,” Chillybin replied. “They’re humans.”

“I thought you said you sensed intelligent creatures,” Scrutarius said into the shocked silence. Hartigan turned and gave him a narrow look. “Sorry,” Devlin added. “Couldn’t resist.”

“You monkeys really do get everywhere,” Bonty said, “don’t you?”

“Now we are receiving a transmission,” the Conch said while Hartigan was still opening and closing his mouth. “The language … interesting.”

“What is it?” Galana asked.

“It is the human tongue of Coriel, but it took me a moment to recognise it,” the computer explained. “I would say that they started with the Coriane language as it was several hundred years ago and developed it from there, in a quite different way to how it has developed on Coriel.”

“I don’t speak modern Coriane,” Hartigan finally managed to say. He sounded disgruntled.

“Neither do I,” Galana admitted. The Porticon, her home Worldship, occasionally visited Coriel but she’d never really spent much time down there. The Coriane were a strange lot – and that was just the few Molren who lived there. “And there are only humans down there?” she glanced at Chillybin for confirmation.

Chilly nodded. “Several thousand of them, I would say.”

“That sounds right,” the Conch agreed. “There seem to be three small settlements, two small and one larger, the majority of the technology centred around the larger one. It could be the remains of a dismantled starship.”

Galana nodded to herself. “Once we establish full contact,” she told the Conch, “it may be a good idea to just send the Captain’s image until we can be sure the sight of aliens won’t upset them. These must be the descendants of some human shipwreck. It’s been known to happen – just not so far from Six Species space.”

“Not that we’ve ever heard about, anyway,” Bonty murmured.

“Opening a channel,” the Conch said.

The transmission from the surface appeared on all of their consoles even though only the Captain’s image would be sent in the other direction for the time being. Galana looked down at what appeared to be a fairly normal human being, although she had to admit she wasn’t familiar with many humans aside from their Captain. This one didn’t have fur on its face, although it still had a tidy mane on the top of its head. It seemed flushed and out of breath, and Galana imagined it had come running from elsewhere in the central settlement down below to respond to the hails of the starship in orbit.

“I am Misrepresentation Fizzschlifft, voice of the Gunumban people,” the computer translated the high-speed jabbering of the human and even overlaid it in an approximation of the human’s gruff voice. “It is a great surprise and very exciting to see a human face … ” the sound cut off at that point, and the human talked animatedly for several more seconds before stopping and waiting expectantly. “I am sorry,” the Conch went on in the computer’s normal voice, “I seem to have lost the audio feed. Attempting to compensate. The real-time translation may have been too much for the data buffers … ”

Galana frowned as the computer continued to explain. It must have been her imagination, but the machine seemed … flustered, somehow. It wasn’t the first time the highly complex computer had suffered from emotion-like reactions that had hampered its performance. She checked the comm system. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the audio or the data buffers or anything the Conch was babbling about.

“‘Misrepresentation’?” Hartigan asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I believe the word was ‘Calumny’,” Wicked Mary said, “but it was a name and perhaps not intended to be translated.”

Galana called up the received transmission, but it was all chopped up and incomplete – and it didn’t look like a system glitch. It looked edited. She glanced across at Wicked Mary, who had obviously been receiving and translating the message from the surface using some equipment of her own that she had set up without their knowledge. The giela returned her look with its collection of sensors, completely impossible to read.

“Yes, yes it was Calumny Fizzschlifft, and I am ready to translate your response now, Captain,” the Conch was saying. “I will attempt to re-establish a link and get the rest of the previous transmission. I’m sorry about this.”

“Alright old girl, not to worry,” Hartigan said mildly. “We got the important bits, what?” he cleared his throat. “Greetings, Calumny Fizzschlifft and the Gunumban people,” he went on officially. “I am Captain Basil Hartigan, and on behalf of AstroCorps and the Six Species, I bid you greetings from your long-lost cousins a – gosh, what, it must be just about a third of the way around the bally galaxy by this point, eh Fen?”

“Yes, Captain,” Galana replied, hoping they weren’t about to show her in the transmission and freak out the poor unsuspecting Gunumbans.

“I have translated the greeting into the Coriane dialect, well, I suppose we should refer to it as Gunumban at this point,” the Conch said, sounding a bit less anxious. Galana suspected it was because the computer was getting the hang of juggling the transmission and only providing translations once they’d been sufficiently cleaned up. But why? What was the computer doing, and how could they prove it was doing it? Even if they went down to meet the humans face to face at this point, it would be difficult to trust what was being said until they’d learned the language. The computer would be providing their translations even then.

Their whole mission, the whole issue of speaking with aliens, was at stake if they could not trust what the computer told them the aliens were saying. Wicked Mary, as unreliable as she was, might be their only source of unedited information. And that was more than a little worrying.

The Captain and Calumny Fizzschlifft exchanged a few more enthusiastic but questionable messages, which fortunately cleared up – or at least it probably did – the question of whether the Gunumbans were ready to meet aliens. They were aware, from the ‘old stories’ of their ancestors, of the Six Species and even had some archived images of Molren, aki’Drednanth, Bonshooni, Blaren, and even Fergunak. They were very excited to hear that there was one of each of the fabled creatures aboard the Conch, and inevitably the invitation to land and meet the whole Gunumban nation was soon to follow.

“What do you think, Fen?” Hartigan asked her.

She paused, watching the Captain carefully. He knew, she realised. He knew there was something strange going on with the computer. But he was pretending it was fine. Why? It couldn’t be to protect the machine’s feelings. But then, she realised, she was doing the same herself.

“We should be careful,” she said. “You are at risk of contracting any diseases the locals might have, since you are the same species.”

“And they may be at risk of catching things from you,” Bonjamin added. “No offence, Captain.”

“And of course we should make certain that there were no members of the other species with them when they arrived here – and if there were, whether they died of natural causes or something that might affect us,” Galana continued.

“Oh come now,” Hartigan said. “You don’t think there’s any risk of that, do you?”

“I am not certain, Captain,” Galana said. “I would feel better if the Conch – and Doctor Bont, of course – could perform a full analysis and present their findings and recommendations to us before we go rushing down to the surface.”

“Yes,” the computer agreed quickly, while Basil was still frowning and opening his mouth, “yes, that would be sensible. We don’t want anyone turning into a cake, do we? Ha ha.”

Galana wondered when she had first started treating the Conch’s computer like a slightly unstable person, and realised it had been happening for a while now. “Bonty?” she asked.

“I’ll run some tests,” Bonjamin said. “Of course, we’ll need to land and send out a sample probe before we can be sure … ”

“It looks like the ship they arrived here in was called the Garla Gunumbous,” Chillybin said. “The nameplate was preserved and they included a picture of it in the unscrambled part of their transmission.”

“Guess that’s why they call themselves Gunumbans,” Scrutarius remarked.

“The ship has long since been taken apart for the technology they are using to run their main settlement,” Chilly went on. “The power cells, medical facilities, even the hull plates.”

“What about the soft-space beacon which brought us here?” Galana asked. “Did they build that themselves? Some sort of prototype?”

“It doesn’t look like it,” Chilly replied. “There is no sign of it now, as the computer said – it must only resonate at relative speed. But I would guess it is some unrelated piece of technology, perhaps something alien they picked up – maybe even connected to why they are out here in the first place.”

“Is there any record of the Garla Gunumbous in our database?” Galana asked the computer.

“Only the mythical figure and Her representations in popular culture,” the Conch replied. “Garla Gunumbous, Goddess of Plenty … I’m afraid I don’t have a record of every lost ship in Six Species history, and that’s even assuming they were lost rather than, say, slipping away across the border to make a life for themselves out here.”

“Their old computer files are corrupted but accessible,” Wicked Mary said. “That will probably be our best source of information. However, at the moment I am unable to access that data for a reason I have not fully made up yet.”

“Excuse me?” Galana turned to the giela with a lift of her ears.

“Forgive me, Commander,” the Conch said. “This is my fault. I know my behaviour is erratic, but I am attempting to find the best way to introduce … difficult information.”

“Are you attempting to protect us from something we may find distressing?” Galana asked. A number of things began to make sense. “Something about this place and its original settlers?”

“Yes,” the Conch said, sounding very unhappy. “At least, I think so. I am still collecting information.”

“I have often found that the best way to deal with an uncomfortable situation is to get as much of it out in the open as possible,” Galana suggested, “rather than hiding it until it is too late – and has possibly been made worse.”

“I know,” the Conch said, “but if I’m wrong, then it seems pointless to bring it up for no reason. With Wicked Mary’s help I will make certain of what we are facing, and then we can deal with it. I asked her to help me stall. She did not do a very good job,” she added a little sternly.

“I am uncomfortable hiding things from my crewmates,” Wicked Mary lied with appalling lack of shame.

Basil, Galana noticed, had been frowning vaguely and looking at the planet through the viewscreen. “Captain?” she asked.

“Hmm?” Hartigan blinked and turned to her. “Oh, I was just thinking about how funny it is that there’s only ever the one settlement or bunch of people on these planets for us to meet,” he said. “We never have to deal with a whole planet full of different cultures, it’s all jolly convenient. Why, the closest we’ve ever come to a diverse group was the Nyif Nyif.”

“I suppose … ” Galana said cautiously.

“Anyway, what have we got here?” Hartigan went on crisply. “Descendants of some old settlers or shipwreck, called us here using some technology or whatnot that doesn’t seem to be part of their broken-down old setup, and the computer’s got herself all worked up that we might be about to find out something that will make us sad. I say, d’you suppose the humans ate the Molren or something?”

“I find it far easier to believe that the Molren would have eaten the humans, to be honest,” Galana said. “A human wouldn’t get much nutritional value from a Molran.”

“A Molran wouldn’t get much nutritional value from a human, for that matter,” Bonty commented. “Terribly fatty and low in fibre.”

“Easier to farm, though,” Devlin added.

“Oh, granted, they’re easier to farm ‑ ” Bonty agreed.

“Right, well as far as I’m concerned this all adds up to a simply spiffing mystery,” Hartigan went on loudly, “and there’s nothing for it but to toddle on down there as fast as we jolly well can, what?” he tapped his controls. “Unless you really think the Gunumbans and I are going to give each other a dose of the pox?”

“No,” the Conch said, “I shouldn’t think there’s much risk of that. But Bonjamin should run some tests to be absolutely sure.”

“Right. And while Bonty’s doing that, you can tell us what’s so bally dreadful about this place that you thought pulling the old ‘does not compute’ gag was the best way to break it to us,” Hartigan declared. He stood up. “Galana, Devlin, with me. Chilly, Bloody Mary, I want a full accounting of the technology we’re looking at and any potential combat situations we might face, you know the drill. We’ll leave the comm open so you can listen in. Carry on.”

They ascended to the Captain’s quarters, and Scrutarius went immediately to Hartigan’s little bar and made a round of drinks.

“You already know what this is about,” Galana asked as she sat down, “both of you. Don’t you?”

“I have no idea,” Devlin said, although Galana could tell from the set of his upper shoulders and the sharp downward angle of his ears that this was a half-truth at best. “All I know is, if it’s got the computer this rattled, then it’s drinks time.”

“As for me, let’s say I’ve got a hunch,” Hartigan said. “Let’s see if I was right. Computer? Our shipwrecked friends down below wouldn’t happen to be there because of the Fang o’ God, now would they?”

“Yes, Basil,” the Conch said in a strange little voice. Galana looked from Basil to Devlin, seeing the human’s grim nod and the Blaran’s further stiffening. “Yes, they are.”

“Right,” Hartigan clapped his hands briskly. “Drinks it is.”

“The Fang o’ God?” Galana said in bafflement. “You mean the mythical weapon, or warship, or whatever it was, from old Earth legends?”

“Back before Dev and I knew each other, I was Captain of another AstroCorps ship and crew,” Hartigan said, “as you are aware, Fen. Ah, thanks,” he took the drink Devlin offered, and took a deep draught as Scrutarius handed another glass to Galana and sat down with his own. “We were a bit more of a standard crew in a bit more of a standard ship – me as Captain, and my wife Nella as XO … although you really couldn’t say she was an XO. She would have been court-martialled for insubordination fifteen times before we even broke dock,” he laughed fondly. “Anyway, we were a great team. I had a lot of friends on that crew.

“We were searching, as you know, for the Last Alicorn. Among other things – a lot of wonders to explore, a lot of space to travel, and all the time in the universe …

Ah, but then we heard tales of the Fang o’ God. Some of the greatest spacefaring human families come from the lines that descended from that – that ship, or whatever it was. And, it was said, when the Last Alicorn parted company with the Molran Fleet, it was with the Fang o’ God that it went. Or if it didn’t go with the Fang o’ God, then at least there was some connection, a lead. So, naturally, we added it to our list of things that we simply had to explore. A lot of piffle, don’t y’know, but worth checking out. No stone unturned, all of that.

“Our search led us to a place they call the bonefields,” Hartigan stopped and took another large gulp from his glass, finishing his drink. He looked lost and frightened for a moment, and then laughed helplessly. “Still not at all sure I want to talk about it, to be honest.”

“That’s a legend I’ve heard of now and again,” Scrutarius said. “Never anything specific, but it always sounds bad. You may have let slip once or twice, Baz, especially in connection to – to Nella. That was why I suspected that’s what this was about.”

“I’ve also heard stories about the bonefields,” Galana said, “but I never thought it was real. Wasn’t there something about how you can only ever go there once?”

“Believe me, you’d only ever want to go there once,” Hartigan said. “If we’d known we were going to wind up there and what would happen, we wouldn’t have gone at all. Oh, but we were on a grand adventure, don’t y’know,” he laughed bitterly. “There aren’t many stories about the bonefields because nobody wants to tell stories about it. That’s how my crew’s accident got marked down in the AstroCorps records as – as … well, I don’t even know what it was marked down as,” he looked at Galana. “You tell me, Fen.”

Galana shook her head. “There were no details,” she said, “just a ‘ship lost with all hands’ and a suggestion that you might have been venturing too close to the Core in your search for the alicorn.”

“Makes sense,” Basil said. “When in doubt, blame the Cancer and make it that much less likely that anyone else will dare to go anywhere near ‘em. But no, it was nothing to do with the Core. We flew into the bonefields, the floating bones took apart our ship and butchered our crew, and there was nothing in the middle to show for it. No alicorn, no Fang o’ God, no nothing. Just blood and screams and death. Nella and I managed to get out of there in the remains of the ship, after half our crew took to the escape pods and those were taken apart too. While we watched,” he shuddered, and tried to take another drink, but found his glass empty. “We decided to go down with the ship because that’s what Captains do, and that’s how we survived. Pure bally luck.”

“But … ” Galana said hesitantly.

“Nella died of her injuries,” Devlin told her quietly when Hartigan didn’t speak again. “That was … shortly after they returned to charted space. Isn’t that right, Baz?”

“Hm? Oh,” Basil nodded, his eyes still staring into nothingness. “Oh, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Basil,” Galana said sincerely. “I’m very sorry.”

“Ah well,” Basil shook himself, and forced a smile. “There you have it, anyway. Now you know. The ghastly and pointless truth about how I got my first crew killed. All of them, lost on a fruitless search for the legendary Fang o’ God. Fitting you should learn about it on our tenth space anniversary, what? Telling each other deep dark secrets and all that. But what about these poor blighters? The Gunumbans?”

“The Garla Gunumbous was recorded as a supertanker carrying farm equipment and supplies,” Wicked Mary’s voice replied over the comm, “led by a Molran command crew. They were not explorers or adventurers. How they wandered into the bonefields, let alone how they ended up this far from Six Species space, does not seem to have survived in the databanks or the Gunumbans’ myths. But they definitely seem to have encountered the bonefields and it had a significant impact on them. Even generations later, phrases like the field of bones, the floating bones and even the great tooth are part of their speech patterns.”

“That was the point at which I edited the initial transmissions,” the Conch said apologetically. “I realised there was a connection and was trying to find the best way to break it to you.”

“You did fine,” Devlin said supportively.

“The Garla Gunumbous was critically damaged,” Wicked Mary went on, “the Molren were killed, and they fled through soft-space to this location. That is about all the information we have managed to reassemble.”

“That’s pretty good, for data you’ve managed to pick up from a centuries-old shipwreck while we’re still in orbit,” Devlin said supportively.

“I suspect that the ship’s purpose may have been a little less noble,” Wicked Mary said, “although with a Molran crew it was probably still operating inside the law. There is a lot of space inside the law for … unpleasant activities, and vessels were often labelled as ‘supertankers’ when ‘slave galley’ was reserved for Blaran crews.”

“But we have no evidence of this,” Bonty added in a pained voice over the comm, “and so there is no reason to dishonour the memory of the dead by making accusations until we find out more.”

“Chillybin thinks the relative drive that carried the Gunumbans here, and the technology that led us to them, came from another ship entirely,” Wicked Mary added. “An alien one.”

“Perhaps the same aliens that were behind the bonefields?” Galana jumped at the opportunity to avoid talking about the ancient supertanker and whatever nefarious work it may have been about when it went down. “The Fang o’ God itself, maybe?”

“Chillybin seems fairly sure the bonefields were not the source of the technology,” Wicked Mary said. “She won’t explain why she’s so sure. She just gets all mysterious and aki’Drednanthy about it.”

“We can find out more from the Gunumbans,” Bonty spoke up again. “The biosphere is safe, and we can make final checks when we land. That is, if you feel like landing.”

“Absolutely,” Hartigan jumped to his feet. Galana looked down at her drink, which she hadn’t actually had a chance to taste yet, and set it on the table with a little shrug. “We can hardly come all this way and find humans and not bally well drop in and say hello, can we? Or whatever it is they say instead of ‘hello’.”

Kädun,” the Conch supplied helpfully.

“Right. We can’t come all this way and not drop in and say kädun,” Hartigan declared. “And us bonefields survivors have to stick together, what?”

They quickly made their preparations, then returned to the bridge and detached the Nella for landing.

“I have a theory,” Bonty said. “It’s a bit complicated, but Bloody Mary and the computer say the technology checks out – from what little we know about the technology, anyway.”

“Let’s hear it, doc,” Scrutarius invited. “And the more long-forgotten Molran skulduggery you fit in there, the better.”

“There’s no Molran skulduggery,” Bonty protested.

“Oh well.”

“I think the Garla Gunumbous ran into trouble in the bonefields,” Bonty said. “That much is obvious, of course. The ship was crippled and the Molren on board were killed. They ran into another ship in there, from somewhere else, in similar trouble. These humans, these … irrepressible humans ‑ ”

“Or their ancestors, at least,” the Conch interjected.

“ ‑ Or their ancestors,” Bonty agreed, “must have put together a relative drive and flown here in a mashed-together assembly of both ships. Probably without any navigation, which is why they ended up so far from home. And the tech left an eddy – the signal that we followed in.”

“Probably lucky nobody else found it,” Scrutarius noted, “considering some of the nasties we’ve flown past,” he had packed a large, round-cornered crate and an assortment of food and spare equipment from engineering, but wouldn’t go into specifics about what any of it was. Stuff they might have missed in the past few hundred years, was all he would say.

“I don’t think anyone else could have followed this signal,” Wicked Mary replied. “Only Six Species technology would have resonated, which makes sense if the delicious doctor’s theory is correct about the ship being cobbled together from Six Species and alien tech. But it is possible that the signal is a little more accessible than we think, and it has just gone unheard because this is such a quiet corner of the galaxy.”

“We should probably shut it down for them,” Galana said, “provided they don’t need help and didn’t know the signal was beaming into soft-space anyway.”

“I felt certain you would feel that way, Commander,” Wicked Mary noted.

“That raises another … awkward point, though,” Galana went on. “And that is, what if the Gunumbans do want to go home?”

“We can’t very well bring them all with us,” Hartigan said, “even if they aren’t exactly a planet-full.”

“And we don’t have enough equipment to leave them so they can build their own starship, either,” Devlin agreed. “The relics they have left are basically keeping their main settlement lights on, and that’s about it. We’re not going to get them off the ground.”

“And we can’t leave them with detailed directions back to Six Species space,” Galana said. “That would be a grave security risk.”

“True, but surely something like ‘it’s that way, just keep going around the galactic rim widdershins until you start seeing Bounce-Bounce Burger signs’ would be fine,” Hartigan objected.

“Maybe this is something we can worry about if they ask us,” Galana suggested.

The Gunumbans met them when they landed. It was strange to be surrounded by humans again, to see their funny pointy faces looking up at her and the tops of their furry little heads as they jostled and jabbered. Galana looked across the bobbing heads at Bonty, and shared a grin with her friend. It was almost like coming home, even though Galana had to admit that if this many humans had shown up on the Worldship Porticon, the locals would have contacted pest control.

The humans, for their part, were awestruck and a little frightened by the towering aliens. No living Gunumban had seen a Molranoid or an aki’Drednanth in the flesh. It must have felt like the drawings and stories of Gunumban history stepping living and breathing into the real world. They were spared having to see Wicked Mary in person, as she had remained in orbit.

Still, the humans were wide-eyed and didn’t seem hostile. They babbled excitedly in their strange ancient-Coriane dialect, and the Conch translated for them as efficiently as possible. Galana had made the conscious decision, at this point, to once again trust that the computer was feeding them accurate information. She was left with little alternative.

“This is Jelter Qade, the … I suppose spiritual leader is the best term,” the Conch said. “She bids you welcome in the name of the Benevolent Sky, which is possibly a deity of some kind. And this is Calumny Fizzschlifft, we spoke on the comm…”

Fizzschlifft, more an administrator and general public servant than a leader, also welcomed them to ‘Gunumba’ and immediately hit it off with Basil Hartigan despite the fact that kädun was the only word the Captain knew. He added a second word to his repertoire when Jelter Qade gave him a ceremonial gift of some kind, and a piece of it came loose and swung down and hit him between the legs. After that he could also say nädjgenitals. There was much laughter, and the terrifying spectre of the visitors from the stars was dispelled more effectively than a century’s-worth of xenosociology could have managed.

The Gunumbans were content to stay on the planet, Galana was relieved to learn almost immediately. They had no interest in returning to Six Species space even though they were delighted to learn that the Six Species – or Many Peoples Under Many Benevolent Skies – was still out there.

They showed the crew of the Conch around the most important buildings and features of their central settlement, including the assorted ancient and well-worn buildings and mechanisms that ran their little civilisation. Devlin declared it all exceptionally well maintained, and said there was little he could teach them, although some of the repair equipment and compounds he’d brought with him would help. The Gunumbans were very pleased with the gift, and while they were exclaiming over it Galana slipped away to study one of the weathered old hull segments that now acted as a foundation stone. She concluded her examination and returned before anyone missed her, although she saw Wicked Mary’s giela regarding her as unreadably as ever.

More and more people began trickling in. Soon there was a crowd, but they were remarkably well-controlled. Devlin murmured to her that the Benevolent Sky might be a bit of a stickler for good manners.

The Gunumbans couldn’t tell them which parts of their infrastructure were Six Species and which were alien, but Galana and the others could recognise the alien technology simply by the fact that they didn’t recognise it. Bonty, it seemed, had been right – there was little that was functional anymore, and there wasn’t enough left of it to rebuild, but the machinery was very cunningly merged. Devlin declared this, too, to be excellent work.

They located the piece of odd, twisted equipment that was making the soft-space beacon they had followed. Jelter Qade said it was a Thing Of The Bones, which was also interesting but it didn’t seem to be holy or forbidden in any way and they had no objection to Scrutarius fiddling with it and eventually shutting it down. Whether it was actually something from the bonefields – Hartigan shivered and said it looked nothing like the floating bones he remembered – or had just been folded into the Gunumbans’ history, nobody could say. Still, if Bonty was right and the ancient Gunumbans had encountered an alien ship in the bonefields, and used their technology to get to safety, it made sense that a piece of it would be associated with that mythical horror.

The central Gunumban origin story, as recited stirringly by Jelter Qade at the obligatory feast that night, bore this out. The Gunumbans, it was said, had been driven out of their lands of birth and carried into great danger by the classic great metal bird of spacefaring origin-myth. With the help of the Things Of The Bones, they had tamed the bird and flown here. If Bonty’s explanation wasn’t the truth, Galana decided, then there was no point even trying to make sense of it.

Even as the Gunumban leader spoke of their long-lost birthland, however, it was clear that they still had no intention of going back there.

“It would be like walking in circles, or going back a step instead of forward,” Bonty said once the Conch had translated. “How interesting. Most origin myths, like the Fleet tales of the gates of space, talk about lost places that we would go back to if we could, or that we must strive to better ourselves so that we might earn a place there. The Gunumbans seem perfectly content.”

“Not a bad way to be,” Scrutarius noted.

Still, with the alien beacon deactivated, even the option of going back was gone. Hartigan gave Jelter Qade a small self-contained beacon of more modern design.

“It will send a secure nod to any Six Species ship to enter this volume,” he explained, “without getting the attention of any other nasties. When we get home, we’ll put your coordinates in our report and … well to be honest it’s unlikely AstroCorps or the Fleet will let anyone else come out here, but we’ll see. And at least it doesn’t have a swinging bit that catches you in the nädj, what?”

There was more hilarity at this.

Scrutarius handed over his own gift, quite separate to the equipment he’d already given them. It was a large rounded box that Galana recognised as similar to ones he’d given away previously – to the Man-Apes, for example, several years ago now.

“Diversity,” he said cryptically when Jelter Qade expressed curiosity. “Just in case you or your descendants ever do find your way back to Six Species space, this might give you some … valuable lessons. But you mustn’t open it until we have returned to the Benevolent Sky,” he added in a warning tone, and finished off his speech with a wiggle of the fingers of his upper hands and a playful, “ooooo,” that made the locals laugh again.

After an enjoyable feast and even more enjoyable after-feast celebration and drink-fuelled exchange of dances, the crew returned to the Nella and ascended regretfully into orbit.

“I tell you,” Hartigan said, “nobody throws a party like humans. You Blaran chaps are alright, Dev, but you’re just going to have to be satisfied with second place on this one.”

“I can live with that,” Scrutarius said in amusement. The Captain was clearly feeling a little fragile, but the drinks on offer hadn’t been strong enough to have any real effect on Molran, Blaran, Bonshoon or aki’Drednanth physiology.

“But listen here,” the Captain went on, “I’ve only gone and bared my soul for our tenth space anniversary. Told you all about the bonefields and the Fang o’ God and the passing of my dear wife.”

“You also told us that your childhood nickname was Spazzle Fartigan,” Devlin said.

What?” Hartigan croaked. “No I didn’t!”

“I’m afraid you did, Captain,” Galana said. “You were telling Calumny about it last night.”

“You were very drunk,” Chillybin agreed.

“Fine, jolly good,” Hartigan grumbled, then fixed his Chief Engineer with an accusing look. “Well?”

Scrutarius raised his ears. “Well what?”

“You were going to tell us about your special secret Blaran alteration,” Bonty said.

Was I? You’d think I’d remember something like that,” Devlin said vaguely. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure Fen said the whole tradition was just made up.”

“Oh fine,” Bonty said, “I’ll start. I tell everyone I’m three-and-a-half thousand years old, but the truth is, I don’t know how old I am because I don’t remember. And I know, you all knew that already,” she added impatiently. “What you don’t know is, I know I’m actually quite a lot older than that. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years older. The doctors don’t know because I have a genetic disorders that have messed up my aging process. I’m still getting older, sorry to say, and I’m not immortal, but I’ll probably just go on looking like this until I keel over. And it could happen tomorrow.”

“That’s … something I would have liked to know before taking you on a fifty-year jaunt around the galaxy, to be honest,” Basil said.

“Tough,” Bonty replied with a flick of her ears.

“I killed my sisters,” Chillybin said. They all turned and stared at the huge armoured figure. “It is customary in my species,” she went on. “In a litter of ten newborns, all fight and kill one another for food and shelter and only one or two will survive to grow into adolescents. It is a test, of sorts. I was the only survivor of my litter,” she concluded. “And I killed them all.”

“Bloody Hell,” Devlin said shakily. “Not sure I can top that.”

“I think I can,” Wicked Mary raised a slender metal hand.

“Oh boy,” Devlin said.

“I am defective,” the Fergunakil said. “On eighteen occasions so far, I have had the chance to cut each of you off from major ship systems and flood the decks with water, converting the Conch into an aquatic vessel and then hunting you for sport and nutrition. At first, I thought it was only the computer stopping me, but after the fifth time I realised I was sabotaging my own efforts, making excuses to not carry out the attack. I was failing on purpose.”

“Failing to kill us all,” Bonty said flatly.

“I would appreciate it if you did not judge me harshly,” Wicked Mary said in a prim tone.

“Fine,” Hartigan said, “jolly good. Fen, you’re up.”

“I examined one of the hull plates from the Garla Gunumbous, down on the surface,” Galana said.

“Even for a Molran that’s pretty lame,” Scrutarius announced.

“It was a very specific configuration,” she went on. “My own family – my parents and grandparents – used to crew similar vessels. Wicked Mary is correct. They were called supertankers, but they were more like livestock transports. Lower Fleet ranks would take ships like this out, and they would carry large cargoes of humans, in appalling conditions. The humans agreed to it because the Fleet had the most dependable ships and they would get to fly to their own planets and colonise them. The Fleet used them as – as slave labour, essentially, to construct new settlements.”

“Farm equipment,” Hartigan said quietly. “It was right there on the manifest.”

Galana nodded. “It is widely known, but nobody ever speaks of the treatment after the fact. Humans have a … useful habit of forgetting, and looking back at the past with a very rosy filter. Whatever happened in the bonefields, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ancient Gunumbans took the opportunity to overthrow the Molran crew and seize the ship. I would not have blamed them. Certainly I was relieved that no memory of it seemed to remain with the community we just met.”

“They might have sacrificed us to the Benevolent Sky,” Bonty said sadly. She had known, at least in vague terms, this detail of Galana’s family life. But not the complete truth. The supertankers were a dirty little Fleet secret, known by many but never faced.

“That is why I joined AstroCorps,” Galana concluded. “I could not be part of a lie so monstrous. We call ourselves the Six Species, but the Fleet has never believed it. AstroCorps is the only way humans will ever stand with us as equals, rather than as useful semi-sentient cattle.”

They sat in reflective silence for a while after this.

“I’d feel a little shallow showing you my inflatable pecs after all this,” Scrutarius declared.

“Hang about, your inflatable what?” Bonty exclaimed.

“I want to see them,” Chillybin said.

“Me too,” Galana added.

“Oh and look, we’re docking,” Devlin strolled away form his console. “I’d better go and check the connector bolts and get the relative field calibrated…”

“Devlin!” Hartigan raised his voice.

“Long way still to go,” Scrutarius called from down the hall.

“Chief Engineer Able Belowdecksman Devlin bally Scrutarius you get back here right bally now!” Basil shouted.

The Blaran’s merry laughter echoed over the bridge as he vanished into the ship.

***

Soon, in The Riddlespawn:

Bonjamin and Devlin were finishing up a fairly boring survey of another empty solar system when the Conch announced that a second ship had entered the volume.

“But there is nothing here,” Galana said in puzzlement. The system had three planets that could potentially have supported life, but only one of them had so much as a microbe on it. And Bonty had just concluded that they weren’t very interesting microbes. “No technological relics, no settlements. The only thing here is us, and nobody else knew we would be here.”

“The ship is moving in swiftly on an approach heading,” the Conch said. “It is sending us a comm signal on a known wavelength.”

Galana strode quickly to her console, the rest of the crew hurrying onto the bridge behind her. “Fleet or AstroCorps?” she asked.

“Neither,” the Conch replied.

“It is the Splendiferous Bastard,” Chillybin said.

What?” Galana blurted.

“Oh, jolly good!” Captain Hartigan exclaimed.

Moments later the bridge viewscreens were dominated by the narrow, furry little face and great pointed ears of Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer.

There you are,” she said loudly. “Golly, you haven’t gotten very far, have you? I’ve been looking for you all over the place.”

“Roney, you wily little blighter,” Hartigan said happily. “What brings you sniffing around again? Admit it, you missed us.”

“Wish it was that simple, biggums,” Roney said. “I need your help.”

Posted in Astro Tramp 400 | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Planet of the Humans

planet-of-the-humans

(NOTE: I replaced the YouTube link with a more critical annotated version. Because intellectual engagement is better than censorship.)

So here I am, sitting back and waiting for the hot takes to start rolling in about the Planet of the Humans documentary. It’s already pretty clear that one group will be taking it as an excuse to take a huge dump on any and every environmentally conscious person on the planet. It’s also equally clear that another group will take it as an excuse to turn on every fact and datapoint and idea in the movie, out of despair and frustration.

Big surprise there.

Funny how when Moore was telling us about school shootings and fear culture, the left loved it and the right shouted about what a commie kook he was. Now he’s telling us about the perils[1] of green solutions and the corruption and greed driving it[2], the right is thrilled and the left is shouting “ecofascist”.

[1] I’ll want to see more science on this, solar power has come a long way in the ten-plus years since any of the information included in this movie. But there is still legitimate cause for concern and caution.

[2] Frankly I find this instantly easy to believe.

Nobody’s got it right yet. Moore’s always had a mixture of solid truth in his messages, and a lot of scary shit designed to wake us up and make us think. Is he right? Is he wrong? Not really the point. You can’t be right or wrong about such a sweeping and multifaceted issue. All we can hope to do is take away some practical points and not discard stuff that still has merit in our rush to abandon our posts and flee, flee for our lives.

And that goes for the people on all sides of this.

Moore isn’t wrong that, without some unforeseen and orders-of-magnitude change in our resource-providing technology, there are just too many humans living too unsustainably for this planet’s biosphere. The problem, as I so often like to say, lies in the “so” this leads to. Yes, we need to reduce population. But as soon as any human agency takes over that decision-making process, the result will be ecofascism and an absolute travesty the likes of which human civilisation has never seen.

And mark my words. It’s coming. It’s only going to get worse and the climate is only going to continue to disintegrate around us. The choice will be taken from our hands[3] and our population will be decimated. Or whatever the 90-10 version of “decimated” is. And before that happens, we are going to tear ourselves apart like rats in a sack. And it’s going to be the third world that cops it in the neck.

[3] And that’s good!

The thing is, Moore’s message hasn’t always been like this. The driving point, I seem to recall, of his book Dude, Where’s My Country? was that we were dying out because, I don’t know, something about sitting at computers too long and our sperm going manky and so more women were being born instead of an even mix, so population was declining due to lack of males. I mean, that was a solid decade back. Wasn’t that a good thing? Frankly the more women we have, the better.

Furthermore, it’s become very clear that the moment you grant rights and education to women, the population starts to level out and drop because they suddenly realise they have better things to do than sit around being baby factories. It’s happened in Scandinavia and basically everywhere else women have been acknowledged as human beings rather than cattle. Educate, and the problem solves itself. Maybe not fast enough, but it will happen.

Therein lies the problem. Therein lies the “so”. Because the developing world, the non-western world, is the one with the booming population. Women’s rights, education, birth control … the second we start trying to direct that shit in other countries, we wind up with genocide and butchery. Because we’re humans and we suck.

On the other hand, the developing world is a massive majority population-wise and are guilty of only the smallest part of the actual carbon load. It’s the tiny, rich, wasteful, privileged population of the west that is responsible for most of the pollution and fuckery which is contributing to human-caused climate change. It’s me. If you’re reading this, it’s you. The solar panels on my roof haven’t changed that one bit.

So what do we do?

Well, we’re not going to solve the climate crisis with green alternatives like wind and solar. Even if those technologies are absolutely fine, and even without hamstringing from movies like this, it was never going to work because we’re shit. We’re not going to get it together in time. We’re going to keep using fossil fuels until we die. Maybe the green technology we have in place will slow things down, maybe it will have no impact whatsoever. The fact remains that it’s not going to be able to support a population of 7-and-a-half billion monkeys.

What will? I don’t think anything will. Sci-fi shit, post-scarcity, is needed and that won’t happen. We don’t trust nuclear power and that’s the only thing I can think of with the grunt to replace coal in the mid-term. We could turn Africa and Australia into solar farms, but we won’t. And maybe it wouldn’t do any good if we did. Maybe that production would be more wasteful than digging up coal and burning it.

So is reducing our population the only thing we can do? Good news – that’s definitely going to happen anyway. Human fertility rates are dropping and our population growth is slowing. Even if we don’t take any more steps to educate and grant rights to more women worldwide, we’re levelling off – probably, I think, because we’ve just plain reached the edge of the envelope there. It’s not going to happen fast enough, but good news again! The climate collapse super-catastrophes are coming, and so are the climate refugee massacres and the ecofascist genocides. If any species can cull itself, it’s ours. We’ve trained for this. The question is, will any of us be left and will there be any arable land at the end of it?

I don’t know, whatever. Smoke ’em if you got ’em. I guess all we can do is sit back and do nothing and wait for the next thing to happen.

Posted in Hatboy's Movie Extravaganza, Hatboy's Nuggets of Crispy-Fried Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

The Fantastical Cakes of Zoogo Zaroy

“Shmoof,” Basil announced. “It’s this powdery stuff that puffs up into a big kind of blob when you pour water on it. If you eat it right away, it goes on swelling in your stomach and makes you feel like you’re about to burst.”

“Real,” Bonty declared. “I’ve had it.”

Bonty usually won their games of ‘Real Food Or Just Some Random Noise I Made?’. She liked to pat her round belly and joke that it was because she was a Bonshoon, and Bonshooni loved their food, but the simple truth was that she was three-and-a-half thousand years old and had tried just about everything. Moreover, she had an endless supply of random noises that she could insist were foods that no longer existed, and not even the Conch’s computer could prove she was lying.

“Alright, Bonty,” Hartigan sat back and raised his glass in a toast. “The round is yours. Let’s hear your next outburst of appalling claptrap.”

“Marglegargle,” Bonty pronounced happily.

“Real,” Scrutarius said immediately. “Although it’s better known by its main ingredient, Madame Margolyse, Marglegargle is a sort of warm drink made from the stuff. Disgustingly sweet.”

“Does that count as a food?” Chillybin asked. “If it is a drink … ”

“Ah, point of order,” Hartigan straightened in his armchair. “As Captain, I need to deliberate on this before making a ruling. When would one usually drink this Marglegargle? And would one drink it from a glass, or a mug, or a bowl?”

“Usually a bowl,” Devlin admitted, “and it’s usually served as a dessert rather than a – what do you call it? A nightcap?”

“Well then, I say it qualifies in the same way gazpacho did,” Hartigan declared, picked up a spoon from his empty supper plate and tapped the side of his glass. “Round to Devlin.”

“I still think you made gazpacho up,” Galana said, “and the computer is in cahoots with you.”

“Why, Commander Fen,” Hartigan said, “the very thought.”

They didn’t usually talk about food, because sooner or later Wicked Mary would always say something horrible and make it creepy. But right now she was off the general comm grid and even her giela – rebuilt since their run-in with the Fudzu – was offline. She was hunting Squirty Pete III, the battle squid they’d grown for her, and had promised to only check in if she needed medical attention. Galana had long since stopped worrying about their mission failing due to their Fergunakil crewmember being killed by her own dinner. Wicked Mary was, it seemed, quite invincible.

The game went on late into the night, shipboard standard, at which point the human and the aki’Drednanth retired to sleep. Molran, Bonshoon and Blaran went back to their quarters as well.

The next morning, they were all in high spirits. It was finally time to come out of the grey and make another planetary survey, the next stop in their long journey around the galaxy. They had reason to believe the planet they would be visiting had life – perhaps even intelligent life. It had looked promisingly vegetation-covered and hospitable from their last stop. Furthermore, another planet they had visited a few jumps back had given them an even more exciting clue. On the surface of that waterless and otherwise uninhabited world, they’d found a broken-down and frozen machine. It had been a probe of some kind, resting in the middle of a crater.

There hadn’t been much left of it, but the Conch had figured out enough to guess a few things. It had used a very clever but not-particularly-advanced form of relative drive, but it had been a one-way ticket for the machine, probably as a test. The drive and generator had burned out and dissolved neatly on arrival, but the probe had remained. And with it, a name: Zoogo Zaroy.

Well, the Conch had been fairly certain it was a name. There hadn’t been much information to work with. Years on the inhospitable planet’s surface had eroded most of the markings on and inside the machine. But there were icons for inventor or professor, and others for exploration and contact and faster-than-light travel, and even soft-space – all of these were complex concepts, and the art of figuring out sounds from alien symbols was even more intricate, but the Conch’s computer was very good at its job.

There had been some disagreement about Zoogo Zaroy, though, because there just didn’t seem to be any translation for it. Just the sounds that the computer insisted the symbols represented. This was what had inspired their games of ‘Real Food Or Just Some Random Noise I Made?’, in the spirit of gentle ribbing.

As a result, they had been looking forward to arriving at ‘Zoogo’s World’ for a long time.

“Here we go then,” Hartigan said cheerfully, and the drab grey of soft-space was replaced with the darkness of space. Zoogo’s World, still as green and blue and pleasant-looking as it had been several hundred light-years away, rose into view. “Computer?”

“We have buildings,” the Conch reported. Hartigan, Scrutarius and Bonty all cheered in a slightly non-regulation manner, but Galana didn’t comment. She felt like cheering herself. It had been a long time since they’d found anything remotely interesting.

“Jolly good,” Hartigan said. “Can we send them a message in the language we found on the probe, tell them-”

“I’m sorry, Basil,” the Conch said. “There are buildings, there is evidence of active technology, but the only life signs I am detecting are small animals, local wildlife. No sign of habitation in the buildings. Nothing intelligent.”

“So … we’ve arrived too late?” Hartigan asked unhappily. “Nothing but ruins? Of all the jolly rotten luck … ”

“Not exactly,” the Conch replied. “Everything is in good repair, it seems like everything has only just stopped. The inhabitants are gone but the buildings are not ruined, or even overgrown.”

“Fled?” Bonty asked. “A battle, perhaps?”

“There is no sign of evacuation, and even less signs of any sort of fighting,” Wicked Mary reported. “Everything is intact down there, as the computer said. But I don’t think this was a very big settlement.”

“I would have to do a full orbital scan,” the Conch agreed, “but the buildings we have already seen would appear to be the only ones. It is a very small set of structures, hardly what one might consider a civilisation.”

“Unless they happen to be as tiny as the Nyif Nyif,” Scrutarius put in.

“There is that possibility,” the Conch conceded. “It seems unlikely from our study of the probe, but ‑ ”

“I say, is this an inhabited planet or another deserted bit of work by some aliens from another planet, like the probe?” Hartigan demanded.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Basil,” the Conch replied patiently. “It doesn’t seem to be either. There are no spaceports. I have spotted a couple of small platforms that may have been used to launch the probe we found. There’s a set of what look like laboratories or research centres, although of course alien architecture is hard to identify. And it is all deserted.”

“No sign of anything dangerous?” Hartigan pressed. “Toxins in the air, viruses? Interdimensional fire beasts the size of a solar system ready to jump out of soft-space and burn us all to a crisp?”

“Underground constructions with two hundred billion Damorakind hiding in them?” Scrutarius joined in.

“Lost aki’Drednanth subspecies that have been liberated and slaughtered all intelligent life on the planet?” Chillybin added. “Oh, wait … I should be the one telling you about that.”

“Yes yes, we’re all very clever and amusing,” the Conch said. “No, Basil, it looks fine down there. It is a very small settlement, a few buildings that could be laboratories, and nothing alive aside from a few birds and small animals.”

“We are getting a steady signal from one of the buildings,” Chillybin reported, “but it is just a beacon, or a random signal showing that some machine or other is still switched on. Whatever happened down there, it happened very recently.”

“No comms though?” Galana asked.

“No, Commander,” Chillybin replied. “Just a single tone.”

“You’re about to suggest we go down there,” Galana said, “aren’t you?”

“Well I wasn’t about to suggest we turn around and head off on another four-month jaunt through the bally grey, Fen,” Hartigan said cheerfully, and jumped to his feet. “Detach the Nella!”

Galana sighed. “Yes, Captain.”

They landed not far from the outskirts of the little cluster of buildings, actually using the handy landing pad that had apparently been used to launch a rocket containing the probe they’d found. Judging by the state of the probe and the run-down look of the machinery around the pad, it had been some years since the last launch. The rest of the settlement was tidier and not so long-abandoned … although it was clearly still abandoned.

Hartigan, Galana, Bonty, Chillybin, Scrutarius and Wicked Mary walked into the silent, eerie settlement. They moved slowly and cautiously, scanning all the while.

“Seems like a nice place,” Hartigan remarked. He looked around. “Quiet, though.”

“Yes,” Galana frowned at her scanner. “According to this, there aren’t even any birds or wildlife in this area. Nothing bigger than a bug.”

“What size of a bug?” Devlin asked with the ghost of a smile.

Small,” Galana said.

They crept into the largest building, and stopped just inside the doorway.

“Well,” Captain Hartigan said, “I don’t think any of us were expecting to see that.”

Just inside the entrance, a strange object sat on the floor. At first Galana thought it was an alien life-form crouching there, some kind of gelatinous gastropod or other mollusc. It was like a large rounded disc of lumpy brown, with a second smaller disc lying on top of it, which in turn was decorated with pale brown globes that might have been eyes or buds or…

“I hate to be that Bonshoon, but is that a cake?” Bonty asked.

Galana blinked. The object did look like a large confectionery dessert, smothered in decorative icing. As she looked across the large, clean space, she saw three … no, four, five more of the objects, each one different. Some were on the floor, others slumped on the strange articles of alien furniture and machinery around the room. Some were bright pink and blue, others a rich brown and black, others white and decorated with little crystalline flowers of what looked like sugar.

“Yes,” Galana said. She stepped over to the closest of the strange objects and held her scanner over it. She read sugars and fats, complex chains of phosphates and acids … it was inert, reconstituted from naturally occurring ingredients, and had apparently been baked at a high temperature. It was a cake. “Yes, it would seem to be a cake.”

“This one too,” Bonty said from the far side of the room, where a large intricate pink and purple thing was slumped over what looked like a broken container full of dirt. “It appears to be a fruit cake of some kind.”

“I would recommend strongly against eating any of these cakes,” Galana said.

“Now really Fen, what kind of fools do you take us for?” Hartigan said.

Wicked Mary had clicked forward, scooped up a handful of creamy topping from another of the cakes, and smeared it underneath the lenses and scanners on her giela’s head. “Yes,” she said, planting her cake-messy hands on her gleaming metal hip-joints. “We do have some self-control, Commander.”

Scrutarius sniggered.

Galana sighed. “Anyone with organic components that cannot be chemically sterilised on returning to the ship,” she said, “don’t touch the cakes.”

Aside from the unusually large assortment of cakes, however, and the fact that they all appeared to have been freshly-made in the past few hours, there was nothing much to see in the strange alien laboratory. They did locate a few devices with similar markings to those found on the probe, which confirmed their theory that the device had come from this site, or at least that the same alien culture was responsible for both relics. It would, however, take some time for the Conch to translate any of it.

“I believe this is a workstation personally belonging to Zoogo Zaroy,” Wicked Mary called from a small side-chamber. They joined her, and found another tidy room filled with more complex machinery and a large, particularly delicious-looking layered cake covered in swirls of pale purple cream. “There is another cake here,” the giela added, “under what looks like some sort of scanning machine.”

“What was the active tech that was giving off the signal we picked up?” Scrutarius asked.

“Whatever it is, it’s in the next building,” Chillybin reported. “Nothing is actually being communicated, so I think it must be a generator of some kind. Maybe a solar battery.”

“Let’s go and check it out,” Hartigan said, and scratched his face in irritation. “I think there are bugs here,” he grumbled. “Probably fruit flies or something, attracted to the sugar I expect … Bonty, careful with the samples but let’s see if we can’t give one or two of these cake thingies a bit of a good old analysis, what?”

“Copy that, Captain,” Bonjamin replied, and pulled out a bio-sample container.

They checked the other buildings, but aside from the bulky shape of what did indeed look like a solar-powered battery power source of some kind, and several more cakes, they didn’t find anything of interest. Now that she was looking for them, Galana noticed several more of the desserts scattered around in the undergrowth and pathways around the little scientific outpost. These ones had definitely been smudged and flattened by the elements and probably – as Hartigan had guessed – by the local fauna. The absence of larger scavengers was still a mystery, however.

She frowned at the Captain, who was muttering and scratching and now seemed to have several unpleasant-looking white growths on his face and hands.

“Captain,” she said, “something here is affecting you. Badly.”

“What? Nonsense, just a couple of rotten old bug bites,” Hartigan scoffed, and picked at one of the little sores. He frowned and crumbled the white substance between his fingers. “That’s odd.”

“Captain?” Galana took a half-step towards him, then froze when she saw the thick, clear amber fluid oozing from the wound. It wasn’t blood, but she didn’t know enough about human anatomy to say what it was. Hartigan’s eyes rolled back in his head and he staggered. “Tactical Officer Mary,” Galana went on quickly, “please help the Captain back to the Nella. Doctor, Chief, we’re leaving. Chillybin, we need to … Chilly?”

The aki’Drednanth was standing in the doorway of the main laboratory building, opening and closing one of her giant refrigerated gloves slowly.

“I think this is also affecting me,” she said, moving her fingers slowly and meticulously to transcribe the words.

“Back to the Nella,” Galana said, fighting down a sudden bolt of panic. We should have run more tests. Atmospheric analyses. We should have sent the giela in first. “Back to the Nella, now.”

The shuttle section had a minimal med station, but on a moment’s consideration Galana set them to launch and headed back to the main ship. The Fergunakil’s aquarium was a whole separate environmental system and the rest of them were already as exposed as they were going to be, so the benefit of the main medical bay outweighed the risk of bringing an infection on board. As an added precaution, however, she had the Conch shut down and isolate the OxyGen life support. The last thing they wanted was the crystal core and their air and food generation system to get infected. If they hadn’t solved this by the time they ran out of breathable air – the Conch could hold a couple of shipboard days’ worth – then it was likely all over anyway. The computer, and Wicked Mary, could perform a full purge and then figure out what to do next.

The Captain, meanwhile, was worsening steadily. By the time Wicked Mary set him down on the little bed and Bonty began to examine him, he was mumbling and shivering. The white sores had run together in a sort of crust and was steadily weeping sticky yellow-brown fluid.

Bonty identified it almost immediately.

“It’s sugar,” she said.

Galana looked across from where she and Scrutarius were helping Chillybin out of her suit. “Excuse me?” she said.

“Not Earth-plant sugar, of course,” Bonty went on, “a sort of variant that seems to be distilling out of Basil’s blood. And this – this stuff – seems to be some sort of syrup,” she touched one of the oozing sores with a sensor, and Hartigan groaned in pain. “Fen, his body is converting into … into food.”

“You mean he’s turning into a cake,” Scrutarius said. “Something on that planet turned the last bunch of settlers into cakes, and now it’s doing the same thing to us.”

“We don’t seem to be affected yet,” Galana said, “but it may just be slower to work on us. Molran, Bonshoon and Blaran immune systems are ‑ ” they finally got the envirosuit open and Chillybin staggered out in a cloud of freezing vapour and an almost immediate sickly sweet smell. Aki’Drednanth didn’t smell particularly good at the best of times when they came out of their freezer suits and began to thaw a bit, but the smell that was now exuding from beneath her fur was somehow even worse because it was so pleasant. “Doctor Bont,” Galana went on urgently.

“Coming, coming,” Bonty slipped a sedative into the Captain’s bloodstream – or syrup-stream, perhaps, by that stage – and hurried over to help Galana with the aki’Drednanth. The enormous beast towered over them and could have lifted one of them in each hand, but she let them shuffle her over to a patch of floor near the med machines and allowed Bonty to examine her. “She doesn’t seem to have the same symptoms as the Captain,” she said. “There’s still a sort of sugar forming, but it’s more like – like a frozen fatty layer … what do humans call it? Ice cream?”

“They’re turning into different sorts of cakes,” Galana said, remembering the variety of strange alien desserts that had been lying around the laboratories. “Probably because they have different chemical compositions and operate at different temperatures. There were no people or larger animals in the immediate area because they’d all been affected. What else do we know?”

“Whatever it is, it was airborne,” Bonty said. “Particles hitting the skin, or being breathed in. Bloody Mary was the only one to touch a cake, and nobody ate any, yet it affected Basil first, and Chilly not long after.”

“And it is not affecting us,” Galana said, “yet. What else didn’t it affect?”

“There were bugs,” Scrutarius said. “Even in the affected area.”

“And plants,” Bonty added. “The plants weren’t being converted. Except I think there was one in the lab, the cake lying on the tipped over pot of dirt, I think that might have been a test to convert a plant, but it hadn’t spread to other plants. I got samples, I’ll need to analyse them … ”

By the time they reconnected to the Conch and got the Captain and Chillybin to the medical bay, both patients had begun to change shape. Their limbs and bodies were shifting, softening, and contracting into the familiar rounded layers of Zaroy’s cakes. Hartigan’s sugar-encrusted, syrup-running skin was turning into a glazed crust, and Chilly’s grey-white fur was vanishing into a marbled swirl of fluffy white and blue ice cream. Neither of them were able to talk, and both were struggling to breathe as their organs failed – or, more accurately, simply ceased to exist.

Even worse, Devlin grimly raised a hand and showed them a spreading pattern of dark brown lines under the skin.

“It feels hot,” he said, “and it’d getting hotter.”

“I have made some preliminary translations of the symbols found in the laboratory,” the Conch said, “and cross-checked them against the markings on the probe.”

“Go ahead,” Galana said, and went on passing samples and solutions back and forth between Bonjamin and the medical scanner. She was starting to feel a slowly-building feverish heat in her throat and legs, but didn’t have time to stop and examine herself. Hartigan was shrinking and condensing still further, grotesque and quivering. The molecules that had made up his body were converting, the excess trailing away as slightly discoloured water or baking off him as steam as his cake-form cooked to readiness. Soon there would be nothing left.

“It seems Zoogo Zaroy was indeed an inventor, although perhaps a more obvious title would be ‘mad scientist’,” the Conch explained. “He was sent to this planet, exiled here with a small group of followers. I am not sure of the crimes he committed on his home planet, but his intentions seem to have been benign. He had plans to feed the hungry, cure the sick … it seems as though his methods were quite mad, but his species did not want to kill him just in case he managed to succeed. So they sent him to a planet where he could experiment to his heart’s content.”

“And the probe?” Bonty asked. “Galana, run the conversion simulator on that sample from the plant-cake. And here, check it against these readings from the unaffected local plant material I collected.”

“The probe was something of a side-experiment,” the Conch continued. “As Zaroy’s madness deepened, he decided he deserved to return in triumph to his home world. He thought he’d found a way, and the probe was intended to test the relative speed engine he’d put together. It probably crashed by accident, or was intercepted by his people and dropped on the planet where we found it.”

“Where are his people now?” Devlin said. His voice was hoarse and pained. “Did he infect them? Why didn’t they stop us from landing?”

“Unknown,” the Conch replied. “His work continued. He was working on a virus, or a smart nano-reprogrammer, that would be able to generate edible food from basic materials. Sugars and other molecules, reconstituted from various matter. He … liked cakes, and so his first attempt was intended to convert ‑ ”

“A small laboratory fruit plant into a fruit cake,” Bonty said.

“Yes.”

“What happened?” Galana asked.

“His creation multiplied out of control,” the Conch said. “It converted his assistants, and all the other nearby life-forms, into cakes. Including the great Zoogo Zaroy himself, before he could do anything to stop it or reverse it.”

“But it did stop,” Bonty said. “The entire planet’s biosphere wasn’t made into cakes – just that little area around the settlement. What ‑ ”

“Where is Basil?” the computer said suddenly.

“That’s him on the examination table,” Galana said wearily, and when she waved a hand at the slowly-pulsating half-cake monstrosity on the slab, she saw that her skin had darkened and seemed to be bubbling.

“Basil?” the Conch cried out, its voice alarmingly worried considering it was just a computer. “Basil, can you hear me? Basil!

“Hearing – that’s it!” Bonty gasped. “The sound. The conversion particles are being activated by the signal from the generator down on the surface. That’s why it hasn’t spread beyond the immediate area of the settlement. And it’s still affecting us up here because something in the signal that we picked up is still repeating on the – computer, are we still picking up the signal from the surface?”

“Basil, speak to me!” the computer wailed.

“Mary, shoot that ‑ ”

“Already rolling us into position, delicious Doctor,” Wicked Mary reported.

“And shut up with the ‘delicious’ talk for once in your big wet smelly life,” Bonty snapped. Her short temper was so out of character that for a moment it jolted Galana out of her deepening daze.

“Wait,” she gasped, “what if you’re wrong about the generator? What if we lose something we need down there?”

“At this stage we haven’t got much to lose,” Bonty said grimly. Galana noticed, although her eyesight was blurring, that her old friend had begun developing a strange pattern of glistening toffee-coloured stripes on her face and hands. “Mary?”

“The generator is destroyed,” Wicked Mary confirmed. “Quite a lot of the surrounding area too. It was … rather more explosive than I had estimated.”

“Wait,” Bonty said, frowning and leaning over the scanner. “The conversion has stopped,” she reported in relief.

“What about reversing it?” Galana asked.

“I can try simply switching the signal patterns from positive to negative and then playing the new signal over the comm system,” Wicked Mary suggested. “It may throw the process into reverse.”

Galana attempted to raise her ears, but they felt stiff and heavy. It didn’t seem likely that she would be able to hear the signal anyway. “Wouldn’t Zaroy have thought of that?” she wheezed.

“I don’t see why, Commander,” Wicked Mary replied. “He was mad, you know.”

To everybody’s relief – especially, for some strange reason, the computer’s – the horrifying process that Devlin later dubbed ‘the cakening’ slowly reversed. Hartigan and Chillybin were critically drained of vital nutrients as a result of the extremity of their change, but fortunately Bonty was sufficiently recovered to set them up with everything they needed from the med bay. Within a month, Chillybin was back in her freezer and galloping up and down in full health. Within three months, Basil was back on his feet and hobbling, a little frailly, along the corridors and insisting that his moustache still smelled ‘liquoricey’.

It took a while for them to fully isolate and clean out the Zaroy particles responsible for the cakening, but with the signal to keep them inert they were able to reconnect the life support system and continue their work at leisure as they continued on their way through soft-space. The crew unanimously decided that if they ever came across the species that had exiled Zoogo Zaroy to what had turned out to be his final resting place, that species could count itself damn lucky if they didn’t drop a waste canister full of the particles and a planetary signal booster unit from high orbit, and leave them to it. Part of being an AstroCorps crew was taking the high road and doing the right thing, Hartigan said, but getting turned into a bally cake was a bit too bally much if anyone were to bally well ask him.

And the next time they all gathered together in the Captain’s quarters for supper, not one of them suggested playing the ‘Real Food Or Just Some Random Noise I Made?’ game.

Not even Wicked Mary.

cakes

***

Soon, in The Fang of God:

It had snuck up on them without warning, completely unexpected and catching them completely unawares.

“Ten years,” Basil shook his head. “Has it really?”

“According to the ship’s calendar,” Galana said pointlessly, “yes. We departed from Declivitorion-On-The-Rim on this day exactly ten years ago.”

“You know what this means,” Scrutarius said with a wide grin.

“Please no,” Galana murmured.

“Yes,” Devlin beamed. “According to ancient spacefaring tradition ‑ ”

“It is not ancient,” Galana protested. “It was made up by a single AstroCorps crew who insisted they’d learned it from the Fleet, but the whole thing was traced back to a group of Fleet Blaren who made the whole thing up. I have the transcripts ‑ ”

According to ancient spacefaring tradition,” Devlin repeated, “after travelling together for ten years, a starship crew should share secrets with one another that they have not previously told anyone.”

“This sounds like a simply appalling idea,” Hartigan declared. “And besides, I’m pretty sure you and I passed the old ten-year mark long before now, Dev. And we’ve never ‑ ”

“Ah, but this is official AstroCorps crew business,” Devlin said earnestly, “and it’s time. Look, I’ll get us started if you like. I know a lot of you have been curious about my special Blaran augmentation, the alterations I might have made to myself to set me aside from the Molran norm. As you can see, they’re not readily apparent,” he said, and spread his arms.

“Alright,” Bonty leaned forward. “Tell us.”

“It might actually be easier if I show you,” Scrutarius said, and Galana was surprised to hear a note of hesitation – perhaps even shyness – entering the bold Blaran’s voice.

He raised his upper hands to the neck of his casual off-duty shirt … and at that moment the ship’s computer sounded an all-hands alarm, summoning them all to the bridge.

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