Predericon in Darkness, Part 20

Day 108. 121 pages, 52,150 words.


 

“…and that’s why I think I first accepted your application. It was perfectly sound, and all else being equal, I gave in to sentiment and accepted the applicant who was named after the Building in which I was born.”

Predericon lay and took internal stock for a moment while the familiar voice burbled on. She appeared to be unhurt, and while she couldn’t remember much beyond an increasingly fragmented and jumbled series of memories in and around the Destarion’s Segment Thirteen gastroclave room, she didn’t think she was suffering from emotional trauma.

Of course, how would she know?

She opened her eyes, and grimaced in the glare.

“Look who’s awake,” a second voice, also familiar, said in amusement. “Maybe now we can all stop telling facile stories and get on with the job at hand.”

Predericon pushed herself up on her lower elbows, and rubbed delicately at her eyes to help clear the fog. Then she lay and stared at her hands in blank incomprehension.

“Try not to freak out,” Lelhmak’s voice said wryly. “Gyden did.”

“Well let’s be fair, I had a bit further to fall than Akmet,” Gyden remarked.

Predericon looked up from her long, pallid grey fingers, and the faces of her two companions swam into focus.

Lelhmak was unchanged, although he was no longer bedecked in filters and hygiene fields and the other trappings of his culture. Gyden, who had defied her father’s phobe nature with aggressively colourful and decorative flair, was now equally grey and pale. Their family resemblance was all the more striking for the fact that Gyden had apparently been transformed into a phobe.

As had Predericon herself. She looked back down at her hands.

“What,” she said.

“Steady,” Lelhmak said, and put a hand on her arm. Although he wasn’t sheathed, she noted he wasn’t entirely free of neuroses. His touch was fleeting, and his hand curled a little as though trying to wipe itself as he withdrew it. Phobes were usually completely comfortable with one another in their chosen environments – but Lelhmak clearly remembered his two researchers hadn’t been phobes not long ago. “You’re alright. It’s … the Destarion extracted us from Segment Thirteen. We’re fine.”

“There was just a bit of a mix-up along the way,” Gyden added.

Predericon looked around. They were sitting – and she was lying – in the familiar cramped quarters of the Speed’s medical quarters. “How?”

“According to the Godfang herself, she reconstituted us,” Lelhmak said with a grimace. “Apparently my physiological profile was the purest and most uncontaminated of the three of us – something I find not at all surprising, by the way – and so she was forced to use it as a template for all three of us. And here you are. A pair of perfect, if slightly grubby phobes.”

“It takes a bit of getting used to,” Gyden confided.

“Uncontaminated?” Predericon repeated.

“Apparently one of us had been utterly riddled with Worm Cult byproduct,” Gyden said, “necessitating a molecular-level cleansing that left pretty much nothing to work with. I don’t know how she managed to salvage as much as she did, to be honest.”

“Let’s not be too hasty with the assumptions of salvaging,” Lelhmak growled. “Let’s hear you rattle off your introductions, Akmet.”

Predericon stifled a laugh of disbelief as she remembered the mental-faculty checklist they’d established for Lelhmak’s medical storage. “Predericon Ti Akmet, researcher,” she said, and nodded at her companions. “Kedane Lelhmak, research overseer. Gyden Lazeen, researcher. Speed’s Virtues (Curiosity) research vessel. Manatrikti Academy of Firstmade and Elder Theology and Megaengineering, Third Echelon. Cursèd outer envelope, Void Dimension – or some stellar-vacuum planetary system poor-man’s equivalent thereof. Podnak’s number is 3,223,347 by 11,776.2 by 19 by 10 by 10. Bartiqa’s Founding Principle is the conservation-”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Gyden asked.

“You getting ripped to pieces by a snake-hand-vine creature that dropped from the ceiling,” Predericon replied flatly, making the other two phobes wince, “and leaving me in the gastroclave room with a misprint that kept bleating about not wanting to be put in there. Then … I don’t really remember. I recall being angry, and afraid, and just fed up with it all. I – yes, the platform detected my bag of … rations … as a biohazard, and destroyed them. Then I think I must have turned my lamp on, and made something angry. I assume I got killed, and rebuilt, like you two.”

“Sounds about right,” Gyden said.

“So how did we get back here?”

“We carried you,” Lelhmak said. “Well, dragged you.”

“Along with a bunch of old parts the Destarion was able to salvage from some gallery or other,” Gyden added. “Lelhmak reckons it will be enough to get the Speed flying again.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Gyden said, and glanced at Lelhmak. He returned her unreadable look, and then patted Predericon’s arm again. This time the effort wasn’t quite so hesitant and uncomfortable.

“The Destarion is sort of using us as a last resort,” he said. “It was a lot of effort to get us all pulled out of Segment Thirteen and put back together again. But she’s in full shutdown now and no help has come. No word. And it’s been a long time.”

“How long?”

“We’re not entirely sure,” Gyden replied, “but to get us as close to good-as-new as possible, she had to compile us and recompile us really painstakingly. From what I’ve been able to figure out from the systems on board the Speed – which were all completely dead by the time we hooked up new cells to them a few days ago, by the way – and from the movement of the planets we’re orbiting with…”

“Close to two thousand years by the Firstmade calendar,” Lelhmak said abruptly. “We’ve been stuck on this frozen little moon for almost two thousand years.”

“Most of which time we were completely scrambled anyway,” Gyden added, “like protein strings in a food processor.”

“And here we are,” Predericon murmured, holding up a grey hand. “A bunch of misprints.”

“Speak for yourself. I think she did a pretty good job, considering that she was in full shutdown,” Lelhmak said, admiring his own fingernails. “You know, even if I do say so myself.”

Predericon shook her head. There was little point in immersing herself in this problem. Not until she was back up to speed, anyway.

“Alright,” she said, “so what are we supposed to do next? If we’re the Godfang’s last-ditch effort at solving this, what’s her plan?”

“Her plan,” Gyden leaned forward, “is the inner planets.”

Lelhmak nodded as Predericon turned to him. “That’s right,” he confirmed. “The Destarion swears there’s still life on at least one of them.”

Predericon pushed herself up into a sitting position.

“Right then,” she said. “I can work with that.”

THE END

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while picking up the kids.

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Predericon in Darkness, Part 19

Day 107. 117 pages, 50,114 words. Nope.


 

She heard the cake land on the misprint’s side with a wet slap, then fall softly to the floor. There was another moment of silence in the absolute darkness, and then her straining ears heard a slow slithering sound as one of the thing’s forelimbs groped for the object.

“Don’t put me in there,” it said plaintively, and then there was a strange huffing, a louder slither-and-smack as the misprint backed swiftly away and pressed against the wall, and Predericon caught another soft patter, receding across the room – the cake had been batted away. The misprint mewled again, then the sound deepened into a rattling growl.

“Contamination detected,” a new voice, this one directionless and recognisable as the Destarion even if it was still a little different to Predericon’s recollections of the other segments, spoke loudly. The misprint yipped.

Destarion,” Predericon called, “can you hear me?”

“Sanitation countermeasures deployed,” the platform said. “Analysing.”

“Don’t please,” the misprint whispered.

The gastroclave interface lit up. “Your passenger profile is ready,” it announced cheerfully. “Are you Predericon Ti Akmet? Researcher from the Manatrikti Academy of Firstmade and Elder Theology and Megaengineering?”

“I – what – yes,” Predericon snapped. “What-”

“Kedane Lelhmak, on file, was your research overseer?”

“Yes. What do you mean, on file-”

“Does that mean that the profile on record for ‘Laz’ is that of your associate, Gyden Lazeen?”

“I assume so.”

“What is her current whereabouts?”

“What? She’s dead. She was obliterated by something that dropped from the ceiling and grabbed her a few minutes ago, just before you completed your most recent processing job.”

“I see. She isn’t on file yet. Perhaps I can assign…” the gastroclave fell silent. “Sanitation countermeasures are about to be implemented in this room,” it said suddenly. “You are strongly recommended to leave.”

Predericon backed away until she found the open doorway to the adjoining chamber, and stepped through. The door closed behind her, plunging her into darkness again. There was no sign of either the misprints or the vine-arm-serpent that had attacked Gyden, but the floor was evidently still liberally scattered with blood and other remnants. Predericon could feel them underfoot, even through her boot-soles.

She realised she’d left her entire pack in the gastroclave room with the misprint and the ‘sanitation countermeasures’. Just as she was casting blindly about and wondering whether she should finally pull out her lamp, she felt the air shift and saw a tiny glimmer of grey light that told her the door had opened again.

“Predericon Ti Akmet,” the almost-Destarion’s voice said, “I am formulating an extraction scenario for you. Please wait while cross-Segment protocols are set and I conduct a risk analysis.”

“Okay…” Predericon stole back into the gastroclave chamber and crossed to the machine. By the light of its interface she could see no sign of her pack, the cake she’d thrown, or the misprint. They might all have been pressed up against the edges of the room, hidden from view in the shadows, but she didn’t think so. There was a faint smell of ozone and burned organic matter in the chamber that suggested the ‘sanitation countermeasures’ had been quite final. “What should I-”

“Please remain calm.”

“Are you serious?” Predericon muttered. Outside the gastroclave room, she heard a new sound – a whirring, chattering, sound that she couldn’t envision as anything but the ‘swarm’ that Gyden had referenced a couple of times. The things that had either killed and dismantled Lelhmak, or just dismantled his body, and had been diligently carrying away Gyden’s waste ever since. It sounded as though they were doing so again now, in a sense – one last time.

And abruptly, it was more than she could bear.

“Hey, would you like grwzzzz sauce?” the gastroclave asked her as she stalked back towards the patch of darker black that was the doorway.

“No thank you,” she said evenly, and pulled her lamp from her sleeve-pocket. She stepped into the next room, raised the lamp, and brought it to maximum illumination with a vicious jab of her thumb.

She stared at the twisted, glittering cloud in the middle of the room for a moment in complete confusion. No, it wasn’t a cloud – it was more like a tree, or something even more intricate, like a cosmic web. Thicker and more cohesive in some places, diffuse and glittering in others … and made up of tiny, unrecognizable shapes like flecks of mirror.

Suspended in the branches of this bizarre spheroid tree, splayed and shifting awkwardly, was the pallid amber silhouette of a Molranoid. It was Gyden, Predericon intuited suddenly. Gyden, picked out in the blood and pieces that had been left behind in the room after her death.

The swarm, if that was what it was, rattled and rustled more loudly in agitation as Predericon’s light struck it. Some parts contracted and grew denser around the web-network, others seemed to puff away to nothing like dust in a strong wind. The horrible misty spectre of Gyden’s blood-shade began to stretch and attenuate away towards a dark doorway in the far side of the room – the corridor through which Gyden had brought them here in the first place, Predericon guessed disjointedly.

One of the coalescing arms of denser swarm-matter was stretching towards her with an angry hiss.

“Please remain calm,” the Destarion said. “I am calculating the implementation requirements of your extraction scenario.”

“You might want to be quick,” Predericon said, stepping back. The swarm engulfed her.

The pain was immediate, and so big it seemed to fill the urverse.

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark (and incidentally coughing up a lung).

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Predericon in Darkness, Part 18

Day 106. 117 pages, 50,114 words.


 

The thing that emerged from the gastroclave was difficult to make out, at best a shadowy silhouette that humped up in front of the interface’s pale glow. It was shapeless, rounded, somewhat less than knee-high, and appeared to have a pair of doughy forelimbs which it used to pull itself along. Its surface seemed smooth and slick, and its colouration a pale grey – although that might have just been the interface itself. The misprint appeared to have crawled from the machine’s produce slot above and to one side of the interface like any other piece of food, and then slid down onto the floor. Predericon was just as happy not to be able to see it very clearly.

It slithered quietly away across the floor towards the darker shadows, stopping at Predericon’s pack. A lumpy forelimb reached for the bag and she heard a wet snuffling sound. Whether from some organ at the end of the limb or somewhere on the main body, she couldn’t tell.

The misprint probed and snorted at her pack for a while, but was apparently unable to get it open. Either that, or it was unwilling to try. After a few more seconds it made a low, hauntingly sentient mewling sound and dragged itself around the pack, deeper into the darkness. Thinking that this must represent a sluggish and harmless example of its kind, but willing to accept that initial appearances and impressions could be deceiving and that she was ultimately ignorant, Predericon cautiously stepped over to the gastroclave.

“You don’t seem to have a passenger profile,” the interface murmured blithely. “Would grwzzzz me to grwzzzz for you?”

Predericon waited for the misprint, which was now a barely-visible lump on the far side of the gastroclave, to launch itself head-height at terrifying speed, or perhaps swell to ten times its original size or unfold to reveal it was full of razor-sharp teeth. It did none of those things, just continued to slither around and let out the occasional phlegmy yowl.

“Yes please,” Predericon breathed, and tapped the interface. This time, there didn’t seem to be a processing job in line to interfere with the initiation of the profile.

“This will only take grwzzzz minutes,” the gastroclave assured her.

“Help me no.”

Predericon froze, staring at the barely-visible shape of the misprint on the far side of the room. The words, high and warbly and childlike, had without doubt come from the same source as the mewling. And they had also been completely intelligible, and relatively modern, and Xidh.

“Do you … understand me?” she was powerless to avoid whispering to the listlessly-moving thing.

“Help me.”

Maybe it was just a random selection of phrases, she mused optimistically. Something out of the gastroclave’s lexicon, or some recording from a previous user that had been glitched into the misprint’s central nervous system, and hooked up haphazardly to its rudimentary vocal organs.

This supposition struck Predercon as insanely unlikely, but there had to be some explanation and supposition was very much her research brief lately. Unless the gastroclave had once been capable of producing fully-sentient life-forms for consumption, and had then been scrambled by the general degeneration of Segment Thirteen until the misprints were all that could-

“No no no you can’t you mustn’t don’t.”

Predericon sighed to herself, then leaned over the interface to check its progress. It appeared to be almost done, although this too was an optimistic guess.

“Don’t put me in there?” the misprint’s voice was suddenly a lot closer, and Predericon looked up to see it had dragged itself back towards the gastroclave. It was still safely on the far side of the device, if safely was the right term … but it had slithered across the floor with unexpected speed, and quietly. “Don’t don’t,” it added in a piping, inquisitive tone. “No don’t?” it prodded at the side of the gastroclave with its forelimbs, and Predericon got a closer look at the ends of the stumpy appendages. They were textured, covered in hair or cilia, but there was a gleam of something else inside the puckered tips. Teeth, or claws, or something. It was almost a relief to see something conventionally dangerous in the entity. “Please no you can’t.”

She watched the misprint in helpless fascination. A moment later it withdrew and slithered back into the shadows once more, and the gastroclave interface winked.

“All grwzzzz,” it said. “Would you like to check out your grwzzzz before grwzzzz to eat?”

“Reset gastroclave system,” Predericon whispered.

“Resetting,” the gastroclave declared. “See grwzzzz while.”

Predericon swore under her breath as the interface dimmed, then went out altogether. Utter velvety blackness swept back in from the edges of the chamber.

“No help no,” the misprint warbled. Was it closer? Had it moved so the gastroclave was no longer between them? Or was that the work of her anxious imagination?

Predericon edged back again, groping for her pack. Her right hands found it, and fumbled it open. She lifted a cake from the top of her supply.

“Please don’t?” This time the voice was definitely closer.

She tossed the cake blindly towards the source of the sound.

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while walking to the metro.

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Predericon in Darkness, Part 17

Day 105. 117 pages, 49,986 words.


 

For a split-second that stretched like a long, silent week, Predericon froze. This probably saved her life, because for that split-second she and her pack practically became part of the hull.

There was another slithering rustle and more wet breaking sounds as Gyden’s body was crushed and shredded by the grasping vine-thing that had dropped from the ceiling. Then, in the pause between movements, Predericon felt the air beside her shift. The motion was accompanied by the pallid non-sound of a Godfang interior door gaping open.

Whether Gyden had managed to trigger the door mechanism just before being snatched, or the attacking creature had set it off in the same way it had presumably opened the hatch through which it had appeared, or even if the Destarion was finally responding to Predericon’s presence for no justifiable reason – whatever the explanation, the gastroclave door opened and there was another tense crowded silence broken only by the horrible sound of the ceiling-thing curling tighter. In preparation to return to the ceiling, or to attack Predericon, she once again couldn’t have guessed.

She continued to stand silent and stiff as a Boreal against the wall as, with a wheezing and dragging sound like decay in motion, the misprints surged out of the gastroclave chamber and – from the sound of it – attacked Gyden’s killer.

Predericon edged a little way from the door as slowly and quietly as she could, although between the grunting and slobbering of the misprints, and the thrashing and weird chittering screeches of the vine-thing, she didn’t think she would have been noticed anyway. Still, she had no idea how any of the denizens of the darkness were detecting one another and what was setting them off, so it was probably better to err on the side of caution.

The battle between tentacle-serpent and misprints went on for what seemed like an interminable length of time, but abruptly faded upwards. The tentacle-serpent retracted into the ceiling, still lashing and shrieking, and the misprints seemed to go with it, grunting heartily as they presumably clung to the creature and let it drag them away. In the silence that followed, Predericon waited almost a full minute to be sure there was no other movement in the room or the doorway, then stepped inside the gastroclave chamber.

The room, now that her eyes were adjusting to the darkness that had fallen when Gyden’s biolume contacts had broken, was actually illuminated with a glimmer of greyish light. It wasn’t enough to reveal much except the silhouette of a hemispherical object in the centre of the space, the light seeming to come from its far side. Predericon crept towards the shape at a tangent, and circled it to find – as she’d suspected – a small pale-grey interface panel on the side. This, she guessed, was the gastroclave.

She shrugged off her pack, set it on the floor, and crouched down to study the interface. It appeared to be a combination of glyphs and Ancient Pinian. Makes sense, she thought, especially if this is an area that hasn’t seen an update in a while. Maybe ever.

She focussed on the challenge, because the alternative was dwelling on what had just happened outside. The Bookwyrm picked its subject well, she heard Gyden’s voice say in her mind. You always immersed yourself in problems rather than stepping back from them. Like that sculpture in your cabin.

Howi,” the interface said, astonishingly loudly after the long silence. Its voice was similar to the Destarion’s, but not identical. “Skat-ru.”

From the icons, it was clearly an invitation to select a lexicon. Predericon tapped the one which resembled a Molran silhouette with ears raised. Xidh.

“Welcome to Gastroclave Nine,” the gastroclave said, “the grwzzzzest place on promenade deck grwzzzz.”

“Thank you,” Predericon whispered. “Can you maybe lower your volume?”

“Why does everyone always grwzzzz me that?” the gastroclave wondered, but pitched its voice to a more reassuringly barely-audible level. “You don’t seem to have a passenger profile, would grwzzzz me to grwzzzz for you?”

“Yes please.” Predericon said.

“Processing existing order,” the gastroclave whispered. “Please wait until grwzzzz is clear and grwzzzz functionality restored.”

“Wait, what…” Predericon straightened and frowned down at the interface. It did seem to be cycling through a glyph reminiscent of an iterative data compilation like their processor back on board the Speed’s Virtues (Curiosity). The gastroclave was printing something. “Cancel order and reset,” she said hastily.

“I’m afraid I can’t grwzzzz that,” the gastroclave said, “you don’t grwzzzz passenger profile so you grwzzzz but don’t worry, this won’t take a second.”

Predericon stepped back from the gastroclave as it finished processing its latest misprint, and birthed it greasily into the world.

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while picking up Toop this time.

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Predericon in Darkness, Part 16

Day 104. 116 pages, 49,808 words. God damn flu stopped me from doing anything this weekend and now I’m overworked and can’t seem to hack out even half an hour of free time for myself. Vittu.


 

“How did you learn all this?” Predericon asked once they’d been walking for another twenty minutes or so, and it didn’t seem as though anything else was going to lurch out of the darkness at them. “The food dispenser. The rooms. I haven’t managed to get anything to open for me, but the elevator room at least just opened when you jumped at the wall.”

Gyden shrugged. “It’s not that big a mystery,” she said. “When I first used the gastroclave, it created a passenger profile for me that grants me access to certain rooms. I get the feeling there should be more, but a lot of the functionality down here is broken or already in … what did she call it? In stowage-standby?”

“I suppose we can thank ourselves for that,” Predericon remarked. “Getting rid of Odium for her.”

“True – but I think Segment Thirteen was already pretty close to full shutdown,” Gyden said. “It doesn’t get any more or less shut-down than this, because doing so would risk…”

“…the menagerie escaping,” Predericon concluded.

“Right.”

“But you got this profile when you accessed the gastroclave,” Predericon persisted. “How did you even do that the first time?”

“Ah,” Gyden said with an audible smile. “Well, that was rather more un-academic running and getting lost and panicking and accidentally stumbling onto things than I care to admit right now.”

Predericon still wasn’t convinced, but she let it pass.

They continued downwards for a while, and then Gyden turned and led Predericon through a doorway into a chamber that felt expansive. At the same time, adding to the feeling, Gyden dimmed her ears still further and practically subvocalised to Predericon that she needed to move quietly.

Predericon followed the pale triangles of Gyden’s ears across the smooth floor, turning at right-angles at one point for apparently no reason and continuing. Predericon heard something, something enormous, shift and rustle somewhere up in the invisible vault of the ceiling. If a bird could have feathers made of lead, Predericon thought, it might sound something like that. Except it was either a row of birds, or a single feathered thing in serpentine form, because the soft, heavy sound rolled across the ceiling far above them in a motion she could almost triangulate.

She set her eyes back on Gyden’s ears and followed as silently as she could.

They finally reached the edge of the chamber and Gyden led Predericon into a new corridor, presumably somewhere in the interior of Segment Thirteen and some distance from the promenade. Her ears brightened again to reveal a similar passageway to the large downward helix, although this one seemed horizontal.

“Not far now,” she said.

They crossed another small room, another corridor, and then stopped in a third room where Gyden let her ears rise to full bioluminescence. They didn’t reveal much – the chamber was another rounded-off square with melted-wax buttresses and grooves in its ancient enamel, and a lumpy block in the centre that could have been a console or furniture. Predericon examined it, and was a little alarmed to see that its surface was scored with claw-marks similar to the gouges Odium had left on the walls of its prison cell.

“It was like that when I got here,” Gyden said when Predericon glanced at her questioningly. “Now, the next room is the gastroclave room, but it’s … usually occupied. We won’t know until we go in there. The good news is, I think the two of us have a pretty good chance of clearing the way. You’re going to have to trust me, though.”

“You’re going to make me be bait,” Predericon guessed.

“No, there’d be no point,” Gyden shook her head. “You don’t know your way around so you’d get caught or lost or worse. I’ll be the bait. You just need to go in while I’m distracting the misprints, make yourself a profile and reset the gastroclave so it doesn’t make any more. Then you can familiarise yourself with your access permissions, and when I come back we’ll eat.”

“Misprints.”

“I was hoping to breeze swiftly past that.”

“Your hope was misplaced.”

“Like I said, the gastroclave can make nutrient-paste and water,” Gyden explained. “Anything more creative, and it gets … weird. Really weird, really fast. Resetting the machine works for a while, but then it starts churning out things on its own.”

“You haven’t considered staying here and just resetting the machine every so often?”

“I’ve thought about it,” Gyden said, “and it might be another thing we can do now there’s two of us. But like the elevator, the gastroclave room isn’t long-term stable or safe either. It’s best to stock up and then go. Besides,” her teeth gleamed, “if I’d stayed down here, you definitely would have been carried off by Stankley’s big brother in your first hour down here.”

“Alright,” Predericon allowed. “Just let me know what you want me to do.”

“The user interface is pretty intuitive,” Gyden said, and crossed to one of the walls. “Just stay back against the wall here,” she pointed to the side, “and wait for me to lead the misprints away, then duck in and reset the machine.”

“And you’ll be alright?”

“Probably.”

This seemed to be the best Gyden could offer, so Predericon nodded, and turned to set her back against the wall next to the doorway Gyden was preparing to open.

“Ready,” she said.

“Okay,” Gyden nodded. “Don’t worry, the misprints aren’t usually big, but they’re … difficult to quantify. And as far as I can tell they’re impossible to-”

There was a sound from above, and Predericon looked up in time to see a doorway irising open in the ceiling. Gyden’s ear-light was unable to illuminate whatever was up there, and a split-second later her light winked out in any case.

Something dropped from the ceiling. An amalgamation of scaly arm, gaping serpent, and twisting vine. It struck Gyden, wrapped around her in an instant, and tightened with a wet explosion of bone and hot blood.

Predericon was plunged into utter blackness.

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while picking up Wump from school.

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Predericon in Darkness, Part 15

Day 103. 113 pages, 48,345 words.


 

They started back down the promenade curve, Gyden’s ears providing the only illumination. It was more than sufficient to show the ghostly melted non-texture of the wall on their left, and a suggestion of the opposite wall and ceiling as well. Predericon would have preferred to use her lamp, but conceded to Gyden’s experience. If the inhabitants of Segment Thirteen didn’t like light, then it was a good idea not to upset them unnecessarily.

Still, there was something that was bothering Predericon. And she couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it was.

“Do you live in that … elevator room?” she asked in a low voice as they walked.

“Some of the time,” Gyden replied. “There are some other chambers and serieses of chambers that are mostly safe. But most of the time I live on the move. The less time you spend in one place down here, generally speaking, the better.”

“It was … very tidy,” she said, lamely.

“I’m my father’s daughter.”

“That’s not what I-” Predericon started, then sighed inaudibly. Of course Gyden knew that wasn’t what she meant.

Gyden half-turned back towards her, teeth gleaming blue-green as she grinned. “Are you asking me where the facilities are, Akmet?”

“Actually, I haven’t needed to pass waste since … well, since I digested the last of my rations,” she said.

“Since you started your Bookwyrm diet, you mean,” Gyden said. Predericon made a low affirmative sound. “And that doesn’t worry you?”

“No more or less than the fact that I’ve been eating it does,” Predericon said calmly. “In fact, it stands to reason that there wouldn’t be anything in it that wasn’t absorbed by my body, so waste would be difficult to explain. What about you?”

“I process waste like a real person,” Gyden said in amusement. “The swarm – the things that took Lelhmak – usually take care of it, depending on where I am at the time. I try to avoid shitting in my living space, of course.”

“Fair enough,” Predericon said. “Wait,” she added as a thought occurred to her. “Why are we – have you tried going back up?”

“Up into the archives?” Gyden said, and shook her head. “I’d sit in the main room there from time to time, and watch the Bookwyrm … basking, or whatever it did in the datalight.”

“Did you ever see me?”

“No,” Gyden said. “You can really only see the direct circle where it intersects with Segment Twelve … but after a while, I stopped. I didn’t like being near the opening to the other promenade.”

“Understandable.”

“In any case, it was too high for me to try to jump.”

“It shouldn’t be too high for us to lift each other,” Predericon pointed out.

Gyden glanced back at her again. “That’s true,” she allowed. “We can try … but there’s no more way out up through the lower archives than there is down through the promenade. I’ll grant you, going back up might be the safest alternative,” she went on before Predericon could respond, “but have you thought about how the Bookwyrm might react to you coming back, after it sent you down here?”

Probably sent me down here,” Predericon qualified.

“Probably,” Gyden agreed. “Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try – it’s definitely an option, now that there’s two of us. But there are a few things down here that might be worth trying now that there’s two of us as well,” she turned and continued down the passageway. “Plus,” she added, “I was pretty faded by the time I dropped through, but I remember that last half-second of light just about unscrewed my face and punched me in the brain. I’m not particularly keen to try it again unless we have no choice.”

“I thought of that too,” Predericon acknowledged. “In fact, I got the impression it would be even more hazardous in the wrong direction. But we can consider it.”

“Yeah,” Gyden said, “we can consid – get back.”

Her voice dropped abruptly to a breath, she stepped back and flattened herself against the wall, and her ears went out. Predericon did her best to mimic her friend’s silent motion, pressing herself against the hard surface in the pitch black and waiting, barely breathing, until she got the all-clear.

It seemed to take forever, but Predericon clenched her jaw and refused to make the foolish mistake of asking whether it was alright. Just as the smothering darkness and silence became intolerable, Predericon felt the air in the corridor move. Something – something that sounded like it was right in front of her nose – made a low, guttural sound like guuunnf, and then receded again. Still Predericon waited.

“Alright,” Gyden’s voice came from rather further away down the corridor than Predericon had been expecting, and she turned her head to see the little lights of Gyden’s ears returning to muted illumination some thirty or thirty-five metres away. She hurried to join her.

“What are you doing all the way down here?” she hissed.

“Better to put some distance between us,” Gyden said. “That way if one of us freaks out and makes a noise, we don’t both get eaten.”

“You mean me,” Predericon accused. “If I freak out and make a noise, you don’t get eaten.”

“That’s not entirely accurate,” Gyden argued. “I was also worried the stink of your backpack might set her off.”

Predericon sighed. “What was it?” she asked, then amended, “she?”

“No idea,” Gyden said. “I normally feel her coming, like pressure on my eyeballs. I think she could be telepathic as well. I mean, a purely telepathic presence, but not like the darkness. Separate from it. She’s not really physical, in any case, I think. Your brain just translates her that way. Which isn’t to say getting eaten wouldn’t still be a very real thing. You didn’t feel anything?”

“Not on my eyeballs,” Predericon admitted. “Just a shift in the air, and a grunt, and a sort of cold feeling.”

“Mm,” Gyden agreed, “cold, that’s what I normally get too. For the strangest reason, I think about Ogres when she passes through. You know, the big old Pinian shock troops? It’s like … some kind of telepathic ghost of an Ogre, just sort of poking around in our minds. I feel like she’s trapped down here, just like we are, and doesn’t understand why.”

“Usually when Ogres don’t understand things, they get angry,” Predericon commented.

Gyden chuckled. “That’s why I try to stay out of her way.”

She flicked her ears, and together they continued on downwards.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Predericon in Darkness, Part 14

Day 102. 113 pages, 48,345 words.


 

“Anyway,” Predericon did her best to restore the discussion to the relative liveliness it had enjoyed before they’d wound up promising to perform bluo-watch on one another, “I wouldn’t worry too much about me thinking my way out of this hole,” she spread her upper hands to gesture at Segment Thirteen in the abstract. “Didn’t you say there was nowhere else to go from here?”

“Nowhere good,” Gyden concurred. “But that was just my assessment. You might be able to find another way.”

“Segment Zero,” Predericon joked, straightened her arm and jabbed her fist at the purely hypothetical sky. “That was Stankley’s elegant solution.”

“Unfortunately we don’t have a Demon to punch a Flesh-Eater out through the hull for us,” Gyden remarked. “Or a Flesh-Eater to be punched out through the hull by a Demon.”

“From what you’re saying, there’s plenty of things on the promenade for Odium to have punched out through the hull for us,” Predericon said.

“Odium would have been right at home down here.”

“Who would have thought we’d find ourselves missing a Demon?” Predericon said, then sighed. “I’m sorry about Lelhmak,” she told her friend.

Gyden gave another shrug. “It was quick,” she said. “And he was almost gone anyway, from the malnutrition. And it was tidy. I think it’s a death he would have approved of. Except for-”

“-the melodrama,” they both concluded together, and laughed.

There didn’t seem to be much else to say, so they sat in silence for a time. Predericon, for her part, did her best to contextualise what she’d learned.

There was something Gyden wasn’t telling her, she thought – probably a lot of things. How had she managed to find this ‘gastroclave’ she’d mentioned, to gain the sustenance with which she’d kept herself alive? She’d found it, and gotten food from it, despite its apparent well-guarded nature. Not in itself an impossibility, given that Predericon knew nothing about the dangers of the promenade, but that first time? Gyden had been almost on her last legs when she’d dropped in here. Had she just dragged herself into the tunnel and found a door? Had it opened for her the way this bolt-hole had opened?

And that was another thing. Predericon had walked down the promenade for an hour without any doorways opening. Gyden had dived at the wall, and the bolt-hole had opened for her. It spoke of an unusual familiarity. Yes, that might have come from exploration. But Predericon sensed there was more to it. And not only that, but they’d just happened to run into each other right next to the only place this elevator would open, just as Gyden was fleeing this giant Flesh-Eater they were now waiting out.

Had ‘Stankley’s big brother’ sensed Predericon’s arrival? Chased Gyden back up the promenade so they would meet at the elevator door? Why would it do that? Was the Bookwyrm’s essence having an effect on the denizens of the darkness? And if it was, would it be putting them both at more risk?

For some reason – possibly because they’d just been talking about it – the image entered Predericon’s mind of the sculpture back on board the Speed’s Virtues (Curiosity), her attempt at capturing the unravelling and reforming worlds they’d seen before the crash. That central part, where physics merged and was undone, and could not be represented by any three-dimensional reality. Only now, the errors in the archive were overlaid onto the image, teasing of a second, deeper layer of inaccessibility that she would never manage to pick apart…

Predericon.”

She blinked and looked up at the shadowy figure of Gyden between the two soft aquamarine lamps of her ears. “Hmm?”

“You vagued out there for a while. What’s going on?”

Predericon shook her head. “I might have been starting to think at things I shouldn’t,” she said. “Thank you for snapping me out of it.”

“Any time,” Gyden jerked her head at the wall. “I think we’re in the clear. Let’s go down and see if we can find you some proper food.”

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