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


(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.


“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.



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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The Golden Idol

“Captain?” Galana tapped on the comms panel again. “Captain Hartigan?” there was no response. She looked up at the ceiling. “Computer,” she said, “is the Captain awake?”

“Not fully,” the Conch replied smoothly. “I have begun the process of waking him up with a priority alert, but you know how the Captain is before he has his zolo.”

“Perhaps he can bring his zolo to the bridge,” Galana suggested, “and the current situation will help to wake him up a little faster.”

“I was not aware of a situation, Commander,” the computer said.

“Yes,” Galana said, “that is part of the situation. External sensors and several key computer channels have been … interfered with somehow. We are descending towards an unknown planet, and unless Basil joins us on the bridge I will be forced to separate the Nella in the hopes that the rest of the ship can regain orbit. We can of course do this without the Captain on board, but ‑ ”

“Alright, alright Fen, I’m up, what is it?” Hartigan, still in his dressing gown and holding a large glass of blue-black zolo in one hand, shambled onto the bridge. He had also stepped into his uniform boots, although the overall effect was somehow shabbier than if he’d gone barefoot. “What are we ‑ ” he stopped next to Bonty, who was staring out of the for’ard viewscreens, and stared along with her.

“Captain,” Galana reported, “we are being towed into a landing pattern, and I doubt the Conch will survive planetfall seeing as how it is designed purely for space travel. Recommend we detach the Nella and have Scrutarius and Wicked Mary pull the main body of the ship back into orbit.”

“Yes, but Fen,” Hartigan pointed. “What ‑ ”

“We have to do it soon, and we have to do it almost entirely manually,” Galana added, “because something has disrupted the Conch’s computer control over key systems. If we don’t act soon, the whole ship will be dragged down.”

“What are they?” Hartigan demanded, waving his glass at the viewscreen. Zolo slopped onto the floor of the bridge.

Galana turned and looked at the screens, at the large curve of planet rapidly flattening out into a landscape below them, and the pair of huge, pale creatures apparently gripping the ship between them and guiding it downwards. “Oh,” she said, “they would appear to be the local life-forms, Captain.”

“We have not currently made contact with them,” Chillybin added from the Comms console, “but they seem … if not hostile, then at least neutral in a way that is very likely to kill us all.”

They stood, human and Molran, Bonshoon and aki’Drednanth, and gazed out at the enormous beasts on either side of the main screen.

“Finally,” Hartigan said in delight, “dragons.”



“I’m not sure what you’re so happy about, Captain,” Galana said. “Wasn’t the star serpent more than enough dragon for you?”

“That was a great big weird alien energy anomaly,” Hartigan said dismissively. He sat down at the helm, still wearing his dressing gown and uniform boots, still holding half a glass of zolo, and still staring enraptured out of the viewscreen. “These are … dragons.”

Galana eyed the creatures on either side of the ship. She had to admit, she was having a hard time describing them as anything else. She’d estimated they were about twice the length of the Conch, and that was about as accurate as she could be with the sensors acting up. They were gleaming white, with long scaly necks and tails, huge webbed wings, talons … they were dragons, plain and simple. How exactly they were managing to lift such enormous bodies into the air – let alone into high orbit, which was where they’d intercepted the ship – was just one of many things Galana had no idea about.

“Their precise nature is a fascinating topic for a less urgent time,” she said. “I’m detaching.”

“Hmm? Oh, oh yes,” Hartigan snapped briefly out of his daze. “Yes, of course. Detach. Get the Conch up into high orbit if you can. Dev?”

“On it, Captain,” Scrutarius said over the comm. “Of course, if they drop the Nella and grab the rest of the Conch instead, I can’t promise our Tactical Officer doesn’t have some nasty surprises ready.”

“Detaching,” Galana said. Nothing happened. “The clamps are jammed,” she reported. “Blowing emergency separation bolts,” she hit a control, there was a hollow boom and the floor shuddered, but again the Nella didn’t separate.

“Looks like they’re still with us,” Hartigan said, and gazed out at the creatures again. Between the dragons, the curve of planet flattened still further and the bright fire of atmospheric insertion flared. The creatures’ gleaming white scales appeared to be made of some sort of fireproof material. Galana supposed that made sense, for dragons.

“We’re still with you too,” Scrutarius reported tensely from engineering. “Heat shields and hull plates seem to be holding, but it’s going to get choppy. I could try to manually detach you but I suspect it’d be no more successful than the bolts.”

“Bloody Mary, status?” Hartigan asked.

“I have also experienced some network disruption, Captain,” the little mechanical giela replied from the tactical console, “but I am still in control. Would you like me to fire something a little more persuasive from the lateral turrets?”

“I would suggest we not annoy them,” Galana said. “They flew into orbit and are apparently physically dragging a starship to the ground.”

“I tend to agree,” Hartigan said.

“I am uncomfortable with not shooting them,” Wicked Mary said, “but if those are your orders … ”

“We won’t get back into orbit even if they let us go now,” Scrutarius announced. “Not without losing the toruses and half the hull. And we’ve got a belly full of water, remember.”

The giela stirred. “I am in no danger of forgetting,” she said. “If we are to crash, we should strike them with a final ‑ ”

“No,” Galana interrupted. “Right now, these … dragons … are the only thing that are going to get us to the ground in one piece. The Conch wasn’t made to land.”

“That she wasn’t,” Hartigan agreed, frowning in concern. “And what about the computer?”

“I am undamaged, Basil,” the Conch reported. “But I have now identified some issues with my sensors and data feeds. You were of course aware of them before I was, due to the nature of the shutdown but I am attempting to get to the bottom of it. It must have been an emergency action that I can no longer remember taking because the decision was locked out. Most interesting.”

“Most interesting,” Hartigan agreed, his frown deepening.

“It is an inconvenience, Basil, nothing more,” the computer went on. “It is rather like being blind.”

“Well don’t worry, old dear,” the Captain said with surprising tenderness. “We’ll be your eyes.”

The fire of atmospheric insertion faded and was replaced with the steady rumble of air roaring past the ship. Scrutarius powered down the engines and gravity plates, and let the ship play dead. The land below approached at a deceptively slow glide. Galana saw mountains and forested valleys, the gleam of water, and … she frowned and leaned forward.

One long, winding ridge of pale stone, tapering at either end, looked suspiciously like another dragon. But it couldn’t have been. They were still too far up, it would have had to be thirty times the size of the dragons carrying them down. Fifty times. That was … well, she would have said that was impossible, but Galana Fen was coming to realise that her idea of what was impossible wasn’t in possession of all the facts.

The land and water and occasional white crescent of possible-dragon swept by, seeming to speed up as they descended. As he’d promised he would, Captain Hartigan continued a low, steady description of what they were seeing, for the blind computer’s benefit.

“Coming down lower over some hills now, everything looks a bit barren now and – golly, yes, look at that – it’s burned, all of it, burned quite black, the hills are like glass … wait, there’s another dragon, and another … I say, that’s a bally big one … hang about, they’re bringing us lower, there’s something shiny on the horizon, maybe another hill? A little cluster of – of mountains perhaps? It’s – I say – I don’t know.”

Basil fell silent as the dragons on either side of them slowed, banked, and approached the huge glittering slope. Another few moments, and the Conch was grounded. The bridge rocked lightly underneath them, and came to rest at a slight slope. The ship groaned.

“The hull is holding,” Scrutarius reported with some relief.

“The reinforcement in the aquarium was very well done,” Wicked Mary’s giela complimented them.

“Alright,” Hartigan said, “we’re down, and it looks like we’re down to stay … next question is, where?”

“I think,” Galana said hesitantly, “we’ve been added to the dragons’ hoard.”

“What … ” Hartigan started, then trailed off in awe. They all stepped forward and stared out of the for’ard screens.

The Conch had been placed on the top of a hill, a foothill near the base of the mountain that was the main trove. The hills were formed of great masses of shining metal shapes and glittering polished stones. It was difficult to make out individual pieces but there appeared to be carvings, artworks, as well as heaps of smaller objects and what looked like great melted masses of raw metal. It was impossible to see the peak of the highest hill from where the ship had been laid.

“Righto,” Hartigan said. “Suggestions?”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Scrutarius joined them on the bridge. “Getting off the ground and through the atmosphere will tear us apart. The Conch wasn’t made to take off any more than she was made to land,” he glanced at the Captain. “Nice dressing gown there, Baz. Goes well with the boots.”

“Quiet, you.”

“We could still detach and leave in the Nella,” Galana said, “but there’s nowhere to go without the main body of the ship.”

Hartigan turned to Chillybin and made an obscure little gesture with his zolo glass. “Chilly, can you … ?”

“I can sense nothing,” Chillybin said. “This troubles me.”

“Well, doesn’t it normally take a few days for you to figure out what makes alien brains tick?”

“Yes, but I normally have some sense that there is a brain, even if it is too alien for me to recognise.”

“Nothing much for it, then,” Hartigan stood. “Let’s go out there and say hello to the dragons,” he turned from the screens and nodded to Scrutarius. “Dev, can you get the computer hooked back up?”

“I won’t know until I figure out what the actual problem is,” Scrutarius replied. “It looks like an automatic lock-out due to some kind of nearby data event, perhaps a – I don’t know, a computer of such complexity that ours had to shut down rather than risk connecting up to it. The problem is, it’s even hidden the action from itself so there’s a lot of confusion,” he shook his head. “If it’s more than just the data connections – if the computer itself is damaged, Baz, you know that’s ‑ ”

“I’m fine, Devlin,” the computer said. “Just blinkered. I think perhaps you were right about the data influx risking overload. I’ll talk you through the blind spots.”

“There, you see? Jolly good,” Hartigan patted Wicked Mary’s giela on the top of its head. “Bloody Mary, weapons options?”

“Everything except the rail cannon is operational, Captain,” Wicked Mary said, “although I am not sure how well the firing mechanisms will operate in atmosphere. Simulations look promising. I can run everything from the aquarium without the use of my giela.”

“Good, then your giela’s with me,” Hartigan said. “Fen, Chilly, you too. Bonty … if you want to come, this looks like something that’d be right up your xenobiologist alley.”

“Are you going to … change into your uniform, Captain?” Galana asked as Basil strode off the bridge.

Hartigan snorted. “Uniform’s for aliens that haven’t shipwrecked us, Fen,” he declared. “And besides, I wouldn’t want them to mistake me for a piece of treasure, what?”

“I don’t think there’s much danger of that,” Galana murmured, and followed Hartigan out.

There were no dragons in sight as they disembarked. The planet seemed hospitable enough, although it was uncomfortably hot. More, Galana thought, a result of heat rising from the ground and the metals reflecting and focussing the warmth of the sun than anything to do with the climate. They scrambled down the slope upon which the Conch was beached, and up to the next foothill along.

From there, the ship really did look like a great exotic seashell. Galana had never imagined she would see it on the ground. From the warped look of the hull plates and the damage to the subluminal engines, Scrutarius was right – they’d never manage to take off again.

Although it was a shipwreck and in all likelihood the end of their mission – and probably their lives – she had to admit it looked rather beautiful. A worthy addition to any dragon’s treasure trove.

“Are you still alright in there?” she asked Wicked Mary.

“The aquarium is holding,” the giela reported.

“Look at this stuff,” Hartigan said in excitement. “Look at these,” he’d picked up a pair of hefty discs of yellowish metal, each the size of his hand. The slope he was toiling and backsliding his way up was covered in them. “What are they? They look like old-style money-tokens, what were they called … ”

“Coins?” Galana hazarded.

“Right, coins. But they’re too big.”

“Too big for a human or a Molranoid,” Bonty said, picking up one of the discs and turning it over. One side was stamped with an unsettling spider-like shape. She held it up and pointed at the image. “Maybe these fellows were big enough to carry around a little purse of them, hmm?”

“I say, that’s reassuring,” Hartigan chuckled. He dropped one of the coins with a clunk and put the other absentmindedly into his dressing gown pocket. “D’you think the dragons brought any of them down the way they did with us? Or just their coin collection? I wonder ‑ ”

“What is that?” Wicked Mary pointed towards the pinnacle of the central treasure-mountain, which reared another thousand feet or so above them across a shining valley littered with flattened, melted-looking metal shapes. The heat rising from the cleft was positively infernal. The others shaded their eyes and looked.

“I can’t make it out,” Hartigan said. “Looks like a big spiky chap with his hand up in the air,” he squinted. “The sun’s right behind it though.”

“It’s more like a tentacle than a hand,” Galana said. The strange figure was almost humanoid from the waist up, except for its strange elongated head that not even Galana could make out in detail. Instead of legs, its body continued and swelled into a coiled serpentine mass, and its upthrust tentacle-arm was holding some kind of crystal ball. “It’s a statue, I’d say. Two, maybe three times the size of a Molran. Made out of some kind of metal. Gold?”

“Yes, gold,” Wicked Mary confirmed. “What is it holding?”

The little robot took a slow step down towards the shimmering-hot valley between their hill and the central mound.

“Tactical Officer Mary,” Galana said warningly. “The temperature in the valley ‑ ”

“It’s within my giela’s tolerances,” Wicked Mary said.

“Let’s stay together for now, eh?” Hartigan suggested. Wicked Mary continued towards the valley. “Mary?”

“I am experiencing communication issues,” the giela said. Galana recognised this as Wicked Mary’s code for I don’t want to do what the Captain says right now. “I think it is the heavy metal content in this region. If I get to the higher slopes I should be able to re-establish contact.”

“A likely bally story,” Hartigan said. Wicked Mary clicked and clattered down into the valley. “You just want to ‑ ” he paused, scowling. “Come to mention it, I don’t even know what you want to do,” he muttered, and mopped his sweaty forehead with the sleeve of his dressing gown. “Blasted Fergunak.”

“There is a dragon coming,” Chillybin announced.

“Hang on, I thought you couldn’t sense ‑ ” Hartigan started.

By then, though, Galana and Bonty had both heard it. The almost industrial sound of an enormous hard-scaled creature dragging itself swiftly across the hot metallic ground. It approached fast, swiftly reaching a volume human hearing could pick up, and rapidly became almost deafening. The temperature also increased, and Galana and the others took a few hasty steps back from the slope. Whether the heat was coming from melted metal, dragonfire, or the creature itself, it was intense.

Just before the sound and the heat reached painful levels, the huge white dragon slithered into view around the mountain, dragged itself up the valley and stopped, its neck curling back and its head rearing high above the tiny silvery shape of Wicked Mary’s giela.

The robot tilted its own head up just in time for the dragon to raise a huge foreclaw.

“I ‑ ” Wicked Mary said.

The claw came down, mashing the giela into the rest of the melted metal that made up the valley floor and obliterating it completely.

“ ‑ assume that my giela was just destroyed,” Wicked Mary continued smoothly from the comm system.

“Yes,” Galana said as calmly as she could. “Yes it was.”

“Stand by,” Bonty quavered. “We might be about to join it.”

The dragon was about the same size as the ones that had brought them down – may actually have been one of them. It was about twice the length of the Conch, plated in huge scales of white material like some sort of ceramic. The scales would have to share some properties with ceramic, Galana noted in the clinical thoughts of near-panic, just to deal with the heat. She’d thought the same thing as she watched them flame their way into the atmosphere.

Certain parts of the creature’s body, especially the rims of its vast jet-engine nostrils and its great jagged mouth, were discoloured – most likely from the even greater heat of the dragon’s fire. For some reason, the side of its immense wormlike body behind and beneath its left wing, which was all they could see from its current position, was similarly heat-scorched. Galana wondered if maybe the monster had vents, or gills of some sort to shoot more flame from beneath its wings. It would, she thought, explain how they’d managed to get airborne and even fly out into nearby space. Jet-powered, in truth.

She realised that her final moments had gone on long enough for her to start analysing the life-form, and that this might mean they weren’t her final moments after all. She looked up at the huge, mad, craggy white face of the dragon.

“You dare to approach the Idol!” the dragon’s voice was an ear-splitting roar far louder than the sound of it dragging itself through the treasure hills. Galana, Basil and Bonjamin clapped their hands to their ears, and Chillybin rocked back a little on her great armoured feet.

The voice was also speaking quite understandable Fleet-standard words.

“You’re not serious – they’re speaking Fleet too?” Hartigan exclaimed.

“It is a universal language,” Galana said doubtfully. “I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this universal, though.”

The dragon tilted its great head and rumbled threateningly, the heat from its slightly-parted jaws like an open furnace. Hartigan staggered back and Bonty slipped a hand under the human’s arm and propped him up. Even for the Molranoids, the heat was overwhelming. Galana wondered how long Chilly’s suit would hold up.

To her surprise, Hartigan pulled himself upright and held to Bonty’s arm – and, raising his voice, addressed the monster. “I am Captain Basil Hartigan of the ACS Conch,” he called in loud, clear Grand Boënne. “We are on a peaceful mission of exploration ‑ ”

“What is the mammal jabbering about?!” the dragon thundered. “Make it be silent!”

“We are peaceful explorers,” Galana switched to the Fleet language the dragon apparently understood. “We had no intention of trespassing, and if you hadn’t brought us to the surface ‑ ”

“Intruders are not allowed to leave!” the dragon interrupted once more. “We want no interference from The Centre here!”

“Did it just say something about the Core?” Hartigan asked. “I think I heard the word for ‘centre’ in there, didn’t I?”

Galana nodded, and raised a hand to politely forestall the floundering Captain. “We’re not from the Core, that is, The Centre,” she explained hurriedly. She attempted to adjust to the dragon’s strange phrasing on the fly. “We have nothing to do with The Centre, as a matter of ancient law.”

“We’re actually from fairly close to the edge of the galaxy ourselves,” Bonty added. “Our region of space ‑ ”

“Doctor,” Galana said warningly.

“Well, right – anyway my point is, we’re definitely not from The Centre,” Bonty continued.

“Far from it,” Galana agreed.

“Perish the thought,” Bonty added.

“We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to come here,” Galana went on, “and we would have gone on our way if you hadn’t brought us down. We didn’t want to get too close to your … your Idol either.”

“You lie!” the dragon rumbled. “You seek the glory of the Idol of Nnal! You would take the Orb for yourselves!” Galana and Bonty exchanged a shocked look – the Orb of Nnal, Galana thought, wasn’t that the relic those crazy Fergie crusaders were looking for? – and apparently the dragon was perceptive enough to recognise the look. “Ah!” it hissed, its head lowering and moving forward until Basil cried out and Galana felt her own skin blistering, “yes, your intentions are quite transparent to us!” to Galana’s relief, it reared back again. Even if it was about to crush them, it was blessedly cool as the terrible head swept back. “Even the Elder Races are like children to the Fudzu!”

It may have been the stress of the situation, but Galana almost laughed at how silly the name sounded. At least Bonty, still holding an apparently unconscious Captain Hartigan in her left arms, managed to respond more professionally than Galana had. “Fudzu – is that what you are?” she shielded her own head from the heat with her upper right arm. “We have creatures like you in some of our myths, we call you dragons ‑ ”

Dragons,” the Fudzu echoed scornfully. “Dragons are but a shade of our kind! We ruled long before any such pale imitations crept out to play in the ruins of our empire! Dragon is just a word for inferior! Insufficient! Imitation! Such pitiful creatures would never be worthy custodians of the Idol, would never … ”

Galana once again found herself analysing while the creature ranted on. Now that Bonjamin had mentioned old myths, she did recall hearing of a thing called Fudzu before. Had it been a human myth about some kind of fire demons from unreality? A Bonshoon fable? She didn’t remember. Bonty, at least, hadn’t seemed to recognise it. She’d have to ask the others, in the unlikely event of their survival.

The Fudzu’s head snapped up further still, its diatribe trailed off, and it hissed – and at the same moment, Galana became aware of a softer sound from behind them.

The Nella had detached from the main body of the Conch and was rising into the air.

“Devlin?” Galana called into the comm.

“It’s not me,” Scrutarius reported. “The computer is still curled up and trying to hide from this alien data thing, and it looks like Wicked Mary has stepped into the gap.”

“Tactical Officer Mary?” Galana went on as the shuttle rose and began to manoeuvre sideways, away from the rumbling Fudzu but in the general direction of the pinnacle of the treasure-mountain. There was no response from Wicked Mary, and Galana had to admit she hadn’t really expected one.

The Fudzu, growling terrifyingly, reared up onto its thick hind legs and opened its jaws. Eye-jarring pink light, like nothing Galana had ever seen, played around its teeth, but fortunately the creature’s mouth was so high above them she couldn’t see inside. Even so, it looked like it could almost swallow the Nella whole.

The shuttle whispered forward … and at that moment the lateral pulse turrets on the main body of the ship still slumped on the hilltop behind them opened up. A searing broadside of weapons-fire baked across the tops of the crews’ heads and struck the Fudzu’s exposed belly.

As they’d predicted in the course of their shipwrecking, this didn’t harm the vast creature so much as annoy it – but for a couple of seconds it was very distracted. With a screech it fell back against the mountainside, its flailing legs and tail almost smashing the cowering crewmembers on the foothill. Galana looked up again in time to see the Nella dart forward, elegant and fishlike under Wicked Mary’s natural-born and cybernetically-enhanced control, and scoop the golden Idol of Nnal into the air with a pair of heavy-duty cargo claws.

“No!” the Fudzu shrieked.

It spread its wings and more unearthly pink light gathered between its scales down either side of its body. Galana had a split-second to note that she’d been correct about its jet-venting ability to provide flight power, and another split-second to realise that if it took off from the valley it was definitely going to incinerate them, when a second barrage from the Conch’s turrets hit the Fudzu. This time Wicked Mary targeted the great webbed wings themselves.

The gunfire once again didn’t do much visible damage but the Fudzu’s takeoff was botched as it was distracted and enraged a second time. Apparently the shock of seeing its precious Idol get snatched had been enough to make the Fudzu momentarily forget that the Conch was still on the ground and ready to fight.

“Fen,” Bonty cried urgently, and Galana followed her friend’s gaze. On the heat-shimmering horizon, past the edge of the treasure hoard and out over the blackened landscape beyond, the unmistakable shapes of more Fudzu were rapidly approaching. They may have still been a fair distance away, but they were coming fast – and the fact that they were already visible meant they were big. Far larger than the one that was bare moments away from flattening them.

Galana looked helplessly at their approaching doom, then turned to Bonty.

“We achieved a satisfactory percentage of our mission,” she told the wide-eyed Bonshoon.

The Fudzu straightened with a final furious lash of its tail, sending shards of hot metal and precious stones whizzing past them. The Nella, which Galana had expected to make for orbit no matter how futile that might have been, instead swept around to hover in front of and just above the snarling creature’s head. The Fudzu opened its mouth again.

“Return the ‑ ” it started.

The cargo arms unfolded, and utter stillness fell over the mountainside. One claw was holding the Idol securely near the top of the golden figure’s body, so only its tentacle-like arm and the shining crystal Orb was visible above the mechanism. The other claw was fastened to a heavy metal-composite cargo container designed for low-orbit drops.

Wicked Mary’s voice spoke then, through the comms system and from a loudspeaker in the Nella’s open cargo bay.

“I liked that giela.”

And then, in the frozen moment of absolute silence that followed the Fergunakil’s pronouncement, the cargo arms swung together. The armoured crate smashed into the Orb of Nnal, and with a powdery little sound the crystal relic exploded into a million pieces.

The silence and stillness returned after this, during which Wicked Mary opened the second claw and carelessly dropped the bent, flattened golden Idol at the Fudzu’s great white feet. It landed with a clonk, the torso part breaking away entirely from the coiled serpentine base.

Galana stood, one hand on Bonty’s back and the other on Chillybin’s painfully hot armoured arm, and waited to die.

The Fudzu’s head lowered slowly, its mad glittering eyes fixed on the smashed Idol far below. When it spoke, for the first time its voice was quiet. It was practically a whisper.

“What … ” it mumbled. “What did you do?”

“Fudzu,” Chillybin said with a deliberate movement of her gauntlet, “meet Fergunakil.”

Some hours later, the crew was gathered once again in the Captain’s quarters. The oddly reassuring grey nothingness of soft-space once again pressed in on them, and they were back underway – considerable repairs still pending, but at least they’d been able to generate a relative field.

“‘We achieved a satisfactory percentage of our mission’?” Devlin promptly, and with real outrage in his voice, got to the most important matter. “That was what you decided your last words needed to be?”

“I didn’t realise you’d heard,” Galana admitted.

“Believe me, I wish I hadn’t,” Scrutarius replied. “Mind you, could we really expect anything better from a Molran?”

“Yes we bally well could,” Hartigan, as red as a spicy ration wafer and smothered in skin-graft bandages from his experiences with the Fudzu, smacked a fist down on the arm of his couch, then added, “ouch.”

“Be careful, Captain,” Bonty said mildly. “If that skin doesn’t take, it’s going to be several very uncomfortable hours before I can brew up a new batch.”

“Fen, you will formulate a list of heroic final statements,” Basil went on, “ranging from inspirational to defiant, all of them worthy of the history books. That’s an order. Have ‘em on my desk by shipboard morning.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Also, the next time you lot feel like you’re getting a little bit of a sunburn from being too close to something hot, consider taking me a bit of a jolly old safe distance from it, what? I’m not wrapped in whatever wonderful preposterous bullplop you are in the skin department.”

“Yes, Captain,” Galana repeated.

“Or get me a suit like hers,” he added, waving his arm painfully at Chillybin. “My dressing gown is absolutely ruined.”

“I will start building you one immediately, Captain,” Chilly promised.

“Good,” Hartigan scratched moodily at one of the bandages on the back of his hand. “Now why in the name of Old Linda’s Handbag d’you think they let us go?”

Galana had been thinking about that. She was quite sure they all had. To say she’d been surprised would be an understatement. The Fudzu hadn’t just let them go – they had, with great care and diffidence, allowed them to return to their ship and the Nella to reattach, and had then very delicately carried them back up into orbit and released them into space like they were some kind of rare and fragile insect. And by that stage the big Fudzu had arrived. Any one of them could have wrapped a claw around the Conch and crushed it to oblivion.

“As near as I can guess, Captain,” Bonty spoke for them, “they were in shock. They couldn’t imagine anyone with a more heightened level of violence and ferocity than themselves, with such destructive disregard for its own life. They’d never encountered anything more aggressive than they were.”

“There may be a little more to it than that,” the Conch remarked. The computer had returned to normal, seemingly at the same moment Wicked Mary had smashed the Orb of Nnal and the golden Idol that had been holding it. “I was of course unable to save any of the data that had forced my lockdown, but from what we know about the Orb of Nnal, the Fergunak consider it their rightful property – their destiny, in fact.”

“Whoops,” Scrutarius said.

“Yes,” the computer agreed solemnly. “Regardless of the truth of the matter, the Fudzu may have somehow recognised that Wicked Mary was the rightful owner of their sacred relic, and as such she had the right to keep it or destroy it as she pleased.”

“I was also unable to absorb much of the data that was apparently built into the Orb,” Wicked Mary’s voice said from the comm system. She was the only one who was not technically present, since even the option of attending the gathering through her giela was now gone. They’d offered to hold the get-together down on the aquarium deck, but the great shark had politely declined. She would, she said, immediately get to work building a new giela. Galana had already made a mental note to keep an eye on that project. Just in case.

“But you absorbed some information?” she asked.

“Not exactly, little flesh,” Wicked Mary replied. “The Orb itself was empty – just a hollow vessel. What it was supposed to contain, and the data that might have been somehow encoded into the crystal … that is what I may still be able to learn, given time to study the brief flashes I was able to save.”

“You know, if you’d held onto the Orb, you could have studied it at a bit more leisure,” Bonty pointed out.

“The Fudzu would almost certainly have incinerated us if she had tried,” Galana said, when the silence had extended long enough to convince her that Wicked Mary was simply too flabbergasted by the idea to respond. To a Fergunakil, quite simply, not destroying the most precious cultural relic of a civilisation responsible for mildly inconveniencing her was just utterly incomprehensible.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Hartigan said. “If we ever run into those Fergies – what were they called again? The Searching, Starving, Lost?”

“They’re the ones,” Bonty agreed.

“Let’s maybe not tell them that Bloody Mary smashed their Orb,” Hartigan suggested. “Hm?”

“Excellent notion, young Basil,” Chillybin said, deadpan behind her envirosuit helmet.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Some More News (Cody’s Showdy)

I’ll just leave this here.

corona (5)

Posted in Hatboy's Nuggets of Crispy-Fried Wisdom, Office Posts, Random | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Musical Interlude

Here’s a nice bit of atmospheric music set against a backdrop you might find familiar.

I like the tune (are those intro-notes familiar? Sounds like the opening or a trailer for something?), and had to drop a comment in the comments section. He credited Gabriel which is good, but in other cases when Gabriel is actually contacted for use of his images (technically my images since I paid for them), he talks with me about it.

I think for the purposes of YouTube cover thumbnails / images, it doesn’t really matter and I’m happy to call this a trailer for Drednanth and move on. The music is good. There’s no way to really police this stuff unless you’re a giant like Disney, and I think as long as some effort is made, it’s all fine.

Read my books. You’ve got nothing better to do.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, Office Posts, Random | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Random DnD humour

I made a random .gif today. Made me chuckle.

“When your DnD character dies and you roll up a new one and just tack it onto the existing team when they’re in the middle of a campaign and they all just agree to keep you alive until you level up.”

groot (2)

Bonus points for it being exactly the same as your old character so you don’t even need to roll any stats or change his name.
Posted in Kussa mun hopoti? | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments