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The Gods of Sagittarius: Chapter Eleven
Last updated: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 19:00 EDT
Tabor looked at the viewscreen as the ship waited for landing coordinates.
“You see anything that resembles cultivation?” he asked.
“Oh, there’s a little, in a more temperate zone that’s currently on the nightside,” answered Shenoy.
“Well, maybe they eat fish,” said Tabor. “But as far as I can tell, there’s just one ocean and not much in the way of rivers.”
Basil smiled. “They don’t have too many mouths to feed, Russ,” he said in amused tones.
“Oh?” replied Tabor. “What’s the population?”
“It varies,” said Basil, still smiling.
“If I could make people smile that much on purpose, I’d go into show biz,” said Tabor irritably. “What’s so damned funny?”
“It’s a prison planet, Russ.”
“That’s it?” he replied, surprised. “A prison and nothing else?”
“Well, a prison and not much else,” answered Basil. “A hotel for visitors, a few farms and fisheries, a refueling station . . .” He shrugged. “The usual.”
“And someone escaped, and the genius here has to figure out how,” said Tabor. “Well, it finally makes sense.”
“No one escaped,” said Shenoy, speaking up for the first time.
“Okay, someone threatened to escape,” amended Tabor.
“Not to my knowledge,” said Shenoy, staring at the screen. “Ugly, depressing little world, isn’t it? That’s not why they called it Cthulhu, of course, but the name certainly seems to fit.”
“All right, I’ll bite,” said Tabor. “Why did they call it Cthulhu?”
“Except for a few alien outposts, the planet was empty, deserted, when we first got here,” answered Basil. “But there had been a previous race.”
“What killed them off?” asked Tabor.
Basil shrugged. “No one knows. Hell, we don’t even know if they were killed off, or if they simply left for greener pastures.”
“And that’s why the aliens were here,” Shenoy added. “Almost all of them were Nac Zhe Anglan looking for answers themselves, because of their obsession with ancient supposed deities — or devils, according to some sects. But eventually most of them gave up and went elsewhere. ”
“Hard to imagine anything less green,” noted Tabor, nodding at the image on the screen.
“The ancient species left behind some structures, and even some literature.”
“Holy books,” said Basil. “And somehow, the very best our computers could translate the name of their race was the Old Ones. So someone remembered Lovecraft, or more likely ran a bunch of searches for Old Ones, and came up with Cthulhu.”
“Interesting,” commented Tabor, who in truth found it less interesting than the origin of most planetary names.
“Coordinates received,” announced the computer. “ETA is 1825 hours ship’s time.”
“Son of a bitch!” said Tabor.
“What’s the problem?” asked Basil.
“I just realized those are the very first words the damned ship has spoken since Rupert beat it at chess.”
“I don’t think it was sulking,” said Shenoy, finally turning back from the viewscreen. “I think whatever got into it got back out.”
“And what do you suppose that was?” asked Tabor.
Shenoy shrugged. “Perhaps we’ll find the answer on Cthulhu.”
“Good,” said Tabor.
“Good?” asked Shenoy, arching an eyebrow.
“I was afraid you were going to say it was haunted.”
Shenoy uttered an amused chuckle. “That’s silly!” Suddenly his smile vanished. “Probably,” he added seriously.
Tabor gave Shenoy a quizzical look. “I presume the two of you are equipped with universal translators, yes?”
Shenoy looked a bit uncertain but Basil nodded his head. “Yes — him too. I double-checked. We’re not expecting to encounter any aliens on this planet, though.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Tabor. “Any time you visit another planet you want to be equipped with a UT. Even if you don’t run into aliens, there’s no law that says every human being in the galaxy has to speak English. I’ve been to one planet whose inhabitants — every one of them a human, mind you — speak almost nothing but Bukiyip.”
Shenoy frowned. “I’ve never heard of Bukiyip.”
Tabor smiled. “My point exactly.”
Basil had spent the time looking it up on his hand tablet. “Ha! I’d never heard of it, either. Turns out it’s indigenous to Papua New Guinea. One of the Arapesh languages — which I’ve also never heard of. How the hell did it wind up being an extra-solar language?”
“The story I got, from one of the only two people I met who spoke a language I knew, was that the planet had been settled by disgruntled Arapesh trying to keep their culture and language alive. And that was the last time I ever made the mistake of traveling off-planet without a UT.”
The ship landed a few minutes later. It tested the air, announced that it was breathable but recommended not breathing unless one had to, and shrugged off the gravity, which seemed pretty standard when Tabor finally emerged from the ship. He took a deep breath, decided that there were men’s rooms in bars that smelled better, and then followed Shenoy and Basil to the single Customs booth, manned by a somewhat rusted robot that slurred its speech.
“Welcome to Cthulhu,” it intoned. “You are expected, Lord Shenoy, sir. You, too,” it said to the other two.
“Thank you,” answered Shenoy. “I’d like to inspect the jail now, if I may?”
“Of course,” answered the robot. “There are only two reasons to come to Cthulhu, and that is one of them.”
“And the other?” asked Shenoy.
“Can’t you guess?” said Tabor.
“Oh!” said Shenoy with an embarrassed smile. “Of course. Where is the jail?”
“Go through that doorway,” replied the robot, indicating the direction with a cracked forefinger. “Then just follow the signs. If you are carrying any weaponry, you will have to leave it at the front desk.”
“None,” said Shenoy.
“None for me,” Basil chimed in.
“I’m not leaving mine here,” announced Tabor.
“This is the Customs desk,” replied the robot. “The front desk is in the jail.”
“Shall we go?” said Shenoy, heading off
As they headed toward the passageway, an impressive-looking alien emerged from it. The creature was about six feet tall, four-legged, with its torso rising straight up from the middle of the legs. Unlike a terrestrial quadruped, from the waist-equivalent down it seemed to have no clear directional orientation — much the way a tripod or stool might be said to face in any direction. Its upper torso and head, on the other hand, had a clear front-and-back orientation. There were only two arms and two eyes.
And two mouths, which was a little creepy. One above the other. The lower mouth was for ingesting food, for which purpose Tabor knew it had an impressive set of quasi-teeth, although they weren’t currently visible. The much smaller upper mouth was only used for breathing and speaking. The alien had no nose or nostrils. Its wide-jawed equivalent of a face was dominated by two deeply-set, large mustard-colored eyes.
Its legs and abdomen were clothed in what resembled Samurai-style armor; linked iron plates and lacquered leather, which was actually some sort of artificial — and much lighter — protective gear. The torso was covered only by a brightly-colored vest crisscrossed by several shoulder belts, one of which held some sort of weapon or tool in a holster.
“What the hell is that?” whispered Basil.
“It’s a Knack,” Tabor whispered back, watching the alien as it stalked away from them.
“A Knack?” repeated Basil.
“More formally, a member of the Nac Zhe Anglan species,” answered Tabor.
“Oh, right. I’ve see pictures of them, but . . .”
Tabor smiled crookedly. “They look a lot more in person, don’t they?”
The Knack vanished through the same door they’d come in through. Tabor continued his explanation in his normal voice. “That thing floating above it that looked like a squashed blimp with the biggest insectoid eyes in creation is . . . sort of a pet, I guess you could say. It’s a cyborg, though. Most of it is artificially manufactured.”
“Hideous-looking damn thing,” said Basil.
Tabor’s smile got more crooked still. “Wait’ll you meet a Vitunpelay.” Then, softly: “This is suddenly a very popular place for an out-of-the-way disgusting little dirtball with a jail and nothing else.”
“Maybe we’d better have a little talk with him,” suggested Basil.
Tabor shook his head.
“Why not?” asked Basil, frowning.
Tabor gestured very subtly toward four well-disguised holes placed regularly around the walls. “This is attached to a prison, remember?” he said. “There’s an armed man or robot behind each of those walls with weapons trained on us. We have permission to be here, so they’ll leave us alone . . . but if we confront the Knack, as you call it, and there’s any kind of commotion, well, if we’re lucky, we’ll live long enough to stand trial.”
“I would never have seen them,” said Basil. “How did you . . . ?”
“You’re a scientist,” answered Tabor. “I’m security. Spotting things like that is part of my job.”
They followed Shenoy through the passage into the jail, where a newer, less-rusted robot behind a desk told them to leave their weapons with it. Tabor turned his over, and then another robot, far smaller, without appendages but rather with half a dozen wheels pointing in all directions, approached them.
“Hello,” it said with an accent Tabor couldn’t quite identify. “I am your guide. Your request is to inspect both the prison cell in question and the security holograms. Is that correct?”
“Yes, it is,” said Shenoy.
“Then if you will follow me, I am at your service, and can answer any questions you may have.”
“That is quite satisfactory,” said Shenoy. “And what shall we call you?”
The robot was silent.
“Are you all right?” asked Shenoy.
“Yes, sir,” said the robot. “I am fully operative.”
“I was wondering, since you didn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t have a name.”
“How awkward,” said Shenoy. “Will it annoy you if I give you one?”
“Certainly not. That response has not been built into me.”
“Fine. Then I shall call you H. P., and you may call me Lord Shenoy.”
“H. P.,” said the robot, and then repeated it. “H. P., I like it, Lord Shenoy.”
“Then proceed, H. P., and we will follow you.”
“This way, gentlemen,” said the robot, wheeling off down a corridor.
Most of the cells were empty, and all of them were bleak and depressing. Finally the robot came to a stop.
“This one?” asked Shenoy.
“Yes, Lord Shenoy.”
Shenoy stared at the robot for a moment. “Lord Shenoy seems a tad formal, now that we’re friends.”
“We are?” said the robot.
Shenoy nodded. “Yes. You may call me Sir Rupert from now on.”
“Thank you, Sir Rupert From Now On,” replied the robot. “I have just unlocked the cell. You are free to inspect it.”
They entered the cell, which had three cots, a sink and toilet in one corner, and not much else.
“And all three were incarcerated in this cell?” asked Shenoy.
“Yes, Sir Rupert From Now On.”
“Just a simple Sir Rupert will do.” Shenoy looked around. “How many cells have you got in this place?”
“Two hundred and thirty-six, Sir Rupert.”
“And how many prisoners?”
“When the incident in this cell occurred?”
Shenoy frowned. “With all these empty cells, why lock all three in just this one?”
“I cannot answer, Sir Rupert.”
“Cannot or will not?”
Shenoy stood there with his hands on his hips, looking slowly around the cell.
“Hard to believe,” he muttered. “Very hard.” He turned to the robot again. “And the cell was never unlocked?”
#8220;No, Sir Rupert.”
Shenoy looked around again, frowning. “Even if something like an alien snake got in, there’s no way it could get back out.”
“Forgive my ignorance,” Tabor said, “but why not?”
Shenoy blinked his eyes very rapidly for a moment, then sighed. “That’s right,” he said at last. “You don’t know what happened here, do you?”
“Well, it’s probably time we all took a look at it.” He turned back to the robot. “H. P., we’re ready to view the security holograms now.”
“I will take you to the conference room, which is set up to display them,” answered the robot, leaving the cell and heading off down another corridor.
They arrived at a room that was somewhat larger than the cell they had just left. The walls were plain and unadorned, there were half a dozen armless chairs made from some alien hardwood, and at one stood a projection unit.
“Please be seated,” said the robot.
“Thank you, H. P.,” said Shenoy, sitting down and trying to ignore the chair’s total lack of comfort. Tabor and Basil followed suit.
“Are you quite sure you want to see this?” asked the robot.
“It may have . . . unfortunate . . . side effects,” said the robot.
“I would expect nothing less,” replied Shenoy. He turned to Basil and Tabor. “You’ll be staying, of course,” he said to his assistant. “But there’s nothing vital for you to watch, Russell. You can wait outside this room if you prefer.”
“What do you think you’re going to see?” asked Tabor, unimpressed.
“Something that no technology known to humankind will explain,” answered Shenoy.
“You sound like you’re about to tell a story to frighten kids at bedtime,” said Tabor.
Shenoy shrugged. “Go. Stay. At least you were warned.” He turned to the robot. “I think we’re ready now, H.P.”
Tabor expected the room to darken, or music to start, something to make him feel like he was watching a holographic projection, but nothing happened. Then the cell door opened and three prisoners were ushered in by a pair of armed guards, who left without saying a word.
The three men began speaking to each other in low tones. The one of them jumped up and cursed.
“Goddammit!” he yelled.
“What is it?”
“Something bit me!”
“Must be a mighty hungry bug to make you yelp like that,” chuckled the third man — and suddenly he wasn’t chuckling any more, but was screaming.
“What#8217;s happening?” whispered Tabor.
“Just watch,” said Shenoy.
Suddenly the first man’s body began jerking, not as if he was having a seizure, but as if some huge carnivore had grabbed him around the midsection and was shaking him vigorously. Blood started spurting our from half a dozen wounds that hadn’t existed seconds earlier, the man screamed just once, and suddenly he no longer had a face with which to scream.
The second prisoner raced to the door and began yelling for the guards, but was soon pulled away by some unseen thing or things, and was literally torn limb from limb, one leg flying against a wall, an arm rolling under a cot.
The third prisoner backed into a corner and crouched down, terrified. That lasted about ten seconds. Then he, too, was torn apart, his screams echoing down the corridor.
“What the hell happened?” whispered Tabor. “Some kind of force field?”
“You’ve never seen a force field do anything like that,” replied Basil.
“Then what was it?”
“Quiet!” said Shenoy sharply.
“Why?” demanded Tabor. “It’s all over.”
“Not yet,” answered Shenoy.
“But they’re all dead,” said Tabor — and even as the words left his mouth, he saw the first body vanishing a huge mouthful at a time, though there was nothing there, nothing he could see, devouring it.
Soon there were the sounds of inhuman growls, and the other two bodies began vanishing in the same way.
They watched the strange, sickening scene for another ten minutes, and then the robot shut down the projector.
“What the hell did we just see?” said Tabor, frowning.
“The deaths of three prisoners.”
“I know that,” replied Tabor irritably. “But what killed them, and what happened to them after they were killed?”
“Clearly they were eaten,” answered Shenoy. He turned to the robot. “May I have a glass of water please, H. P.?”
“You don’t seem surprised by any of this,” continued Tabor.
“Men died,” said Shenoy, accepting the water from the robot. “It happens all the time.”
“Not like this it doesn’t,” said Tabor. “And if it did, we wouldn’t have come all this way to watch what happened.”
“True,” agreed Shenoy. “But you’re missing the most important part, the reason I came all this way.”
“I’m all ears,” replied Tabor sardonically, “Some men were killed and then eaten by some kind of invisible beasts. What’s to miss?”
“Why does one creature eat another?” asked Shenoy.
“To sustain its own life force,” said Tabor. “It’s true everywhere in the galaxy.”
Shenoy smiled. “Is it?”
Tabor nodded his head. “Some die and become food so that others can live.”
“So much for universal truths,” said Shenoy.
“What are you getting at?”
“If I’m right, those men were killed and devoured by the Old Ones,” said Shenoy. A grim smile crossed his face. “And how do you sustain life when you yourself have none?”
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