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The Gods of Sagittarius: Chapter Twelve
Last updated: Tuesday, March 28, 2017 18:55 EDT
Shenoy spent the next few hours examining the cell minutely. Finally he turned to the robot.
“I’d like to see the adjoining cells now, H.P.” he said.
“Certainly, Sir Rupert,” replied the robot. “If you tell me what you are looking for, perhaps I can help.”
“I have no idea,” admitted Shenoy. “If I were to quote a very famous fictional detective, I would say that I am looking for the detail that matters.” A self-deprecating smile crossed his face. “I only hope that I’ll recognize it when I come across it.”
“What does this detail look like?” asked the robot.
“I wish I knew. Basil, you might examine the cells further up the line.”
Basil nodded and walked off.
“Russell,” continued Shenoy, “you might as well go and get yourself a sandwich or some coffee or something.”
Tabor shook his head. “My job is protecting you. I’d better stick around.”
“If I’m attacked by the Old Ones, or whatever the hell it was that attacked the three prisoners, how do you plan to protect me from them?” asked Shenoy.
“I don’t know,” admitted Tabor.
“You don’t know what you’re looking for,” replied Tabor. He smiled. “Well, then?”
Shenoy laughed. “Point taken. Come with me and who knows, maybe you’ll solve the mystery of the ages.”
“I just hope I survive it,” said Tabor earnestly. “That was a pretty shocking holo.” He frowned. “What could cause something like that?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” replied Shenoy. “Basil thinks it involves a technology that diffracts or bends light so that whatever killed those men seemed invisible.”
“Do you think so?”
Shenoy shook his head. “It would still need an energy source, and according to all the physical and visual records, nothing entered or left the jail that night. And I doubt that even if such a technology existed, you could focus it through walls from, what, half a mile or more away, and home in on the very cell where it was needed.” He grimaced. “And even if it did exist and could do all that, it was only used in the service of some beings or creatures that could kill three men in a matter of a minute, devour about half of them, which I estimate comes to about two hundred pounds, and still remain agile and skilled enough to make their exit through a force field and a score of holo cameras.”
“It sounds like magic when you put it that way,” remarked Tabor.
“I wish they’d strike that word from the language,” said Shenoy. “It leads to sloppy thinking.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Show a flashlight to a primitive being on a world that’s had no outside contact and he thinks it’s magic. I’m sure in our race’s youth and adolescence everything from gunpowder to penicillin to airplanes seemed like magic. The problem is that if you believe in magic, you have no compulsion to discover how things really work, and sure enough you spend the rest of your life believing, not in scientific principles, but in magic. I’m sure it’s comforting — well, except when you’re being eaten by invisible beasts — but it doesn’t lead to knowledge or solutions.”
“What is it?” asked Shenoy.
“I take my hat off to you, Rupert,” he said. “You’re the archetype of what I grew up believing was a genius.”
“I’m flattered, but I don’t follow you.”
“You can solve some of the more mystifying puzzles of the universe, you can debunk someone everyone else thinks is magic” — he grinned again — “but you can’t remember to shave your lower lip or how to make coffee, and your socks don’t match. That’s my notion of a genius.”
Shenoy looked down at his feet. “You know, I could have sworn . . .” His voice trailed off, and suddenly he laughed aloud. “Well, I seem to have the absentminded part down pat. Let’s hope I can live up to the genius part as well.”
“Before the Old Ones get hungry again,” said Tabor devoutly.
“Relax, Russell. What you saw happened more than a year ago.”
“If they can walk through force fields, and neither men nor cameras can see them, who says they have to eat more than once a year?” Tabor shot back. “Or who says they didn’t eat yesterday and now they’re hungry again.”
Shenoy shook his head. “You still don’t understand.”
“Enlighten me,” said Tabor.
“They broke into a high-security prison with such ease that if all they were interested in doing was eating men, or sentient beings, then why didn’t they stay? And if they did stay, why has no one else been injured, let alone eaten?”
“So you think it was a one-and-out incident?”
Tabor frowned. “What do you mean, so far?”
“No one else has been trying to find out what happened here,” said Shenoy. “Well, at least until the Knack we just saw, assuming that’s why it was here. So if there’s something they don’t want known — their race (if they are sentient beings), their technology, their methodology — they’ve had no reason to return, or re-enter the prison, until now.”
“I hadn’t considered that,” said Tabor, fingering his weapon nervously.
“Somehow I thought not,” said Shenoy, looking amused. “There’s something to be said for not being aware of all the possibilities of a situation.”
“Like your hypothetical caveman?”
“Point taken,” replied Shenoy. “And no insult intended.”
After another hour, and two more cells, Shenoy was no closer to fending the unknown and unidentified object he sought
“Ah, well,” he said, “we might as well take a break. I’m getting hungry.” He paused. “I wonder how Basil is doing?”
“Probably coming up blank, or he’d have called you,” said Tabor.
“Still, you never know.” He stepped out into the aisle and raised his voice. “Basil?”
There was no answer.
“Basil?” he called again.
Still no answer.
“Maybe he got hungry too,” suggested Tabor.
“Maybe,” said Shenoy dubiously. “But let’s go take a look, just to make sure.”
He began walking past a number of cells, followed by Tabor and the robot, until he came to one with the door open. He entered it, and found Basil sprawled out on the floor.
Tabor gently pushed him aside, knelt down, and examined Basil for vital signs without finding any.
“Dead?” asked Shenoy.
“Yeah,” replied Tabor. “But there doesn’t seem to be a mark on him — and no one’s been nibbling on him for lunch.”
Shenoy turned to the robot. “H. P., tell your superiors that we have a dead man here.” He paused. “And that their problem, whatever it is, isn’t over.”
“No,” said Shenoy calmly. “It’s out of the question.”
“The hell it is,” said Tabor firmly. “I’m in charge of keeping you alive, and I say we get the hell off this planet while the getting’s good.”
Shenoy shook his head. “We can’t leave before we have the autopsy result.”
“I’ll give it to you right now,” said Tabor. “Basil died from unknown causes.”
“If we stay I may find out what the causes were.”
“If we stay you may join him,” responded Tabor. “It’s time to leave.”
“I can’t,” insisted Shenoy. “Something very strange is going on here, something that requires investigation and a solution.”
“Damn it, Rupert!” snapped Tabor. “You’re talking about it like it’s a problem in a textbook. People die here, some hideously, and for no discernable reason. I don’t know what’s happening here or why, but I don’t want us to stick around and be killed while we’re trying to find out.”
“Let me ask you a couple of very simple questions Russell,” said Shenoy.
“Russ,” Tabor corrected him. “And make them short as well as simple.”
“Do you think these deaths were a matter of choice?”
“Hell, no! No one chooses to die, and certainly not like this!”
“I said it wrong,” replied Shenoy. “Let me reword it. Do you think they were a matter of selection?”
Tabor frowned. “Selection?”
“There are other prisoners, plus guards and administrators. Do you think the three we saw in the holo and Basil were selected by any rational process?”
“I’m remembering the holo,” answered Tabor. “Nothing rational did that.”
“Then why stop with only those three?” persisted Shenoy. “Clearly whatever killed them can come and go as it pleases, or as they please, if there’s more than one of them. Obviously it could have slaughtered the entire prison, guards and inmates alike. But it didn’t. It stopped at three. Why?”
“But it didn’t stop at three,” said Tabor. “It just killed Basil.”
“That’s because Basil, and by extension I, represent a threat to it or them.”
“Oh, bullshit,” growled Tabor. “What do you know now that you didn’t know yesterday?”
Shenoy allowed himself the luxury of a smile. “That’s why I’m reluctant to leave.”
“I don’t follow you at all.”
“It’s obvious that I do know something I didn’t know yesterday, and so did Basil. The trick is figuring out what it is.”
Tabor stared at him. “Do you realize what you’re saying — that if you don’t know shit they’ll leave you alone, but if you’re on to something, they’ll tear you to pieces?”
Shenoy smiled again. “Oh, very well put, Russell! I’ll make a thinker out of you yet!”
“You’ll make a corpse out of me first,” said Tabor.
“Remember that little example I gave you about children and magic?”
Tabor glared at him but said nothing.
“Russ, in this case, we’re the children. There are principles at work here that if we can understand and master may move the human race ahead by centuries, or possibly even millennia. How can you turn your back on that and just walk away because of a few risks?”
“I saw those fucking risks!” shouted Tabor. “They were torn apart in broad daylight by things the most sophisticated holocams couldn’t even see. They just came in here and killed Basil. Let humanity take a giant stride into the future over some other corpse, not yours.”
Shenoy sighed deeply. “You care that little for knowledge?”
“Let’s say that I care that much for surviving.”
Shenoy stared at him for a long moment, and then spoke again. “We’ve been here quite a few hours. It could be hunger that’s got us on edge. There’s supposed to be a cafeteria somewhere on the premises. Let’s go grab some food and while we’re eating perhaps I can convince you of the wisdom of staying here, at least for a few more days.”
“You can eat after everything we’ve seen?” asked Tabor incredulously.
“The human body needs nourishment, Russ.”
And the human mind — one of them, anyway — needs a little more common sense than it seems to come equipped with, thought Tabor.
“All right,” Tabor said at last. “I’ll have, I don’t know, coffee and maybe some pudding.”
“Good!” said Shenoy. “H. P., lead us to the cafeteria.”
“Follow me, Sir Rupert,” said the robot, rolling off down a corridor.
They turned twice, took an airlift to ground level, then went down one more corridor, and came to a small cafeteria, one that could accommodate no more than twenty diners at once. There were only four others at the moment, each in uniform, each at his own table. A prisoner was cleaning the tables and the floor.
Shenoy grabbed a tray and went down the aisle where the food was laid out, choosing a salad, a bowl of soup, and a slab of meat that came from no species of animal he had ever seen before. True to his word, Tabor picked up a cup of coffee and a dish of some kind of mutated fruit pudding, and then they returned to the table.
“Doesn’t look very appetizing,” remarked Tabor, indicating Shenoy’s tray.
“The only purpose food serves is to keep the brain going for another day,” answered Shenoy.
“You believe that drivel?” asked Tabor.
Shenoy smiled. “No, of course not. But if I can fool my body into believing it, at least I won’t die of obesity or diabetes.” He took a mouthful of the meat and tried not to make a face. “Fooling my brain is a bit harder.”
“To say nothing of your taste buds.”
“Right,” replied Shenoy. “Let’s not mention them, and maybe they won’t notice what I’m eating.”
Suddenly the prisoner who had been mopping the floor shrieked once, then started frothing at the mouth. He turned slowly, surveying the room, and his eyes fell on Shenoy. He uttered an inarticulate howl and ran toward him, hands outstretched as he reached for Shenoy’s neck.
“Don’t kill him!” said Shenoy in low tones. “He clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing.R#8221;
Tabor felled him with a single sharp blow to the jaw. The man dropped to the floor. He opened his eyes a few second later, screamed again, and reached feebly for Shenoy, who was bending over, looking at him. Tabor hit him again, and this time he fell back, unconscious. A moment later, the guards who’d been eating in the cafeteria were swarming all over the prisoner. Their version of “subduing with minimum force necessary” was . . . quite expansive, especially given that the inmate was already unconscious.
“Do you know him?” asked Tabor.
Shenoy shook his head. “I never saw him before in my life.”
“I didn’t think so,” said Tabor. “Look, Rupert, it’s obvious that someone or something wants you dead. You’ve been lucky so far, but your luck can’t hold out much longer. Are you ready to leave Cthulhu?”
“I can’t,” answered Shenoy. “I need more time.”
“How long?” demanded Tabor. “I need an exact limit, and after that I’ll sling you over my shoulder and carry you to the ship if need be.”
“You’d do that?” asked Shenoy, half-surprised and half-amused.
“You watch me.”
“If I’m slung over your shoulder, I’d be in a very awkward position from which to watch you.”
“Just give me an answer, goddamn it!”
“Two days,” said Shenoy.
“Earth Standard 24-hour days?” said Tabor. “I don’t know how the hell long it takes Cthulhu to rotate.”
“Earth Standard 24-hour days,” agreed Shenoy.
“All right,” said Tabor. He resumed his seat and took a spoonful of his pudding, trying not to make a face. “As long as we have a deal and I’m stuck here for two days, I might as well help you. What do we do after we finish this meal, and what in particular are we looking for?”
“I wish I could tell you,” answered Shenoy. “Basically, anything that seems wrong or out of place.”
“That could be a lot of things,” said Tabor, frowning.
“I mean, hell, it could be anything from a half-devoured body, to a towel on the floor, to –”
“To an insect in the soup,” said Shenoy, fishing one out with his spoon.
“Not in this place,” Tabor corrected him. “I have a feeling that bugs in the soup are par for the course.”
“Probably,” agreed Shenoy, staring at the bug. “But I think we’ll change and make sure this one naturally occurs on Cthulhu.”
They spent another few minutes trying to pretend they enjoyed their food, then got up.
“There are three levels,” said Shenoy. “We’ve already been to the lower one, though I’ll want to inspect it more thoroughly. But for now, why don’t you take the top level and I’ll take the middle one.”
“And I’m looking for anything that seems out of the ordinary?”
“In an interstellar jail on an isolated prison planet named after an evil god?”
Shenoy nodded his head.
“Maybe I should look for something ordinary,” suggested Tabor sardonically. “Might be a hell of a lot rarer.”
“I like you, Russ,” said Shenoy with a smile. “I’m glad they assigned you to me.”
Well, I’m glad someone’s happy about it, thought Tabor.
“Let’s meet back here in, say, two hours?” suggested Shenoy.
“You got it,” said Tabor, heading off to an airlift.
He was back two hours later. The cafeteria was deserted. Shenoy and the robot showed up about ten minutes later.
“Any luck?” asked Shenoy.
“Not that I could recognize,” answered Tabor. “How about you?”
“A bit,” was the answer. “Hints, really. Not facts, at least, not facts that most people would recognize as such.”
“Stop talking like a witness who’s afraid of incriminating himself and tell me what you think you’ve got.”
“Remember our little chat about how things appeared like magic to the uninitiated?”
Shenoy leaned forward. “That was all right as far as it went, but . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Get to the point,” said Tabor.
“What if I were to tell you that I’ve found enough hints, uncovered enough unrelated and seemingly trivial things, in the past day to lead me to conclude that the Old Ones really did use magic?”
Tabor frowned. “You’re kidding!”
“Am I smiling?”
“Then you’re crazy.”
Shenoy shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think they used magic, and that it got out of control and destroyed them. There are monsters waiting to be released, monsters against which our technology may prove useless, or at least inadequate, and I’ve got to find out where they are and figure out how to stop them.”
“I think you’re nuts,” replied Tabor. “How long can it take to humor you and prove there are no monsters here?”
“Oh, they’re not here,” said Shenoy. “Didn’t I mention that?”
“Okay, they’re not here,” said Tabor. “Where are they?”
“That’s what I have to find out.” Shenoy got to his feet and checked his timepiece. “By my count I have more than forty-five hours left. That should prove more than adequate.”
Well, at least your clock is working, even if your brain isn’t. I’ll give you your forty-five hours, and then it’s back to civilization, such as it is.
But it didn’t take forty-five hours, or even twenty-four. Tabor was sitting at a cafeteria table, sound asleep and snoring gently, when Shenoy laid a hand on his shoulder and shook him gently.
“What is it?” asked Tabor, opening his eyes and shaking his head to clear it.
“We can go now,” said Shenoy.
Shenoy smiled and shook his head. “No. I’ve found enough things to convince me that our next port of call is Cornwallis IV, near the Messier 39 cluster.”
“That’s way the hell out,” complained Tabor.
“Yes, just about one thousand light-years. I’m ready to leave whenever you are. And since we’re almost certainly never going to get any meaningful answers from Basil’s body, we’ll take it with us and jettison it once we’re in deep space. That’s as close as I can come to a respectful funeral.”
“I’m ready, I’m ready,” mumbled Tabor, rubbing some sleep from his eyes. He stared at Shenoy and finally managed to focus his eyes. “Cornwallis IV,” he repeated. “Just what the hell do you expect to find there?”
“The secret to the Old Ones’ magic.”
Tabor sat erect. “Okay, I’m awake now.” He paused. “The secret to their magic?”
“At the very least,” said Shenoy.
“At the very least?” repeated Tabor, frowning. “What more could there be?”
Shenoy smiled. “I should think that would be obvious.”
“Not to me, it isn’t.”
“Why, the Old Ones themselves,” said Shenoy.
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