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The Gods of Sagittarius: Chapter Eighteen
Last updated: Monday, April 17, 2017 22:17 EDT
Tabor looked at the viewscreen at the red-brown world that seemed almost naked without any moons. The planet’s surface was mottled here and there by large, darker-colored mounds. The remnants of ancient shield volcanoes, most likely. That suggested the planet lacked plate tectonics, which would be a good thing so far as preserving really old ruins was concerned.
“Not much to look at, is it?” he remarked.
“We’re not here on a sightseeing trip,” replied Shenoy.
Tabor continued studying the screen, and the small readout beneath it.
“Got a question, Rupert,” he said. “Just how many Old Ones do you think there are?”
Shenoy shrugged. “There can’t be too many, not at this late date.”
“And you’re sure they’re on Cornwallis IV?”
“I hope they are,” replied Shenoy. “All the clues point to it.” Suddenly he frowned. “Why do you ask?”
“Because either they went forth and multiplied, or else they’ve got a hell of lot of friends,” said Tabor.
“I don’t follow you,” said Shenoy, frowning.
“Rupert, there’s enough neutrino activity for a population of more than ten million,” answered Tabor. “A population that gave up sticks and stones a few centuries ago.” He paused. “Are you sure this is the world we want?”
Shenoy nodded his head. “I’m hardly ever wrong about anything that counts.”
Tabor chuckled. “I admire your modesty.”
“Besides, I didn’t say the Old Ones lived here. I said they might live here, or perhaps that I hoped they did. What I said was that this was where we’d find the secret to their magic.” He paused. “Probably.”
“Funny,” replied Tabor. “I must not have heard the ‘probably’ when you decided to come here.”
Shenoy stared at Tabor for a long moment. “Okay,” he said at last. “Where do you think we’ll find the secret?”
Tabor chuckled. “I’m not convinced they ever existed, or that they had any magic, or that they left the secret behind.”
“Then why are you here?”
“It’s my job.”
“Oh, yes,” said Shenoy. “You’ve been such a good companion I quite forgot. You’re here to protect me.”
“And if there are no Old Ones lying in wait and lurking in the shadows, I can’t say that I’ll weep bitter tears,” said Tabor.
“Well, you should,” said Shenoy seriously. “If I’m right, if everything we’ve learned about them is right, they did possess magic, and an incredibly powerful kind of magic, certainly the equivalent of anything any race possesses today. Take my word for it, Russ — someone is going to find it, and use it. It might as well be us.”
“Given who created it, and what the last world was named for,” replied Tabor, “I think there’s every possibility that if someone finds it they’ll misuse it.”
“All the more reason why we must find it first,” said Shenoy.
Tabor decided not to point out the obvious.
“Okay,” said Shenoy after a moment’s silence, “what can we glean about Cornwallis IV?”
“It’s round and there’s a lot of neutrino activity.”
“Damn it, Russ!”
“Rupert,” said Tabor, “what can you tell about Earth when you’re observing it from halfway to Mars?”
“What kind of people live there?” persisted Shenoy. “Are they friendly or inimical? Humanoid or something else? If they’re not friendly, how do we plan to land and explore for traces of the Old Ones and their magic? Or are they the Old Ones?”
Tabor turned and stared at him. “I’ll answer your questions when you tell me which horse is going to win next year’s Kentucky Derby back on Earth.”
“What are you talking about?” demanded Shenoy. “I’ve never even seen a horse.”
“I’ve never seen what’s living on Cornwallis IV,” replied Tabor. “Fair is fair.”
“I assume this means you have no more idea what’s down there than I have about” — Shenoy made a face — “horses.”
Tabor smiled. “You’re as bright as they say.”
“Well, damn it, Russ, we have to know before we touch down!”
“No one’s touching down until they give us landing coordinates, and recite the usual rules and regulations, or at least feed them into the ship’s computer, and then we’ll know a little more about them.”
“Then what’s keeping us?” grumbled Shenoy.
“Calm down, Rupert.”
“I am calm!” yelled Shenoy. “But why are we going so slowly?”
“Because if an unknown ship approaches them at light speeds they’ll blow it out of the ether,” said Tabor. “Now relax. They’ll make contact with us in another ten or fifteen minutes.”
“All right,” said Shenoy. “I’m sorry if I got excited.”
“I know, I know. But I’m just so anxious to contact them and get permission to proceed with my work.”
“I hate to bring this up,” said Tabor, “but have you considered what you want to do if they refuse us permission to land, or let us land but won’t give us freedom of movement?”
Shenoy smiled. “I’ll offer them half.”
“Half of what?”
“That’s just it,” said Shenoy, looking exceptionally proud of himself. “They’ll assume we want diamonds or fissionable materials, something like that, and all I want are clues to the secrets of the Old Ones, which will probably look like the unsightly things they throw into their trash atomizers.”
“Do you know exactly what you’re looking for?” asked Tabor.
“I have some ideas about it.”
“If it’s something that you, who knows almost nothing about the Old Ones and their magic and artifacts, expect to spot on first seeing it, why do you think that whatever the hell lives there hasn’t found it a century or a millennium ago?”
“Seriously?” asked Shenoy.
“Because whatever is living there, we’ve never heard of or encountered them,” replied Shenoy with a triumphant smile. “And if they’d found it, then surely the whole damned galaxy would know.”
“Consider the flip side of that supposition,” suggested Tabor.
“I don’t follow you.”
“Maybe they haven’t found it because it wasn’t there.”
Shenoy shook his head. “They haven’t found it because they haven’t been to Cthulhu and don’t know what to look for.”
Tabor shrugged. “I hope you’re right.” He got to his feet and headed toward the galley. “I’m going to grab some coffee. You want any?”
“I’m too excited,” said Shenoy.
The excitement had worn off an hour later, when the ship finally received a signal from the planet.
“Oh, good!” said Shenoy.
“Nothing exceptional,” replied Tabor. “We’re finally close enough.”
“Well, talk to them!” urged Shenoy excitedly.
“The ship’s computer is talking to their computer,” answered Tabor. “Standard operating procedure.”
“The ship is telling them why we’re here?” demanded Shenoy with a worried frown.
Tabor shook his head. “Just getting landing coordinates, and local rules: types of currency, any diseases we need to know about, any wars or curfews, even a list of available hotels and prices. When it’s done we’ll take a look, see if there’s anything we have to take precautions against, arrange for a couple of rooms, and tell them why we’re here.”
“What if they object?”
“I thought I’d say we’re tourists,” replied Tabor. “It seems less controversial than saying we’re here to plunder their planet of its most valuable treasures, and perhaps also of the people those treasures originally belonged to.”
“Yes,” agreed Shenoy. “It does sound more reasonable.”
The ship’s computer informed them that it had assimilated all the data that had been transmitted and had been given landing coordinates next to a hangar that could accommodate alien spacecraft. It then gave them a list of accepted currencies and forbidden substances, as well as a readout of the local temperature, duration of planetary rotation, and a chemical breakdown of the atmosphere.
“Not bad,” said Shenoy, studying the atmosphere. “Better than we might have expected. No protective gear necessary.”
“There’s protective gear and then there’s protective gear,” replied Tabor, slipping his hand through a wristband that held a compass.
“I’ve got one of my own,” noted Shenoy.
“I doubt it,” said Tabor with a smile. “This one’s accurate up to two hundred meters. Accurate, and deadly.”
“A weapon?” said Shenoy, frowning.
“Well, they’re sure as hell not going to let a visitor walk around carrying a sidearm.”
Shenoy considered it briefly, then nodded his approval. “All right,” he said. “Now let’s talk to them.”
Tabor nodded, and activated the audio function.
“Hello, the planet,” he said.
There was no reply for almost a full minute. Then a hoarse baritone voice responded: “If you understand me, then our translator has accurately pinpointed your language, and we can converse in it, always allowing a few seconds for us to translate your statement and our reply.”
“We understand you perfectly,” Tabor assured the speaker.
“We thought you would. You are Humans, or at least of Human stock, are you not?”
“Yes, we are.”
“You are not the first of your race that we have encountered,” said the voice. “Welcome to Chuxthimazi, which I believe your race knows as Cornwallis.”
“Cornwallis IV, actually,” said Shenoy.
“As soon as you transfer the equivalent of thirty crugmos to the account I am supplying to your ship’s computer, you will be cleared to land.”
“Thank you,” said Tabor. “Have you a name?”
“Our race is the Paskapa. I am Pippibwali. I will sign off now.”
The radio went silent.
“You’re frowning,” noted Shenoy.
“I’ll give you ten-to-one that the first human to land here was a Finn,” said Tabor.
“Oh?” said Shenoy. “Why?”
“Because in Finnish, ‘paskapa’ means ‘shithead’.”
“That can’t be right,” insisted Shenoy, frowning.
The computer came briefly to life, and Tabor studied the screen before it went dark a few seconds later.
“You think not, eh?”
“What happened?” asked Shenoy suspiciously.
“We were just informed that thirty crugmos is the equivalent of nine thousand credits.”
“But that’s . . . that’s robbery!” exclaimed Shenoy.
Tabor grimaced. “Turns out they were pretty well-named after all.”
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