Gods of Sagittarius – Snippet 19
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.”