Gods of Sagittarius – Snippet 22
“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.”
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.