Should I even be surprised that some people named their daughters "Sanjirmil" in the late 1970s?
Chapter 3, 48: A Familiar Voice
“Hi, Uncle Henry,” Charlotte said.
A silence. Tellus nickered. Charlotte glared at Eve. Finally, reluctantly, “Hi, Mr. Wong.”
“Good to hear from you, Eve. Sorry to hear about your Father.”
“Thanks, sir.” Eve didn’t sound that grateful.
“Is that the Lion Stallion I hear?”
“No, Uncle Henry. It’s his son, Tellus.”
“Hmm. Unfortunate. But your Auntie did think that might happen. No accounting for time travel, I suppose. Charlotte, would you object to running an AI instance of an avatar of me on your phone?”
“I didn’t,” Charlotte started to say that she had no idea that was even possible, but changed her mind halfway through. After all, Rosa could run as an AI, so the app was out there where Uncle Henry could get at it.
So, instead, she said, “Okay.” A permission box popped up on her phone. She pushed it.
“Okay,” Uncle Henry’s voice said through the phone. “Unfortunately, there’s a limit to the amount of room I have in here. No visual recognition, for example. Where are you girls?”
“In some stupid old Eldar spaceship,” Rose said.
“Please, girls. I remember President Kennedy. Videogame references are wasted on me.”
Charlotte sighed. Adults could be so ignorant. “Warhammer isn’t a videogame, Uncle Henry.”
“Sometimes it is,” Eve explained, in a helpful tone that made Charlotte even more exasperated. Why was she stuck fighting with Eve now instead of her BFFs?
That’s probably why she sounded snappish when she said, “Dark Eldar Craft Worlds aren’t in Warhammer Online. Duh.”
“Okay,” Charlotte said. “We’re a big, spherical spaceship that’s flying in hyperspace inside a mountain on some planet in the back of beyond called Landing. It was made by Drindrish elves. You know, the weird, decadent ones who lived in Tasmania back in 50,00BC, and then disappeared? Apparently, they took this ship to Landing, terraformed it, and then ditched their ride, leaving the normal elves behind. So the ship looks like it was made by weird, decadent elves and then abandoned 50,000 years ago.”
“Hunh. Hum. If I had a goatee, I’d be stroking it right now. Think I’ll suggest that for the next upgrade. So, to take things in order: You’re in hyperspace, so you’re hooped for help. You’re in danger. I’ve met had some dealings with the Drindrish—“
“When?” Charlotte couldn’t help herself. She had to interrupt.
“Long story. They didn’t strike me as having a spaceship hidden away, but they did talk about leaving Earth, so …maybe. One thing’s for sure, they didn’t terraform this planet you’re on, not if it’s halfway livable. That’s not something you do in only 50,000 years. Finish the job, though, that I can see. The question now is, what’s the nature of your problem? Getting back out of hyperspace?”
“No, Uncle Henry. Sovereign’s in here with us, and he’s trying to hijack the spaceship.”
“Sovereign.” It might only be an app, but Uncle Henry’s sounded angry and cold. “Smart guy, but the kind of smart that’s not really very shrewd. Better at running a masterplan than a con. When I fought him, he was being conned. Any reason to think he’s being conned now?”
Something wasn’t right, here, Charlotte thought. Uncle Henry sounded really tense. Heck, so was Charlotte. She glanced over at Eve, who looked back at her, innocently. “No.”
“That wasn’t a very convincing ‘no,’” Eve pointed out. “Relax. If I were going to backstab you, you’d be backstabbed by now.”
Ooh-kay, Charlotte thought. All better now that we’ve kissed and made up!
“That’s settled, then,” Uncle Henry’s simulation said, not particularly caring to sound as though he believed it. “So Sovereign wants to hijack this spaceship that’s been flying in hyperspace inside a planet. Who’s flying it?”
Charlotte shrugged before remembering the part about no visual recognition. “I dunno? Autopilot? We think he needs a pilot, and that the pilot’s got some ‘Chosen One’ thing going on.”
“Beg pardon?” Her phone said.
Eve snorted. “You know, only ONE man is fated to be born to be trained to just accidentally run across the thingamajig to okely-dokely the whatsamajob.”
“All right, then. Charlotte?”
“The Drindrish programmed the ship to only respond to another Drindrish, or, at least, elf. Sovereign’s got him.”
“Implying that there are Elves on Landing? This I am glad to know. I would suggest moving that little fact up a few ranks the next time you give this briefing.”
“Is it important?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“Is this like the ending to Game of Thrones?”
“I’ll tell you that, too, when you’re older. Or you can just read the books.”
Which Charlotte had, of course. But she didn’t say it, because that would ruin the joke.
“Getting bored here,” Eve pointed out.
“Oh, dear. Can’t have that.” So AIs running on phones could be sarcastic, Charlotte thought. Good to know. “Get to the control room, grab Sovereign’s pet pilot, negotiate with him, get off this stupid spaceship. I don’t want Sovereign to have it, but I want you two alive a lot more than I want Sovereign to not have that stupid spaceship.”
Charlotte mounted up, and the girls headed back into the corridors. Eve was careful to match her pace with Tellus this time, as they set out down the corridor. One, two, three, Charlotte thought. And . . .
A crystalline ping sounded in her ear. “This phone has a nice new app for a narrow beam bone transduction,” her Uncle’s voice explained. “Char-Char? Can you hear me?.”
Charlotte started to nod before remembering, one, no visual processor, two, Eve. Instead she quickly pecked out a “yes” and a “no” and flicked them over to storage. One little shake, and her pone answered for her. “Yes.”
Her Uncle’s voice continued. “Ah, good. Is there any sign of Fang? I mean, apart from the whole setup with this weird little clone-breeder world.”
Charlotte shook. ‘Yes.’
She could feel her mouth forming into a hard pout, and her hand stubbornly refused to move the phone. There was something wrong about Eve. She just knew it. There was no way her Dad’s fingerprints could be all over Landing, and Eve not involved in it.
‘No,’ she shook.
“No need to apologise, Char-Char. But there’s an upside to that. Sovereign is far too tough for you girls. Probably too tough for me, the last time we fought. But . . . his ally played him for a sucker, and I never had to fight him.”
The long pause told Charlotte everything she needed to know. That was the fight where her Dad conned Sovereign, and then got off himself. The fight where Auntie Ma killed her Dad. But he got better, she reminded herself. Or was she trying to make excuses for Auntie Ma?
”Sovereign’s a type, the master planner who is always sitting around in his control room whining about how the human factor gets in the way of his equations. So is Fang. He’s the opportunist. Takes his chances and then spins his plans around it. ‘I meant to do that.’ And he’s a con man. There’ll be a double cross. You be ready for it, if you have to be, Char-Char. In the mean time, have you considered that Tellus might be able to get you out?”
Charlotte blinked. ‘Yes.’ But that wasn’t the point.
“Well, it’s your call, Charlotte. Now, I can’t tell you when or how Fang and Eve will make their play on Sovereign, if they do. But I am going to suggest that you trust Tellus. Horse have good instincts about people.”
As if hearing his voice, Tellus laid down his ears, then threw himself into a T-intersection in the long corridor. They flashed past a mural of a gigantic, naked Drindrish warrior cutting the throats of Human warriors with a curved, serrated blade, almost like a buzz-saw, attached to the back of his wrist. The men were kneeling, all dressed silly, footed pyjamas illustrated with Aborigine-looking but still recognisably childish cartoon animals. They were chained by nose rings, and the ones already killed were painted in disturbing detail, with the chains lying coiled in pools of blood on the red, Old Australian dirt. An odd, gray light suffused the mural.
Drindrish, Charlotte thought, were weird. Crazy weird. And now that she could see ahead of her, she saw that the very familiar gray was not coming from the mural. It was spilling out of a massive portal, once closed by a door of beaten, golden metal. Maybe gold? Drindrish, see also.
“That’s the control room!” Eve gasped.
Ah, Charlotte thought. Hyperspace showing in the control room. Probably not good.
She pulled up on Tellus’s reins as they rode through the door. What did a control room look like? Well, a Drindrish control room, which probably explained why the big raised piece of furniture in the centre of the room that would have been the captain’s chair on some Star Trek spin-off was a four-poster canopy bed, instead. Beyond, on the far wall, facing the bed, was a big screen, under which was a semi-circular bank of swivel chairs with working spaces like an old-fashioned writing desk. The screen, which wrapped around half the wall, was showing a bizarre video of a multicoloured fog which irregular, blotchy cells that changed according to some unguessable pattern.
On the other side was a rail, convenient so that people sitting in the swivel chairs could lean on it and look down at what might or might not be an operations pit. The rail, high and thin, continued completely around the pit. It was not enough to obscure the pit, but it did not need to, because you couldn’t tell what was going on it. The grey fog of light obscured even as it illuminated.
“Ah,” came a booming voice. “Here is our little youth gang, now.”
Charlotte looked up. Sovereign hovered in mid-air. Rose and Brian hovered beside him, flat and prone, as though they were lying on invisible tables. Same old telekinetic schtick, Charlotte thought. The Pearl Harmony Sword still stood out from his shoulder. Little beads of red blood oozed down the surface of his armour
Charlotte looked into his face, looking for strain in the face of the immortal, psychic, human-like but incredibly condescending alien. Oh, Hell, she thought, let’s face it. Looking for strain the stupid Space High Elf’s face. He was even as pretty as Orlando Bloom. And, yes, there was strain.
Good. Something was going right.
“You see that we have a problem, here. The ship’s pilot is supposed to be down in that pit, running the ship, brain naked to hyperspace. Oh, the things such a pilot must learn about the universe in that moment. If they happen not to be susceptible to the effects of hyperspace. I’ve experimented with a few of my followers, you know. They are quite loyal, and, in my defence, I do give them the best quality of life possible in their present condition.”
Sovereign smirked. “But you humans are such a versatile young species. Who can say what is or is not impossible for you? And I do so need a pilot if I am to use this wonderful ship in my plans.”
Again, he paused. “I know! I shall experiment! The smart one, first.” He gestured, and Rose flew through the air towards the pit.
Under her thighs, Tellus started, just as he had done when he saw that fire.
“Charlotte jumped to her feet in the saddle, and then throwing herself in the air. This was a tricky one, she thought, aiming carefully so that her jump would intercept Rose’s trajectory at just the right spot.
It was too late, though, because in the moment it took Charlotte to get to her feet, Eve had moved first. Before Charlotte’s eyes, Eve caromed off Rose in mid-air. Rose’s unconscious body flew backwards through the air.
Eve, screaming at the top of her lungs, flew backwards into the grey. As soon as her body touched the veil of shining fog, it was as though it sucked her in.
And then spat her out. A hollow, boneless thump accompanied Eve’s collapse onto the floor of the control room. Charlotte could tell, even flying, helpless, committed, through the air, that Eve was unconscious. Uh oh.