“Am, this is Mei.” Sangat gestured to a Tkin Ishtari as they strapped themselves into Midori’s ship. “Mei, this is my sister Amanpreet.”
Mei paused and looked over at them. Several leaflike fronds rose briefly from its skin in a greeting and it tapped on the controls to its synthesizer with its feeding arms. “I am honoured to meet you, Captain Amanpreet.”
“And I you.” Amanpreet flipped her hair up gently with her fingers in the general Damkinan method of emulating the Tkin greeting.
Mei made a rattling sound that was a Tkin laugh. “Oh, you Damkinans. Why do you do that? It really looks silly, you know. A nod of acknowledgement will do fine.”
Amanpreet tilted her head. She’d rarely known one of the Tkin be so blunt.
“I told you Mei hadn’t been itself since it touched the rune,” Sangat said.
Mei rattled again. â€œAm I being blunt again? If that is an effect of the Rune, I wonder what it says about these people?â€ It turned back to tying itself to the webbing on the wall as the engine fired up.
“It is quite beautiful,” Midori said as they descended the ramp into the underground city. “They could have communicated what they wanted without beauty. I wonder that says about them and their culture?”
“I don’t know,” Amanpreet said. “But there’s a grace to this that I can’t help seeing as positive.”
“That could be part of the mental aura this place seems to broadcast,” Sangat said. “Caution is still in order.”
“I know,” Amanpreet said. “But somehow I don’t feel cautious. Maybe it’s a lingering effect of what happened to me.” She watched the lights reflecting off the carvings in the walls. “I wish I knew what this is for.”
“It’s a defence.”
Amanpreet looked over at Mei in surprise. It hadn’t spoken since they landed and she could see its usually green skin was taking on a greyish-brown hue which indicated depression in the Tkin.
“A defence?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
“This place is making me sad,” Mei replied. â€œSo many died here. And yes, I can feel it’s a defence. The rune, too. If we had been hostile it would have frightened us away. Let’s get on and look at this book. I don’t want to stay here longer than needed.â€
â€œAm.â€ Sangat was eying Mei thoughtfully. â€œAre you getting anything like that?â€
Amanpreet closed her eyes and considered but she couldn’t feel anything like Mei was describing. â€œNo, but if the Rune is partly defensive it would have an ongoing effect, wouldn’t it. I just tripped a message.â€
â€œI see.â€ He still looked thoughtful. â€œLet’s get on then.â€
The lighting in what Amanpreet found herself thinking of as the book chamber seemed dimmer than last time, but as they made their way across the chamber it brightened in places in a such a way that dramatic shadows twisted around them. Amanpreet stopped and put her hands on her hips. It was clearly deliberate.
â€œWhat the heck is with the dramatic lighting?â€ she said. â€œIf they keep this up, Niobe will be talking about horror movies again.â€ As she said ‘horror movies’ the lights went out completely before slowly coming back up. There was a moment of silence, then Amanpreet started giggling and was soon joined by both the other humans and various aliens.
â€œIt would appear they have a sense of humour,â€ Umi said. â€œAnd they somehow programmed their computer system with it.â€
â€œAnd it understands us,â€ Midori said. â€œThat means we should be able to get past the math problem. But how does it understand us?â€
â€œBecause of Am,â€ Sangat surmised. â€œIt must have read her while she was having that vision.â€
â€œAre you trying to tell us you understand us now?â€ Amanpreet asked. The lights in the room flashed. â€œI guess that’s a yes. It must have taken it a while to analyse the information it got from me.â€ The lights flashed again and she chuckled. â€œThat wasn’t a question.â€ She looked back at the book. â€œOkay, let’s looks at the book.â€
She walked over to the alcove and opened it cautiously. She didn’t realise she’d been tensed for something to happen until she felt herself relax when nothing did. The pages appeared to be made of paper thin leaves of golden metal with shining silver writing in a rune-like text. It was a lovely thing but she couldn’t read it at all. After a moment she sighed and shook her head before stepping aside to let Mei look at it.
There was a long silence as the Tkin turned the first few pages. â€œYes,â€ it said finally. â€œI can read this. But it will take a while. Can we take it back to the station?â€
The lights flashed an affirmative again and a lovely smell like chocolate pudding filled the chamber.
â€œI think that’s a yes.â€ Sangat sniffed the air. â€œThat smells just like mother’s chole, doesn’t it.â€
â€œHuh?â€ Amanpreet shook her head. â€œI smell chocolate pudding like they used to serve at school.â€
â€œI smell my favourite perfume,â€ Midori said.
â€œThe smell?â€ one of the other scientists said. â€œThat reminds me of fish and chips. I really miss fish and chips.â€
â€œSo we all smell our favourite smell?â€ Sangat looked thoughtful. â€œHow does that work?â€ He looked at the Mez and Ishtari but they all agreed that inside their enviroment suits they couldn’t smell anything.
â€œInteresting,â€ Sangat said again. â€œIt’s clearly a psychic impression rather than an actual smell but it respects environment suits.â€
â€œBut not breathing masks,â€ Midori said. â€œThese people were strange. Let’s get the book back to station and see if we can learn something.â€