Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 3

            “In the belly of the whale…” Katy Olu wondered aloud, looking across the readouts from their shuttle’s external sensors.  “Oh, right, a whale is a large mammal…”

            She was interrupted by the other occupant of the shuttle.  “I am familiar with the Terran genus Balaenoptera,” NuRikPo interjected with patronizing reproach, “As well as the myths about being consumed by them.”
            “Shows what you know,” Katy shot back, not looking up from her study, “Seeing as how the Zig killed off their large sea life, you couldn’t be expected to understand our stories.  There were documented cases of Humans swallowed by whales.”
            “But this is not a whale, so your analogy is irrelevant.”  The Zig’s refusal to banter properly was only one of his qualities that irritated Katy.  His toxic anatomy was another.  With Human patients, you only had to worry about pathogens crossing over from contact with tissues or fluids.  With Zig, you had to get chelation treatments after prolonged contact, to flush out the heavy metals. 
Katy had heard stories about humans in sexual contact with Zig.  She wished she could consider them myths.  Contracting a sexually transmitted disease might be preferable to risking hair loss and nerve damage.  What could be so fascinating about the aliens to stimulate attraction in the face of such obvious incompatibility?  They were practically insects, emotionally speaking. 
The inaccuracy of this comparison made it especially annoying to the Zig, so of course, Katy made use of it.  “So get to work, bug eyes, and tell me what it is.”
NuRikPo took the demand literally and turned to his own bank of monitors, examining the same data stream as Katy but with a different focus and perspective. 
“The surroundings appear to be a composite of various metals, ceramics, and plastics.  Initial soundings and spectrographs suggest complex layering of materials.  Magnetic imaging is uncertain… radiography blocked… ah, hull material impervious to electromagnetic influences, obviously, but why on the inner surfaces?  Actual structure will need to wait for closer inspection.  There are gaps internally: joins between differing strata which can be exploited.  Yes… definitely a metallic frame superstructure beneath.”
Though motivated more by a competitive urge to avoid being outdone, Katy still fell into a complementary rhythm with her nemesis.  “No visible artifacts… no storage, controls, or labels in this chamber.  Strictly utilitarian.  Atmosphere is being introduced now: eight parts nitrogen to two oxygen… and that’s all, totally clean.  That’s better filtration than we manage.  No organics in the mix, at all.  If there’s any carbon out there, it’s bound tightly.  Nothing toxic.  Pressure is reaching 100 kilopascals… already high and climbing.”
Her analysis was interrupted by a signal indicating motion nearby.  Both researchers switched to the forward camera and saw what had triggered the alert.
“Look, another sphincter,” Katy summarized.
“As you already stated, this environment is non-organic.  Applying biological analogies is counter-productive…”
“It’s a general descriptive term, like calling you a person.”
While they sniped, the orifice in question continued to expand from a half-meter across to a diameter of nearly two meters.  It appeared in the opposite wall from the ‘mouth’ they had originally entered, opening in the far side of the ‘shuttle deck’.  The entire chamber was about three times the volume of the shuttle itself, with a manageable if not comfortable amount of clearance.  Before that opening appeared, the only illumination in the space had been the shuttle’s own spotlights.  Now, a steady but dim red-orange glow poured into the room from the revealed passage beyond.  It gave the dull, dark metallic grey substance of the walls a disturbingly bloody cast. 
The opening stopped expanding, but the motion detector still continued to blip.  A separate object of approximately half Human volume was steadily approaching through the adjacent passage.  The two observers continued to watch the forward view screen in anticipation.
What appeared was not immediately recognizable.  It appeared to be a reflective lump of matter, the same dark grey as the walls but polished to a mirror sheen.  The motile matter crawled like an energetic slug, rolling itself forward in peristaltic waves.  When it had passed the opening and entered the shuttle deck, it stopped.  The thing lifted itself upward into a rounded conical shape and extruded two blunt pseudopods, which waved in seemingly random circles around its upper mass. 
This motion was accompanied by sound.  Even without the acoustic pickups, they could feel resonances bouncing through the material of the shuttle.  NuRikPo belatedly switched on the audio sensors soon as they realized the thing was vibrating the atmosphere.  Their visitor was loud.  It was also projecting on very low frequencies carrying considerable kinetic energy. 
The sound, when damped and filtered to comfortable audible parameters, was still unpleasant and indecipherable.  It sounded like the thump and rumble of poorly tuned machinery.  Portions might have been pleasantly musical or almost rhythmic, if not interrupted by pops and grinding segments.  Spectrum analysis showed that there were more sub-audible than audible components to the sound, so they were still missing much of the signal even after displacing its frequencies upward. 
Katy identified the creature first, “It’s a Ningyo!  Or rather, an artificial Ningyo… with no suit.  In this atmosphere and pressure, a real Ning’ would burst.  That must be what their actual language sounds like.  Ha!  It thinks we’re related to its friends from the Black Humor.  No… that makes no sense, otherwise it would use their atmosphere settings instead.  They must have advised it what environment to set for us.  The temperature is even nice and warm.”
“If I might be allowed to theorize as well, the Ningyo may not have given this ship’s AI much data at all.  Our atmospheric preferences could be obtained by analysis of this shuttle: its technology and expelled traces.  We are not as impermeable as this ship.  I suspect the AI is basing its behavior on whatever information it can glean on its own.”
“If that’s the case, it’s learning more about us than we are about it.  It even has artificial gravity set to point-nine gee, same as this shuttle.  Our host is being just about as hospitable as possible without offering refreshments.”  Katy’s assessment carried an undertone of concern, which NuRikPo picked up.
“While we are limited to the range of our instruments.  Unless we accept its welcome, we will learn little about the rest of this ship.  It seems necessary to trust this ‘host’ for the present.  I suppose we’re no worse off out there than in here, should there be a threat.  Really, the time for prudence would have been before entering at all.” 
“Or before getting on board the Scape Grace,” Katy muttered, not sure if she meant the comment seriously or not.  She had voluntarily stepped into more dangerous situations, some with even less forewarning about the dangers she might expect.  But in those cases, she had generally been in comprehensible environments, working against sapients with familiar anatomy and psychology.  Even if a problem caught her off-guard, she could have confidence that her skill and instincts would find a way out. 
Here, dealing with a completely foreign culture in a ship built using unfamiliar technology, she faced a challenge of unknown dimensions.  When captain Lerner mentioned an alien ship, she had imagined a more familiar design, albeit with differing scale, aesthetics, and control schemes, probably labeled with strange writing.  From the outside, this ship might have been mistaken for any of a half-dozen freighter ship models used by the Collective. 
That was before they docked.  Since then, the foreign ship had been revealed as something quite different.  It was round where it should be squared, dark and cramped where there should be light and room.  The texture of the walls was, as NuRikPo had described it, “complex”, regularly patterned at any one location but shifting in pattern from surface to surface.  The mock Ningyo did nothing to relieve this sense of oddity.  Katy was disturbed, her senses just as offended as they had been at the unpleasant color of NuRikPo’s bowels or the fungus that dulled their Vislin gunner Tklth’s scales.   It was wrong.  This wasn’t even a proper spaceship. 
Just then, Katy realized why the “ghost ship” bothered her the same way alien anatomy did.  They were within the anatomy of an organism.  It might not have any organic compounds, but the curve of the ‘shuttle bay’ and the texture of its walls very much suggested a cellular structure.  The appearance of the outer and inner orifices was not some artifact of alien design but the necessary movement pattern of a biological structure. 
“’Po… my first thought wasn’t far off.  We are inside an organism.”
“No, there are no organics.  So far, I’m not even seeing silicate analogs.  I’m familiar with the Corromi, if you’re thinking in that direction.”  NuRikPo’s response was dismissive, his voice conveying Zig irritation by treating Katy’s hypothesis as already falsified.  His reference to the Corromi, the first silicon-based sapient life form known to the Collective, was a deliberate insult.  Any first-year xenobiology student would be familiar with such a unique exception to the carbon-based norm.
“Not organic, organism.  As in, a self-contained living system.  A system with cells… and probably organs.”
Now NuRikPo replied with interest, meaning challenge: “On what do you base this assertion?”
“The texture you’re picking up, the layering, the shape of this room, the shape and movement of those openings… I’d know more, immediately, if we could get a sample of that floor material.”
“Unfortunately, with this gravity, the shuttle isn’t oriented properly to employ a cutting tool strong enough to damage this material.  We’ll have to step outside to get your… biopsy.”
“Okay, then, let’s go meet the welcome slug.  I’ll just keep hoping my analogy isn’t perfect.  If this thing starts to chew or swallow, we’re in trouble.”

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