Monday, May 26, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 7

            Matters on the unnamed ship had gone from strange to stranger.  After sealing themselves into cleansuits, Katy Olu and NuRikPo reluctantly opened their shuttle’s door and hesitantly stepped out onto the decking surface beyond.  The material felt exactly like the synthetic rubber of the Scape Grace’s floors: slightly spongy and yielding, with enough grip for safe traction.  It looked entirely different, though.  The floor was a shiny, scaly dark grey, shaded red by the light cast from the recently opened hallway ahead. 

            In that hallway, the amoebic ‘greeter’ still waited, waving two thick pseudopods in the direction of its disembarking guests.  It had ceased its basso profundo howling upon their appearance and now seemed to be listening for their response. 
            Instead, Katy ignored the entity, choosing to start her studies as immediately as possible.  Opening one of her tool cases, she withdrew a shaped diamond scalpel and a sample dish.  Kneeling to the floor, she scraped at the squamous surface.  As she had suspected, it peeled off in layers, giving her a patch of connected ‘cells’ to extract.  Placing these in the sample dish, she bent back to examine the underlying stratum.
            That layer looked much the same, albeit constructed of larger units.  As Katy sliced, she discovered that it was thicker, as well.  The color was comparable, as were the shape and alignment of the cells.  Katy removed a patch about two centimeters square and equally deep and stored this as well. 
            What lay underneath gave her pause.  The formerly even composition of the upper layers was replaced by a more diverse structure in the third.  A gleaming metallic band crossed one seam between segments.  Some of those segments were as large as they had been in the second layer, but others were so small as to be difficult to individuate with the naked eye.
            Katy’s eye was hardly naked for long.  She went back to her case and retrieved a handheld magnifier.  As she had suspected, under increased magnification even the seemingly solid interstitial substance was a complex composite of multiple unit types.  She no longer hesitated calling the structures ‘cells’, despite their metallic color and unclear functions. 
The ‘decking’ was a familiar hexagonal solid, the default three-dimensional tiling for maximum use of space with maximum structural stability.  Its units seemed to be solid, though Katy would wager that their actual structure was itself a composite of metallic alloys and non-organic polymers. 
By comparison, the third layer – Katy could not help thinking of it as the hypodermis, in contrast to the upper epidermis and middle dermis – contained not only the larger uniform ‘skin cells’ but also smaller, internally complex units like miniature encased machinery.  There was the silvery ‘thread’, which proved itself to be a cable of shorter units, linked and twined.  There were also motile units… nearly invisible even under optical magnification and spotted only by their movement. 
On an unsettling surge of intuition, Katy exchanged her eyepiece for an electron camera.  The portable device could generate nanometer-scale magnified video for a short period of time or take multiple static images before its batteries were exhausted.  Snapping a few pictures around the area of motion, Katy confirmed her fears.  The motiles she could see were only the largest of the various active elements within the ship’s structure.  Like an excavated anthill, her incision had brought a swarm of micro-robots to the site, ranging from a few nanometers across at the smallest, to more complex structures of several micrometers.  The static images could not quite confirm their activity, but Katy suspected they were probably effecting repairs.
While she prodded and observed, NuRikPo busied himself by pacing the circumference of their enclosing space and comparing radiation measurements.  He was frustrated by their continued inability to send or receive signals from the Black Humor, not to mention to scan more deeply into the ship.  He was at least able to see and sense through the ruddy-lit hallway, but refrained from stepping past the waving obstacle at its mouth. 
If anything, that ‘greeter’ seemed to have grown larger, expanding primarily in height.  NuRikPo watched it from a distance, wondering if the perceived increase was only his own subjective interpretation of a redistribution of the entity’s volume, if the entity was in fact gaining volume by reducing density, or even just expanding its surface outward but leaving a hollow core.  In fact, none of the above was true.  If the two researchers had been comparing notes rather than working individually, NuRikPo would have learned that Katy already had the answer to his puzzle.
Katy’s suspicions were confirmed at the macro level.  A scaffolding gradually became visible extending from the cut edges of the medial layer.  As she watched, wire-thin structures formed and were expanded steadily, outlining the edges of new hexagonal shells.  Tiny rivulets of ultrafine powdered substances flowed from beneath the exposed lowest layer, like the oozing of carbon or silicate lubricant from a micro-motor’s axle.  This became raw material for the nanomachines to ‘weld’ into place along those scaffolds.  Within about a minute, nearly half of the excised area had been rebuilt. 
The movement of the orifice doors was now completely non-mysterious.  A sequence of electrical charges guided through this type of complex layered material could act just like a muscular contraction.  Despite her characteristic revulsion, Katy was also in awe.  Without resorting to the messy, irregular methods of organic life, someone had designed an artificial system that borrowed most of its useful engineering ideas. 
With this revelation came two other new thoughts.  The first was curious: with this type of structure, the ship was clearly something other than a vehicle with an intelligence stored onboard like cargo.  It might well be the embodiment of a mind.  If so, it was the reverse of a Terran Artificial Intelligence and more akin to a physical intelligent organism… despite its obviously artificial construction.  Its existence could stamp across categories already fraying at the edges thanks to Tesetsi genetic engineering and Mauraug cybernetics.
The second thought was immediately troubling: organisms not only had repair systems, they had immune systems.  The thing in the doorway… was it a welcoming committee or a T-cell, checking if they passed as safe?  For that matter, were all of those micro-motiles construction units?  Or were some of them designed to seek out whatever damaged the ship and deal with that threat? 
With a reaction not unlike a person noticing insects on the floor, Katy leapt back and shook her feet off one by one.  NuRikPo noticed her sudden motion and turned to stare at her in confusion. 
Nanobots,” she shouted. 
That was all the explanation that was required.  Zig had been playing with micromachinery millennia before Humanity, and a Zig engineer understood all too well the potential power and hazards associated with such subtle technology.  NuRikPo managed admirable calm as he opened Katy’s other toolcase and rummaged through its contents.  Finding an acceptable electrical charge cell, he pulled the wiring out of a lamp and quickly jury-rigged a simple arc generator. 
NuRikPo then began to run this current over his suited feet.  He was both gratified and horrified to see the glittering sparks and falling ash that confirmed the simultaneous destruction of multiple miniature devices. 
“It’s too late.  We’ll have to stay in the suits until we can run a full decontamination,” he groused.  “Worse, we can’t go back in the shuttle.  It can monitor itself and keep the inner compartment sealed against particulates, but not if we open the door and let them in ourselves.”
“Oh, it’s worse than that,” Katy groaned.  She had run her electron camera on full video mode over her own feet.  Telltale gaps in the tough plastic confirmed her worst fears. “They can… and have… breached the suits.  We’re compromised.” 
She took a certain measure of satisfaction from seeing the growing alarm on NuRikPo’s face.  Upsetting the uptight Zig took some of the sting out of delivering news that was as much her problem as his. 
Perhaps to rob her of that small joy, NuRikPo quickly reasserted his composure.  “Well, then, I suppose we’d better hope they don’t interact with organic matter, or if they do, that their intentions are benign.”
“The hell you say.  The first sign I see of tissue damage, I’m returning the favor with a bottle of nitric acid.  It hurts my body, I’m hurting its.”
It was a sign of distress and engagement that NuRikPo missed the opportunity to point out just how stupid that idea actually was.  Instead, he asked: “Your organismic theory was supported?”
“Organismic?  That word ought to be reserved for something better.  Yes, it is most definitely cellular… multicellular, not to mention differentiated.  I think the microbes are just part of the overall system.  I’m more concerned at being labeled an infection, myself, than about these things infecting me.  I mean, they could do some harm over time, but the ship itself could easily expel us or create fatal environmental effects… you know, like a body does to a bacterium.”
“We were permitted entry, so why would the ship want to harm us now?”  NuRikPo sounded like he was trying to reassure both Katy and himself. 
“Same reason we unknowingly consume and then slaughter thousands of bacteria per day… a living thing has to eat.  We don’t want a salmonella bacillus in our guts, but if it hitches a ride inside a cutlet, that’s what acid, immune cells, probiotic symbiotes, and in the worst case…”
“I follow your analogy, no need for scatological detail.  I did pass elementary physiology courses, whereas your inorganic study seems sadly lacking.  However analogous this structure may be to a body, it has to operate along the physical constraints of its materials.  There are limitations we can exploit both to defend ourselves and manipulate this environment.  For one thing, the best counter against hostile nanomachinery is friendly nanomachinery.  We may not be able to invade and overthrow this ship at our own scale, but perhaps an army of our construction… well, my construction… can manage that invasion.”
“How are you going to build that many bugs in time to do any good?  For that matter, you’d need all our tools plus what’s in the shuttle.”  Katy narrowed her eyes as she considered her own words.  “Oh, no.  You’re going to gamble the shuttle.”
“It seems necessary.  After all, we agree it is too late to stop their infestation.  Too late for one solution may be time for a different one.  Would you rather take your chances with the benevolent intent of this unique vessel?”
“No.  Get to work, then.”
NuRikPo wasted no more words, but only crossed to the shuttle’s entrance.  As he looked up to key in the door code, he noticed that the dark silvery figure standing at the door orifice was distinctly waving at him; waving two definitely articulated arms now, with the beginnings of clearly differentiated digits.  It also had a torso, and a head, and a separate thoracic section which was beginning to divide, embryo-like, from a solid blob into two distinct limbs.  It was becoming ‘Humanoid’ in shape.  Given the viewer’s preference of perspective, ‘Zig-oid’ might be more apt. 
“Katy…,” NuRikPo spoke hesitantly, pointing toward the gesturing entity.  Katy Olu turned her head, taking in the changed creature.  That being cocked its own head, ‘facing’ Katy as well.  As she watched, it gained three depressions and one extrusion in the formerly smooth convexity of its upper formation.  As the lower concavity deepened, it began to flex, oscillating in gestures familiar with anyone having observed an infant. 
“No wonder it got along so well with the Ningyo,” Katy declared as they watched the thing further refine its design. “They both try to pretend to be people and both look creepy doing it.”

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 6

           Tklth watched Luuboh pass by beneath her, identifying the Mauraug by its distinctive height and gait.  The next head to pass was also black and white, but still clearly a hard, shiny Ningyo ‘skull’.  This Ningyo was followed by the more familiar white shapes of two more. 

Tklth held herself tightly pressed against the walls of the overhead crawlspace.  Her shape was obscured by a ventilator grating, which provided just enough visibility to observe the hallway below.  Her legs ached terribly.  Her toe-claws threatened to pull loose from their beds.  Only the determination and patience of her predatory heritage enabled the waiting Vislin to silently maintain her position.  This task was made more difficult by the need to keep one hand on the plasma thrower she had retrieved on her way from the bridge. 
            It was almost time to act.  Against a single target, possibly even two, her plan had a very high probability of success.  Three Ningyo of unknown skill and armament posed a challenge.  The cramped conditions worked in her favor.  If she attacked from the rear of their formation, the lead Ningyo would be blocked from responding right away.  Luuboh would probably flee.  That would at least provide a distraction.  If the pathetic Mauraug took unexpected initiative and engaged the lead Ningyo, its assistance would greatly improve Tklth’s chances.  She couldn’t count on help, though.  Only her own cunning and reflexes could be trusted.  
            Planning was stupid.  The captain and first mate and that chattering half computer atrocity could talk all day and accomplish nothing.  They needed the sharp beak of a Vislin to cut through tangled plots.  The occupying Ningyo must be removed, otherwise every step they dictated would wrap the Scape Grace tighter into their snare. 
            The necessary moment of tension passed, and Tklth leapt into action with a surge of joyous relief.  She fired directly through the vent cover, targeting the rearmost of the Ningyo.  A bolt of superheated matter, plasma conducted by a carrier of ‘cooler’ gas, flashed from the muzzle of her thrower and through the Ningyo’s suit.  Familiar with the vulnerability of that species, Tklth had targeted the suit’s midsection.  The bolt punched a clean, glowing hole through the center mass of the Ningyo suit, breaking its integrity.  The living creature resident within was explosively decompressed.  It expanded grotesquely through the breach before bursting in a multi-toned greyish mess over the walls and floor of the hallway. 
            Tklth did not wait to see the reaction to her fatal shot.  She released her grip on the crawlspace walls and dropped heavily downward, bending and breaking through the vent grating as she fell.  She landed hard on the floor of the hallway.  The well-prepared Vislin was already running forward as she hit the ground.  She cleared the short space to the next Ningyo in two hops. 
As she did, she registered the identity of her second target.  It was the Ningyo captain, Jolly, the one they had seen on the view screen earlier.  Perfect.  Perhaps the last of the three boarders would hesitate or even surrender if she took their leader hostage.  Tklth also noted that, as she had expected, Luuboh was running away from danger.  That was just as well.  If the Mauraug could not help, it could at least get out of harm’s way.  Tklth would normally have no concern about accidentally incinerating her pack’s omega, but the captain might be unhappy to lose his cook.
The plasma thrower’s greatest flaw was the recharge time it required to heat up between shots.  That was a tradeoff for its excellent penetrative force.  Really, in a ranged combat, two seconds’ wait was well worth being able to fire through cover.  Here, though, it meant that Tklth had to get cover for herself before she could fire a second time.  There were no openings to either side.  That meant her cover was her target.
Tklth jumped and grappled Jolly, hooking one fore claw into its neck joint and the other into the wrist of its right arm.  The plasma thrower was trapped between them, hanging from a strap around Tklth’s neck.  Her toes anchored her to the rubberized decking.  The material was slick with the remains of the dead Ningyo but was engineered to provide grip even if coated in silicone lubricants.  The Ningyo were comprised of similar substances, though somewhat more volatile.  Tklth’s bare feet itched where the ichor had smeared.
Her pin prevented Jolly from reaching the weapon strapped to its back.  It was also prevented from turning in place to present Tklth as a clearer target for its ally.  It struggled, but the mechanisms of the Ningyo suits were built for Human scale and strength.  Against a well-trained and well-exercised Vislin, such constructs were unable to break free.  This particular victim didn’t even seem combat trained.  It writhed ineffectually, wasting time and effort by pushing in directions Tklth was already resisting.  It did not even try the most basic techniques for evading a claw hold… not that those would succeed, either.  Tklth was ready to react to most evasive strategies. 
The main problem was that she had to keep holding the Ningyo or release it to fire again.  Against a less armored victim, Tklth would have just kicked out its entrails and moved on to shoot the third target.  Ningyo were entirely unsatisfying to claw or bite: not only hard-shelled but unpalatable inside.  Those fluids were really starting to sting her feet now.  She would have to wash down thoroughly after this slaughter.
In reaction to Tklth’s appearance, the black-masked Ningyo had originally drawn its gun.  Now, unable to fire without hitting its fellow, it smoothly holstered that weapon and drew its baton.  Depressing a stud set into the device’s handle, the Ningyo caused the black cylinder to hum loudly.  The air around its upper portion began to shimmer and arcs of electrical discharge ran its length.
A stun baton of some type.  That was clever.  Tklth recognized that the device would wreak havoc on the nervous systems of most organic life.  Whether it would affect a Ningyo inside its suit was an open question.  She could withstand one or two blows from such a weapon but would weaken greatly with each hit.  There were two questions: would this Ningyo get a chance to land any such attacks?  And if it did, would the stun baton harm another Ningyo as much as a Vislin?
Tklth decided to test both hanging questions.  Planting her rear foot, she shoved hard against the captive Jolly, sending them both flying toward the armed Ningyo.  That target stepped backward, belatedly, and was clipped by its leader’s body.  Unfortunately for Tklth, it proved to be a far more skilled warrior than Jolly.  It kept the stun baton raised and away, avoiding collision with the other Ningyo.  Then, letting both Jolly and Tklth fall flat, it took advantage of the opening to strike down against the Vislin’s back.
Tklth was hit squarely at the base of her spine, at the junction of her tail.  The pain was unbelievable.  Her bowels and ovipositors clenched in spasmodic agony and her tail lashed hard enough to tear its joining ligaments.  Her fingers flexed and claws released the suit of the Ningyo beneath her.  Even her beak clacked spasmodically and her breath came in tortured gasps. 
Tklth summoned enough composure to roll away from the horrible baton.  She came to her feet, weak and shaking, on the opposite side of the hall, diagonally across from her attacker.  The prone body of Jolly lay on its back between them.  Wary now, Tklth circled around, reaching for her own weapon.  The Ningyo gave her little time to aim.  It jumped forward, swinging the baton in a diagonal arc toward Tklth’s forearms, forcing her to pull away.  The blow missed but prevented her from lining up a shot. 
The same was not true for Jolly.  On its back, the Ningyo captain had gained all the time it needed to recover, retrieve its spatial fold projector and aim at Tklth.  When she jumped back, Jolly gained enough space to fire safely and avoid catching its own ally in the field. 
With a warbling shriek, the field was engaged.  A spherical region centered slightly behind Tklth turned chaotic, swirling in a moirĂ© pattern of darkness and light.  Vacuum and pressure warred with one another as multiple volumes of space were relocated to other positions within the same field.  Along with them traveled their occupying matter.  This happened to include sections of Tklth’s back, tail, and rear leg.  Chunks of Vislin dropped to the floor several centimeters behind their previous positions.  Their formerly attached organism lost its support, not only from the loss of two appendages but also from having the lower section of its spinal cord removed. 
Tklth fell to the ground, screaming in horrified anguish.  Her vision blurred as her perceptions narrowed to the sole awareness of burning, stinging, wracking pain from her back.  She was at least spared the additional torment of her lost tail and leg, as she could feel nothing from below her tail juncture. 
Faintly, she heard Jolly’s voice as shock set in.  “Hold.  The threat is gone.  No need for more suffering.”  Then blood loss completed the process and sent Tklth into painless unconsciousness.

****************************************************************************************

            On the bridge, the first indication of any problem was a hazard alarm lighting up on Soloth’s panel: high heat and smoke detected.  The actual sound of Tklth’s weapon discharge had been muffled by many layers of vibration-dampening material.  Her initial shot had barely registered on their ears, no louder than a buckle scraping against a bulkhead in the same room.
Luuboh’s voice came unexpectedly over the bridge comms.  Indicators showed that it was sending over the emergency line from the shuttle deck. 
            “Problem in mid-engineering.  Tklth attacked the Ningyo.”
            The air in the bridge colored with a palette of curses as Evgeny, Soloth, and Gleamer reacted similarly to the news in their respective native tongues.  Evgeny rose from his command console immediately but had to wait for Soloth to storm past toward the door. 
            “Hold the bridge,” Soloth insisted, holding a hand up to stay Evgeny’s movement.  “If the Ningyo come seeking reprisal, you will need to lock them out of ship functions from here.”
            It was sound advice, though it sounded more like orders.  Evgeny grimaced but nodded in agreement.  “Go.  If they’re on the move, collect crew to help you hold the line.  If they’re stationary, hold off anyone who might go charging in and make things worse.”  His own orders sounded like simple statements of common sense.  Leadership lately seemed more and more like choosing the least stupid options out of a range of bad choices.
            As Soloth exited, the open door admitted sound transferred through atmosphere.  The distant shriek of the Ningyo weapon discharge confirmed that a firefight was taking place.
            Gleamer had not even bothered to rise.  Instead, he had turned back to his instruments.  A schematic of the Scape Grace showed on one panel of his view screen.  Moving dots showed mobile, living objects as identified by infrared sensors scattered throughout the ship.  Gleamer tripped several controls and cut off several of the dots.
            “I’ve locked down quarters, Gene,” he called back informally.  “The roughnecks won’t be getting underfoot above-decks.”
            “All the little furry gods…! I told you never to override the blast door controls!”  Evgeny was furious now.  Was nobody on this ship actually under his command?  All it took was one definite crisis and everyone sailed off on their own self-appointed courses.  He would have some serious social engineering to do once they were done dealing with the Ningyo.  How many crew could you threaten simultaneously and still have those threats remain credible?
            At least in this case, Gleamer’s disobedience was proving useful.  Soloth, as well, had acted in a reasonable if brusque manner.  Ticklish, though… Evgeny was starting to understand the reasons the Great Family had shunned her as mentally unstable.  She had heard exactly what she wanted to hear – remove the threat – and acted impulsively and violently.  It wasn’t just her panic reaction that was aggressive.  She was almost a caricature of the worst stereotypes of Vislin.
            Maybe it was Evgeny’s own fault that he found uses for such instability.  A criminal enterprise was at best a balance of extreme forces.  Stable, obedient people did not steal starships or raid mining bases.  They did not kill sapients for their belongings or extort colonial governments out of their savings.  Granted, a great many unstable people were hiding out there pretending they were well-adjusted and doing all those things anyway.  Perhaps pirates were just more honest about their inability to accept civilized, Collective society. 
            While these thoughts simmered, Evgeny kept busy monitoring everyone else’s activity.  From a mirror of Gleamer’s readouts, he watched the movement of figures around the ship.  There seemed to be two dots – Soloth and Luuboh? – closing on two others moving in the hallway connecting the mid-engineering decks.  Two other mobiles were staying within Engineering: probably NuRikPo’s people, Burnett and Zenaida.  The dozen dots crowded around the blast door separating general quarters from the rest of the ship were the boarding crew, the rank and file who handled less technical operations off-ship.
            To that mob, Evgeny directed his next ‘comm message: “Scape Grace crew, this is captain Lerner.  You have heard indications of a problem on board.  Hold your positions.  First mate Soloth is checking on the situation.  If it requires your assistance, you will be notified.  If it does not require your assistance, do not put yourself in harm’s way.”  He had meant the last phrase to contain an implied threat.  It came out sounding like parental caution.  Maybe it really was necessary to sound like a sneering brute to be taken seriously as a pirate captain… even by himself.

****************************************************************************************

            Soloth found Luuboh waiting at the exit from the fore ladder.  It had already prepared for trouble, scrounging up two magnetic flechette throwers from a lower deck weapons cache.  The slightly bulky handguns could cause considerable surface damage to either Vislin hide or Ningyo armor, without the risk of fires from an energy weapon or hull breaches from a more penetrative payload.  Tklth, among other misjudgments, had grossly overreached by using plasma inside the ship.  She was fortunate that the beam had burned out before puncturing the outer hull, igniting something reactive… or catching somebody on a lower deck in the line of fire. 
Soloth took one of the guns and gestured for Luuboh to follow.  Soloth did not wait for the other Mauraug’s slower pace but instead jogged out of the fore section.  Visible in the hallway ahead was one standing Ningyo and three bodies. 
The one standing, Punch, drew its pistol with its free hand and kept its baton ready in the other.  One of the downed Ningyo rose from the floor, evidently not badly damaged.  Soloth recognized their leader, Jolly.  Its armor was scratched deeply in several places but did not appear functionally damaged. 
Soloth risked not sighting on the armed Ningyo immediately.  Instead, it toggled open a side door to a storage room and gave itself partial cover in case Punch fired first.  That Ningyo did aim toward Soloth.  When the lead Mauraug stepped aside, Luuboh was left in the line of sight.  The second Mauraug kept its hands down but did not attempt to dodge aside.
Risking exposure, Soloth stuck its head out and called, “The Vislin was acting alone!  If you lower your weapons we will drop ours.  We intend to honor the original agreement.”
Jolly’s voice came back as it stood and turned to face Soloth.  “Comus is dead.  Your crew member is dying.  I will let you recover her if you do drop your weapons.  Don’t delay; she has only seconds.”
Luuboh immediately dropped its gun and scrambled to kneel by Tklth’s mutilated body.  Soloth might not have trusted the Ningyo, but when they did not execute Luuboh immediately, it felt safer about taking a risk.  Still covered by the side wall, it lowered its own gun to the floor and set it down carefully.
Luuboh called out, “She’s lost her tail and a leg.  I can’t stop the bleeding by hand.  We need a cautery bandage and Vislin-specific circulatory synthetics.  Help me lift her?  Between the two of us we might make it to meds in time.”
            Emerging and walking forward slowly, Soloth watched the two Ningyo warily.  “She killed one of you.  Why is she still alive?  Why are you allowing us to help her?” 
 “Comus was my friend.”  Despite the synthetically cheery tenor of its ‘voice’, Jolly’s rapid, terse delivery betrayed its distress.
Soloth put pressure on the major circulatory vessels in Tklth’s back as it helped Luuboh hoist the Vislin into a level carry.  Without a quarter of her mass, Tklth was light enough for either of the Mauraug to lift easily, but they wanted to transport her without causing further damage.  They began to move toward the freight lift behind engineering, in order to bring Tklth to medical as gently as possible.  Magenta fluids dripped between Soloth’s fingers to spatter on the rubberized flooring, leaving a trail as they walked.
Punch followed close behind, still armed but no longer actively aiming the pistol at either Mauraug.  Jolly had slung its own space fold projector onto its back and picked up Comus’ weapon as well.  It held the second projector loosely, also not threatening.
In genuine confusion, Soloth finally replied, “If it was your friend, wouldn’t you want her dead even more?”
“Dead is ended… no more learning, no more suffering.  Comus believed in sapients understanding one another.  He wanted to learn more about other cultures and to teach about our beliefs.  I hope she lives.  She owes a debt.  If she wishes, she may pay it in suffering.  She may also choose to learn something from the experience.  I would like to learn, myself, why she chose to attack the three of us, alone.”
“She was deranged,” Luuboh grunted, a surprisingly unkind sentiment, particularly when coming from the often similarly accused Mauraug.
“Perhaps, but not so mentally damaged as to be shunned from your company,” Jolly rebutted.  Its cadence was returning to the format of its former conversations. 
Soloth admitted, “It’s no secret that we want you gone, dead if necessary.  Tklth just couldn’t restrain herself any longer.”  Soloth’s candor would have made Evgeny cringe.  Even Luuboh was somewhat taken aback.  There were different strains of opinion about the relationship between deception and Dominion.  Soloth evidently held the attitude that falsehood was a sign of weakness.  Luuboh itself was uncomfortable with its own various deceits, but it was equally uncomfortable directly stating a threat to an enemy’s face. 
Jolly delayed its response until they reached the lift platform.  It waited at the edge and watched Soloth and Luuboh enter the enclosed cage.  Punch made a move to join them, but Jolly held it back with a raised hand.  Instead, it looked at the two Mauraug.
“Go, tend to your murderous pack mate.  We will go to the bridge as intended.  You may not want us here, but we want to be here… and we need one another.  Comus would have explained better.  I will have to do my best in his stead… as my penance for his death.”
With that cryptic closing, Jolly turned and walked away.  Punch followed after a moment’s pause to stare at the Mauraug. 
Soloth was not well pleased to leave the Ningyo free to traverse the ship, particularly not with them heading toward the bridge, but it had few options.  Soloth resolved to get Tklth’s body to medical and leave it there with Luuboh.  If their multi-talented servant could not save the patient, then so be it.  Either way, Soloth would be free to return quickly and deal with any trouble starting above decks. 
It was tempted to just leave Tklth to die, but Jolly was right about one thing: the Vislin deserved to live and suffer for her idiocy.  After this much trouble, she would owe her life to her ‘pack’, not to mention being indebted for any prostheses they could cobble together.  From that day forward, Tklth would be working without shares just to pay off her debt.  From what Soloth knew of Tklth, she was the type of Vislin that would honor such an obligation.  She could become useful again… hopefully, worth the investment.
Luuboh nudged the lift controls with its elbow and the platform descended toward the second lower deck, the level containing Katy Olu’s work space.  With no medic on board, Tklth was guaranteed a chancy and painful triage.  At best, her recovery would be slow and demeaning. 
Right at that moment, even her ‘pack mates’ felt she deserved that fate.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 5

           The return of her captain and first mate to the bridge of the Scape Grace was somewhat more convivial than their departure.  That mood was spoiled by their reception upon the bridge.

            “We’ve lost contact,” Gleamer greeted them without preamble. 
            “With…” Evgeny prompted.
            Gleamer stared at his captain dully, taking several seconds to focus his thoughts down to one stream.  He finally elaborated, “With Katy and NuRikPo.  Both the public and coded channels went dead when their exit closed off.”
            Evgeny took a moment to consider the meaning of this unpleasant news.  “So their 'comms are cut off.  Interference?  Power loss?  Or do we assume their shuttle was boarded or destroyed?”
            “Nothing that would take time; the signal cut off exactly when the opening disappeared.  If the shuttle was destroyed right then, I think something would leak out.  I’m going with interference, maybe even EM spectrum reflection.”  Gleamer’s speaking rate increased incrementally as more of his interest was drawn by the problem.  “I’ll try some workarounds.  If they’re online inside there, ‘Po will figure out that we’re being blocked, too.  He might find a way to signal.  I’ll keep watching for whatever he schemes up.”
            “That ship could have better shielding than we do, if that’s true.  It might be up there with the best Great Family energy ablation.  That makes me wonder if it deflects high energy beams equally well or if its defense is just meant to block scans.  That would be an expensive waste even if it’s just lead lining.  Worse, if it’s a higher-end heavy metal,” Evgeny mused. 
            Soloth resumed its post at the navigation console, having little to contribute to the technical discussion.  Not that the Mauraug was any less conversant with engineering physics than captain Lerner.  In some categories, it was quite the opposite.  However, in this case, Evgeny was filling the role of sounding board well enough that Soloth had no need to involve itself further. 
            By contrast, Tklth had nothing at all to add.  She continued to watch the same readouts as Soloth, but for differing purposes.  Her interest was focused on the movements and energy outputs of the two other ships in nearby space: the Ningyo flagship Black Humor and the salvager Harauch, ostensibly Mauraug but actually crewed by Ningyo as well.  If either ship showed the slightest hint of aggression, Tklth would be ready to figuratively claw out their throats. 
The salvager, she could probably kill.  It was already wounded from Tklth’s first attack, showing a carbon-scored gap across its rear flank.  Still, her shot might have done less damage than the captain first thought.  At the time, Harauch had ceased all communications, and the Scape Grace had assumed that its comm array was burned out.  Now that they knew that the Harauch had no reason to call for help – help had been only a space-fold away – its silence was less meaningful.  One or more Ningyo might have died from the hull breach on Harauch, but perhaps not.  The ship could have a skeleton crew.  There was no reason for extra personnel to be anywhere else but the ship’s bridge during combat operations.  Tklth might have damaged the other ship’s mobility, but then again, maybe not even that.  Other than some sub-light speed maneuvering after the Black Humor showed up, the Harauch had no reason to move further. 
The Ningyo flagship was another issue entirely.  At this range, armed with the premium fruits of its builders’ native technology plus the second-best produce of several other Collective cultures, the command ship hopelessly outclassed the Scape Grace.  The 'Grace was heavily modified, true, but there was only so much space for better engines, shielding, and weaponry, and only so much pillage (credit, or tech itself) available for upgrades.  A lone pirate was certainly not going to be in competition with the product of an entire system-spanning culture.  The Ningyo might seem to be terrible investors from a galactic economic standpoint, but they spent well on environments: their suits, their habitats, and their ships.
With these realities in mind, Evgeny moved on from unsolvable problems to the merely difficult ones.  The Ningyo wanted Scape Grace to lend deniability to their effort to escort the unnamed ship.  That meant that Black Humor would have to leave the area before long.  At that point, only Harauch and the unnamed ship would remain to oppose Scape Grace.  That gave the pirates a chance to reverse the tables and their fortunes.  They might even seize the original two prizes that had been dangled before them earlier as bait.
Evgeny voiced his thoughts to break up the uncomfortable silence: “Three Ningyo are currently on board, being settled into ‘quarters’ near engineering.  They are sufficiently well-armed to represent a threat by themselves.  We have a salvager ship, somewhat damaged, crewed by an unknown but likely minimal number of Ningyo, which will be accompanying us from here to an unknown destination.  Since these are Ningyo, they will not be entering hyperspace.  More likely, we will be traveling slowly.  That means our destination is somewhere nearby.  Finally, there is a ship of unknown provenance and uncertain capabilities that we are expected to escort safely to said uncertain destination.  Given its properties both observed and stated, this ‘alien’ ship is likely worth a vast amount to the right buyers.  Certainly, the Ningyo want to keep it out of sight.  So, how do we clear out the obstacles between us and profit?  Thoughts?”
Normally, such planning conferences were held only between the captain and first mate Soloth.  Gleamer sat still a moment, his silence now due to surprise and genuine engagement.  Tklth looked between the two Humans and one Mauraug expectantly.  Such as it was, this was her pack.  Tklth did not consider herself one of its leaders, but if called upon for input, she would make an effort. 
The harlequin-scaled Vislin ventured, “We can go to hyperspace.  Cripple the Ningyo here.  The other ship will not follow.”  She was referring to the well-known but little-understood inability of the Ningyo species to cope with hyperspace travel.  Something in their physical or mental makeup reacted especially poorly to the altered physics of hyperspace.  Not that other species particularly enjoyed hyperspace jumps, but the symptoms were usually shaken off after a few minutes.  When their civilization first tested hyperspace travel, most Ningyo pilots just died.  A few survived but were permanently mentally damaged.  Even being too close to a hyperspace shift tended to cause the Ningyo severe discomfort.  This disability had led their civilization to focus on other forms of interstellar transport, culminating in the invention of their signature space-folding technology.  They altered the universe’s fabric because they could not stand being warped and folded themselves.
Evgeny shook his head in response to Tklth’s suggestion. “That just brings us back to the same problem we had before: sneaking up to a safe mass point for a jump out of this system.  I suspect that might be the same goal for the unknown ship, with the same challenge we’ve had: not getting seen.  If so, and we wait until then, we’ve lost our chance.”
Soloth brought up another concern: “If the unknown ship does not leave, and we jump away, we risk losing track of that ship.  Removing the Ningyo here is not worth the loss of our two crew members.”
“Right,” Evgeny agreed, “not to mention losing everything they might learn about that ship.  If we can’t snag the ship itself, getting our researchers back is our other opportunity to collect on this wager.”
“So, yeah, lousy idea,” Gleamer snarked, rolling his head toward Tklth.  “I think we have to wait and see what Katy and ‘Po can do at their end.  Supposedly, the little lost ship is run by an AI.  If they can override or overwrite that – or get me access so that I can deliver the code de grace – then that switches the ship from the Ningyo's side to ours.  That makes it two against one.  If we go after the Harauch first, the other two ships could gang up against us."
“Wait.  Wait.  Wait.”  Tklth snapped out the word in distaste.  “My wait is bad; your wait is good?  It is all the same wait.  Yours does not even promise a definite result.  Maybe we can reprogram that ship.  Maybe Katy and NuRikPo are dead or captured!  Fewer assumptions mean more certain results.”
“Hey, every plan makes assumptions, that’s why they're called plans.  At least my plans include the possibility of out-thinking the enemy, rather than just blowing them up.”
“At home, there is a word for hunters who wait too long…"
Soloth spoiled the punch line of Tklth’s retort by stepping forward threateningly.  It snorted and huffed a warning clear enough to translate across species.  As this also gave it the floor, it was obligated to contribute to the discussion.
“Some waiting is necessary.  We need information, either from the Ningyo or from our researchers or both.  Once we know our heading and its purpose, we will know how much time and what opportunities remain for action.  When we know more about the unknown ship, we can anticipate its capabilities and intentions.  I think that ship is limited somehow.  If it could leave on its own, it would not need help.  It needs something: fuel, materials, a particular position or particular conditions… perhaps it only needs enough data for triangulation.  If the Ningyo worked so hard to involve us, there must be reason to suspect the unknown ship would attract attention before it gets what it needs.  I wonder whose attention?”
Evgeny chose to respond to the rhetorical question with one of his own: “Collective attention?  Freelancers like ourselves?  Non-Collective spacefarers?  We’re near the edges of familiar space, though not so deep that really foreign travelers should be passing through.  Even if the Ningyo know exactly what they’re concerned about, they probably won’t share much with us.  I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Jolly’ keeps most of this mission to himself, just giving us sufficient orders to keep up.  We’ll have to work out what they’re not saying based on what they are.”
“I’ve got processes watching the unknown as we speak, compiling any observable evidence and weighing out the probabilities,” Gleamer confirmed.  “I’ll put another watcher on the Ningyo here, to listen for any hints they drop.  They have patterns if you know what to listen for.  It’s like they can’t avoid throwing verbal bread crumbs to see if you’re following.”
“Crumbs you lick up, yes, good.”  Tklth rose from her custom contoured seat at the weaponry console.  “I have no more clever ideas, captain.  May I refresh myself until something actually happens?”  She was clearly agitated, though trying to smother her temper in a layer of apathy.  The result could rightly be called passive-aggressive. 
Seeing Ticklish’s tail tip twitching, Evgeny decided that dismissing the Vislin might be a wise idea.  She might have actually added some worthwhile thoughts but was unable to sit patiently and endure Gleamer’s needling.  In the interests of peaceful discussion, Evgeny agreed, “Sure, go gnaw something bloody, maybe catch some nest time.  I’d rather have you sharp when we get under way.”  With a curl of his fingers and wrist, Evgeny waved Tklth toward the exit.
As she bobbed past on her way out, Evgeny picked up Gleamer’s thread: “I’m not sure whether it’s better to play along with the Ningyo here or just cut them out of the equation.  As long as they’re on board, armed, they can dictate our actions.  They don’t have to tell us anything except what they want done.”
Soloth rebutted as the bridge door clicked shut.  “Pretending to accept their terms, at least at first, has several benefits.  First, their ship may be waiting for an all-clear signal before pulling away.  Second, as Gleamer states, much may be learned even from limited explanations.  Giving our ‘guests’ a sense of secure superiority may encourage them to share more.  Last, they may have value as living captives: as hostages or informants.  The longer we have to observe and maneuver them, the more likely we are to gain an opportunity to disable their advantages.”
“So, a compromise,“ Evgeny judiciously allowed, “We do what they want up until a decision point is reached… an opportunity to catch them less alert or a point past which we lose our options.  Of course, this is probably what they’re counting on: that we’ll be curious enough to wait and see what happens.  So be it.  I’m actually less suspicious if they just make demands; any gifts might be further lures into trouble.  Speaking of which, anything new from the foreign ship?”
“Nope,” Gleamer covered his ears with his hands, then moved them to cover his eyes and finally his mouth, “nope and mmffph.” 
Evgeny huffed in frustration.  “All right, the first thing we ask for out of ‘Jolly’ is an explanation why our people are being cut off.  The Ningyo have some kind of communication with that alien ship.  If this jamming isn’t deliberate, then they can damned well tell it to stop.  If it is, we have one more reason this deal stinks and should be ended quickly… after their flagship leaves, that is.”
Soloth’s hand hovered over a communications console, “I will tell Luuboh to send the Ningyo to the bridge, then?”
Evgeny nodded.  “Yes, as much as I liked having them distracted, we need to get a few things resolved.”
Soloth keyed in the general speakers for the engineering deck and spoke, “Luuboh bash’ Gaulig.  Bring our visitors to the bridge.  The captain requires their input… in private.”  It cut the channel, neither waiting for nor expecting a reply.  It had no reason to expect that Luuboh would do anything other than obey promptly.  If the other Mauraug encountered resistance from the Ningyo, it could honestly appeal to their sympathies.  If it could not fulfill Soloth’s orders, Luuboh would be punished.  Unless the Ningyo were both petty and cruel, they would at least respond directly rather than balk at being ‘summoned’.
Evgeny sighed inwardly.  He and Soloth most definitely had different styles of leadership.  Soloth had claimed both were effective in their own way, for their own reasons and within their own settings.  That was just as well.  Evgeny was genuinely better with the carrot… and if he was driven to the ‘stick’, he would most likely just beat the mule to death and find a better mule.  Left to his own morbid musings, Evgeny wondered if he would have to recruit a new medic and engineer, presuming the rest of them survived this voyage. 

***************************************************************************************

            In the makeshift quarters set aside for the Ningyo, Luuboh had long since finished showing its three guests around and had stepped outside to give them ‘privacy’.   Despite seeming outwardly complacent, the Mauraug dwarf was actually quite careful about its duties.  It had made certain that listening devices of several types were secreted in multiple locations throughout the room.  If the Ningyo actually lowered their guard enough to have any private discussions – even over radio or other EM bands projected by their suits – Luuboh would have a recording available for the captain. 
            The two had made similar arrangements for the surveillance of the rest of the crew.  Luuboh was troubled morally by the distrust implied by the captain’s need for constant vigilance, and its own collaboration with this spying, but could not argue the value of pre-empting any plotters.  A potential rebellion, an undercover operative, or just a rogue agent could be dangerous to the stability of the ship’s order.  It was less mess to identify and remove one threat than to allow a problem to spread, recruiting a larger portion of the crew into opposition.
            Luuboh recognized that it would never be Dominant.  But if it was trusted by a leader, valuable to him, and close to his confidence, that conveyed value by association.  For all its bluster, Soloth bash ’Soloth never really beat Luuboh hard enough to cause any serious pain.  It knew that they both had parts to play in this power structure.  It also knew that Luuboh could easily poison it at meals.  Luuboh could even poison Soloth’s relationship to captain Lerner with a few edited recordings.  In their early conversations, Luuboh had proven to Soloth that it was beyond fear, having already lost everything of worth to a Mauraug.  With the taking of the Scape Grace, it had regained a feeling of power it had once abandoned forever.  It had chosen its place in the universe, at the side of a truly Dominant leader, and no power would dislodge it.  That was true Dominion, as far as Luuboh was concerned.  It had mastered itself and its own existence. 
            Luuboh was aware that Soloth still worked on the captain to reduce his opinion of the other Mauraug.  After all, it was privy to any conversations the captain did not hold in his own quarters (which were explicitly off-limits to listening).  This politicking was amusing.  Unable to directly state the reasons for its distrust, Soloth was forced to paint Luuboh as mentally unstable.  Sometimes it tried to raise suspicions that Luuboh was a planted mole, an agent of the Collective or the Dominion just pretending to be a pathetic wretch.  These were both tactics that Luuboh could not directly counter without shedding its amiable manner with the captain.  Soloth was managing to use what little latitude remained while still pretending to know nothing about Evgeny and Luuboh’s true relationship.  Such labyrinthine maneuvers! 
            So, when Soloth’s orders sounded over the ‘comm, Luuboh was hardly surprised.  Even now, they had to play the game.  Clearly, the captain felt that whatever he needed to know from the Ningyo was more important than any secrets they might let drop in idle conversation.    
            It knocked politely on the door it had closed not long before.  The panel slid aside to reveal the black, sharp-nosed mask of the one called Punch. 
            The Ningyo spoke brusquely, “What is it?”
            “The captain requests your presence on the bridge for a private discussion.  I am ordered to guide you there.  If you would, please follow me.”
            “We heard the announcement and understood its nuances,” the ‘bearded’ Ningyo, Comus, replied from the room’s far corner.  It had just begun to use the nutrient dispensers Luuboh had provided, following an inspection to verify their utility and safety.  Luuboh was aware that the actual, organic Ningyo was housed within each suit’s chest cavity, but still had no idea how they accessed external resources.  It was disappointed that it would not have opportunity to observe one feeding. 
            “If so, you understand that I must encourage your compliance.”  Luuboh spoke flatly, neither cajoling nor threatening.  It suspected that the best way to manipulate the Ningyo was to give as few cues as possible to its true feelings and let the others assume whatever they preferred. 
            “I understand,” Jolly responded finally, “Fortunately, this matches my own preference.  Let us join the captain upon the poop deck and point out the star that sets our course.”
            With this assent, Luuboh stepped back out of the doorway.  Punch stepped out of the room, followed by Jolly, who was trailed by Comus.  Luuboh took the lead of the procession and headed to the fore ladder, returning back along the hallway they had followed to reach the sternward engineering section earlier. 
            For all its skill at observation, Luuboh had no warning about what waited en route.