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.”