Monday, June 30, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 12

            A powerful, incongruous odor reached Evgeny’s nose as he keyed open the door to the engineering lab.  It smelled like alien spices, unfamiliar yet appetizing.  He paused in the doorway to try and identify the smell before venturing further.  The creak of a metal door being opened came from a separate room to his left, accompanied by a new scent: the much more familiar combination of butter and sugar.  Baking? 

            Burnett Georges emerged from the side room, carrying a metal tray.  It was apparently hot; he wore a thermal protective glove on the hand holding the tray.  He saw captain Lerner shortly afterward and blinked in surprise.
            “Captain!  We did not expect you… you are welcome, of course.  Please, come in.  We were about to have tea.”  Burnett set the tray down on a wire mesh rack on a cleared workbench.  Evgeny could see small, golden, rectangular cakes glowing in their individual cups.  He recognized the tray as a mold for metal casting.  Hopefully, the baker had cleaned that equipment thoroughly before repurposing it.
            Burnett did not wait for Evgeny’s response before calling out, “Zenaida!  We have a guest!  Bring three cups!”
            His cousin’s voice answered from another room further back in the engineering area.  “Oh?  Who is it?”
            Evgeny decided to answer for himself, “It’s captain Lerner.  Look, I was just stopping by to give you an update on our situation.  No need to set a place for me.”
            Burnett fixed him with a patronizing look, “It’s no trouble.  After all, business is best discussed over tea and cakes.  Sit, join us, and have a bite before you’re called away again.”
            Evgeny once again had that feeling of being only nominally in charge.  He supposed being welcomed was better than being avoided.  Still, he had to suppress suspicions about the safety of offered food and drink.  If anyone was going to drug or poison him, though, the Georges were low on the list.  Their power and privileges descended from NuRikPo; as long as they kept the Zig engineer happy, they maintained their upper-deck status and shares. 
            Zenaida Georges entered the room bearing one of the signs of that privilege.  She held three simple porcelain teacups on saucers.  Expertly balancing the dishware, she sat one cup in front of Evgeny, then placed the other two in front of her cousin and herself.  Burnett pulled up a tall stool and sat down, sniffing at the dark liquid in his cup.
            Evgeny followed suit.  The ‘tea’ was a different creature than the pale brew he was accustomed to.  It was quite opaque, almost as black as coffee.  It smelled like a dozen different plants had sacrificed various fragrant parts of their anatomy to its creation.  The smell was not unpleasant, but it was also difficult to classify as ‘pleasant’.  It was too complex. 
            “Sugar?” Zenaida asked, and Evgeny’s attention was drawn from the strange drink to the equally intriguing woman.  Her hair was nearly the same color as the tea.  Her skin was somewhere between Evgeny’s pallor and Katy Olu’s burnished ebony, a brown highlighted with gold and green.  Evgeny had never seen the shade among other Humans, not even in videos.  Her facial features were also more expressive than most Humans from his experience.  She shared her coloration, wide eyes, narrow nose, and full lips with her cousin. 
            The two humans lived together, worked together, and clearly, cooked and dined together.  The speculation on the ship was that they slept together, as well.  Certainly, neither had been intimate with any other crew member.  Such an affair would have been impossible to keep secret.  No one had seen or heard either of them seeking companionship at any port of call, either, though discretion was somewhat easier off-ship.
            Evgeny had even tried to drop hints about his interest.  Zenaida had completely ignored his more subtle advances and politely changed the subject when he made his attraction more clear.  Evgeny could have forced the issue, possibly even forced her compliance, but from his experience such behavior had steep costs.  He would rather have a loyal, friendly, and untouchable comrade than an angry, bitter, and mutinous conquest. 
            So what if she preferred family?  The truth was probably that the Georges just enjoyed one another’s company and maybe even had cultural restrictions against ‘fornication’.  Both of those traits – close family ties and intentional abstinence – were rare enough to most of the rowdies on board the Scape Grace to be considered improbable in combination.  Incest was somehow a more likely explanation. 
            Evgeny squinted in thought, then responded, “Um, what’s recommended?”
            “Sugar,” Zenaida replied, decisively.  She went to a drawer and withdrew a brushed steel cylinder.  Evgeny would have assumed it held something requiring protective containment: perhaps chemical samples or a computer component.  Instead, it held crystalline white cubes, compressed blocks of sucrose.  Zenaida dropped five cubes in her cup and Evgeny’s. 
            Burnett grunted in playful derision.  “If this were proper chai, it would be sweet enough without help.”
            “Chai is tea flavored with spices: cinnamon, cloves, cardamom…” Zenaida explained for Evgeny’s benefit, “We picked up a couple of kilos at our last landing.”
            “Anchor?  Yes, I remember the trade hub.  No idea they had Human spices there.”  Evgeny held the cup to his nose, trying to appreciate the separate notes that clanged against his receptors so harshly. 
            Zenaida nodded, swirling the tea in her cup to mix in the dissolving sugar.  “They had probably traveled a long way even to get there… like in the early days of cross-continental trade on Terra.  Spices were as good as money, sometimes better.  Dried well, they could last for a very long journey and still be potent.”
            “This was a premix, though,” Burnett interrupted, “Packaged for commercial sale.  They still charged double the store price.  Imagine what actual fresh cardamom would have cost!”
            Zenaida gave her cousin an exaggerated frown, but added, “He’s right, it’s only a weak reminder of home.  If it were proper, we’d have cream, or at least milk.  NuRikPo won’t even let us synthesize casein, much less lactose and butterfat.”
            Evgeny smiled indulgently at their banter, understanding only part of the discussion.  He sipped the liquid and found it as bitter as expected, but pleasantly floral and sweet underneath.  The aftertaste was actually better than the initial taste.  He could understand how a little fat would improve its texture and taste, smoothing out the rough edges and forcing the aromatics to linger. 
            Reluctantly, the captain shifted topics toward his original objective for the visit.  “I wanted to let you both know how matters stand.  We haven’t heard back from NuRikPo or doctor Olu.  I know ‘Po told you he was going to investigate a completely foreign ship; since they’ve been inside, we haven’t received any communications.  The Ningyo claim they’re just not picking up.  I have my doubts.  Either way, you two are our engineering staff until further notice.”
            Burnett tested the little cakes, then upended them onto the cooling rack.  He offered one to Evgeny, who declined with an upraised hand.  With a shrug, Burnett bit into one of the rectangular pastries, then blinked with pain as his mouth was scalded.
             Evgeny continued, “You won’t just be placeholders.  The Ningyo have commandeered our ship.  We’re under their control; their leader demanded my codes and is sitting in my chair.  They’re using the ‘Grace to raid for supplies for the foreign ship, along with another salvager they’ve turned pirate.  We’re likely to see some combat and probably some damage.  Hopefully, they don’t get us killed.”
            Burnett stopped with cake half-eaten.  Zenaida was also wide-eyed with surprise.  She furrowed her brow.  “Why raiding?  Why can’t they buy whatever the other ship needs?”
            “That’s what I asked,” Evgeny commiserated.  “Apparently, they have to get the goods fast and without drawing attention to their alien friend.  Friend, they kept calling it.  Like they were doing a favor for a comrade.”
            “Anyway,” he returned to the briefing, “You’ll need to finish up whatever repairs ‘Po had left incomplete, then start preparing for emergency duty.  We’ll have maybe five or six days before we return to the system.”  Evgeny sipped his tea again.  It had cooled enough to allow for a full swallow.  The warmth and sugar reminded his stomach that he had not eaten a full meal in several hours.  He decided to take one of the cakes to keep him going until he could raid the galley.  It was excellent.  Somehow, without dairy or eggs, Burnett had managed to produce a soft, yellow-brown pastry with a distinct citrus and butter aroma.  It even had a crisp outer ‘shell’.  Some areas of science had more beautiful payoffs than others.
            While Evgeny finished the cake and reached for another, Burnett asked, “How do they intend to keep us from getting killed?”
            Evgeny swallowed his first bite of the second cake hastily.  “I’m not sure they have a plan.  I’m hoping they do.  Still, I warned their captain that we won’t sit quietly for a suicide mission.  If things look too dangerous, he’ll either pull us out or have a second fight inside the ship.”  That was exaggerating somewhat, but Evgeny wanted his crew to be ready to rebel when given the signal. 
            With a burst of inspiration, Evgeny asked, “Could I get a compad?  I’ll give you the codes for full access to ship’s stores, in case you need something for repairs, plus the door codes if there’s a breach anywhere.  It might be too late to pass those on, after trouble starts.”
            Zenaida took a few steps across the room to a shelving unit, picking out a reasonably contemporary compad and flicking it to life.  Evgeny shifted himself to one side, not coincidentally cutting off the view of the camera watching engineering.  He typed at the pad’s surface, spelling out: Private comm in storage bay 3e.  Not on official circuit.  Send messages to me or Luuboh there.  Possibly receive there.  Be ready to cut out bridge access to systems on my order.  Set up automated kill switches where possible.  He pushed the pad, screen glowing, back across the workbench.
            The advantage of the portable computer pads was that they were not linked to the ship’s network.  That isolation was intentional, to keep some resources safely insulated from any power interruptions or computer errors that might affect Scape Grace’s own nervous system.  That failsafe held a second advantage now, allowing for private conversations safe from Jolly’s eavesdropping.
            Zenaida picked up the compad and nodded at the screen.  “Thank you.  We appreciate your trust.” 
            Burnett looked at her quizzically and started to open his mouth, but shut it again at a shake of his cousin’s head.  He covered his confusion with a large mouthful of tea, wincing as the heat stung his previously burnt palate. 
            Evgeny pushed back from the workbench-turned-tea table.  He picked up a third cake for his travels and finished his cup with a deep, sugar-gritted swallow.  Nodding to Burnett and then to Zenaida, he replied, “Thank you for the tea… and the cakes.  I won’t tell Luuboh, or it might get jealous, but this is the best cooking I’ve had in days.”
            “We have a lot of spare time,” Burnett jibed, “or we did, up until this past week.  Any chance things will get boring again, anytime soon?”
            “Not likely, but we can hope,” Evgeny shot back. 
He was starting to feel the stimulant effects from the tea.  That, plus the cakes, were curbing his hunger.  With a wave and a reluctant last glance at Zenaida, captain Lerner left engineering to follow the halls back to his cabin.  Rather than a grim or thoughtful look, the woman’s face had held a thin smile of amusement.  For him?  Or just wry humor at their strange situation? 
She and her cousin were a puzzle.  That probably made her more attractive.  Evgeny knew himself well enough by now to recognize his own need to understand and control his environment.  A woman he could not easily classify and predict was a challenge.
The Georges were the only two of his crew without a clear reason to join a criminal enterprise.  They had come aboard after talking to some of the combat crew at a space station, thinking that they were booking passage to the next system over.  Originally, the grunts had planned to rob the ‘couple’.  One or two might have harbored thoughts of taking advantage of Zenaida.  The resulting scuffle below-decks ended with one Mauraug enjoying a punctured lung and two Humans cradling crushed testes.  Burnett had suffered a broken arm, himself, but his hidden pen-laser had warded off the rest of the crew well enough to spare him a broken neck. 
It had taken Evgeny and Soloth a few hours to sort out the damages and the conflicting stories.  In the end, the Georges chose to join the crew rather than be marooned on the nearest planetoid.  He could have shot them outright, Evgeny supposed.  He always had to bear that in mind as a possible solution.  Thank goodness they had chosen to enlist, instead.
They were certainly qualified; in fact, they were probably more qualified than the bruisers they had held off.  Besides being able to handle a fight, they were both trained in space station maintenance, a background which translated well enough into the daily repair needs of the Scape Grace.  NuRikPo had enlisted them for his grunt work, in return training them in more advanced sciences to make them more useful minions.  The Zig would hardly admit to being a mentor, but he certainly had a couple of devoted graduate students.
            On the average, piracy did pay better than station maintenance.  It might be irregular in spots, probably more dangerous overall, and certainly less stable an existence, but it was much more exciting.  Probably smelled better, too, from what Evgeny had experienced of the average orbital station.  The two travelers were definitely getting to see much more of the universe than they might have as laborers.
            That still didn’t explain why they were so cheerful most of the time.  Idle time tended to wear on the more active members of the crew, fraying nerves and leading to hostility, sometimes violence.  In a crisis, the senior crew were typically stressed: Katy was absolutely nasty when too many patients piled up at once.  Soloth’s level of cruelty tended to increase with the number of simultaneous transgressors.  By contrast, Burnett and Zenaida seemed positive whether work was slow or constant.  Maybe the pair had found their preferred niche in life; maybe that was why they had stayed on. 
            Evgeny himself wasn’t sure if he would prefer piracy, given a real choice.  It was the life he had been offered.  Rather, he had chosen that existence versus accepting that his family, friends, and even home were an acceptable sacrifice in the name of ‘civilization’.  His grudge against the Collective had mellowed after a few years following the death of Locust Colony, but by then, he was a known criminal fugitive.  The options now were continued flight or surrender for permanent imprisonment.  That was an even poorer choice. 
            In that light, he was envious of the Georges.  Granted, once aboard, their choices had been equally lopsided, but they could still ask to quit at any time.  They were not known as criminals, nor even as the accomplices they were.  Evgeny would have allowed them to leave.  He had no concern that the two might talk to Collective or even Terran security… first, they weren’t the type to turn informant, in his opinion, and second, they would be incriminating themselves if they talked.  They wanted to be here.  Evgeny could not be sure he could still say the same about himself.
            As Evgeny reached his cabin, he realized something that churned his stomach.  Jolly had the crew manifest.  Even if all went well and the Ningyo left their ship alive, it had the names of everyone aboard.  That meant that the Georges would no longer be unknown.  Everyone associated with the Scape Grace could lose the option of quiet retirement. 
            Well, that was just one more reason that the Ningyo shouldn’t be allowed to leave, wasn’t it?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 11

          Eustace Brown listened to the crickets chirping.  He was sure they were talking, but he didn’t speak their language.  Not yet, anyway. 

His friends were listening, too, and learning.  He was a smart boy, but his friends were smarter.  Actually, by some standards, they were stupid.  They didn’t think for themselves.  They only did what he told them to do.  They weren’t independent.  They certainly weren’t self-aware.  They definitely weren’t unpredictable; not like his best friend, Sid.  Sid could have worked on his own and learned the cricket language that much faster.  Sid might have figured out what the crickets really were, where they were, maybe why they had started talking.  Eustace really missed Sid.  His other friends were poor company by comparison.
Still, they were the best he had, especially right now.  Sid, a true AI, was stuck millions of light-years away.  Even the slow, physical, but friendly sentiences Eustace might speak with, the ones that called him ‘Gleamer’, were absent.  When their bodies were elsewhere, their minds were cut off from contact.  Only when the vibrated air of their speech was transduced to current along the ship’s intercom system would he and they be connected again.  Even then, they could only share the barest minimum of information. 
There were other, unfriendly sapients nearby.  They were the reason that communication was being limited.  There were things they could not be told.  Eustace, also Gleamer, considered asking them about the crickets, then realized that his discovery might be one of those secrets.  Not the content of it, the fact of it.  Perhaps they, the Ningyo, were the source of the sounds.  Not sounds in air, but signals in the radiosphere. 
The chirps Gleamer was ‘hearing’ were short bursts of high frequency, low powered radio waves.  There were thousands of them, coming from thousands of different sources.  Given the weak propagation of such signals, the sources had to be close… which meant inside the Scape Grace.  Unfortunately, their nature also made localization difficult.  They came and went in choruses.  No signal lasted long enough to convey much information by itself, but multiple signals would ripple through the sensors in a variegated pattern that must hold meaning as a whole.  A wave of such small droplets would crash, followed by a distinct silent pause, then answered by another, more distant wave.  Gleamer could tell that one swarm of crickets was further away, given the lower average power of their broadcasts.
The signals were new.  They had started just under an hour ago, after the Ningyo came aboard.  At first, Gleamer had hoped the odd signals were communications from Katy and NuRikPo, aboard the other, foreign ship; such an odd encoding method might have been necessitated somehow by the circumstances of their entrapment.  After some analysis, Gleamer realized that this was impossible. 
The most likely source was the Ningyo, one or both of them.  Was he picking up some sort of natural emanation from the creatures themselves?  A byproduct of their suits’ functions?  Maybe the biomechanical interface between the two?  That, too, seemed unlikely.  For one thing, such radiated energy would be wasteful if it were not intentional.  The best analogy might be to heat caused by friction on an axle.  Surely the Ningyo could insulate such broadcasts, even if they were somehow internally necessary. 
The best explanation was itself improbable.  One of Gleamer’s sub-AIs proposed the idea via analogy to electroencephalography.  Neurons had such choral behavior in their firing patterns.  The electrical potentials used by each neuron to do its work had the side effect of generating measurable electrical current.  Medical science had learned how to read these patterns of current and trace them back to the functional brain states from which they arose.  The mapping between nerve action and measured current was murky, especially if measured from the scalp surface but even if measured from the outer brain surface.  If you could touch an electrode to every single neuron, you might be able to map and ‘hear’ the thoughts of a subject… after a while.  Nerves, as a general statement, did not follow a single common map.  They might conform to some general rules of organization, but the exact patterns generated by one brain and another would never match exactly, even when having the ‘same’ thought. 
Still, what if a brain wanted to talk to another brain?  Sapients tended to solve that problem by forcibly creating common transmission methods using more reliable and robust mediums like visible light and atmospheric vibration.  Such methods were sharply limited, true, but effective in working around the inherent mismatches between nervous systems.  Hell, the Ningyo didn’t even have nervous systems, per se, and they and chordates could still trade jokes. 
The Awakeners, by contrast, were pretty much just nervous systems.  These most recent additions to the Collective were intelligent masses of fungus, colony entities which could merge symbiotically with other organisms and communicate directly.  They could also communicate externally via a poorly-understood transmission process called ‘psionics’ for lack of a better term.  Maybe psionics was nothing more than the development of a direct, nervous system to nervous system, common code.  That way, two entities could skip over all the intervening steps and really communicate, sharing all the nuances of feeling, image, and experience that speech handled so gracelessly.
That kind of communication was almost what Gleamer experienced with his sub-AIs.  The electrodes penetrating one hemisphere of his brain translated their electronic ‘thoughts’ into his own neural language and back again.  He had experienced the same communication, briefly, with Sid.  Sadly, Human and AI did not share enough frames of reference to make it more than a means of fast, efficient discussion… yet even that interface was vastly superior to any other form of contact Gleamer had experienced before or since.
If there was one thing to be said in favor of other Humans, it was that they had the same dimensionality as Eustace himself.  If he ever met another Human who was wired up in the same way, they might do more than talk.  They could experience real communion, sharing not only information but conscious experiences.  That hope was part of the reason Eustace had become Gleamer. 
The growing awareness of ‘psionics’ had given rise to considerable discussion in the Collective, accompanied by speculation.  There had long been suspicion that other sapient species held the potential for such direct mind-to-mind communication.  Each such culture had understandably kept the evidence of such abilities carefully hidden.  With the Awakeners publicly accepted, the reality of psionics was undeniable.  Fear followed.  The leaders of each society were forced to acknowledge not only the existence of psionics, but also explain the safeguards they were putting (had put) into place for defense against the abuse of such abilities.  Suddenly, there were psionic police, suppressant drugs for psychic restraint, and even sensors to publicly detect the activity of illicit psionic activity.
Most of those who had no access to this mental world were suspicious of it, if not fearful.  Eustace Brown had only been envious.  He had always felt separated from the world.  This alienation wasn’t a mental or chemical disorder; it was nothing doctors could diagnose or treat.  If anything, it was a subtle mismatch of personality to culture.  Gleamer’s literary sub-AI could drag up a thousand examples of the same disjunction expressed across time and artistic formats.  Eustace was a man out of step with the world. 
Eustace had waited patiently through adolescence, reassured that this dissonance was typical and would fade with maturity.  He excelled in his studies and seemed destined for success in that most distinctive of Human industries: the creation of artificial intelligence.  Yet adulthood and a career did not help.  If anything, finding his ‘place’ in society made it clear how hollow a socket he had been plugged into.  Something was wrong with Humanity.  He could feel it. 
At first, Eustace felt that technology was the source of the problem.  Then he realized that it was the solution, just as it had been the solution to other historical problems.  Hunger, health, and physical isolation had once been much worse.  Mental isolation could also be defeated.  They could map a mind.  They could mimic a mind.  Could they create a map of one mind that another could read?  Could you travel to the realms within another sapient’s skull? 
Even if he rose to the ranks of the elite programmers, Eustace would never have the resources necessary to pursue his needs.  The research to link mind to mind was too distant… not for lack of the prerequisite knowledge or technology, but because of priority.  By the time he convinced investors, gathered capital, brought together the workers, and set to work on his true project, Eustace would be due for his first geriatric restorative treatments. 
All that was unnecessary.  He could bypass so much difficulty by using himself as a workshop and devoting himself entirely to his work.  To obtain research materials and leisure time, he would need lots of money.  At first, Eustace tried to work legitimately, adding contract projects alongside his professional schedule.  It was exhausting but not unexpected of an ambitious young programmer.  It wasn’t enough.  It would never be enough. 
That was when he began to work outside of legal channels.  Eustace became 'Gleamer', just one among a thousand masked electronic criminals.  He moved information from closed systems to unauthorized recipients.  He built unlicensed sub-AIs and components for unapproved full AIs.  Eventually, Gleamer cut out the middlemen and just arranged the transfer of credit from one account to another.  He was talented in the virtual world… but na├»ve in the physical domain.  The same disconnect that had driven him to ever greater criminality revealed his operations to the authorities.  He had not realized that repeated deliveries of specific types of hardware and medical supplies would raise flags.  When his unlicensed cybernetic surgeon turned state informant – a treachery negotiated entirely in the physical world – Gleamer’s identity was discovered. 
His trial was unremarkable.  His crimes were hardly unique.  The reason for his actions was also not unique.  Gleamer was aware that others had felt the same needs and sought the same remedies.   The early pioneers had killed or damaged themselves or others.  More recent collaborators, themselves cloaked in anonymity, had endorsed Gleamer’s research privately.  They hoped to someday meet up, joining mind to mind, finding unity at last within their minority society.  Sharing that experience with other, unenlightened Humans, much less the collected sapients of the Collective, could wait as a far distal goal.
That goal was entirely unreachable from the penitentiary facility of Alpha Centaurus Prime.  Gleamer, relabeled Eustace Brown, was shipped there to keep the galaxy safe from his predations.  It was an ironically cruel punishment, since the facility was tightly sealed against external contact.  Eustace was separated further from society than ever before.  The worst abusers of the virtual networks were imprisoned with him.  Rendered destitute by the seizure of their ill-gotten assets, these cyber-criminals were obligated to work to avoid incurring debt from the cost of their incarceration.  Most inmates complied just to avoid mental harm from boredom and isolation.  Working meant contact with other people, not to mention one’s own AI.  It meant building something, even if your creations would be deeply scrutinized and then never credited as your own. 
Some inmates chafed at the idea that their work would aid the law enforcement programs that had been their own downfall.  Gleamer, not thinking of himself as a ‘criminal’, did not mind.  He had always thought of himself as a benefactor of Humanity, not its adversary nor even a parasite.  He was a symbiote – like an Awakener – something outside of the body Human but capable of granting it amazing new powers.  Like the Awakeners, too, most Humans rejected invasive change.  They could not surrender their sanctity, even for the opportunity to become more. 
Gleamer understood such feelings to some extent.  He certainly did not want a wad of fungus invading his body and mind, changing his perceptions.  Perhaps if he had been more comfortable, more normal, or better integrated into his world, he too would reject his own lawless behavior.  Still, he needed what he needed.  Humanity, too, needed what he sought.  They needed communion, but on their own terms, without resorting to alien entities, abilities, or technologies.
Back in the present, on Scape Grace, the programmer’s musings on his past served a useful function.  Those sorts of reminiscences, the products of free association prompted by current problems, were assets his biological brain contributed to the efforts of his team of artificial minds.  Together, they seized upon the important threads.  Threads… like rhizomes… linking fungal masses together.  Neurons… cells in a network.  Something brought in by the Ningyo, but now partially separate from them.  Something that used radio communications, with signals produced by circuits no larger than a micrometer at best.
Not crickets, ants.  He was hearing an ant nest, with electromagnetism in place of pheromones.  The sequences were coordination between disparate units not in physical contact.  Were Ningyo intelligent anthills?  Gleamer’s xenobiology sub-AI negated that possibility.  The jellyfish were most definitely unitary organisms with dependent, specialized cells.  Weird cells with a biochemistry all their own, but still not ants. 
The Ningyo had ants in their pants.  Their robotic pants had robotic ants.  The stinking, rotting, singing, dancing jellyfish had miniaturized technology on board, and it was spreading throughout the Scape Grace.  Whether those robots were talking back to the Ningyo or just conversing among themselves, they were definitely coordinating activities.  Secret activities.  The Ningyo had said nothing about seeding the ship with bugs.  Whatever they were up to, it wasn’t friendly. 
So their visitors had secrets, too?  Fair enough, but that didn’t mean Gleamer had to stay quiet, himself.  The captain needed to be warned.  Hopefully, he would find a way to contact Gleamer privately, so that this information could be shared without tipping off the Ningyo.  Hurry up, Gene!  Gleamer couldn’t even risk sending a program out to alert the captain.  He could conceal his work on this particular console from Jolly using careful encryption and firewalls, but patching anywhere else would raise suspicions.  Once again, he was isolated, in contact only with entities he could not understand. 
He had thought he grokked the Ningyo.  Maybe captain Lerner was right; maybe that was an illusion they created to throw you off guard.   They pretended to understand.  They acted just enough like people to hide their true intentions. That was a good idea.  It was an idea Gleamer could borrow for his own use.
A few minutes after Evgeny and Soloth’s departure, Gleamer turned in his chair to face Jolly. 
“So, what was that you were saying about a ‘Joke’?”

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 10

            Once her course was set and the Scape Grace was moving, there was no need for a full bridge crew.  Evgeny Lerner, her captain and former commander, was reluctant to leave his ship’s nerve center occupied by the enemy while he was absent.  Still, he had work to do elsewhere, work directly related to the removal of those enemies. 

            “I’m due for bunk time,” Evgeny announced, stretching and rising from his seat at the navigator’s station.  He honestly was tired.  It had already been a long shift even before his first mate spotted a seemingly stranded, vulnerable ship on the edges of inhabited space.  The unexpected turns of events since then had further exhausted his resources.  Evgeny wished he actually was going to his quarters.  Maybe he would have a little time for sleep once his other tasks were complete.
            “I will accompany you to the lower decks,” Soloth offered.  “The crew needs to be advised of events.  A discussion now will avoid problems later.”
            “Yes.  I would prefer to avoid any further ambushes in the halls,” Jolly agreed with brightly-tinged sarcasm.  “My aim might not always be so precise, and I'm not sure how many stray shots your ship can risk.”
            Evgeny had feared that the Ningyo occupiers would demand tight scheduling and escorts for any of the command crew moving beyond their observation.  Either Jolly realized how impractical it would be to implement that degree of control, or else the Ningyo commander felt it had nothing to fear from allowing free movement about the ship.  Perhaps a bit of both was true.  From the bridge consoles, Jolly could track activity throughout the Scape Grace, calling up motion sensor readouts and video from most areas.  Audio, also, was available… from most areas. 
            Savvy, senior crew members knew about the ‘dead’ areas, regions unobserved by any sensor... at least, by any sensor connected to the bridge.  Evgeny and his other Mauraug conspirator, Luuboh bash’ Gaulig, had planted wireless devices in those so-called invisible zones, taking advantage of the assumption of privacy to eavesdrop on candid conversations.  Evgeny now realized that this gave him a secondary communications system – with only Luuboh, for now, but with other crew if necessity outweighed the loss from revealing his hidden asset.  Evgeny’s own cabin was the only completely, truly, thoroughly unmonitored location on the Scape Grace.  He was almost certain of that, up to the limits of the shielding and anti-surveillance technology he had installed. 
            Evgeny had also expected some protest from Gleamer.  The comms officer had been seated at his station for most of a duty shift, six hours, even before Soloth arrived for its turn and Evgeny stopped by to oversee the changeover.  It was Gleamer’s own fault for not taking the opportunity to sleep.  He had stuck around an hour longer to finish up whatever coding had him engrossed… until the unnamed ship had shown up on their mass scans.  Still, there was no way anyone could have predicted any variation in their previously monotonous journey, much less the weird sequence of events that followed.  Now, Gleamer was stuck with the decision: stay alone and outnumbered by the Ningyo or leave the bridge entirely to their control.  It looked like the furiously typing programmer was going to make his decision by default again.  He barely acknowledged Evgeny and Soloth’s departure.  Hopefully, whatever he was working on was worth the pain of future fatigue. 
            The arrangement suited Evgeny’s purposes well enough.  If Jolly tried anything drastic through the computer systems, Gleamer could either shut the process down himself, set up automated sub-AI defenses, or at least alert his captain about the trouble.  The real worry was if the other Ningyo, Punch, decided to attack Gleamer, unprovoked or in tandem with a virtual assault on Scape Grace.  In the electronic world, the slight young man was a professional warrior with supernatural powers.  In the world of flesh, he was barely sixty kilos of untoned, untrained Human.  Evgeny had never taken the young man into action and likely never would; his value was mental, not physical. 
            Put that way, it was a pretty depressing statement on their shared culture.  Humans had already been de-emphasizing physical size and strength long before they left Terra to colonize other worlds.  With the advent of AI technology, some of the balance had shifted back toward health and athletic skill as determiners of social status.  It was almost a reflexive refutation of the value of pure mind over body.  With the arrival of the more physically powerful Mauraug, followed by the discovery of other, even meatier sapients like the Taratumm, the need for physical power as a distinctive trait declined further.  Well-muscled mesomorphs like Evgeny were becoming rarer, particularly in space.  Only planetary dwellers in one-plus-gee worlds had much use for greater bulk, although flexibility and good circulation were always valued traits.
            Such thoughts were ironically appropriate while sharing a hallway with a Mauraug massing almost three-quarters more than himself.  Evgeny and Soloth walked quietly together to the far aft ladder.  Once there, Evgeny staged a short conversation for the benefit of both Soloth and the potentially eavesdropping Jolly. 
            “I’m going to stop in on Engineering, brief the crew back there myself,” he explained gruffly.
            “Understood, captain.  I will inform the combat crew that their services will not be needed for several days yet.  Any other orders?”
            “Just let them know that we’re working for the Ningyo, that there will be shares forthcoming – no need to say from what source – and that anyone who pokes their head up-levels without permission will be cut out of the take.  Oh, and mention that the doctor is busy until further notice, so anyone getting hurt will have to settle for Luuboh’s gentle touch whenever it can spare a moment.”
            Soloth narrowed its nostrils in distaste, “If they only understood how gentle it actually is.  But yes, I’m sure they’ll miss the pleasures of doctor Olu’s bedside manner.”
            Evgeny grinned in shared nasty humor.  He was quite aware that the ship’s medic had a reputation for sleeping with every male Human crewmember at one time or another.  Soloth had once assumed that this promiscuity was the flaw that had ended Evgeny and Katy’s brief physical relationship.  The funny thing was that Katy had only started taking crew to her bunk after Evgeny broke things off with her.  Even funnier was that she was the one pressuring the combat crew into sex.  Those who refused tended to suffer from medical neglect in one form or another until they either relented or their illness exceeded Evgeny’s tolerance for Katy’s ‘punishments’.  The medic’s aggressive sexuality was an old private joke between captain and first mate.  Hell, even Gleamer had been dragged into Katy’s room at one point, to his temporary delight and eventual dismay at not being invited back.
            Evgeny was no hypocrite; his libido was no less frustrating and hampered by the close quarters.  Yet he had found channels for that physical demand.  He was able to wait until circumstances allowed for a proper shore leave.  In the meantime, there were the assets of hard workouts, pleasant memories, and when all else failed, a well-stocked video library. 
            This was a hell of a time to get in such a frame of mind.  There was work to do before he could even think of getting back to his cabin, for any purpose.  Not to mention, it would be aggravating to talk to assistant engineer Zenaida Georges – another attractive and entirely unavailable partner – while being reminded of his own suppressed needs.  Eh, he would manage.  If you couldn’t control your own behavior, how could you expect to control a ship full of under-disciplined sapients?
            The two crewmates, Human and Mauraug, parted ways at the first junction of the descending aft ladder.  Evgeny stepped out onto the Engineering deck, while Soloth continued downward to the crew quarters in the Scape Grace’s belly. 


            While the discussion between Jolly and Evgeny had unfolded on the bridge, Luuboh bash’ Gaulig had been monitoring Tklth’s return to consciousness.  The Vislin was responding remarkably well to the reinfusion of fluids to her circulatory system.  The cautery bandages had done their job for now.  The patient’s pain was under control and she was still too exhausted to comprehend the full extent of her mutilation. 
            Luuboh intended to keep it that way.  As Tklth’s vital signs crept back toward acceptable values, it steadily reduced the ambient temperature of the medical room.  If done correctly, the chill would encourage Tklth’s biology to enter its dormant phase.  The reptilian Vislin retained their ancestral tendency to slow down and sleep in darker, colder conditions.  The species had overcome this hereditary limitation during their development of sapience, but through technology rather than genetic change.  Now, this trait was both benefit and drawback.  Beneficial not only in that it allowed Luuboh to sedate the patient without medications and tend to other business without worrying about her harming herself, but also beneficial in conserving the patient’s strength and encouraging her body to focus on repairs.  It was a drawback in that too much cold would start to lower her vital functions and possibly cause harm. 
To set the balance, Luuboh slowly lowered both the temperature and the lighting until Tklth’s heart rate, respiration, blood saturation, and neural functions dropped into the lower end of ‘resting’.  It stopped there and waited a minute longer.  When those vitals held steady without continuing to drop, it felt safe leaving the room.  Still, it patched the medical computer to a portable communicator that it strapped to its upper arm.  If Tklth took a bad turn, the device would sound an alarm and allow Luuboh to race back for further adjustments.
That done, Luuboh gathered up the tools it would need to attend to captain Lerner’s request: biological cleanup and disposal.  It pulled on a stretchy polymer clean suit, which protested a bit at the Mauraug’s larger neck and torso but fit easily enough at its conveniently smaller limbs. 
It then withdrew two folded body bags from a lower drawer.  That the ship had a supply of body bags was a sad necessity, though better than just throwing dead crew into space.  The treated containers preserved the biomass, preventing decay by retarding bacterial breeding and protein breakdown.  This wasn’t just for health reasons; it also made sure the materials could be reclaimed more easily, if necessary.  Taboos about cannibalism limited the utility of such processing, but like on any ship stranded at sea, those taboos could be easily overridden by the prospect of starvation. 
For now, Tklth’s leg and tail might be preserved for reattachment, depending on a lot of factors including, not least, the speed of doctor Olu’s return and her degree of surgical skill.  Given the resources of a decent medical lab – even like those on a space station or command ship - Tklth could expect good odds of being entirely reassembled.  Here and now, she would be lucky if they could salvage enough tissue to rebuild stumps for cybernetic attachment. 
Luuboh's other concern was cleaning up the dead Ningyo’s remains.  It doubted that the plasm that had once been a Ningyo body could be gathered up by anything less than a vacuum cleaner.  Even breached, its suit was doing a better job containing the remains of its operator than anything Luuboh could devise.  The better option was just enzymatic breakdown and then a flush with sterilizer.  While somewhat disrespectful of the dead, that method was safer for Luuboh and the crew that had to walk those halls later. 
Luuboh gathered up what it thought it might need from the medical deck, then departed to stop by the janitorial supply room.  Along the way, it stopped at a ‘comm panel.  Better to ask the Ningyo what they wanted done with their dead than guess and risk offense later.
“Captain Lerner,” Luuboh sent to the bridge, “I am preparing to clean up the Level 2 mid-ship hallway as ordered.  What do our guests want done with their crewmate?”
It was unexpectedly answered by the synthetic voice of the Ningyo leader, Jolly.  “Luuboh?  I’m sorry, the captain has retired to his quarters.  You have reached his after-hours answering service.  Fortunately, I can advise you directly… and thank you for your concern!  You may clear away the remains of our dear departed Comus in whatever manner you find most sanitary.  I would prefer that her suit be sealed into a container, in its entirety, and placed on the deck near our shuttle.  In fact, I will only be offended if any portion of that suit is missing later... not to assume that you would disrespect its owner by misplacing any portion of her property, of course.”
Luuboh allowed only a short pause for disorientation before picking up the conversation again, “I see.  Certainly, your crewmate’s… property… will be returned to you in full.  Could I ask a question, though?”
Jolly replied, “You just did!  But you may, and you may ask another question after that, if you wish.”
“Thank you,” Luuboh responded with even-tempered tolerance.  “I actually have two questions: Is this traditional Ningyo practice, to be unconcerned with the disposition of the dead?  And didn’t you originally state that Comus was male?”
“You do presume on my generosity,” Jolly teased, “but for our gracious host, I am also gracious.  Plus, I appreciate your curiosity.  Burial customs actually differ widely across our culture.  Among spacefarers such as myself and my crew, we tend to be less attached to the physical remains after life has departed.  Given the hostile nature of space itself, recovery of the dead can be difficult, particularly after an accident or conflict between ships.  We have learned to be practical.  Even so, I know of nothing in our present culture to equal the fetishization of the corpse practiced in, say, the ancient Egyptian culture of early Humans or the Urrgala dynasty of your own home world.”
Jolly continued, “As to gender, I do not believe I stated the gender of myself or either of my visiting crew.  Why do you ask now?  Is it pertinent to your ministrations?”
“No, not as such.  But you referred to Comus as ‘he’ originally, then ‘she’ just recently.”
“A gentleman and a scholar, you are.  Very perceptive.  As a reward, I refuse to answer your question.  The challenge of discovery is worth more than an easy answer, ne c’est pas?  I will verify if you guess correctly.  Give it a few hours.  As a hint: you are correct in my choice of gendered pronouns.  Undoubtedly, I will contribute similar variations in future contexts.  The reason is left to your deduction.  Something to occupy your mind while you undertake your unenviable… undertaking.”
With that, Jolly cut the ‘comm connection with a verbally spoken, “beep!”
Luuboh wasn’t sure whether to be genuinely complimented or, like the captain, further infuriated with the Ningyo’s bantering habits.  Mauraug had proverbs about clever talkers, usually involving severed tongues.  A popular poem even had a rather cleverly ironic recipe for the preparation of said organ, prior to serving it back to its former owner for consumption.  As impractical as that recommendation might be, it would be exceptionally difficult to execute upon a Ningyo.  The closest equivalent might be ripping out their vocal synthesizer and jamming it somewhere uncomfortable. 
“My, my, was this how Soloth bash’ Soloth spent its idle thoughts: in the pondering of future brutality?”  Luuboh wondered to itself as it swayed down the hall toward the section spattered with gore.  It blew a breath through its lips in derision, partly toward itself.  It had asked the question, after all.  It was motivated by a pragmatic curiosity.  If they were going to be dealing with Ningyo for a while, then more knowledge about the odd species and its culture could be useful.  Holding useful knowledge made Luuboh useful.  Knowing something that the captain might need to know made it more valuable to him.
It wasn’t sure this particular line of inquiry was worth pursuit, though.  The concept of ‘gender’ was already a strange one for the unisex Mauraug.  Their closest equivalent was the dominant/subordinate relationship of a mated pair, though that was a mixture of hormonal changes caused after mating and genetic chance during the production of an offspring.  The inherent binary, dimorphic nature of most sapient species’ genetic design was often puzzling. 
Humans had once widely conflated gender with dominance, due to their males’ greater muscle mass as a function of sex-linked hormones.  Or was that due to the limitations on females’ mobility required by their mandatory role in gestation?  Yet in Humans' actual relationships, sometimes the female was dominant.  In terms of genetic preponderance, the ‘mother’ determined a larger proportion of an offspring’s traits.  After they transitioned from physical strength to general adaptability being a better predictor of status, the proportions of male-dominant, female-dominant, and equally-balanced relationships reputedly had stabilized among the Human population.  Katy Olu was an excellent example of the confusing nature of Human ‘gender’.  She was dominant with some partners, submissive with others, yet did not intend reproduction at all.  Trying to keep up with another species’ gossip was confusing enough without adding biological enigmas to the mix.
There wasn’t even time to get into the labyrinth that was Zig sexuality and reproduction.  Suffice it to say that if Ningyo gender was equally tangled, Luuboh would be wasting hours of contemplation trying to unravel it.  Maybe that was Jolly’s intent: to waste its time.  Maybe the answer was as simple as sheer randomness; if the Ningyo also did not have gender, then Jolly might just be using linguistic gender at random.  Crap, it might be doing that just to provoke questions like these. 
Such thoughts were good reminders to focus on work and worry about theory later.  Luuboh had already stopped well ahead of the murder scene.  It sealed the hood of its clean suit and unfolded the two body bags.  Holding one bag high to avoid contact with the Ningyo ichor on the deck, it approached the empty robotic suit.
The gleaming white ‘body’ had a neatly punched, carbon-ringed hole in its abdominal area.  A shining grey substance, partially liquid but flecked with small bits of semi-solid matter, had flowed from both the entry and exit holes, staining the lower body of the suit and pooling on the decking beneath.  Sprays of the same substance had dripped down both walls of the corridor, ejected when the suit’s occupant was explosively decompressed.  In the ship’s interior lighting, the substance had a slight iridescence, like a sheen of oil.  It was too utterly foreign to really register as gore and did not provoke any revulsion in Luuboh.  Before it had sealed its hood, the smell had been only chemical and metallic, not all that different from the scents in Engineering when NuRikPo was hard at work.  The odor was blessedly strong enough to cover up any tang of Tklth's blood.

The sight of the Vislin’s mangled leg and tail, and the puddles and smears of her magenta blood, were quite capable of upsetting Luuboh’s equilibrium.  It tried to look away, focusing on the Ningyo suit as long as possible before turning to the more unpleasant cleanup. 
Opening the first body bag, Luuboh draped the black polymer sack over Comus’ suit, covering the staring eyes of its bearded mask.  For a moment, Luuboh was irrationally afraid that the ‘body’ would move, springing to life and perhaps grabbing at its mortician.  Maybe that thought wasn’t so irrational.  It might fit the Ningyo humor to leave a program active in their suits to be triggered after death.  Mauraug had been known to put traps in their cybernetic prostheses so that scavengers would be rewarded with projectiles, nerve gas, or just a rapidly melting handful of thermited slag.  The Ningyo version would likely be less deadly but no less awful: maybe a final song-and-dance routine or a tearful embrace and interminable final soliloquy.  After all, their ship was named Black Humor, a term Luuboh had found easily translatable into Mauraug idiom.  Although, the Mauraug version was more likely to involve amusing abuse of a corpse rather than abuse by one.
The suit remained blessedly inert.  Luuboh managed to get it fully wrapped and sealed into the bag with a minimum of external mess.  The custodian retrieved enzyme spray and a handful of rags from its cleaning kit and wiped down the outside of the bag, removing any remaining ichor or blood.  Then it hoisted the sack and deposited the body-shaped form onto a clean area of the corridor. 
Next was the unavoidable task of bagging up Tklth’s pieces.  Luuboh opened the second body bag.  It wondered if it was even worth trying to save the butchered chunks of flesh and bone.  The spatial fold projector had redistributed a portion of the Vislin’s mass into a dozen different locations and thus, a dozen different pieces.  Each piece had leaked out its liquid contents, creating a composite puddle of blood sprawling across the deck.  As a weapon, the device was horribly messy. 
Worse, some of those pieces had fallen near enough the spatters of Ningyo ichor to become contaminated.  What the Ningyo fluids would do to another species’ cellular structure was a entire dissertation topic, not something Luuboh could just guess at.  It could only save everything and hope for the best.  It would have to hope that the few traces of ichor clinging to one piece would not taint all of the rest.
It knelt and began gingerly picking up scraps of its crew member, trying to think of them as cuts of meat like those it handled in the galley below decks.  That wasn’t helping.  If anything, such thoughts would make cooking dinner more difficult later.  That decided matters: the crew was dining vegetarian tonight.  They could eat their own complaints along with their legumes. 
Luuboh could not help noticing the texture of the damaged tissue as it picked up each piece.  Most of the segments were neatly sliced, smooth cross-sections where the spatial fields had diverged.  That made sense; the effect would cut more smoothly than even a mono-molecular edge could manage. 

The piece that had landed nearest to Comus’ remains was noticeably different.  It wasn’t degraded or dissolved, as Luuboh had feared.  In fact, it seemed to be irregular for an entirely opposite reason.  The silvery substance clung to it not like a liquid but like a network of filaments.  Between those filaments, a pinkish-grey substance was protruding outward from the sliced surface of muscle tissue.  Fascinated enough to overcome its revulsion toward the awful thing it held, Luuboh examined the piece of Tklth’s… lower leg?... more closely. 
There was a definite pattern forming there.  The tissue was indeed expanded.  It was apparently being grown or stretched somehow.  How and why?  Was this the natural effect of Ningyo cellular material on other substances?  Somehow, Luuboh doubted that.  The ‘jellyfish’ were definitely multicellular, organ-possessing, unitary organisms, by all accounts.  They might have oddities of anatomy owing to their unique environment of origin, but they were not distributed systems or colony intelligences.  Something like this put Luuboh in mind of the Awakeners, though those were distinctly fungus-like cell colonies that only inhabited living organisms.
Luuboh sealed the body bag, keeping the one odd piece separate, and carried both towards its clean area and cleaning supplies.  Tklth would have to do without this piece of her anatomy permanently.  It was just as well; whatever was acting upon this piece definitely would have done something to her other severed flesh.  Exactly what, Luuboh was unsure.
Was it regrowing?  Luuboh decided to let the process continue and compare the sample later.  It used a biohazard disposal bag to hold the separate chunk.  The bags had been intended to hold used cleaning rags for later decomposition and would not slow breakdown in the same way as the body bags.  Therefore, they would also not slow build-up. 
It now had two mysteries set aside for future work.  Luuboh went back to its remaining task.  With sprays and rags, it broke down the mixed drippings of two species and soaked up the resulting water saturated with salts and minerals and simple compounds like ammonia.  Murder victim and murderer were reduced and intermingled. 
Aren’t we all eventually intermixed? Luuboh thought to itself as it scrubbed.  Whether we consume one another directly, indirectly consume crops watered and fertilized by our excreta and decomposed bodies, or simply breathe in the vapor exhaled by another, we cannot avoid taking in part of one another.  What folly to set one being ahead of another, as if they were separate to begin with.  They certainly will not remain so for long.
While such philosophical musings were not foreign to the frequently lonely Mauraug custodian, it should have heeded the insight shown by this particular line of thought.  Its mind was trying to give warning about an unclear but very present danger.