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.

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