Monday, June 2, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 8

            Soloth and Luuboh reached the ship’s medical facilities with Tklth still faintly breathing and slowly bleeding between them.  Other than the ooze of purplish-red blood from her wounds, she showed little sign of a pulse.  The two Mauraug slid their Vislin patient onto a diagnosis bed with their best approximation of care.

            The medical space was normally cramped with only ship's medic Katy Olu and one patient present.  With both Maraug occupying it, the room became very tight quarters.  Soloth could at least relieve that problem by exiting quickly.  The first mate did just that, stopping in the doorway to watch Luuboh start work.
            Luuboh bash’ Gaulig was not precisely skilled at all trades, but had paid attention often enough while acting as assistant to 'doctor' Olu to pick up a smattering of knowledge.  Among this learning were the rudiments of first aid and triage.  Luuboh peeled the backing off of two thick cautery bandages, slapping the sandwiches of gauze and chemicals onto the sites of greatest damage: the stumps of Tklth’s severed tail and leg. 
The patches began to react upon exposure to moisture, heating rapidly and releasing a cocktail of analgesics, antibiotics, dessicants, and adhesives.  The bandages were rough battlefield medicine and would ultimately leave the contact sites heavily scarred and inflexible.  That could be corrected with later treatment.  For now, the bleeding was under control.
Anticipating other complications, Luuboh rummaged through the drawers of a nearby cabinet and picked out several vials of medication.  It plugged each of these into an air-jet spray gun, conveniently close at hand.  Luuboh injected Tklth with several synthetic hormones to forestall circulatory arrest due to shock and to reduce any allergic reactions, including to the cautery bandages.  It also gave her the standard counteragent for the toxins found in Ningyo biochemistry, just to be safe.
Next, Luuboh began to dial in the necessary settings for an intravenous line for a Vislin.  Tklth would need fluids quickly.  A ‘blood’ transfusion would be best, but their supplies of matching Vislin-specific circulatory fluids were limited to the small cache of Tklth’s own stockpiled donations.  The synthesis of any artificial substitute would have to wait on the return of their medic and engineer to design the necessary equipment.  For now, Luuboh would wait and see if Tklth could recover just on saline and nutrient solution.  A full transfusion would have to wait until absolutely necessary.
Seeing that its subordinate was managing well enough, Soloth took this moment to depart.  It added only, “Report when the patient is stable.”
Luuboh did not bother to reply.  The practice of acknowledging a command was uncommon in Mauraug cultures, though Luuboh had picked up the habit around the part-Human crew.  Besides it being pointless or even offensive to answer Soloth with a “yes, sir”, Luuboh was too busy anyway.  As Soloth turned and stomped away, Luuboh was sliding the intravenous needle between the scales of Tklth’s wrist. 
The Vislin’s fingers flexed.  At first, Luuboh took this to be a reflex trigged by jostling a nerve or tendon.  Then the muscles of the arm beneath its hand tensed.  Its patient was already regaining consciousness. 
Luuboh faced a dilemma.  Allowing Tklth to wake was medically advisable; the longer she remained unconscious, the more damage done to her body and the greater the risk of sudden death.  Sedating her would undo some of the useful effects of the stimulants he had already injected, not to mention introducing its own set of complications.  However, letting the natively vicious Vislin wake up, wounded and confused, would probably trigger a panic reaction.  In another Vislin, that reaction would result in further harm to the patient as she frenzied and tried to escape danger.  In Tklth, the response might result in harm to the nearby physician. 
Fortunately for Luuboh, Katy Olu had already anticipated this problem.  The diagnosis bed came equipped with padded metal cuffs with magnetic seals.  Luuboh paused in its medical care to restrain the patient, clicking the nearest cuff shut onto Tklth’s punctured arm.  It then circled around to lock down the Vislin’s other arm and one remaining leg.  There was no neck restraint, possibly for pragmatic reasons: patients might end up closing off their own throats while straining against a neck band. 
That consideration meant that Tklth could still bite.  Luuboh would just have to stay away from that end.  Fortunately, all her injuries were at the other end.  Returning to the intravenous line, Luuboh entertained an idle perverse thought: how mortified would the Vislin be that two Maraug had been handling her genital area?  In a medical context, the idea was absurd, but absurdity and emotion were often close friends. 
Well, if she wanted her modesty, she should avoid provoking armed Ningyo.  What an aphorism!  Luuboh tried to force itself to laugh as it watched fluids pour through the intravenous line and into Tklth’s arm.  She was most definitely waking now, twitching all over and starting to breathe more raggedly.  Her outer eyelids fluttered and her beak flexed, tongue smacking dryly.
Luuboh watched with some fascination.  It had never had the chance to observe either a Vislin or Taratumm in full frenzy.  It had read about the process and even watched dramatic re-enactments in popular Great Family videos.  Recordings of the genuine event were rare and Tklth was the only member of either species Luuboh had ever met.  Its personal exposure to Tklth was generally minimal, confined to bland interactions with the gunner during mealtimes in the galley and quickly averted glances when passing in the ship’s halls. 

The combat crew and senior officers said she was a terror in battle, a space-age berserker, ignoring fear and pain but also unbelievably fast and accurate both with firearms and hand-to-hand attacks.  Her speed and destructive ability were likely the reason her aggressiveness had not already killed the Vislin or landed her in medical with injuries like these, before now.
This demonstration of frenzy proved anticlimactic.  Tklth did indeed scream and flail and snap, but she was too weak for any prolonged fury.  Her scream of outrage was a dry wail of frustration and pain.  Her spasms would not have broken leather restraints, much less challenge the solid steel bands and electromagnets that held her limbs in place.  She seemed more pathetic than deadly.  She fatigued quickly and her head fell back, rolling to the side to take in Luuboh with one dark, slitted eye.
“You’re in medical,” Luuboh explained flatly.  “You attacked the Ningyo and lost.  You’re badly hurt and at critical risk.  If any of this is getting through, calm down and let me work… or you will die.”
Tklth continued a token struggle for a few seconds more before exhaustion overcame her biological need for action.  Even still, Luuboh suspected that it would lose a finger if it reached too close to her beak.  This would have to do.  Luuboh searched out various monitoring equipment and began attaching electrodes and other sensors to the shivering but otherwise unresisting body of its patient. 
It had done what it could for now.  It would have to watch Tklth’s vital signs and treat symptoms for a time.  The patient needed to rest, rehydrate, and regenerate, to the extent that her body could manage with amateur medical assistance. 
Luuboh wished, belatedly, that there was some drug to manage the frenzy reaction.  Stabilization and healing would be much easier if the patient could calm down.  For that matter, the multiple troubles encountered by both Vislin and Taratumm, particularly in mixed-cultural settings and enclosed environments like spaceships and stations, would be dramatically reduced if their overreactions could be chemically controlled.  Perhaps such treatments did exist but had unavoidable negative side effects.  Then again, maybe the Vislin and Taratumm themselves refused such treatments.  Similar sympathetic nervous system responses existed in most other species, but nowhere did they seem as extreme, widespread, and deeply ingrained as in the two reptilian members of the Great Family.  It might be considered a denial of species identity to suppress such an integral characteristic. 
It would be like a Mauraug stripped of the urge to Dominate.  Now Luuboh did laugh, quietly and ruefully.  The Scape Grace's crew - even the captain, who knew it best -  assumed that Luuboh was atypical in exactly that way.  It was not.  It felt the need for power as strongly as any other of its kind.  What it had learned from its parents was to disconnect that need from religious faith and from the outward trappings of behavior.  It still needed domination, just not Dominion.  After all, what was the point of seeking something which society would forever deny?  One might as well criticize the Scape Grace’s crew for denying their need to be part of a greater society.  They could not rejoin the Collective.  Instead, they fulfilled that need by forming their own small, mobile, vacuum-sealed ‘collective’.
So let Tklth have her frenzy.  She would likely rather die than live without that distinctive cursed blessing.  She already had to exist as a freak and a cripple… just like Luuboh.  Just like most other Mauraug, for that matter.  But like most Mauraug, her deformity need be only temporary.  She might someday be back to her old murderous form or even better, with a cybernetic leg and tail.  For that matter, she could put her beloved plasma thrower in her tail.  That alone might be sufficient compensation to make up for the loss of her original limbs.  For its part, Luuboh was not and might never be ready to sacrifice its original flesh in return for superior prostheses.  That reluctance might be considered more of a disability by other Mauraug than its physical deformity.  So be it. 
Part of true dominance was not being affected by the opinions of others.  Luuboh defied the expectations of an entire culture.  Was that not powerful?

Unescorted, Punch and Jolly made their way to the bridge.  Despite never having set foot on the Scape Grace before, they traveled directly and unerringly.  This had very little to do with the peculiarly strong Ningyo spatial sense and more to do with resourceful use of technology.  In their suits, the Ningyo were already navigating vehicles analogous to a space shuttle, incorporating sensory technology alongside life support and motor controls.  Using infrared and chemical detectors, the Ningyo backtracked along the original path taken by Soloth bash’ Soloth when the Mauraug had come to intervene in their fight against its Vislin crewmate.  Heat, traces of respiration, and other effluvia guided the two visitors to the first mate’s origin point above.  They climbed the fore ladder and emerged close by the hatch to the ship’s bridge.
Thus it was that the unwanted guests arrived unannounced at captain Lerner’s door.  With exaggerated politeness, Jolly rapped upon the sealed hatch, calling out, “Hello?  We’re finally here.  Anyone home?”
The insulated, armored door would hardly transmit sound from a light knock, let alone admitting the Ningyo’s synthetic voice.  But, as Jolly knew, the bridge crew was monitoring their doorstep with audio and video.  Jolly's entreaty was picked up and transmitted for Gleamer’s and Evgeny’s attention.
A loudspeaker thumped to life over the visitors’ heads, speaking in Evgeny’s voice, “Where are Soloth and Luuboh… the Mauraug?”
“Taking your unfriendly Vislin to the hospital.  She fell into a spatial fold and needed medical attention.  It was very kind of them to rush to her aid, but I’m afraid we had to find our way without a guide.”
            A long pause suggested that the captain was taking some time to verify the essence of those claims.  After a few seconds, Evgeny spoke again, “You’re all right?  I only see two of you.”
            “My colleague Comus also had an accident.  He stepped right in the way of a plasma discharge.  I’m afraid he didn’t survive the experience.  He’s with us in spirit, though… fortunately for everyone involved.  Still, spirit is fleeting.  I’d appreciate it if you opened the door soon, before his moderating influence fades.”
            The subtle hints in Jolly’s overtly positive commentary finally penetrated the captain’s awareness.  “Copy that.  As long as there won’t be any more accidents, welcome on deck.”
            As the door seals released, Jolly acknowledged, “No, accidents are terrible things.  I certainly will be doing my utmost to avoid another.”  The Ningyo leader nodded to its colleague, and Punch stepped forward to pull the hatch open.  The security officer preceded its leader into the room, stun baton in hand but deactivated and held low. 
            Neither Evgeny nor Gleamer rose to greet the entering Ningyo but swiveled their chairs around to face the newcomers. 
            Gleamer stared at Punch for a moment in slack-jawed awe.  Then his mouth began operating, driven by a stream of AI-assisted recognition. 
            Punchinello!  Commedia dell’arte!  Holy Batman, that’s perfect!  He’s even got the stick!”
            Jolly faced the young man with its own air of curiosity.  “Indeed.  I wasn’t expecting you’d supply your own Arleccino for the performance.  But how gauche, to spoil the punchline.”
            Punch line!” Gleamer cackled, throwing his head back, long hair brushing against the console behind him. 
            Jolly continued to watch the still-giggling Human a moment more or at least continued to hold the same position and attitude.  Then, it abruptly turned to face Evgeny instead, fixing the captain with a challenging ‘stare’.  Its feet were planted wide, hands at its hips, and forehead tilted forward, a posture seemingly adopted from studies of Mauraug.
            “The time has come,” the Ningyo said, “to speak of serious things.  Ships, and stars, and sentience, and command structures and… things.”
            “And why the stars are boiling hot and whether Zig have wings.”  Gleamer’s interjection drew irritated glares from both captain Lerner and Captain Jolly.  Punch, reading their mood, stepped forward and raised its baton threateningly toward the offending Human.
Gleamer’s grin fell.  “What?  I can’t make literary references, too?”
“You seem to understand but only superficially,” Jolly lectured, “Study the masters for a time.  I suggest Chaplin, Skelton, Carlin, TeLoKiChon, and AI Codger, to begin.  Consider their ways – quietly – and grow wise.”
Privately, Evgeny appreciated Gleamer’s accomplishment.  Though perhaps inadvertently, the wire-headed programmer had managed to irritate the Ningyo with a dose of their own nonsense.  With the help of his sub-AI prompters, Gleamer could keep pace with the Ningyo.  They seemed to think themselves clever, throwing out allusions that sometimes went over the heads of their targets.  Gleamer could at least expose their antics for the derivative drivel they really were.  
 More often, Ningyo jibes struck at a confusing and uncomfortable angle.  They acted like they were somehow helping by keeping listeners off-balance, as if their alien restructuring of other cultures’ contents provided some kind of new perspective or even enlightenment.  It was the same excrement peddled by any other sophists, in Evgeny’s opinion.  Usually, he just ignored the dressing of Ningyo dialogue and focused on the content.  It would be nice to force one to strip down to bare, simple prose.  Failing that, at least he could enjoy seeing them exposed for the frauds they were.
Still, it wouldn’t help to aggravate their ‘guests’, particularly not while the threat of their command ship hung near enough to reflect starlight onto his own hull.  Evgeny could torture the Ningyo verbally – and physically – whenever the situation finally turned to his favor. 
“Dial it back, Gleamer,” Evgeny ordered.  “Let our semi-robotic overlords have their fun.”
Jolly turned back to Evgeny, “Oh, yes, your subordinate mentioned that you resent our presence.  ‘Want you dead’, I believe it said.  Well, the feeling is not mutual.  As much as you are stuck with us, we are stuck with you, for very good and necessary purposes.  Bear with me, O Captain, my captive.  A game is afoot, and we are all players.  We have the conscience of a kingdom to catch… and the net grows ever smaller.”
Evgeny rolled his eyes.  So much for straight talk.  Maybe double talk was a species pathology among Ningyo, like Tesetsi solipsism or Hrotata libido.  That other one, Punch, was all right, entirely quiet if a bit hostile seeming.  Maybe the Ningyo just promoted the obnoxious ones to leadership positions.  Some would say the same was true of Humans.
“All right, so what are we doing now?” Evgeny asked in response.  “If time is wasting, where are we going?”
“Ay, there’s the rub.  Our unpronounceable friend out there is a long way from home and not even sure how far.  It needs to load up supplies for its travels; otherwise, it may starve to death before it gets back.  There’s not much matter out in the deeps, you know.  It needs to make a stop somewhere nearby, somewhere with lots of resources.  Since it doesn’t have any credit in this part of the universe, it can’t just go shopping.  That’s where you come in.”
“Starve?  You said there wasn’t any actual crew on board.  You mean it needs fuel?  Raw materials for repairs?  Can’t you just transfer over whatever it needs from Black Humor?”
“I said what I meant.  A Ningyo is truthful, one hundred percent.  It needs more than just some fusables and widgets.  It needs raw mass – quite a lot of it – and some sizable quantities of rare elements that we don’t just keep on board.  Going back to inhabited systems and shopping around for all that would raise flags.”
“Just like hiring a pirate crew.  Okay, so it has a big ‘appetite’ and a refined palate.  What are you proposing?”
“Like any good story, we’re going back to the beginning.”
Despite his resistance to the Ningyo idiom, Evgeny could not help catching its hidden meaning.  “What?  No.  The Zig outpost?”
“Exactly!  It’s close, we both know the address, and they definitely have everything our hungry little caterpillar could want.”
“Are you… of course you’re insane.  We just barely escaped that system intact!  They’ll have help by now, either private security or official Zig protection.  And they’ll recognize us immediately.  We didn’t manage to sneak past their security last time; there’s no way we could pull it off now.”
Jolly raised one hand, finger pointed upward, and tilted its hips to assume a lecturing attitude.  “Granted, but that is the point.  Of course they’ll recognize you.  You’re a terrible, hateful, dangerous pirate ship.  They’ll rush to drive you off.  But this time, you won’t be alone.  You’ll have the Harauch, an equally vicious Mauraug pirate… your ally of convenience… at your side.”
“Even so, they have enough fighters to deal with two ships the equal of Scape Grace… and that clunker is in no way our equal.  Besides, don’t you mean we’ll have two ships at our side?  I realize that the Black Humor will be shortly vanishing in a puff of deniability, but isn’t that unidentified ship going to pull its weight?  After all, this is supposedly for its benefit.”
“What do you think it will be doing while the Zig chase you?  Why, helping itself to the unguarded shelves for great convenience!  It might even pick you up something nice for being such a good patsy.  Whaddya say?”  The Ningyo delivered its last line with its hands spread wide and head cocked, still the overdone showman even for an audience of three.
Evgeny sighed.  “What choice do we have?  And, yes, it’s not a bad plan… for the third ship.  We’re the ones that will take the brunt of the attack.  Even if we commit totally to evasion, they can sting us a bit… and if we overdo things to avoid damage entirely, they’ll notice that something is up.  Will you commit the Harauch to a fair share of the assault?”
“Absolutely, and quite fair.  Our use for you does not end with this raid.  Once refueled, our tourist will still need an escort to a reference point for departure.  The Zig will undoubtedly send distress signals and warn surrounding systems to be on guard.  This is but step one in our plans.  More will be forthcoming upon objective completion.”
“Wow.  The Ningyo, saviors of Humanity, plotting a mining colony raid.  I never would have expected it.  You realize that a lot of Zig are going to die, not to mention that their investors are going to lose a significant fortune?”
“Yes.  And I regret that.  But would you believe that I consider this a necessary evil?  I would, of course, ask that we try and minimize the loss of life – on both sides – but I realize this is a sentimental impracticality.”
“That presumes we even succeed.  What if a Zig command ship decided to stop by in response to their distress call?  Is your ship available for backup if we’re completely outclassed?”
“Sadly, no.  Turning this into an interstellar incident is exactly what I am trying to avoid.  It would do no good to solve one problem by creating one of equal scale.”
“Right, you keep hinting that this is a big deal.  I see one stray, stranded ship.  If we just blew it to particulates, who would be the wiser, here or wherever it comes from?  I get that its tech could be a huge asset to whomever claims it… but you’re already offering us that.  For that matter, you could have taken it captive and had your way with whatever weird technomagic they have aboard.  Instead, you’re treating it like your own ward, helping it along.  It seems like it might be more dangerous going home with news about our system than it would be dead and distributed across space.  So why not just strip and scrap it?
Evgeny’s diatribe had not only Jolly but also Punch and Gleamer staring at him.  Gleamer’s face registered shock, and the two Ningyo communicated similar surprise with their slack stillness.
“Thank you,” Jolly finally said.  “I approached you with the trappings and attitude of piracy.  I admit that I meant to taunt you with a caricature.  Yet it seems I truly did not understand.  You are a pirate… I understand what that means now.  I was wrong.  My apologies.”
Now Evgeny was confused.  He felt as if he had been somehow rebuked, despite the Ningyo’s placating words.  What in the reeking ammonia clouds of the Egg Nebula was so important about this increasingly damnable ship?
He decided not to dignify Jolly’s attitude by asking the question.  Instead, he grumbled in response: “Glad you’re finally listening.  So?  Let’s get to work.”  He turned to face Gleamer’s gaping expression, snapping out an order, “Open a channel to the Black Humor so that their captain can send them on their way.”
With a blink, Gleamer spun around to comply. 
Jolly, instead, spoke to Evgeny, “Before that, let’s straighten out the hierarchy.  I am promoting myself to Admiral.  As such, you follow – and relay – my commands.  I’d also like access to all ship’s functions.  I’d rather not blindly trust you to follow my orders.  After all, in the heat of battle, accidents do happen.  So, captain, kindly call up your command codes and relinquish your chair.  I expect to see whatever I want to see and have access to whatever I want to access.  This will work better with you as an interface for your crew.  If you like, I won’t even mention my new title.  I don’t have a face to save, but I don’t mind if you keep yours.  If you refuse – or if you try to deceive me – that face could be removed along with other portions of your mass.”
Jolly put a hand on the grip of one of its two space fold generators in emphasis.  Punch added punctuation by flicking the switch on its stun baton.  Gleamer jumped as the electrical field snapped to life a few feet away. 
Evgeny’s mortification was complete when he heard Soloth’s voice from the doorway.  In the midst of their earlier exchange, the Mauraug first mate had been able to creep forward unheard.  Now, it spoke as it stepped through onto the bridge. 
“I suggest compliance, captain.  Aside from their personal weaponry here, plus the presence of their command ship and two other allies, the Ningyo have three other advantages: we are down three senior crew members, they have an escape shuttle while we have none, and they still hold some secrets we need.”
At first, Evgeny wanted to object, feeling that his ally had turned against him.  Then he realized that it was more likely that Soloth was objectively considering the situation and found their position genuinely tenuous.  Hopefully, his first mate also had some thoughts about how to deal with the potential override of their bridge controls.
Of course, Evgeny had his own ultimate override - his dormant AI, Matilda - but that card could only be drawn once.  If he used it to wrest control of the Scape Grace back from Jolly, his advantage over his own crew was lessened.  Soloth hopefully was not aware of that particular potential turnabout. 
Once again backed up between likely destruction and merely potential doom, Evgeny was pushed toward the less certain hazard.  “Very well.  But I’d like some answers in exchange for the surrender of my ship.  First of all, why can’t we hear anything from my crew on board that ship?  After they went inside, their comms went dark.  Are you trying to cut us off?  If not, would you please ask your friend to stop blocking their signal?”
Jolly lowered its hand but stayed ready to react.  “I’m not sure what you mean.  If your crew are not responding, that is none of our doing.  As to the actions of that ship, I am not its master.  Friend is perhaps accurate.  Here is my bargain: give me access to your ship, including communication, and I will contact the unnamed ship and ask it to open channels to your crew.  That is my best offer.  It is, in fact, my only possible offer.”
Evgeny considered.  Jolly’s entire response might be a lie, but he was in no position to dispute it.  Only the course of events would reveal clues about its honesty or falsehood. 
“All right, all right.”  Evgeny punched in his command codes and left them shining on his console.  “There’s communications, there’s navigation, there’s propulsion, there’s security and weapons.  Anything you don’t see here is controlled locally.”  He stood, giving narrow looks at Gleamer and Soloth.  “You have the command.”
He stepped down and took Soloth’s position at the navigation console.  Soloth took his meaning and his lead and moved to take Tklth’s chair at weapons.  Jolly stepped up to the command chair and scanned the provided codes.  Punch holstered its weapons and moved to a position halfway between Jolly and the door.  From there, the hostile Ningyo controlled entry and exit from the bridge as well as standing guard over its commander. 
From the intercom speakers came Luuboh’s voice, “Tklth is stable but still critical.  Her survival would be greatly improved by actual medical attention.”
Evgeny did not wait for permission but opened a channel in response, “I hear you.  We’re working on it now.  Do your best until you hear otherwise.  Oh, and if you get a moment, could you clean up the hallway near engineering?  I hear she left a mess.”
Luuboh’s response was delayed by a tell-tale pause.  Then its voice returned, saying, “She did, indeed.  If I can be spared here, I will clean up what I can.  Some messes are harder to resolve than others.”
“I understand.  Do your best,” Evgeny signed off, thinking, Some messes do resist easy resolution.  They just need extra time and the right approach. 

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