Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 17

           The hours were long, the quarters were cramped, the food was terrible, the situation was worsening, and both Katy Olu and NuRikPo were forced to work with someone they loathed.  Why, then, were they growing steadily less uncomfortable as the days wore on? 

            The effect was subtle at first.  Through the first two days, the two cellmates managed to avoid one another by staying at opposite ends of the shuttle, immersing themselves in work, and alternating their sleep schedules.  They interacted only when necessary to share results from their respective tasks.  Katy also had to periodically scan NuRikPo, in addition to herself, to track the spread of the micro-robotic infestation within their bodies. 

            That spread was progressing exactly as she had feared.  The concentrations of metallic ‘cells’ were travelling from the two sapients' extremities, to their spines, and then upward to their central nervous systems.  Small colonies of the little machines also appeared to be forming in their glands: the adrenal glands, ovaries, and thyroid in Katy Olu and their equivalents in NuRikPo, when adjusting for Zig anatomy and gender differences.  The latter discoveries required some particularly unpleasant personal contact and discussions. 

            The micro-robots were hitting all bodily regulatory systems, including autonomous nervous functions, and were probably also setting up shop in the two sapients’ brainstems and limbic structures.  Emotional control was the most likely explanation.  Not much of their cortical areas had been infested yet. 

            That pattern was both reassuring and puzzling.  Direct control of an intelligent organism would be simpler by manipulating memory access, sensory content, motor functions, or overall executive functioning.  If the machines wanted to rewrite their bodies and minds, there were far more overt changes that could be made.  A limited time frame might have restricted gross modifications.  Perhaps the robots would move on to more complex projects eventually.  Or perhaps the overall system being built within their bodies was learning: drawing a map before it remodeled the terrain.  Such a scheme would ensure finer control and a more functional, believable automaton, not to mention yielding data about the original organism.  If nothing else, such data would allow the next generation of micro-robots to more quickly convert new organisms of the same type. 

At least they were not being remolded physically in the image of the ship’s structure… or of its absent creators.  Those had been among Katy’s first paranoid hypotheses.  Being made into a puppet by an internal control system was awful enough, but at least she would still look like herself.  Perhaps she would still think like herself... with a few improvements.  Wait, what?
Such odd thoughts were the first warning signs that her mind was being tampered with.  As the third day passed, Katy found herself increasingly experiencing stray thoughts and feelings at odds with her prior attitudes.  Her fear of the micro-robots was decreasing.  Her explorations continued, but flavored more with fascination than with revulsion.  The ship outside seemed less like a hateful, foreign, hostile environment and more like an interesting new place to explore.  The man-shaped construct outside their shuttle door no longer seemed like a threatening guardian, but possibly a welcoming friend.  Her sense of urgency declined.  Sometimes it took an effort of will to go back to work, researching the systems that were being manipulated and trying to anticipate and counter the influences exerted.
NuRikPo, when asked, admitted to similar emotional changes.  For him, however, the change was less from dislike to neutrality and more from irritation to positive engagement.  He had viewed their entrapment within the unnamed ship, the subsequent jeopardy from the invading nanotechnology, and the necessity of researching counter-measures as unwelcome distractions from their original mission of studying the ship’s overall technologies.  Certainly, they were learning quite a lot by necessity, but they were cut off from the rest of the ship.  They were narrowly focused on one element while missing the wider context of the entire system.  Such limitations grated on both NuRikPo’s sense of duty and scientific curiosity.  He had been annoyed two days ago.  Now he was starting to appreciate the skillful design of a brilliantly integrated system.  The invasion of his own body seemed like a courtesy, a demonstration of the subtle power of miniaturized technology.  While he still yearned to explore the ship as a whole, his feelings were less about exploitation and more about appreciation.  He could tolerate starting his investigations at the smallest scale and working his way outward.
It took longer for the two forcible collaborators to recognize the other changes in their emotional makeup.  When they did, they were more offended than they had been by the changes in their outlook toward the ship.  They were growing less hostile toward one another.  Katy had long before assumed that she no longer minded NuRikPo’s awful chemical odor because her olfactory systems had been overloaded.  His misshapen, eye-bulging, narrow-lipped face had just become too familiar to be properly repulsive.  Even so, why was she no longer cringing at his terrible, dry jokes?  His nervous tics and taps, which before had been grating noises, now seemed like comfortable background rhythms. 
Katy did not voice these observations to NuRikPo.  For one problem, it would be humiliating.  Worse, he might admit to similar changes in feeling.  She could deal with being artificially forced to not hate the obnoxious Zig.  Having him abandon his own complaints about her for the same reasons – and not because he finally understood how bizarrely wrong those complaints were – would be disturbing.  If he actually admitted to enjoying her company she might be forced to put a scalpel through his glittering eyeballs.  That would really slow down his research.  For such reasons, Katy kept her socio-emotional alterations to herself. 
It was bad enough that she could tell that NuRikPo was being affected.  His insults slowed down and stopped.  He was nearly courteous during their scheduled interactions and did not immediately turn away when finished.  He almost lingered to make small talk, which cut off awkwardly when she glared at him (half-heartedly) in response.  When she thought she saw the curmudgeonly engineer almost smile in her direction, Katy decided that the bugs must have finally invaded her visual cortex and were making her hallucinate.  That was a more comforting thought than total personality modification.
Her rational mind vetoed this idea, unfortunately.  For one thing, such cortical modifications, this soon, would have given her other, less subtle and more bizarre hallucinations.  Probably would have given her headaches, too.  No, she was definitely being subjected to lower brain alterations.  Oddly positive ones, it seemed.  Maybe the puppeteer machines would have them fight to the death later.  For now, the changes seemed to be aimed toward pleasant and pacifistic ends. 
Hopefully, remaining calm and avoiding antagonism would keep the rewiring to a minimum.  At least, Katy told herself that as an excuse to avoid deliberately ruffling NuRikPo’s feathers.  She had to stifle a giggle at the thought of the staid copper-skinned sapient plumed like a parrot.  Wow, she was getting deranged, fast.  They could make a fortune selling these crawlers as a psychoactive drug.  People would pay to bend their minds this much. 
That was, assuming that they could figure out the command structures for the system.  There either had to be some overall programming built into the mechanisms themselves – possibly in the DNA-equivalent ‘tape’ NuRikPo had discovered – or else a method of coordination using the radio generator and receiver elements found on some of the units they dissected.  Such structures were part of the reason why ‘nano-’ was the wrong prefix term for this technology.   Only some of the devices were at a scale less than one micrometer.  Most were like bacteria: as large and complex as organic cells, with nanite-scale ‘organelles’, reproductive nuclei, and multiple in-built functions and behaviors.
Both Katy and NuRikPo were impressed with the machines, despite themselves.  Or at least, despite their normal selves.  With the influence of the machines also in play, they could not help being enchanted by their invaders.  Katy saw them as clever mimicry of the structures biology had accomplished through eons of selective winnowing.  NuRikPo saw them as the products of genius engineers; an entire culture of such engineers, like his own.  Those creators certainly possessed a valuable and unique technology.  In one of their conversations, Katy and ‘Po agreed that the sapients responsible for the unnamed ship would have a good chance of acceptance into the Collective.  That was, provided the Collective did not find it necessary to destroy this technology for its own safety. 
The thought upset them both deeply.  As the first distinctly unpleasant feeling either had experienced throughout their third day, that disturbance stood out noticeably.  It was enough to shake the two out of their musings and put them back to work combating the increasingly obvious yet increasingly powerful pressure on their psyches.  Katy had been right; the cells were an immune system.  The ship was protecting itself.  Instead of attacking them physically, the ship had infiltrated their motivational systems.  They were being encouraged to appreciate the ship.  In time, they might begin to love it.  The thought of harm coming to the unnamed ship was already distressing.  How long before they would fight on its behalf?  Kill its enemies?  Sacrifice themselves for its survival?
Katy kept these thoughts stoked using anger.  She struggled to maintain her fury at being entered and changed without permission.  She held out hope that such changes were not permanent, that her mind would return to its former patterns after the micro-robots were disabled. 

Such resistance was difficult.  It seemed that the harder she fought to rebel, the more strongly the little censors clamped down on her emotions.  Belatedly, she realized that she was making it easier for the bugs to find what they wanted: her emotional triggers and ammunition.  Katy reversed course later in the day, attempting to calmly, rationally lay out the case for resistance in her mind.  Her motivations had to come from reason, not desire, or else they were vulnerable to mechanical control through her biology.  Her so-called ‘higher’ functions were not yet under the same attack. 
Finally, she decided to sleep.  Her researches were running more and more slowly with less and less result.  Part of that was due to fatigue, part due to mental resistance, but a certain part was just due to the limits of her expertise.  She had identified the activity of the micro-robots, their course of attack, and their likely end goal.  She had given her observations to NuRikPo, including even an analysis of the various construct types from the perspective of biological analogy.  Unless further observation yielded some unexpected insight – which was growing less likely – her contributions were coming to an asymptotic end.  She might as well sleep and slow the progress of the infection.
When she awoke, she found NuRikPo sitting at the shuttle’s control panel, head nodded forward.  Two days ago, in a similar situation, she would have been furious with the engineer for violating their scheduled sleep rotation, contemptuous of him for working himself to exhaustion, and put off by the idea of having to wake him.  She probably would have screamed something nasty at him from a distance.
Instead, she decided to walk quietly and check on the drowsing Zig.  She found him not asleep but staring at the console’s display.  The screen was showing iterations of several simulations NuRikPo had been working on earlier.  These simulations showed the various forms of micro-robots replicating, interacting with biological cells and one another, and eventually being broken down and rebuilt by other robot types.  Each simulation attempted to find weak points in the 'life cycle', where the machines could be dismantled or blocked from their activity by a counter-machine.  This output would then form the functional basis for construction of their counteragent: a ‘cure’ for the micro-tech plague. 
NuRikPo looked dazed, his large eyes staring transfixed at the animations.  Katy laid a hand gently on his shoulder and shook him with equal care.  He blinked and turned to look at the Human woman, raising one hand from the keyboard to lay it over her hand. 
“They’re just so… perfect,” he mumbled, turning his head slightly to address Katy, but still keeping the screens in view. 
“Perfect little monsters,” Katy retorted, though without much feeling.  It felt like a practiced complaint, delivered out of habit, not spite.  Hatred had become a reflex function for her, but now she stopped at the initial twitch of vitriol.
NuRikPo’s reaction was predictable.  “No, not at all.  We’re more monstrous: so irregular, so violent.  Our systems are predicated on so much waste.  We waste resources; we require mass suicides of cells.  These constructs waste nothing.  Destruction of units is carefully planned as a feature rather than a convenient default.  All of the resulting materials are then reabsorbed and reused by the colony.  There is no excretion, no waste product at all.”
“No wonder you’re in love.  It’s like a Zig’s dream,” Katy laughed lightly at her own jibe.  How had such words once been the expression of her loathing?  She knew so much about NuRikPo.  The depth of her insults betrayed the depth of her attention to him.  She had held his life in her hands, had been elbows deep in his body.  How could she not feel a connection between them?  She moved closer, her head next to his as they watched the simulations together.  She turned to her companion’s gleaming, red-gold cheek and leaned closer still…
“AAAAAAAugh!”
            The two sapients were both startled by the abrupt, loud exclamation from Katy’s throat.  They leapt backwards from one another.  NuRikPo nearly fell off the shuttle’s anchored piloting chair.  Katy had to catch herself on a strap to avoid falling into the engineer’s workbench. 
            “What was that?” NuRikPo wailed as he pulled himself back upright, “Some bizarre primate joke?  A sonic assault?”
            “That was me almost kissing you, you shiny chunk of excrement!  Either wake up and get back to work or take an actual nap and then get back to work, because I will kill us both if this continues much longer.” 

            Katy was actually enjoying the sensation of nausea crawling through her throat.  It felt honest and more real than the induced affection she had been experiencing moments before.  Not surprisingly, it was already fading.  She also felt a violent rage at being manipulated so thoroughly, but that emotion was squashed first.  Her adrenaline cut off soon afterward.  The shift in states was obvious if you knew what to expect.  There were tell-tales to such blatant adjustments, particularly the lag while the bugs struggled to swap over her sympathetic and parasympathetic system responses.  Adrenaline was easy, though.  It would take the robots a while longer to edit out the feelings of revulsion sparked by almost coming into contact with Zig skin.
            They’re full of poison, you stupid fleas, Katy verbalized internally.  She doubted that the machines could pick up on complex linguistic thought, but why not?  Let them understand the depth of their error.  Her will could be bent, but she could not be entirely broken.  Some things were just too foul to allow. 
            NuRikPo’s reaction further fueled her resolve.  He looked hurt.  At least, his expression was close enough to Human offense to suggest that interpretation.  His eyelids drooped at the edges.  He was frowning deeply, a disturbing enough variation in itself.  His shoulders slumped. 
            “I see.”  Dammit, he couldn’t even muster nonchalance, or at least a decent scandalized attitude.  He sounded sad and rejected. 
“I admit I am tired, but I have been working, Katy.”  His tone sounded like an appeal rather than a reproach.  “The counteragents are in synthesis.”
Katy’s head whipped rapidly between NuRikPo and his workspace.  Indeed, his transmutation module was connected to several other devices, which were in turn linked to the shuttle’s central computer.  Blinking lights and readouts indicated the ongoing process of synthesis.  Entire factories each barely a centimeter across had been erected within a sealed chamber, and were steadily being fed raw materials and excreting armies of finished micro-robots.  Their micro-robots, their soldiers against the invading forces. 
“What?  They’re ready?  Why didn’t you wake me up sooner?”  Even as she spoke the words, Katy knew the answer.  The reason for NuRikPo's hesitation was evident in the immediate erosion of her own eagerness to be rid of the foreign bodies.
NuRikPo answered anyway.  “I started watching them… and thinking: If I don’t design them correctly, our creations could escape beyond our bodies.  They might hurt the ship.  After that, I realized that we would already be hurting the units within us.  We would be destroying creations of unique beauty.  Such a waste.  They are not hurting us.  If anything, they are making us better.  I feel happier and healthier than I have in years.  You do, too.  Admit it.  You haven’t loved anything or anyone, in a long time.  Now, you love...”
“I love me, you dope, the me that exists without help.”  Katy was flailing against a web still being woven.  Her objections generated the strands that tangled her with ever-growing resistance.  Still she struggled, trying to fight the demands to let go of her rejection. 

“I hate you.  I hate having to work with you, heal you, or even listen about other people talk about you.  I hate the Scape Grace; I hate being stuck in that box of filthy, loud, violent idiots.  I hate this ship.  I hate its little crawly bits and its big disgusting bits.”
“Listen to you,” NuRikPo chided, “speaking the truth at last, with only one word mispronounced.”  He smiled… he actually smiled, a peaceful, beaming expression of joy.  “Just try saying it the right way.  You love…”
Katy struggled to withdraw her concussion pistol.  NuRikPo had been stepping forward, raising his arms.  At first, she just wanted to warn him away.  She would not be embraced.  As she produced the weapon, his expression shifted to one of alarm, and he leapt forward, apparently to disarm her.  Perhaps he was concerned she would follow through on her threats to kill herself. 
The Zig academic was clumsy compared to Katy.  He was her inferior in both physique and training.  She slipped away from him easily, though there was little room in the shuttle to escape for long.  She was not trying to shoot him, though, nor was she planning to hurt herself.  Instead, she opened the chamber of the weapon.  She withdrew the dart and showed it to NuRikPo, trying to pantomime ‘safe’ and ‘empty’.  She opened the dart, showing its cylinder to be unfilled.
Her ruse was successful.  NuRikPo relaxed for a necessary moment.  Katy closed, aimed, and fired the empty pistol, expending its pressurized charge into the side of the plexiglass enclosure holding the manufactured counter-agents.  The chamber's top popped open and flew back with a loud smack of plastic on plastic.  NuRikPo looked further confused and stunned.
He began to say, “I see…. Yes, we should destroy them.  But that’s not the best way.  Let me…” He moved forward to the controls of the synthesizer. 
Katy preempted him again, dipping the empty injection dart across the surface holding their micro-robots.  A fine grey powder, like graphite dust, filled its cylindrical chamber.  NuRikPo again reversed course to try and intercept her as Katy snapped the dart closed and loaded it into the pistol.  She struggled to keep her feelings neutral and her hands steady as she clicked the weapon shut.
NuRikPo held his hands out in a beseeching gesture.  “Katy, please.  I know what you’re thinking.  But please, listen to what you’re feeling.  You know this is wrong.  You don’t want to kill them.”
“Sure I do.  And if you screwed up making these things, I won’t mind killing you.”
Katy raised the pistol and fired at NuRikPo’s chest.  The dart chuffed out with sufficient force to launch it across the small space, push its needle tip through the Zig’s bodysuit and tough skin, and inject its contents into his bloodstream.  He staggered back, looking confused.
“Why?” he asked, blinking rapidly in his distress.
“Because I can hold out a little while longer.  We need you able to make more antibodies.  Also, I wouldn’t know how to destroy your synthesizer.  You could destroy it, if I left you infected.  So you’re the test subject.  If it works, we win.  If it kills you, poetic justice.  If it just fails either way, we’ll laugh idiotically about it later in bed.”
“In bed?” NuRikPo had the decency to look confused.  Then he frowned.  “With you?  What?”  He sounded almost scandalized.
“Oh, good, it sounds like it works fast.  When you’re ready, shoot me.  I don’t mind if you enjoy it.”  The paradox of her last sentence felt like a guilty pleasure.  Katy was both pleased by the thought of being freed from the manipulative internal machines and saddened by the thought of their destruction.  She wanted to please NuRikPo, but appreciated that she would soon enjoy offending him again. 
NuRikPo continued to stare dumbly as she handed him the pistol. 
            Katy finished her directions, “Just get to work.  I’ll watch you for any bad signs: seizures or hemorrhaging or such.  Hopefully, I didn’t give you an embolism.  If I try to get away or interfere with your work, shoot me with the blue ones; they’re tranquilizers, safe for Humans.  And hurry up; I’m already feeling the urge to apologize to you.”
            “I don’t understand.  If we were being influenced so strongly, how is it you can resist while I could not?”
            “The same way I realized what the machines were doing to us.  That's the power of hate... you glittering louse.”

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 16

            After finishing the installation of the 'Ningyo feeders’ on the bridge, Luuboh returned directly to the medical room to check on its other projects.  Tklth continued to doze in the dim, chilled environment.  The tissue samples Luuboh had isolated continued to change, each with a different rate and pattern depending on its environment.  One sample had been placed in a nutrient-rich feeder solution: it had rebuilt portions of flesh and even replaced nerve fibers with a metallic chain of interlinked machines.  Another, in a drier, colder, unsupplemented dish, had only progressed to finishing its support matrix and then stalled, possibly starved for materials and energy. 

            It was helpful to know the limitations of the micro-robots, but they obviously could survive indefinitely within living tissue.  Killing the host to kill the invaders was not a useful solution.  As Luuboh’s other experiments were demonstrating, any chemicals capable of penetrating and disabling the inorganic constructs would harm organic cells as well.  The limitations of its knowledge were becoming evident.  If there was a process that could selectively affect nanotechnology of this type without harming the body it had infiltrated, it was beyond Luuboh’s skill.  It had done well to find and correctly operate Katy Olu’s electron microscope in order to discover and image the tiny mobile units.  It might also find a counter-agent through trial and error, but it was running out of viable samples and was reluctant to create more. 

            Certainly, there were enough chopped bits of Tklth for weeks of experimentation, but Luuboh was loathe to sacrifice the stabilized tissue for an amateur investigative exercise.  It also did not want to risk further exposure to the micro-robots.  While decently appointed and reasonably sterile, the medical room was far from a safe cleanroom.  Luuboh had stayed in its environmental suit while it cut and enclosed the various samples of Tklth’s infested flesh.  It had then deposited the remaining, hopefully clean ‘samples’ in the biological storage freezer.  Last, still suited, it had hauled the bag containing the dead Ningyo’s spattered suit to the shuttle deck.  It had to hope that the body bag would hold in any remaining constructs that might have lingered within the liquefied flesh of the Ningyo.  For that matter, it was praying that its own clean suit had kept any stray crawlers at bay. 
After returning, it had carefully stripped off the suit while simultaneously spraying off in the shower stall adjacent to the medical room.  The chamber was built for exactly that purpose, and mixed a mild quaternary ammonium solution with highly pressurized hot water to intercept possible biological contaminants while the occupant removed outer clothing.  The biocidal chemical was definitely useless against the inorganic constructs, but the force of the water hopefully swept away most of them.  To be totally safe, Luuboh probably should have shaved off its fur, but it was insufficiently paranoid – and too vain – to take that step. 
The best it could really hope for was to identify, document, and anticipate the nature of this threat.  That way, when NuRikPo and doctor Olu returned to the Scape Grace, they would be forewarned and immediately able to take steps to disable the miniature robots.  That was presuming they returned at all.  Luuboh had to consider the reasonable possibility that the coming battle could result in the destruction of the ship which held NuRikPo and Katy Olu.  The battle could just as easily end in Scape Grace’s destruction, but that outcome would render the problem of the micro-robots moot. 
Once it emerged and dried off, Luuboh had started its study.  When the call came in from Jolly to report to the bridge, Luuboh had pulled together its results to that point.  It had risked taking the time to stop by bay 3e and upload those reports for captain Lerner’s reference.  It had wanted to wait until its understanding was more complete, but could not pass up the chance to minimize suspicion about its movements.  If asked about its extra stop, it could have explained that it was retrieving the magnetic clamps from storage. 
At least now, the captain had some warning about what to expect.  Luuboh would try to provide more data as time and opportunity allowed.  What it might learn and what they could do about the problem were both unknown. 
In the meantime, while it waited on the progress of its experiments, Luuboh monitored Tklth’s progress.  After two days, the mutilated Vislin was looking remarkably well.  Her general health was as good as might be expected for a patient being fed intravenously.  She was losing muscle tone; no surprise there.  She was well hydrated and her vitals were within the acceptable range for Vislin, per the medical library. 
Her respiratory and neurological activity were actually stronger than Luuboh thought normal.  Given the lighting, chill, blood loss, and trauma, those systems should have been functioning at reduced levels.  While Tklth remained somnolent, her breathing was deep and steady, her heart pumped strongly, and her EEG readouts indicated brain waves more varied than simple sleep rhythms.  The guide programs in the brain monitor kept isolating mu wave patterns, which the medical library stated should only occur during wakeful observation and learning.  Luuboh could not be certain that this was a relevant variation; it might be somehow normal for Vislin or an artifact of using the system improperly on her species. 
Either way, it was getting close to the safety time limit for the cautery patches.  Luuboh would have to remove the patches soon to avoid toxicity reactions.  Hopefully, the wound sites beneath would have sealed fully and begun healing from within.  Tklth certainly seemed strong enough.  There was nothing to indicate adverse reactions to the patches and no signs of infection around their edges.  The removal process was painstaking and might be uncomfortable.  Hopefully, Tklth would remain drowsy enough to allow Luuboh to finish its work quietly.  The Vislin was still restrained, but loosely, so that it had some range of motion to prevent muscle cramps or scale damage.  Luuboh did not want to have to lock her down again to avoid injury while it peeled gauze from flesh.
Luuboh was reading the instructions for this process when Tklth’s status changed unexpectedly.  A noise from the direction of the bed caught its attention.  At first, it thought Tklth was choking.  Then, it realized that she was only clearing her throat.  Luuboh had already turned around before Tklth moved.  Its alarm was reduced as it realized she was only turning her head to look at it.  At first, Tklth’s gaze was unfocused and wavering.  Then, she narrowed in on Luuboh.  Her beak clicked in a gesture Luuboh could not interpret.  Was she angry?  Was she hungry?  Was the movement just a reflex of some sort or a conscious attempt to speak?
Luuboh was further surprised when, after a few seconds, Tklth turned her neck and eyes steadily to scan the room.  She did this without significantly moving her limbs, though her shoulders rolled and her back arched in a stretch.  After this exploration, her attention returned to Luuboh.  The Mauraug had been watching her with mingled curiosity and concern.  Was she in pain sufficient to penetrate the medications and her hibernation?  Was this reaction a temporary waking process, something the Vislin biology did to check for hazards during the night?  Luuboh might have had many questions, but it was Tklth who began asking for answers first.
“Why am I in medical?” Tklth asked, her fluting voice as always an odd contrast to her deadly exterior.  Normally, it was also a contrast to her harsh attitude, but at the moment, she seemed peaceful.  The question was not asked in panic or accusation.  It sounded like genuine confusion, a request for information.
“You were wounded… badly.  You attacked the Ningyo,” Luuboh pointed out in return.
“Ah.  I remember,” Tklth acknowledged, still sounding surprisingly calm.  “I killed one of them.  Then their leader shot me.  I thought I would die.  Did you come back and help me?”
“Eventually,” Luuboh grunted, “but not to kill them.  Their leader, Jolly, decided not to kill you.  It let me and Soloth carry you back to medical.”  Its bewilderment at the conversation mingled with its irritation at having to explain the situation to Tklth.  Most likely, the Vislin would not remember this conversation later.  It would ask the same questions again.  Worse, it would not be nearly as reasonable about accepting the answers, if past interactions provided any precedent.  Luuboh was used to Tklth being angry, pushy, and even abusive.  It liked her better damaged and drowsy.  Sadly, the captain would prefer her whole and functional, even if she was an ass, whole.
For now, Tklth accepted its answer without berating Luuboh for fleeing the battle.  She nodded, awkwardly, and turned to look at the ceiling.  Then her gaze lowered gradually until she was looking downward at her own body.  Luuboh tensed, fearing the moment when she recognized the extent of her injuries.  Shock might have shielded her mind earlier.  Now, stable and somewhat lucid, she might be genuinely traumatized by the realization of how badly she was damaged.
Once again, the storm never came.  Tklth only scanned over the remnants of her lower half, dispassionately taking in the patched stump of her leg.  She could not see her back, but surely could feel the absence of her tail.  Yet still, there was no screaming, no cursing, and no flailing about.  She finally did react, but it was only a bitter cry of mourning.  Her eyelids flickered in distress.  Her claws flexed.  Luuboh was familiar enough to recognize this as Vislin sorrow.  Its own anger warred with sympathy, which wrapped around again to anger as Luuboh became aggravated about having to share the pain of its sometime tormentor. 
“Why don’t you sleep?” Luuboh asked with courtesy rather than kindness.  “You’re still weak from your injuries.  You need rest.  I’ll change the bandage and make sure the tissue stays healthy.  You’ll have a new leg and tail as soon as the doctor and engineer get back.”
“But I have been sleeping so long already.  I am not tired anymore,” Tklth answered, sounding calmly reasonable rather than petulant.  “You can change the bandages; I will not be any trouble.  Thank you for saving my life.”
It was the last sentence that told Luuboh something was very wrong.  Tklth might be capable of gratitude, but she had never thanked Luuboh for anything, ever before.   In particular, in this situation, she should have been cursing the Mauraug for its cowardice, for its incompetence in her care, or for walking on two legs while she lay flat on one.  If drowsing, she should have been less articulate; if truly awake, she should have been bitter and abrasive.  She did seem awake.  Her gaze was steady and clear, her movements growing in precision as she roused.  That was also strange.  By all references, a Vislin should be barely able to function in the current chill.  That, coupled with the lowered lighting, should have had a member of that species acting as if heavily sedated.  Tklth looked no more impaired than would be expected given two days of bed rest and an intravenous diet.  She was less impaired than should be the case after such a massive injury.
Luuboh had a sinking realization.  To cover its suspicions, it asked clinically, “How are you feeling, Ticklish?”
“Weak.  Pain.  My head hurts.  My wounds ache.  I am hungry.  I smell terrible.  You smell terrible.  But considering everything, I feel reasonably good.  Pain is better than death.”  The insult was expected, but delivered with shared rather than cruel humor.  Tklth had not even taken issue with Luuboh’s use of her Terran-styled nickname.  She sounded… reasonable.  That tone was not just uncharacteristic for Tklth, it was uncommon for anyone in the same situation.  She sounded like someone else.  She sounded like…
Luuboh realized that it had a discovery to share with the captain more urgent than the results of its tissue experiments.  Tklth was most definitely infested.  She had been altered.  Something was affecting her behavior and the most likely culprits were the micro-robots.  They were probably also bolstering her recuperative systems.  While this alone was good news for the Vislin – and might explain her survival as well as her rapid recovery – the effects on her mind were bad news for the other sapients on the Scape Grace.  If the micro-technology had spread elsewhere in the ship, it might already be working its way into the nervous systems of other crew members.  While making pirates calmer and more reasonable could be viewed as an improvement, those changes also benefitted the Ningyo occupiers.  Tklth was starting to make silly, Ningyo-style jokes in the midst of a dire personal situation.  That similarity suggested more than a casual coincidence.  It was possible that other aspects of her psyche were being made more sympathetic to the Ningyo, as well.
It wasn’t safe to let her get up.  For now, Tklth wasn’t going to be walking the halls or posing much of a threat to anyone outside of the door.  Still, a fair amount of damage could be done from within the medical room, if she decided to turn on the ship’s crew.  Even if her aggression had been damped down, Tklth’s training could be used to dispassionately murder quite a few people.  From what Luuboh had heard, she could probably be deadly with just one arm, let alone two arms and one leg.  Luuboh had been afraid of her beak alone.
Luuboh's fear at this moment was a different kind of fear.  It realized that it had been frozen with shock for a long moment.  Tklth had been watching the Mauraug quietly, her rigid, scaled face betraying no suspicion in return.  Luuboh needed to say something to keep the conversation going. 
It managed, “Right, yes, good.  Well, you’re still at risk.  I’m doing my best, but I’m not doctor Olu.  You should not move around too much until the wounds are better healed.  Your vital signs are still a little low.”  Luuboh lied easily.  It was practiced in such deceptions to a degree other Mauraug, like Soloth, would find repugnant.  Its survival skills had to differ from theirs, so it felt little shame using subterfuge to avoid harm.  In this case, the harm it was avoiding might threaten the entire ship, not only Luuboh itself.
“I’ll remove the bandages shortly.  I’d like you to remain restrained until that’s done.  No offense; it might be painful and I don’t want to chance you doing something we’ll both regret.”

Tklth’s reply, meant to be reassuring, again had the opposite effect, “I understand… but I wonder.  I just do not feel like that will be a problem.  I feel… different.  Not angry.  Something tells me I have changed.  I am cold but not tired.  I have been hurt but I do not want to hurt in return.  Is this what one calls a life-changing experience?  I wonder if I would frenzy, even if the pain were unbearable.”
Luuboh did not honestly know whether to hope she would or would not.  It grumbled, “I suppose we’ll find out, won’t we?  Still, let’s not risk my hide on your newly discovered inner peace.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Update - Summer Love Confessions

Greetings, Empyrean readers! 

     First, let me say thank you, and we love you.  I've been feeling some love back from a few readers and it is much appreciated.  Since we're giving our 'journeyman pieces' away for free here, gratitude is a nice alternative coin.

     Second, if you're reading this far, let me beg for more.  The work here by Ariana and I is done for practice, but also to build up the Empyrean Dreams setting.  We're creating a shared universe and showing others what can be done with it.  Your feedback is appreciated both in person and on the site.  If something is left unclear in a story, if you like a particular feature (a creature, a plotline, a reference, etc.), or want to see more of something, comment!  We'll even take well-considered criticism. 

     Third, here's fair warning for the future.  The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* is not a short story.  It's actually a short novel.  Check out the chapter list page if you haven't already; there will be at least 25 chapters/posts in total.  I'm almost done with the ending.  Since that story has most of my attention lately, Bad Egg has been slow in progressing.  I promise I'll get back to it once Wreck is out of my system. 

     After that, no more promises.  I've got a job to find and maybe a literary agency to chase down, not to mention a handful of non-Empyrean story ideas waiting their turn.  Ariana might stop back in for a chapter or two, but she's keeping busy in the non-fictional universe, also... so no presumptions there. 

     Good thing there's enough Wreck to last us another couple of months...

-N.L.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 15

           The first day of travel aboard the Scape Grace was a study in practiced avoidance.  Evgeny Lerner went back to his cabin for eight hours of sleep.  The Georges also slept, then returned to their repairs.  Soloth bash’Soloth privately exercised, napped, and reviewed ship readiness reports.  It gave the combat crew time to organize themselves privately, though it monitored their interactions for signs of trouble.    Luuboh bash’Gaulig retreated to the medical room, researching its strange discovery and monitoring Tklth’s progress.  It, too, was forced to rest for short periods.  Both Mauraug took time for small meals when necessary. 

Only Gleamer and Jolly held any substantial conversation.  The two spoke at length about their respective philosophies.  The Ningyo attitude toward existence was actually quite fascinating, once you worked through the layers of indirect allusion in their speech.  Gleamer's best approximation of their creed ran somewhere between several historical Terran belief systems: Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and the Church of the Subgenius.  Roughly put: reality might be static, but the sentient experience of reality was not.  Assuming otherwise led to a futile attempt to directly perceive reality, which led to all sorts of evils, not least of which was powerless frustration.  You had to be in on the 'Joke' or else you would never 'get it' and dwell in eternal humorless ignorance.

At least, that might be the correct interpretation.  It was hard to be certain.  Gleamer still could not be sure if Jolly, like others of its kind, was deliberately obfuscating some elements of its true culture, if it was incapable of speaking without ‘borrowing’ chunks of foreign cultural reference, or if its psyche was somehow bound to that particular mode of communication.  When asked directly, Jolly either avoided the question, or presented two conflicting answers simultaneously.  One thing Gleamer was certain about: the Ningyo was not, as the captain claimed, trying to be intentionally aggravating.  His xenopsychology sub-AI was relatively new and untrained, but it maintained that the probability of purposeful antagonism was somewhere around 9%. 
For its part, Jolly seemed to be interested in Gleamer’s perspective, as well.  It agreed that artificial augmentation was a necessity for progress; it could hardly deny that point from within its pressurized shell.  The Ningyo had adapted to a largely inhospitable physical universe, slightly more so than other sapients leaving their worlds of origin.  They had learned to interact with beings they considered bizarre, although at first through cautious observation and study rather than direct confrontation. 
Jolly did dispute whether direct neurological alteration was advisable.  From this, Gleamer deduced that the Ningyo were not directly interfaced into their suits.  There must be some sort of real-time command system built in.  That system apparently was not intrusive on their bodies.  Jolly inferred that it would find cybernetic integration distasteful, even counterproductive.  It suggested that Gleamer had further distanced himself from Humanity by his alterations, perhaps intentionally.  Gleamer avoided taking offense, admitting that his actions had had such an effect, but denying that his purpose was to make himself less Human.  Instead, he pointed out that every element of cultural progress had begun with the sacrifices of pioneers who separated themselves in order to move forward.  If they led in a beneficial direction, the mass would follow willingly.  In typical style, Jolly reversed its position, abruptly agreeing that Gleamer did seem to be an improvement on the standard-issue Human.  Certainly, he was much more satisfying to talk with.
All this cultural exchange might have been more laudable had it not been a screen.  Gleamer worked hard to keep the Ningyo engaged and distracted.  In the meantime, his spare analytic areas and sub-AIs labored on several projects he hoped to keep hidden from Jolly.  First, he was analyzing the radio micro-signals.  If he could locate – or even translate – those signals, Gleamer would have a better idea what level of threat they represented. 
Second, Gleamer was trying to build his own private communications route.  It needed to be something the Ningyo could not track through ship systems or any technology within their suits.  Solid, wired connections would be best, possibly borrowing one of the less critical monitoring networks within the ship’s structure.  Life support, possibly?  Recoding parts of that network could be hazardous if it interfered with normal functions.  He might be able to run a low-bandwidth signal through the superstructure, but it was intentionally insulated at several points and would be limited in both range and content of transmission.  He would also need someone at the other end capable of detecting and decoding his messages.  The Georges might have enough clues, but they were at the far opposite end of the ship.  His literary sub-AI, Rikki, suggested banging on pipes, per several prison dramas.  Very clever, except that no water lines ran through the bridge.  There were coolant lines, but those weren’t accessible to ‘bang’ on.  Modulating their flows was also a bad idea, particularly while repairs were ongoing. 
Gleamer’s third project was more difficult to conceal.  He continued to scan across the range of possible energy forms NuRikPo might be using to communicate.  Most of the electromagnetic spectrum was easy enough to read without revealing his intent; the console in front of Gleamer had sufficient reception by itself to pick up wavelengths from nearly a micrometer to a gigameter.  For smaller or larger EM signals, or to delve into the stranger reaches of trans-EM physics, he had to draw upon specialized sensors built into the Scape Grace.  Transmissions to and from those remote sensor systems could be detected through the ship wide comm systems Jolly could access.  Each time Gleamer traded packets of data with systems outside his local console, he ran the risk of being noticed.  The Ningyo were probably already aware that their claims about open communications were in doubt, but actively seeking – or finding – proof of their perfidy would jeopardize the continued illusion of cooperation.
For similar reasons, most of the crew avoided the bridge as much as possible.  Gleamer might have been faced with the dilemma of entertaining the Ningyo alone if not for the occasional intervention by Soloth.  The first mate first returned after six hours and engaged Jolly in a discussion of combat strategy.  This conversational choice represented Soloth’s own combination of practical work, distraction, and attempted elicitation of useful intelligence.  Soloth’s distraction was not for its own benefit, but for captain Lerner.  It kept the Ningyo under observation and unable to roam unescorted.  The knowledge it sought was about the Harauch: its capabilities, compliment, and command. 
Soloth’s presence borrowed time for Gleamer to unplug and stumble back to his bunk.  The necessities of a biological body were a continual frustration.  Sleep, even when he dreamed, was an empty, pale thing compared to his waking electronic fantasias.  It was too tempting to remain permanently interfaced.  Only the value of his wetware’s unique abilities... not to mention contents… helped him tolerate its limitations.  Gleamer was too afraid of losing his unique Human identity to risk its loss by attempting full transfer to digital consciousness.  He loved his AI, but he still couldn’t be sure how existence as one would feel.
So, he slept.  He ate, as well, but took meals as often as possible at his console.  The rest of the crew followed his habits, making periodic trips to and from the galley.  None of the officers took meals in the mess.  Soloth ate quickly and returned to duty.  Luuboh brought its meals to medical to continue its investigations.  Tklth was not yet ready to risk solid foods. 
Evgeny brought the next day’s lunch to the Georges so that they could continue their work uninterrupted.  This delivery was also an unspoken repayment for sharing their teatime with him earlier.  The gesture had been genuine and deeply appreciated.  Evgeny found he enjoyed spending time with the two engineering ‘apprentices’, an opportunity he had never taken before.  At other times, the pair would have been pulled away by NuRikPo, or else Evgeny would have been drawn away by other interests.  The disruption in ship’s routine was at least giving him the opportunity to interact with his crew. 
Evgeny felt no comparable urge to visit with the combat crew.  Becoming too familiar with that violent lot would only lessen his authority.  It was better to let Soloth be his strong interface.  That way, Evgeny could retain the mystique of distant control and unknown power.  Such a stance also showed respect for Soloth’s management ability, by staying out of its way.  The rank and file should never think they could appeal to the captain as an ally, above the head of his first mate, nor should they entertain hopes of supplanting Soloth as Evgeny's right hand. 
By the end of their second day of travel, Evgeny was growing less and less content with their disrupted schedule.  He took a full six-hour duty shift on the bridge to give Gleamer a second bout of sleep.  The Ningyo were showing no sign of requiring any refreshment.  They did not leave the bridge for sleep, food, or any other recreation.  For all Evgeny knew, the actual Ningyo might be taking naps within their suits, even while they conversed.  They might be putting their robotic bodies on automatic response, throwing out preprogrammed gibberish designed to sound like clever repartee.  They might also have nutrient reservoirs and feeding tubes built in, but it seemed less likely that they could store several days’ worth of foodstuffs in those shells. 
When he broached the question, Jolly was typically evasive.  It said only, “We are life, Gene, but not as you know it.  We will retire when the need arises and the stars are right.  Until then, methinks the captain protests too much.”  Evgeny did want his chair back and the sugar-coated jelly knew it.  So were the Ningyo able to hold out longer than other sapients?  Or were they intentionally extending themselves in order to keep continuous control of the Scape Grace? 
His answer came toward the end of his duty shift.  Jolly keyed the intercom for the medical room and called out, “O Gracious child of Gaulig, would you kindly bring those dispensers you offered earlier up to the bridge?  I think my Punch is looking weak and could use something bracing.”
Luuboh’s voice rumbled back, “Certainly.  They will require some time to transport, however.”
Jolly responded with cheery indifference, “Take your time; we will endure a while longer.  I hope your patient is recovering well?”
“She will live, but remains weak.”
“Mercifully sedated, no doubt.  Ah well,” Jolly added with a theatrical sigh, “I suppose that’s necessary.  No reason to be cruel.  More credit to you for your dutiful nursing.  See you above in a bit.”
Jolly’s direct command of his crew irked Evgeny, but like most of the arrangement, he had little room for protest.  At least the Ningyo’s demands seemed limited to Luuboh.  Anyone could order Luuboh about.  Perhaps the Ningyo had picked up on that biddability and followed suit, rather than intentionally flexing its stolen authority. 
Regardless, Luuboh continued obedient.  The shortened Mauraug arrived on the bridge within a half-hour, preceded by the rumble of a heavily loaded freight cart.  The bridge hatch opened, and Luuboh entered, carefully balancing one of the large, cylindrical nutrient dispensers.  The formula for Ningyo dietary needs was fairly well-known across the Collective, as many facilities tried to be ready for basic hospitality: the comfort and feeding of most known sapients.  The mix would maintain a Ningyo’s health, if not culinary satisfaction.  Since their native foodstuffs tended to expire (or explode) quickly in the atmospheric conditions favored by most other sapients, this was the best a Ningyo could expect. 
Besides all that, the dispensers interacted well with their suits.  Evgeny was somewhat disappointed that the experience of watching the Ningyo ‘eat’ was neither revelatory nor even repugnant.  They simply plugged feeder hoses from the dispensers into ports in their suit’s abdominal section, revealed by detaching a section of the white panels that had seemed formerly seamless.  Whether avoiding implicit discomfort or the threat of tedium, Evgeny took the meal break as his excuse to excuse himself from the bridge. 
He announced, “I’m hungry, myself.  Any chance of food that still has its original hydration, Luuboh?”  He stood, stretched, and began to walk toward the exit hatch.
Luuboh bash’ Gaulig finished anchoring the transported nutrient dispensers to the bridge floor with magnetic clamps and watched Evgeny depart.  It called back, “Check cabinet 3e.  I set aside some uumrul for you.”
Slipping coded references past the metaphor-minded Ningyo was a tricky game, but Luuboh and Evgeny had several advantages.  The reference to ‘cabinet 3e’ was a shared secret, referring to the storage bay that held one of their unofficial communication recording hubs.  Luuboh was telling him to check the system for messages.  The mention of uumrul, a fruit native to the Mauraug homeworld, was a chancy poetic idiom.  Hopefully, the Ningyo were not widely studied enough to catch the other meaning of uumrul: ‘a piece of important gossip or news’.  Luuboh had something important to share. 
Evgeny hurried from the bridge without acknowledging that he had heard Luuboh’s parting comment.

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

A more practiced covert operative would have covered his tracks better.  Evgeny might have gone first to the galley to follow up on the overt meaning of Luuboh’s words.  Instead, he was unschooled enough to walk directly to the storage rooms on the first sublevel, going immediately to bay 3e.  If Jolly had caught the meaning behind Luuboh’s casual comment, it might have watched Evgeny’s steps on the motion trackers and thereby found their secret message drop.  As it happened, their subterfuge was successful.  At least, it was successful against the Ningyo. 
Evgeny reached the storage bay and pulled open the false crate that concealed the secret, separate comm panel linking his and Luuboh’s unofficial cameras.  He keyed in his personal code and prompted the system to play back his messages. 
There were two.  The first was from Luuboh.  It contained a short video which might have been indecipherable without its accompanying commentary.  Evgeny watched as something reflective and insectile climbed around a landscape of grey and white irregular ovoids.  The mechanical bug latched onto a particularly spiky whitish mass and was eventually joined by two more constructs of similar type, which linked to it end to end, forming a chain which stretched off-camera. 
Luuboh’s narrative stated, “This image was recorded using electron microscopy.  The background is a mass of cells formerly from the muscle tissues of Tklth.  The objects in the foreground are machines smaller than one micrometer.  They have been persistently building structures within this cellular matrix since the time of their introduction… which I believe to have occurred when Tklth’s separated flesh made contact with the remains of the dead Ningyo.  These automata are both repairing and modifying the tissues they infiltrate.  Beyond reconstruction, I have not confirmed any functional effects yet.  I have taken steps to isolate this sample and neutralize any others that might remain in the area of introduction.  I hope that none escaped into the ship elsewhere, but we must remain vigilant for this possibility.  The other problem is that Tklth herself also made contact with the Ningyo remains… as did I and Soloth bash’Soloth when we transported her to medical.  I am observing Tklth carefully for any negative effects in an effort to anticipate possible harm to the rest of us.  Thus far, she remains sedated for both her and my safety.  We do not have the tools needed to observe these machines at work within a body or track their actions on a wider scale.  My hope is that I can observe their effects at the micro- and macro levels and deduce their purpose before a threat manifests.  I should also be able to detect them if they reach significant concentrations.  If the infestation appears likely to become a threat via replication or tissue destruction, it may become necessary to incinerate all affected materials… Tklth included.  More to follow as discovered.  Also awaiting your orders.”
That news was bad enough by itself.  Evgeny was afflicted momentarily with the same nausea that had touched Katy Olu, the repulsion of realizing one has shared space with a contagious plague host.  He felt tainted, despite knowing full well that his body was already host to several kilograms of bacteria.  Yet those separate organisms were ‘native’ and mostly known symbiotes.  These tiny machines, no matter how benign their functions might be, were foreigners.  How dare the Ningyo loose such elements on his ship without notice?  There could be no good purpose for such contamination, no acceptable explanation for infiltrating their shared space in such a manner.
The second message did little to calm Evgeny’s temper.  In part, this was because of its source: it was from Gleamer.  The programmer had somehow discovered Evgeny and Luuboh’s ‘private’ network and broken into it far enough to leave Evgeny a personal message.  How long had Gleamer known about this system?  How did he discover it?  Those questions, like several others, would have to wait until after the present crisis.
The message also contained bad news.  Fortunately, the convergence of the two unwelcome messages provided valuable perspective for both.  Gleamer’s missive was shorter and more pointed: “There are miniature robots on board.  They are broadcasting extremely short-wave, short-range, short-duration radio signals.  I believe this is a method of coordinating operations across a decentralized system.  I first detected these signals several minutes after the Ningyo came aboard.  Some of these signals originate from the Ningyo themselves.  Another set is answering them from a different part of the ship.  My conclusion: the Ningyo have brought nanotechnology on board and are using it somehow to infiltrate Scape Grace.  They may have encouraged us to send our engineer off-ship to prevent a counter-strategy.  Continuing to track in case they spread further.  Sorry about crashing your party.”
So it wasn’t enough that the Ningyo had strong-armed themselves into command of his ship; they had to secretly use illicit technology to infiltrate it as well?  To infiltrate the bodies of his crew?  What was their game?  Blackmail, by threatening to use the nanotechnology to kill the pirates instantly if they attempted a counter-coup?  Mental control, using the devices to lobotomize or pacify their opposition?  Or was the introduction of the microrobots a non-hostile accident?  An experiment?  Either of the latter two possibilities still represented dangerous folly and disregard for the sapients affected.   
Evgeny’s fury was rising to dangerous levels.  Killing Jolly was no longer sufficient.  He wanted to torture the Ningyo slowly.  Perhaps he could reprogram the ‘Admiral’s’ suit to slowly lower its internal pressure, crushing the entity from its own expansion.  He could use its nutrient ports to pump in something volatile or painfully toxic.  Better, they could just amputate the suit’s limbs and leave the Ningyo stranded in a tiny cage, deprived of sensory input, to live or die later at Evgeny’s whim.
For now, all he could vent his rage upon were crates and storage pods.  They scattered well when kicked, with a satisfactory crunch of breaking valuables, but impact against the durable plastic cases hurt his foot.  The pain only worsened his anger.  He needed a better focus.  Physical violence was easy but unproductive. 
Evgeny finally forced his temper down to a manageable simmer.  He resolved to grant it release later, when an opportunity arose.  He would not only oust the Ningyo.  He would wait to murder them.  First, he would destroy their beloved ‘friend’, the unnamed ship.  That was, after Katy and NuRikPo had stripped the vessel of every valuable artifact and byte of data.  Then he would disintegrate the damned outsider while Jolly watched.  The Ningyo would gain nothing from their occupation of the Scape Grace and lose everything they sought. 
Such goals were all well and evil, but manifesting his desires would take more work.  Evgeny cleaned up his mess with perfunctory haste.  He closed up the hidden comm panel, doing his best to make the storage bay look as it had before.  Then he scrambled back to his own quarters. 
There, on his personal compad, Evgeny planned out scenarios for the upcoming raid.  He weighed out their tactical assets and what he could remember of the spatial organization of the Zig mining operation.  He looked for moments where he might betray the Harauch, cripple the unnamed ship, or leave either ship to the mercy of the Zig defenses.  He wondered if Gleamer might be able to slip an advance warning message to the Zig.  Evgeny eventually discarded that idea as equally hazardous to the Scape Grace as to the other ships.  Their best chance of survival was to take advantage of the Harauch’s collaboration until the Zig force was substantially reduced.  Hopefully, the Scape Grace could stay operational long enough to pick the right moment for treachery.
He also had to hope that the microtechnology unleashed aboard the Scape Grace could be contained or slowed enough to thwart any sinister purposes until after the Ningyo were dealt with.  Ideally, NuRikPo could be returned to the ship to counter-engineer a solution to the invasive nanotechnology.  If not, they might have to rely upon the lesser talents of the Georges and the contents of Scape Grace’s technical library to seek contraceptive measures.  He should probably have the subordinate engineers start work sooner rather than later, but passing on all these details would be difficult until Burnett or Zenaida took up his invitation to visit storage bay 3e. 
At the moment, all Evgeny could do was plot… and wait.  Being able to wait and work patiently, even while traveling toward imminent danger, was an absolutely necessary ability for a raider.  There was quite a lot of dead time between targets.  Letting the time go to waste, or worse, letting anticipation wear on the mind, could quickly lead to mental sickness.  The skill to avoid either extreme was the same managed readiness required of a professional soldier.  To this extent, Evgeny might have been capable as a genuine military commander, perhaps even the captain of a legitimate warship. 
It was debatable whether captain Lerner was a natural leader.  More likely, the demands of his life had shaped whatever raw talent he possessed into its required form.  This was true of his vices as much as his virtues.  As a professional soldier, he could not have indulged his adolescent nastiness and cruelty.  He would have had to mature.  Piracy not only permitted but almost required such self-centered hostility.  You had to be vicious not only toward one’s victims, but sometimes also one’s collaborators. 
Evgeny had time to exercise both traits: patience and malevolence.  While he might be growing tired of a pirate’s life, he planned to keep living… and he planned to kill.