Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 14

            Katy Olu and NuRikPo were within the unnamed ship.  The unnamed ship was also within them.  Katy verified the worst with resonance scans, first of herself, then of her Zig co-worker.  Small metallic masses were spreading from their feet and hands, gradually working their way to the major blood vessels.  The individual microscopic machines were not easily visible within their bodies, but wherever the constructs gathered, they could be detected. 

            Fortunately, the devices were not acting like a traditional infection.  They were not doing significant damage to the bodies they invaded.  They were not consuming cells, either for sustenance or reproduction.  Most likely, they were borrowing oxygen, glucose, electrolytes, and iron directly from their hosts’ bloodstreams.  Still parasitic, but less rapacious. 
            Unfortunately, the little robots could not be removed like any other infectious agent, either.  NuRikPo’s electrostatic sweeper could destroy the constructs en masse, but only when the charge was applied in close proximity.  Inside a body, the machines were partially protected.  Enough charge to zap them all, internally, would also cook muscle and kill nerves. 
They also could not count on their own immune systems.  Actually, it was fortunate that the micro-robots had not triggered an immune response; the effect might have been unpleasantly akin to a widespread allergic reaction.  The inorganic substance of the invaders was being treated as neutral, more like a surgical implant. 
As such, there was no analogue to an antiviral, antibacterial, or antifungal treatment.  Not yet, anyway.  NuRikPo had begun the design of the closest equivalent: killer micro-robots designed to identify and demolish any of the foreign units they encountered.  He was building them both a new, upgraded immune system.  He hardly needed to invent the technology.  There were plenty of references to work from in his own culture’s past, by itself, and other cultures had made a few contributions as well.  The Zig was skilled enough to recall and replicate the designs he needed with a minimum of wasted research time.
NuRikPo was slowed only by the limited tools and materials available and by the specific challenge of countering a new, foreign technology.  Still, there were only so many workable designs buildable with a limited quantity of molecules.  Of those, only a few configurations would perform useful functions like movement, manipulation, and energy conversion.  As such, the potential uniqueness of the alien microtech was limited. 
What were the functions of those little bugs?  Katy tried to anticipate what their invaders were actually doing, other than settling in.  Within the hosts' extremities, the visible patterns seemed to be gravitating toward the center of each limb, then traveling core-ward.  Were the machines following the convenient paths of blood vessels?  Gravitating toward bones?  Seeking major nerves?  It was too soon to deduce the answer from what she had already observed.  It might be too late after the constructs' functions became clear.  Would they try to rebuild the Human and Zig somehow?  Would they abandon their relatively benign behavior once some critical limit was reached, then catastrophically decompose the surrounding tissue into sludge?  Were they merely sensory appendages, mapping the structure of the newly arrived organisms on behalf of their progenitor?  For now, a definite answer was impossible.  The best she could do was continue to watch, staying alert for any major changes. 
The work at least kept her from succumbing to the creeping threat of body horror.  It was all too easy to consider amputating her limbs to stop the spread of the crawling, foreign things.  But then, what would remove the last hand, the one that had held the cleaver?  And how would they seal the wounds, without hands?  Such absurdities only highlighted the basic absurdity of the thought itself.  They would purge themselves not through over-reaction, but through thoughtful, thorough action.  The final purpose of the constructs might never be revealed, because they would be disabled before its completion.  Katy could accept the thought that she might never know what the ship had intended by invading their flesh.  You asked before shoving your cells into somebody, dammit!  You at least bought them a nice dinner, first.
The idea of the invading micro-robots as explorers stuck with her, particularly as they watched the protean ‘greeter’ waiting outside of their shuttle.  The entity had settled on a distinctly Human-shaped form, albeit with a stiffness and exaggerated narrowing of the joints that suspiciously evoked the shape of a Ningyo pressure suit.  It was mimicking something.  Its appearance and capabilities suggested that the thing was composed of the same cellular elements as the rest of the ship.  If it had been speaking a Ningyo language before, then it had learned something about the other culture.  It might be learning even now. 
Depending on just what those machines were doing, the ship consciousness might not even need to wait long for its education.  It could record from single neurons, individually or in concert.  While a laborious process in itself – not to mention computationally demanding – a skillful AI might be able to map the processes of an entire nervous system in much less time than it would take to acquire formal knowledge from a sapient. 
An AI unassisted by direct neural recording would still have to work carefully through the steps of linguistic elicitation, comparative analysis, and verification.  It would also simultaneously have to acquire a cultural understanding of its subject(s).  Breaching the language barrier would be only a first step toward gaining a cultural and personal history for context.
It might be pleasant to think that the unnamed ship/organism might only be getting to know them better.  Yet with that thought remained the idea that the Ningyo had already been similarly infested.  Were the Ningyo only examined?  Or were they altered?  For that matter, were the Ningyo aware of the potentially dangerous nature of this ship?  Did they care?  Worse still, had they sent victims intentionally into the microbe-ridden gut of this unholy space whale?  Were they idiots, assholes, or worst, slaves?
            Katy’s anger reassured her.  It was as useful a tool to stave off fear as was the abstraction of work.  NuRikPo had to settle for the latter.  If he felt anything like true anger, or hatred, or enthusiasm, he had kept those extremes concealed from Katy’s senses.  That wasn’t a Zig tendency; that was just ‘Po.  His moods were as bland as his body was colorful.
The two adversaries worked uncomfortably close together within the confines of the shuttle.  The outer door was sealed; any incursion was being minimized to just those micro-robots that had hitched rides within or clinging to the outside of their clean suits.  NuRikPo had wired up a simple electrostatic field around the door seal, just in case the bugs started trying to break through.  If they could chew through the hull itself, the shuttle's occupants were doomed anyway.
They watched the greeter-thing gesture and dance outside via the external cameras.  It had knocked on the door soon after developing functional limbs.  They ignored the noise and it eventually stopped.  The entity now had neatly articulated digits and distinct facial features.  Its face was neutral, the simplistic, monochrome features of an androgynous mannequin.  Its body was sexless as well, with only a vague suggestion of rounding at both pectorals and groin.  Fortunately for their sanity, it had not spoken intelligibly.  The external audio pickups registered only a vague vocalization, a guttural vowel sound as neutral as the being’s appearance.  Like its gestures, the sound seemed to be an attempt to get their attention.  Maybe it wanted to communicate, make peace, and perhaps reassure them that the ship had no harmful intentions.  Maybe they had not yet been injected with a critical mass of microtech and it wanted them to open the door and expose themselves further.  Both Katy and NuRikPo agreed that their visitor could wait.  They would put off any meetings until they were satisfactorily inoculated against the ship’s invading anatomy.
Even if they were not fully distracted by their related problems and labors, Katy and NuRikPo still would have been unaware that they were moving.  The entire ship had accelerated to follow Scape Grace and Harauch, per its discussion with the Ningyo, Jolly.  Its sturdy superstructure and layered tissues absorbed any vibration from its engines.  It regulated gravity and inertia with its composite analogues of more solid-state technologies.  No external ports showed the space around them and there were no viewers or other readouts to consult about ship operations.  For all that Katy and NuRikPo knew, four ships remained in place, waiting to hear back from two explorers sent into the unknown.
From this perspective, the passage of an entire day became distressing.  They ate from shuttle stores, drank purified water, and excreted.  Their discomfort was half due to the cramped facilities and half due to the presence of the other sapient.  Eventually, the two took turns sleeping out of pure practical necessity. 

When one day wore into two, their discussions shifted from the current crisis to speculation about what actions the Scape Grace might take, and how soon.  When they remained silent, would captain Lerner order an attack?  A rescue?
Katy, believing she knew Evgeny Lerner best, believed his patience would last only three days at most.  He likely would not chance sending another crew member toward or into the foreign ship, but he might send an unmanned drone to attempt entry.  It might even try to cut or puncture the hull near the site of their entry.  A full assault against the ship would be unlikely, given the chances of accidentally destroying the valuable shuttle… not to mention two valuable crew members.  The captain might threaten the Ningyo sent to Scape Grace instead, hoping to ransom his people against the return of hostages.
NuRikPo disagreed.  He felt that their captain would remain patient for quite a long time.  After all, they might already have been dismissed as dead.  That was the most likely explanation for their silence.  Neither the risk of destruction by the Ningyo nor of damage to - or offense from - the foreign ship was worth bothering a rescue attempt for crew members of uncertain vitality.  The captain would wait until the ship was merely Schrödinger’s box, and not Pandora’s. 
They spent several hours arguing over these points.  The argument came in spurts, interspersed around more productive work.  While both participants considered the debate an unpleasant waste of time, they pursued their disagreement with increasing vigor as time wore on.  There must have been some positive reinforcement driving their dispute.  Perhaps it provided a welcome change of topic from the unpleasant subjects of bioengineering and alien motivational psychology.  Perhaps the return to their traditional adversarial roles was a welcome diversion from their unexpectedly intense forced cooperation.  Perhaps they secretly enjoyed the stimulation of having an intractable opponent to hear and react to their provocations.
Likely all of those motivations were true.  Yet one more cause was at play, one even the most skilled xenopsychologist might have failed to isolate.  The triggers in their nervous systems – for distaste and for enjoyment, for anger and for appreciation, for defiance and complacency – were being located, tested, and mapped.  As strings were tied and pulled, their minds twitched in response. 

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