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.

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