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.”

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