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…
            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.”

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