Monday, August 25, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 23

             Katy and NuRikPo’s knowledge of the battle outside went from complete ignorance to sudden chaos.  Despite the transformations occurring across the ship surrounding them,  the chamber where their shuttle rested was left unchanged.  While Scape Grace and Harauch traded fire with the Zig defenders, the two sapients sat quietly isolated.  They continued to wait in suspension even as Emissary closed on the Zig mining base.  Emissary did not relay any updates on the progress of its assault.  The firing of its weapons produced no effects in their section of the ship.

Only when the Zig base finally returned fire did any information reach the two captives, and then two disturbing events arrived in close succession.  The surrounding ship shuddered, strongly enough to shake the shuttle within.  The composite substance of the walls rippled detectably, whether measured by eye or by energy reflectance.  Katy and NuRikPo looked at one another in alarm. 
There was no time for discussion, as NuRikPo’s attention was drawn away immediately by multiple signals.  His long fingers skittered across the shuttle’s interface panel, accessing and sorting the new inputs.  Katy stepped forward to watch over his shoulder.  With a glance at her and a wave of his hand, NuRikPo selected the most important of the signals and switched it to the main communication channel.  The audio message was broadcast for both listeners in a flat, unadorned synthetic voice, but the identity of the ‘speaker’ was obvious from the message's content and phrasing.
“Katy and Po, do you read?  Are you ok in there?  Can you hear me yet?  We saw you get hit.”
Katy tuned to the signal and switched in a response using Scape Grace’s preferred frequencies and encryption.  She replied, “Gleamer!  We’re ok for now, hearing you finally.  We’re working on getting out of here.  This ship is bad news.  What hit it?”
The response was surprisingly slow in coming back, stretching their nerves taut.  Over sixty seconds later, Gleamer’s proxy replied, “The Zig miners.  Maglift shells with some kind of crystallizing catalyst.  The Ningyo are going berserk.  They’re insisting that we come to the rescue.  Gene is standing them off.  I think they’re getting orders from your end.  Wait, captain is saying we have to run… out of system… better get out and follow our vector.  Might have to leave you there.  Sorry…”
Gleamer’s fragmentary signal reflected his scattered, racing thoughts.  Finally it was cut off entirely.  The carrier was still intact, but no further message was being broadcast. 
Katy called back, “Gleamer, get out how?  Which vector?  Don’t leave us hanging here.”
NuRikPo had been only partially attending the conversation.  He was distracted by a second array of abruptly active sensors.  At the word ‘crystallizing’, he did look up and toward the audio output, as if trying to confirm the message with its speaker. 
As Katy’s response rose to the frequencies of panic, he spoke up:  “That explains the readings I’m getting.  The short-wave signals generated internally by Emissary’s coordination cells have been surging and then dropping at several locations.  The cells are likely shouting warnings before they are disabled.  If so, the wave of damage is forward of us and to the starboard side.  At its current rate of progress, the cascade will reach our region in about ninety seconds." 
He added, "the vector Gleamer referenced is probably our prior exit path from this system, from when we fled the first time.”
Katy prompted, “So how do we get out of here before we’re ‘crystallized’?  You Zig make some really nasty weapons, you know that?”
“I know.”  NuRikPo’s acknowledgement carried a note of pride.  “Weapons are supposed to be awful… and effective.  First, we need to get out of physical contact with this ship.  If our hull touches recently crystallized matter the catalyzing wave will spread throughout this shuttle.  The effect is intentionally contagious." 
His fingers twitched over the controls again.  "Engaging lift.  Hopefully we can hover in this space until the conversion reaches its conclusion.” 
He acted as he spoke, cycling up the drives that would normally propel the little craft within a planet’s atmosphere and gravity.  He was forced to adjust the strength and direction of these lifters several times as Emissary’s own gravitational generators failed.  The shuttle bounced jarringly off the ‘ceiling’ of the surrounding space.
“Watch it!” Katy griped, holding onto a hand rail for balance.
“I am, otherwise that would have been worse.  We are in freefall.  Compensating.”
The cameras showed the chamber walls veering close and then moving away as NuRikPo struggled to keep their floating shuttle from moving too far in any one direction.  Small impacts indicated that his efforts were not entirely successful.  Still, he was getting better at adjusting their angle and momentum, steadily balancing against their residual motion until the shuttle was merely rotating and drifting slowly. 
This motion made looking through the exterior cameras a nauseating experience.  Still, they kept the view on and were rewarded for their perseverance with an advance warning of the encroaching threat.  One section of the deck material was rippling physically and changing color from its former uniform metallic charcoal to a paler, dusty grey.  The Zig catalyst was forcing certain elements in the cells to attract and align, rendering the composite structures inert and brittle.  With Emissary’s unique construction, the effect was like flesh being petrified.  It was as if portions of the ship were dying as they crystallized. 
Against a standard starship, the weapon might make a hull difficult to protect, both vulnerable to further impacts and resistant to defensive fields.  If not isolated, the effect would spread, knocking out electronic systems.  However, careful hardening of key systems could protect a ship from such an attack, by surrounding them with substances inert to crystallization.  The best defenses against a catalyst were counter-agents that would arrest the process.  Ships blessed with a well-prepared engineering section (and preferably, a Zig crew member) might even be able to reverse most of the damage.  Failing that, it might become necessary to cut away and jettison the affected areas before the cascading effect spread too far. 
Ironically, Emissary was more capable of the latter defense than any standard ship.  It could have pinched off the afflicted area, amputating one mass of cells to protect the rest.  Unfortunately for the foreign ship, it apparently did not understand the nature of this threat and had allowed the affliction to spread widely. 
Katy would later sympathize with the distress the artificial organism must have been experiencing as its ‘body’ froze solid.  At that moment, though, she was in more fear for her own life.  She could not spare any consideration for the entity that held them captive.  Its impending death was their opportunity for escape.
“’Po!  It can’t heal now!  Blast us out!”
NuRikPo’s hands were already on the weapons controls as Katy spoke.  Their thoughts had followed the same track.  He fired, and gouts of accelerated particles sprayed against and through the paralyzed section of Emissary’s wall.
“First C-section I’ve done from inside.  This baby’s gotta go,” Katy babbled, bouncing with adrenaline from mingled fear and urgency. 
“Could you do more than just talk?  Perhaps take over firing while I steer us out?”  NuRikPo struggled to maintain his own calm in the crisis.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Katy almost shouted as she bolted around NuRikPo’s back and switched over top of him on the weapons controls.  They brushed hands briefly; it was a testament to the seriousness of their situation that neither shuddered nor complained at the contact.
The sight of deep blackness and the suction of vacuum were welcome indicators of progress.  Between the immobilization of the hull material and the destruction of that matter by the shuttle’s weaponry, they were managing to open an ever-widening gap straight outside.  The pull of atmosphere rushing out nearly dragged them into collision with the crystallizing material, but NuRikPo managed to recover by thrusting steadily backward.  With the shuttle almost pressed against the far wall of the surrounding chamber, Katy fired repeatedly at the edges of the growing hole.  It needed to be wide enough to allow the shuttle to escape comfortably, without risking contact between hull and shuttle. 
The visible, rippling wave of the crystallization effect now flowed in all directions, creeping across the floor and outer wall of the shuttle chamber.  They were losing the remaining 'safe' areas where NuRikPo might allow a brief bump of contact due to overcompensation. 
That balancing act would not get any easier with time.  Once the ship was entirely converted, it would also cease to resist the pull of the nearby planetoid.  Being dragged rapidly into a gravity well would make steering even more difficult.  Their chances of a safe escape were dropping steadily as it was.
Katy shifted her firing pattern.  Rather than gradually carving away at the edges of the original hole, she fired a series of shots in a circular pattern around a wide perimeter.  NuRikPo looked at her handiwork curiously at first, then nodded in understanding.  He backed the shuttle up as far as it could go, nestled against the final remaining unafflicted inner wall.
Then Katy launched their projectile weapon.  An alloyed steel slug chuffed out from the magnetic acceleration tube slung underneath their shuttle.  That shell was filled with the finest explosive cocktail and fitted with a mechanical impact trigger.  This payload struck acceptably near the center of the puncture pattern Katy had created. 
The roar of detonation was audible even with their microphones inactive, even through the thinning atmosphere and through their armored hull.  The concussion wave was at least weakened by the lack of a medium.  Plus, NuRikPo had already braced their back so that the blast could not throw them against the wall.  The shuttle took much less damage than would normally occur when firing its 'mortar' in a confined space. 
The explosion's effect on Emissary's brittle, perforated hull was exactly what Katy had hoped.  Distressed material shattered away from the point of impact, opening a gaping wound far larger than necessary for their shuttle’s diameter.  Without further prompting, NuRikPo reversed thrust and shot them through the hole and out into open space. 
The planetoid sped by beneath them as the shuttle accelerated, breaking free from the pull of that significant mass.  Behind them, Emissary spun slowly, no longer able to move away from the target it had once menaced. 
“I wonder if the miners had that weapon ready when we were here the last time?”  Katy mused.  She was no longer firing but stayed near the weapons controls in case they met resistance on their way out of the system.
NuRikPo answered as he steered them out of system:  “Perhaps so, or perhaps they constructed it in reaction to our attack.  If the former, being driven off by their outer defenses possibly saved Scape Grace from the same fate as Emissary.”
Those outer defenses, the flock of crude fighter craft that had bested Scape Grace twice, now pursued the Harauch.  No longer needing to focus on either the departed Scape Grace or the crippled Emissary, the little ships circled the remaining ‘Mauraug’ pirate.  Good sense would suggest that it, too, should run.  It had removed two of the remaining seven fighters, but showed signs of damage in return.  Attrition would eventually prove fatal for any outnumbered ship, and Harauch was reaching the tipping point.  Still, it remained, stubbornly trying to reach the dying alien ship. 
As the pathetic scene dwindled away behind them, their shuttle’s instruments registered another launch from the planetoid’s surface.  Harauch flashed with an impact.  It had shielded the other ship with its own mass, accepting a direct hit meant for Emissary.  It was a meaningless sacrifice.  Now, both ships would certainly die. 
At least, both ships would certainly die if the Zig miners had the good sense to incinerate them in space.  The miners certainly could not risk either wreck landing on the planetoid.  The problem was worse than any damage from impact alone.  If any remaining active catalyst came into contact with that world's surface, it would start working rapidly on the metal-rich crust.  Clearing out the mess might cost more than the remaining ore would be worth.  The miners would be bankrupted, even if they weren't first killed by the catalyst disabling their environmental equipment.  It was a risky weapon, generally used only by the desperate.  Hopefully, the miners would not take any further risks and would reduce both ships to carbonized dust.
There was another, seemingly reasonable scenario: the Zig might plan to deliver a counter-agent to one or both ships, neutralizing and partially reversing the crystallization process.  They would assume the occupants of both ships to be dead.  The disabled ships then could be towed into a safe orbit and salvaged for valuable materials... theoretically. 
Based on what Katy Olu and NuRikPo had observed, Emissary’s unique structure might not actually be ‘dead’, either in part or in whole.  Crystallization might only deactivate the cells, rendering them inert but not permanently disabled.  Separately, Emissary might have realized what was happening to its body and protected some portion of itself by creating a buffered area, an 'egg' of unharmed cells, just enough to rebuild from.  There were a few other possible ways that cells from the alien ship could have avoided harm.  Deactivating the crystallizing agent might revitalize the ship, especially if done before 100% of the organism’s cells were affected.  At the least, removing the threat might be enough to trigger regeneration.  Any Zig that came aboard were at risk of infestation by micro-tech.  They would soon want to help Emissary, feed it, protect it… rebuild it...  The Mission might continue with only a short interruption.
“We really should warn somebody,” Katy spoke aloud as they fled the system, searching for a lead from Scape Grace.  “That ship is dangerous.”
NuRikPo nodded, but countered, “First, we need to warn our own people.  We might need to rescue them.  Based on what we know, the Ningyo are likely under Emissary’s influence.  Who knows if they were able to spread its microbes to others?  Then again, we have to hope Scape Grace rescues us first.  This shuttle won’t get us very far very fast.  If they left us behind…”
He didn’t need to finish the thought.  Fortunately, its unpleasant implications were pushed aside by communications from Scape Grace’s channel.  An unfamiliar, apparently female Human voice spoke: a very real-sounding voice, rather than the earlier synthetic reading of Gleamer’s recoded thoughts. 
“Dr. Olu, NuRikPo, please follow to coordinates 5-point-69, 4-point-33, 55-point-30.  I am stopping to let you catch up.  Are you hurt in any way?”
“Hmmmm… no, no serious physical damage, to us or the shuttle.  Thank you... ‘Grace?”  NuRikPo replied carefully.
“You’re welcome, but my name is Matilda.  So glad to hear you’re unharmed.  Hurry up, you’re needed for repairs, both of you.”  The speaker sounded young, pleasant, and carefully thoughtful.  She definitely did not sound like anyone Katy or NuRikPo could remember meeting aboard Scape Grace. 
Oh, well, one more mystery to resolve, among many.  Hopefully, Scape Grace could hold together a few minutes longer, so that they could dock and get to work on whatever crises demanded their attention most urgently.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 22

            The reactions to Evgeny’s musical outburst were varied.  Neither Jolly nor Havish gave any visible response: Jolly was apparently lost in its own mind and Havish was too busy tracking Zig targets.  What they thought of the anomaly or whether they had even noticed it went unknown.  Punch only stared mutely at Evgeny, evidently confused.  Gleamer had turned full circle in his seat but also gaped dumbly at the captain.  Soloth was startled at first, but its expression soon darkened as it understood the meaning of Evgeny’s serenade-turned-duet. 

            “Matilda, assume full override, all functions.  Evade and fire at need, but get us out of this system.  Full reverse.”  Evgeny barked his orders with nimble-tongued speed.  
            The girlish voice that had answered his song replied with slower, prim diction: “I may be very smart, but give me a moment.  It takes some time to wake up, especially when you’ve been asleep for a decade.”  The voice had a distinct, archaic accent, particularly with its flattened R’s and elongated Ah’s. 
            Despite Matilda’s protests, she was clearly catching up quickly.  Havish tapped repeatedly at a firing control that had ceased to react to its touch.  Jolly shuddered and finally looked down to where Evgeny stood.  Soon after Matilda’s response, the view screens showed the results of her work: the image of the dwarf planetoid was beginning to shrink.  The Zig fighters also swirled away and vanished to points in the distance. 
            Gleamer cocked his head, still receiving outputs from various processes even if he could not input new instructions.  He put the pieces together with admirable speed.  Turning to Evgeny, he howled, “You said your AI was dead!  I am so pissed at you right now… also really, really jealous.  That was awesome.”
            Soloth only snarled in response to the Human sentiment. 
            Jolly’s anger was more surprising. 
            The Ningyo captain roared, “Bring us back!  NOW!  They are all under attack!  We are dying… she is dying… your crew will die… undo this, Evgeny Lerner, and give me back control.”
            Its enforcer, Punch, wasted no words but drew two weapons: its electrified slapstick and the spare spatial fold generator taken from the deceased Comus.  It pointed the generator at Evgeny, emphasizing its commander’s demand. 
            Evgeny stood defiant.  “Go ahead.  This ship is mine.  Better, it’s my friend.  Kill me, and she’ll guarantee you die.  Either way, we’re not going back to that deathtrap.  Your people are gone… accept that and count yourself lucky to have escaped.”
            “Kill the Mauraug,” Jolly ordered Punch.  It was no longer bantering.  It seemed to have switched on a new personality, cold and empty, in place of its eponymous cheer.  As Punch sighted on Soloth, Jolly unslung its own weapon.
            No individual sapient could have tracked all of the actions that followed.  Gleamer, operating on boosted reflexes, moved first… throwing himself flat on the deck. 
Havish’s honed responses gave it the second fastest reaction.  It had already been reaching beneath its chest armor for a hidden stiletto as soon as Jolly began to rant.  When Punch turned its weapon on Soloth, Havish leapt forward and shoved the masked Ningyo backward.  With one hand, the scarred Mauraug pushed the generator aside, swinging its muzzle toward Jolly.  This stopped Punch from firing.  With its other hand holding the thin, hardened stiletto, Havish stabbed Punch beneath its oversized abdomen, aiming for the flexible joint at its waist.  The stiletto punched through the outer membrane of that articulatory area and slid between its interlocking plates.  The force of the Mauraug’s blow was just enough to crack the casing of the Ningyo’s inner compartment.  A whistling jet of released pressure screamed from the ‘gut’ wound.
Punch responded with unexpected coordination.  Not only did it hold its fire with one hand, it swung the other hand, holding the electric baton, in a solid strike against Havish’s exposed neck.  The Mauraug stumbled backward and slammed against the far wall of the bridge, stunned by current passing through its central nervous system.
Jolly and Soloth acted next.  The Ningyo captain was already going to shoot Havish, but paused when it and Punch became interlocked.  As soon as the two figures separated, Jolly had a clear shot again.  It re-aimed and fired.  Unlike the glancing shot on Tklth, this spatial disturbance was solidly centered on Havish bash’Buurem.  A swirling globe of energy expanded to encompass the Mauraug, along with circular sections of the wall and floor.  That sphere flashed with an eye-wrenching moirĂ© pattern, relocating volumes of matter to new, randomly distributed positions.  The remains of Havish spattered wetly into a newly-formed hole in the deck, along with several chopped slices of composited metal and plastic. 
Soloth was already racing forward.  It wasted no time in grief for the unlucky substitute gunner.  The space fold generators had a brief recharge time, and Soloth did not intend to allow Jolly a second shot.  Punch had not yet fired.  If it recovered, Soloth was still its intended target.  The surviving Mauraug intended to get close enough to Jolly to use the Ningyo as cover. 
Only Evgeny did not move from his original position.  Instead, he continued to give rapid-fire directions to his omnipresent AI.  “Matilda, broadcast to all decks: Internal attack.  Ningyo.  Defense positions.  Unleash hell.”
Matilda understood that her Human’s orders applied to her as well.  She adapted to circumstances with admirable speed, even for an artificial intelligence.  Correlating past recordings with present observations, she identified Jolly’s direct physical link as a weak point.  She sacrificed the bridge command console, increasing its power supply sharply in order to send current surging through the linked cables and into the Ningyo captain’s body.  This gambit produced a satisfactory result: Jolly jerked and smoked as its circuits were overloaded.
“Roger that,” Matilda cooed aloud.
Punch was forced to abandon its attacks and instead rescue its commander.  Dropping its baton, it grabbed Jolly’s arm (careful not to allow the current to redirect through its own body) and pulled sharply, disengaging the cable link connecting Jolly and Scape Grace.  The Ningyo captain slumped downward, falling out of the command chair and landing on its knees.  Though dazed, Jolly was not dead.  Punch, on the other hand, continued to ‘bleed’, leaking internal atmosphere in a noisy squeal.  Once Jolly was safely disconnected, Punch used its free hand to plug the hole in its midsection.
All this action had cost it time to react to Soloth’s approach.  Now, no time was left.  Seeing Jolly incapacitated, Soloth had skirted the command chair, circling around to pounce upon Punch.  One black, wide, leathery hand grabbed the white, slender, robotic hand holding the space fold generator.  Soloth’s other hand wrapped around the neck of Punch’s suit.  With a casual gesture, the mechanically strengthened Mauraug pulled, wrenching Punch’s arm free in a spray of sparks.  It spun the Ningyo around and repeated the procedure with its other arm.  Punch kicked and struggled in vain.  It was an insect caught by a very strong, very angry, very sadistic child.  If it was fortunate, Soloth would be content to leave the suit’s inhabitant alive within an immobilized torso. 
Evgeny was fascinated, himself.  Soloth was executing one of the torments he had fantasized upon the Ningyo, though not on the exact target he had envisioned.  A portion of the Mauraug’s anger probably stemmed from his deception and the revelation of his not-so-dead AI partner.  This did not impair Evgeny's enjoyment of the fruits of that anger. 
With the bridge crew variously dead, cowering, enthralled, or enraged, no one paid heed to Jolly’s recovery.  The electrocuted Ningyo stood unsteadily but managed to stay upright.  It tried to raise its weapon but found its coordination impaired.  Its arms and legs jerked occasionally, circuits partially fused and control systems erratic.  Recognizing that it could no longer fight, Jolly chose to attempt flight.  It had to leave now or not at all; Evgeny’s warning to the crew meant that defenders were moving to protect important ship systems.  They might soon be blocking exits as well.
Jolly staggered toward the bridge door and managed to fire a small burst of spatial distortion at the hatch.  The portal, though sealed by Matilda’s override, ceased to be an obstacle as it shattered into disparate chips.  Jolly threw itself forward and out into the hallway, racing toward the descending ladder.  Its movements became steadily smoother as its suit’s sophisticated systems began to compensate for damage.  The micro-units suffusing its body were also doing their best to repair both biology and machinery.
Seeing the Ningyo leader escaping, Evgeny was forced to turn away from the spectacle of Soloth removing Punch’s remaining leg.  There could be only one destination for the Ningyo now, the one route of escape from Scape Grace.  Jolly was going for its shuttle.  After all this mess, captain Lerner was not about to let its perpetrator run free.  He darted after Jolly.  The Ningyo already had a lead the length of the bridge.  Matilda might be able to slow him down, but the space fold generator would clear away any barriers she could create.
            Chasing after the armed Ningyo was a stupid risk, but Evgeny was not thinking clearly.  He wanted Jolly dead and his enemy was getting away.   Worse, if it reached its shuttle, it might engage a spatial drive within the hold, blinking instantly out of reach while also crippling Scape Grace.  There was, once again, no time for hesitation and no one else to take the necessary action. 
            It was only fitting that a captain rescue his ship or die trying.


            Luuboh bash’Gaulig had little to contribute during the ship-to-ship fighting.  It might be adequate in traditional combat, but had neither the training nor temperament to lend aid in a battle waged via remote technologies.  Even so, it balked at being sequestered in the medical room.  The space was tight and cut off from the information flow of the Scape Grace. 

            Luuboh wasn’t even useful here for medical purposes.  Most injuries sustained during a space battle would either be instantly fatal (along with destruction to a portion of the ship) or else consist of bumps, bruises, or breaks that could be treated long after the shooting was done.
            Regardless, Kuugan bash’Ranpool stood outside the door of medical, ready to ‘help’ should injuries be reported.  Both Mauraug knew that Kuugan was really present to watch Luuboh and its patient, Tklth.  Luuboh supposed that Soloth had sent its own understudy to keep Luuboh on task, out from underfoot, and possibly watched for any signs of instability.  Luuboh did not realize that captain Lerner had seconded that supervision, specifically on the chance that Luuboh itself was being compromised by the alien technology it was studying in such close proximity.
            Tklth's own body now was providing more data than the tissue samples Luuboh had tested.  The micro-robots were reaching such concentration in her spine and brain that their activity registered on both magnetic and electrical scans.  Less subtly, they had begun rebuilding her damaged tissue.  When Luuboh finally removed the cautery patches, it found a gridwork of fine silvery threads already in place at the wound sites.  The scars left by the searing chemicals bulged outward, not with infection but with expanding healthy tissue.  Beneath a keloid seal reinforced with artificial netting, the microtech was slowly adding muscle, blood vessels, and approximate analogues of bone and nerve.  The few samples Luuboh had been able to extract and study suggested that the robots were building a new tail and leg.  The result would be something neither wholly organic nor wholly cybernetic, but a novel fusion of substances.  Whether this blended technology would yield results superior to true regeneration or pure cybernetics was debatable, but it was certainly a unique approach to the problem.
            Tklth did not seem pained or even troubled by this process.  She had been cheerfully talkative before Kuugan arrived but seemed to understand that the new presence was not friendly.  She stopped trying to argue for her release and fell into a meditative rest.  That silence was the one benefit of being watched, Luuboh supposed.  It gave the fatigued Mauraug a moment’s peace. 
The quiet lasted only a moment, though.  A ship-wide announcement indicated the start of hostilities.  Ideally, for this part of the ship, that announcement would be the only indicator that a battle was occurring.  Any other sensations transmitted to the internally situated medical room would probably indicate damage to Scape Grace’s structure.  Any warning signals – fire, low atmosphere, or other environmental failures – were also undesirable updates. 
            An alert of another sort came from Tklth.  Several minutes after the initial announcement, the Vislin shuddered sharply.  Luuboh, who had been trying to stay distracted with recreational reading, looked up as its patient called aloud: “She is hurt!”
            Luuboh’s first thought was that Tklth was dreaming, reliving a memory, or else hallucinating from some effect of the micro-robots.  Still, it responded, “Who is hurt?  What do you mean?”
            “Our friend, the one who gave me her gifts.  She is dying and we cannot come to her aid.”  Tklth was getting frantic, snapping her beak and pushing against the magnetic restraints of the medical bed.
            “Do you mean the Ningyo?  Comus?”  Luuboh was still genuinely baffled; Jolly’s suggestion that Comus might have been female provided its only guess at Tklth’s meaning.
            “The traveler, the emissary, the bearer of gifts.” Tklth struggled to explain something she did not entirely understand herself.  “Please let me go.  I need to help her.  I can at least return to my post.  I understand that we are fighting her enemies while others go to help… but I must do something.”
            Luuboh, not privy to the plan of battle, could not connect Tklth’s explanation to the foreign ship.  It also did not have the benefit of realizing that Tklth was receiving messages relayed from one mass of micro-robots to another; only Evgeny had deduced that much from the combined reports of Luuboh and Gleamer.
            What Luuboh did understand was that Tklth was being affected by the invasive technology clustered on its nervous system.  Where before that influence had rendered the formerly irritable reptilian peaceable, now it was goading her to agitated action. 
            A rattling noise from behind distracted Luuboh from its observations of Tklth.  One of its sample cases, the one provided with a nutrient bath that had allowed the micro-robots to flourish, was vibrating slightly.  The muscle tissue within had expanded grotesquely and was pulsating against the walls of the plastic dish.  Whatever was triggering the units within Tklth was apparently also affecting the separate colony.  Both sets had originated from the Ningyo, Comus, but that host was dead.  What was activating them, simultaneously, now?
            Luuboh’s lapse in attention gave Tklth time to act.  With a coordinated movement, Tklth lifted her leg and both wrists, and snapped open the bed’s restraints.  The electromagnets that had held them closed were no longer functional, having lost their charge.  Specialized miniature constructs had gradually managed to slip out of her body, infest the bed, and sabotage it.  These commandoes had undertaken a suicide mission, using their own bodies to link together sections of circuitry and short out the magnets.
            Even with only one leg, Tklth was a dangerous opponent.  Luuboh backed away the few feet available, against the far wall of the medical room.  To its relief, Tklth was not interested in attacking her physician, so long as it did not further restrain her.  Instead, she levered herself to her foot and hopped to the exit. 
            When she opened the door, she found herself face-to-face with the expectant Kuugan bash’Ranpool.  The Mauraug guard raised a plasma pistol and pointed it toward Tklth’s midsection. 
            “No one leaves…” Kuugan began to warn her.
            Tklth did not wait for the rest.  She did not hesitate, but threw herself forward onto the armed Mauraug.  Surprised, Kuugan fired and caught the onrushing Vislin in the flank.  The wound would be painful and hazardous to future health, but would not be fatal with medical care.  It certainly was not enough to stop Tklth’s attack.  The claws of one hand dug into Kuugan’s forearm, trying to force it to release the weapon.  At the same time, Tklth bit at the Mauraug’s face.  She had a nasty surprise when her beak met plastic and steel, rasping across Kuugan’s prosthetic upper jaw. 
            As they struggled, the two combatants fell to the floor.  At that point, Luuboh might have come to Kuugan’s aid and perhaps even balanced out the fight.  However, its thoughts went first to escape: escape from the medical room, escape from the twin hazards of Tklth and Kuugan, and escape to the bridge.  Its instinct was a mixture of base self-preservation and possibly a nobler urge to communicate its observations to its superiors.  Whatever had set off Tklth might be germane to the conflict facing the Scape Grace.  Also, if both Kuugan and Luuboh were overcome, who could warn the crew about the danger posed by Tklth?  More specifically, who would warn them about the dangers living within her flesh, whether or not she also died?
            So, instead of attacking Tklth, Luuboh leapt over her back, also clearing Kuugan’s prone form, and loped off down the central hallway toward the forward portion of the ship.  Its intent was to reach the scaling ladder and climb up one level.  From there, it could hurry to the bridge. 
            Luuboh was almost to the ladder when it heard an unfamiliar, apparently female Human voice over the loudspeakers: “Internal attack.  Ningyo.  Defense positions.  Unleash hell.”  
            Was that the she of Tklth's ranting?  If so, why was ‘she’ warning about an attack on the ship by the Ningyo?  Luuboh tried to rearrange its thoughts logically as it ran.  The message's phrasing sounded like orders to ship’s crew to defend it against boarders.  It didn't sound like anyone familiar: Human, but too young and too oddly accented to be one of the female combat crew.

             Once again, Luuboh had been left out of the plots and plans.  It had not been privy to the combat crew’s private briefings where key phrases were introduced.  Still, Luuboh knew something the grunt crew didn’t.  The Ningyo had been planning to infiltrate the ship... and its crew... all along.  They had seeded the ship with microscopic robots designed to reprogram biological sapients.  Who knew which crew had been compromised?  The Scape Grace could find itself at war between the enslaved and the still-free.

             Luuboh at least knew it was clean.  It had checked its own scans numerous times.  Unlike Tklth, it was definitely not feeling peaceful.  Cowardly, yes, but still quite angry and violent.  Most importantly, it was still opposed to the Ningyo.  Their intent in employing the micro-robots might have been to neutralize any opposition.  At least whoever had triggered that message was still fighting.  Otherwise, Luuboh might be the ship’s last bulwark against total capitulation. 
Still, it would have to fight alone for now.  It would need weapons.  It would also need a tactical position.  It had some ideas where both could be found. 
            Luuboh neared the scaling ladder and was alarmed to hear the clicking of plastic on metal as something descended.  The most likely source of that sound was one of the Ningyo using the ladder.  They were coming this direction.  Were they coming for Tklth?  For Luuboh, who knew too much, who still resisted?   The lone Mauraug was defenseless here. 
            It raced past the ladder and toward the shuttle deck, ducking into the first storage bay.  There were weapons there.  Even better, the controls to the shuttle bay were close at hand.  It could flush the shuttle into space.  If the Ningyo threatened, they risked losing the means of return to their own ship.  It was a weak bargaining point, but Luuboh hoped it would be enough nuisance to dissuade the occupiers from pressing their attack. 
After all, the crippled, harmless Mauraug was not much threat by itself.  The enemy could be persuaded to leave it alone, rather than lose their shuttle... hopefully?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 21

            The effectiveness of their attack plan was nearly compromised by Jolly’s insistence on keeping Scape Grace within close range of the other two ships until the last possible moment.  If the Zig were watching carefully, they could have already spotted the oncoming objects.  Depending on the quality and attentiveness of the miners’ observations, they might perceive three separate ships or one large vessel.  If they saw two other ships split off from Scape Grace and approach from lateral vectors, the lure of the familiar pirate ship might not draw the full force of the defenders. 

            Evgeny supposed he should have been less surprised when Gleamer announced, “The foreign ship… it’s getting all blurry.”
            “What’s that?” Evgeny responded.
            “My readings are getting scrambled.  Its mass, volume, albedo, output signature… everything detectable is varying randomly across its respective spectrum.”
            Jolly intruded to explain, “Didn’t I say our friend is quite mutable?  It can be an anomaly just as well as a familiar face.  Is it a ship?  Is it an asteroid?  No, it’s… well, it is a ship.  Also, an artificial organism.  And it’s tricksy.”
            “Great,” Evgeny retorted, “We’ll need more than tricks.  Are we ready to start the strategy?”
            “What is strategy but a whole lot of tricks played in the right order?  But yes, sound the trumps and start the game.  We shall bid high and claim the pot!”  Jolly sounded perversely enthusiastic and even Punch nodded in evident readiness. 
Jolly plugged its suit into the command console, transmitting the signal to break away to Harauch and the unnamed ship.  As the latter vessel pulled away, Evgeny could see its hull rippling and shifting.  The former falsified insignia was gone, wiped away in a shimmer of color as the foreign ship obscured its identity once again.  It was not only reshaping its exterior.  Sections of its internal structure were being reworked, judging from the new bulges and pits appearing in its profile.  Evgeny hoped Katy and NuRikPo were cached somewhere safe within the malleable mass.
The engines of the strange ship flared to greater fury and it leapt away past sight.  At that cue, Scape Grace also accelerated, aiming directly toward the planetoid ahead.  Harauch fell behind, both due to its lower maximum speed and its lateral course, opposite the direction selected by the foreign ship. 
Harauch would arrive after and to one side of Scape Grace after following a wide arc away.  Its separate but converging course would hopefully add to the apparent threat posed by Scape Grace, drawing more of the Zig fighter craft into engagement.  Once the battle was joined, the late-arriving Harauch would force the Zig to choose between dividing their force to deal with both threats separately or else swarming the Scape Grace exclusively, leaving themselves vulnerable if they were still thus engaged as Harauch closed.
Scape Grace was a known threat.  It had reduced the fighter fleet by five craft before the battle turned against the pirates.  Unless the Zig had rebuilt those five plus another half-dozen more, the two pirate-salvagers together held a slight advantage.  All that meant was that one or both ships might survive the battle.  They would be badly damaged, almost certainly, under most projections.  That outcome could be swayed far in either direction by strategy or simple fortune.  Mischance or a tactical error could easily result in total destruction; only a stroke of luck or genius would get them through the fight minimally scathed. 
It was not a fight captain Lerner would have chosen.  In fact, he had rejected it before and was not responsible for choosing it now.  Still, he could hardly abdicate responsibility for his ship’s survival while still desiring – and intending to reclaim – authority over ‘Grace.  Thus, Evgeny had given his best input to the planning of this foolish endeavor.  He would also lend his full expertise to its execution. 
He also issued his own orders to his crew: “Full speed ahead, Soloth.  Let’s smoke the bees out of that hive so that the baby bear can get its honey.” 
Jolly tilted its head toward Evgeny, “That’s not half bad.  Clumsy... but at least the metaphor sticks together.  Ha!”  It raised one hand, palm open and fingers splayed, lowering it in a violent gesture toward Punch.  The other Ningyo had already raised its hand at the elbow and reached upward in a matching gesture.  Their two molded plastic palms smacked together with a sharp crack as they met in midair. 
The movement and noise startled Havish, the Mauraug replacement gunner.  It looked back at the two Ningyo in alarm, hands coming off the weapons console in preparation for defense.  When the robotic figures settled back into position as if nothing important had happened, Havish began to relax.
Soloth grunted, “Ningyo,” and that was explanation enough.  Soloth increased their speed.  Scape Grace hurtled forward on an apparent collision course with the planetoid ahead.


            The opening moves of the assault played out exactly as Jolly had intended.  A squadron of crude fighter craft deployed from the Zig encampment well before Scape Grace was close enough to singe with their weaponry.  In their first clash, the Zig had kept the existence of their fighters concealed until Scape Grace entered orbit and began to organize a landing.  Struggling to recall its shuttle had delayed the pirate ship’s escape.  The delay had given the miners several minutes of free shots.  Evgeny thought of the farce as the equivalent of getting caught with his pants down and around his ankles.  This time, now that each party knew the other’s assets, there was no point in secrecy.
            The fighters spread out in a loose net, separated widely enough to anticipate and intercept any lateral movement by Scape Grace, but not divided so far as to lose the advantage of their numbers.  No doubt the Zig pilots were being assisted by mathematically precise computer simulations which took their capabilities into account and adjusted for the actions of their enemy.  Well, the Scape Grace had similar programs, plus the flexibility of Human-made sub-AI systems.  Battles fought on autopilot alone hardly needed to be fought; the unpredictable elements were what gave combat its risk.  Basically, an AI could still beat an expert chess program 55 games out of 100, though both would probably manage 90 out of 100 against a biological grandmaster.
            Soloth reported eleven fighters arrayed against them.  Two appeared cruder than the rest; these might have been the products of hasty assembly by the miners or else hasty repairs on the damaged fighters they could salvage.  Gleamer monitored the comm traffic and reported that the fighters were relaying signals back and forth with the main base on the planetoid beyond.  The transmissions were encoded: not well enough to stymie the programmer for long, but long enough to make them inaccessible before the attack started.  Gleamer recorded and started decoding everything anyway, on the chance that the information gleaned might prove useful later. 
Havish tracked the closest targets and reviewed its choices from among the array of destructive tools NuRikPo had added to Scape Grace’s arsenal.  Energy beams, high intensity lasers, magnetically accelerated projectiles with or without payloads, and even miniature suicidal drone ships were among its options.  There was great variety but limited uses of each weapon; even the energy weapons drew power from the ‘Grace’s finite fusion engines.  That was part of the trouble of fighting a many-on-one battle: there were only so many shots one could fire, at once or in total.  Getting left without offense was bad enough, but it was possible to be left defenseless also.  The best defense against material attacks was intercepting fire.  Power might also be drained so low that defensive fields failed. 
The first Zig volley employed their energy weapons, which had greater range but much weaker impact, particularly at longer ranges.  Scape Grace demonstrated that her defensive fields had been adequately repaired by refracting the incoming radiations.  As ‘Grace drew closer, the pirate demonstrated the disadvantage of the many-on-one scenario for the many: their attacks would have an increasing chance of striking an ally via ricochet off the lone enemy’s fields.  If the fighters tried to surround 'Grace, stray, missed shots could become a hazard as well.
The Zig chose the tactically sound option of remaining effectively stationary between the approaching Scape Grace and its apparent target, their mining base.  They would allow the attacker to draw close, weakening its defenses as it neared and falling back steadily to maintain distance as long as possible.  Only when backed up against the planetoid’s gravity well would the fighters at the fringes begin to break off and seek vulnerabilities at Scape Grace’s flanks. 
Rather than fall into this pattern, Scape Grace veered to one side, intentionally in the same direction as Harauch’s original tangent.  This drew the fighters in the same direction as they struggled to maintain their screen.  Of course, Harauch was on the returning arc of its course now.  It appeared beyond Scape Grace and headed for the leading edge of the Zig formation. 
By this time, Scape Grace was close enough to choose targets with its own guns.  Havish fired a dozen shots, removing one and then a second fighter from the battle.  They were small and maneuverable ships, but relatively slow and piloted by amateurs.  Most of Havish’s misses were near ones, as it led its targets expertly and capitalized on any piloting errors. 
Then, the Harauch was within range, and the Zig were put to their decision.  To Evgeny’s relief, they chose to respect Scape Grace’s threat and decided to split their remaining strength.  Three fighters broke off to intercept Harauch in an equilateral formation.  The remaining six closed upon Scape Grace, trying to pull in close enough to engage their physical weaponry and maximize the damage of their energy attacks.
“Reserves below fifty percent of full charge,” reported Soloth, monitoring data relayed from the engineers Georges.  “At this rate, we still cannot withstand long enough to remove the remaining fighters.”
“Alone, no,” Jolly rebutted, “but Harauch will do its part and pick up where we slacken.”
Indeed, its faith was justified, as the formerly innocuous-seeming Harauch released its own volley of fire and removed one of the three oncoming fighters.  The remaining two split widely, approaching their target from opposite sides.  
Scape Grace answered this point with a score of her own: Havish unleashed one of the drone ships from its anchoring.  The miniature vessel had only sufficient fuel for a single burst of trans-light drive, but that was sufficient to launch it through a much larger ship.  In this case, one of the fighters suffered the fatal impact.  Both ships shattered in an uncontrolled fusion reaction, releasing sufficient force to nudge two other fighters and the Scape Grace away. 

“Watch your range!” Soloth bellowed at Havish.  The other Mauraug grunted in acknowledgement, annoyed at its own error. 
They would have to deal with the fighters at even closer range soon.  If only one or two remained while the pirate ships still survived, those Zig might choose suicide runs in order to protect their comrades back at the base.  Havish would be hard-pressed to shoot down each ship before it smashed into Scape Grace.  Even if it hit every target, the backwash from their deaths might still cripple or destroy their enemy.  The likelihood of such heroics was unknown.  If the pilots were Iron Caste volunteers, then they almost certainly would die in defense of their fellows. 
Jolly interrupted the rising intensity of the battle with an announcement: “Our friend is in position.”
Soloth confirmed, “Energy discharge from outside of the atmosphere, striking the Zig base on the surface."
“Hopefully your friend doesn’t melt down all the goods in the process,” Evgeny sneered at Jolly.
Jolly asked innocently, “Don’t you cook your meals?”
“Oh, yeah, distress calls from the base,” Gleamer chimed in, “aaaand now they’re quiet.  Punched in the throat.  Good job, no-name.”
“Maybe with nothing to defend, those fighters won’t be so willing to stand and die,” Evgeny ventured hopefully.
All through this discussion, the fighters, Scape Grace and Harauch had been dancing and firing, spears of light igniting and dispersing as they beat against one anothers’ defenses.  Havish was doing its utmost to connect solidly with its own shots, while Soloth tried to present a difficult target to the fighters.  The 'Grace had greater power on both offense and defense, but was forced to absorb more attacks.  The fighters would fall to a direct hit, but were more likely to avoid attacks entirely. 

A few early projectile attacks had been attempted, but the range was still too great to give these much effectiveness.  Even Scape Grace could veer away from a slug thrown at a mere thousand kilometers per second.  The Zig most likely did not have the resources to spare for guided projectiles.  However, given their technical expertise, their shells could easily contain extremely dangerous payloads.  One hit with a ferrovorous catalyst could quickly strip away portions of Scape Grace’s hull and multiple vital systems.  Without NuRikPo aboard to counter such agents, their doom would be assured.
            Still, the fight was going in their favor.  Evgeny began to think they could hold out long enough for the unnamed ship to finish subduing the mining base.  Then, even if the Zig defenders felt like continuing the fight – just to avenge their fallen co-workers – the three attackers could join together and wipe out any remaining resistance. 
            Evgeny's igniting optimism was quickly snuffed by reactions from Gleamer, Jolly, and Punch.  The three reeled back as if hearing a painfully loud noise.
            Gleamer explained his reaction, “Really big magnetic wave from the planet.  Distinct rhythm.  Magnetic acceleration launcher.”
            Jolly’s response was more cryptic: “She’s hit… it’s killing her!”
            Soloth belatedly confirmed, “Replay shows a magnetic acceleration lift of a mass from the planetoid’s surface, near the base.  It might have been an escape shuttle, except that its trajectory aimed it at the unnamed ship.  It likely made impact.”
            Evgeny shrugged, “They got off a desperate last shot.  That ship ought to be able to absorb a crash…and we didn’t see any explosion.  It’s not blowing up.”
            Jolly swiveled sharply to look at the other captain. “It’s a Zig weapon.  It contained crystallizing catalysts.  Our friend did absorb the impact but the payload is freezing up her… systems.”
            Looking back toward the view screen, Jolly fell quiet. 
            Soloth reported, “Harauch is pulling away.”
            Oh, good, Evgeny thought to himself, they’re giving up the alien as lost.  Too bad, but at least we aren’t too badly hurt by this idiot’s…
            Soloth amended, “Harauch is moving toward the base and the unnamed ship, on an intersecting course.  Zig fighters are remaining behind, en route to us.”
            “Wait, what?”  Evgeny shouted, turning from Soloth to Jolly, “They’re leaving us here alone?  We can’t manage all of the remaining fighters alone, not without some serious chances of death."
            Jolly ignored him this time, continuing to focus its attention on the signals passing to and from its connections to the other two ships.
            It was Punch who replied, instead, in a bizarre, harsh falsetto, “We must remain and do our best.  Harauch will protect our friend.  The base remains a threat.  She must be protected until she can heal.”
            Gleamer gave further insight: “Confirmed, the Zig planetside are arming a second maglift projectile.  I have their comm code worked out.  They’re talking between the cannon site and the base.  The launcher's range is enough to protect them from direct landings.”
            “But not enough to threaten us if we pull back.  Come on, Jolly, pull us back.  You did your best.  Don’t waste your people just to protect that foreigner.  Don’t waste my people to buy them time for their martyrdom.”  Evgeny struggled between commanding and pleading tones.
            Punch answered him again, “It is necessary.  She cannot be left to die.  The mission must succeed.  Nothing else is acceptable.”
            Evgeny was done arguing. “No, this is not acceptable.” 

            Scape Grace emphasized his tension by shuddering.  Havish had winged one of the fighters, and flying debris carved from its structure had bounced off the pirate ship’s nose.  The hull in that section was now dented and a storage bay was slightly smaller.  Fortunately, the tough outer material had held and the hull remained unbreached.
            “Thirty percent reserves,” Soloth announced.  “Seven fighters remain operational.  They are regrouping.  These are familiar conditions.  Now would be a good time to withdraw, once again.”
            “Do it,” Evgeny ordered, “Retreat.  Full speed.  They’ll go back to protect their base.”
            Soloth tapped in commands once, then twice, then turned back to look at Evgeny and then Jolly.  “No response.  Command override… your codes."
            Evgeny looked at the Ningyo as well.  Jolly remained unresponsive, frozen still as it communed with whatever master guided its devotion.  It had locked him out of his own ship.  It was forcing them to stand their ground and die.
            “That does it.  Fuck you, and fuck your friend,” Evgeny spat at the two Ningyo.
            He then raised his face to the ceiling.  As the flares and impacts of the rejoined battle surged around them, Evgeny Lerner started to sing.
            “Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda…”
            A youthful, feminine voice answered him from the speakers above, “You’ll come a'Waltzing Matilda with me!”