Unlike the original invaders, their predators were not designed to work slowly and carefully. In order to stay ahead of their prey, these constructs were permitted some collateral cellular damage. They moved directly to the sites of worst concentration, ripped apart as many foreign constructs as they could catch, then raced after any fleeing survivors seeking refuge in distant bodily interstices. This hasty travel tore apart any interposing organic cells, creating small ruptures in various tissues. The microscopic soldiers also wielded weapons less selective than the tools used by the more subtle alien infiltrators. They had been given license to incinerate the occasional innocent cell if a fugitive robot attempted to use it for cover.
The first effect of this internal holocaust was agony, from a nervous system suddenly thrown out of balance. The interfering microtech had been rewiring Katy and NuRikPo's emotional reflexes, using individual artificial ‘bodies’ as bridges and blockages between nerve cells. As the counter-agents crushed and zapped those neural stand-ins, they triggered protesting aches and twitches all throughout their hosts' bodies. The absence of former connective links also produced odd numbness, tingling, and surges of emotion and sensation of various types. Katy could somewhat trace the progress of the war within her by the location and character of side effects experienced. She was relieved to be quietly stretched out on a folding cot, under a thin blanket, during the battles for her amygdala and hypothalamus… the alternating explosions of discomfort and pleasure were stimulating some very personal areas.
NuRikPo had apparently been more extensively remodeled. He barely had enough time to finish fabrication of Katy’s inoculation before he began wincing and twitching. As she had feared, he experienced a series of minor seizures as the first engagements began within his major nerve structures. As these attacks faded, they were followed by severe weakness and emotional swings.
At this rate, they would need at least a day to sleep off the initial sickness caused by overloads in their nervous system. Regaining their natural hormonal and neurotransmitter balances would take longer, perhaps one or more weeks. Katy would need to requisition herself and ‘Po some psychoactive meds from the ship's stores. As it was, she was already traumatized by the narrowly averted romantic interlude between herself and the temporarily receptive Zig. Her preferred form of therapy, sexual intercourse, would not be helpful in relieving that particular mental hobgoblin. Hell, she might have flashbacks of that while in bed. The culture responsible for this ship and its microtech had a lot to answer for.
Before they could move on from exterminating the little robots to murdering their creators, the two sapients had to recover. After that, they needed to set up internal protections against a second wave of intruders. The invasive constructs had not so far shown an ability to adapt to changing conditions, but that was no reassurance that they could not learn. The ship might itself be able to produce a variety of micro-robots for different purposes. The next attack might be more intentionally fatal, particularly now that its prisoners had figured out how to disable the first wave of mind-control bugs.
Katy suffered less drastic torment than NuRikPo, but still felt like she had contracted a full-body infection. Every joint ached. Even after the major fusillades had died down, the outrage of their disrupted bodies manifested as inflammation. They would need anti-carcinomic treatments to avoid tumor development from all that cellular damage.
Still, the process was less drastic than one alternative they had considered: full-body electrocution. Sure, that would have disabled the attackers, but also might have given the host cardiac arrhythmia, major seizures, and possibly nerve damage or memory loss. Whoever received the treatment first might be left incapable of administering it safely to the other patient. Now that they understood the effects of the micro-robots better, any such drastic method might have been an entirely ineffective strategy. They needed to both be treated, closely together in time, or else the untreated victim would be incurable. After enough time, a victim would refuse to be treated, even going so far as to flee or fight back. At worst, they might overpower the other, purged partner and reinfect them intentionally. The afflicted would consider their condition a blessing to be spread.
Even NuRikPo now understood the insidious nature of this technology. The victim would not entirely lose their volition, only their resistance to the commands of the microtech… and the ship it originated from… and the creators of that ship. Otherwise, they might still retain their original memories, skills, and a portion of their original personality. They would be less obvious automatons than a fully rewritten organism or a facsimile android. They would also be much more useful. Was the ship trying to replace its original crew with biddable new sapients? Or were its aims more grandiose: luring in sapients to become carriers for the spread of its influence?
The significance of the ‘greeter’ construct outside their shuttle door became more clear as Katy shuddered and drowsed. If it did indeed mimic the Ningyo, then it might have met them in person. If the Ningyo had come aboard, they could very well be infested. Judging from NuRikPo’s lower immunity, the Ningyo might or might not have been more susceptible to attack… but their suits were definitely easy targets. The organisms inside could have been easily disabled and held captive for as long as it took for the micro-robots to puzzle out an interface for their biological components.
That would explain why the Ningyo were stopping and recruiting ships – particularly pirate ships – for the unnamed vessel. They were snaring it new prey, to be transformed into new carriers. Katy suddenly had a horrible vision of the Scape Grace being gradually transformed into an obedient, orderly assembly of brainwashed drones. Not that she cared much about the fate of the individual crew, but that ship was her home, the repository of all her belongings, and her ride between galaxies. She needed those reeking apes – Human and Mauraug both – to keep working on her behalf.
They had to leave this ship. They had to bring the cure back to Scape Grace and reverse whatever damage had already been done. There was no way that the morons back there would be capable of developing their own counter-agent. Katy even had to admit that without NuRikPo, she would never have managed it. Alone, he probably would have failed as well. Only the fusion of their specialties had produced a workable model, capable of navigating a living body, identifying its targets, and selectively destroying just those undesirables (mostly).
It was nice to have understudies capable of filling in in their absence – Luuboh bash’Gaulig in her case, the Georges for NuRikPo – but those pale shadows would never have identified the threat in time, much less known what to do against it. No, Scape Grace was doomed unless they could get back.
The major problem with escaping was the obvious one: where was the exit? The ship had sealed up their point of entry, not only closing but also removing the portal entirely. If the material of its hull was sufficient to maintain pressure and temperature against vacuum, not to mention reflect interstellar radiation and debris, then it would be difficult to breach. The weaponry built into their shuttle might burn or blast a hole, but either method had its problems. An explosion of sufficient force could damage them also in this enclosed space; there was nowhere to move the shuttle far enough away from the walls to avoid that risk. An energy weapon of high magnitude carried the same blast-back hazard. A lower-powered beam could possibly be used to carve their way out more slowly… but then they had to be concerned about the self-repair properties of this unique ship. Could they cut fast enough to outrace the hull material sealing itself back up? Could they get enough of a lead to actually open a hole large enough for the shuttle? Could they manage that, plus deal with sudden depressurization, suction, waste heat… and any unexpected defenses the ship might muster?
There were too many unknowns to act immediately. Or rather, to act as soon as they felt capable of such action. Katy and NuRikPo slept for most of the day following their inoculation. They hardly had the strength to curse at one another, much less overcome their embarrassment enough to hold a conversation. Three meals and thirty hours passed before they conferred to evaluate their situation.
Katy shared her thoughts and was relieved to find NuRikPo in agreement. He added that, like the micro-robot antibody system, the other systems of the ship had to have their weaknesses. Rather than worry about a brute force solution to break their way out, they would be better served by resuming their study of the ship’s ‘anatomy’. Ideally, they would learn something about the methods used to power the various construct cell types and to maintain coordination between them.
“For example, do they communicate through a central controller? Between themselves? Or do they have a truly decentralized structure and act only based on local interactions with adjacent cells? I suspect that some combination of these possibilities is at work,” NuRikPo theorized.
One of his first projects upon regaining his faculties had been to search for signals. Not external signals from the Scape Grace – an automated program had already been working on that problem over the last four days – but signals internal to the ship itself. He had identified some type of very short wave radio communication emanating from just outside the shuttle, but the signals were fragmentary and encoded in an unfamiliar manner. The latter property was unsurprising; there was no reason a truly foreign intelligence would employ the same coding structures used by Zig or any other Collective culture. Even after decoding, the underlying messages would be unintelligible without reference to a numerical or linguistic system or both. What was odd was that the signals were individually short and weak and originated from multiple points simultaneously, in ‘choruses’ of signals with varying intensity, frequency, duration, and ranges of each property for each signal individually. Rather than modulating one strong carrier wave, this system seemed to modulate the entire composite of multiple waves. Possibly, the component cells of the ship talked in an all-to-all manner, receptive to only one or a small range of signal types. Or, groups of cells talked to groups of cells. The possibilities could permutate over a wide solution space.
“Much as I hate to say it, we could really use that wirehead right now,” Katy groused. She was referring to Gleamer. “More specifically, we could use one of his programs to work on analysis.”
“While speaking the native language might be useful, I’m afraid we’ll need to wage war before we can consider diplomacy.” The two of them sat across the shuttle cabin from one another, NuRikPo slumped askew in the control chair and Katy hunched over the side of the folding cot.
Katy fixed the Zig with a condescending look, brows raised as her chin tilted down. “If we could figure out their ‘language’ we might be able to interfere with their control structure. We might get access to their programming. I love the irony of the thought that we might override this system the way it tried to override ours. I suppose we don’t have the time or resources right now, but when we get back, we might want Gleamer to look over our recordings and see if this ship’s AI can be hacked.”
“Ah, you want to manipulate it. My apologies, I should have anticipated that thought from you.”
“Stick it between your spicules, you selenium-sucking stickbug.”
“A pity your linguistic ability ground to a halt before you reached maturity. Fortunately, your victims respond well enough to suggestive grunts and gestures.”
“Victims? Even if you are referring to my targets, I’d like to see you try to manage the same. You’d be dead in seconds, even if your mark was a blind Zig widow.”
“I admit I lack your advantages. Still, as our unwanted guests have demonstrated, there are means of persuasion that do not involve prostitution.”
“Hey, penetrate or be penetrated, you still have to know what you’re doing. They’re effective, I’m effective, you’re effective. I don’t tell you how to tighten a bolt, you can do me the same courtesy.”
“If it will get us off the current topic, then yes, I will agree to avoid insulting your abilities.”
“Even your tone of voice carries insults. You could read technical instructions and sound condescending.”
“Well, then pardon me my tone and I will pardon your behavior.”
“My behavior? I don’t need your KetkeRakeh pardon, TimoTi-RikPoNu!”
Katy was gratified to see her response hit home. If she had hit the inflections right, she had basically informed NuRikPo that he had acted out of character for his caste, assuming the privileges reserved for a Gold Caste spiritual leader. It was a devastating criticism if delivered by another Zig, a censure with no exact Human counterpart. The closest was something like the cliché: “Who died and made you God?”
NuRikPo certainly looked shocked, his reflective eyes opened wide and his fingers splayed as if to catch himself from falling forward. Then they shut tight and his mouth drew taut, while his hands wrapped around his shoulders. He shuddered and rocked forward. Katy became briefly concerned that she might have overloaded his overburdened emotional balance somehow. The last thing she wanted – or needed – was for the engineer to have a mental breakdown.
When she saw drops of glittering moisture at the corner of his eyes, she was terrified that the Zig was going to start crying. Then she finally reached across cultural differences and recognized the behavior she was seeing. NuRikPo was laughing. He finally opened his mouth and a clicking, twittering noise poured from his throat as he continued to shake.
“What? I meant it, asshole. You have no right…”
“No,” NuRikPo gasped, “You were close...” He struggled to stop shaking and draw breath to respond. “...but I think you meant to say KettiRakeh, ‘inappropriate for one’s caste’, not ‘inappropriate for one’s family’. It sounded like you were telling me to stop acting like your father. Otherwise, I’m impressed by your grasp of KetiNepaTi.” He was gradually managing to regain his composure, relaxing his mouth but still blinking furiously.
Katy rolled her eyes, “Close enough. I’m sure my father would sound like you if he were here. What I do is none of his business, either. Maybe we can act like professionals here and save the personal comments for… actually, never.”
“Fair enough,” NuRikPo agreed, nodding in intentional imitation of Human gesture. “I’m gratified that you even learned enough to attempt that phrase. Sometimes I wonder if Humans understand anything about Zig culture beyond our technology.” He attempted to stand, but was forced to brace himself on the chair and console to stay upright.
“Huh, I thought you made it intentionally complicated so that outsiders would stay confused. I learned enough to push buttons… you know, like I do.”
“It’s actually simplified from several centuries ago, into more workable forms. I’d say Human culture is equally confusing. I have difficulty seeing you, captain Lerner, my assistants, and that appropriately-named Iron person as members of the same species. You personally look like Gold Caste and work like Copper; the captain leads like Gold Caste but looks like Iron. The other three at least match their appearance to their duties. Then compare you to that Macauley Human…” NuRikPo made an obvious flinch of revulsion.
“I don’t know what you non-Humans have against him. I like his style,” Katy teased, stretching now herself and preparing to test her own legs.
“No surprise. He seems your intellectual type, if not physical. But surely you can recognize why he disturbs more sane sapients.”
“I can like whoever I like, Dad.”
“Please, can we get back to work now? Professional, remember?”
After a quick meal heavily spiked with electrolytes and nutrients helpful for regrowth of their damaged tissues, Katy and NuRikPo began packing for their expedition outside of the shuttle. They agreed that they needed to investigate the structure of the unnamed ship more thoroughly. As a proximate goal, they needed to identify its limitations and weaknesses to find points for exploitation. They needed to escape. At worst, they needed to get a message out to the Scape Grace. Somewhere in between was the idea of expelling a beacon containing a sample of the counter-agent. Perhaps with a sample for reference, their understudies could manage to bridge the gap between their comprehension and their superiors’.
The distant goal for the two investigators remained from their original assignment: explore the unnamed ship, document its technologies, and collect whatever they could for use or resale to the highest bidder. It appeared that this was an all-or-none goal. Either they would comprehend the unique design and structures of this ship as a whole or else its separate parts were worse than useless… they might be actively dangerous to distribute.