Katy disagreed, pointing out that the invasion of their bodies had gone far beyond simple defenses. The system was tailored to take control of biological organisms. That much was obvious and beyond dispute. Once the ship realized that its first attack had failed, it might well escalate to more overt measures or attempt to destroy them as a threat to its plans. She wanted to be ready for a physical attack.
Ultimately, Katy had to agree that their guns could do little more than annoy their host. Still, she was reluctant to leave any tool behind and demanded that they keep the weapons at hand just in case.
So it was that they emerged from the shuttle’s door aiming scanners, not side arms. Katy was recording a three-dimensional spatial map of their surroundings using both light and sound reflection, with an active program tracking their own movement and comparing successive scans. That application would act both as a motion detector and as a warning in case the ship changed the layout of its internal spaces. In the event that a doorway disappeared behind them, the system should help them identify the relative location of their shuttle. While they might not be able to blast a path into space, they might be able to at least cut their way back to the shuttle if the ship tried to separate them.
NuRikPo was continuing to monitor electromagnetic traffic both within and without the ship. The latter was still cut off, but just in case something broke through, he would be ready. His augmented compad maintained a link to the shuttle’s systems, allowing him to control the boat remotely, if necessary. He had a wireless camera and microphone button pinned to his collar and was simultaneously recording video and audio of their surroundings. Programs within the ‘pad would be trying to match what they observed to known patterns, prompting hypotheses about the likely functions of objects in case the two explorers missed an idea.
An AI, or even a sub-AI, would have made their work much simpler and more effective, but of course NuRikPo wouldn’t consider such an idea, and Katy’s AI was safely locked away in her quarters. Old Griot, her family’s AI for the last century, was too valuable to risk elsewhere in the ship, let alone bringing on a hazardous mission like this one. After Katy was expelled from Antananarivo Medical University on Terra, Griot had become her sole teacher, continuing her education in medicine. He was a wellspring of miscellaneous knowledge and good advice, having served generation after generation of Olus. Griot did not judge, not even after her decision to leave home, leave Terra, and even leave the Terran sphere of planets. He had guided her across multiple worlds, doing his part to keep her safe from the consequences of one bad decision after another.
She still wasn’t sure if joining the pirate crew had been a good or a bad decision. Evgeny Lerner had drawn her onto the Scape Grace. At the time, the rugged, gruff captain had seemed like a useful ally and a means of escape from her current entanglements. As the medic and moll of a criminal syndicate leader, Katy had met Evgeny when the pirates arrived to talk business with her boss/boyfriend/captor. They were immediately attracted to one another. Suggestive talk turned into definitive action when negotiations over the price of goods went sour. Katy had given the pirates an opening to double-cross the gangsters, then had managed to convince Evgeny that her betrayal of her former lover in no way suggested any likelihood of turning on him, her new paramour. She had been a prisoner, exploited for both brains and body. If Evgeny treated her well, she would use her talents in his service, not to his downfall.
Their collaboration had actually turned out to be of mutual benefit. For the first time, Katy was able to keep a significant share of the profits her work earned. The job was so good that even when she lost the fringe benefit of sleeping with the captain, she decided to stay aboard anyway. Evgeny had turned out to be a bit boring anyway, very routine and repressed. Who would have thought a pirate captain could be dull?
Unfortunately, when the captain’s protection ended, Katy began to reap the results of the crew’s resentment of her privileged status. The worst had been a humiliating wrestling match with the Mauraug first mate, Soloth. Katy had suggested that the genderless gorilla watch its step or else it might wake up from cybernetic maintenance actually neutered. In response, Soloth had dislocated Katy’s shoulders – both of them simultaneously – and folded her head back to touch her feet. That was when Katy first began to make friends with Luuboh bash’Gaulig. She had trained the uniquely obliging Mauraug out of self-interest. She needed someone to reset her joints properly and help out while her torn muscles healed.
NuRikPo had been a constant thorn. The Zig had not been impressed while Katy had the captain’s ear (and other parts), but wasn't any nastier after she lost her queendom. 'Po seemed equally distant and hostile whether she stayed quietly in the medical room, mingled with the beefcake among the combat crew, or went off-ship on assignment to persuade a contact. Their spheres only intersected when ‘Po was badly hurt or Katy needed her equipment repaired, and those necessary contacts were unpleasant for both.
Perhaps the real reason for their antagonism was that they had no reason to reconcile. Katy had reason to hate Soloth, but kept the expression of that feeling under control for her own safety. She hadn't even needed a personal reason to hate Soloth. She disliked most Mauraug, foremost for the same reasons most Humans did: historical precedent. The two simian species had been at odds ever since they met and the first Mauraug took a shit on its Human counterpart. That wasn’t a metaphor; it literally defecated upon the Human representative. Ever since, the theocratic, militaristic, uptight Mauraug Dominion had been trying to take a metaphorical crap on the Terran sphere. Even Mauraug not part of the Dominion were dangerous: raiders and rogue colonists and other criminals. The fact that almost half of the Scape Grace crew was Mauraug did little to improve Katy’s view of their species. How the captain could put up with the preachy, bitchy apes was beyond her understanding. Wasn’t his home blown up by Mauraug, after all? It didn’t matter which faction was fighting which other one, they were all violent zealots.
For similar reasons, Katy kept matters civil with the Vislin, Tklth. They had a simple agreement: each would do their respective jobs and not kill one another. The moment that changed, one of them would die. Soloth might enjoy administering pain, but Tklth was a professional murderer. Katy could respect that. She kept her medical care as painless as possible for the twitchy lizard and kept her pistol close and loaded with tranquilizers while she worked.
Right now, her concussion pistol was loaded with two types of ammo: hypodermic darts loaded with their counter-agent machines (in case the ship tried another microtechnology assault), and explosive rounds that might provide enough punch to rip a door-valve open or knock back a smaller, mobile construct. The ‘greeter’ outside was one such construct, though the only one they had seen. Katy and NuRikPo did not expect to see many more such ambulatory entities. The ship’s composite nature meant that it could use its own mass to create ‘crew’ at need, but there was probably an energy cost for doing so, and the ship could likely control its own systems internally without the need for an external manipulator. Thus, separate bodies would have specific uses, like providing a face to talk to, or pursuing and restraining other mobile organisms.
The creature itself was right outside their door. It presented the first and most obvious threat. While the fact that it had not attacked the shuttle was reassuring, its constant presence and attempts to draw their attention had been disturbing. Now, as NuRikPo opened the door and began to exit, it stood back two meters and watched them closely.
NuRikPo took an experimental step forward and diagonally away, toward the red-lit exit doorway. The entity turned its head slightly to track him, monochrome ‘eyes’ rotating as well. Its mouth, containing facsimiles of teeth and tongue, flexed and articulated words.
NuRikPo stopped, already staring at the metallic grey entity. He blinked, and the other being mimicked the reflex. Turning to Katy, he asked, “What does it mean? For that matter, why can it speak now?”
Katy shrugged in response, “Maybe it has records from the Ningyo. Maybe it just didn’t have a reason to bother before. Maybe with its cells crawling around in our brains, it recorded and transmitted enough data to start a translation. Maybe all of the above.”
Frowning and turning back to the entity, the Zig asked, “Kill… what? Why did we kill… or why should one kill?”
“Why kill… parts?”
“It’s not discussing philosophy, ‘Po. It’s asking why we disabled its component cells. Let me talk; it’s something I’m good at, remember?” Katy had to hope that NuRikPo could read her intent better than a novice speaker of their common language. He nodded in response, either understanding or just handing off responsibility.
Katy turned back to the figure, assuming her best innocent expression. “We were afraid. You did not warn us. Your… parts… entered our bodies. We thought you would hurt us. We protected ourselves.”
The figure turned to face Katy and responded, “Not attack. I share. I hear. You… angry. I make you happy. We join.” It punctuated its speech with an appropriate gesture, hands clasping together.
Katy answered with a gesture of her own, hands pushing forward, palms open. “Whoa. ‘Joining’ takes two. You ask first. We are not easily persuaded.”
Surprising her, the being interrupted, asking, “Persuaded?”
“Damn… uh, convinced? Made to agree?”
“Agree. We must agree. You fear. You resist. Do not. Accept. Agree. Be joined.”
“Show us. Who are you? What are you? Why should we join? Help us understand. If we know more, we will agree.”
“Yes. Agree. I show. You understand. We join. Come.” With this apparent agreement, the construct turned and walked away, toward the exit. It paused at the ovoid opening and turned around, evidently waiting on Katy and NuRikPo to follow.
“Well, like it says, come on,” Katy tilted her head toward the passage and stepped forward as well.
“You’re right, you are good at that,” NuRikPo grudgingly observed as he fell into line behind Katy. His voice dropped to a lower volume and he added, “It’s doing what you want because you told it what it wanted to hear, a tactic apparently effective on all forms of mind.”
Katy turned back to him as they neared the construct, giving him a wide-eyed stare of exasperation. Her lips pursed as she hissed, “Ssh.”
The engineer was slow to register her objection, continuing with, “Which makes me wonder, why have you never tried these skills on me? Even false courtesy…”
Katy interrupted his complaint with her sotto voce reply, “Because I never wanted anything from you.”
The entity either did not hear or else did not grasp the nuances of their conversation. It continued forward, leading them deeper into the hallway, a claustrophobic tube with a lopsided ovoid cross-section, wider at the base and narrowing toward the top. The red lighting emanated from strips of clustered globules, each glowing weakly but summing to provide greater illumination. Other than these protrusions and a few regularly spaced centimeter-sized holes, the hallway was composed of the same regular hexagonally tiled substance as the shuttle bay walls.
As they walked, NuRikPo sidled closer to Katy and continued, “Never? Why not? Do you think I have no value as an ally?”
Katy muttered between clenched teeth, “Can we discuss this some other time? Kind of inappropriate right now. Focus on learning what we can while it’s friendly.”
Finally, the possible hazards of their conversation dawned on the Zig, and he fell silent, watching their guide closely for any signs of suspicion. It continued to appear oblivious.
They emerged from the far end of the passage after a walk of at least one hundred meters. The far end opened onto a chamber like the inside of a rounded trapezoidal solid, again wider at its base and rising into a narrower domed rectangle at its peak. More of the light clusters protruded from that roof, rendering the space almost bright enough for comfortable sight. Its contents were unremarkable: extrusions from the floor resembled abstract seats and platforms. One section of the wall was a smooth, darker, rounded film, like a plastic or glass panel set into the surrounding composite material.
NuRikPo crossed to the panel and passed his recorder over its surface. He turned to the entity and asked, “Is this a display screen? An interface? May I touch it?”
“A display. Yes. It shows images. No interface. I… am… interface.”
That made a certain amount of sense to both investigators. Some Terran ships were actually fully integrated with AI ‘crew’ and could be operated by voice commands from the Human partners of those AIs. There would still be manual controls, however. Further, no sane designer would make an entire ship the body of a single, all-powerful AI… not even before the Terrans joined the Collective and certainly not afterward. The creators of this ship had apparently placed much greater trust in their artificial intelligences, if they gave their ships singular minds and let each mind operate its ship directly. Such a ship was just too close to creating a giant, spacefaring sapient for any small, dependent sapient’s comfort.
Speaking of which… Katy decided to ask one question that had been troubling her since the captain sent them off on this ill-planned errand.
“What should we call you? Do you have a name?”
“I am... Traveler... for Mission... of Meeting... and Joining... Second Model.”
“That is not a name; that is a title. A description. It says what you do.”
“What is name?”
"What others use to identify you. A label. I am Katy, Katy Olu."
"What is 'Katy'?"
"My name. It doesn't mean anything other than me."
"Names do not have meaning?"
NuRikPo broke in to observe, “Actually, names typically do start with meanings and some names attain meanings later. My name means: Po, unique identifier, of genealogical descent Nu, of training program Rik. I lack the fourth syllable designating honorific or title because I never earned or inherited one.”
Katy looked back at him, nonplussed. “That’s nice. What I really wanted was something to call our host rather than, ‘the unnamed ship’.” Turning back to the construct, she interpreted, “Should we call you Traveler? Second? Your name is very long.”
“What about ‘Emissary’? Still a title, but it sums up the description well,” NuRikPo suggested.
The construct confirmed, “I accept Emissary.”
“I thought I was handling the talking?” Katy groused at NuRikPo.
The Zig popped his lips in amusement, “Well, at the moment, Emissary and I have more to talk about.” He indeed took over the conversation, directing a question toward the newly named entity, “Emissary, please display the view of outside space?”
The being looked toward the display screen and it immediately darkened, then lit up with a familiar image. Her two crew members saw the rear exhaust of Scape Grace, engines alight with nuclear incandescence. A distinct rippling distortion signified the bending of physical law around both ships, which permitted their acceleration to violate the normal limits of matter and energy.
“Our ship is moving… but not away,” NuRikPo mused. “Are we moving also?”
“Yes,” Emissary replied, “I follow Scape Grace and Harauch. We find fuel, find others, join others. Mission. Success.”
“Then go home?” Katy interjected.
“Make home,” Emissary corrected her, “Home with others. Home here. All join. Family. All happy.” It opened its arms to symbolically embrace them, the displayed Scape Grace, and perhaps the wider, surrounding star system. “All join, happy, family. Build Third Model for next mission.”
Katy lost her diplomatic demeanor for a moment, responding with a phrase matching NuRikPo’s feelings perfectly: “Oh, shit.”