Underneath the basic functional description, however, was a substrate of startling complexity. Only portions of the engine and the central ‘skeletal’ structure of the ship were cast as a continuous, solid frame. Everything else - from the furnishings, the display screens, the sensors, the environmental systems, the weapons, and the thousands of smaller components that made up those organs – was composed of individually formed and replaceable cells, or structures built by those cells. Emissary could quickly repair most damage, not only hull breaches. The ship could lose a stabilizer, an oxygen extractor, or a cannon muzzle and have a new one ready for use within minutes.
The ship’s mind was similarly complex. As best as the investigators could decipher from its answers to their inquiries, Emissary’s program was the net result of a nervous matrix distributed across multiple regions of the ship, incorporating the functions of billions of cellular units. It maintained several ‘brains’, clusters of cells capable of retaining and rebuilding its core program and personality even if a significant portion of its structure were destroyed. The cells themselves were effectively decentralized, following through on their routine functions without a central processor’s orders. Yet their composite ‘organs’ were receptive to conscious control from the overall entity-mind. The interplay between remotely distributed elements (as opposed to adjacent elements) explained the volleys of radio signals NuRikPo continued to detect as they explored the ship. When messages could not be transmitted between systems through electrical or chemical signals, nor via short-range cellular messengers, then radio communication between specialized cells was employed.
Katy was once again impressed despite herself. Nature required billions of years to produce systems this elaborate, working out the problems of simultaneous design limitations through trial and error refereed by the constant demands of survival and replication. This structure had been directly designed by other sapients, presumably over a much shorter time-span. Emissary confirmed this idea, stating that its predecessor, First Model, had been assembled in a vast orbital laboratory. Only one such ship needed to be built manually. It had been granted reproductive capabilities, deduced from its claim to have been created by First Model directly and its plans to create a Third Model, itself.
The problem with all this sharing and learning was that Katy was coming to suspect that Emissary’s motives might also be more complex than they first appeared. Certainly, what the ship already admitted about its goals was problematic enough, amounting to brainwashing, conquest, and colonization. Yet it presented these plans couched in seemingly innocent, pleasant language. It claimed to be offering help: peace, unity and prosperity. Katy could not yet decide if it was an alien enough mind to genuinely conflate bodily violation as ‘helping’, if it was having trouble with the translation of terms, or if it was just trying to coerce them with clumsy bluff and/or propaganda.
During their investigation of the ship, Emissary persistently attempted to convince them to ‘join’ with it again. Any time they showed interest in a particular system or asked for details about a specific innovation, it would take their attention for admiration and suggest that they, too, could be a part of its wonderful self. Even so, Katy had to admit that it wasn’t even the pushiest suitor she had ever dealt with. Plenty of entities wanted to put parts of their anatomy into hers. Leading on a 'lover' far enough to serve her purposes while still maintaining her bodily integrity was a familiar dance.
The revelation that they were en route to a confrontation gave their explorations added urgency. Not only would a fight potentially pose a risk to Emissary and its passengers, the distraction of a battle might give Katy and NuRikPo their best chance for escape. If the foreign ship was successful in its plans to create a permanent home within Collective space, their knowledge might be vitally necessary to prevent ‘joining’ on a wider scale. While the pirates of Scape Grace might be parasites and exploiters of their surrounding civilization, they needed that civilization to continue for their own support. They each also had personal attachments to their native cultures, home worlds, favored associates and preferred ports of leave. As much as many crew members had alienated or been alienated by some part of the Collective, they could not honestly wish its disruption.
All too soon, Emissary’s display screens began to show the irregular illuminated arc of a dwarf planetoid. Its dimensions and color were familiar. NuRikPo was first to recognize the features of their former target, the Zig mining operation.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised. We were in the neighborhood and got dragged along on this ‘mission’,” he groused, obviously grudging that their second chance at the mining base would still provide no opportunity for his personal enrichment.
“No,” Emissary responded, its language skills and comprehension having improved steadily during their hours of interaction. “Not dragged. I chose you. You came here before. You know this place. I will help. Separately we fail. Together we succeed. Joining is best.”
“We’ll see,” Katy taunted coyly.
She managed to mask her dismay at the revelation that Emissary and its Ningyo allies were already familiar with their attack on the Zig miners. Their abductors had either tracked their escape or anticipated their path and had laid a trap well calculated to draw Scape Grace in. Either this alien AI was a tactical genius, such genius had arisen from its partnership with the Black Humor and her Ningyo crew… or else the identity and behavior of Scape Grace was far better known than her crew suspected.
Notoriety was no asset to an interstellar pirate, not in comparison to anonymity. Striking fear into the hearts of their victims was counterproductive. Getting close without raising alarms was much more useful. Moving in and out of systems without notice or under the guise of an innocent salvager’s registry… that stealth was necessary for their continued operation. If ‘Grace’s description and nature were becoming widespread news, it was only a matter of time before she was spotted or tracked, captured or destroyed.
“Danger begins soon,” Emissary warned them, beckoning with a curl of its construct’s fingers and hand. “I must change, maybe fast. Dangerous for you. Go to shuttle. Stay safe. We join when danger ends.”
It seemed that their survey would have to be suspended. As much as their explorations were incomplete – NuRikPo was particularly frustrated by their inability to take samples – the opportunity to return to their shuttle peacefully was too good to pass up. Emissary was right; they would be safest within the shielded, rigid hull of their own vessel. Even if the strange ship shifted and flowed around them, they would slosh around within it like a seashell in the tides.
Emissary’s construct escorted the two back to their shuttle door, parting with a sorrowful wave. As they boarded, Katy looked back to close and seal the hatch. She saw the construct melt and flow, its constituent units reabsorbed into the material of the deck through fissures. In the shuttle’s outer lighting, it glittered like a collapsing pile of iron filings. It was definitely a beautiful and wondrous form of life. Even without her feelings being twisted, Katy would have preferred its anatomy to that of most biological organisms she had studied, sentient or otherwise.
It was a shame it was such a threat, one which might need to be destroyed in self-defense.
The final two days of travel followed a remarkably parallel routine aboard the Scape Grace. The survey of Emissary by Katy and NuRikPo was echoed in several respects.
Their tour of Emissary was akin to a tour of Scape Grace undertaken by the Ningyo, Jolly and Punch. On the fourth day of travel, the two Ningyo had grown bored and asked to be shown around the ship. Originally, they had insisted that captain Lerner be their guide. He managed to defer that service to Burnett and Zenaida Georges on the basis that the two engineers-in-training would be better able to answer questions about the ship’s design and functions. To his relief, Jolly accepted this logic. Evgeny’s ulterior motive was to buy himself time on the bridge, unsupervised. He had managed to pass secret orders to Gleamer and Luuboh via their private communications relay, but feedback was limited by their opportunities to check messages unobserved.
Individually, Gleamer’s research and Luuboh’s examinations were analogues to NuRikPo’s and Katy’s discoveries, respectively. Gleamer’s analysis of the mysterious radio signals had originally outstripped NuRikPo’s understanding of the patterns hidden in those electromagnetic ‘choruses’, used by the miniature robots to coordinate their activities. After a time, the frequency of the signals declined and Gleamer’s lead shortened, due to the lack of novel raw data for his linguistic programs. Luuboh, by contrast, had begun and stayed far behind Katy’s comprehension of the structure and functions of the micro-robots. Yet it grasped the essential nature of the invaders well enough: their form, their abilities, their influence on a subject's mind via manipulation of their body, and their subtle danger as a result.
Luuboh had plenty of time to converse with Tklth while stuck in the medical room. Overtly, the Vislin was much more pleasant a companion than she had ever been before. She was not only no longer threatening, she was actually polite and even solicitous. Even so, the contrast between her former and present self was unnerving. Every pleasantry she spoke was a reminder about how easily one’s ‘personality’ could be warped by a few cellular modifications.
The worst parts were her entreaties for release. She began by indirectly reassuring Luuboh that she was healthy, she was calm, she was healing and she would cause him no harm if the magnetic shackles were removed. When he deflected or ignored these suggestions, she moved on to polite requests. After that came the persuasive arguments: she was harmed by immobility; the shackles were restricting her circulation; Luuboh was acting out of fear and not concern for its patient’s well-being; she could help it with whatever work distracted it so; and so forth. Luuboh was afraid she would resort to pleading, begging, and eventually, threats.
During this time, Evgeny became the point of synthesis for Gleamer and Luuboh’s separate discoveries. He worked out that Tklth’s infestation was probably one of the two sources of communication Gleamer had identified, with one or both of the Ningyo being the secondary origin(s). This idea was unpleasant, but reassuring for another reason: if no one else was ‘broadcasting’ in the same way, the encroachment of the micro-tech might not have extended beyond the Vislin. Luuboh was still suspect, but as long as the Mauraug continued working to expose the miniature invaders, Evgeny had to assume it was still on his side, loyal to the 'macro-organisms'.
Evgeny was certain that the Ningyo had brought the micro-tech aboard, but still could not decide if they had done so intentionally or unwittingly. His suspicions about the odd coincidence of unique technology coupled with the discovery of a unique foreign ship began to approach the truth. As Luuboh added reports about Tklth’s anomalous behavior, Evgeny became more and more convinced that the Ningyo were acting out of character. Not that Ningyo didn’t normally act strangely, but that basic alienness could easily hide further alien influences. Jolly seemed abnormally pacifistic, shrugging off the death of its crew member with philosophical jargon. That might be normal behavior for its culture… or it might be manipulated behavior to suit the goals of the micro-robots’ controller.
There were still several major pieces of knowledge Evgeny lacked, elements he and his remaining crew could not uncover in the limited time available for study. Evgeny took advantage of his time alone with Gleamer to pass on a compad filled with data from Luuboh’s research, which he had picked up by feigning an injury to cover a trip to medical. Even so, Gleamer and his attendant programs could not work miracles with limited observations.
A similar relay had been managed - out of sight and hearing of the ship’s public systems - when Soloth stopped into Evgeny’s private quarters. The two hastily compared notes on their tactical plans for the upcoming battle, including strategies for compromising Harauch and double-crossing both of their ‘allied’ ships. Most of their plans included the regrettable necessity of abandoning Katy Olu and NuRikPo, unless the entire operation went according to Jolly’s optimistic plans and the two sides actually parted ways amicably. That daydream seemed increasingly unlikely the more Evgeny learned about the micro-tech loosed onboard. Neither side could safely allow the other to leave with the knowledge they had gained during their association.
For similar reasons, Evgeny and Soloth discussed the disposition of their combat crew, particularly the assignment of substitute officers. They would have to place specific persons where their individual abilities and tendencies would allow them to react appropriately as situations changed. Soloth would not have much opportunity to discuss counter-strike plans against the Ningyo with individual crew members. Anywhere it might talk to combat crew was under observation. The common lot could not be made privy to the secret ‘dark areas’ of the ship where private conversations could be safely held. After all, Evgeny thought to himself, I don’t even want to mention Bay 3e to Soloth. It was supposed to be my secret with Luuboh. If everybody knows about a secret asset, why bother?
Eventually, all the time for studies, clandestine maneuvers, and plotting came to an end. Just as Emissary had cut off Katy and NuRikPo’s investigations, the onrushing destination forced a change in activities upon Scape Grace.
First mate Soloth bash’Soloth executed its first layer of plans by dispatching crew to their assigned stations. Havish bash’Buurem was called up the bridge to assume Tklth’s post at weapons. The Mauraug arrived dressed in canvas knee pants, heavy boots, and an impact-armor chest plate printed with the insignia of its old military unit. Sol Metaxas, looking much better rested and groomed than he had at the crew briefing, was sent to engineering, to serve as assistant to the promoted chief engineers, Zenaida and Burnett Georges. Soloth delegated the Mauraug ‘leader’, Kuugan bash’Ranpool, to ‘assist’ Luuboh bash’Gaulig in medical. In reality, they both understood that Kuugan would be acting as chaperone to both Tklth and Luuboh, blocking them from leaving the medical room in case they were compromised. For example, they might try to sabotage the Scape Grace or defend the Ningyo.
The rest of the combat crew was ordered to hold themselves at readiness for either assault or defense duties, depending on how the attack against the Zig went. Whichever way the battle went, Soloth wanted Macauley at the point of greatest danger: in the outermost, lower hold during the combat with the Zig fighters; at the forefront of an assault team sent into the breached Zig mining base; or leading a defense team pressed to keep boarders from taking out their key systems.
Every crew member, plus the two Ningyo, moved to stations as Scape Grace closed on the planetoid. Harauch and the ‘unnamed’ ship followed in formation. Evgeny joined Jolly, Punch, Gleamer, Soloth, and Havish on the bridge and found himself with nowhere to sit. He eventually decided to station himself between Soloth’s navigation post and Gleamer’s communication console, at the far forward edge of the bridge. He became a somewhat deliberate obstruction between Jolly (seated at his own command console) and the primary display screen. It was a petty nuisance, but at the moment, it was the most provocation Evgeny could afford.
The conflict to come would determine if he must obstruct the Ningyo Captain still further. Evgeny was torn between hoping for an opening created by the chaos of battle or a quick, clean, profitable resolution. He still wanted the Ningyo, Jolly and all his crew, to die slowly… but the likelihood of that happening without significant concurrent damage to his ship, his crew, and himself was low. If Jolly turned out good to its word and capable enough to pull off its plans successfully, then Evgeny would just have to accept profit in trade for abandoning his revenge.
Revenge and profit were just two possibilities. If years of criminal enterprise had taught Evgeny Lerner anything, it was that the actual outcome of a mission rarely matched any ideal result. At best, you escaped alive, clutching something of value, with a minimum of your own assets burned. There were so many, many ways for a job to go wrong. In a complex, varied universe, a quick death was by no means the worst outcome possible.