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 moiré 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?

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