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.