He might even have fallen further behind if not for Matilda's aid. Jolly was forced to pause twice, briefly, to deal with doors shut in its path. In each case, it did not bother to try the controls – it was quite aware that the ship’s systems were under the control of a hostile AI – but instead used its spatial fold generator to clear the way. The weapon doubled as a powerful if imprecise tool, reducing even the strongest materials to scrap. The first interposing door had sealed off the fore section of the second deck down, the route to the shuttle deck itself. The second door was the inner airlock door blocking Jolly’s access to its shuttle.
Evgeny turned a corner to see that airlock door crashing down in pieces as a spatial fold effect dissipated. Jolly was positioned halfway between the door and Evgeny’s point of arrival. Beyond the gleaming white figure, through the three-meter-diameter hole it had created, Evgeny could see… nothing.
The shuttle bay was empty.
Jolly whirled around, aiming the projecting end of its weapon at Evgeny. It had just fired, so the threat was only symbolic during the seconds the device would require for recharge. Evgeny raced forward, intending to close the distance between them before that deadline was up.
Thinking even more quickly, Jolly reversed its direction of fire, pointing toward the outer airlock door. It both aimed and moved backward, retreating from the grim-faced Human.
Jolly commented, “Blowing your holds to spite my face, captain? Or did your AI decide to trap me? I only wanted to leave, to salvage what I could of the abandoned mission, now that this ship is useless to us.”
From the overhead speakers came Matilda’s voice, conveying offense: “I didn’t do it. Well, I did permit it, I confess. But the idea wasn’t mine.”
Evgeny was privately surprised. He might well have had Matilda eject the Ningyo shuttle from the ship, if he had possessed both the presence of mind to conceive that maneuver and the time to issue the order. He had enjoyed neither. Matilda was brilliant and even clever, but she was not devious. Her experience with treachery was intentionally limited. It made sense that someone else had suggested the act and she had recognized the idea’s value.
“Give it up, Jolly,” Evgeny thundered in his best command voice. “There’s nowhere to go. Drop the weapon and we’ll settle for leaving you marooned with a nutrient dispenser.”
“This agreement just keeps getting worse. I have no reason to trust you. You’ve broken your word already. I’d rather take what’s behind door number two. Leave me alone here. I hold your hull hostage. I will leave only to board Black Humor. If you advance, we both go playing among the stars.”
“You won’t kill yourself. You might shoot me, but you value life too highly to waste your own.” Evgeny was just guessing but hoped that saying the words aloud might convince Jolly that they were true. He took several slow steps forward.
“I might give my life to end yours. You do not value life. You left her to die, her and all our fellows. You have no understanding of what is important. To remove such an evil mind, a threat to all your future victims, that would be worth my death.”
Jolly’s words stung until Evgeny remembered it reducing Havish bash’Buurem to a pile of shredded meat just a few minutes ago. It had also been willing to trade his entire crew’s lives for the survival of one artificial life. What about the Zig miners that died defending their claim? Evgeny Lerner might be a murderous villain, but he wasn’t the only one present. He charged, trying to close with Jolly while the Ningyo was still ranting.
Evgeny was surprised to find the space fold generator already pointed back in his direction. During its protest, Jolly had found the focus to choose its target. It pressed the triggering button on the device’s grip. Evgeny felt the first unsettling sensations of being caught within multiple spatial distortion fields at once.
He would later have the unique privilege of processing and reflecting upon that perceptual experience. Few sapients exposed to intersecting spatial fold areas would ever have the same opportunity. It required that one be within the target area at the beginning of the effect but outside of it very quickly afterward. Otherwise, one’s nervous system was no longer able to process anything, as distances of several centimeters between nerves absolutely prevented any transmission of impulses.
In this case, the target area for spatial folding rapidly moved away from Evgeny. This motion was due to the motion of the generator creating the fields… because its holder was moving… due to the suction of vacuum… due to the outer airlock door having opened.
The ejection sequence had been triggered. This time, the ‘emergency’ version had been employed. Scape Grace’s ‘safety’ measure for dealing with unwanted guests included an override of basic airlock safety features. There were no warning lights or sounds. The door did not cycle gradually and then open gracefully once pressure had equalized. Instead, it slid open with a motor-grinding screech and a crash of metal on metal. Jolly, both hands on its weapon and closest to the door, was unable to resist the sudden pull. It went flying through the breached inner door, out through the opened outer door, and was flung, spinning, into empty space.
Evgeny very nearly suffered the same fate. He was buffeted by escaping atmosphere and thrown toward the bottleneck formed by the hole in the inner airlock door. At the same time, a nearby storage room door opened and a black-and-white body launched from that space.
Luuboh, too, was caught and thrown by the outrush of air, but it had prepared. A length of braided carbon rope anchored it to a magnetic clamp affixed to the storage room floor. It spread its furred body wide and flew fast toward Evgeny, snagging the tumbling Human by his ankle. At the end of the tether, the rope snapped taut and the two bodies jerked like fish on a line. Though stunted by Mauraug standards, Luuboh was sufficiently strong to maintain its grip.
Shortly afterward, Matilda was able to override and reverse the airlock purge. The outer door clanged shut and both occupants of the shuttle deck dropped to the floor. Contused and winded, both Human and Mauraug gasped and writhed… also much like landed fish.
After a few seconds, Evgeny was able to pull in a deep breath. He sat up painfully and shook his head to clear it. Luuboh knuckled itself to its feet shortly thereafter. The Mauraug custodian put out its hand and helped Evgeny to his feet. The captain inhaled and exhaled cautiously a few more times before speaking.
“Matilda, just one more thing. Could you please target that piece of shiny trash we just vented?”
“Easily, Evgeny. Tracking it now.”
“Deep space is now a bit cleaner.”
The following hour was spent reassembling the scattered pieces of Scape Grace. Evgeny and Luuboh hastened back to the medical room, where they found Kuugan bash’Ranpool standing guard over a battered and trussed Tklth. The Mauraug was nursing wounds of its own. It had taken the time to patch the worst of the punctures inflicted by Tklth’s beak and claws. When Luuboh reappeared, Kuugan looked relieved. It had been concerned it would have to hunt down its other ‘ward’. Evgeny explained in indisputable tones that Luuboh was no longer suspect, seeing as how it had killed the Ningyo commander. The look of shock on Kuugan’s somewhat immobile face was Evgeny’s first repayment to Luuboh for saving his life and possibly his ship.
After leaving Kuugan the continued responsibility of watching Tklth, Evgeny and Luuboh returned to the bridge. En route, they caught up one another on the major events of their last few minutes before meeting. Luuboh confessed to suggesting that Matilda purge the Ningyo shuttle. Evgeny both forgave and applauded it for the idea.
As they talked, Matilda interjected, notifying Evgeny that NuRikPo and Katy Olu were alive, reasonably well, in their shuttle, freed, and hurrying to rejoin the Scape Grace. It came as welcome news, although the AI’s phrasing suggested that the reunion would not be entirely joyful.
Shortly afterward, Evgeny and Luuboh arrived at the gaping hole where the bridge hatch had once stood. With strange guilty twinges, Evgeny asked the Mauraug to fulfill his usual duties: removing the nutrient dispensers and returning to clear away the remains of Havish bash’Buurem and Punch. Unfortunately, Luuboh was the only one currently present with knowledge of effective biological cleanup procedures. The dwarfed Mauraug agreed with no hint of reluctance. It even seemed pleased to be of assistance.
Gleamer observed Evgeny’s return with jittery impatience. Once he had finished speaking with Luuboh, Evgeny was bombarded with questions:
“We got a great view from here. Did you know Luuboh was waiting down there? Did you plan to space the shuttle and the Ningyo? Is there still any active microtech on the ship? I’m not getting any readings anymore. Oh, and how the hell did you hide an AI from me all this time?”
Evgeny stared wearily at the younger, fresher, and unwounded Human. He would have to answer a few questions but didn’t plan on answering that many, that fast. Some questions he would leave unanswered forever, if he could.
To forestall Gleamer’s curiosity, he replied only, “I didn’t hide Matilda, she hid herself. She’s always been a part of Scape Grace. You never noticed her because you were used to her as background code. As to what just happened, we'll reconstruct that later. For now, we have work to do, all of us. Matilda, return controls to normal. You’re relieved of duty. Well done, my dear.”
“Thank you, Evgeny,” Matilda cooed.
Gleamer snapped back to his console as he regained access to his usual systems, just as Evgeny had intended. Given the opportunity to research his own answers, the programmer preferred to return to his digital world rather than drag information out of Evgeny in analog.
It would not be so easy to placate Soloth bash’Soloth. His first mate also looked back to its controls at navigation, verifying that it could again steer Scape Grace. Afterward, Soloth’s deep black eyes looked back into Evgeny’s shallower grey ones, meeting his gaze with an intensity it rarely showed toward its Dominator.
“I want the AI out of ship’s systems, entirely,” Soloth demanded, with unnecessary volume for the confined space.
Evgeny considered fighting the battle. After all, Matilda had shown her value today against the Ningyo. If she had been active from the beginning, their occupiers might have been overcome much sooner. Her presence, more than any private codes or secret cameras, enforced Evgeny’s position as owner and master of Scape Grace. Underneath those rationales was a more fundamental cultural feeling: like most Humans, Evgeny deeply appreciated his AI. He trusted her, he already felt safer with her active, he wanted her to have an active role in his life again, and he resented any insult to her or limitation on her freedom.
Still, it was obvious he would have to make a choice between Matilda and Soloth. The Mauraug’s demeanor made that clear. If Evgeny pressed the point, the best outcome he could hope for would be his first mate’s resignation and departure from the ship. The worst possibilities included a challenge for dominance, a physical confrontation, or both together.
Evgeny decided to surrender this battle in the interests of peace. He stared back at Soloth in a way Humans were usually advised not to stare at Mauraug.
He answered, “Fine. I’ll move her to my compad as soon as I can get to my quarters. In the meantime, like I said, we have more immediate concerns.”
Soloth grimaced, retorting, “Living under the whim of a false soul is an immediate concern. I trust your word, though. You only deceived by omission… but now you have answered and must be true.” It nodded as if confirming an oath and turned to look at the remains of Havish bash’Buurem. “You are correct, though, that some matters require more timely responses.”
“Right,” Evgeny agreed, relieved to follow the change in topic, “Quick briefing, if Gleamer didn’t get to it already: the Ningyo brought some kind of nanotech…”
“…microtech...,” Gleamer interjected without turning away from his console.
“…microtech onboard, inside their suits. It interacts with biological systems. It got into Tklth pretty badly and bent her mind. That’s what Luuboh was looking into for me. It seemed to make her pacifistic… up until the Ningyo were threatened and she went berserk as usual. The rest of us might have picked up a few of the bugs, so stay on your guard for any strange thoughts or feelings. We’ll have Katy and ‘Po look into it when they get aboard. In the meantime, I’m keeping the crew where they are to reduce the spread.”
“Except for Luuboh,” Soloth observed.
“Except for Luuboh, who had been exposed almost as long as Tklth, who knows the signs to watch for, who has checked itself out already, who knows the proper containment procedures, and has already shown that it had no problem with scrapping said Ningyo,” Evgeny rattled off with surprising heat.
“By your judgment,” Soloth replied, making the phrase sound like both acceptance and accusation.
Evgeny decided to leave it at that. He had intended to share more with his first mate, but Soloth’s grudges grated on him too much for the moment. Let it wait and wonder what else he had been ‘omitting’. If some detail was necessary for the Mauraug to do its job, Evgeny would pass that datum on.
The three sat in sullen silence until Luuboh returned, sealed into a fresh new clean suit and armed with two more body bags. It worked quickly both for its own sake and for the sensitivities of the other sapients present. Havish’s remains were gathered up; they would be incinerated with Luuboh’s best effort at the appropriate funeral rites the disgraced Dominion soldier would have preferred.
Punch’s separated limbs were placed with its torso in the second body bag. The biological Ningyo was already sealed – with the exception of the fatal leak – into its own customized plastic casket. The loss of its arms had ensured that the containment breach opened by Havish’s stiletto did release all of the pressurized atmosphere within Punch’s suit. The Ningyo had died first of suffocation before its body expanded.
With a sudden realization, Evgeny spoke up as Luuboh set aside the filled bags: “Drop off that Ningyo suit in engineering along with its weapon. I owe ‘Po something for hazard pay. If you didn’t space the other one - ‘Comus’ - along with the Ningyo shuttle, you can stack that bag alongside the first.”
“I did put the first dead Ningyo in storage,” Luuboh admitted, “In case I or doctor Olu needed more samples for study, later.”
“Well, that tech, along with their suits and guns, is ours now. A poor trade for one crew mate dead, one crippled, and several wounded… not to mention ‘Grace getting a few new holes in her.”
Luuboh looked up as it prepared the biosolvent sprays that would clean away the remaining gore from the bridge’s decking. “Actually, captain, if we leave the micro-robots active in Tklth, they might repair her leg and tail entirely. They have already begun regenerating the tissue destroyed by cautery of her wounds.”
Evgeny shook his head, torn between reactions, “If we have a choice, I’d rather not take any chances. We don’t know what those things might be doing to her mind. I’m already afraid she’s useless as crew now. From your description, she’s somewhere between a saint and a psychotic. If that doesn’t go away when… if… those robots are disabled, then we may have to put her down. The old Ticklish would have preferred it that way.”
His words were cruel. They were also true. Any of the crew that had known Tklth would agree that the proud, prickly Vislin would rather be dead than mentally gentled. Her fury was both her shame and her pride. Having it either deleted, or worse, bent to serve an alien purpose, would disgust her.
Her survival depended on the return and the skill of their absent crew mates.
With Matilda’s guidance, the ship’s shuttle was brought back home. NuRikPo squealed in horror as soon as the outer airlock door opened and the ravaged inner doorway became visible. He paced in unconcealed agitation as they waited for the door to close and the entire hallway to be repressurized.
Katy groused at him, “You think this looks bad? Now you know how I’m going to feel when I start running physical workups on the crew. We both probably have thousands of holes in our internal structure. Luuboh says the same robot creepers have been running around Scape Grace for the last week. You’d better set your people to mass production of those counter-agents.”
“We were right, then? The Ningyo were infested and carried Emissary’s cells within them.”
“Like stacking dolls of evil robotic biological mimicry.”
“If I didn’t already have a headache…”
“…I’d give you one, right.”
After this seemingly eternal torment, stuck together for several more long minutes, the two were finally released from the shuttle. They parted directions, yet continued to follow parallel courses despite being physically separated. The two first raced toward their respective centers of power within the ship: NuRikPo to resume his tenure in engineering and Katy to relieve Luuboh of any remaining pretenses of medical practice. They each ejected the combat crew member assigned to their domains: NuRikPo dismissed Sol Metaxas with a relatively gentle rebuff for daring to attempt recalibration on his cannons, while Katy threatened Kuugan bash’Ranpool with a depilatory bath if it didn’t get its hairy posterior out of her doorway. Then they went to work.
From the more comfortable distance of several decks apart, Katy and NuRikPo could collaborate professionally without the distress of personal presence. They compared notes as NuRikPo produced more sophisticated and numerous counter-agents, some intended for patrol within the ship’s systems, in contrast to the previous strain created for use within biological environments. Katy accepted deliveries of the latter agents and began calling crew to medical for their ‘inoculations’. Captain Lerner chimed in to make it clear that these invitations were not optional; “report or die” was his exact phrasing.
Burnett Georges brought down the batches of micro-robots. Katy couldn’t be sure if this choice of courier had any underlying meaning. Burnett was the only Human male aboard Scape Grace that Katy had not yet taken to bed. In fact, she had once tried and been firmly rebuffed. Just as Zenaida had declined the captain’s invitation, her cousin was not interested in Katy’s. Was his selection a taunt, a reminder of their bizarre argument aboard Emissary? Or was it a peace gesture, either as an offering for her to claim or an acknowledgement that she was not wholly depraved. More likely, the oh-so-sensitive Zig was still dull as a sphere regarding social interaction and had meant absolutely nothing in sending Burnett to her.
It must be nice to be so oblivious, Katy thought, just focus on your work and let all that ‘empathic’ mess pass you by.
She sent Burnett back without even making a half-hearted pass. At captain Lerner’s orders, the first batch of new counter-agent was tested on Tklth. They would find out if the gunner could be salvaged, not to mention whether such an extreme case of infestation could be reversed without long-term damage.
Katy was already certain that she and NuRikPo would heal, physically at least. The miniature robots had been surprisingly gentle toward nerve cells and had even repaired much of the damage done to their hosts' muscle tissue and blood vessels as the cells infiltrated. Compared to the widespread destruction or modifications hostile nanotech could potentially achieve, Emissary’s cells were subtle and careful of their surroundings. By contrast, their counter-agent was rather crude and harsh, causing far more cellular collateral damage. Katy could not dismiss a certain lingering respect for the alien life-form, even while cautiously monitoring her own thoughts for rationality. Emissary's acts might have been abhorrent and unethical, but its… her?... methods were sophisticated and her intent seemingly pure.
They had been made more peaceful and loving, just like Tklth. It made sense that some of that ‘love’ was oriented on Emissary; after all, what was an immune system for but to protect its generating organism? The peace and love just broke down when the progenitor was threatened. It was fundamentally false bliss, just mechanical and chemical manipulation.
After all, real happiness came from… fuck it. Katy Olu had no idea what real happiness came from. She just knew that she hadn’t found it yet. Mechanical and chemical manipulation might be the only 'real' answer.
Tklth could struggle with the problem just like the rest of them. Katy stuck a needle between the multicolored scales of her patient and injected an extra-large dose of the cure for peace.