Friday, September 5, 2014

The Wreck of the *Untranslatable* - Chapter 25

           All its pieces gathered up, the Scape Grace scrambled away, retreating a second time into deep space.   A different trajectory was chosen this time, aimed in the opposite direction out from the system of the Zig miners.  Once again, repairs filled the time between destinations, but this time, more than just the physical structure of the ship needed repairing.

           Her crew had suffered damage as well, and only part of that was physical.  On the macro level, several crew members were injured.  Kuugan bash’Ranpool and Tklth had done one another significant harm during their struggle.  Evgeny Lerner and Luuboh bash’Gaulig were bruised from their battering in the shuttle bay.  Tklth, of course, had two appendages missing.  They would remain missing; doctor Olu had deemed the salvaged scraps of Vislin anatomy useless for reattachment, not least because of their contamination with Ningyo bodily fluids. Tklth was fitted with temporary prosthetics which granted her mobility, if not comfort or strength.  True cybernetic modifications would have to wait on other priorities.

            The crew also experienced a process of repair within each of their bodies, as each sapient endured the purgative patrol of injected counter-robots.  Over the following days, jokes about the ‘glitter-shits’ made the rounds of shipwide comedy.  The dismantled invaders and deactivated hunters had to exit the body somewhere, after all.  Better to excrete them than to leave debris to clog vessels and ducts or to be poisoned as the various compounds broke down.

            Here again, Tklth was the worst off.  From her example, Katy Olu learned that the invasive effects of the micro-robots were not entirely reversible.  To the relief of most, Tklth did regain her natural Vislin reflexes, including both frenzy and nighttime hibernation.  Those responses had not been removed, only blocked.  Yet Tklth confessed that she no longer felt at the mercy of her frenzies; an edge had been ground off her anger.  She suspected that if she did enter full battle frenzy in the future, it might not be as strong (which she regretted) but it might also be more controllable (which she reluctantly admitted might be helpful).  Perhaps now she could retreat when a situation suggested that as the safer alternative. 
            Katy understood what the twitchy lizard meant.  She, too, felt calmer and less driven by her personal demons.  A week ago, she would have felt deeply befouled by the necessity of exploring the Vislin’s endocrine system.  Today, she was only mildly repulsed. 
In layman's terms, their brains had been rewired.  In neurological terms, the paths laid down manually by the chained micro-robots had modified the connections between biological nerves.  Maybe that was accidental; if left alone, the cells would have done a better job of producing the intended behaviors on 'command'.  Maybe not; perhaps the long-term function of the mind altering units was to leave behind an organism that would be friendly and pliable on its own, without the need for further influence.

Intentional or not, such changes were inevitable results of altering the physical and chemical environment of neurons.  That restructuring was especially likely when the motivational structures of the brain were being tweaked.  Katy supposed they should be grateful that the results were not paradoxical, like psychoactive withdrawal effects.  She and Tklth could have reacted to the removal of the micro-robots with their flaws exaggerated, not muted. 
The changes were a non-voluntary violation.  For all that, the technology that had accomplished such changes would be extremely valuable for certain applications.  Behavioral modification was still an incomplete science.  With a few modifications, a benevolent programmer could selectively reduce or suppress psychosis, neurosis, trauma, anxiety or depression in a patient.  These cells would revolutionize behavioral medicine. 
The problem was, an unscrupulous programmer could increase all of those torments in a victim.  Worse, the same tools could obviously be used for mental control.  All the fear and loathing directed toward psychics would be more validly applied toward the potential use of micro-tech to bend minds. 
The mitigating factor for both applications was the volume of robots necessary.  Both Luuboh and Gleamer had possessed clues to this property.  Just a few micro-robots were individually stupid.  They would follow their internal programs but accomplish little more than moving into position and possibly tweaking the odd nerve signal.  That was all most of the Scape Grace crew had experienced.  Amass enough total robots, of enough different types, and they became an exponentially complex distributed system, collaborating directly within one local area or indirectly across a distance via extremely low frequency radio communication.  The masses within Katy Olu and NuRikPo had been enough to influence their emotional drives, particularly with the guiding influence of Emissary’s critical mass close by.  The larger gathering within Tklth had learned how to modify and rebuild Vislin tissues.  Between Tklth and the Ningyo, the horde of robots within the Scape Grace had begun talking back and forth, sharing plans, thoughts, and other data. 

So what, says the AI Devil's advocate?  So it takes a big dose of micro-robots to reprogram a nervous system.  Why is that a problem, other than the higher materials cost?  The problem, answered Katy Olu, is that you need an even bigger mass than just what fits into a biological body.  The micro-robots alone weren't enough.
Emissary had contained a multitude of other artificial cellular types beside the mobile invasive units that managed biological interactivity.  Asking what part of the alien ship gave it its identity was like asking which lobe or neuron or ganglion gave a biological sentient its ‘self’.  Suffice it to say that all the scattered parts of Emissary had shown allegiance toward one another.  They were similar enough entities to recognize one another, even when divided across types, across hosts, or across space.  Katy had taken enough literature courses to consider and then cringe at the metaphor: Emissary was its own Collective of artificial life.
And for all that admiration of technology and singularity of existence, Katy came to the conclusion that the now-named foreign ship was an enemy.  In interaction with intelligent, biological life, it became a parasite.  They could not use or sell the cellular units that came directly from the ship, for fear that the technology might develop a mass intelligence no longer under its creators’ control.  Whether it recognized its origins from Emissary or became a new, separate composite being, it would still pose a danger. 
Katy could not even be sure that a reverse engineered, separately synthesized version of the same micro-tech would not lead to the same outcome.  She wondered if the distant sapients that had created the First Traveler for the Mission of Meeting and Joining had lost control of their technology.  Under one scenario, those (presumably) intelligent organic organisms could have lost even their autonomous thought, as they were remolded into the servants of their promiscuous creation.  Was the ship uncrewed because its crew was dead?  Because it had never had crew to begin with, having only inherited the form of a ‘star ship’ from its predecessor?  Was that shape only a convenient disguise?  Were all of the race of its creators safely left behind ‘at home’, abandoned as their creation explored space in their name alone?
Katy and NuRikPo shared these thoughts back and forth and came to similar conclusions.  They agreed to record the details of the alien technology, but not to attempt its sale, either as a finished product or as schematic data.  They reported their joint compact to captain Lerner, expecting some resistance.  They met none.  After reviewing their respective reports and collaborative conclusions, Evgeny agreed that they would be fools to risk allowing such technology to infest Collective systems further.
The Collective was not the pirates’ friend, but it was their prey.  Its star systems were their hunting grounds.  Allowing a plague to spread among that territory was not in their interests.  Aside from such a dispassionate analysis, individual crew also had sympathies toward their respective species and cultures.  The picture Katy painted, of entire cultures lulled into apathetic passivity by mental autocracy, would repulse any sapient that valued its own native kind.  Humans, Mauraug, Zig or Vislin, turned into peaceful 'lovers' instead of explorers, conquerors, inventors, or hunters?  Surely a horrible thought.
An assertion of normalcy was the final sort of cleanup required aboard the Scape Grace: a spiritual cleansing, an emotional sorting, a mental wiping-up.  For some, this was a return to routine.  Luuboh got back to the galley.  The combat crew shared meals in mess, brawling and joking and gossiping among one another.  Sometimes, they shared with the occasional senior member that joined them.  Katy Olu and NuRikPo went back to ignoring one another.  The Georges disappeared back into engineering, emerging only to replace the missing sections of wall and door demolished by Jolly’s exit from the ship.  Gleamer returned to whatever his private projects were. 
For Evgeny and Soloth, this cleanup required the forging of new understandings.  Evgeny demonstrably moved Matilda to his personal compad, imposing the same isolation upon the AI that she would have endured within Collective jurisdiction.  Soloth declared itself satisfied that no trace of the AI remained within Scape Grace’s computers.  Without Matilda’s oversight, Evgeny saw no point in keeping his private escape pod a secret from his first mate… although the two of them did keep the bolt hole their mutual secret from the rest of the crew.  Evgeny did not share the secret of Bay 3e with Soloth.  After all, deceptions of omission were apparently forgivable, and a leader had to keep some advantages in reserve. 
In return, Soloth agreed to stay aboard Scape Grace and keep doing what it did best.  It helped in its own way with the process of stabilizing the ship’s society.  No one was allowed to slacken in their duties; the bizarre intrusions they had suffered were not permitted excuses for variation.  Soloth did offer the uncharacteristically generous gift of a detailed briefing to the general crew.  It explained the nature of their most recent venture, not glossing over the choices and mistakes made by the officers of Scape Grace.  It did perhaps cast those choices in a more positive light than was supported by reality, but the point was to make sense of the matter, not to give the crew excuses to doubt their leaders.  Thus it gave the semblance of a cohesive story – one which fit the unavoidable evidence of events – while omitting the chaotic chance of the actual actions taken.  In this light, Soloth’s presentation was less for education and more for propaganda.  It was better than simply denying the crew any explanation at all, but not quite an honest retelling.
Within this narrative, Soloth had to spin matters so that Scape Grace came out ahead.  Simply surviving an insane encounter was not enough credit for captain Lerner or his crew.  They could not directly benefit from anything learned aboard the alien ship.  So what profit had they reaped?  There were several good answers.  First, they had collected two Ningyo environmental suits, one mostly intact.  Second, there were the weapons: an electric baton, a projectile thrower, and two spatial fold generators. 
Beyond the utility of these tools, their true value was in the technology they represented.  The spatial fold tech was a serious coup.   Given enough time and insight, NuRikPo could reverse-engineer the devices and produce his own.  It might even be possible to refit Scape Grace with a larger scale spatial fold drive.  It was unlikely that the captain would approve that risky project or even its preliminary tests, but the potential was valuable enough.  As always, the devices themselves or the knowledge about their tech would fetch a decent payday on the black market.
The suits were also useful for investigation: Gleamer and NuRikPo would soon learn how to sabotage the Ningyo protective systems, both for outright offense and for more insidious direct control of suit functions.  Such knowledge might already be held by non-Ningyo within the Collective, but it was ‘officially unknown’ in public.  Buyers might welcome intel that gave them an advantage against the robotic dolls.  Gleamer was already discussing the possibility of repairing and animating one of the suits to give them a Ningyo impersonator.  It was too bad that Jolly had been incinerated; they might have used it personally as a puppet if and when Black Humor tracked them down.
That was the real reason behind their interest in Ningyo countermeasures.  If Black Humor followed up Jolly’s last orders, the ship would not rest until Scape Grace had been found and destroyed.  Fighting the Ningyo command ship would be an insurmountable challenge without a few tricks stored up.
Soloth did not share this particular detail with the crew.  No reason to create a panic that might send the vermin scurrying off ship at their next port of call. 


Scape Grace traveled as it healed.  After fourteen days’ wandering, the pirate ship managed to locate an unguarded star system and latch onto the gravity well of a blue subdwarf.  With a double dose of relief – both at returning from the deeps and at the continued functionality of ‘Grace’s idled hyperdive – Evgeny chose a course for a reliable port.  They would visit the Great Family world of Spore, where Collective law was still heavily diluted.  The captain and Katy Olu had solid contacts there that could broker their new acquisitions and translate those funds into supplies for Scape Grace’s restocking, refueling, and refitting. 
Those ‘solid’ contacts had apparently become a bit porous.  Shortly after returning to normal space, Evgeny shot out a message to his customs liason, a bureaucrat of negotiable flexibility.  They arranged the arrival of 'Saving Grace' to the Spore system and her docking at Layafflr City.  The registry was entirely legitimate, using their borrowed name and codes.

The treacherous bastard must have turned around and sold them out to the Ningyo for a better price.  That was the problem with having powerful enemies; they could pay more than you.
As the Scape Grace closed inward on her target system, a vast sphere of empty space ahead of her shimmered in a sickeningly familiar pattern.  An oversized, bulbous, shining white vessel appeared moments later.  Soloth was forced to maneuver sharply to avoid collision, while Gleamer’s head snapped up in reaction to another stimulus.
“We have a hail… Black Humor asking for Jolly.” His speech slowed and fell in pitch as sickening realization hit the comms officer. 
The confrontation had come far too soon.  Not only was ‘Grace barely recovered from its last two fights, the countermeasures its technicians were devising were just begun.  They were not ready for a battle, not with a foe this capable.  If they were clever and fortunate, they might be able to run in an unexpected direction to escape Black Humor, but that meant another span of aimless travel until they could redirect to a new port.  That strategy could only last so long, until their fuel ran low or the Black Humor intercepted their escape vector.  The Ningyo ship only needed to catch them once. 
“Put them on,” Evgeny responded in equally fatalistic tones, “Might as well hear their threats while we work on our options.”  The thought sounded uncomfortably familiar.  The last time he had tried to negotiate with Ningyo, he had ended up infested with miniature robots and nearly thrown into vacuum.  Maybe this time, he would just die in a nice, neat explosion.
Black Humor, this is Saving Grace.”  Evgeny decided to play the Ningyo game a bit.  They seemed to like having their jokes thrown back at them.  Using the ship’s pseudonym might be read as a protestation of innocence. 
“What up, Grace?” the voice from Black Humor responded.  No video was transmitted.  It seemed the acting Ningyo captain was not suited up or else did not feel the need to be seen.

Evgeny continued, "Jolly is no longer aboard.  Your commander violated our agreement.  It led us into an unnecessary conflict with a Zig mining operation, then left the ship, along with its shuttle, when the battle went against us.”  It was almost the truth.  That the Ningyo commander and its shuttle had departed separately was an unhelpful detail.
  “That is some seriously harsh shade you’re castin’, brah.  Got any vids to back up your dis?”  The voice seemed artificially dragged out, slurred, and with a strange cadence, as if the speaker were impaired.
Evgeny looked at Gleamer for translation.  “It said those are strong accusations.  Do we have any proof?”
They did indeed.  Unfortunately, the unadulterated proof cast both the Ningyo and the pirates in poor lighting.  The other problem was: could they trust the Ningyo on board Black Humor to objectively review whatever evidence was provided?  If Jolly had been acting independently, due to Emissary’s influence, then resisting the commander's orders and thwarting its purpose might not be viewed so poorly. 
There were two potential problems there.  Black Humor might not care because the entire ship might be compromised already.  Admitting what they knew and what they had done might prompt the other ship to capture or destroy Scape Grace immediately.  Granted, reflexive violence had not been Emissary’s tendency, but it did seem willing to strike out at a threat in self-defense.  More likely, in this case, the infested Ningyo would try to hold Scape Grace and suborn the population of that hostile ship.  Actually, if Black Humor was infested, either capture or destruction would be attempted, whether or not Evgeny provided any evidence backing up the accusations against Jolly.  The controlled Ningyo would not let them leave either way.
If, instead, Emissary’s influence had been limited to just Jolly and a few other Ningyo aboard the command ship (including Comus and Punch), providing Black Humor with their information might save that other ship – and possibly the Collective – from complete overrun.  The problem was that the Ningyo might either not believe them, thinking the evidence an elaborate hoax, or else might believe them and destroy Scape Grace anyway.  That reaction might arise from fear and an urge to purge the infection.  Alternately, the Ningyo might destroy them to hide the evidence of Black Humor’s complicity with the alien ship. 
Evgeny decided that since Black Humor’s standing orders were to destroy them, anyway, he might as well attempt to give warning about the alien threat.  It was a better chance than standing defiant and trying to outmaneuver the superior ship. 
“Yes, we have ‘vids’.  We will transmit shortly,” Evgeny responded, then slashed the air to signal Gleamer to cut the outgoing channel.
When Gleamer nodded acknowledgement and muted the line, Evgeny directed him, “Give them anything non-technical on the micro-robots and the alien ship: your notes, Luuboh’s, Katy’s, ‘Po’s.  Video from public channels, anything except the part where we blasted their leader out through the airlock.  External records of the attack on the Zig base.”
“Even the parts where Tklth and Havish popped their other two boarders?”  Gleamer was already assembling and editing the relevant files as he asked.
“Yes, since the way they died tells part of the story.  We can’t produce them anyway.  They might believe Jolly went out on the shuttle if it was alone, but not that all three fled together.  We also don’t have any footage of the other two fleeing in that direction.”
“Pretty sneaky.  Okay, I think I have a packet ready.  Sending to their channel… receipt acknowledged.”
After that transaction came a long, nervous wait.  Evgeny called down to quarters, requesting that Tklth report to the bridge.  Shooting back would probably be futile against the Ningyo command ship, but an extra set of claws and trained reflexes at the controls might be helpful if they had to bolt.  Black Humor hung silent and still where it had appeared, a white circle on their viewers and a space-bending mass on gravitic sensors.  Its verdict hung similarly large, suspended in time.
“This would be a good time to run,” Soloth observed, broad hands hovering over the navigation controls for emphasis.
“I don’t think there is any best time to run in this situation,” Evgeny rebutted, scratching his scalp. “If we avoided them, we’d look guilty, and they’d come after us anyway.  We’re trying to cheat on the prisoner’s dilemma by confessing and protesting innocence.  At the least, if they only want to arrest us on Collective criminal charges, they might be less likely to invest time chasing us than for personal reasons.”
They fell quiet then for another dozen anxious minutes.  Finally, Gleamer perked up.
“Response coming in, putting on speakers,” he announced without asking permission.
“Duuuuuuuuuuuuude,” the voice projected from the Ningyo ship drawled, “That is some heinous hoodoo.  Mad props for getting wise to those creepos.  We had some similar spatially transmitted disease over herr.  Didn’t notice the crabs until some of our away team started wiggin’... looks like about the time the mother ship got iced.  Ha ha.  We passed out shots and got clean, too.”
Evgeny stared a hole in the back of Gleamer’s head until his Ningyo-to-Terran translator noticed the silence.  “Oh, yeah.  Um, they agree that the micro-tech was very bad and congratulate us on recognizing the threat.  They suffered from the same problem.  It wasn’t noticeable until the alien ship was hurt, at which time their affected crew… the ones that had visited Emisary, I assume… reacted badly.  They investigated and effected a similar cure to ours.”
“Oh.”  Getting the news at a time delay robbed some of the relief Evgeny might have felt.  “So… you understand?  Why we had to fight back and leave the Harauch behind?”
“Oh, yeah, dude.  Totally kapeesh.  You’re gangsta and all, but that’s a bad scene for even a capital G.  If you hadn’t monkey wrenched that queen bee’s takeover, we might all be goose-stepfording across the universe in a few years.  Speaking of, we’d better bounce back that way and nuke the site from orbit.  It’s the only way to be sure.”
Gleamer rephrased without prompting this time, “They understand.  We might be violent criminals but we escaped a situation that would be dangerous even for professionals.  If we hadn’t interfered with the alien ship’s plans, it might have spread throughout the… region… quickly.  They will be returning to the Zig base to finish destroying any traces of Emissary.”
Evgeny tried to respond casually, “Well, don’t let us keep you.  Thank you for understanding our position.  I’m glad to see that we can appreciate one another even without the encouragement of outside influences.”
“Don’t hear me wrong, brah.  We wrap up there, we’re totally reporting your ass.  See ya again, we’ll cap ya without blinkin’.  This is your only grassy ass and low see in tow combo.  Plus we can’t waste the time to tangle right now.  We just had to make sure you were clean before rollin’ on.  Peace out, E. L. Capitan.”
Gleamer had started his translation, “Don’t mistake its meaning.  Once they’re done at the mining base, they will report on our activities.  If they see us again…”
He was interrupted by a final transmission from the Black Humor, “Oh, there’s just one more thing… sir… if you would be so kind… load up a tube with our two dead homies and their gats?  We’ll make sure they get a proper send-off.  Wouldn’t want to trouble ya with the arrangements.”
Evgeny groaned.  It had been too much to ask that they would escape and profit.  Of course, the Ningyo would want their tech returned.  Hopefully, NuRikPo had gathered enough data on the equipment to reconstruct their functions, but the Zig engineer had been busy with other projects as well.  It would have been helpful to keep the originals to check his work against.  It also would have been nice to sell those items when the engineer was done.  Those benefits were apparently the price of their reprieve.
 “Understood, Black Humor.  We’ll have your people launched momentarily.  Stand by.” 
Gleamer again broke external communications.  Evgeny toggled engineering from his own console and signaled NuRikPo.
“’Po, bad news.  The Ningyo caught up to us.  They’re going to let us go in order to clean up their captain’s mess in person, but they want their tech back.  Get whatever you can now, put back any pieces they might miss, and package their suits and the space fold generators into a cylinder for transfer.”
“Too good to last,” NuRikPo mourned, “I have scans, but they’re of limited utility.  We couldn’t disassemble those generators safely without a high-energy containment facility… which still cover a volume half the size of this ship.  Honestly, how the Collective tolerates such repressive policies on research and development, I’ll never understand…”
            The feed faded out as NuRikPo hurried away to prepare for the loss of his samples. 
            Evgeny turned to Soloth for an executive conference, “I don’t trust the Ningyo to let us dock safely.  If they knew we were coming, Spore is likely a trap.  We’ll come back later to kill whoever sold us out.  Find us another port within range, ideally somewhere with even weaker Collective allegiances.”
            “Agreed,” Soloth confirmed.  “Anchor seems most likely in terms of distance and the resources we need.” 
            “Ugh, I’m tired of that place… but you’re probably right.  It’s getting to be the popular stop for unpopular people lately.  Set the course and get ready.”
            The last order was not simple preparedness; Evgeny had something specific in mind.  His familiar senior crew caught his meaning.  Soloth tightened its lips and breathed deep in its throat, the Mauraug equivalent of an evil grin and laugh.  Even Gleamer nodded and grinned in appreciation of the nastiness their captain had in mind. 
            A ringing step and signal at the bridge hatch indicated Tklth’s arrival.  Its delay indicated both difficulty adapting to the prosthetic leg and, very likely, being roused from sleep by Evgeny’s call.  Her addition to the bridge made Evgeny’s plans even better.  She would enjoy a bit of cruel humor at the Ningyo’s expense.
            Finally, NuRikPo called in and confirmed the package ready and loaded.  Evgeny gave the order to launch. 
            “Advise the Black Humor that their property is on its way,” he directed Gleamer.
            Then Evgeny counted down sixty seconds, gauging the time between the transmission of that notice and the engagement of the other ship’s maneuvering drives.  As soon as he saw the pale orb start to grow in their view, he gave his second order.
            “Target the star and engage hyperdrive.”
            Their visual display blanked out as the churning, dissociative feeling of hyperspace entry washed over the crew of Scape Grace.  Normally, the captain would give his crew fair warning in order to avoid the ill effects of unprepared jumping.  Normally, they would also move further away from other nearby masses, in order to avoid navigational errors.  In the case of a nearby ship, you should also be further away than they had been from Black Humor, in order to avoid rudely striking the other ship with the backwash of abused reality. 
            For most sapients caught in such backwash, the result would be an instant of nausea and vertigo.  For the Ningyo, with their inherent sensitivity to spatial alignment and consequent intolerance of hyperspace travel, the effect would be like being momentarily turned inside out.  Evgeny could only hope it was terribly painful and traumatic. 
            Not too painful, though, or long-lasting.  They still needed the Ningyo to deal with the aftermath of their captain’s blunder.  This was just a sucker punch in passing, a reminder that Scape Grace might be small but she was still dangerous.  Her crew was a capable, durable, unpredictable, and unethical lot… and they were specifically forearmed against Ningyo opponents.
            These thoughts comforted captain Evgeny Lerner as he suffered through the throes of hyperspace transit.  Maybe the Black Humor would come back for them in revenge.  Maybe it wouldn’t.  If it did, they had time to get ready now.
            Hell, maybe he’d claim a shiny white capitol ship as a prize before he retired.

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