2946-09-24 - Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Rematch
In the final episode of Jaska N.'s account, we find him joining forces with another prisoner of the raiders who took him captive after destroying his colony compound home. If you missed the previous parts of Jaska's account, you can read them in Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Raiders, Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Captivity, and Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Reprisal.
In his message to me, Jaska admitted not knowing much about the creature he describes having freed from captivity, though his speculation is that it was not a sapient creature at all, but instead an advanced hive-networked swarm masquerading as a single entity. He offered no speculation as to its origins beyond this; it seemed that he was making good on his promise to it, to go his own way and leave it to its own business. He doesn't explicitly say that the creature departed his company after they were set free, but it is heavily implied in the way he described his ordeal that this is what happened.
Having heard other stories about symbiotic sapients (many of them retold so many times as to be devoid of any useful information to research the matter), I do not wish to discount the possibility that he is right, but details he offers suggest that the creature or machine isn't - or at least isn't entirely - synthetic.. Jaska offers no details beyond that the creature was able to help him subdue several Rattanai brigands, at which point the ship's master called for parley and offered to deposit him, Karley, and the mysterious creature on a nearby sparsely populated colony world unharmed.
Despite their fanaticsim, it is unsurprising that this raider band were amenable to a peaceful settlement; faced with a force of unknown capability, they decided to cut their losses and negotiate. This is in keeping with the behavior of some Rattanai commanders during the days of the empire, and it proves that though these towering xenosapients are very different from humans and Atro'me psychologically, they are not beyond all reason. To me, this has always made the imagery of the Terran-Rattanai War more terrifying: it forces one to come to terms with the real possibility that a grand empire of generally rational beings can seek to exterminate or subjugate humanity for what is, for them, rational reasons.
Jaska put his hand against the armored door gingerly, wondering if, locked behind it, was something that might contribute to his and Karley’s escape, if he could get it open.
The raiders had configured their ship in a manner that made no particular sense to him; though parts of the interior made it obvious that the ship was originally built by a human yard, its Rattanai owners had reconfigured it in a manner that seemed, at least to a retired spacer like Jaska, to be rather arbitrary.
The first two spaces he’d thought likely to be some sort of armory had turned out to be an empty storage compartment and an oddly-fitted plumbing head; the third had been guarded too attentively to slip inside. After watching this fourth doorway for several minutes, hidden in a grate-covered maintenance shaft, he’d risked creeping out and up to it, only to find that its control panel was apparently nonfunctional, its small holo-display projecting a universally recognizable “system fault” symbol, as well as a string of Rattanai language-glyphs which Jaska couldn’t read. Most likely, that meant that whatever was on the other side was of no concern to the fanatical Rattanai crew.
Jaska was about to leave the armored door and whatever mystery compartment lay beyond when the control panel chirped. Returning his attention to its display, he noticed that the Rattanai glyphs displayed below the fault symbol had been replaced by a trio of Terran Anglo-standard letters, “WHO.”
With a shock, he realized that it was an interrogative. “Me?” Jaska whispered, before he realized what he was doing.
The letters vanished for a moment, then “YES” replaced them. Jaska took a step back, and considered running away; the ship was after all hostile territory. Most likely, the letters were the result of a Rattanai computer technician elsewhere on the ship trying to distract him until armed raiders arrived to return him to his cell.
Still, Jaska knew he needed a lucky break. The narrow maintenance crawlspace behind him beckoned invitingly, but he judged himself able to dive into it at the first hint of Rattanai approaching. “You first.” Jaska replied quietly, craning his head to look and listen for any sign of danger.
The letters “CAP” appeared, then vanished to be replaced by “TVE”. It was clear that the meaning was “captive.” That wasn’t an answer to his question, but it did explain why the limit of their ability to manipulate the display was three characters; perhaps exposed wiring allowed a clever technician captive only limited control over the display.
“I was too, but I got out.” Jaska whispered. “Does this door open from the outside? It gave me a fault when I tried.”
There was no reply for several seconds. “YES” appeared, followed by “WAI.”
Before waiting for whatever would follow, Jaska slapped the control panel’s largest button, which was clearly meant to open the door. As the grinding sound of heavy lock mechanisms indicated success, the displayed letters changed to “TYO,” “UMU,” and finally “STK” before the armored portal slid uneasily downward to reveal a dark compartment not unlike the one he and Karley had been imprisoned in, if slightly bigger. “I must what?” Jaska asked into the darkness, seeing motion in the far corner, where the light did not penetrate.
What uncoiled from the darkness and stepped forward was not human. Though it took roughly the shape of a human, it moved oddly, more flexible than a human in some ways, and more constrained in others. Its long, slim limbs were hugged by form-fitting armor plates like metallic dragon-scales, and its face was a blank, glassy mask. From around this mask, a mane of white, hairlike filaments cascaded in all directions. If it was biologically similar to a human under its armored hide, Jaska decided it was probably the female of its species, based on its slim, somewhat wasp-waisted profile. A long, segmented tail danced in the air around the figure, and Jaska didn’t fail to notice the barbed stinger at its tip.
As if to remind Jaska of his purpose in opening the door, three blocky letters appeared in the creature’s blank mask-like face. Just as Jaska recognized “LET,” the creature replaced them with “SGO.” The meaning of these six letters was quite clear.
“Right.” Quickly, he led the odd figure to the open grate of the maintenance crawlspace, ushered her inside, then followed. After moving a safe distance away from the opening, he reached out to pull the stranger to a halt. “Wait.”
When he touched the smooth scales of her arm, they seemed to shift under his hand, as if it was metallic scales, only loosely connected to each other, all the way through. Surprised, he withdrew his hand, and when he looked up, the letters “WHY” glowed softly against the dim silhouette in front of him.
“Because we’re never going to get off this ship unless we work together.” He told her, still cringing at the feeling of the brief contact even though it hadn’t done him any harm.
There was a pause. “DOY,” “OUK,” and finally “NOW” appeared, each at a delay of several seconds.
Not waiting for the rest of the message, Jaska decided to answer. “I have no idea what the hell you are, and I don’t care. When we get out of this, you go your way, Karley and I will go ours, and that will be that. We just need some way to fight the Rattanai.”
There was another pause, and the alien put out a hand, pointing at Jaska. “WHO” appeared on her face.
“I’m Jaska.” He replied. “I was captured with Karley, a neighbor of mine, but we got out of our cell. What can I call you?”
“INA” were the only three letters delivered in reply. “Ina”, Jaska decided, was as good a name as he was likely to get.
As he considered this, she reached out and grasped his wrist, holding his hand up in the darkness. The scale-like structures seemed to grind against each other, and the impression that the alien was entirely made of layers of interlocking plates was reinforced. As he wondered what the gesture meant and tried to fight another wave of revulsion, Jaska noticed new letters: “BEC,” then “ALM”
“Be calm?” Jaska echoed, wondering whether it would be impolite to pry his hand free. Ina’s grip was gentle, but the movement of her scales was highly unpleasant against his wrist. “Why? What makes-”
With a sudden motion, the alien pounced on him, and they both toppled to the floor. Ina seemed to lose her form and become an amorphous flow of metallic components, pinning Jaska to the floor. He struggled, and would have cried out, except that the plate of the creature's face pressed itself against his in a macabre mockery of intimacy, covering his mouth and nose, and stifling his breath. He tried to gasp for breath, tried to free his limbs to claw at the object which seemed to fold around his face and head, but found himself entirely restrained. As spots danced in the darkness in front of his occluded eyes, Jaska hoped that, at least, Ina would kill some of the Rattanai after she was finished with him.
Just as his consciousness was beginning to fade, his straining lungs filled themselves with dry shipboard air. The weight holding him down had vanished. “The hell-” Jaska said, then stopped – his voice echoed back into his ears, as if he was wearing a bubble helmet. Reaching up to touch his face, Jaska found his fingers clinking against a smooth, featureless surface; evidently, he was wearing a helmet, or something very like it. The presence of interlocking armored gloves over his hands – and apparently the rest of his body – also became evident.
“I said to be calm.” A smooth feminine voice with an unplaceable accent dripped into Jaska’s ears like warm honey. “It is so difficult to explain symbiosis from outside.”
“Ina?” Jaska sat up unsteadily, uncomfortable with the fact that he was now completely encased in the form of a machine – or a creature - which fitted him like a second skin, below even his tattered clothing.
“Symbiosis?” Jaska prompted, exploring his person blindly with metal-scaled hands, surprised at how much tactile sensation carried through Ina’s covering.
“Alone, I am weak." Ina replied. “Weak enough to be easily imprisoned. As one, however, we are strong. Strong enough, perhaps, to fight these brigands.” As she spoke, the scale-plates on Jaska’s arms shifted subtly as Ina showed him how she could amplify his bodily strength; experimentally, he made a fist and punched the floor, and was surprised to leave a sizable dent in the shape of his armored knuckles. Ina, he realized, was making him as strong as a decent human-built suit of combat armor would, but it wasn’t clear how.
The opaque faceplate in front of Jaska cleared. The dim crawlspace now looked as well-lit as the corridors. “This... symbiosis, is it reversible?”
Ina laughed. It wasn’t a human laugh; it had a buzzing multiplicity that coursed up and down his body, as if each scale were laughing individually. It was simultaneously a terrifying and pleasurable feeling. “If you wish.” She replied. “Let’s go find your friend.”
At that instant, the ship shuddered, and Jaska found himself drifting off the deck plates he was sitting on. “That would be her now.”
“Your friend is resourceful.”
Jaska smiled into the faceplate, knowing that Ina couldn’t possibly know about how Karley had contributed to his presence in the first place. “Apparently she is. Let’s go see how agile these lunks are in zero-gee, Ina.”
“With pleasure, Jaska.” The odd being’s voice purred as Jaska maneuvered weightlessly toward the nearest exit into the corridor.