Niall found no profit in refusing to answer any questions Selendon put to him. He also knew better than to ask for anything for his friends. Only a fool thought he could identify the people who were important to him and not have something nasty done to them, or threats made against them to control him. He answered Selendon's questions and only volunteered information when it would reduce the time spent on questions. Why prolong the end of the process and delay the inevitable conclusion?
In twelve days, he regained his strength, ate and washed regularly, wore clothes that weren't visibly prison garb, but did contain tracking threads visibly woven into the material. He was fairly certain the sensor threads monitored his physical condition, and recorded his words and movements. Most likely all his answers were compared to his bio-response signals to weigh whether he was telling the truth.
At the end of the twelve days, he was escorted to the captured RA ship--expected. The cargo bays had been modified into dormitories, and all the former crew of the Nova Vendetta were housed there--also expected. The section where Niall was left contained almost all of his command crew--not expected. He hadn't identified anyone by name, but then again, Selendon also hadn't asked about any of his tribe.
Everyone wore clothes similar to his. Simple, long tunics and loose trousers and shipboard-boots with magnetic plates in the soles. Dark cloth in blue, green or brown, with the silver sensor threads woven into a loose square over their hearts. Niall looked around the dormitory room with bunks for thirty and found an unoccupied bunk. He assumed it was unoccupied because the sleeping sack was still rolled up on one end, unlike the other bunks. Most of them had bags hanging from the support posts, just like the bag given to him when he was finally dismissed from Selendon's office for the last time. There were a few personal items in his bag, retrieved from his prison quarters. He assumed everyone else had been given the opportunity to find something they valued, to take to their next point of incarceration.
"They fixed the engines," Nesta said, approaching him.
"They're listening," Doc said from a bunk two rows away.
"We've had bigger challenges." Niall sat down and settled the bag at his feet. He closed his eyes and felt the rumble of the engines coming up from the deck, through his boots. Flickers of his hallucination-dreams came to him, and he shivered deep inside as he imagined the Nova Vendetta had welcomed him home.
The days trickled by and the ship didn't move away from its parking orbit around the Abyss. Niall listened to the bits and pieces of information gathered from friendly, even admiring and sympathetic guards, from prisoners who were requisitioned to help with the continuing repairs on the station or on the ship and returned to their converted barracks at the end of each day shift. He and his command team assessed everyone not of their tribe and not allied with them who had been imprisoned with them, to determine who was there by accident and who had been assigned to keep watch on these temporary pirates. He determined early that there were no accidents. Selendon knew what he was doing.
When he didn't know what he was doing, when the way ahead was murky, then the commander tasked with cleaning up Nasq's mess proceeded with such slowness and caution, galaxies could form and die while he waited and watched and analyzed.
Niall respected the man, and he remembered what Selendon had said about the nanotechnology that was intended to control the ship, how it was experimental, and how everyone who had been injected with it had died. Common sense said this newest captor was waiting to see how long it would take for them to start dying. Maybe he was even studying them to see what exactly caused their deaths, so it could be prevented with the next generation of the technology. What were the chances that the prisoners were an anomaly, a blip in the progression of the development of the nanotechnology, and because they hadn't died already, they were therefore valuable?
What were the chances Nesta's calculated risk worked in their favor and the prisoners could gain control of the ship, take it back, and permanently name it the Nova Vendetta?
Niall knew better than to hold onto an extreme hope like that. He also knew better than to tell any but the inner circle of his team what he had learned while being questioned. Nesta didn't need to know she had condemned them to death, but Niall owed her the honesty so she could stay alert, study everyone who had been injected, and maybe even have the time to figure out what was happening and how to help people when it all started to go wrong.
For the first three days after being returned to his people, Niall couldn't see that anything was going wrong at all. They hadn't died of hemorrhages or insanity. Yet.
He was watching for oddness, for changes in his own body. He was ready to accept that the hallucinations he had endured while starving and dehydrating in his lightless, stinking prison cell might be impending insanity combined with the increasing toxicity of his own dying body. Maybe, in retrospect, the odd dreams he still suffered after being washed and fed and given a semi-comfortable pad for sleeping should have been his first clue.
By the third day, instructions to pass on anything odd that anyone noticed, no matter how ridiculous, had filtered through both prison compartments on the ship. Then the reports came back. Everyone was having odd dreams--everyone, that is, whom Nesta had injected with the nanotechnology that was to give them mental linkage with and control over the ship. She only admitted that the oddest dreams with the most similarities occurred in the people she had injected. She didn't name names--they were too aware that Selendon and his people were listening, that there was no such thing as privacy. Even if they stripped naked and sat in the dark, divesting themselves of watching eyes and ears, Selendon would hear, would have some way of catching the softest whisper, the most obscure code they used to communicate. So Niall and his people didn't bother trying to hide what they were discussing, and what they learned. Just the specific identities of the people their new warden was interested in.
After all, when the deterioration into madness began, he and his staff were the only hope for help the prisoners had.
Nesta confirmed that the thirty who had been injected with the nanotech--herself, Niall, Pindermast and Doc included--all had strikingly similar dreams. Not the specific details, but the general impression of someone trying to get their attention. Someone hovering at the outer edges of their dreams, trying to break in but unable to penetrate into the scenario. Someone looking over their shoulders, clearing a throat and attempting to speak, but getting nowhere. Someone trying to ask questions, but not speaking any words.
"Maybe we're the problem," Doc speculated, on the fifth day after Niall had been returned to his tribe.
The Nova Vendetta had yet to leave orbit, and prisoners were still being taken out during the day shift to help with the cleanup and rebuilding and coming back with stories of the destruction and more confirmed names and details of deaths. Something was happening, and there were signs that departure was imminent. That day, five sets of bunks and two more sanitary cabinets and another long table with sliding benches had been added to each of the prisoner dormitories. Sixteen new prisoners had been transferred into the other compartment at the end of that work shift, and eight original prisoners transferred into the compartment with Niall's team. If this trend would continue--there was enough room for twice as many prisoners in each compartment--was debatable. Those who were paying attention to such things agreed it was a sign of impending departure.
"Maybe there's a connection with the ship's systems," Doc continued, "but we weren't trained for it. We don't know the tech language, the symbols being used, so the information being passed to us is just gibberish."
"That's a good theory," Nesta admitted. She tipped her head back, to study the ceiling, high enough that the sensor feeds picking up their images, voices and movements were impossible to see. Then she ran her forefinger across the sensor patch over her heart, where Selendon's people could pick up her words. "What are the chances we'll be given any education whatsoever, to help bridge that gap?"
Niall shared a grin with her. It was an open challenge to Selendon, and whoever else listened, to provide them with the missing information and training. He seriously doubted that the chance of accessing and implementing this new experimental technology would result in the prisoners being pardoned and trained. It was too risky to let them have access to the ship, to give them a chance of controlling it. Although Selendon seemed slightly sympathetic and understanding, there hadn't been even a whisper of possibility of pardons and reinstatement to the lives that had been unjustly ripped away from them.
Three more days passed, with stronger reports of dreams, stronger impressions, as if the person trying to contact them had graduated to tapping at the thin shell of their dreams to get in, breathing down their necks instead of just looking over their shoulders. Selendon and his people did nothing but watch and listen. For all Niall knew, the sensor patches in their prison clothes were relaying vital physical data that told a fascinating story about their condition, but nothing strong enough for the prisoners to feel.
Forty more prisoners were moved onto the ship, with corresponding bunks and food stations, sanitary cabinets and tables installed in each dormitory compartment. The remainder of the original prisoners brought to the ship were transferred to the compartment with Niall and his tribe. Now, everyone who had participated in the takeover of the RA ship and were possible hosts for the nanotechnology were all in one place. No prisoners were taken off the ship to work on repairs on the Abyss for three days.
Late in the night shift of the fourth day, the Nova Vendetta left orbit around the Abyss. Niall's first thought on waking, and realizing that he had grown sensitive enough to feel the change in the subliminal hum of the engines and environmental systems, was amusement that he and his crew insisted on thinking of the ship by the name he had given it. Part of that was because no one had told them the official CAW designation of the ship before it had been stolen by the RA. For all he knew, there was some superstition about ships that had their names changed one time too many. He had read somewhere in one of the adventures of Captain Skaar that ships developed personalities, and they rebelled when they were sold or stolen out from under the captain and crew they had faithfully served for many years. Only newer ships, or abused ships, could be taken or given to new captains. He laughed quietly at the odd thoughts that filled his mind on waking.
Then the sound caught in his throat as he realized that yes, he could indeed detect the changes throughout the ship. The sounds of the engines, always creeping over the border from subliminal, had changed. It was as if he could feel that more engines had awakened. Just from the growing awareness of the ship around him, he sensed that the Nova Vendetta was out in open space. The inimical presence of the Abyss was far behind them.
How did he know that?
The answer came quickly, as if someone heard his thoughts and replied directly to his mind: he had dreamed it.
Doc was the next to awaken, or perhaps he was already awake and lying still, trying to assimilate what had happened while the prisoners slept. He had the bunk over Niall's, and when Niall reached up and tapped his arm hanging over the edge, Doc leaned down and met his gaze. They conferred in whispers.
"Dreams," he said with a nod. Then he glanced around the compartment as others began stirring, with the usual soft moans and groans and rolling over.
There were mornings when Niall hated the dormitory existence, but today he was grateful. How else could he and his team confer and compare notes if they couldn't be together in one lump group? Waiting until they could be released from individual cells would waste too much time. They might forget too much. Niall wanted to test his theory, see the changing expressions as people awoke, and determine who knew they had left orbit and who didn't.
By the time the rolling carts holding the covered buckets of hot cereal and bowls and spoons arrived with their breakfast, everyone in their dormitory compartment had awakened and reported in. Nesta confirmed that all those who had been injected with nanotech knew the ship had left orbit. All of them confirmed odd dreams of somehow moving through the ship, through ductwork and power feed lines and crystal circuitry, touching the engines and pulse jets and even seeing through the sensor array. There were others who had been able to tell just from the different engine resonance in the decking underfoot that they had left, but they were all people who had served on board battlecruisers and dreadnaughts and knew how to interpret the changes in vibrations and even air pressure within a ship when it was underway.
When the guards came to take away the breakfast carts, they fetched Niall and Nesta and Doc to come speak with Selendon. The quick response and his questions confirmed that yes, he and his team of medics and technicians were listening and examining everything the prisoners shared. The Commodore wouldn't answer their questions, and Niall wondered for the first time just how much their new warden was being watched himself in return. For all he knew, Selendon was trying to help them, but anything that could be interpreted as helping the prisoners might be used against him. The slightest bit of communication, the slightest answer, could be seen as collaboration and treason. He actually felt sorry for the man. For a few seconds.
"One medical man to another," Niall said, addressing a skeletal, dusky-skinned man who towered over Selendon by at least half a meter. "Are we beating the odds? Are we following the usual progression of this nanotech? Is anything different for us, and do my people have a chance of surviving this experiment?"
He could only assume this man was the head of the medical side of Selendon's team by the healer patches on the sleeve of his uniform of variegated shades of gray. That, and the fact he and the woman Niall assumed was head of the technicians were the only ones the Commodore addressed directly. Whenever they couldn't answer his questions immediately, they turned to the people standing behind them, or their teams offered data or even questions posed on tablets handed to them, instead of speaking. For all he knew, no one was allowed to speak, but had to write out all communication so it could be recorded.
Maybe, despite Selendon's actions, this current incarnation of the CAW wasn't any more merciful and trusting than the last few.
The head med-tech met Niall's gaze after being addressed, but didn't move for five long heartbeats. Then he slowly bowed his head, a single nod, and a few lines formed around his eyes. Sorrow? Sympathy? Frustration?
Niall, Doc and Nesta were all given medical scanners, of a model they had never seen before, and instructions to test every prisoner in both compartments. Whether they had been injected with the nanotech or not. Morning and evening, they were to record each prisoner's full physical condition, four full sweeps of their bodies, head to foot.
"Scorch it all," Niall said, when they were nearly to the door of their compartment. He was so shocked by the new idea that struck him that he didn't realize right away that the six guards escorting them didn't rebuke or punish him for speaking--despite the strict orders not to speak, not to look around, and not to stop.
Doc and Nesta looked at him, eyes widening in concern, but they at least were cautious and alert enough not to respond. Niall glanced at the guards, their faces hidden behind the blast screens of their helmets, and kept walking. He clutched the scanner against his chest as they stepped through the hatch into the compartment and took a few deep breaths, phrasing his idea carefully as he waited for the multiple layers of doors to close behind them.
"Terees taught me about the work in nanotech they were doing at Merkator before everything blew up," he said, gesturing for the other two to stay with him by the hatch.
Across the long room, the other prisoners were gathering around the long carts holding the bread-and-protein rolls that were their noon meal. No one seemed to have noticed they had come in. The sound of the hatches opening and closing vanished in the clatter of the lids on the carts opening and the general sounds of people getting up from chairs and bunks and talking as they moved toward the food.
"Soldrums," Doc muttered, nodding.
One of the rules on Compost was that if anyone had an idea, a memory of something that might be useful, they shared it with all the leadership of the medico tribe. In case some disaster struck, the idea, the possibility wasn't lost. Information and knowledge were more powerful and valuable commodities even than food and shelter.
"You think I'm right?" Niall gestured with the scanner in his hand, sweeping it down Doc's body as if he scanned him right then.
"Right about what?" Nesta demanded.
"Terees was one of the students taken from Merkator. She was part of a special study group, extra credit, brightest and best with a talent for research med and tech..." Doc sighed and scrubbed at his face with his free hand. He held the scanner he had been given tight against his chest with his other arm. "They were working on nanotechnology just before the RA snatched everyone and labeled Niall and his friends from Sorendaal as traitors because their colony didn't declare undying loyalty." He turned his head and made a sound in his throat as if he would spit, but stopped himself. "On Compost, the RA showed they had confiscated and warped that tech, Terees's own student project, trying to program a disease to destroy the prison staff and guards. It was a slow-moving epidemic, totally tech-guided. They never did find out if the prison medicos determined if the pace was deliberate or just a flaw in the programming."
"The attack on Compost came a short time later," Niall added. "Nobody tells prisoners anything, even if we were the ones who figured out what was happening."
"Epidemic..." Nesta frowned, looked down at the scanner in her hands, then glanced over her shoulder at their fellow prisoners. "We're breaking new ground. We should be dead by now. They want to know why, and they need more intensive scanning than they can get from our little decorations." She bumped the sensor square on her chest with the corner of the scanner. "They're afraid..." Her eyes widened.
"If the nanotech hasn't killed us yet, it's doing things they haven't had a chance to see. Maybe the next step is to spread to everyone around us." Niall snorted. "I should have guessed something like that when they told us to stay behind the line in the floor in the conference room."
"For all we know, there was a force field, decontamination screen," Doc offered. "How effective is it against nanotech?"
"Decontamination force fields are set at the germ level--air gets through, but not the larger biological molecules. Nanotech is twice the size of a germ or bacteria cell, so..." Niall shrugged. "Want to bet our guards are fully suited up to prevent contamination and possible transfer of the tech, rather than defense when we find weapons hidden inside our mattresses and try to break free?"
Nesta snorted and flashed him a momentary, grim smile. Humor was in as rare supply as reading screens and new book or entertainment chips.
"How soon until they don't even escort our food carts in here, everything is handled by robot carts and remote control?" Niall murmured.
"If there is a contagion they can't control, how soon until they decide they can't learn anything more from us and it's safer to flash us all and send our ashes into the nearest sun?" Doc said, just as quietly.
Niall wasn't surprised when the three of them weren't taken to the other prisoner compartment to do full scans on them. Everyone who had been injected with the nanotechnology was in this one compartment. The three of them started their scans immediately after the food carts were removed. Full body scans took nearly fifteen minutes of painstaking, centimeter-at-a-time shifting of the ten-centimeter-wide scanner beam just for one sweep, which required going from head to foot, then having the reclining patient turn over, and going from foot to head. Each prisoner was to have four full scans, twice a day. Until they established a routine, most of their mornings and afternoons would be taken up with scanning their fellow prisoners.
One surprising detail made him wonder just how sympathetic Commodore Selendon was, and how far he stretched the rules and risked his career for their sakes. The screens on the scanners weren't blanked, so Niall, Nesta and Doc could see every bit of biological detail the scanners recorded. There was far too much to decipher and remember, and they weren't able to go back and look up the records for previous scans, or even request an overview of all the medical data. That didn't prevent the three of them from catching anomalies and little details, and try to remember them from one day's scanning to the next.
They didn't have their fellow prisoners' medical records--though Niall was sure that Selendon had everything recorded on each prisoner. If he didn't have it yet, he would soon. It didn't take a military genius to guess how important this new nanotechnology, offering the chance of mental control of a battlecruiser, could be to the strategy and security of the CAW. However, there was nothing stopping the three testers to talk with their fellow prisoners as they scanned them, asking about their medical histories, comparing what the prisoners said against what the screens showed.
Where broken bones had mended, scar tissue was vanishing, the bones healing so that it was as if they had never been broken. Damaged lung tissue from momentary exposure to vacuum or to caustic chemicals--healing. Weaknesses in veins and arteries and organs--slowly being repaired.
Only among those who had been injected with the nanotechnology.
"But not all of us," Doc observed, after the second day, when the three met with the rest of the inner circle of the tribe.
They had decided to speed up the process and gather medical data from everyone. Pindermast had a prodigious memory capacity and was able to keep data straight without needing to write it down--a blessing for them, since the prisoners were given nothing to record writing or sounds or images. Once asked, prisoners remarked on improving eyesight or hearing. Better sleep patterns, less pain in their joints. Sometimes the changes and improvements were so small that people didn't notice until someone asked them to think and look for them.
"All right, then we need to find out what separates those who improved from those who haven't," Niall said.
"What if it's as simple as not needing fixing?" Nesta offered. "Older folks or people with more hazardous jobs, those in battle situations, yes, they have more damage, more wear and tear to repair. Younger folks, those in less physically taxing occupations, not so much."
"It'd help if we could get to medical records and write things down and set up charts to help us compare," Doc said. "You're a blessing from Fi'in, 'mast," he added, grinning and giving a nod to Pindermast, "but you can't lay it out for the rest of us to see. We need to see so we can come up with theories of our own."
"Any chance of having access to records, charts, a place to work out theories visually?" Niall asked, tipping his head back and raising his voice--as if theoretical eye contact with those watching and listening would make a difference and get his request answered with any speed.
"They're not going to move until something else happens," Nesta said.
"And probably not in a big way," Pindermast added.