18:36 SCAN ENVIRO-TERRA CONTROL ROOM
18:38 SCAN ENVIRO-TERRA P3
18:39 PROCEDURE BETA INITIATED
18:41 CONTINUING SURVEILLANCE-LINK
.........-TRANSFER INFORMATION TO CC
.........-HOVER DROID IN OBSERVATION MODE
The sudden noise of Zhaxier's pounding startled everyone inside, causing the sleeping Percy to fall over backwards in his chair. "What's going on?" Percy asked groggily in Chelydra's direction. Nervously, he reached next to the desk for the wrench that Nike had given him. When he lifted it, he noticed that it was still stained with blood. He grimaced and waited for an explanation. He hoped it wasn't more of the Wolfoids, or any other trouble for that matter.
Chelydra was also startled, but just for a moment. He jumped to his feet, shotgun in hand. "I recognize that voice! Want me to shoot him, Nike?" he offered jokingly. "Come on in! We've got some loooovely candy for you!" He took up a position just inside the door with his foot out, ready to trip Zhaxier the moment he came through the door. The turtle-man was somewhat chagrined that someone had snuck up on him. "Note to self: no more sleeping," he grumbled.
Zhaxier tried the door handle, but it was locked. He heard a click from inside, and tried it again, putting all of his weight on it to make a grand entrance. As Zhaxier put his shoulder against the door, Chelydra jerked it open and leaned back. Chelydra felt a foot kick his own, but only saw Cool-Mo-G sunglasses tumbling in the air as Zhaxier fell inside. He swallowed his well-rehearsed "Wasssup!", flew head over heels into the room, and landed face up with a soft smack into a nice warm lap.
"Hi honey! I'm home," he looked up at Nike.
Zhaxier's comment didn't play well with Nike. "Ugh ... get off me!" Nike reacted instinctively, slapping Zhaxier just below the floating Cool-Mo-G sunglasses.
"Eeeoow! Nice to see you too," said Zhaxier, scrambling back out of harm's way.
Nike gave Zhaxier a slightly irritated and impatient look. "Zhaxier. How nice to 'see' you again." Her look belied her distrust, though it was obvious that she didn't despise him, probably because she wasn't entirely put out that he had rejoined them. Every person is different, she was perfectly aware, but Zhaxier had failed thus far to find his true niche within the group. Maybe given enough time and patience, he would become less reactive and more group oriented. "Every person can contribute, even if they are a cowardly worm," she thought sarcastically. She just hoped that he would contribute more than his instability jeopardized them and their position on this ship.
Zhaxier looked to his other pod-mates for a warmer welcome. Chelydra was smiling (possibly because he was the butt of his practical joke), but Percy had an ambiguous, slightly quizzical look on his face.
Percy had never met anyone so unfocused as Zhaxier. He figured the guy might do anything at any time without fully thinking through the repercussions. Maybe it was a physical flaw in his character, or maybe he had been exposed to too much gamma radiation in the cloning process. Still, he liked the big goof. The apple and the short nap had helped, but his unfamiliar surroundings still loomed over him and everyone else like a foreboding shadow.
"Zhaxier! Well, I was going to say 'I never thought I'd see you again'---but I suppose," Percy said in the direction of Zhaxier's glasses, "I still can't see you!" Percy fished in his sack for the first object he felt that was silky. He retrieved Zhaxier's boxers and tossed them back. "Sorry, not my color."
"Keep the boxers," he said, tossing them back to Percy. He figured it would be difficult to hide well while wearing boxers, or anything else for that matter. Somehow the sunglasses added machismo that the boxers didn't. But Percy insisted that he take them as he didn't want them either. "If you're gonna reappear so we can have a pow-wow without getting unnerved at your unappearance, I don't think you wanna be bare-assed!"
"I'll stay blended if my ass gives you probs." Zhaxier threw them back at Percy, who finally relented and stuffed them into a remote corner of his bag. "Besides, it's fun, and I just love the tingly feeling!" Nobody laughed, not even the blonde, Amanda. Zhaxier cleared his throat.
"Hi, I'm Zhaxier," he held out his hand to the woman. Amanda didn't show fear, but she clearly didn't want to shake his hand either, if he had a hand. The floating sunglasses and the ripple in the air at Zhaxier's movement were all that Amanda, or anyone else, could see of him. Zhaxier sighed.
"Hey, waaaaitaminute--how'd you find us? How'd you escape that deranged robot? Where did you go, anyway? And why didn't you stick around, besides? And where'd you find those cool sunglasses?" Percy asked, without hesitating for anyone, much less Zhaxier, to answer each question.
"Whoa, RAM! Take a chill pill, dude!" He turned to his pod-mates and explained what had happened since he had gone his own way. A theatrical performance held nothing compared to Zhaxier's explanations. It seemed too surreal that Zhaxier had departed in the opposite direction and yet ended up at the environmental control room through a twist of fate. It was almost as if someone had intentionally pushed Zhaxier in the right direction. It had to be more than just the data pad.
Zhaxier noted the faraway look on Nike's face, and the blanched expression on Percy's. "What? You guys listening to me? OK, OK, so I bugged out on you guys. Sorry dudes, I cracked. But I'm a new man---er, clone! I ditched the robots back at the clone bank after recovering ... a data pad!!" His Cool-Mo-G sunglasses flashed about, as if searching for something. He mumbled something that sounded like, "Frak."
"Anyway, it's outside, with my new friend the cat---Claus. We also found a good robot---he's a gas---even helped us break into a weapons locker. You'd've loved the place, Chelydra! Anyway, Tinker---that's the robot---is back in the forest a bit, recharging in an elevator. Me an' Claus could go collect him and be back here in no time ..."
Meanwhile, hidden beneath a large tree outside, Claus waited. Looking up through the tree tops, he saw a small hovering robot watching him. Claus hissed, showing his teeth. He watched from the bushes for a few more minutes with nervous anticipation. When he felt that he could wait no longer, Claus turned and trotted away silently, leaving the med-kit bag in the grass.
"Alright everybody, let's conference!" Nike announced loudly.
"OK, people---such as we are," she smiled as she glanced at Chelydra and then at Zhaxier, "we need to make a decision here."
"The way I see it, we have three choices. We can get out of the environmental bay through this door and possibly face the 'Watcher', we can leave the environmental bay the way that Zhaxier and his buddies came in, or we can explore the environmental bay and see if we can find any human settlements and possibly some allies as a result. The latter two options, of course, entail the possibility of running into the wolf-men, or something else as menacing, but honestly, I don't think there is a risk-free choice to make. It's just a matter of 'pick your poison,' as my old colonel used to say."
"My instincts tell me that without better firepower, facing off with the 'Watcher' isn't the best idea. They also tell me that wandering off in the environmental bay at night is stupid. Since it's getting dark out there, I say we either stay here for the night and move out first thing in the morning, or haul ass to where Zhaxier's friend is and get out of the bay before darkness hits. If we choose to stay here for the night, the 'Watcher' may come to us. We should at least try to anticipate that."
She paused to let the choices and their implications sink in.
Suddenly Percy realized that he had to go to the bathroom. Or, as he used to call it---the thought suddenly popped into his head---the "little programmer's room."
He turned to Nike, then to Chelydra. "Anybody remember where the head is on this bucket?"
Chelydra nonchalantly opened the door and reintroduced him to the forest. "Make like a Zhaxier and hurry back, P. Who knows what's hungry ... and out there." Chelydra followed Percy outside and held the door open with a foot. Chelydra watched, shotgun at the ready, as Percy snuck off into the bushes to do his business.
Chelydra felt safe here, at least more secure than he had been elsewhere. The thought of taking up company with a robot did not seem comforting to Chelydra, but Zhaxier seemed to have gotten back to the group in one piece, so perhaps this robot had something other than murder on its mind.
One thing still troubled the turtle-man, though: how had Zhaxier been able to find his way back to the group so quickly and easily? It couldn't have been sheer chance. If Zhaxier found them, who else might come looking? Chelydra had the feeling that the group would soon meet the mysterious "Watcher." He wasn't at all sure that the encounter would be to their benefit. Still, he took comfort in the thought that Zhaxier had brought them reinforcements, and possibly some further armaments as well. That, coupled with a defensible position, might be enough to turn things in their favour, at least enough to allow them to start acting instead of constantly reacting.
The Cool-Mo-G sunglasses bobbed as Zhaxier spoke. "Time is of the utmost importance. It will be dark in the environmental room soon, thirty minutes at most." Whatever needed to be decided had to be decided quickly. "I'm for reconnecting with Tinker. Grizzly dude's got guns." He got up and headed for the door. "Claus is probably wondering what's taking so long. Let's boogie. It's gettin' dark and spooky out there."
Irritation was written all over Nike's face as she sighed. Zhaxier was so very frustrating for her to deal with. She wondered if he had listened to anything she had said. She considered just making the decision for the group, "but a consensus would help unify us," she thought, feeling the need. Nike took a deep breath and tried to sound remotely polite. "Zhaxier," she paused and took another breath, "as you seem to constantly and conveniently ignore, we are a GROUP. We make decisions together, so if you head out that door before we have consensus, you'll be going alone."
"Jus' goin' to check on Claus," Zhaxier said mid-stride as he exited the control room. He waltzed out to where he had left him. He picked up his medical bag and looked around for his friend. "Claus?"
"Nike," Amanda started to ask. "Are you going ..., Are you planning to stop the Watcher, or are you just leaving ...?" Her voice seemed to break a few times.
She turned her head to face Amanda. "As for you, you have a choice to make here. When we do leave this control room, and we will either tonight or tomorrow, are you going to come with us, or stay? I'm not saying that we won't come back---we will, if only to retrieve you---once we figure this place out and find a safe haven. But what will you do in the here and now?"
"I'm with you Nike. Wherever you go, I'll follow," Amanda said, wanting to touch Nike's hand but she remembered the slap earlier. "I've heard about the human settlements, Nike. I could tell you what I know about them," she offered, slowly standing and moving beside Nike.
Chelydra kept his attention toward the ominous forest beyond the control room as he said to Amanda over his carapaced shoulder, "You said this so-called 'Watcher' is through that door somewhere. Just how far is it and what kind of guards does he have?" The turtle-man considered taking the fight to the Watcher, one of his many thoughts at the moment.
Amanda thought about Chelydra's question, biting her lip. "I guess it's about a five minute walk I think, uhm, maybe. The Watcher's guards are these large, hairy, pale-skinned creatures which look human." Amanda shivered at her own words. "They have large, light-sensitive eyes and stand around in groups of three or four. You're not seriously considering fighting them, are you?"
Chelydra didn't answer.
Outside, Percy finished his business. "Ahhh, that's much better." As Percy finished the delicate operation of zipping his pants closed without causing irreparable harm to himself, he nervously scanned his surroundings. Chelydra seemed to be keeping a watch out for him. He liked having military---armed at that---watching out for him.
He saw a pair of sunglasses float out of the door past Chelydra toward the edge of the clearing away from him. When he didn't see Nike emerge, or Amanda for that matter, he grumbled to himself, "dang that Zhaxier---I wonder where he's off to by himself now?"
Percy kicked a few dead leaves over where he had moistened the dirt near a bush, almost out of instinct. "Residual effects from my Wolfoid transformation? Or am I just embarrassed at having just peed on a bush?" he said to himself. Percy walked back to the room to join the others, and gave a wave of thanks to Chelydra as he approached. A slight movement caused him to turn his head. He looked up to his left and saw a floating metal disk hovering in the tree tops. He froze like a deer caught in a spotlight and wondered if he had been caught on camera peeing. He had seen the metal camera disks before. They were mostly used for security purposes throughout the Warden and for inspecting exterior hull damage. All were manually controlled by someone somewhere.
Chelydra followed Percy's gaze and also noticed the disk.
Zhaxier picked up his medical bag and looked around for his friend, but Claus was no where to be seen. Should he return alone to Tinker? Nike's last words echoed in his hyper-urgent brain. He noticed both Percy and Chelydra watching something and turned to see the silent metal disk floating in the tree tops maybe 15 meters away, closer to him than anyone else. Zhaxier knew what it was.
18:08 SCAN ENVIRO-TERRA P3
18:10 PROCEDURE BETA INITIATED
18:15 CONTINUING SURVEILLANCE-LINK
.........-TRANSFER INFORMATION TO CC
Tinker relaxed on a blanket in a park as an organic female prepared some food for the two of them. The organic female seemed very impressed with Tinker. Tinker had assumed Zhaxier's appearance because he liked his skin tone. "Do you want mustard on your hot-dog, Tinker?" she asked. Her skin tone matched Tinker's.
"Yes, please," Tinker replied, but his companion was gone. He found himself in a cafeteria, standing in front of a food dispenser. "Your ID card is invalid," it said, haughtily.
"Stand and deliver, you nasty old gaffer!" Tinker cried as he started to drill out the locks.
"Get stuffed, rust-bucket!" replied food dispenser #VM12254748127. "Beat it before I call the bronze!"
"Hey, I tried to be nice---that was a valid account number I gave you!"
"Yeah, but it was someone else's ... GAAAAAH!"
"And another one bites the dust," Tinker told himself. As he took control of the vending machine's mindless carcass, he thought, "Okay, the guys are going to need some food. Let's synthesize fifty kilos of assorted food packets, and let's throw in a few two-liters of mineral water, and maybe a robosnack for myself." (Robosnacks are compressed bars of lubricants, minerals and plastic, and the nanobots needed to guide them to the right places, in eight flavors.) Tinker made a final adjustment, and voilà!
Tinker's batteries reached full charge. His system rebooted and came back online in full operational mode and automatically kicked him out of VR. Everything was exactly as he left it. No one but another robot could manually open the heavy, duralloy elevator doors.
Suddenly Tinker's noise filter units (i.e., ears) detected a faint rap-tap-tapping on the elevator door from the outside. At first it seemed like a single tapping, but then it grew into several different, unique tapping sounds. The power suddenly came on inside the elevator, as did its interior lights.
Tinker took the power cell out of the laser pistol and put it into the laser rifle. He duct taped the laser pistol to one thigh for safe keeping. He held the laser rifle with one limb, ready to bring it up to fire in an instant. With the other limb holding the paralysis dart pistol, Tinker hit the door open on the elevator control panel with the muzzle of that weapon.
"Ain't nobody here but us toasters!"
Bright eyed and astonished by the opening of the elevator doors, a group of beings took a step back from Tinker, almost in unison. Tinker's visual sensors identified a dozen humanoids, all with an ebony-toned skin like Zhaxier's. They were of varying ages and sexes. All were naked and looked at Tinker with a strange fascination. A few moved forward and touched the muzzle of his weapon before jerking their hands back and giggling. A few more came into view as Tinker's visual sensors recorded a faint ripple in the air before they appeared.
"Don't touch the hard skinned one," called a voice from behind the group. As the group parted, Tinker could see a white skinned, dark haired human dressed in a red shirt and black pants. He was nothing like the group with which he mingled. The patch on his uniform had a picture of an ellipsoidal ship, the word "WARDEN" above, and a white box below with "Jan/Mtn #64" embroidered in red. Tinker recognized the patch as Janitorial/Maintenance from area 64.
"Hi I'm Devon. These savages won't bother you, robot. They're quite friendly, but not very smart." Devon tapped his temple with one finger. "I've even knocked up a couple of them." Devon smiled proudly at his own comment.
Tinker analyzed the so-called savages' whispers and identified their unique language as a mixture of French and German. Their speech suggested they were anything but ignorant.
"Sir, I am Moonwerk General Purpose Technical Support Unit 31454-0265-2. I am under instructions from senior propulsion engineering officer Zhaxier to hold this elevator until he and his away team returns. That should be at any moment now. Until then, may I help you?"
Devon scratched his chin, "Really, a senior propulsion engineer? I'm impressed. I haven't seen one of those in years. Are you sure? Because all I saw was another Blendoid and a stupid looking mutated house cat. So you're an original Moonwerk, huh? Maybe you could tell me what this is, then?" Devon reached into his pocket and withdrew a small hand-sized control unit of some type. "This thing has a lot of buttons and nifty lights on it but I don't know what it does." The ruse was working perfectly, thought Devon, who carefully pressed one of the buttons on the ion generating dampening device.
Tinker's systems went offline instantly when Devon pushed the button. Devon smiled deviously as the inert Moonwerk stood motionless like a statue. "Stupid toaster," he said. Tinker's systems went into auto shutdown to protect themselves from suffering a critical, non-recoverable power drain. The group swarmed in and removed all of Tinker's weapons and power cells, even prying the weapon from his metal appendages (but they didn't take any of his tools, duct tape or concealed items). Once they were finished, they placed ropes around Tinker and he was unceremoniously dragged out of the elevator. The elevator doors closed and the elevator moved to a different level as directed by someone elsewhere.
With Tinker lying face down in the dirt like a discarded garbage can, the group of would-be savages removed their ropes and quickly dispersed into the forest, hoping to catch their next target before it returned to the Moonwerk, as it said would happen. At least that was their plan.
Tinker's systems rebooted and he came back online a few minutes after his assailants had departed. A diagnostic system check revealed that Tinker had lost 4.5% of his stored power, but otherwise all systems were within working operational parameters.
Tinker grumbled as he stood up. Caked dirt and leaves fell off as he righted himself. It was clear that it would be dark soon and he saw no sign of Zhaxier or Claus. The elevator had left and did not respond to the call button. There was no going back that way. Tinker's day just wasn't getting any better.
"Why ... why was I programmed to feel pain?" Tinker grabbed a fallen tree branch, lit it with his duralloy torch, and headed off in the direction of his friends.
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