20:24 CONTACT EN ROUTE
20:26 ENACTING ESCAPE PROTOCOL A
Sharneste entered the hallway behind Nike and immediately started tracking Amanda's scent again. She moved quickly, but quietly, in a partially crouched position, ready to pounce!
As they approached the first two doors on their left, Chelydra shifted his shotgun to the ready position. "Only two rounds left; gotta make them count," he thought. "And find another weapon or more ammo quick."
Although he was confident that his shell would offer him good protection if things came to a hand-to-hand contest, he still preferred to shoot his enemies from a distance. The thought of taking a bite out of one of the hairy lurkers left him rather less than enthusiastic.
Tinker started down the corridor. The invisible Blendoid pulled out his data pad and followed the robot. By Tinker's electric torchlight, he tried to avoid the shattered glass with moderate success.
Percy was grateful for the coffee and his revealed memories of it, no matter how trifling. He felt a whole lot better. He felt more centered; hopeful. But of what, he wasn't quite certain. He followed the group into the dark corridor.
"So where are we going?" Arkady asked Nike.
"We're going to get one of our own," she said, almost too softly to hear. She wielded her knife and made sure her stun gun was within easy reach.
They had proceeded no more than a few meters down the hallway when Chelydra asked Sharneste, "any scent of Amanda or our furry friends? Sure wouldn't want unexpected company."
Sharneste suddenly came to a stop. She crouched low and stared down the hall expectantly. She could smell an approaching Hairy Ugly Thing. "Smelly comes ... ssh," she said in a low hiss.
No one made a sound. Nike dashed for the first door and opened it. It seemed empty, so she jammed the door open with her foot and motioned for the others to take positions further down the hallway so that she might ambush the beast.
Arkady followed her gesture with his eyes and stepped behind a Cellulux poster that had been partially torn from the wall. He suddenly felt very vulnerable. He quietly removed the knife from his pocket. He had found it in the morning behind the bed that he had slept on. It hadn't been his bed---just another bed in the last of the many sleeping berths that he had wandered into after that long, first, bewildering day. On the poster he could still discern---through the dim light and the grime of centuries---the Decathawarrior provocatively posing in a Victoria's Secret ad.
Percy uttered no words, but flattened his back against the wall between the cafeteria door and the one through which Nike had slipped. He gripped his wrench tightly. Its smooth metal was a comfort, a bit of reassurance that there was something he could use to defend himself. His thoughts in the intervening seconds drifted back to his transformation into the Wolfoid, and he subconciously lowered his bag of salvaged items gently down to the deck floor. Despite his enhanced vision, their unwelcome company was either still too far away, or around one of the two corners. He kept his eyes peeled.
Tinker stopped in the middle of the hallway, opened his chest compartment and pulled out his Mark V Blaster pistol. The robot did indeed feel masculine in an ineffable way. It certainlly aligned its personality characteristics with those of male humans. "Zhaxier, are you in place?" he emitted softly, shutting his compartment.
Zhaxier crept up and crouched behind the robot. He drew his own pistol from his medical bag. "Right behind you, Tink."
Tinker shut off his light and awaited the oncoming beast in silence. The light from the cafeteria door dimly illuminated the corridor behind them, but the robot knew that directed, high-intensity beams of photons (lased or otherwise) might give them the advantage against these apparently light-sensitive creatures.
In the darkness, they heard the approaching Hairy Ugly Thing.
<shuffle, shuffle, shuffle>
They had the feeling that the noise would be imperceptible in any other setting, but the cavernous echoes in the sterile hallway made every noise seem incredibly amplified.
<shuffle, shuffle, shuffle>
Percy saw the HUT appear from around a bend in the hallway approximately 15 meters down. Sharneste, also aware of the creature, hissed quietly in anticipation.
"We've got company!" Percy whispered, nodding his head in the direction of the HUT.
The HUT made its way closer to the group, walking in the center of the hallway and not seeming to notice the ragtag band. Then it stopped right in front of the door where Nike lay in wait, and sniffed the air ...
Tinker snapped on his electric torch, and his pattern-recognition software instantly targeted the bulbous eyes of the hairy beast. Within a fraction of a second, his light cone narrowed to a blinding width and centered on the beast's right eye, half blinding it.
Sharneste bared her claws and fangs and leapt at the smelly thing with a savage roar, trying to bowl it over and tear into it! Her claws sank into its hairy flesh, but not far. The beast's hide was tough, like thick leather. She tried to pull back for another slash, but she found that she couldn't get her claws out of the HUT's skin.
Chelydra was unable to fire his shotgun without hitting Sharneste; Zhaxier had even less of an angle from his defensive position behind Tinker's frame, and Arkady did not feel like getting too close to Sharneste's claws when she didn't seem to be able to completely control her balance. Each watched and waited.
Percy clutched his wrench as he compared the strength of the hairy creature to that of the cat-woman, Sharneste. He presumed that the element of surprise and her strength would give her the advantage. All the same, he waited for an opportunity to strike, but, like Arkady, he didn't want to get too close to Sharneste's claws. His hesitation to strike, as Sharneste had, gave him a thought---were his human instincts, honed to focus on computer systems, the reason for his hesitation? He thought about adapting his form to the Wolfoid again. His memories of his time as a Wolfoid were quite clear---as a Wolfoid he knew neither hesitation nor fear!
It had become apparant that Sharneste was having some trouble. Percy doubted that she really needed to be attached to the HUT to test its durability. He inched a little closer.
Sharneste was wild to get loose. She had been unable to get a bite in on the HUT's neck. She bit its shoulder instead, but her fangs met armor-covered leather and seemed to have no effect.
Angrily, the HUT grabbed Sharneste by the upper shoulders and began to squeeze. Sharneste cried out in pain and Nike jolted into action. She leapt from behind the door and tried to drive her knife into the back of the HUT's neck. The knife broke the skin, but didn't go as deep as she had expected. Nevertheless, the HUT bellowed in surprise and pain. It threw Sharneste clear, painfully pulling out one of her claws in the process. Nike pulled hard, freed the knife, and flattened herself against the wall behind the HUT. She felt Arkady's hand steady her shoulder, as if in reassurance. He crouched next to her. In his other hand he gripped his duralloy pocket knife. He noted the efficacy of Nike's substantially more powerful blade, and decided to fold the blade back into the handle to sleep with its cousins, the fork and the file. On it's gun-metal gray surface was a bas-relief silhouette of The Warden.
The HUT turned to run and moved several steps away. It travelled much faster than Nike had thought was possible for such a clumsy looking creature. Chelydra blinked several times, trying to shake off the fugue state in which his turtle-genes seemed to have placed him. His shotgun wavered as he looked for an opening. His friends were blocking the corridor, so he reluctantly allowed the HUT to make good its escape. With Tinker's torch and the glow from the nearby cafeteria to light the hallway, only vague shadows could be seen. The HUT seemed to stagger against the wall, then became invisible in the inky blackness as it escaped the faint cone of light.
"Well, that was effective," Zhaxier's voice called from behind the robot.
"Indeed it was," Nike said. "We now know how tough the Dark Dwellers are."
"Was that blind, hairy beast one of the brutes that took your friend?" Arkady asked.
"Yes" Chelydra answered for Nike, noting the smouldering look she had given Zhaxier. He thought that she might appreciate a few seconds to collect herself.
"Strange, I haven't seen or heard them around the cafeteria all day ..."
Zhaxier noted that Sharneste was in pain. Her right forepaw was sprained badly and a claw had been ripped completely out. She nursed her paw, licking it gingerly where the claw had been torn out. He made his way toward her and carefully made sure she smelled him first before he said, "Uh, I'm no doctor, but this shot should help with your hand." A regenerative, nano-bot dose floated out of the bag and hovered near her. She looked at the needle warily, but allowed him to administer the shot.
"Sharneste," Nike asked, "you able to walk?"
She nodded stoicly. The shot soon helped to ease her pain. She could still walk on her hind legs, but she found it difficult to walk on all fours without limping. Sharneste sniffed the air and found the human girl's scent again. She resolved to continue along with the group, but she was far more wary and less energetic about it.
"Tinker, perhaps you can carry her?" Arkady suggested.
"Can do, Arkady. That is, if she'll let me," he balked, gesturing toward Sharneste.
Then all hell broke loose. Sirens rang out. Emergency lights, dim and purple, flashed wildly. The hallway had an eerie glow. The kitchen lights behind them cast an ethereal halo around everything in the hallway---bits of glass, bloodspots, metal tiles. The pulsating purple of the emergency lights was almost hallucinatory.
"Oh great!" Nike said, looking back at Chelydra and the others.
"At least we can be sure those beasts won't be after us in this lighting. Nope, it'll probably be security bots next. Real nasty. I suggest we keep moving," Tinker gestured down the hall with his blaster. "Last thing we want is to be trapped."
Fearing an ambush by more of the deranged robots that had been dogging their steps since they had awakened in the clone banks, Chelydra pivoted and scanned around for any movement behind them. "So much for sneaking up on them," he observed wryly.
"Let's get the hell out of here," Nike agreed emphatically.
"I Agree," Percy said. "Let's get the heck outta here! These sirens are giving me the creeps!" He paused and tilted his head slightly as if trying to retrieve a memory, but the feeling passed.
"Zhaxier," Nike asked. "Anything on your data pad about G10, or some kind of escape route?"
He quickly executed a data search. "Zilch on G10. Oh---wait," he said excitedly. "Here's a corridor marked 'ESCAPE ROUTE!'" He chuckled for a moment. "Escape to where, Butch? I know exactly where we are: nowhere," he fumed acridly.
"Zhaxier, you're an ass," Nike said with feeling. "Remind me to beat the shit out of you when we're out of this safe and sound!" She was tired of Zhaxier's biting sarcasm, insults, and attitude. He needed to be taught a serious lesson in manners, and she itched to be the one to teach him, if they got out of this. But for now, he was a part of the group. A smartassed, unreliable part, but nevertheless a part. She needed him uninjured. "Ok Nike, get a hold of yourself, you can't start letting your anger get the best of you, or your abilities as a leader become compromised!" she told herself, and took a deep breath. The General had always warned her of this in his 'constructive criticism'.
"You know," Tinker said discreetly to Nike, "there is a high probability that you are still alive because of him. Viable engineer clones like Zhaxier are priceless to security robots, who cannot repair themselves. They would have gassed these corridors by now, were he not with us. Statistically speaking, you are expendable."
Suddenly a memory returned to Percy's brain---a little more intact than before. "Waaaaiiiitaminute! I recognize that siren. We need to get outta here, pronto!"
Noticing the puzzled looks, he continued, "Uh, ... ah yes, that's it: evacuation! That's the E-VAC siren! This deck is about to be a really bad place to be walking around. Something, uh, yes---intruder alert, or contamination, or something. Dang, we probably had drills on these sirens. The original 'we', anyway." He looked at Nike. "We best get moving, Cap'n!"
"Zhaxier, why don't you take us to that lifeboat hangar I saw on your data pad earlier," Tinker suggested. "It may house a weapons cache."
"Finally, a voice of reason," Zhaxier said gravely; uncharacteristically. In the flashing purple emergency lights, his medical bag and data pad seemed to whirl toward the robot in discrete jumps like an ancient Edgerton experiment. A silent aeon passed as he struggled with the sobering mantle of responsibility.
"I suggest that we immediately secure that lifeboat," Arkady said. "ASAP!"
"I'm not leaving Amanda," she said. Her eyes looked directly into those of her comrades. "I wouldn't leave any one of you, and I'm not leaving her. I agree that it's wise to find the lifeboat, and I'll accompany you, but if we haven't found Amanda along the way, then I'll be going back for her. The rest of you can make your decision when the time comes."
"I wish we could pursue your friend," Arkady said, "but we can't help Amanda if we're dead! Maybe this section of the ship is going to depressurize or something horrible!"
Zhaxier placed his data pad back in his medical bag and removed his laser pistol. He wouldn't need the data pad to get them there---he had previously memorized the route. It was close to room S8346-"Kaminsky", and he feared what he would find there more than anything else. Zhaxier said, "Follow me," and took off running down the shortest path to the lifeboat room with the rest of the group behind him.
"Just, uh, don't go too fast since we can't see you," Percy suggested. "Not that I particularly want you to turn visible again. I mean, when my life is in danger, the last thing I want to have is your hairy, black ass bouncing in the hall in front of me, leading the way to freedom!" He fished in his bag a moment, producing Zhaxier's abandoned apparel. "You can always have these babies back, heh," he joked, holding up the black silk boxer shorts (two pocket variety) before he put them back in his bag.
"Hairy?? ... Crikey, stuck between a bully and a bigot," Zhaxier thought, trying to remember why he had returned to them at all.
The Moonwerk General Purpose Technical Support Unit Tinker easily kept up with Zhaxier by keeping a visual lock on the "floating" medical bag, the novelty of which had still not worn off on Arkady. He found it difficult to remove his eyes from the levitating bag and laser pistol. Until thirty minutes ago, he had never seen another living thing besides himself. "O brave new world, that has such people in it!" he thought.
In the distance, the sound of steel slamming upon steel could be heard. The sickening sound made Arkady wince.
20:34 CONTACT LIAISON 1
20:36 STATUS UPGRADE: LETHAL
20:37 AUTOBOTS ACTIVATED
20:38 BRIEF PRISONER
20:41 CONTACT 2 DISPATCHED
.........-SEARCH AND DESTROY
Amanda sat in the darkness alone. She drew her knees up close to her chest and tried not to cry, but she couldn't help it. A few tears escaped her eyes. She thought about Nike and the others. "Nike would hate the fact that I'm sitting here whining and not being proactive," she thought. After a few minutes, she slowly rose to her feet and felt her way around the room. It was very small, empty and dark. Maybe it had been a closet at one time. She found what felt like a door. The door controls on her side had been smashed---on purpose, she assumed, to keep her in. In the darkness, she fooled with the wires. A small shock surged into her fingers and she yelped out in pain. As she rubbed her fingers she heard a clicking noise. Maybe it was more like static ...
Her suspicions were confirmed when an automated voice began,
You will rejoin the group from which you were removed
and you will bring them to enviro-bay 12 to be harvested."
A small flap in the wall lowered, and in
the feeble light glowing beyond the opening, she saw an automated claw move
a box of food into her room.
She quickly grabbed the box and answered the voice, "I will!" She backed over to the corner and sat down cross-legged on the floor. The flap remained open and by the dim light that it provided she looked through the box. She was hungry and didn't waste much time. While she ate she wondered where the others were and what Nike was doing. She wondered if they were thinking about her. She remembered the kiss with Nike and giggled a little.
A door slid open to Amanda's right.
GO," the voice said, and she
obeyed without a moment's hesitation. She darted out the door and ran down the
dark corridor as fast as she could. She had no idea
in which direction to proceed, but she didn't want to stay back there. Anywhere
was better than there.
"Left," Amanda thought, "I'll go left!" After her initial left, she took a right, then another left, then another right. She began to tire, but the darkness was as spooky and foreboding as ever. "Ok, one more left" she said aloud, trying to break the spell the hallway seemed to have had on her speech.
Finally, in the distance she could see a dim light. She moved toward the light, more slowly, panting with effort. As she approached the light, the illumination in the hallway became greater, and slowly she began to make out nameplates and numbers on doorways. "McKensie, 709" and "Thomason, 710" were the last two before the hallway opened into a larger corridor with a glass ceiling on one side. Through the glass, Amanda could see the majesty of space.
She stopped for a moment and looked up into the stars, watching their twinkling brightness as she tried to catch her breath. It was wonderful, beautiful, and it held her in awe. But it was also frightening---knowing that this majestic ship, a one of a kind starship called Warden, 80 kilometers in length and 40 kilometers in width, built in the Trans-Plutonian Space Yards in 2277 and launched in 2290, was just drifting in space with no rhyme or reason, and with no one at the controls. She shivered slightly at the thought as she stood there enthralled.
Suddenly sirens began wailing from all directions. She yelped in fright and took off running again like a well-conditioned lab rat placed in a maze to run for its meal. Only there was no cheese---only endless, unfamiliar corridors.
Not quite able to tear herself away from the comfort of the stars, she turned from corridor to corridor, following the viewports. Suddenly she entered a recreation area, and collapsed on a sofa, hiding herself silently with pillows. This was not turning out to be a very good day. Her life had already been a mess before she started running blindly. Hoping for some sign of flesh-and-blood---friendly, sentient life---she rose a little from the sofa and looked around. "Hello ... Anyone ... Hellooooo?" No one answered. She slumped back down on the couch and closed her eyes. "I just need a little rest ..." Unbelievably, Amanda soon fell into a light sleep.
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