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Chapter 27: Comfortably Numb

Arkady stood precariously on a table and held his face close to the skylight. The aft side of the ship was now lower than the rest, so he could see the storm clouds as they passed behind them. The distant clouds were dark and sinister, but nearby there was only a light rain of wind blown sand.

Percy logged into one of the two computer terminals in the main dining room. The ship's meteorological sensors indicated the storm had passed. There was no longer any danger from lightning strikes. The outside temperature had cooled and the winds were dying down. He queried the computer about the quakes. They had coincided with the lightning strikes. Each strike had been in phase with the shields. The energy from the strikes had either been deflected into the nearby sand or stored in batteries by the ship's transducers.

Percy thought for a moment. There was something else he had meant to check... "Ah!" he said as he remembered to check for life forms outside the ship. After an interval of several seconds, the terminal displayed an overhead view of the ship with portions of the surrounding sand highlighted in different colors. Each distinct red section had a label. "Radio on," Percy said after scrutinizing the details. He briefly read the weather report to the rest of the crew. "As for the carbon search, Arkady and I searched the galley and didn't find any food. Not so much as a wooden spoon to toss in the recycler! But there's plenty of life forms outside the ship. Or, at least there were. Now they're all death forms."

"Good work, fellas," Nike said into the comm device. "We're in the medbay, patching up one of Horatio's students. Radio off." Nike watched as Shlitzee ran numerous tests. The student lay on the medbed in front of the desk and computer. A cold compress covered his temple where a lump had formed. Each time Shlitzee removed the compress to clean the wound underneath, the lump was bigger. It was now obscenely swollen, the size of a golf ball, and dark with blood. Shlitzee checked his pupils then administered a shot in the neck. The student was terrified, but Horatio calmed him down so Shlitzee could continue. She completed the injection, then divided her attention between a small display on the side of the medbed and a small medical computer which she held in her hand. Horatio watched curiously.

It was a long time before Shlitzee spoke. "Well, my native friend... David?" He nodded. "Are your ears ringing?"

"Yes."

"Both of them?"

"No, just this one," he pointed to his ear near where the lump had formed.

"Was it ringing before?"

"No."

"There's pressure inside your ear. It's called Meniere's disease. The good news is we can perform the surgery here to fix it. It'll take about an hour. Don't worry," Shlitzee said. "You won't feel a thing. You'll be well sedated." Her eyes turned a dazzling shade of purple.

Shlitzee looked at Nike and surreptitiously spoke to the crew through her internal comm device. "Horatio's student, David, is human. The genetic match is identical. There aren't even any gene modifications: he's a pure strain."

Nike couldn't bring herself to do or say anything except give a very unprofessional look of open-mouthed incredulity. Noting her proximity to the guests, she said nothing as she recovered. She gave Shlitzee a nod to acknowledge the information. Horatio was staring at Nike, hoping she would explain what Shlitzee had said. Nike didn't fully understand either, so she B.S.ed, "I'm sure that it's in our database somewhere," and tried not to look guilty.

Shlitzee led David into the operating room then went to the medical supply room to mix a potent sedative. Nike and Horatio waited with him in the operating room. Horatio put his arm around him and said, "You'll be fine. These people are our friends. They'll take good care of you."

Nike asked, "Can you refresh my memory on how your people came to be on this planet?"

Horatio looked confused for a moment. "Well... Long ago, our people lived in a great city called Earth, but Earth was a wicked place and doomed. They left Earth and settled in a place called Eridani. One day, a great metal bird called Warden arrived. She, too, was from Earth. When Earth was swallowed by fire, she carried a great many people away. But Warden had been badly injured by the poisonous clouds that arose from the city. Many of her passengers were sick and dying, but Warden mysteriously flew away into the wasteland before they could join us.

"Our ancestors took a solemn vow to save Warden, or die trying. They followed her for many years, but somehow lost her trail. They arrived at an oasis in the wilderness where they expected Warden would eventually arrive. The place was called Cancer. They waited and searched the skies, but she didn't come.

"Then one day, a demon appeared from the wilderness. He looked and spoke like a man, but our ancestors were not fooled. For six days, the demon tried to convince them to abandon Warden. He tempted them with gold, treasures and worldly pleasures. Each night he returned unsatisfied to the wilderness. On the seventh day, the demon attacked their camp. When they fought back, the demon revealed itself. He had the body of a man and the head of a wild beast, like a dog or a wild pig. He was terrifying to witness, but he was no match for our ancestors and they destroyed him.

"That night, an amazing thing happened. Everyone shared the same dream. Each ascended toward a bright light. There they found themselves surrounded by family and friends. They were told they had won a glorious victory and would be rewarded. When they awoke from the dream, they were in a beautiful garden filled with plants and animals. They settled there and called the place Eden."

Shlitzee returned with a sedative. "Ok," she said, with a little digital reverb added for emphasis. "It's just a little pin-prick. Soon you'll be... comfortably... numb... Relax, and enjoy it."

"Eden," David said as he slipped into unconsciousness.

"Eden is surrounded by desert," Horatio continued. "In vain, we sought a way past it. Our people grew and formed new villages, like the Oasis at Sigai where we are from, but we are still surrounded by sand. We dream of finding Warden one day. We are all very excited by your arrival. Please tell me, have you come from beyond the desert? Have you heard of Warden, or know where she is?"

"Yes, Horatio, I do know something of Warden, but I must think about what you've told me before I give you more answer than that. I do not wish to confuse you or mislead you, so please understand." She paused, trying desperately to recall all of her mostly botched diplomacy training. She had never had the patience for it, really; she had gotten by when she had to. Dammit if this wasn't one of the times when she had to. She looked at Horatio kindly and said, "Tell me, do you have anything in Eden like a library, a place with records, books, or histories?"

"Oh yes," Horatio's eyes sparkled. "At the seminary in Eden, there are many books: histories, documents, maps, scriptures, all precious and rare. They are jealously guarded, but the priests will probably let you see them. They'll be eager to talk to you."

Shlitzee fastened David's head to the head rest. The rest of his body was already restrained. Horatio watched with interest. She produced a flashlight from the chest beside the operating table and flashed it in David's eyes. "Hello," she called. "Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?" She turned to Horatio. "He won't feel a thing," she said then made a sound like a drill cutting into bone. Shlitzee laughed. "Just kidding. It's painless. He's only sedated to keep him from moving." Horatio tried hard to appear unaffected by Shlitzee's grim humor.

Shlitzee pressed a button and a pair of sensors extruded from the table, one on each side of David's head. She injected a preprogrammed dose of nanodocs into his neck then plugged a data lead into the operating table and silently observed the nanodocs' progress toward the site of the operation.



Percy and Arkady made their way back to the airlock, making a stop in the empty food storage room to pick up several containers. When they arrived, the airlock computer informed them that the main door was blocked. A computer monitor showed the rear of the ship partially buried in sand.

"Waaaaaiiitaminute! How are we supposed to get outta here? The main exits are underneath us!"

Arkady silently pointed up. A smaller, hand operated door was on the ceiling.

"Ah! A redundant door! An excellent design decision, I should add." Percy led the way up the reset rungs in the airlock wall. He spun the handle and the door cracked open. Percy pushed his way out the door then took the boxes from Arkady.

The terrain around them resembled a crater, with the ship in the center. Vast areas of sand in the crater had a glassy appearance. The sun was descending. It was still hot outside and they wouldn't have daylight for much longer. They immediately set out looking for life forms. "Ugh," Arkady said. "Here's one. It's dead all right. It's so dead, I can't even tell what it looked like! It's been fused with the sand, like they melted together!" Arkady tossed the carcass in his box and wished he had some gloves.

Percy had mixed feelings about collecting the dead creatures. He kept his thoughts to himself.

"I was looking forward to my first contact with extraterrestrial life. I didn't expect it to be road kill!"

Percy laughed. On this planet, these creatures weren't exactly "extra" but they were still foreign to them all the same. If the recently expired creatures hadn't been... recently expired, they might have been running away from the strange extra terrestrials who had crash landed on their planet! Then again, if there were other humanoids on the planet, Percy guessed he and the rest of the Warden escapees might not look so foreign. The duralloy armor-encased technical trainer snapped himself out of his musings and started to help Arkady with the carcass collection. "Here's another," Percy called. "They're not very big, are they?" Arkady nodded. "This could take a while."

"Hey fellas," Amanda said over the comm device. "I see you on the ship's computer. I'll help you find what you're looking for. Arkady, there's one right below you, not too deep." Amanda was in the dining hall where Percy had left the lifesigns detector active on one of the computers. The terminal was unfamiliar, but she soon got the hang of it. She managed to calibrate the detection application to varying depths around them. "Percy, Arkady, there's an enormous carcass on the other side of the ship from you. It seems to have been some sort of plant: there are lots of branches leading away from it. Some are a few dozen meters long!" She directed them to its location, then said, "Radio off," deactivating the comm device she'd only recently learned was installed in her skull.

There was more than enough material in that one plant to suit their needs. "That'll keep them busy for a while," she thought while she wondered what to do next. Chelydra, Bud and Bailey didn't need her help watching their guests. They all had weapons.

Amanda made her decision. She left the dining room and wandered toward the back of the ship looking for the supply room.



Inevitably, Percy was soon distracted again. The curious Percy took note of the ship's position in the sand-turned-glass crater to gain a good ol' fashioned eyeballs' view of their landing site.

Arkady filled his containers and noticed Percy's were only partially filled. On top of that, the Warden crewman seemed to be on a sightseeing tour. "Take a picture, it'll last longer!" Arkady joked as he approached Percy and the hatch to the ship.

"Oh, heh, sorry. It's just..." Percy trailed off, completely lost in the view. "It's just I never actually thought I'd live to see the day we set foot on, well, wherever we are. Then again, I didn't," he said somberly, referring to his original self. "Anyway, it's amazing to me, I mean, here we are collecting ... whatever these things are, on a planet half way across the galaxy, so we can recycle their carbon--dang I hope these things are carboniferous--to make reactor parts! HOT DIGGITY DOG!" Percy pumped his fist involuntarily. "Ok, I guess I just had to get that out of my system. You can go ahead back to the recycler and dump your collection without me." He held up his partially filled containers. "I'll finish packing my Tupperware and meet you back inside in a bit."

His suggestion for Arkady to head back down without him wasn't completely motivated by speed and efficiency. Percy hoped to have a few more moments alone with the vastness of the planet before he rejoined civilization. Or at least, what passed for civilization, considering the Warden lifeboat's crew compliment was scrambled gene clones, inadvertent cryo-stowaways, and loopy robots!

Percy walked to the top of a dune and surveyed the alien landscape. The open sky above him took his breath away. Most of his life had been spent under the Warden's claustrophobic sky. The sun wouldn't go down for at least another hour, but two extremely bright stars were already visible. He watched them for a moment and was at peace.

"Well it's nice to see some real sky anyway, for a change," Percy said aloud, realizing Arkady probably had already descended into the ship out of earshot. He took one final breath and returned to gathering carcasses. Arkady soon joined him and they filled their bins together. When they were finished, they climbed back into the ship. "Shall we save the planet?" Percy asked, holding up his makeshift recycle bins.

"I thought you wanted to save Warden first!" Arkady said as he closed and secured the hatch.

"If you can't save the ship you love, save the ship you're with!" Percy started whistling as they made their way back to the recycler. His disposition had brightened significantly, even if he was still a quirky middle aged man with a dead end job. The thought hung in mid-air as he corrected himself. His job wasn't so dead end anymore. Training future generations of Warden technical experts was the old Percy's job. "Look out, uh, planet! Here I come!"

Arkady paused, wondering if Percy had finally cracked, then continued following Percy to the recycler in the supply room.



Inside the supply room, Amanda found their bags where she had left them before they left the Warden (in the inertial shelves). She smiled at her forethought. Her fellow crewmates had just dumped them in the hallway on boarding.

Amanda casually inventoried the equipment in the supply room. First she rummaged through the munitions bag, duffle bag and the other items they had brought onboard: there were several fist sized pods (5 red, 5 blue and 6 green), a pod launcher, a protein disruptor pistol, a stun ray pistol, a dart ejector, an auto-adapting stun gun, a Duralloy shield, a mini scope, 3 solar energy cells, 9 Hydrogen energy cells, a heavy wrench, 4 crude spears, and a sharp, twisted piece of plasteel.

The other shelves had more equipment: 75 blankets, 195 water bottles, 6 jackets, 22 empty jacket hangers, 3 small identical devices, a hand radio, several maps and brochures, 8 issues of Guns & Ammo Magazine, a hard bound book with a cloth cover, and a set of binoculars.

Satisfied that she'd looked in every corner, Amanda approached the door labeled 'Munitions'. Unfortunately, the door required a passcard and Amanda had lost hers weeks ago. The Watcher had taken it.

Without a sidearm, she felt an odd sense of 'nakedness' brought on from out-of-the-blue. Amanda decided to pick up the protein disruptor pistol. Her original self had had little experience with guns; her current self was even more unfamiliar with them. Fortunately the device was fairly intuitive: there was a business end and a trigger. She checked to see if it was loaded but couldn't be sure. There didn't seem to be anything missing or a helpful display of the ammo remaining. It looked loaded, but she couldn't be sure. She toyed with the weapon, trying to figure it out without looking down the barrel.

She was perplexed at her new found desire to arm herself and the peculiar desire to own a firearm. She looked longingly at the pistol, admiring its colors, features, and smooth/angled contours. "I wonder if I used to be a 'gun nut'," she thought to herself. "This is an odd sensation. I can't seem to take my eyes off of this thing, and my desire to possess one is a little overpowering".



Nike watched over Shlitzee's shoulder as she monitored the nanodocs' progress. It seemed tedious. Shlitzee made eye contact with Nike and was silent for a moment before she finally said, "Do you mind? This could take a while."

"Yes, you're right. My time would be better spent elsewhere," Nike responded with a sigh. She suddenly seemed so tired. It was as if all the adrenaline that had been pumping through her with crisis after crisis had evaporated, and she was left feeling a bit like a limp dishrag. "Radio On. Bud, I think we need to have a recon team go outside and scout the perimeter manually; but I think that that particular team needs to be sharp, and therefore needs rest first. So you and I will take the first rest, then go out."

"Roger," Bud replied over the radio. "Strange as it seems after being in suspended animation for who knows how long, I'm actually a little tired. I'll be in my quarters, as soon as I choose one that is."

"Percy, you continue to work on things from the computer end while Arkady takes a rest. In five hours, you two switch out. Amanda, for the time being, help Percy and Shlitzee out as they need it, and if you begin to feel as if you need a rest, take it. You may not be completely recovered yet. Bailey and Chelydra, you continue to keep our guests comfortable and supervised. Find out all you can from them about the terrain, customs, leaders, weather... anything is helpful. When Bud and I return from our sleep and recon, we will take over and you can get some shuteye."

"We've been chatting a little," Bailey said over the radio. "They're training to be priests of some sort. When we press them for details, they start spewing words like living light, the word of Galt, scriptural exegesis, miskatonicalogical mumbo jumbo and a bunch of stuff I can't understand. They said one thing that seemed odd: they said they were too old to be priests in Eden. They also described their home. Sigai sounds like a small but well protected farming community in the hills nearby."

Nike faintly heard Chelydra's voice speaking to Bailey. "Is that Nike? Tell her we may want to check out this Sigai after we’re sure the storms have passed. But carefully. I'm not too keen on joining the 'living light' just yet. Besides we’re going to need a resupply sometime and it sounds like the only place open. I just hope the local beer-equivalent is served cold. Well, no, at this point I hope the local beer-equivalent is served at all."

"Bailey," Nike replied, "tell Chel I heard him and thanks. Shlitzee, if and when you feel as if you need to take some rejuvenation time, please let me know. Otherwise, keep on it."

"I've been plugged in this whole time. My batteries are at full charge."

She took a breath and continued. "Bud, pick a room that you like and get some zz's. I'll see you in five hours. Percy, please have us woken in exactly five hours. We are to be awoken immediately in the case of any emergency. Thanks, everyone. Radio Off." She sighed again. "Shlitz, can you do a quick scan of my head? I'm feeling woozy and am having a little pain returning. Then I promise, I'm off to bed."

Shlitzee had one of her robotic assistants check Nike out again, but she was fine. She took a pill out of the medical supply room. "Chew this. Swallow some water from the sink and call me in the morning."

"Thanks Doc." Nike responded, giving a mock salute, then headed out the door.

A moment later she heard, "Excuse me, Nike?" over her comm device. "Could you come up to the supply room? I want to get some ammo for this pistol out of the locker, and I don't have a passcard."

As she walked, Nike wondered what role Amanda would play. As far as she knew, Amanda was unarmed. She hadn't told Amanda to go and get herself a weapon, and she wasn't sure how she felt about Amanda having one. Would she be more of a danger to herself and her allies than to a potential enemy? Either way, each person had a right to be armed in this critically dangerous situation. Still... "Radio on. Bailey, could you please ask Chelydra to meet with Amanda? Tell him to make sure she is armed and see if she knows how to operate any weapon she may choose safely. Let me know if there's a problem."

She continued down the hallway past the crew quarters. The thought of Amanda made her head hurt. "Amanda had clearly had feelings for me," she thought, feeling anxious and uncomfortable as she remembered the kiss. She had always resisted romantic entanglements, even the heterosexual ones that might have ordinarily been welcomed... at least, she had since he died; since her whole world had changed. She rubbed her temples and tried to push the unbidden and momentarily unwanted memories away from her conscious mind.



While Amanda patiently waited for Chelydra to arrive, she suddenly noticed her ears were very warm. "Must be that someone is talking or thinking about me," she thought to herself rubbing them.



Nike approached the Captain's cabin, slid her passcard and entered. The first room to greet her was the Captain's lounge. Comfortable sofas and tables lined three walls facing a large video monitor in the fore wall. Two cabinets in the corners framed the video screen.

The door closed behind Nike and she proceeded across the room to the opposite door. Again, she slid her passcard. The door opened and revealed the Captain's inner sanctum. The room was similar to the other crew quarters: a wardrobe, end table beside the bed, a desk and chair and inertial shelves next to the desk. The chair was fastened to the floor but it could move forward and back several centimeters. Besides being just a bit larger, the Captain's room was different from the regular crew quarters in four ways: there were two extra chairs; there was a window above the desk; the bed was a single bunk (instead of the triple bunks in the crew quarters), and there was a private restroom behind the door in the aft wall.

Fading daylight filled the room from the window. Nike slid her weapons, jumpsuit and accessories off and sat them on the desk. She stepped into the restroom to look around. "Not half bad," she thought, eyeing the facilities. Smiling to herself as she thought of a hot shower (however unlikely it was out here on this particular ship) she slid onto the bed, naked and exhausted. Pulling the blanket up over her, she looked up at the daylight, which was lazily tossing tiny pieces of dust about in its rays, and breathed deeply in the quiet. "Ah, what a luxury this is," she thought, "even for just a few moments."

With that, Captain Nike Thomason closed her eyes and sleep claimed her.

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