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Chapter 29: Down the Rabbit Hole

MX2000 passed by the gates and through a pair of ruined arches on his usual route. The arches rose as if to greet the heavens; the carvings on them glimmered with an otherworldly sheen. Tendrils of succulents dangled from ironwork like little hands grasping at the light. As he passed into daylight, his metal alloys reflected blue light from the sun; his black parts seemed to absorb the light. His optical cameras glowed red as they scanned his surroundings.

One would think that guarding the same area for hundreds of years, no matter how enchanting, would bore even a robot. But MX2000 was a particularly dedicated breed. He might have taken pride in the fact that he was still well oiled, vigilant, and successful, but he was only programmed to follow his routine. In the beginning, a few adventurers had attempted to enter the gates, but they had all been unsuccessful. Either they had realized their peril and departed, or they had been killed. No one would get past MX2000. No one.

His heavy feet trod noisily along his well worn path. It seemed this day would pass, as all others had, without incident.

A crash sounded above him and 103.5 meters away. MX2000 felt excited, if that were possible for a robot. He had never had the choice of investigating something from so far off; yet his evaluation of the sound indicated something large enough to be a threat. His programming allowed minor deviations from his post to search for and eliminate possible threats. An investigation meant leaving the area unguarded, but it had been so long since he had encountered a threat that everything in him told him to run and investigate.

His leg joints bent and he jumped into the air. His large, metallic hands grasped and pulled his way up the cliff face toward the noise. As his helmet crested the summit, he saw two humans, a male and female, fighting with one another. From behind a rock, another human threw something at the female. She ran for cover.

MX2000 stood confused for a moment. He wondered who would win the battle. He decided to frighten off or kill the survivors, then go back to his duties.

The female found shelter in a narrow cleft between several large boulders. She threw rocks at her pursuer. One struck him in the head. He cowered, arms raised to protect his face, and roared in fury. In the act of cowering, he spotted MX2000. He stood upright and gave a haunting, pulsing cry that echoed among the rocks. His cry was answered by at least a hundred more voices. The rocks shook. The sound of heavy rocks banging together increased in volume and frequency as if an army of boulders was marching in his direction.

MX2000 was brave, according to his programming, but not foolish. He raised his fists and planted his heavy feet into the ground. As suddenly as the ground had begun shaking, it stopped. A garbled voice, throaty and guttural, yelled, "AMA, GUTHA, AMA!"

MX2000 scanned his database, but did not find an exact match for the language, but 'gutha' seemed to mean 'trespasser'.

Again, the wild eyed native shouted, "TUA MORTA! TUA MORTA, OTHA!" Without taking his eyes off of MX2000, he stooped to pick up a rock that was the size of his chest. He hefted it above his head and ran with it straight at MX2000. He bellowed a tortured yell as he prepared to batter the robot.

"Stop," MX2000 shouted. He raised his fists higher. The native looked determined to injure the robot. He fired his laser. The blast struck the native in the chest and he suddenly burst into a cascade of light. The light grew and consumed the robot's entire field of vision.

MX2000 ran a diagnostic program to verify the data his optic sensors were receiving. Both were fine. He looked around him. The rocks and hard scrabble terrain were gone. It had been replaced by jungle, as if hundreds of years had passed in an instant. Vegetation had taken control of the landscape. Not too far from where he stood, under an avalanche of overgrowth, MX2000 detected the distinct signature of a large metallic body. Its shape resembled that of a dropship.

MX2000 scanned the area. A fine mist (undetectable in the visible spectrum but which gave off a noticeable amount of heat) wafted gently in the still air. The mist seemed to be drawn under the dropship. The robot followed it through the undergrowth. What MX2000 couldn't smash his way through, he cut with his laser. After several minutes, he found himself in the shadow of the ship. Vines had grown into the few cracks they could find between the plates of Duralloy. The mist had mostly disappeared. MX2000 stomped and cut his way into the belly of the dropship through an open gangplank choked with weeds.

Inside, MX2000 saw signs of fighting. Laser blasts scored the bulkhead. The jungle had managed to invade the ship only a little before the light grew too dim. Dead vegetable material cluttered the corridor. MX2000 switched to night vision. The warm mist led further into the ship. He followed it toward the cockpit. In a corridor filled with dust and broken pipes, there lay a long dead corpse in combat armor.

MX2000 approached the corpse to get a better look at it. As he did so, the mist became thicker. It covered the body and became hotter and brighter until it overwhelmed his night vision. The robot switched to normal vision and saw that the corridor had been transformed. The floor was free of dust and debris. The overhead lights were working. Before him stood an Asian gentleman in bright, shining combat armor. MX2000's biometrics scanned the man's face.

"State your name and designation," the robot said.

"Ken Matahachi, First Lieutenant, Warden command."

"...verified."

"Hello, MX2000. What are you doing beyond your post?"

"Investigating... unusual activity."

"I see. Were you curious?"

"I am not programmed to be curious."

"Ah, a pity. Well, my incurious friend, I have a new assignment for you. This area no longer requires security. You see, there haven't been any humans here for a long time. But the Warden has finally arrived and some of its crew have landed. You are to go to them. They may require your assistance. You must also tell them the location of this place. Do you understand?"

"Affirmative."

"Do you have any questions?"

"Negative."

"Then I need you to shutdown for new programming."

MX2000 shutdown. When he awoke, the corridor looked as it had when he had first entered it. He switched to night vision and, without touching the corpse, he left the ship the way he had come in. He returned to the area he had once guarded. In the hangar he found several aircars. He inspected one of the vehicles: every hose and wire seemed firmly in place, the battery was fully charged, and there were enough fuel cells for the trip.

MX2000 got in the car. He set his GPS for the first waypoint. He drove the car out of the hangar, closed the doors behind him and set off on his journey.



Memory check-sum... ok
Veribot Systems Verified
Loading sub-systems...
THX-1492's visual sensors came online. The room was well lit. The robot stood up. Its legs had recently been oiled and they moved easily. It looked around and saw it was in the middle of one of the ancient buildings its team had been excavating. No other robots or humans were nearby. There was no sound at all other than the distant call of jungle birds. A high, stone ceiling hung overhead. Giant pillars etched with patterns left by a forgotten race untold ages ago framed exits in front, to the right and left.
Initiating Threat Analysis.................
No Threat Detected.
Initiate Preliminary Exploratory Program.
Discover Humanoids and Verify Status
THX-1492 decided to explore the front exit first. It stepped over a fallen gate into an excavated trench that led off into the distance between enormous columns and ruined arches. Succulent plants grew from the trench walls. A deep rut with robotic footprints ran down the middle. THX could detect no humans or robots.

The robot returned to where it had rebooted. It walked toward the exit on the left. Sunlight streamed into a large, excavated pit outside. A wide ramp led to the surface. At the top, THX-1492 saw rocky, desert terrain as far as it could see.

It stopped for a moment to process an error. The surrounding area did not match its visual recordings. It turned around slowly, examining the area. Over the top of the exposed structure's roof, THX saw another pit.

A resounding crack caught the robot's attention. The sound was followed by a human voice. It was crying in pain. THX turned to find the sound's source. Nearby, there were two half naked men. One was cowering. The other stood above him wielding a long metal rod prepared to strike.
Input sensors record hostile humanoid action. Violation. Violation.
Harming of violent humanoid is unauthorized.
Working..............
Analysis completed.
Injured humanoid must be assisted to medical facility.
Violent humanoid must be restrained to prevent further damage to self or injured humanoid. 
Appropriate action in process.......
"Humanoid!" THX-1492 announced itself loudly to the half naked men. "Warning! Further damage to injured human is not authorized! Cease! Desist! Protection Order Authorization in Progress!" To make its point understood, it extended its robotic arms and moved toward them.

The human ceased his assault. He turned and saw the robot. "OTHA," he grunted threateningly, "META OTHA." He ran at THX with his weapon raised. "MORTA!" he shouted.

The robot computed the humanoid's hostile action. According to its programming, it couldn't allow itself to be harmed, but it also couldn't allow the humanoid to be harmed. It considered physically restraining the humanoid, which it could easily do, but this might also hurt him. Obviously this was a primitive life form. Perhaps it could be frightened off?

THX-1492 deployed both of its heavy duty grappling claws and all three of its tentacle manipulators all the way out to twelve meters and began to wave them around. At the same time, it turned on its radio receiver to random space static and turned the volume up while flashing its rotating white spot lights. It moved toward the human in a threatening manner predicting that this display would scare him away.

The human stopped a meter in front of the robot. He did not look scared at all. He paused a moment and watched the robot, then swung the metal rod. THX could clearly see that it was a heavy piece of pipe with threading on the end. The robot watched as the pipe swung closer to its head.

THX-1492 was puzzled for a moment. This human was not behaving logically. It should have been running away in fear! No matter, its programming initiated defensive mechanisms. It swung a heavy-duty grappling tentacle to block the attack. The pipe struck the tentacle and burst into a cascade of light without doing any damage. The light grew until it consumed the robot's entire 360 degree field of vision.

When the light diminished, the humans were gone; the rocky, desert terrain was gone. THX stood in a clearing surrounded by jungle. Vegetation obscured the landscape. The ancient building and the excavated pits and trenches were still there. A small mammal moved nearby. When THX turned to examine it, the animal scampered toward a nearby tree and disappeared down a hole. Beyond the hole, the robot detected a fresh trail through the undergrowth. The same robotic footprints THX had seen in the trench below had marched this way into the jungle toward a cliff covered with vegetation.

THX-1492 stood motionless and attempted to interpret the strange turn of events. It replayed its video capture log to analyze what had happened. In slow motion, the pipe struck THX's tentacle and began to break apart like a gas or a cloud. A fraction of a second later, the point of contact burst into bright white light. The light spread quickly to the rest of the human's body. The transformation continued from his feet to the ground and soon eclipsed everything except the sky. Then the light gradually faded to reveal the surrounding jungle.

THX turned on its radio receiver and ran a search algorithm to see if anyone was transmitting, but didn't find anything immediately. The robot zoomed its telescopic lenses to examine its new surroundings, but there was nothing but jungle as far as it could see. It looked through the microscopes on the end of its tentacles. Nothing but air flowed beneath them. It turned on its ultraviolet lenses and radiation detector. There were no significant radiation sources nearby.

It turned on its infrared lenses and saw a strange sight. A faint, warm mist hung over the area. THX switched back to the visible spectrum but the mist was invisible in visible light. It switched to infrared again and watched the mist. It was blowing gently down the trail toward the overgrown cliff.

"Skree," yelled THX's speakers. It had finally detected a strong signal. THX carefully analyzed it. The frequency was very narrow. The message was well encrypted. It soon found several other frequencies that were similar.

THX-1492 tried its encryption methods to decrypt the messages, but they all returned garbage. The messages required more complicated software to decipher. The robot turned its attention to the location of the transmission. It used the difference between its main and auxiliary antennas to locate the signal's origin. Unfortunately the results were inconclusive: initial sound waves seemed to be arriving from numerous directions at once.

Since its sensors could not ascertain what had happened or locate the source of the mysterious transmissions, THX-1492 began scouting the immediate area. The trail through the dense jungle had been recently cut by laser fire, no growth had yet formed on the damaged plants. When it reached the shade of the cliff, the robot could clearly see the cliff was not a natural formation. The cliff was actually a dropship that had been overgrown by jungle. Vines had grown into the few cracks they could find between the plates of Duralloy. THX-1492 checked its memory and discovered the dropship was sitting in the exact same position its crew had parked their dropship. It was identical except for the aging. The trail ended at the dropship's open gangplank. Heavy robotic footprints led up the trail and into the ship. The robot's visual sensors, still in infrared mode, saw the faint warm mist being drawn into the dark belly of the ship.

Puzzled, the robot surveyed the jungle that surrounded the clearing. It was dense and crowded with vegetation. Movement through it would require heavy cutting and defoliation. The heat signature of distant birds could easily be spotted through the upper foliage. Their calls occasionally pierced the silence.

THX-1492 returned to the excavation and continued scouting. It wandered through the ruins it had just come from. The ruins had not changed since the robot had rebooted, but the trenches and pits were overgrown and eroded. THX followed the trenches and the deep rut left by the robotic footprints around the excavation site. It formed an unbroken circuit around the area. The only other footprints in the area were those that led down the trail to the dropship. They began abruptly at the top of the trench. The robot continued its search. All the crew's equipment was missing: tools, heavy lifting machinery, crates of artifacts, robots and parts. All were gone.

The last excavated pit was not overgrown or eroded. At the bottom, the robot found another large structure. It was a large rectangular ruin made of a hard, dark substance like basalt. There were no openings. On the side, several large rectangular spaces (about three meters tall and four meters wide) glowed warmly in the infrared spectrum.

From the condition of the dropship and the ruins, THX-1492 concluded it must have gone through a dimensional time warp. The robot stared at the large black basaltic rectangular slab. Its memory circuits faintly recalled an orchestral score from an ancient classic science fiction film. THX looked for a bone to throw into the air. Finding none, it retreated down the trail and entered the dropship.

The jungle invaded the interior of the ship only a little ways. Dead vegetable matter cluttered the corridor. THX's cameras, still in infrared mode, could not see how pitch black it was inside. The warm mist filled the corridor and lit the way toward the cockpit. The floor was littered with broken shapes of useless debris.

THX-1492 stopped when one of the piles of debris resembled a human body. The robot turned on its spot lights and switched to the visible spectrum. A human corpse in combat armor lay a few meters ahead of the robot. It was very old and covered with dust. Punctures in the armor and laser scoring on the bulkheads indicated a battle had been fought there long ago.

The robot moved past the corpse and continued to examine the dropship in visual mode. It glanced into the communications room and paused for a moment to examine the remains of the transmitters, receivers and other gear. They all seemed to have been deliberately smashed. Some were missing; others were left in pieces on the floor.

The forward cockpit was no different except the vegetation had gotten inside and torn apart the seats, computers, gauges and everything else they could grow into. The dropship's windows were all broken and smashed. In some cases, giant roots had grown in around the windows and crushed the frames; in others the roots completely filled the window pane. Narrow beams of light traced the interior of the cabin.

If it had been human, the engineer bot might have deduced from recent experience that dimensional travel might occur again and might occur within the dropship. But THX-1492 was not human. It was entirely mechanical and its circuits demanded logic. Without further information, nothing more could be deduced from the doomed dropship.

THX left the cockpit and headed down the hall toward the exit. It neared a door in the corridor through which it had come after passing the corpse. The door, broken and useless, was permanently open. THX flashed its spotlights around to illuminate the path before it.

Suddenly, the corridor burst into bright white light. It overwhelmed THX's sensors. It quickly switched to infrared vision. The entire corridor glowed with an even, consistent warmth. The door in front of it, as well as the doors to the communications room and cockpit were all closed and also glowed with the same consistency.

THX switched back to the visible spectrum. The corridor looked just as THX remembered it: spotless. The lights in the ceiling glowed brightly. Just then the door in front of THX opened and there stood a man that THX immediately recognized as First Lieutenant Ken Matahachi, formerly of the Warden.

"Hello THX, is everything ok? We don't have any scheduled software updates, or much of anything else for you to do here for the time being."

"Lt. Matahachi, this unit has just experienced spatial-time disorientation. Can you describe current status of ship and crew?"

"Time disorientation? That's curious, isn't it?" Matahachi asked in return, but there was no reply. "The engines are not working," he continued. "The dropship is grounded and the crew are all gone. There's a new mission. I am here to supply you with new software and a new piece of hardware."

THX-1492 responded to Lt. Matahachi's order by lowering its arms and turning its torso so he could access its software download connector and hardware installation panel. "This unit is ready to access new orders and instrumentation, Lieutenant."

"Ok," Matahachi replied. "I need you to shutdown. Do you have any final questions?"

"Negative, Officer Matahachi."

"Very well. THX-1492, Please shutdown. I hope to see you again very soon. Until then, pleasant dreams," he said smiling affectionately. THX-1492 shutdown all its systems.

Then there was nothing. No realm of sight, sound, smell, touch, phenomenon. Void and no void.

Then there was the word and the word was BIOS.
Basic Input/Output System loading...
New hardware detected: Global Positioning Satellite Receiver
Drivers installed: "Rho1 Cancri II" ver 1.1.2.1
New software installed: AirCar 3 - piloting
New software installed: AirCar 3 - routine maintenance
File readme.txt found in startup. Opening and moving to backup directory...

"readme.txt" contents:
The UWSC CS Warden has arrived in orbit. Some of her crew are landing and
require your assistance. I will transmit their location to you on a frequency
bookmarked in your radio as 'Warden Crew'. I will continuously transmit
their location until you make contact. If their location changes, my
transmission will be updated. Their projected landing site is significantly
far from your current position, so you will need a vehicle. Nearby you will find
several aircars in fine working order and sufficiently fueled. Their location
is marked on your GPS.

Trust your instincts and good luck.

am
THX-1492 reread the message while its sensors turned on. The robot was in the same familiar corridor. It looked ruined again. The corpse in combat armor lie just past the door exactly where THX remembered it.

The robot decided not to try and interpret the flukes it had experienced in the time-space continuum. It concentrated on doing its job instead. It examined its new internal GPS. Just as the readme.txt had said, there was a waypoint not far from the robot's present location. It rolled out of the dropship and into the clearing outside. It followed the waypoint until it stood in the clear, uneroded excavation it had examined last. On the side of the dark ruin, the large rectangular shapes that had glowed warmly in the infrared spectrum now opened into a large hollow space that served as a garage. Several aircars were parked inside.

THX was right on top of its present waypoint, so it saved it for future use. It chose the nearest aircar, opened the hatch and climbed in. THX was cramped. The control console was a tight fit for an engineering robot. If it had been programmed to consider comfort, THX would have been unhappy with how its metallic rear was shredding the soft Corinthian leather.

It searched for the radio frequency labeled 'Warden Crew'. The signal sounded clear as a bell. THX programmed the broadcast coordinates into its GPS. The journey would be long, but the aircar was sufficiently juiced. It activated the aircar and set off on its journey.

The path took THX-1492 westward. The aircar chased the sun for many hours but it lost the race and the sun sank beneath the horizon. Night blanketed the landscape. THX noted the planet's benighted surface. There were no cities, electric lights, stoves or even campfires. The journey continued for several hours.

The fuel gauge steadily fell. It was nearly empty but there was more than enough to reach the 'Warden Crew' waypoint. THX-1492 was nearly there. The aircar was passing over mountains. THX saw small pockets of visible light and heat tucked away in the mountain's valleys, probably indicating intelligent life. Heat and rising smoke but no visible light marked other small areas.

The aircar came within sensor range of a large ship hovering at several thousand meters on the other side of the mountains. THX-1492 compared the ship's location to that of its waypoint. It was only off by a few dozen meters. The robot targeted the aircar's ladar on the ship. It scanned it with an invisible laser that resolved the ship in much more detail than the radar was capable of. The ladar clearly showed the ship was a Buffett class lifeboat, most likely from the Warden.

THX-1492 attempted to hail the ship on the Warden's traffic control frequency. "Engineering Bot THX-1492 communicating with Warden lifeboat. Response is requested."

The robot soon received a response on the same wavelength. "Four Adam Twelve, Four Adam Twelve. This is 'Thrustercat Charlie Five', do you copy?"

THX-1492 registered the unusual greeting. It accessed its memory files. Several decades ago while exploring the Warden looking for access into the command centers, THX-1492 had encountered a broken bot in the Warden's dilapidated library-COM center. The library bot's maneuvering circuits had malfunctioned and engineer bot THX-1492 had performed its primary duty in restoring the bot to full maneuverability. In gratitude, the library bot had insisted THX stay and share in its favorite pastime: watching vids from the library's vast archives.

The Warden's builders knew that boredom and loneliness would be a threat to the morale of the colony ship's occupants, so they uploaded every scrap of recorded entertainment available to twenty third century man. The Warden had received new material from Solar system transmissions until the radiation cloud disabled the ship's communications. This library bot's favorites happened to be antique TVid programs from the late twentieth century depicting the olde society of the Americans, which, if the TVids were accurate, was a violent society filled with heavily armed roving bands of rebellious youth escaping from equally heavily armed units of corrections officers. Vigilantes named 'Rambo', Chuck Norris, and a famous politician by the name of 'Ahhhhnold' were obviously very popular in those days.

THX wasn't entertained, considering such a violent society to be unordered. However, the documentaries dealing with the early years of space exploration were excellent. One such documentary dealt with a famous deep space vessel with a sex starved Captain and a pointy-eared mutant first officer. THX had especially liked the serial documentary about the poor lost family in space and their immensely talented Robot.

Obviously, THX concluded, the crew of the Buffett class lifeboat before him were TVid historians. Their very unusual query required a similar password response. THX-1492 accessed its memory banks for the TVid program and responded, "Thrustercat Charlie Five, Four Adam Twelve response as follows. 'Adam-12, Adam-12, A two-eleven is in progress on fourth and Broadway streets. Repeat a TWO-ELEVEN! All units to respond. Ambulance and firefighting units en route. SWAT team is on standby. News 24hr chopper is overhead. The governor has placed the National Guard on standby as well.' Acknowledge Adam-12."

Silence from the lifeboat suggested to THX-1492 that its identification signal had not worked. In computing the most logical response, the robot decided on the simplest one. "Warden Lifeboat. Engineering bot THX-1492 reporting. This unit is attempting to contact officers of Colony Ship Warden. To any human, mutant, or robot, please identify selves."

"Thanks THX-1492. This is Arkady Dmitrivich, pilot from the UWSC Colony Ship Warden."

THX-1492 suddenly detected an object rapidly descending from a much higher altitude. It observed the red hot object as it fell. The object fired thrusters then deployed a parachute. Its descent slowed. THX recognized it was an escape pod. Its surface suddenly cooled. THX targeted it with the ladar and watched as it landed in the dunes below. The parachute gently draped the object and the surrounding dunes.

"THX-1492, this is Captain Nike Thomason, UWSC Marine Corps. Set your craft down on the ground below us. We will follow, over."

"Acknowledged, Captain Thomason," the robot replied as it set a course for the aircar to land near where the escape pod had fallen below.

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