14:40 SCAN ENVIRO-TERRA CONTROL ROOM
14:42 PROCEDURE BETA INITIATED
14:43 CONTINUING SURVEILLANCE-LINK
.........-TRANSFER INFORMATION TO CC
With his shotgun raised, Chelydra cautiously approached the door. He used the barrel of his weapon to open it wide. Beyond the threshold of the door was a long, darkened corridor. By the light of the room behind him, Chelydra saw little. "There is glass on the floor. Someone has intentionally disabled the overhead lights in the corridor," he stated. The statement was a personal thought, not a proven fact.
Percy got up out of the chair, walked over behind Chelydra and gazed into the darkness with interested fascination. "Maybe the lights overloaded and burst from a micro-radiant, unregulated relay power surge," he offered. Seeing Chelydra's furrowed facial reaction to his words, Percy continued, "Or maybe not." Percy smiled, but Chelydra did not.
Satisfied that he had seen enough, Chelydra pushed the door closed with his foot and it locked automatically. Chelydra accepted the de facto position he was in. It all came down to choices: should they go outside into the unknown in which they could see, or should they take this ominous corridor in which they couldn't. Chelydra left the actual decision to Nike.
Nike was contemplative for a moment before she turned and said to Percy, "Any clues to where a human settlement might be?"
"If I had to fathom a guess, this village listed as 'Eden' might be a good place to start," he said, returning to the vid-screen.
"Do you think you can get us a hard copy of that map on the vid-screen?"
"It's a viewing terminal only, not an input terminal. Besides, there's no printer. It only displays the environment bay map and the weather controls. Maybe I can find something to sketch with." He opened one of the drawers and immediately found some paper and a pen. Using his draftsman skills, from a class he faintly remembered, Percy began sketching the vid-screen.
Amanda touched Nike's hand and forced a smile. She had remained relatively quiet for the most part. Deciding to change that, she spoke. "Maybe all of you should get a few hours' rest. You have been through a lot."
Several hours passed as nearly everyone accepted Amanda's offer.
Only Percy remained active. He eagerly wanted to learn just how far removed in time they were from the launch of the Warden. From the texture and yellowing of the paper, he could tell that it was very old, but he had no idea of knowing how old. The ink pen wasn't dried up. But then again, it was one of those "space age" ones, so it didn't tell him anything either. Frustrated, he began to sketch a detailed map.
When Percy finished his sketch, he held it up for everyone to see, but Nike and Amanda were sound asleep in the far corner. Chelydra was sleeping with his shotgun across his lap, his mouth open. Percy folded his map and put it in his cloth bag, along with the other sheets of paper from the drawer.
Just out of curiosity, he looked to see what else was in the desk. Nothing spectacular, but all the same, Percy considered adding the desk's contents to his collection. He didn't think that Amanda had any use for them, but still he asked her if he could hold on to them. "You never know when you'll need stuff like this!" he explained. Amanda, sound asleep, did not answer.
Opening his fanny pouch, he put into it the contents of the top drawer: a toothpick, a letter opener, and a nail file. The letter opener had the enscription, "Warden - Launched in 2290." He put the pen he found next to the pen in his uniform shirt pocket. "Dang," he thought to himself. "I sure could go for a pocket protector right now." Before he finished the thought, the very thought itself amused him and he laughed aloud. Methodically, he opened the bottom drawer and claimed its contents for his junk collection as well: a staple remover, a stapler, and a box of 1000 staples. In the back of the drawer, he found a couple of fluourescent-colored pads of paper with adhesive along the top edge, which he dropped into his cloth bag as well. Exactly what he would do with his collection of items, he hadn't decided. What pack-rat ever does?
Convinced that the desk no longer contained anything of value, Percy cradled his head in his arms on the desk as he took a few minutes' rest himself. His thoughts naturally turned to the environment bay as he drifted into unconsciousness. He thought about Eden and what it might hold in the way of inhabitants, dangers, and answers to what had happened to the original Percy Jenkins---and more importantly, he admitted silently---to the Warden itself.
Nike awoke with a start. She must have desperately needed sleep, because her uneasy feelings about Amanda's truthfulness and ever-present danger had been pushed from her mind, albeit for a short time. "There's that good ol' marine training," she thought, recalling having to sleep in combat situations before. The fact was that although she felt that she couldn't trust Amanda to tell the truth, neither did she feel that Amanda had malignant intentions toward them. Rather, she felt that Amanda had a secret that compromised her integrity, or somehow threatened her existence here, alone in this room. Still, she couldn't be 100% sure.
There was a big decision to be made - where would they head next? There was no way to know if someone, or something, was tracking their movements, or to know how long they would be safe. As much as she hated to admit it, they might have exposed Amanda to danger when they accepted her invitation. Obviously someone had the capability of watching what went on around here, due to the presence of the laser cameras, which she suspected were security surveillance of some kind. So what to do? Back out into the world of the attack 'bots, or on towards this place called "Eden" and possibly an encounter with the Wolfies? It seemed that both options harbored mortal danger, and only one offered much hope of alliance or information. At least in the environmental bay they had a map, and cover, and Wolfies were much easier to damage than attack 'bots. She aimed to talk with the others about it when Chelydra awakened.
She rubbed her eyes and looked around the room. Percy and Chelydra were sleeping, but Amanda seemed to be awake and lost in thought. Time to talk, perhaps?
"Amanda," Nike began, "penny for your thoughts?"
Call it an amplified emotional reaction to an already tense situation if you will, but as Nike spoke, Amanda got up, leaned forward and kissed her fully on the lips.
Nike immediately wondered if she would regret it, but the thought arrived too late. Out of sheer instinct, her hand struck Amanda's face, hard, almost as soon as their lips broke contact.
Percy grumbled and shifted a bit in his chair. He was dreaming his first dream as a clone. His subconscious awareness was nearly as jumbled as his conscious memories. Images of various locations on the Warden, mingled with recreated memories of experiences as a technical trainer interacting with the crew, raced incomprehensibly through his brain like a Doppler shift on drugs. Nike counted herself lucky that neither Percy nor Chelydra witnessed it. She had enough to worry about without having to put up with any male jokes.
Amanda immediately pulled away and looked down ashamedly. "I'm really sorry Nike. Please forgive me. I should not have done that," she whispered. Disappointment filled Amanda's face and a single tear streaked down her cheek before she could wipe it away. Amanda desperately wanted to have some type of emotional connection with Nike.
"No, you shouldn't have," Nike replied softly, trying to calm the raging storm of frustrated and angry emotions within. Here she was, trying her best to reign in her own feelings and put forth a modicum of leadership and self-denial (at least until they could secure themselves in a permanent safe haven) and this girl had to go and kiss her? Hell, she didn't even want the guy of her dreams to kiss her right now, much less some weepy girl.
"Amanda," she began, trying to maintain her calm, not disturb the fragile ego of the girl next to her and be firm with her limits. "Amanda," she started again firmly, "I do not want you to kiss me again. Is that understood?"
Amanda nodded, with an odd look of dissatisfaction. Her lips tightened, but she blinked back the tears that threatened to pour---not necessarily from the physical rejection, but from what she perceived to be an emotional one. She rubbed her face near Nike's ruddy imprint and tried to hide the fact that the slap only intensified her feelings for Nike.
Nike felt Amanda staring at her. She made Nike feel damn uncomfortable. She felt the tension in the air that she only liked to feel when with Thom. "Thom!" Nike thought with a start, "I remember Thom!" For the first time there was something concrete, something that defined who she was (other than her training and her job) that she could grasp and hold on to. Suddenly she felt renewed in a way that her nap hadn't allowed. She let her mind dwell on the images of Thom that filled her thoughts for a moment. Pictures, sounds, places, smells. They were all somehow connected. She could only hope that more would come back later.
Then the moment was gone and discipline forced her mind's eye to address other matters. She glanced back at Amanda, who smiled in response. The redness in her face had faded, but Nike doubted Amanda's feelings had done likewise.
"Nike," Amanda whispered, "others have come before you, Nike---muties, individualists like yourselves. Can't you see what I am, why I live and everyone else doesn't? I'm bait ... That's why they let me survive. We get our orders and we do as we are told, even the Wolfoids. Can't you see it? Every action, everything you do is monitored. Every action is a pre-planned linear event. Please don't hate me, Nike ... and please don't leave!"
A few errant tears stained Amanda's cheeks as she reached out and gently gripped Nike's hand. "If you don't believe me, then look." Amanda pointed up toward the ceiling in the far corner of the room. Nike twisted her position to look up at the fist-sized camera which at the same time turned toward Nike, paused, and then tilted down to observe Percy.
"It's controlled by the Watcher. Maybe in a former time the Watcher was a zoologist before its programming was corrupted. I saw it face to face once, when I replaced the person who refused to continue the machination I now am forced to perpetuate. Many, many have died because of that android. Am I so bad a person to want to live?" Amanda's eyes searched for some kind of mercy and understanding from Nike.
Nike did felt some degree of mercy, probably because she felt sorry for Amanda. Clearly she wasn't mentally or physically built for such conflict and challenge. But despite her weaknesses, she had finally come clean and told her the truth. Perhaps she would be more of an asset than Nike had thought.
"We can be friends, regardless of what you're being used for here, and we can help one another, alright?" Again Amanda nodded, but this time she seemed to sit a little straighter and perk up a bit. "But you're going to have to start being straight with us, completely honest, about everything the first time. We can't help you, or certainly welcome you into our group, if we can't trust you. Understood?"
Amanda did not respond.
Nike began again, a bit more gently. "Let's start helping one another now. Tell me all you know about who it is that gives these orders, how you receive them, and what, if any, punitive measures they take when you don't do as you're told. I'll use this information in my decision as to what to do about this whole situation."
"The Watcher sends its orders via the room intercom," Amanda replied softly, "but I'm certain it will never send orders while you are within earshot. Its command center is down that long, dark hall." Amanda feebly pointed toward the door before lowering her hand. "If I don't do what the Watcher says, then it sends a robot to punish me. I mostly just go where it tells me to go." Amanda's eyes looked toward the floor. "I really don't want to talk about what it does to punish me."
Some of Amanda's emotional instabilities were certainly caused by the pressure of her situation, Nike thought. Everyone wanted someone to love or to need them at some time in their life and Amanda was no exception. "Thank you, Amanda, for telling me the truth," she paused sympathetically, "I'm sure it was difficult, especially given the kind of prisoner you've been here."
"I could take you to the Watcher, but without any real weapons you may be killed." Amanda looked down after stating the likely outcome.
17:59 SCAN ENVIRO-TERRA P3
18:02 PROCEDURE BETA INITIATED
18:05 CONTINUING SURVEILLANCE-LINK
.........-HOVER DROID IN OBSERVATION MODE
Claus and Zhaxier had been walking in the lush forest for a few hours. Everything seemed calm and quiet. Even the birds were silent. Claus showed his teeth and looked around. He could not see Zhaxier because he was blended with his surroundings, but he knew he was nearby. "I have a feeling we are not alone!"
"No duh! My fellow pod-mates are in here, and we're gonna find them while Tinker dreams of electric sheep. C'mon grizzly dude! I'll show you the Grid!"
Claus raised a feline brow.
Zhaxier sighed. "Look here, Claus," Zhaxier said, as he reappeared. He showed the cat-man the map on his data pad. "We're here at the black dot, center left. I last saw the others down here, bottom left." With another quick series of buttons, Zhaxier overlaid a coarse mesh on the map. "The kilometer grid shows us to be about a kilometer away! Let's go see if they left any indication of where they went!"
Claus eyed the map, then looked around apprehensively. He knew they were being watched, but was unable to see anyone. "C'mon, they couldn't have gone too far, especially since they have a techie with them. I call 'im RAM. Lotta good he must be in here. Dude would trip over his own shoelaces if he didn't double-knot 'em. Hehehe. But the other two are military types, Chelydra---a mutant turtle---and the fem. I call 'er Butch. They could really help us out in a pinch. We could be there and back in under an hour!"
Claus looked around one last time before deciding. "OK," Claus agreed, "Beats hanging around here."
Zhaxier smiled, stuck his laser pistol and data pad in his medi-kit bag and blended out of view. "Follow the bag!" he chimed.
"Don't have to. You stink."
"Heh. Heheh. You slay me, Cat!" Zhaxier admitted nervously.
They followed the Enviro Bay wall for several minutes through dense forest until finally they reached another door in the wall---the same entrance Zhaxier and his pod-mates had previously used. Actually, he didn't know how much time had elapsed since he had abandoned them in that terrifying moment of panic. "Seems like so long ago," he mused as he examined the doorway. Half of him feared cracking like that again, but the other half reminded him of the newfound confidence and companions that he would lack had he chosen otherwise.
"Still locked," he called out from near the door.
"You know, if you shout loud enough every predator in here will think you're an engineer." Claus sniffed at the air, "I have them. Three humanoid scents. This time, I lead."
A short time later they emerged from the forest and discovered dried blood and signs of a struggle, but no bodies. After a few minutes of searching the area for clues, Claus picked up their scent again which led them back into the forest. As they neared the duralloy edge of the enviro-room, Claus pointed out a small, squat metal building, glinting a short distance away in the filtered, artificial moonlight. It almost seemed too easy.
"The control room! Wow, they must have dug up a map. I'm impressed. Are you sure they're in there?"
"Sure as Tinker's weapons fetish," Claus stated dryly.
"Right-o. You da Cat! Here, hold this."
The bag opened itself and spit out some sunglasses, which opened and hung on an invisible nose. Zhaxier's bag thrust itself into Claus' paws. As the engineer's scent faded in the direction of the control cube, Claus sighed. He crouched, dropped the medi-kit bag to the forest floor and readied his shotgun just in case.
Zhaxier approached the small building and turned back to the forest. He grinned and held up an excited thumb to where he thought Claus was. Of course he didn't realize that Claus could neither see his goofy grin, nor his thumbs up---only Zhaxier's Cool-Mo-G sunglasses were visible. He rapped loudly on the duralloy door. "Hey Chelydra, trick-or-treat, dude!"
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