The purple lights continued to flash their rhythmic dance, but the hallways were now eerily silent. "Hey Percy," Chelydra asked, "if we make it to that lifeboat, any chance you can fly the thing?"
"Dammit, Chel'! I'm a computer geek, not a pilot!" Percy muttered apologetically as they followed Zhaxier's hovering inventory down the corridor. He thumbed the patch on the left pocket of his uniform shirt with his right hand as proof. "I should be able to figure out how the systems work, which ones are cross-wired with others, when the backup systems kick in, what fault tolerances each component has, and whether I need to clip the blue or yellow wire, but I wouldn't trust myself to fly it," he shrugged. "Flight simulators always made me dizzy, anyways."
"I can fly it," Nike said without taking her eyes off of Zhaxier's bag. "If nothing else, I can teach someone what they need to know to move the lifeboat just a small distance from the ship and hover there until I can get Amanda and return."
"Don't worry Cap'n," Chelydra assured her. "We're not leaving Amanda. It might be handy to have some transport though. When we get to that lifeboat, Zhaxier and Percy can do what it takes to get it flying, Nike and I will go find Amanda; you others: it's your call. And somebody remind me to file with the quartermaster for hazardous duty pay when this is all over."
"Yeah," Percy agreed. "Let's find the boat, and then find Amanda. If we find her first, we're still in the crapper if we don't have a boat."
"Whoa, WHOA, WHOA!" Zhaxier's inventory stopped abruptly as he turned around. "This lifeboat is probably an automated escape craft! No one may be able to fly it, least of all Butch! Not even a real pilot, like Arkady here. I am assuming it is pretty much useless to us. Tinker suspects there may be a weapons cache in the hangar though, and that's what we're after."
"Zhaxier, you may have a map, but you obviously know nothing about what it is you're leading us to," Nike began. She kept moving quickly down the hallway. Zhaxier replied by resuming his forward motion. "A lifeboat on Warden," she continued, "is similar to a lifeboat on earthbound water vessels in that they take crew from this ship to a safe harbor. However, in this case, they can actually take crew from the sea of space to the safe harbor of a planet. They're spaceworthy for short trips from ship to planet, and were meant to do so in case of an emergency within a short distance from a planet. And, for your information, I am a real pilot."
Zhaxier tuned out Nike's defensive polemics much like he used to tune out the blonde who had taught the diffy-Q course that he had audited in a former incarnation so long ago. As an engineer, he had had no use for the course. All the existence and uniqueness theory, the countless transformations one used to solve such equations precisely---useless. In practice, all his (P)DEs were solvable, and could be solved approximately and to the needed precision by Warden's central n-Cube. An engineer's chief asset was experienced intuition which he already had in copious amounts, not a stale set of antiseptic theorems and proof techniques.
No, he, like the other young and cocky propulsion engineers in that course, were there just because the professor was so cute, and oh, did they give her hell! A quick gedanken synch to his former self was enough to convince Zhaxier that he was much older now than when he would've taken that class. "But just as cocky," he laughed to himself with a bit of the self-deprecation that came with self-realization.
The bickering made Chelydra nervous. Sure, they were still moving, but what kind of group continued to argue in the face of danger? He could tell that Nike felt very uncomfortable having to explain herself, and he felt uncomfortable with her having to explain herself as well. He wasn't entirely sure why, but a very rigid discipline and sense of order was deeply ingrained in him. "Probably a good thing," he mused, "since my first inclination is to act and not necessarily consider all the options."
"Look guys," Chelydra interrupted, "I don't care who flies the thing: Cap'n, Zhaxier, Arkady---even that HUT we all just got jumped by can fly it for all I care. But, if we keep jawing about it for too much longer, it isn't going to matter squat. I doubt these lights and sirens mean it's milk and cookies time. I just hope that thing is still spaceworthy. And Zhaxier, if this turns out to be your old self playing some sort of cosmic joke on us, I'm going to be just a little bit upset with him ..."
As Zhaxier made another choice of directions through the flashing corridors, Chelydra's remark provoked a wan smile across his blended face, but Zhaxier was focusing on the memory of another face: the blonde's---it was so tantalizingly familiar---and then he made an incredible connection.
"Amanda! She's Dr. Flockheart!"
No wonder he hadn't been able to rationalize his previous insistence on moving fast to find her. He had not suspected that his loyalty was rooted in guilt. "Damn, this is a small ship," he joked silently as he raced past a four-way intersection, one of perhaps millions in Warden. But thoughts of his mysterious "E" resurfaced unbidden, and he gave his medical bag a reassuring shake. "Not small enough," he sighed.
The hallway fell eerily silent again. A whir and blowing air could be heard. The only other audible sound was the occasional chittering of trash and debris that was accidentally dislodged by their hasty footsteps.
Arkady felt less keen on being a part of this merry band, but at the moment, he had few choices. "Better to help one another survive now and be more picky about friends later," was his motto for the moment. One memory---not the least bit hazy---stood out in his mind and was perhaps the reason why he was so nervous. He didn't want to relive that depressurization scare again, but he wasn't going to dwell on it either.
Suddenly Percy's eyes grew wide. "Waaaiiiitaminute! What year did you say this was, robot?"
"If by that question, humanoid, you mean for me to repeat our earlier conversation, then let me oblige." Mid-stride, Tinker popped open a panel on his torso and pressed a button that had two left arrows imprinted on it. After waiting a few seconds, he pressed a button with a right pointed triangle on it. From a speaker hidden who-knows-where, Percy's voice played back:
"Just how long has Warden been floating in space without a crew?"
"I've been wandering around here for almost five hundred years. At least my persona has. This is the fifth body that I've occupied since the ship ran into that radiation cloud."
Tinker depressed a button with a square on it, closed the panel, and looked at Percy. "I never said what year it was because that is irrelevant. Nearly 500 years have passed in our frame of reference, based on how the cesium ticks in my internal clock. Since I have no idea how fast Warden has been traveling all this time---assuming it is indeed still shooting through space at near-relativistic speeds---an attempt to provide a date meaningful within the standard Terran frame of reference is futile. Is this significant to you at the moment?" A whirring sound emanated from the now closed panel.
Percy wondered about that radiation cloud. He had been too distracted to think about it before. "You bet your bottom zorkmid it is! Not to be a party pooper, but it's a good bet that all the lifeboats on this ship might be used up already!" As they continued to follow Zhaxier, he wondered again if the original Percy Jenkins---"RAM", as Zhaxier had called him---made it to one of those lifeboats. Since he was a clone, he supposed it was a good bet that the original Percy had not. Then again, perhaps the radiation had cleared up enough over 500 years for the ship to decide to clone a new crew, whether or not the original crew had died or was still wandering around. "Ah, damn headaches," he muttered again as he turned his gaze from the robot. He realized he had been staring at him while lost in thought.
Nike finally regained her leadership posture, and her composure. Zhaxier always seemed to know exactly how to push her buttons. She thought he was so self-absorbed: using an offensive nickname for her, making crude sexual comments, believing his opinion to be the only one with any intelligence behind it. And it made her angry. Not just an ordinary angry: rage angry. Her mind's eye flashed back to a time when someone she knew had made her feel worthless, unimportant, and an object of drooling and insult ... and suddenly she knew without a shadow of a doubt exactly why she wanted to hurt Zhaxier. He reminded her of him.
But she didn't have long to ponder the significance of her discovery. Zhaxier led them past a four-way intersection, and a pair of security robots spotted them. She hoped that the lifeboat was still there and working, or they might soon all be dead, or at least this version of them.
"Hm," Percy said with a complete lack of surprise. He had been hoping that they wouldn't come across any more steel monsters, but he had also known that his hope would be in vain. He did a quick mental survey of his stuff. He figured he would never get close enough to use his wrench before being cut to pieces by laser fire. Even if he got lucky with one of the spears that he had taken from the Wolfoids, his meager muscle power wouldn't make it very effective. He wondered if things would be different if he were stronger? Would Percy the half-crazed Wolfoid be any better than Percy the human against a group of killer robots?
"Hurry it up, Zhax," Arkady called just loudly enough to be heard where he thought Zhax was. "Keep that bag in sight so we can see you!" He briefly turned to make sure they hadn't lost anyone and saw Sharneste trying her best to lope along with Tinker following along behind her. He called out to her, "Damn your pride, kitty! That 'bot can carry more than any of us, and still outrun us." Tinker helped her to climb onto his back and raced off after the others.
21:01 CONTACT IMMINENT
21:04 SEARCH AND DESTROY PROTOCOLS ENACTED
A loud <BOOM> startled Amanda from her sleep. "What in the universe was that?" she asked the empty room.
She climbed off the couch and, like a startled doe, did what mathematicians do best: she fled. She sprinted out of the room and down one of the corridors. Fear and panic were both at the forefront of her mind. "For God's sake," she thought, "I have an advanced degree in mathematics, and I am smart! Why am I so irrationally afraid? why am I running?"
She ran for as long as she could before finally slowing. She bent over to catch her breath for a moment. She looked down at the circular patch on the left breast of her tight fitting, green military jumpsuit. There was a picture of an ellipsoidal ship, the word "WARDEN" above it, and a white box below with "Mat./Rp." embroidered in red. "I wish I were at that job right now." She remembered it as being safe and calm. She straightened up again and looked around, her eyes were wide with fear. Her legs hurt from all the running.
She panted like a chased doe as her mind tried to think thoughts that didn't induce sheer terror, like one of the differential equation classes she used to teach part time, but at the moment her mind only thought stupid thoughts: "This is the stage where I start to pray", "Somebody up there is being kind to me, aren't they? No", "I've done something silly with that square root of 2. OK, then why am I running? Well, you're not very OK, but you can find the mistake yourself", "I want to stop looking at homogeneous equations and start looking at inhomogeneous ones", "Imagine me running toward you at root-three-over-two c ..."
She didn't want to think such stupid, random thoughts, but she couldn't help it. She wondered if all mathematicians thought like she did? "I can survive this provided I keep my act together," she told herself, but her mind was going crazy again---"I am falling into a trap, one of my own making, and it's multiplied by the stupid derivative Dxf."
Ha! She almost laughed: "I could do it if I could pull the sum sign through and that's why God gave us the Monotone Convergence Theorem", "... and at this stage your heart should have a slight hiccup", "... and at this stage you should go and have a beer and relax ..."
"This talking to myself is really getting old. If someone was reading my mind or hearing my words, they would be bored by now. All mathematicians create boredom easily and it doesn't require math to do it."
Something made a noise behind her and she yelped with fright and took off sprinting again. Her legs were telling her, "Run, Amanda! Run, run, run!" and her mind was telling her, "Run faster, faster, faster!" She tried to do both.
Legs throbbing with effort and lungs bursting in their drive to grab more oxygen, Amanda forced the insane thoughts out of her mind and ran onward. "This time," she thought, "I'm going to look for a safe and less obvious place to hide."
Then, just as she looked to her right, she slammed into something hard. Amanda yelped!
21:06 LIAISON 2, 3, 4 EN ROUTE
21:07 ANNIHILATE SUBJECTS
Claus ran quickly down the psychedelic hallway, dodging blasts from the pursuing autobots. Gregory Powell tried his best to keep up with him, but after all he only had two legs, and he couldn't quite keep his mind focused on the running. The robots had sealed off the area, and seemed hellbent on killing them, though he didn't know why.
Someone, or something, must have totally pissed the Watcher off, and the autobots weren't asking questions first. "Oh, that would be hilarious," he thought. "I can see it now, 'Excuse me, Mr. Human, are you the one who pissed off the Watcher? Because as a gentlemanly autobot, I wouldn't want to kill the wrong creature ..." The thought made him smile in spite of himself.
He suddenly sensed, more than saw, imminent danger and ducked behind a bulkhead. A loud <BOOM> resounded, followed by the shriek of a cat, and then silence except for the hissing of hungry flames. Even the sirens stopped their beat, though the lights continued blinking.
Gregory peered around the corner only to see an autobot poking Claus---ripped to shreds by a hidden explosive---and checking for signs of life. There were autobots ahead of him and behind, but Gregory was fortunately near a four-way intersection.
Gregory didn't make a sound, though all sorts of colorful language raced through his mind. His only companion, Claus, the strange cat-like person who he had only recently met, was now dead and he now had absolutely no allies aboard this whole spaceship cum madhouse. Quickly fighting to regain control of his mind, and pushing back the mental image of Claus' gory remains, he analyzed the situation. Clearly, he was not yet dead. That could only be because the autobot didn't know he was there yet, which meant it was in normal visual mode.
The robot's casing clearly belonged to an older SP-4K3 model autobot. Provided the Watcher hadn't upgraded the bot's subroutines, it would switch to heat sensors to verify that nothing was left alive within its range. The SP-4K3 had a glitch that made the heat sensory analysis program take a whole minute to load. That left Gregory maybe 10-20 seconds while the bot was still 'blind'. It was a horribly narrow window, an even more horrible gamble that he was right about the make and model of the bot, and even more horrible yet if the Watcher had upgraded the bot ... yet it was all Gregory had, so he was already on his feet and zig-zagging to the intersection. He turned right and headed down the hall.
He came to another intersection and he peered around the corner to ascertain the position and intent of any autobots that might have been nearby. His heart was pounding and he almost had a cardiac arrest when Amanda slammed into him from behind. "Dammit!" he swore under his breath, but his anger was tempered by relief that what he had bumped into was humanoid, and by the surprise that such an attractive female should be running around this section. "I wonder what, if anything, she has to do with the Watcher being so furious?"
She looked into his eyes. Gregory was tall and slim, with a long well-chiseled face ending in a jutting, dimpled chin. His thin lips sported a moustache above them, and his full head of brown hair was swept back, almost as if he had just left a barber's shop rather than a room full of firing autobots. He wore a Warden uniform similar to Amanda's. She was happy to see a living human. She tried to say something, but all she could stammer were the words, "I uh, I uh."
She caught her breath and said, "I'm uh, Dr. Amanda Flockheart." Her mind reeled, "And the Riemann-Lebesgue lemma zaps it again!" She tried to think of something else to say.
His heart skipped a beat, but he was too aware of the gravity of the situation to allow himself to be too long delayed. He grabbed her by the arm to pull her into the hallway with him but he found that she was at least as strong as he was. He turned around to see that the autobots had not yet followed him and quietly said, "Now, I don't know what a nice young lady like yourself is doing wandering about this part of the ship ..."
"Umm, I wasn't wandering, I was marathon sequencing my speed by assigning 1, 2, 3 ... to it. That's the fastest sort routine I know!" She wondered if she were making any sense to him.
Gregory did a double-take. "What? Marath ... "
"I'm not going to say exactly what I mean because I'm not absolutely certain myself."
"We'll discuss it in a lifeboat. Come on! Don't you know there's an evac alarm going on? I'd say your best bet is to follow me, missy."
"Ok, ok, I'll go with you then. Please take me!" This time, Dr. Flockheart let him take her hand, and he pulled her down the hallway leading toward the lifeboats. "Wait, where are we going?"
"You'll forgive me for being this forward," he said as he ran. "I don't normally take strange women's hands like this, but the situation does warrant a bit of ... indiscretion!"
"Ok, I forgive your indiscretion. This is going to be an adventure for you ..., and for me ..." She was ready to follow Gregory wherever he was leading her. Her face was red from running and she was still panting a little. "If x were negative, my runaway thoughts would go sky-high!" It was the first time in her life that she had ever felt found and lost at the same time.
Behind them they heard the unmistakable sound of an autobot as it reached the intersection. They clammed up and ran faster down the winding hallway to stay out of sight.
Amanda decided she mustn't be too rigid, like when doing fluid mechanics, so she ran as fast as she could. An engineering lecturer had once told her, "If you find bear droppings around your tent, it's fairly likely that there are bears in the area." The same adage went for autobots too. She was sure the saying was right whether it was valid or not, like most engineers believe. Either way, mathematically there was no reason not to believe it.
"Let t go to infinity," she told herself. She was too out of breath from haste to have said it aloud.
21:09 SEARCH AND DESTROY PROTOCOLS RUNNING
.........4 ELIMINATIONS CONFIRMED
"Just wonderful, Rufie old boy, you narrowly escape getting hung, only to run into a pair of bloodthirsty autobots!" He smirked and squatted in the hallway, fiddling with his robes. In light of his current plight, the humor was lost on him---even though it was his own joke. He now had a choice: back, to be hung for a crime that he hadn't committed, or forward and into the Watcher's territory where the Watcher and his autobots were clearly out for blood.
"Hmm, mutant-racist humanoids or an administrative bot that thinks he's God?" he thought sadly. It was not a choice that he particularly wanted to make. He could hear steel doors slamming shut from sector to sector, which told him that the Watcher was sealing off his territory. There wasn't much time.
"Hanging is a sure thing; autobots---there's an element of chance in that," he thought. There was no way those bull-headed zealots would continue to chase him into this section, especially now that it was sealed off. He felt a sense of freedom. Not having a death sentence hanging over his head seemed to expand his lung cavity and put some extra bounce in his step. As he trotted down the corridor, he thought "I sure wish I had some gear though. Right, top priority! Whack something and get its equipment ..."
The cold, oddly lit hallways continued on in all directions. At each branch and intersection, the sheer vastness of the world seemed to overshadow Rufus, threatening to consume him in inky anonymity.
His tall ears pricked up. He slowed his pace and listened. He thought he heard footsteps ahead, but he wasn't certain. Warily, Rufus crept nearer to the intersection, and peered around the corner. His snout, only a few centimeters from the floor, sampled the air.
In the distance he saw two humans, one male and one female running in his direction. Normally he trusted his instincts regarding strangers, but adrenaline, stress, fatigue and the flashing lights distracted him and he could not determine if the approaching humans were friendly or menacing.
He opted to play into any compassion or even mild interest the 'hoomungz' might have. Rufus quickly plunked down, and flopped his right arm out into the hallway as if he had collapsed. With tongue rolled out like a carpet and his best, "I'm a sad, poor, sick (nearly unconscious) little pup" eyes, Rufus waited for them to find him.
He planned for a quick fight if plan A failed.
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