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Chapter 3: Into the Woods

Zhaxier was too agitated to unblend. "Hey Chelydra, thanks," his voice was accompanied by the sounds of heavy breathing, originating from the ground in the vicinity of the door. "Guys," the voice continued, this time directed toward the other two clones. The voice paused for a breath as the crumpled boxers rose and compacted even further, all but disappearing into what was apparently blended hands, "I'm Zhaxier. Can't seem to turn my skin off, sorry. We should find another door!" The voice continued near the turtle man's location, "Any suggestions, Chelydra?"

"We have to find a more defensible position, and one with at least two escape routes, if possible," Nike interjected. "And if we could find a computer terminal too ... ," she let her words hang in the minds of her listeners, watching their reactions.

Percy tried to ignore, for the moment, the invisible man. If he could get past him, he wouldn't have to worry about the fact that the invisible man was a naked man, too. Sighing, shaking his head, and nodding his head at Nike's suggestion about finding a more defensible position, he examined the door entry panel, looking for a lock. "Anybody remember a schematic of this ship, 'cause I sure don't," he said, as a procedure for electronically jamming the door shut became clear to him through his shadowy memory.

"I have no idea where we are," Chelydra admitted, "but I heartily second the idea of finding a more defensible base. If nothing else, we should put some ground between us and that security robot. Perhaps the robots have taken over, and that is why they are hunting us? Let's try some of these doors and see if any of them look promising."

"What I want to know," Percy said as he successfully completed jamming the door shut, "is why the heck the security robot was trying to make minced meat out of us? If we're here, that means the ship is in trouble and we're supposed to save it! Damn robots oughta be helping us, not blasting us!" Percy squinted for a moment, trying to squeeze out the pain of his headache.

Zhaxier, meanwhile, was scared to death of being hunted down by the sec-bot; frustrated at being interrupted and ignored by his indecisive pod-mates; frightened by his mutation and the struggle to control it, and angry at his former self's lack of foresight. He could have at least left a data pad instead of that worthless card! "Am I really that lazy?" Zhaxier's first panicked impulse was to bolt like an alpha particle accelerated out of a fully charged, nano-collider unit. Being impulsive, as he soon discovered he was, that was exactly what he did.

"Screw 'em," he *thought*, throwing his wadded-up 2 pocket boxers at Percy who was still speaking, before he raced for the door at the end of the right corridor, careful not to slip on the floor this time. His card, gripped tightly in one hand, was his only possession. Engineers learn early the value of adaptation, and if nudity allowed him a distinct survival advantage while blended, or so he thought, then social norms be damned. Frak, it might be in vogue nowadays, for all he knew.

Half of him hoped that Chelydra, at least, would follow, and not just because he ably wielded a firearm; the turtle-man, surely more than the other two nameless and apparently perfect clones, shared his frustrations with being a mutant. The other half of him reminded the first half that he was fully blended, and that, if he wanted anyone to follow, he wasn't making it easy!

Chelydra heard Zhaxier's footsteps running down the hall to his right and suddenly suspected that he might have learned something of the layout of the area from the computer terminal in the clone bank room. He turned to follow him. "I sure hope you know where you're going buddy," he muttered under his breath.

13:01 SCAN HALL 569870-K4
.........-FAIL SAFE 2

The hurled boxers covered Percy's face. With slight embarrassment, Percy pulled the boxers from his face and put them in his sack.

Nike began to follow Chelydra and Zhaxier's rippling, phantom outline towards the door at the end of the corridor when she became aware of a sudden, prickly sensation on the back of her neck. Tilting her head slightly back, she looked up towards the ceiling and noticed a narrow red beam of light scanning her where she stood. She had no idea what it was, but it didn't seem harmful and it stopped after a moment or two.

Chelydra kept his weapon pointed straight up and stayed close to the wall as he strolled towards Zhaxier and the door. "Who is really in charge here?" he wondered, his gaze drifting along the walls.

Zhaxier almost instinctively slid his ID card through the card slot beside the door, and with a swishing sound, the door slid open. Beyond the door was something almost more than his imagination could comprehend: a tropical forest on a mid-afternoon day.

Zhaxier stepped inside the doorway and into the tropical vegetation. "At least the temperature is a bit warmer in here", he thought. Something prickly scratched his back and he twisted around. "Dammit!" he cursed the otherwise innocent plant, whose leaves were serrated like a steak knife. His pulse was still running rampant. He wiped the condensation from his forehead, and realized how humid it was. The smooth metal wall to his left was equally streaked with moisture. Would the sec-bot pursue them in this environment?

He cleared his thoughts---those that he could call "his," and not the property of some former incarnation---and she popped into view. It was the same face, vaguely feminine and mostly featureless, and this time muttering something over and over again in tones that wavered in pitch like they were being Doppler-shifted. It sounded something like, "Come in, skee.... Come in, skee...." Zhaxier shook his head again.

He was already out of his element, and now he wondered if he wasn't out of his mind. If he had wiring and access to an electrical current, he could stall the robot's main transmitter coil, causing it to overload and feedback into the dump capacitor, thereby damaging the robot's circuits and shutting it down. Zhaxier wondered how his mind concocted such a plan when he didn't even have the tools to accomplish it.

What he would've given for a data pad in his hand! He might not have had any clothes, but without a data pad he truly felt naked. With his engineering access and a data pad, he knew he could display the entire schematics of the Warden. He wasn't surprised to find a tropical forest next to the cloning lab: his former self had visited such exotic pocket ecosystems when his duty took him there, or even for recreation with.... Frak! Not again!

13:04 ENVIRO-SCAN-TERRA 239837-E11

Chelydra hesitated in the doorway. He didn't know why, but he felt reluctant to leave the rooms and corridors. Despite the threat of the security robot, the unfamiliar jungle presented an unnerving prospect to him. Something about the regular outlines of the corridor was comforting to him, as if he had spent most of his previous life in such an environment. The turtle part of his mind stirred briefly, sniffing for water and the safety of mud. Feeling very apprehensive about the possible dangers of this unknown environment, Chelydra reluctantly stepped through the door, shotgun ready. He immediately stepped to his left and leaned against the duralloy wall just inside the door. He scanned the area for movement. His hand moved restlessly up and down his weapon. They seemed to be alone for the time being. He growled something unintelligible under his breath to vent his frustration, then took a deep breath to calm himself.

Nike ducked inside the doors right behind Chelydra, and moved futher back into the the heavy forest. She detected the movement of the leaves under a slight breeze. She hid behind a large, very green tree and watched for Percy to enter She motioned to Chelydra, who caught the flicker of her hand movement. He motioned back an acknowledgment almost as if it was second nature to him. It was clear to Nike that at least Chelydra understood tactical movement. Chelydra suddenly felt the same way about Nike.

Nike fought to mask her disgust with Zhaxier. "What kind of person runs off without a word, with no discussion, and not knowing where the hell he's going?" she said to herself, her ire growing.

She made a mental note to remember that Zhaxier could not necessarily be depended upon to be a group player. Maybe it was just poor judgement or a moment of fear or cowardice? Maybe it was just that no real leader had emerged, and Zhaxier had acted accordingly. Whatever it might have been, it sent warning flags up in her mind that, in a pinch, Zhaxier might just do whatever suited him, without thinking of the group first. Whatever the reason, she needed to watch him carefully and find out soon if he could be depended upon, or not. Without a focused command, the group may degenerate into chaos and find themselves in even more trouble. In the meantime, a leader needed to emerge. "I'm guessing that will be me," she thought, though she wasn't entirely sure why. Somehow the role of leadership felt natural to her ... perhaps that was why Zhaxier's impromptu departure continued to annoy her. So much to remember ...

Percy, still standing in the hallway fiddling with his bag of stuff, jumped backwards as a heavy laser burned through the jammed door lock. The security robot began slowly opening the door. Startled, he sprinted after Nike and the others. As he ran for the open door, Percy risked a glance back down the hall toward the cloning bank just as the security robot exited the clone bank door.

Instead of immediately pursuing them, the robot took the time to stop, rotate its position and forcibly close the broken clone bank door. Percy turned around again and dove through the doorway like a runner trying to reach home plate. He landed ungracefully just inside the door in soft, leaf-covered dirt before a low mound of grass. Not hoping for high marks from any Olympic judges who might have been watching, he scrambled back to his feet. Zhaxier immediately thought, "2.5," and wondered why.

Nike, who had been watching Percy's graceless entrance motioned for him to head for a tree slightly behind her. Percy caught a glimpse of Nike from behind a tree and headed for a wide hardwood tree in the direction which she pointed. In the relative safety of the tree's shade he caught his breath and smiled. He felt a lot safer when Nike was around, even with a trigger-happy security robot in pursuit! He wondered what natural malfunction would cause a security robot to act as this one had? "None," he reasoned. "It's just following its programming," came the harsh conclusion.

Zhaxier thought, "Frak it, I'm an engineer, not Ranger Rick!"

The crippled door to the clone bay screeched horribly with the sound of a snapping turtle trying to claw its way through centimeter-thick duralloy plating. It sent a shiver through Zhaxier's frame, and he craned his neck around the corner just long enough to see the robot start turning around. The lab door was still a couple of hand widths shy of closed. Zhaxier whipped back around and flattened against the cold wall in the malignant shadows of the forest as the dull drone of the robot's tracks increased in volume, ever so agonizingly slowly.

He tensed his muscles for what he knew he must do next.

His blended chest heaved in the midst of a flight response feedback loop, Zhaxier struggled to keep his focus, but the environment was foreign, his thoughts were foreign, his body foreign---frak, he couldn't even see his hands! When the robot halted at the door, Zhaxier feared being trapped inside! It was too much for the propulsion engineer, 2nd class, to handle and he cracked. Faster than a death wish, he twisted his body through the door in a Fran Tarkenton roll and scrambled past the robot and headed for the clone lab.

.........-FAIL SAFE 2

In the hallway beyond the open door to the forest, the security robot slowly approached the door, switching its cameras from standard lighting to thermal imaging after having recorded the movement of the nearly invisible clone. The short range tube on the security robot's back loaded a grenade net (a fist-sized item which when fired, explodes into a sticky 10 by 10 foot net to trap fleeing suspects). The security robot edged ever closer to the door, its rubber track and gears humming as it moved methodically.

Raising one telescopic arm up to the electronic door pad, it pressed a button and the door slid shut with a swishing sound.

As the door closed, Chelydra suddenly noticed that there wasn't a pad beside the door on their side to open it again. (INSERT HEAVY THEME MUSIC ...)

13:08 ENVIRO-SCAN-TERRA 239837-E11

Feeling a brief reprieve from being bait in the chase, Nike let herself relax slightly. She motioned to Chelydra for a "conference". He left his position beside the door and skillfully made his way towards Nike. She turned behind her to catch Percy's eye and motioned for him to hold his position. Assuming that Zhaxier would follow, she began to make her way deeper into the foliage to Percy's position. They needed to talk, to discuss who needed to do what, and to decide on a plan (or plans) of action while they had some time. One thing was for sure---they needed to find the exit or exits out of the forest and see if it was within their power to go and come as they pleased.

There was no sign of Zhaxier. As Nike arrived at Percy's location, she scanned the area, and could not tell where he had gone. There were no bent over branches belying his presence, no indentations in the earth ... nothing. "I bet the little freak took off again on his own," she thought, anger welling. But then again, if he was prone to being unstable, then it was better this way. She didn't want an unstable, unreliable person in her immediate vicinity---that was for sure. They bring unnecessary risk and danger to any group, two things that they already had aplenty without Zhaxier's help.

Percy stayed put as instructed by Nike, who obviously was (or used to be) a security officer, and remained hidden until the rest arrived. He wondered what they were going to do in this jungle room. He made a quick survey of the surrounding space behind and to his sides before reverting his attention to the door, now closed by the robot. "I wonder why that robot didn't follow us in here?" he thought to himself. His memories of robotic operation procedures were returning to him. "Waaaaitaminute!" he exclaimed as Nike and Chelydra arrived, followed, he assumed, by the invisible clone. "Maybe this is where that robot wanted us to go? But why would anyone have reprogrammed it to act that way?" Percy struggled with the ramifications of the reprogrammed food processing robot and the security robot, and suddenly realized that his technical skills wouldn't count for much in this biosphere.

Chelydra shook his head negatively. "I don't know jack about robots, but I do know blend-o-boy is gone: he moved out the door before it closed. I think his reliability is in question," he said, dutifully scanning the area as he spoke in a lowered tone. Chelydra wondered just how drastic the psychological fragmentation of his own reconditioning was. Everything came to him in small bits and pieces.

Nike felt comfortable in control and it suited her to be in a working, cohesive unit that pooled its resources toward the same goal. To Nike this was a mission. A mission to survive. Zhaxier was a loose cannon and she knew it. "Mistakes cost lives," she told herself, and she wasn't planning on dying any time soon. Nike's face showed visible signs of worry even though Chelydra told her of Zhaxier's exit. "He could have been very valuable to the group," she thought, "even if unstable and unreliable."

Nike noticed Chelydra scanning the forest apprehensively and followed his line of sight. This place was more than just large, it was expansive. Nature run amok. The temperature was a very warm 80 degrees or higher. The forest floor was of tropical origin, yet the hardwoods had all but smothered out the tropical trees. In a fan-shaped area in front of them, she saw at least 80 meters into nothing but more forest. Behind her was the smooth, duralloy wall.

It was not, to her way of thinking, a very auspicious beginning. Either way, it was not exactly a sort of situation that filled Nike with confidence. Responsibility and leadership have a bitter taste if used incorrectly. With Percy's innate programming abilities, Chelydra's well-honed security skills, and her guidance they might just make it work, the primary word being "might."

Nike saw the small, foot-long, green and yellow lizard Chelydra was watching high up in one of the trees. Without warning, it abruptly unfolded hidden wings and flew away. Wind moved the trees slightly and other bird and animal noises echoed throughout the forest.

"Even this place must have a control room somewhere. It's simply an interesting exercise in applied electronics which ultimately appears to be failing due to unforeseen irregularities in programming." Percy gestured offhandedly at everything around him. "What---?" He noticed everyone was seemingly enthralled by his sudden burst of knowledge.

Chelydra moved his weapon to his shoulder, raised one of his fists and leaned against a tree. "All that mumbo jumbo don't mean diddly squat if we are stuck here eating flying lizards, does it Percy?" Chelydra's logic, as usual, was blunt, precise, and to the point.

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