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Chapter 4: Separated

.........-STATUS: 1 INDIVIDUAL IN POD XR-346598-E7
13:14 SECURITY ROBOT - IN HALL 569870-K4
.........-FAIL SAFE 2
.........-CONTAIN A1 GROUP 1 / B2 GROUP 2

The security robot's sensors detected the slight rippling movement as Zhaxier rushed by it with a death wish no one but he himself could really understand. The robot hesitated until the door to the forest enviro-room was closed and the force field protecting the door had been activated before it spun on its rotors and fired in a grid type fashion down the corridor. Its thermal imaging camera picked up nothing from the errant clone. It was as if he wasn't there, but its sound sensors told it otherwise.

The searing heat of the laser blast cauterized the wound as it struck Zhaxier in the shoulder, causing him to cry out in agony. A silent painful curse echoed from Zhaxier's lips as he squeezed through the not quite closed clone bank door. Once through, he raced for his pod, sliding on the slick floor. He dropped to his knees beside his former pod. He pushed a button and a drawer opened. A quick search revealed a palm-sized data pad and a similar sized holo-projector.

"Hell's bells, how could I have missed these?!" Zhaxier lamented. He had risked everything with his crazy stunt, a desperate gamble on a sudden gut instinct that turned out to be right on target. Despite the pain of his laser burn, and the exhaustion coming off an adrenaline high, he felt a new-found trust in his memories and abilities, an affirmation of who he knew he was. "I knew I couldn't be that stupid," he thought, hefting his palm-sized friends as he recalled doubts of his former self's foresight. The irony didn't escape him. "Probably not what Butch, RAM and Chelydra are thinking of me right now," he sighed, as his stomach gurgled with worry. He smarted from that thought as much as he did from the pain in his shoulder.

Then he realized that he was no longer blending with his surroundings and that he could see his shoulder. He nearly hulched from the gruesome sight and stench of his own cooked flesh. It was enough to kick in his mutation again without a thought. Just as well, he decided. He sat down against his pod, out of sight from cameras and doors. Zhaxier felt as if he might pass out. At the far end of the room, he could hear the security robot closing the clone bank door the rest of the way, effectively eliminating an easy return to his pod-mates.

Trying to forget the seriousness of his situation, Zhaxier turned on his data pad. The controls were familiar; comforting. He brought up a search option, and selected "Clone Bank." The data pad displayed 134 different clone banks. A second search of clone banks nearest any enviro-room turned up only one, listed as "Clone Bank Pod XR-346598-E7." A third selection brought up the floor schematics of the area. "Leaping Leptons!" Zhaxier gasped, as he got a quick refresher course on just how BIG the Warden was. Almost as a function of his former duties, Zhaxier tried to memorize three different routes which would take him back to his fellow clones.

He also queried his gadgets' persistent memory for any personal messages left from another, surely happier time. To his amazement, he found one stored in the holo-projector. It was a 3D hologram digitally signed, "Remember me, Z. Your eternal Valentine, E." The display was jittery, so he tried to adjust the resolution grid, but found it was his own blended hands, trembling uncontrollably. Exhaustion kicked in and the engineer wept silently.

Zhaxier's temporary lapse into his emotions was quickly interrupted when the clone bank door on the other side of the room slid open and three security robots entered.

The last robot to enter closed the door tightly. To a robot it was nothing, but to a human, the thousand-pound, duralloy door would require a pry bar to force open. The three robots spread out; the center robot sprayed a fine mist which began to fill the room. The clone pods made a noise as all of the lids electronically locked simultaneously. Zhaxier realized it was only a matter of minutes before the entire room was filled with the mist.

"ClusterFrak™!" The pain in Zhaxier's shoulder returned as a throbbing pain that weakened his arm. Crawling over to the end of the pod, items still in hand, Zhaxier noticed an air vent on the wall (against the floor) big enough to enter. Two wingnuts held it in place. "Sweet!" He knelt in front of it, put the tiny holo-projector in his mouth and gripped the data pad and ID badge in his teeth. He began to unscrew the wing nuts, one in each hand, with all the efficiency of a propulsion engineer, 2nd class. The pain in his burnt shoulder throbbed with increasing intensity. He put the pain out of his head by pondering what kind of gas he would soon be breathing if he didn't escape.

With the heightened speed of a ruba fruit peeling robot, Zhaxier dexterously removed the twin wing nuts. He pulled the unfettered air-vent cover out and set it beside the yawning portal. He scurried into the opening and into the dark and unknown escape route, teeth still clenching his personal effects.


The robots had gone far beyond simple harassment, he thought as he hurried deeper into the air vent. He felt at a serious disadvantage. Suddenly the air vent became slick and began to slope downward. His hands and feet attempted to grip the slick metal for traction, but he found none as his speed increased and he slid downward faster and faster for what seemed like minutes. With a sudden bang, Zhaxier's head hit an air vent cover. The cover flew off and Zhaxier shot out of the vent like a missile into the dark below, painfully landing on something very hard. Rolling, he fell another short distance to the floor and drifted into unconsciousness. His ID card, data pad and holo-projector rolled into the darkness.

13:12 ENVIRO-SCAN-TERRA 239837-E11
.........-STATUS: 3 INDIVIDUALS IN TERRA 239837-E11
13:14 SECURITY ROBOT - IN HALL 569870-K4
.........-FAIL SAFE 2
.........-CONTAIN A1 GROUP 1 / B2 GROUP 2

Percy looked around at all the flora and at the two clones before him, crouching in a dense thicket of trees; speaking quietly. He'd probably do better to call them persons, crew mates, fellow survivors. Percy wondered if the captain of the ship had been cloned, and if any other clones had been activated. He looked at Nike. "Say, uh, Nike, what do you think the chances are of the three of us taking control of this ship?" he asked grimly, already knowing they would need to find more crew to help them in the effort.

Reluctantly, Chelydra snorted, his eyes gazing outward into the forest and his weapon pointed up in the air out of harm's way (and the safety on). "Everything we do is a gamble, Nike," he snapped. "We risk our future regardless of what we do, so I see little choice. You lead, we follow, and we pool our resources to survive." Chelydra's bluntness seemed to ring with wisdom in his strangely grim tone.

Nike tried to rid herself of her grumpy feelings. "It's clear that we have to find our bearings and find the exits."

"I don't remember how many portals connect this enviroom to the rest of the ship." Percy squinted, scrunched his nose, and gritted his teeth. "This damn headache!" he thought to himself. "Ah, I hope there's not just one way in and out!" Percy knew that even in an environmental room such as this, there had to be controls, computers and programs running everything.

Nike nodded, "We should try to find a computer terminal or data pad to help orient us to our surroundings, if not give us a map of the ship. Any suggestions on how we go about doing that?" She looked expectantly to her companions but they wore as much visible doubt on their faces as she felt.

Thinking for a moment, Percy offered, "There's this control panel I stripped from the food processing robot. I wonder if we could rip open the wall, find the wiring for the door mechanism, and connect this to it to activate a connection to open the door? Of course, that robot might be there waiting for us..."

Interrupting the silence, Percy added, "Say, you think there's envirobots wandering this place? Maybe we can track one down and capture it."

Nike considered his words and their options. Their emotional fatigue abruptly vanished when something screamed a blood-chilling scream no more than 250 meters away, deeper into the forest. For a moment, the birds, or flying lizards, or whatever they were, became quiet.

Percy turned around to face the heart of the forest as his back suddenly pressed against the hard wood. Fear was visible on his face, and the lines on his forehead became more present and defined. He tried to regain control. "Damn, I scare easy!" he thought, trying to remember the last time he felt this much on edge.

"Say, Chelydra, Nike, maybe we should go check out that scream." Percy pulled the stun ray pistol out, and after a moment's hesitation, offered it to Nike. "You, uh, probably would have a better aim with this thing than me, if you want it." He was looking at the patch on her uniform, trying to decode it. "Marines, eh?" He looked at Chelydra and back at Nike. "This civilian here is quite happy to be in the same graduating class of clones with the two of you in this whacked out ship!" He looked worriedly at them and waited for them to make the next move.

Nike sized up Percy in her mind. He was smart, that much was obvious. He seemed to be afraid, but was hiding it well enough to be able to function as a part of the group, which was good. And, there was no doubt that he had information that the group would find invaluable in the future. She was glad he was with them.

"There may be other clones, or even living crewmembers or their descendants, on the ship. Given that possibility, and our need for further information, I think it would be in our best interests to check out the scream. Our next priority should be mapping out this environment, finding exits, and forming a plan of action when all available information is gathered. Agreed?" she asked Chelydra.

"Agreed Nike. Always glad to cooperate," Chelydra murmured, shifting the shotgun in his grip; now pointing it towards the ground. Chelydra's eyes scanned the intricacies of the leaves and the trees, and the brilliant softness of the forest. He looked back at Nike and Percy with more focus. "I'll circle west, you circle east, Nike. Percy... " he gestured at Percy, "you lag a bit behind and come up the middle and we'll all meet back up about 250 meters deeper, so it's not all of us just traipsing through the woods together... that is, if you are in agreement with the plan, Nike."

Nike stood up carefully and motioned for Chelydra to proceed. Patting Percy on the shoulder, she circled east using the cover of the trees to her fullest advantage. Nike felt fiercely enlivened by the action---anything to change their current situation. In a cool and professional manner she moved as stealthily as possible, keeping her bearings as to where everyone was as she moved. Nike grimaced to herself when a small tree limb whipped her in the face. Ignoring it, she pressed on, believing they were all doing the right thing. Minutes passed as she moved onward as they had planned.

Percy knew his talents were best suited for creating software applications and reprogramming, not playing soldier boy in some man-made environment gone haywire. He calmed himself stiffly and pressed on. So far he had survived by making the right choices. He wondered just how bad his blending fellow clone's choices had been. If anything, Percy felt someone or something was dutifully pulling the strings behind the scenes. Ripples of uncertainty cautioned him to be very careful. The entire situation felt awkward. Concentration, focus, long term thinking: these were the qualities he needed. "And maybe a little food too," he thought as his stomach growled.

Nike, Chelydra, and Percy came back together exactly as planned. What they saw was beyond belief. The forest gave way to waist-high grass-covered hills higher than the trees within which they now hid. A thick woods could be seen continuing for several kilometers to the right, hills continued straight ahead, and a deep valley with a huge lake could be seen a few kilometers away to the left. About 50 meters straight ahead, in a shallow ravine where a small creek twisted its way down toward the valley, they saw a blonde, human female dressed in a military green jumpsuit. She was lying face down in the sandy creek bed. Standing around her were six tall, humanoid-shaped, wolflike creatures, each of them holding a spear. Two of them had bows on their backs. One of them had its foot on the center of the woman's back, holding her down. Their language sounded like a mixture of barks and English.

Nike motioned to the others to hunker down in the grass. She knew she couldn't put this up to a committee for a vote. The prey was human, and clearly outnumbered. In Nike's mind, she couldn't assume that the woman was innocent and undeserving of being hunted (what if she were a crook, a thief or a murderer?) but at the same time, she couldn't assume that she wasn't innocent and deserving to be some mutant's lunch, either. She didn't want to start off their clone lives making enemies right away if she could help it. Still, "Semper fi traditionally applies to humans, Wolfies," she thinks, "so you better have a damn good reason to have her on the ground." Quickly, she assessed the situation and formed a plan of action.

"Chelydra," she whispered, "we have to intervene. Circle about to the West and cover me. Percy, stay out of sight, and try to find some rocks or something to throw to distract them if we get into a pinch."

"Six to three. Good, we have them outnumbered!" The turtle-man chuckled under his breath.

Nike turned to Percy and handed him her wrench. "For self-defense," she offered. "Stay out of sight, right," Percy stammered as he accepted it.

Nike stealthily moved away through the grass to the hunting party's east flank, armed with the stun gun and her trusty blade in easy reach. There were only six of them, and they had the advantage of surprise, or so she thought.

Chelydra moved to take up a covering position to the west. Spears against shotgun and shell: those odds were looking pretty good. He hoped Nike's tactics involved more than just walking up to the Wolfoids and relying on her charm and winning good looks to convince them to release their captive. "Oh well", he thought, "it's too late to find out what she had in mind now". He shifted position slightly to draw a bead on one of the Wolfoids with a bow. "Take out the ranged weapons first," some deeply buried training whispered in his mind.

Percy hunkered down, as Nike suggested, and swallowed the shock of the last half hour. Chelydra and his carapace, the invisible guy (Zhaxier, as he stated outside the clone bank door), flying lizards, and now wolf-men? It was starting to get a little too hard to swallow! Maybe he was dreaming? The headache reminded him that he wasn't.

Percy was staring off into the ravine at the wolf-men. Suddenly he realized he was alone. "Waaaiitaminute!" he gasped. He looked at Nike, who hushed him down with a movement of her arm, and he remembered. "Right, rocks, self-defense, got it!"

The programmer quickly looked for cover---and rocks. But rocks, or anything else he might throw for that matter, weren't going to do the girl down there any good if he kept his distance. He crept forward using the last few trees and tall grass as cover. As he looked for rocks, he wondered if he would find any signs of a mechanical or electronic presence, anything he might be able to tap into using his real talents. The distractions accumulated in his skull. "Damn this headache!" he cursed under his breath. Despite the situation, and despite not having found any projectiles yet, Percy stopped, focused on one of the wolf-men and slowed his breathing in an attempt to refocus his thoughts.

The six tall, humanoid-shaped, wolflike creatures continued barking their mangled English as one of them held the woman securely with a foot on the center of her back. None seem worried about anyone approaching them unannounced.

Chelydra had taken but a few minutes to get into position west of the Wolfoids. He continued to aim his shotgun at one particular Wolfoid with a bow. Almost instinctively he spun around, with the sudden realization that they themselves had been bait, to face three wolflike creatures leaping from their hiding places.

Chelydra broke the silence by firing his first shot into the lead Wolfoids's throat. Two more successive shots killed the other two Wolfoids outright. At short range, it was hard to miss with the shotgun. It took less than two seconds to drop all three of them. Chelydra spun back around.

All but one of the six Wolfoids left their prone captive and charged en masse up the hill towards Chelydra's position. Knowing he could not outrun them and that he only had 2 shots left, Chelydra stood upright and took careful aim at his target. He leveled the barrel at the nearest of the two Wolfoids with bows. He gritted his teeth and waited, having never thought about his own mortality before ...

Nike realized it was a setup as she spun to meet her attacker, a seven foot, or taller, gray-furred Wolfoid armed with a short spear. With a hard thrust, the spear ripped through Nike's shirt and would have run her through, but for her body armor underneath. Nike's response was to slash with her knife, which cut deeply into the pack leader's forearm. Dropping his spear, he lunged toward Nike. She leapt to her right in a forward roll (going back to her feet), which kept her from being caught beneath the Wolfoid's hulking frame. Nike pointed the stun gun at the Wolfoid's face, having caught him on his hands and knees. "This is a black ray pistol and it will kill you instantly. Now call off the pack or you die!" Nike bluffed. The huge Wolfoid froze in place. It was apparent that he understood English. His eyes studied Nike for the slightest hint of guile or fear.

Nike was pissed off. Somehow they had been bait from the get go, first with the bots, and then the Wolfies---what the hell was going on? There was no room in her mind for worry about whether or not the wolf-creature would believe her---she was too hopping mad to care. She wanted blood and answers. Her thoughts briefly touched on Percy, and she hoped he was all right. She also wondered if the girl was in on this little scheme too. Her eyes blazed as they bore holes in the pack leader, daring him to try anything other than surrender, and her mind worked overtime to think of ways to disable him if necessary. She dared not take her eyes off of him to check the status of the others. At least not yet.

Percy remained hidden. His hand gripped the wrench as blood coursed through his veins at a heightened speed. His body began changing and adapting: his size and appearance becoming a new form. Moments later, a wolf-man in uniform now gripped the same wrench. With several running lopes, Percy leapt off the ravine. As he landed, he struck the lone Wolfoid, guarding the captive, over the head with the large wrench. With a second great strike, the Wolfoid fell to the ground, twitching, and then stopped moving. The woman looked up at Percy and screamed.

The woman's scream jolted Percy Jenkins, Warden computer systems administrator and technical trainer, back to reality. He looked at the blood on Nike's wrench in his hand, and noticed his hands and arms were covered with the same greyish wolf-hair as the wolf-men. He reached a hand up to touch his face and it felt hairy too. "What... what!?" he stammered, backing up, then he saw the prone Wolfoid at his feet. Percy realized that he had not been immune to the mutational disaster that befell the other clones, and from the looks of this biosphere, the rest of the ship, too. His gaze returned to the woman; she was clearly terrified. A conflicting maelstrom of emotions played havoc with his desires.

He tried to regain complete control over his thoughts. He had to act quickly! "Subdue the woman, pounce to the aid of the Wolfoids in their attack of the humans." Percy shook his head, gripping it with frustration. His headache resurfaced as he struggled to maintain control, both over his human thoughts and his new animal instincts.

"No, wait, I'm not a wolf-man!" He looked straight into the eyes of the woman and spoke sternly and loudly, "My name's Percy Jenkins and I'm here to rescue you!" Percy's wicked looking canines flashed in a snarl as he spoke, but to the woman on the brink of sheer terror at his feet, the words were a jumbled mixture of English, growls, and barks.

"Aaaah... get away from me, you monster!" screamed the woman. With pent-up agility and adrenaline, the woman jumped to her feet and ran away from wolf-man-Percy and toward Nike, the only other person whom she could see who even remotely resembled a human. Percy turned to find his companions, and saw Nike staring down another Wolfoid. He turned to the west and saw Chelydra standing still, aiming his shotgun at five Wolfoids clambering toward him. Percy thought, "I have to save the ship, and to do that I have to save Chelydra!" He jumped in the direction of his fellow clone, hoping to catch up to the other wolf-men before they caught up with him. Percy let out the fiercest wolf-sounding scream he could manage.

"ROOAUGGHWOWOGUGWLGUGLGLLLHHHH!" He realized that he was going to have to work to make that sound more convincing, should he survive this bizarre turn of events.

A very tense moment held Nike and the pack leader enthralled as each dared the other to make a move. The huge gray-furred Wolfoid flexed his sinewy muscles, revealed massive canines, much larger than the other Wolfoids, and seemed to be considering whether he could leap at the woman holding the pistol and tear her apart before she pulled the trigger.

His instinct for survival resisted the impulse of death. "ROOAUGGHWOWOOOOOWWWLL!" howled the pack leader. Percy, who had nearly reached the Wolfoids charging Chelydra, heard the command from the alpha male and watched as the remaining Wolfoids turned away and fled like beaten lap-dogs, leaving only the sounds of their ferocious teeth, snapping angrily, as they disappeared from view over an adjacent hill.

"You win hummie ... for now! Sleep well, prey," the leader barked threateningly. Slowly the pack leader backed away into the tall grass, without taking his eyes off Nike or her pistol. When he had placed a reasonable distance between himself and Nike, he turned and fled.

The valiant Chelydra stood alone, his shotgun still in hand. But he did not lower it; instead he pointed it at the approaching wolf-man-Percy and drew a careful bead on his vulnerable throat. Unaware of Percy's transformation, and unaware of the uniform on the wolf-man due to his turtle-sight, Chelydra's finger slowly began pulling on the trigger. Percy could not believe what he was seeing, then suddenly he realized that Chelydra didn't recognize him!

"Pray to your god, wolf-creature, because you're history!" spit Chelydra, his jaw set sternly.

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

Zhaxier awoke to pitch black darkness. His shoulder was wet with blood where it had been bleeding, as was his face. "ClusterFrak™!" Zhaxier yelled, feeling the full effect of his injuries, which adrenaline had allowed him to previously ignore. His face was bleeding, his shoulder was bleeding, his elbow felt like someone had just shot it, and he couldn't see shit!

Through his blinding pain, Zhaxier realized his loss. "My pad!" he said out loud, half to verify his own odds-defying, continued existence; half to get some sense of the extent of the darkened enclosure. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm, only to discover with a sickening gag, that it was his own blood. His face felt like it had been hit by a waffle iron! "Frak, what's a waffle iron?" He groped about on his bruised knees, feeling with his sore hands for his treasured three possessions.

He raised his head, and banged it on the bottom side of a heavy table which rattled with the hit. "Ouch ... Frak!" he cursed. A brittle silence hung in the air. Having thus far failed to find his precious items, his emotions bordered on helplessness.

Taking a grip on the table, Zhaxier stood, having only a vague recollection of what had happened to him. His throbbing pain only grew worse. Zhaxier reached out and touched what felt like a cabinet, and began slowly following it around the room. The cabinet seemed to be covered with a metal grate. Eventually Zhaxier found a door and touched the light switch by chance. Like a slap across the face, the room lit up.

Zhaxier stood in a five by five meter room. A good-sized pool of blood stained the floor, and Zhaxier's bloody hand prints marked everywhere he had been. Blood still trickled from his shoulder wound. A metal table was bolted to the floor in its center. On it lay the air vent cover from the ceiling, Zhaxier's ID card, his data pad and holo projector. Cabinets circled the entire room and were filled with all types of weapons, from pistols to fusion rifles.

"Groovy." Zhaxier stood in awe of the minor arsenal before him. Even though a lowly propulsion engineer (2nd class), whose knowledge of weaponry was limited, he felt a rush of excitement with his lucky find. His elation was muted somewhat by the sickening pool of semi-congealed blood on the floor. His blood, he realized with an exhausted sigh, and the most of it he'd ever seen at once.

Zhaxier's shoulder and elbow throbbed painfully, to the point where the lowly propulsion engineer (2nd class) trembled like a cup of Becemian spice Jell-O. Trying to focus his thoughts, he snatched up his data pad and re-accessed the clone bank schematics. A few quick taps and he had located the secure room in which he stood. It was listed as "Armory AK2100" and bore an icon indicating an exterior force field. Access to AK2100's equipment list was denied for security reasons. It placed him one deck below where he had been previously. It would not be easy to retrace his way back to his fellow clones. Zhaxier wasn't a gambler, but he knew the odds were stacked against him. It wasn't going to be easy to find his pod-mates if he kept fleeing in the wrong direction. Would they still be where he last saw them? How long had he been unconscious, he wondered?

One by one, Zhaxier checked the weapons cabinets, all of which were securely locked with an old fashioned key lock. Zhaxier leaned forward and peered through the metal grate covering the last weapon cabinet. Inside he could see five pistols, each hanging from a separate hook. At the bottom of the cabinet, Zhaxier spotted a green bag with a medical red cross on it. Zhaxier's eyes widened as he spotted it. There was no guessing that it was a medi-kit. But his hopes were soon dashed as he realized the futility of prying the locked cabinet open with nothing but bare, bloodied knuckles. The only way he would ever open it was if he left the room to find something to force the lock.

Suddenly, the deck vibrated briefly beneath Zhaxier's feet for just a second. He heard no sound as he looked around the room, his face set into tight lines of pain and frustration. "I'm getting out of here, and I'm surviving!" he told himself out loud, trying to believe his own confidence-building words. But the words seemed hollow. He grabbed his three possessions, blended, and tried the door handle. His hand shook more from dread than overexertion and loss of blood.

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