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Chapter 11: Cafeteria


With Chelydra on one side of the closest door, Nike touched the button on the wall---and the door slid open without a noise. Light spilled out of the doorway and into the corridor. Both Chelydra and Nike rushed inside, adrenaline pumping.

The room was large and clearly a cafeteria: the walls were lined with food and drink vending machines while the room itself was filled with tables and chairs. Seated at a table alone in the center of the room and eating something was a red-headed Pure Strain Human. He gulped hard, seeing Chelydra's shotgun pointed at him.

"I did pay for this, you know!" Arkady raised both hands, lowered one again and took a bite of the sandwich he held, and then raised his hand again. His mouth full, he smiled innocently, hands in the air. "What's in my mouth they can't steal," he thought, and quickly chewed and then swallowed.

The sight of a man eating lunch was certainly not on the list of things Chelydra expected to find behind Door-Number-One. "Is the chow line open for everyone?"

Arkady Dmitrivich looked at him, "Uh, if you're not going to shoot me, then yes. They're vending machines, how much more open of a chow line can you get?" Arkady thought Chelydra was the weirdest looking crewman he'd ever seen, but then Chelydra had a weapon, so he wasn't about to say anything. Chelydra looked quickly around the cafeteria. Not seeing any obvious threats, he lowered the muzzle of his shotgun to a less threatening angle, putting Arkady a little more at ease. As for the lady beside the turtle-guy, he thought she was a hot babe-o-rama.

Nike didn't think Arkady looked too menacing, "but one never knows. Still, damn, that food looks incredible."

"Hello. My name is Nike. This is Chelydra and the rest of the crew in the hallway are my friends. May I join you?"

"Hello Nike, I'm Arkady Dmitrivich. Of course you can join me."

"May I ask how you came to be in this area of the ship?"

"Well, I woke up nearly two days ago in the clone bay. After climbing out from my pod, I wandered the corridors until I arrived here. And voilà, here I am!" Arkady smiled. Luck had been with him, so far.

19:54 SCAN ROOM DEH-6666

Sharneste waited at the intersection for the others to follow. She could still tell which way the human girl had been taken because she could smell faint traces of her and the smelly ones, just like she could smell Zhaxier, Percy and the metallic Tinker. Each had their own unique scent signature. She pulled out a piece of glass stuck to the bottom of her foot. Her feet were tough and the glass had little effect, except to be bothersome.

Tinker peered through the open doorway and recognized the tables and vending machines as belonging to a cafeteria. He rejoined Zhaxier who stood next to Percy out in the corridor just out of sight from the cafeteria.

Zhaxier's data pad hovered in the air as he searched for details on the area. "Hold still, I can't read the data pad through your body if you keep moving it, Z," said Tinker, reading and recording everything he could view on Zhaxier's data pad. "It never hurts to store a little extra information for when it might be useful."

Zhaxier found no details regarding the area they were in. However, he did find a sub file placed in his data pad. Opening it, he found a detailed path to a lifeboat. Not an escape pod, but a lifeboat built to land on a planet. The file had his name on it, so he knew that the original Zhaxier had placed it there.

Percy, also in the corridor, wondered if his Wolfoid transformation was something that he could control or initiate voluntarily. His night vision was a reminder that perhaps he had not fully reverted to his base human form. "If I have enhanced vision," he thought, "I wonder if I can pick up traces of heat left by the kidnappers and kidnappee?" Percy knelt down to scan the floor amid the broken glass. "Perhaps she cut her feet on the glass? We can follow the blood," but then he remembered that she had been wearing boots in the control room.

Sharneste made a barely audible noise, impatiently waiting for the others in the four-way intersection. "Wait, we can't go yet," Tinker said. "There's some rooms left to explore, a cafeteria that might have working vending machines, and a lifeboat. We might be able to buy this Amanda back with an armload of chocolate bars and a catalog of water-tools. How about it?" (water-tools are simple objects printed on a catalog page like pictures in a book. When a tool is needed, it is torn from the catalog and put into a bucket of water, where it forms into the chosen tool.)

"Crikey, one vending machine and we're all reduced to Neanderthals. Wait, did you say chocolate? Hoh-hoh-hohhh." Zhaxier poked his (still blended) head in the cafeteria doorway to view the goods. Tinker walked through the doorway and Zhaxier followed close behind him. Zhaxier noted the man with whom Nike was trying to have a conversation, but he didn't interrupt.

Sharneste's nose caught a whiff---at least two of the smelly ones waited down the hall, maybe on guard duty, maybe as a trap. She couldn't see them, and she doubted they could see her, but they were down there; 90 meters, maybe more. She sniffed the air again and emitted a low growl. "Smelly ones close," she whispered harshly. "More than one ..." Suddenly, she sniffed the air again, her head tilted up and back to follow the scent as she crouched. "Food? Is that food? That smells like food!"

Percy was watching Sharneste as she slowly walked into the cafeteria behind Zhaxier, when he was suddenly struck by something inside him that told him he could control the transformations into his altered states, and control them easily. It came to him as easily as the night vision he was enjoying. He issued his trademark, "Waaaaaiiitaminute!" as he followed Sharneste into the cafeteria.

He interrupted Nike in the middle of her conversation with the man in the cafeteria, "Nike, I, uh, I think I'm on to something!" How he knew what his body was capable of doing, he had no idea, but he knew that he could change his form at will. He closed his eyes and, with clenched fists, put his thumbs to his temples and tried to force his transformation into the Wolfoid. His headache flared slightly but was gone completely when he opened his eyes as Percy the Wolfoid, still in uniform.

"Roaaaugughwrrrol! Grwoovy!" He looked up at the astonished gazes from the others. Arkady choked on his sandwich. Sharneste crouched defensively as her ears flattened against her head and a loud gutteral growl rumbled out of her throat. She backed away from the Wolfoid slowly, teeth bared in a wicked snarl.

"What you do here, Howler?!" She growled out. "This not where you hunt! Go away!"

"It's OK, Sharneste, it's just Percy. He changes like that sometimes."

Percy closed his eyes and clenched his teeth (both unnecessary rituals for the transformation, unbeknownst to him, but which centered his concentration on the task of adapting nevertheless). His eyes opened and he was Percy in uniform again. He cleared his throat.

"Ahem, I, heh, I don't know how or if that helps us, but I just figured I'd test it out. I just had the feeling I could control it, and apparently I can," he explained to Nike and the others.

"Way to go, Perce," Nike said. "That will definitely come in handy!"

Percy extended his hand to Arkady who looked a little spooked. "If you think I'm something, wait 'til you meet Invisi-Bro! For what it's worth, welcome to our motley crew," he said, smiling. "I'm Percy Jenkins, the sequel," he joked, referring to his cloned self. "Actually, there's no guarantee I'm the only clone of me. But I'm the only one I know about, and the cloning process sure did a number on my genes."

Arkady accepted Percy's hand and shook it. He looked at Percy, still somewhat amazed. "Thanks, I'm glad you could join my group of one," he joked, trying to ignore the comments that he didn't understand.

Turning to Sharneste, Percy apologized, "heh, er, sorry for spookin' ya, there. I, uh, don't guess we were formally introduced. Now's as good a time as any." With a nod denoting "excuse me" in Arkady's direction, he walked away from the lunching clone and moved closer to the lioness. Sharneste growled at Percy as he got closer. It was a low growl that grew in volume and intensity as he drew near. "I don't expect you to shake my hand, but ... Well, I'm Percy. I'm a clone of one of the original crew members of this ship, and I'm trying to save it!" It occured to him that perhaps she didn't know she was even on a ship screaming through interstellar space at God-knew what speed and heading, and he made ready to explain it to her as best he could.

She seemed to relax, though possibly just because the food seemed to be more and more distracting. "You talk nonsense," Sharneste growled out. "You not talk like howler. You not smell like howler. You not act like howler. Okay, you not howler."

Tinker internally computed the ratio of defective clones versus non-defective clones. "I believe that these mutations are the result of the computers in control of the cloning vats having to patch deteriorating human genetic material with whatever other genetic material is handy, in conjuction with corrupt software in nano-bot assembly caches. Be happy that you're here at all. Over the years, I've seen much, much worse than any of you scuttling about the ship."

Percy nodded somberly at Tinker's observation. Despite mutation, his clone had been assembled viably. "Just, uh, just how many years have you been wandering around?" Percy's realization that he didn't even know the date came as a shock to his sense of continuity, and suddenly it became his priority to find out what year it was. "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. I've been around so long, I've had to dump some memory to make room for new data. And some of my old data was lost cloning my memory into new bodies. But at least I can still fix about anything that comes my way. Between my pitiful efforts, and those of the Nano-bot Maintenance Corps, you'd all be in way worse trouble than you are now if it weren't for us." The robot started checking the status of systems in the cafeteria. "There's more rooms here to check out. Why don't you warriors investigate first for hazards? The other techie and I will follow up with a search of each room. We need supplies, weapons, and power sources. We can't survive long without them."

Zhaxier threw his (blended) hands up and sighed audibly. "So much for rescuing the blonde. What is she, chopped liver?" Arkady looked around the room, trying to locate the source of the techie's voice. "Alright Tinker, your ever-faithful friendly neighborhood techie lackey is right behind you, but as long as we're blowing off Amanda, lemme get one of these Milky Way bars first."

"Zhaxier, we are not blowing off the blonde. What do you think they're going to do with her anyway? Sacrifice her to the horned god or something? If she's a PSH, they're either going to use her for breeding stock or if she has any technical skills, she's going to be put to work fixing something. Either way, we have a good chance of being able to buy her back. But we need something to buy her back with."

"Heheh, breeding stock ... Dem blondes have all the fun, eh Percy?"

"No one," Nike said, "I repeat no one, is giving up or sacrificing Amanda. I will get her back or die trying. And, if you want to remain an uninjured part of this group, I suggest you desist being so damned insulting. Being used for breeding stock is a horrific experience. Make light of it again in my presence and we will have more than words between us."

"Actually, I don't give a frak one way or the other. Just like to keep moving, you know? Staying in one place with all these sec-bots after us gives me the creeps. Crikey, let's hurry up and get outta here."

Arkady didn't understand Nike's anger with the unseen man. "Just my luck. Maybe they are married," he thought.

To dispel any illusion that Nike was threatening a floating medical bag, Zhaxier walked over amongst the tables and chairs toward Arkady. He unblended for a moment and unconsciously activated his innate WINO talent (Wilson's Incredible Nose Occultation™), except it wasn't his nose that was blocked from everyone's view. "Hiya Arkady. I'm Zhaxier. Don't worry about Butch. She'll warm up to you in no time," he winked.

He vanished in mid-sentence leaving Arkady to wonder if the juice he was drinking from the tiny cartons had been tainted. "Uhm, hi, Zhaxier," Arkady nodded, acting as though he had understood what the black apparition had said.

Seething with anger, Nike moved toward Tinker and asked him what he suggested their next move be.

"There ought to be at least a first aid kit in here somewhere, this being a public area. There ought to be a manual food preparation area. Unless the foodstocks are replenished automatically, I doubt that there is any food left, but there should be some valuable trade items like knives, salt and pots and pans. I intend to check every inch of space in here, including the trash cans. But first, let me check out these vending machines. Some of them I can bargain with. Most of them need repairs, and I do very good work for which I get paid dearly. Others have gone space happy. Those you can mess around with without security bothering you. And sometimes, I build a whole new machine from scrap. I also happen to have my own vending machine account, but not all of them honor it."

"Dude, anything we find in here to trade for Amanda they could probably force her to get for them anyway. Barkin' up the wrong tree I think. We could always trade these nano-bot doses or this holo-proj---er, no, not that," Zhaxier sighed, closing his bag. "We should get our food, then get back on her trail. Just my two cents."

Zhaxier walked over to the candy machines, grabbed his access card from his medical bag and was looking for a place to swipe it when he balked. "Aw frak, Tinker. I use this, and security's gonna be all over us like quantum interference in a nano-pile. Can you drill out this lock without setting off the alarm? I can take it from there."

Tinker was more than happy to help, but as he approached the vending machines and removed his drill, a mounted laser cannon lowered out of the ceiling and pointed at him. A red dot appeared on Tinker's chest. An electronic voice from above said, "VANDALISM WILL BE DEALT WITH MOST HARSHLY. Thank You, Have A Good Day!"

"I'm cool, I'm cool," Zhaxier called to the ceiling, backing away slightly from Tinker and the vending machine. "Wow, they sure upped the security in here," he grumbled almost as loudly as his stomach. As Tinker put the drill away, the ceiling mounted laser cannon disappeared into its concealed alcove. "I guess you ain't gonna be 'bargaining' with these babies, Tinker. Our Watcher's probably laughing his ass off," he quipped, elbowing the robot.

Arkady sat at the table wondering how this group had stayed together as long as they had already. He reached out and grabbed Nike's hand for a second. She was surprised at his forwardness. Arkady turned her thumb upwards. "Just walk over there and put your pretty thumb on the vending machine and tell it what you want. It's that easy. But you're only allowed so much food per meal time." Arkady released her hand and smiled.

Nike crossed the distance to the vending machines and stood beside Tinker and Zhaxier. Zhaxier watched as Nike touched her thumb to the sandwich machine and entered the numbers for a ham sandwich. The sandwich immediately fell out. "Hey, punch me up a Milky Way, will ya?" Whatever tension Arkady saw was on Nike's enraged face, as Zhaxier was still invisible. And undaunted. And naked. Nike punched in two other sandwiches and three juice drinks and then the vending machines no longer worked for her.

Zhaxier waltzed over to a candy machine and tried his thumb on the touchpad. He punched up as many candy bars as he could until his allowance was depleted. He filled his medical bag with them and tried not to think of how old the stuff really was. Then he joined Tinker in a search for useful items. "Maybe there's a flashlight in here," he thought. The room was well lit, but he didn't relish the idea of relying on Tinker's make-shift torch (temporarily extinguished) out in the darkened hallway.

Sharneste headed straight for one of the vending machines and did what she had seen Nike and Zhaxier do. The machine did not recognize her and only beeped infuriatingly. "GIVE FOOD! I WAS PROMISED FOOD!" she growled. "I WANT FOOD! I'M HUNGRY!!!"

Zhaxier responded with a flying Milky Way bar. "It ain't raw meat, but it keeps ya goin'."

Sharneste snatched the candy bar out of the air. She shoved it into her mouth, wrapper and all, ripping and tearing at it for a second, then spit it back out and scowled. "That not food!"

"Sharneste," Nike called and threw her a sandwich. "Here you go," she said, "Enjoy." Sharneste pounced on the sandwich, tearing at it viciously with her savage teeth. (Or was it savagely with her vicious teeth?) The poor sandwich had no prayer. Oh, the humanity!

Chelydra, uncertain as to whether the food vendos would recognize him as authorized to receive rations, and equally uncertain as to what to eat, slowly approached the vending machines. After staring at them in hungry hesitation for a few moments, he made what he hoped were the right choices. The machine responded by dispensing his selections, much to his surprise. He offered another sandwich to Sharneste and sat down to eat.

Percy was not hungry yet. He was still thinking about Amanda. He knew that people---even clones---work better on full, or at the very least non-empty, stomachs so he didn't object to the sudden lunch-time feel of the room as food was dispensed and snacks were hoarded. Zhaxier's fixation on Milky Way bars made him shake his head and laugh aloud. He had already pegged Zhaxier for the type who loved candy bars and their short-duration, high-energy burst nature.

Nike scarfed down another sandwich, and caught Arkady looking at her. She smiled. Something about his look motivated her to distract herself and move a bit faster. She looked over at Percy, lost in thought, and suddenly an idea came to her. "Hey Perce, you think you can morph into one of those big ugly hairy things?"

"Nike," he said to Sharneste who had picked up the discarded pieces of her sandwiches and was licking them to get the taste of meat, "is always thinking good strategy, so I'm gonna try to turn into one of those hairy guys. Maybe do some recon as one of 'em, right?" He glanced at Nike who raised an eyebrow in ponderous thought. "So, uh, don't get too spooked. Here goes nothin'!" Percy clenched his fists again, concentrated on the form of the hairy creatures, and willed himself into a transformation. The feeling of adaptation he had experienced twice before wasn't forthcoming this time, and he found he couldn't fully put together in his mind's eye the exact combination of thought and will that a successful transformation must require. He opened his eyes, disappointed, and looked down at himself, expecting no change at all.

His expectations were realized. He was disappointed and confused. He had seen the hairy creatures, but only for a few seconds. Maybe it required a longer visual reference? Maybe he could only change into a Wolfoid?

"Looks like you need to work on your party tricks, RAM," Zhaxier quipped. "But here's a treat for your grand effort." A candy bar flew out of his medical bag toward Percy.

Nike reassured him, "good try, Percy---maybe you can try again later, once you've had some food in you for a bit."

"Hey, yeah!" He ran to the food dispenser and ordered himself a cup of coffee, black, like he liked it.

"Waaaitaminute, guys!"

The others stared at him.

"I just remembered I like to drink coffee!" Percy grinned from ear to ear and gulped down the not-too-hot, caffeinated beverage. He crumpled up the empty paper cup in his hands and felt invigorated. "Ah, that was great!" Percy politely cupped his mouth and choked back a burp. "I feel like I could take on the whole Empire by myself!" He was thankful for the coffee revelation. It centered him a bit and gave him some hope---of what, he wasn't sure yet. Nevertheless he felt better.

Chelydra hastily swallowed the last of his lunch. He glanced over at his comrades and the new member of their little band, Arkady. "If everybody is done with chow, we should pack up and get moving after Amanda, like Zhaxier said," he announced, nodding toward Zhaxier. He got up and moved toward the doorway.

Nike asked Sharneste, "did you smell any of those smelly creatures nearby when you were down the hall?"

Sharneste looked at Nike lovingly, licking her chops. "I say there are, yes? I say smelly ones near. I smell them. We go pounce on them now? More food if I help pounce them?"

"Sure thing," she said to Sharneste. "Ok people, let's go get Amanda ... I think we should do a brief check of each room to survey for better weapons. Let's move!"

"Ok, Nike," Percy said, "yeah, let's go."

"About time," Zhaxier said.

Arkady clapped his hands together, cleaned the crumbs off his hands, and stood up. "This reminds me of a joke my fellow pilots used to say: 'There's a dead pilot in the landing bay. Really? What rank is he? How should I know?" Arkady laughed to himself, "it's tattooed on the back his neck!'" He looked around. "Uhm, I'm a drop-ship pilot, in case you didn't know. Where are we going?" Arkady headed to the door, ready to go. He didn't have anything else to do, and Nike was very pleasing to his eye.

"C'mon Tink, there's nothing salvageable in that trash can!" Zhaxier pulled the Moonwerk General Purpose Technical Support Unit out of the dumpster and coaxed him toward the door. "Did you find anything?" Zhaxier asked hopefully, as he had been unsuccessful in searching for a flashlight, or anything else useful for that matter.

Tinker grumbled that he couldn't find anything of value, even in the trash cans (which were empty and clean).

Zhaxier pulled his data pad from his bag and performed a search for the letter 'K'. The search instantly showed a file for the room S8346, titled "Kaminsky." Like the other subfile he had found in his data pad, he opened it. It showed a detailed path to the room, not far from the lifeboat. The file had his name on it, meaning the former Zhaxier had placed it there, like the other file.

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