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Chapter 15: Spacedust

The death of Sharneste Nike and Chelydra exited the armory followed by Arkady, Percy, Tinker and Sharneste. BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!---they were showered by sparks and debris. The autobots launched a huge assault. Percy's senses were blocked out completely for a moment. All he could think about was getting away: survival. He felt the pounding of his heart reverberating in his ears cacophonously. He ran for cover behind Nike but they only had one another to hide behind. He looked over his shoulder to tell Sharneste to hurry, but she wasn't there.

Parts of Sharneste's body splattered onto Tinker. Flanked by Chelydra and Percy, Tinker moved swiftly backwards firing his metal disruptor at their pursuers. Percy tried out his new laser pistol, firing into the dust and smoke behind them hoping to hit the autobots. Chelydra kept his shotgun ready in case their enemies came within range. Nike and Arkady scouted ahead for cover, escape or Zhaxier.

The autobots moved forward less aggressively. Their prey was armed and lethal, but unbeknownst to the ragtag medley of clones, the bots were waiting on reinforcements.


Zhaxier raced down the corridor. He checked the numbers above the doors on his right, S8340, S8341, S8342. The room numbers on his left were descending. He was closer to room S8346 than he had previously thought. He hurried as he wondered what might await him there. He had suspected that whoever controlled the robots would have disabled the lifeboats, but perhaps they had missed whatever mystery lie in room S8346. The room number haunted him. The gruesome vidscreen display in the clone banks flashed in his mind as he prepared for the worst.

Through the smoke he suddenly saw three humanoids approaching fast: a bipedal dog of some sort, a woman, and a man. "So we're not the only clones on the run," he thought. The smoke prevented him from seeing much more than the signs above the doors. He didn't get a close enough look to recognize Amanda. He raced on by the trio without slowing.

Zhaxier was getting near to where room S8346 should have been. From a side corridor, a duo of autobots rounded the corner and fired. BLAMM! The corridor wall to Zhaxier's right disappeared in a crash of energy, steel and polymer.

For a moment, Zhaxier considered taking advantage of the chaotic scene to mask his movement ripple and squeeze by the robots. The dust and smoke was so thick in the hallway that he could hardly see the robots ahead of him in the surreal purple lighting. Nor could he see the molten pieces of hot polymer and steel that covered the corridor floor all around where the wall had once stood. A clump of hot debris melted its way deep into his foot. The pain threatened to overwhelm his conscious mind. "FRAK!" he yelled involuntarily as his foot erupted with blinding pain. The sudden noise gave the autobots cause to pause.

Zhaxier thought he had been shot. But he had been shot before. This was different - it continued to consume his flesh. He kicked his foot free of the smouldering gobbet of plastic. His senses assaulted him. The smell of burning protein! The taste of his ID card! Bleuck!

The autobots searched the hallway bit by bit. Zhaxier heard weapons fire in the distance. He huddled against the corridor wall and contemplated his own annihilation. He remembered waking up in the armory - unblended. Zhaxier quietly picked himself up and wrenched his thoughts free from his rampant imagination. "Must remain conscious," he determined.

He hugged the left wall and limped down the corridor toward the intersection and the robots. They had not detected him yet but he didn't dare try and pass them. Direct access to S8346 was impossible for the time being. He glanced behind him, but he couldn't see anything down the corridor through the thick, acrid smoke. He abandoned his original plan and stepped into a nearby doorway. Zhaxier swiped his card and held his breath, hoping it was not his last.

The message, "Access Granted, Engineer Cole. Have a nice day," silently displayed above the card reader. The doors slid open, revealing a woman's sleeping quarters. The room seemed to flow in three directions; to the left, to the right, and straight ahead. The nexus was a large, homey area with lounging furniture and tables with photos. Doors graced the far left wall past an eating area, the far right wall past a study area, and straight ahead past the sitting area. Zhaxier stepped into the room, and the doors slid closed behind him.

Zhaxier breathed a momentary sigh of relief in the comfortable confines of the nameless woman's apparently abandoned abode. "Ugh," he shivered involuntarily. "Pink." He didn't pause to wonder why he had been granted access to a room that was obviously not his.

He wanted to close the distance between him and S8346, and ultimately the hangar. If there was a way around the ambush, Zhaxier was determined to find it. He quickly headed past the dining area. There he found the ubiquitous access panels through which he---or rather, his former incarnation---had frequently entered and exited the Warden's labyrinthine network of Jeffries tubes on maintenance runs.

The panel was approximately half a meter wide and equally tall. It was bolted shut on each of its four corners with steel bolts.

Zhaxier sighed at the lack of his engineering tools. Going "commando" had its downside. He tried his ID card in the slot on top of a bolt on the access panel, but the plastic card was not rigid enough to apply sufficient torque.

On the dining room table he spied silverware. He snatched a knife. As he plied the knife's edge to the bolts, he noted occasional weapon's fire through the wall. It was getting closer. The telltale "zing" of a metal disruptor did not sound like the autobots. It gave Zhaxier hope. "C'mon you bastard!" he coaxed a bolt.

Soon all four bolts were loose. Hurriedly, Zhaxier worked the bolts out and removed the panel. The open space yawned before him.

He put the dinner knife and ID card in his mouth and climbed into the Warden Wide Web of Jeffries tube. As he made his way toward the S8346, he smiled and thought, "And Tink said I wasn't a tubecrawler!"

But an invisible laser grid protocol had been enabled when the deck was sealed off. As he poked his head into the opening, the security grid immediately exploded his head like a blood sausage. Blessed peace came quickly and silently.

The death of Zhaxier

21:32 S&D TEAM 6 - EN ROUTE

"Wruts wrext?"

"We've got to figure out which of these doors leads to a lifeboat." Gregory suddenly had a strange inspiration. He tapped his open palm to the left side of his chest by his shoulder. "Computer, locate the nearest lifeboat." Naturally, there was no response. He couldn't imagine where the idea had come from. "What do you do?" Gregory mentally asked himself.

"This is a rotten bit of this crazy world. Hangin' mightn't have been much worse ..." Rufus thought while nodding at the human's words: "Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-door-blah-blah-blah."

Amanda looked at her two companions. "Well I think we should pick a door, and do it quickly. Ugh - this is horrid, isn't it? Let's fall into the trap as they say---let's do the most obvious thing. Sorry, my mind's gone crazy again."

Autobots suddenly hovered into view from around a distant corner behind them. "Here's the plan," Gregory said, "we open every door in the hallway until we come to a lifeboat!"

"Right, an open door. They aren't so stupid after all," Rufus thought. He hefted the polymer-handled plasteel axe in his paw. "Wreah, wreah, wret's wro," he agreed.

Gregory ran to the closest door and tried to open it by pressing on the lock plate. "Scan passcard please," a polite and sterile voice said softly. "This isn't good," he thought as he ran to the next doorway.

Amanda felt as if she was going to faint. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Gregory examined yet another door. He looked worried. A scream resounded through the corridor. The all-too familiar smell of burnt flesh assaulted Rufus's nose. Amanda figured at this stage she had better start praying. She told herself, "what sane person can live in this place and not be crazy?"

Gregory proceeded to make Amanda look calm and collected by comparison. He totally lost it and began running around the hallway like a chicken with his head cut off. "Help, help! We're going to die, we're all going to diiiieeee!"

Rufus had nearly forgotten about his perpetual hunger. That alerted him to the seriousness of the situation. He decided to extricate himself from the hysterical humans. "Wret wror writ wrorefer wran!" he shouted as he zagged around the looney man and hurried down the hall.

Amanda hadn't understood what Rufus had said, but she didn't have time to think about it either. Everything was happening too fast. Her world was spinning out of control like an orbit that had strayed too close to a fixed, repellant point. Without a second thought, she slapped Gregory hard across the face. It sounded like a gunshot. It stung her hand. "Snap out of it, man! I need the dumb, man part of your brain here with me if we're going to stay alive. I've got a plan and it's as hot as I am! We keep running. It works for lemmings; it has to work for us. Now follow me," she ordered. It wasn't like her to take charge, let alone slap someone. It surprised her. It reminded her of a kiss not so long ago.

Gregory was totally stunned---perhaps more so than was safe in the present circumstances. He reflected that Amanda might be more than just a pretty face! She was looking up the hallway ahead, past Rufus's diminishing figure. She thought she had heard human voices. When she heard it again, her senses came back online - full throttle. "It's Nike!" she cried, relief in her voice. Ahead, her would-be rescuers were in a fight for their lives.

Out of fear, desperation or both, she ran toward Nike pulling Gregory along with her. She had felt safe with Nike; she wanted a little bit of that safety back. She also knew that there was safety in numbers. That was, after all, why she had become a mathematician. "Come on, we haven't lived this long to die now!"

Intent only on finding better cover from the autobots until he could come up with a better plan, Gregory followed her down the corridor without voicing comment or protest, as if he had made some sort of perverse peace with being blown to smithereens.

Amanda led him by the hand toward Nike and her compatriots. The sound of close weapons fire led Amanda to believe that Nike had raided the munitions depot which she had blurted out during her capture. "Good," she thought, "I hope they're kicking some Watcher ass to the n-th degree."


A distant scream echoed ahead of Nike. "That sounds a lot like Mr. SmartAss," she thought, worried about him in spite of herself.

Tinker fired another round at their pursuers as he backpedaled. As he loaded another energy cell into the metal disruptor his keen gaze punctured the smoke ahead of him. His pattern recognition software kicked into gear. He cautioned the others, "Heads up! Multiple heat sources. Three humanoids ahead, two robots further down. We'll have to go through them."

Arkady tried to see ahead through the smoke and debris but couldn't see anyone. "That lifeboat can't be too much further. What room number did the invisible dude say we are looking for?" he asked Nike. He cradled the pod launcher to his chest, careful not to do anything that was likely to set it off.

"S8346", Nike replied, "but I don't think that's the launch bay." She paused as she thought she heard someone yelling her name ahead of them. She pressed her body tightly against the wall to give the bots a smaller target. "Maybe this is getting to me." She took a deep breath and moved onward. "We've got to get the hell out of here. Ok everybody, let's speed this up!" Chelydra, Percy and Arkady knew she was right. There wasn't a second to lose. Chelydra moved ahead on the left side of the corridor. Nike moved through a dense area of smoke on his right. Arkady followed behind her. His eyes darted between Nike's body just ahead and the door numbers to either side of him and back again. "S8346," he said to himself, over and over again. Percy noticed Arkady's nervous glances and wondered when they would reach their intended destination---or if they'd reach it.

Percy risked a glance behind him and fired his laser pistol down the hall. He didn't expect to hit anything. He couldn't even see much with all the smoke and debris, but he figured it'd give the bots something else to process. Tinker brought up the rear. He continued to provide suppressing fire as they moved forward. Like Arkady and Percy, Tinker also kept an optical sensor out for S8346, betting that Zhaxier's casual mention of the sleeper room indicated his plan of action. What did the Blendoid know about that room? The dude might have been a propulsion jock, but his actions sometimes pointed to a faulty thruster. Wasn't it his predecessor Zephram Cochrane that had said, "Orthogonal, original thinking is the hallmark of a successful engineer ... or a dead one?" Blindly running into an obvious trap did not seem to be the most strategic of choices, especially now that the bots behind them had slowed. If the human(oid)s ahead didn't come up with something fast, Tinker wouldn't hesitate to blast a hole through the corridor wall for an alternate egress.

Rufus suddenly emerged from the smoke, with a double-handed grip on his polymer axe, halting their progress. He was determined to link up with new allies and get out of the murder-ground. "Gun ... get gun ...," he thought. Just then, the autobots launched another round of explosives. Rufus snarled as the sound died away and the debris fell. He wanted to leap at one of the dangerous box-like autobots and ker-wack-it on the ... uh, top of its boxiness with his newly found polymer axe thingy. "... ker-wack box, get gun ... ker-wack box, get gun ...," Rufus added to his mental process.

Nike found herself face to face with Rufus the Jackaloid. "Who are you?" she said gruffly, pointing her gun at him.

"Wrym Rufus. Wrat wror wrerwris," Rufus said. His ears perked up, his tongue lolled, and his tail wagged happily.

The sight, smell, and sound of a dog---well, at least a dog-derivative---reminded Percy of something: a dog he had once had, perhaps even on Warden. He grinned a big smile, happy to have remembered something of his former life, and turned to Arkady. "Waaiiitaminute! I just remembered---I like dogs!" Just as suddenly as his smile had appeared, another explosion jolted him back to reality. "Huh? Uh. Hm! Ah, reality!"

"Wrurry! Wre wrar wrin wrig wrubble! Wrimmie wra wrun ...," he pleaded, pointing at Nike's gun. <pant-pant>

No dog of Percy's had ever asked for a firearm. "If this is what passes for getting back to reality, oh boy ..."

Nike reasoned that things couldn't get any worse and that an ally might help their odds. She pulled an extra gun---the special stun pistol---from her stash. "Here you go. Shoot the bots, not the humanoids." She rushed past him into the smoke.

"But watch out for our buddy bot," Arkady shouted, "He's the one blasting at the bots behind us!"

To underscore the dropship pilot's point, Tinker gave the pursuing bots another burst of bot-bane from his M-3000. Tinker frowned internally at the risk the Marine had taken in handing to a complete stranger a weapon that could be used against them. He kept the Jackaloid in his peripheral vision just in case.

"Wroky Wroky ... Wranx wrawrot!" Rufus exclaimed, gripping the pistol in his right paw.

"NIKE!" Amanda called. She gradually emerged from the smoke. Their first encounter seemed so very long ago.

Gregory had allowed Amanda to lead him by the hand. He kind of liked it, but he broke free as soon as he had Nike's group between himself and the autobots pursuing him. "Live cover will do in a pinch," he thought.

"Amanda!" Percy exclaimed, and for once he seemed surprised.

"Amanda!?" Nike and Chelydra said, excited and relieved to see her alive and well.

"I'm so glad to be back with you Nike; I really missed you guys." Tears welled up in Amanda's eyes, but she tried to hold them back. She bit her lip for a moment. She wanted to say more to Nike to thank her, but it didn't seem like the right time or place. She felt bad, as if she were teaching some engineers again: z -> conj(z) is worse than bad. A couple of tears raced down her cheeks, but she quickly wiped them away and composed herself. She was very happy to be back with Nike, now protected in the center of the group.

"Thank God you're alright," Nike exclaimed.

"Welcome to the party, Amanda," Chelydra called. "It seems we have a few gatecrashers at the reunion, though. Must be from Tinker's side of the family."

"And that G10 was one hell of a find! Thanks to your tip, we now have a fighting chance," Nike said. She fired another round. The bots hung back a little, firing only enough to maintain their position and prevent the humanoids from moving in their direction. Why, she wondered: was there a trap ahead? Were they being backed into a corner? Were there reinforcements coming with "heavy artillery"? Whatever the reason, Nike knew it wasn't out of the kindness of their shiny, metal hearts.

Chelydra moved ahead to scout again, and Rufus took his place in the rear guard, keeping an eye out for encroaching bots. Gregory, still weaponless, stayed with Amanda in the center of the group. Amanda pointed to each of their new compatriots. "That's Nike, she's in charge. That's Percy. That's Chelydra." Percy raised a hand in a quick greeting. "Zhaxier, an invisible guy, is around here somewhere. If you see floating Cool-Mo-G sunglasses, that's him. Zhaxier used to be in my differential equations class. How could I forget a troublemaker with such a memorable name?" She pointed to the man carrying the huge weapon and to the robot, "I don't know their names. I think I said it before: I'm Amanda. But I still don't know yours." She looked at Gregory expectantly.

Gregory looked about the group of strangers nervously, ignoring Amanda's invitation. He was hesitant to speak up for fear of drawing unwanted attention to himself, but there was something he was almost (literally) dying to know. "I know this is a bad time for introductions and all, but I'm just wondering---are we all intent on reaching a lifeboat?"

"A good assumption, human, and one that it appears the Arnolds have made as well. While the bots behind us appear to be gaining ground, there is now a pair ahead that is moving away from us. They've already given up a lot of ground, and they're headed toward the hangar!"

Arkady suddenly eyed the newcomers with concern. "Are we being herded?" he asked no one in particular.

Arkady's words reminded Percy of something ... a hyphenated word that described the feeling he was having. "Pac-Man," he blurted out. He shook his head and tried to remember the connection, but it was lost to him. He noticed the odd stares. "Oh, sorry. Er, let's save the pleasantries for when we're not being shot at, huh Cap? Shall we?" He kept his back to the wall as much as he could, and fired his laser pistol at the autobots ahead of them.

The autobots on both sides had relaxed their attacks. Twice a minute or so another energy bolt was fired by the autobots behind them. The autobots ahead of them fired with less frequency and did less damage to the walls. They couldn't determine whether the shots were less powerful because of the distance or the weapons being used. Ahead of them, the smoke was dissipating slightly, but not even Percy's exceptional vision could make out the firing autobots ahead. Backup systems were pouring chemicals onto the few remaining fires to extinguish them and the haze of smoke continued to thin. Only Tinker's digitally enhanced visual array was able to discern the movement of the distant autobots. He determined that their pursuers were very near the Armor and Weapons depot and were closing but at a slower rate than he had expected. Those ahead were so distant that he could only detect their occasional muzzle-flash. Their weapons were lighter, and he calculated from the time differential between the initial muzzle-flash and the nearby explosion that they were 125 meters ahead. From this analysis, Tinker had also deduced that the autobots ahead had stopped their retreat. "Goaltending," he computed. "If they disable the lifeboat, we are dead in the water."

"Provided we can get around the autobots," Gregory said.

"I suggest 'nuking' them immediately with the pod launcher."

"Does anyone have a clearance card that will get us past the door," Gregory asked. "Just wondering ..."

"If no one had a clearance card, would that stop you?" Arkady asked Gregory. He had a difficult time looking him in the eye, as Gregory kept twisting to get Arkady between him and every weapons fire that came their way. "Well ... actually it just did a ... few seconds ago when I was at ... the door to the lifeboat," he lied. "Of course---yow," he ducked, "that was a near miss!---I didn't happen to have the heavy ordinance on me ... to blow open the door myself."

"I have clearance," Nike said, moving quickly.

Undeterred, Tinker fired another blast from the M3000 and said, "Arkady, a well-placed grenade from your launcher could take out those robots 125 meters ahead of us. By my estimation, they have stopped far enough beyond the hangar that a grenade blast radius should not affect the lifeboat. Would you care to lend me your weapon and one grenade? The alternative is walking into a most certain ambush."

"I like your enthusiasm," Arkady said as he quickened his step. He remembered Nike's words. He wasn't sure if she was right about the pod launcher. He also wasn't sure if Tinker was capable of considering all the variables and determining the consequences of such an action, or if his logic was buggy. "I don't want to risk it except as a last resort," he said. He gripped the launcher tightly to his chest and hurried on.

"Does anyone know exactly where Zhaxier went?" Tinker registered Nike's question, but as his hunch was just that, he didn't answer. Nike was surprised that no one, especially Tinker, knew where Zhaxier was, but there was no time for second-guessing.

"Nike! Percy!" Chelydra said from just ahead. "We've reached S8346; it's the next door up. Want to try it?" The room number meant nothing to Chelydra. Somewhere he was sure lurked the buried knowledge of what the numbers meant. "All ship's rooms are coded by section and function. Within a section, numbers run ...," was all he could recall.

His memory hung in the air for a moment as Nike approached. "No," she said. "We've got to get to that lifeboat, ASAP."

Chelydra shook his head and thought, "You have no friggin' idea what's in there---it could be nothing that would help us, and then we would be trapped in some room with no escape with limited ammo!"

The room number was also meaningless to Rufus. He followed the group. Arkady was a little confused when the rest of the party continued on past S8346. He paused for a thought, then approached the door. Since both of his hands were occupied with cradling the pod launcher as if it were a doomsday device, he tapped the bottom of the door a few times with his boot and put his face to the edge to maximize his voice beyond. "Hurry up Zhaxier," he said, "we're movin' on," not knowing that S8346 was not the room into which Zhaxier had gone nor that he was already dead. Carefully, but with alacrity, Arkady resumed his moderate pace amidst his comrades.

"Let's go people!" Nike called as she ran down the corridor. Amanda hurried to stay close to Nike. "Holy shit," she thought she heard her say, "this is just like Waxmis IV." But in the noise and confusion she wasn't sure. Chelydra and Rufus carefully followed them through yet another intersection. Arkady, Gregory and Percy soon followed.

Tinker struggled with an incoming hostile override signal. He slowed and Arkady passed through the intersection as control was finally wrested from Tinker. A self-destruct charge went off with a minor explosion that rocked the corridor and vaporized the robot and all that he had carried.

Percy and Arkady flattened themselves against the wall and looked behind them. "I was right, the robot was buggy ..." Arkady thought as he looked back at the pile of remaining embers.

"What the hell was that?" Nike called from the front of the pack.

"Tinker exploded," Arkady replied, "but he wasn't hit by anything!"

Percy gripped his sleak laser pistol tightly and glanced at the straps of his duralloy armor. At least he was partly defensible on his own without Tinker's firepower and armor. That Arkady still had the pod launcher was comforting too. "A darn shame that is," he muttered to Arkady as the pilot caught up with them. "I was hoping to pick that bot's memory about the disaster that befell Warden. It may not matter since we're trying to abandon her, anyway ... to have stayed online for so many hundreds of years only to end like that ... ah, well. No sense in crying over spilt motor oil. Seems like we're running out of time, and we're definitely a little lighter in the firepower now!"

"Was he in league with the Watcher after all," Nike tried to make sense of it as she pushed forward to the hangar. "Maybe he feared the Watcher's retribution? No, he was armed ... he could've taken at least a few of us out before resorting to self-destructing ... Maybe one of his circuits shorted with some kind of EM-pulse that we couldn't see ..."

Nike neared what seemed to be a hangar door. She removed her ID card just as Percy reached her. Percy fired another shot behind them to provide some cover for her to open it. "Heh," he smirked to himself. "Maybe Zhaxier's already got it unlocked for us!"

"It's very unpleasant out in space," Amanda said to Nike, "if indeed that's where we're headed."

"I know, but it's much more hospitable than in here at the moment. Besides, I have a plan!" She flashed a big grin at her friend in a fit of good humor amid the chaos.

Instinctual adrenaline had protected them thus far from the emotions threatening to overwhelm them. Arkady was the last to arrive. Except for their labored breathing, the corridor was deathly silent. Even the autobots had ceased their firing. Sniffing, and cocking one tall ear to discern any movement, Rufus hefted the heavy stun pistol in his paws, ready to blast anything that might be inside! Nike stared at the computer terminal that controlled the hangar door. She scanned her card, and the doors opened.

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