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Chapter 17: Lift Off


Arkady saw Chelydra through the narrow gap as the door sealed shut. "Retract into your shell," he shouted and hurried into the ship. Chelydra heard the warning and swiftly secured his equipment to his combat harness. He pulled into his shell and huddled tight. He prayed his physiology would allow him to survive long enough in the thinning atmosphere for his comrades to rescue him.

"The turtle didn't make it," Arkady shouted as he reached the intersection. "But he might withstand the vacuum in his shell. We can still bring him in through the airlock." His frantic gaze fell upon a yellow warning sign to his right. It reminded him of what an airlock looked like. He rushed toward it. From a nearby cabinet he removed a pressure suit that looked big enough to fit him. He kicked off his boots and stared at the airlock mechanism as he pulled the suit over his coveralls. Its operation made him realize there were still empty places in his memory. "Nike! I'm gonna need some help with the airlock."

Nike was already running down the ship's corridor. A distinct cacophony of boots on metal announced her arrival. Percy and Rufus filed in behind her. "You suit up, I'll handle the airlock," she said. Nike hit a button that caused a keyboard to descend from a panel in the wall. Within a few keystrokes, the inner door of the airlock slid open. "Be sure not to lose your tether. It's the only thing that'll hold you and Chelydra in the bay once the doors open to the vacuum of space," she reminded Arkady as he moved into the airlock. The door slid closed behind him.

CLANK! Whhhhhrrrrrrr

"... Open to the vacuum of space?" Percy repeated with exasperation. Depressurizing the bay was one thing; being flushed into space was another. He knew it was inevitable, but still the moment's importance was not lost to him. "So we really are leaving Warden," he thought to himself somberly. He wondered if they would ever return.

Inside the depressurizing airlock, Arkady coupled the rebreather interface to his facemask. It seemed odd to him that some things about his profession, like the airlock interface, seemed foreign while his memories of the suiting up procedure were still familiar. His palms became wet at the thought of what else he might have forgotten without even being aware of it. He was infinitely grateful to Nike for reminding him about the tether. He grasped it from the reel beside him and pulled it through two D-rings attached to the webbing of his environment suit. The tether's clasp attached firmly to his belt. The opposite door began to slide open. Arkady dropped to the hangar floor. The airlock was at the rear of the ship so he had to turn right and jog around the side before he could see Chelydra's motionless shell nearby. He headed for him while he trailed the tether behind to provide enough slack.

Inside the ship, an auxiliary control panel and flatscreen monitor suddenly blinked to life. The monitor displayed views from several cameras outside the airlock. Percy approached it and saw Arkady stepping off the airlock platform. Another camera displayed Chelydra lying beside the ship's main entrance, and still another displayed Gregory lying further away by the lockers. Percy looked at Nike helplessly. "I never had training with pressure suits. Or if I did, I don't remember ..." He wished he could help Arkady with the retrieval. "You think he can get to both of them before ...?"

"No, I don't think there's any way for him to get Gregory, even if he is still alive out there," Nike responded.

Percy and Nike watched the screen in silence. Percy's thoughts gradually returned to their escape. He asked Nike how he could help. "I'm not a fly-boy," he said, then interrupted himself, "er, or fly-gal for that matter." He realized his attempt at gender equality was probably wasted on the all-business marine who most likely took no offense at his initial slang for space pilots. "But Warden's systems should be similar to this," he gestured toward the controls. "Give me a quick tour of the airlock controls and I'll get 'em back in so you can fly this thing."

Nike quickly showed him how to use the airlock controls. For a computer guy, it was intuitive, so she clarified the order in which things needed to happen and explained the vocabulary within the software that was foreign to him. Then she rushed to the cockpit and continued readying the systems for take-off.

Rufus stood back watching all the hub-bub. Amanda entered the room and stood next to Rufus. They heard the bay doors beginning to open. Then they heard a sliding noise from within the ship. It came from down the hall and to the right, toward the galley. "What do you suppose that was?" Amanda asked her furry companion. Rufus shrugged.

Outside the ship, Arkady approached Chelydra. With his free hand he rapped on Chelydra's shell and shouted, "Come on!" Chelydra emerged from his shell. Arkady pulled him to his feet and handed him the tether. Chelydra attached it to his harness while Arkady handed him the rebreather's emergency air regulator. He took a breath and followed Arkady back to the airlock.

As they neared the back of the ship, they saw Gregory's body lying amidst the remains of a maintenance bot. He had collided with it in a blind panic and knocked himself unconscious. Several bots attended to their fallen comrade. Blood oozed from Gregory's forehead and his skin seemed an unearthly shade of blue. Chelydra kept one hand wrapped around the tether for security. He gave his fallen shipmate a glance, but mourning would have to wait. Arkady briefly pondered the strange color of Gregory's skin. "What could have done that?" he wondered. "The temperature in the hangar will soon drop to a few dozen degrees Kelvin, but the hangar door isn't open yet ... Still, I can't leave him behind if there's still time." He helped Chelydra into the airlock and detached the tether between them. He considered reattaching his tether so he could shut the door and go back for Gregory, but an urgent green light suddenly filled the bay. Arkady felt the stubborn groan of century old machinery: He/It/They (that universal enemy) was opening the bay doors. Gregory's fate suddenly seemed terribly remote. He turned back to the ship and grasped the edge of the airlock platform. Before climbing in, he scanned the ship's underbelly for anything unusual. "We won't be going very far if this vessel is secured to the hangar," he thought, but the ship seemed free and ready for takeoff. He hauled himself in.

The outer door sealed shut and the sound of rushing air gradually greeted their ears. Chelydra spit the regulator from his mouth. Arkady pounded on the transparent portal through which he could see Percy attentively waiting at the airlock controls. He flashed him the 'OK' sign with his thumb and index finger. A moment later, the inner door opened and Percy welcomed Arkady and Chelydra. "Whew! I didn't think you were going to make it for a minute there!"

Arkady gratefully breathed the fresh air. "Thanks Percy!"

Percy nodded, but a commanding female voice came from the ship's intercom before there was time for more pleasantries: "Arkady, please report to the bridge. Everyone else buckle in for departure." Arkady rushed down the hall toward the sound of Nike's voice. Percy turned his attention to Chelydra who was still in the airlock. He rapped on the Lieutenant's carapace with his creased knuckles, white from their bending. "Hey, come out Lieutenant! You're safe in the dropship now!"

Chelydra stood up and looked around him. The airlock was unfamiliar. It triggered no memories but he realized that he had escaped death once again, at least for the present. He thanked Percy then headed for the exit to find a seat he could strap into, in case the pilot's memories were as fuzzy as his own. He caught sight of Rufus huddled in a corner and said, "come on, let's go find a place to sit and something to eat. Action always makes me hungry." Chelydra, Rufus and Amanda wandered deeper into the ship.

Percy gave one last look at the external monitor and frowned before turning it off. He pitied Gregory. He had been just another clone like the rest of them, but still he had had life and breath within him even if only for a short time. That meant something to Percy. "It has to," he thought, "or none of this was even worth the trouble." Theirs had not been a grand escape worthy of storytelling, with all the casualties they'd suffered in one day. But he was glad for it nonetheless. They needed some breathing room and, as big as Warden was, space would be much bigger.

Percy double-checked the lock on the airlock then turned his attention to the dropship's onboard computer system. He hoped to get some straight answers. That damned crazy robot that had blown itself up hadn't yielded enough to satisfy him. He wanted to know where the ship was, what year it was, if there were other clones on the ship--or if this Watcher fellow had managed to commandeer all of Warden with his crazed robots and traps. He cracked his knuckles and tried to login to the systems that his original version had once maintained, troubleshot and operated.

In the cockpit, Arkady took an empty station next to Nike. He strapped himself into the gravharness as quickly as he could. He hadn't the time, or the inclination, to remove his environment suit. Should the ship's hull be compromised by age, or weapons fire, he would want another layer of protection. He opened his faceplate so he could speak freely (the possibility of their electronic communications being intercepted made him nervous.) As he completed the clasps on the gravharness he studied the controls in front of him. Would he remember their function? He looked up at Nike. She looked cool, confident and in control. Arkady relaxed and observed her. The engines started and the ship left the hangar floor.

Percy felt the floor move beneath him. He had not been able to connect to the Warden and he couldn't figure out how to engage the seats recessed into the floor. He feared the ride would be bumpy, so he rushed to the entrance where he'd seen two ready crash seats. Rufus was already there, strapped into the other seat. Rufus was chewing on something he had found in the galley. He didn't look as if he liked the taste, but he was hungry enough to eat it.

Percy climbed into the seat beside him and fastened himself in. He was disappointed to see there was no computer interface in the hallway, only the two seats facing the front of the ship. He also noticed that his bag and all their belongings which had been hastily left in the hallway were gone. While they had been rescuing Chelydra, Amanda had found a nearby storage room to stow them in. Percy watched the wall in front of him and listened to Rufus's indecorous munching while the world fell away from him. The dropship lifted them through the exit canal in the roof above and into the cold vacuum of space.


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