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Chapter 21: Tritonian Standoff

The door opened and revealed the medbay behind it. In the mirrored surface of a medical cabinet, Percy caught a fleeting glimpse of himself as a wolfoid in human clothing. From an open door to his right, he sensed movement. He saw Bud pointing a firearm in his direction. Bud's face seemed dimly familiar...

Percy waved his pistol menacingly and crouched for cover. "Thisth isth our sthip! Give us the woman and nobody getsth hurt!"

Bud stared into the barrel of the pistol held by the talking wolfman and returned the threat. Bailey crouched on the other side of the doorway and aimed his pistol at Percy. "I'm not sure if I'd call this a 'Mexican Standoff'," Bud said, "since I'm from Triton."

The wolfoid eyed the newcomers warily while Nike, Chelydra and Arkady entered the medbay. Arkady looked sideways at Nike: her body language was surprisingly relaxed. He shot her a puzzled look and she smiled in return. "Well, well," Nike smiled engagingly, with a hint of competitive menace, "care for a little match to settle this argument, gentlemen? Or are you ready to play nicely and concede that you are stowaways on our ship?"

Bud smiled and continued aiming his pistol. "Always curious about matches... and since I don't remember wolfmen or turtleguys on the crew roster, I'm fairly confident that this isn't your ship."

Shlitzee moved toward one of the computer monitors. "I can get a few answers for us all." A data lead snaked from her left thigh toward the interface. She put her laser on a slow rove between Chelydra and Nike. Arkady eyed the laser. He knew very little about robots, but he knew that the security bots back on the Warden had been reprogrammed to kill. He wondered if this robot was controlled by someone hostile, or if it was autonomous. He made a mental note to ask Percy if robots could rid themselves of... something: Arkady struggled with the word. He vaguely remembered that robot intelligence was almost universally limited by some kind of control device... an Independence Governor?

Chelydra's shotgun twitched from Bud to Shlitzee, and prevented the robot from approaching the computer. "All right bolt-bucket, just freeze it right there," he drawled. "Seeing as we came down in this ship, I reckon that gives us as good a claim as anyone to her... 'sir'. How about some explaining as to just who you are and how you came to be here. Then we'll see about answering some questions for you."

"I'm Officer Asuda of the Starship Warden."

"My name is Percthee Jenkins, we'r-r-o-w-r-r-r'e from Warden!"

"Jenkins, Thomason, Bailey...," Bud's mind raced. "Weren't we all at some formal gala? What was it... 'Hardy Spacer's Ball'? Nah... 'Special Order of the Astral Shine'? Nope. I don't think that even happened... 'Captain's Ball for the Elect!' A shin-dig for those chosen to be mem/gen recorded. Yeah... I went as 'Earl Kai-Chek' of course." Bud glared back at the wolfoid and called, "I knew Percy Jenkins. Percy Jenkins was a friend of mine. You, 'sir', are no Percy Jenkins!"

A robotic chuckle pulsed deep in Shlitzee's processors. She aimed her laser at Jenkins. Her eyes glowed deep red. "What can you tell me about metal presses, hairy-sack-of-mostly-water?"

Arkady, the only person not waving a weapon, ended the awkward silence that followed. "We don't really have time to play Wild Kingdom."

"I hear you," Bud replied, "although Marlon Perkins is a personal hero of mine."

Percy growled. There was something familiar about that robot too... "Waaaaaaaaitaminute! Wolf-off," he said and hastily pictured his human form. He recovered from his crouch and became Percy the clone again. "I got your answers right here," he said, pointing to his head. "At least the ones I can remember..." Percy grinned as Bud and Bailey's eyes grew wide and their mouths hung agape.

"Captain RAM, is that you," Bud asked in disbelief.

"Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeees! It's me! I think, anyway. Zhaxier called me that once, but I didn't realize at the time it was my nickname."

"Captain," Nike said incredulously.

Percy grinned and shook his head. "'Captain RAM' is some kind of joke, I think. Let me explain. I'm not Percy."

"I thought you just said..."

"I'm a clone of Percy," he interrupted Bud. "And a scrambled one at that. I think I'm a werewolf now. This here is Lieutenant Chelydra. His DNA got mixed up, too. Nike turned out ok, so did Arkady, I think. We're all clones. Warden got frakked in space a few hundred years ago. Chelydra, Nike, Zhaxier and me popped out of the cloning banks yesterday. We got chased by some crazed security robots under the control of some Watcher maniac, hooked up with our fellow clone, Amanda, who's in this room somewhere...," he gestured with his laser pistol haphazardly as if he were holding a laser pointer instead, "got chased around some more, met a couple of talking felines, a talking dog, a wacked-out robot named Tinker, Arkady here and another clone named Gregory." Percy paused for breath.

Bud cupped his hand and whispered to Bailey, "that's why we called him RAM: Random Access Memory."

Bailey whispered back, "who's Zacksheer?" Bud shrugged.

Percy continued as if he were delivering a soliloquy in a Warden Thespian Troupe (WATTRO) production. "Zhaxier disappeared, literally, since he could turn invisible. Tinker blew up. Bots killed the felines. We ran to the ship we're on now, except for Gregory who didn't make it, and Rufus croaked when we crashed. We've been looking for Amanda who apparently got dragged to the medbay, maybe by medbots."

"Rufus," Bailey asked.

"Yeah, Rufus the talking dog. I don't think he was a clone. I think he evolved from the original dog population on Warden. Anyway, so now we've escaped Warden and landed somewhere, but I have no idea where. By the way, sorry about the metal press incident," Percy said sheepishly to Shlitzee. "I thought you had been downloaded into a different frame and had you sent to the press room. Guess I got the requisition orders mixed up with the recycling orders!"

Bud assumed a more relaxed posture and adjusted his pack straps with his free hand. He continued to hold the pistol, but in a non-threatening manner. "Clones!" He looked at the transformed Lt. Jackson then Percy. He stroked an imaginary beard and said, "you gotta show me how to do that!"

"Wha?" Percy touched his chin: his face was still covered in wolf hair. "Argh," he exclaimed. He concentrated and reverted back to his clean-shaven, conservative-length hair style. "Must've forgotten to unadapt my head hair. As for showing you, sorry, but I think you need the DNA-scrambled-beyond-all-hope-of-being-normal gene before you can do that neat party trick."

"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking!" Bud gestured welcome to the clones. "These are my friends, Bailey and Shlitzee."

"The more the merrier," Nike said.

"I'm not a doctor, but if that's Amanda in there, all the instruments showed green a minute ago. Do any of you know the status of your... originals?"

"Not a clue," Percy replied as he looked into the operating room and saw Amanda. He was glad to hear she was in stable condition. He wondered if she would wake up soon. Every survivor of the Watcher's crazed attempts at harvesting them or blasting them into smithereens meant a great deal to him. He regretted that Sharneste, Gregory, and Rufus had perished in that senseless struggle, as well as who knew how many other beings he did not know about. "We're still trying to put the pieces of our memory back together. Waaaaaaitaminute, how'd you guys get on board?"

"Bailey and I have been taking a little nap since before the disaster."

Arkady, who had wandered to the other side of the room, noted two open stasis chambers. He pointed to them and said, "must have woken up in here. Sorry about the bumpy landing. At least you walked away from it," he smiled.

Shlitzee produced a small, pressurized canister from her kaftan. She shook the container and consumed the contents. Her frame shuttered slightly as her processing speed returned to human normal. "Is that robot mixing Johnny Walker Black on the rocks over there," Percy asked. "Damn, I could use one of those right now!"

Shlitzee rotated her eyes toward Percy. They glowed with a slight yellow hue. She put a hand on her hip and asked, "are you sure you want one of these 'Johnny on the rocks'?"

"On second thought," Percy said with a smirk, "that mix looks a little too strong for me, especially on my mostly empty stomach. I could use a cup of coffee, but somehow I don't think you have one in your... stock." Percy thought about what he had had to eat and drink and realized the one apple and one cup of coffee he had consumed since awakening as a clone was probably not going to carry him very far. He pulled from his fanny pouch the candy bar that Zhaxier had tossed to him in the Warden cafeteria. He held it up to his nose and sniffed deeply, as if he could smell the chocolate through the wrapper. Percy opened it meticulously, not ripping the plastic but rather separating the seams, as if there were an instant win message on the inside he did not want to rip through, and started munching on it.

"Hey Nike," Arkady called. His face was illuminated by the computer terminal he was reading. "There's some info here from the computer about you. You're a Marine? Those guys are tough!"

"Yep, Marine through and through," Nike replied as she approached the terminal.

Bud glanced at Nike and Chelydra and affected his best leatherneck posture. "Aren't all good Marines ass kickers?" Bud returned Chelydra's suspicious stare. "Most guys couldn't pull that off," he said, indicating his carapace, "but it works for you." Chelydra grunted in a masculine, nonplussed sort of way.

Percy secured his laser pistol to a strap on his duralloy plated suit. He whipped out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. "Is it hot in here or is it just me?"

"I like it hot," the shirtless turtleman offered coldly.

"It's 42 degrees in here," Arkady replied. "It's not just you. It's likely to get a lot more uncomfortable soon. There's a storm brewing: afrimus clouds, or some such. Is there an astrometeorologist in the house?"

"I wonder if the storm will cool us off some," Nike asked.

"Afrimus Cloud," Bud frowned. "How big is this storm headed our way?"

"Dunno," Arkady shrugged and continued reading from the terminal. The desk on which it sat suddenly reminded him of his desk at the University of New Eden. Some idle hand had carved 'Gruber is Hell' into it. Professor Gruber spoke in a slow, monotone, trancelike voice. His lethargic lessons on meteorology had been hypnotic. Centuries later, Arkady found himself recalling the concepts that pertained to piloting: the coriolis effect, advection, planetary boundary layers... he thought he could recall afrimus formations as well, but he couldn't remember what they were. He scratched at the memory, but it would not yield. He continued reading, "life support is still working. I wonder if we can believe that... Only one injury? This computer definitely has some blind spots! That reminds me: we'll have to bury Rufus soon, or ice him."

Nike read while Arkady scrolled through the log of information. "Two secondary hull breaches as well as a primary one. Now the ship has three holes in it!"

"Were you in the process of doing damage control," Bud asked.

"Yes," Nike replied. "Plus there may be a hostile intruder. Chelydra saw something moving outside the galley window, and Percy, Arkady and Chel heard something that sounded like a wild animal."

"Shlitzee," Bud said, "I want an uplink with Warden, a full damage report, and the location and disposition of the storm ASAP. And don't skimp on the juicing-this-turkey-outta-the-storm's-path part, preferably towards a friendly destination with power and repair facilities." Shlitzee acquiesced and connected one of her data leads to a port on the computer Nike and Arkady were reading from.

"You won't be able to uplink to Warden's systems," Percy interjected. Everyone looked at him with surprise; some with suspicion. "You are welcome to try, of course, but you'll be wasting your time. Warden's systems have been down ever since the... first disaster." Percy surprised himself. A flood of memories raced through his head: he was at a terminal, typing... alarms and klaxons began to sound... people running, screaming... nothing was working anymore... Percy felt disoriented.

"There was more than one disaster," Arkady asked.

Percy stared at the floor as he grasped the fleeting memories. "Yeah. There was a landing party and we couldn't communicate with them. Then there was a mutiny and Captain Margulis scrambled the Command and Navigation systems."

"The Warden isn't responding to transmissions," Shlitzee confirmed. "The secondary computer is malfunctioning, but some sensors are responding and the flight logs are intact." Data flashed through her mind at nearly light speed. Her eyes turned bluish green.

Arkady watched as a new window appeared on the computer to monitor Shlitzee's stream of requests. The view changed quickly, but he managed to pick out parts of it. "The storm covers a 400 square kilometer area... moving northeast... high electromagnetic readings... high wind speeds... high humidity in the upper atmosphere. There's no way of knowing how much will be rainfall..."

Percy watched. He recognized what the bot was doing, yet had no clue how he remembered it. "You know," he said to himself, "this is really starting to creep me out."

Arkady turned away from the monitor to face Bud and Bailey. "Right now we're partially submerged in a sand dune. If there's a sand storm coming, there won't be anything 'partial' about it!"

"We're half covered in sand," Bud said. "How long did that take?"

"All of the four thousandths of a second that it took for our ship to bury itself upon impact," Nike said irritably.

"Do we have any indications that even with hull breaches this ship can't limp outta the storm's path," Bud asked, looking around the room. "If this afrimus cloud is something we need to worry about, I'd feel safer in the ship than open desert, especially if the ship is moving us away from it."

"I don't think sitting in the open desert waiting for a storm to hit is an idea any of us think is wise," Chelydra grumbled.

Arkady nodded. "I used to be a pilot, but I can't remember enough to say yes or no. Nike?"

"The ship is probably too damaged to move anywhere, and our bodies are probably no match for the storm. We have no choice but to weather it out and form a cohesive plan of action."

"Shlitzee, RAM, Bailey," Bud said, "aren't you all techies? This seems like an appropriate time to start hotwiring systems for our benefit. Don't ships have foam for emergency hull repairs and backup systems for nav and flight control?"

"I don't know about foam, but I can definitely fix any damaged computer systems we find," Percy said confidently, patting his belt pouch tool kit. Even if he couldn't fix them, he wasn't about to let these recently thawed Warden officers think of him as a nearly over-the-hill liability. "It's not like we haf' ta re-align the dilithium crystals or change the laws o' physics or anything complicated like that," he said in his best impersonation of a Scottish engineering officer. "Well I hope not anyway."

"Well then, let's get started with the sweep and clear project," Bud said.

"Have you fully explored this area of the ship," Arkady asked Bud.

"In the next room, your friend is taking a nap. The room beyond that is a closet where my metal cohort stashes WD-45. Which way was your canine chum? It'd be a damn shame if some critter had him for dinner."

Percy explained to Bud where he and Rufus had strapped themselves in for the landing. "But you should prepare yourself," he warned. "The sight of a dead man's-best-friend, albeit a mutated one, is very sad." He resumed eating his candy bar and thought, "at least it is to me."

"We should revive Amanda before we sweep the rest of the ship," Arkady suggested. "If she's out cold, maybe we can secure the room and leave her on ice."

Shlitzee continued to monitor the ship's systems. "The damage is extensive and not limited to impact. We have sustained weapons fire."

"That explains why we lost control in the lower atmosphere," Nike said, a brief look of relief on her face. "Thank God I'm not responsible," she thought. She had confidence in her abilities, but the blow to the head had caused a memory lapse. She hadn't been able to recall why they had had such a rough landing.

"Hey, Nike? You still with us," Bud asked.

"Um, yeah. Hey Arkady, will you get with Percy and Shlitzee about repairing the computer and environment systems while we figure out what to do about securing the ship before the storm? And then report back to us. Jackson, Asuda: a word before we head out."

While Nike, Chelydra and Bud walked off a bit from the group, Percy and Arkady gathered their thoughts. "Alright, robot, er, that is, Shlitzee," Percy said. "Let's see what we can figure out in the can-be-fixed department. He pulled out a pen from his shirt pocket and lamented that he had nothing on which to write. "Waaiiiiitaminute! Chelydra, while you're out securing the ship, see if you can find my bag of stuff. It's got some Post-It notes in it and I need something to write on! Bring the whole bag if you don't mind!" Chelydra nodded.

Arkady walked around the medbay. He found nothing that resembled what he thought environmental controls should look like. He returned and stood next to Percy, attentively at home with the computer system. "I'm gonna go check out the medbay's inner sanctum. I'll be back before Nike leaves."

Arkady walked past Shlitzee, through the open door and into the neighboring operating room. It was smaller than the medbay and contained two operating tables adorned with computer equipment, monitors and medical devices of various shapes and sizes. A storage locker at the end of each table had a little drawer above a main compartment. Arkady briefly considered what might be inside them, but he was more concerned with finding a breach in the bulkhead. Looting would have to wait.

He walked around the room glancing at the ceiling, walls and floor for any sign of damage. Nothing seemed out of place. A nursing bot remained dormant in a storage unit on the far wall. A blue light dimly shone above it. A bright green light shone above an empty bot storage unit. Two other storage units contained the remains of robots that were obviously damaged. Their lights shone red.

On an operating table, Amanda lay still. Her chest expanded slightly with an easy, unlabored breath. Arkady examined the computer monitor at the foot of her bed. He recognized 'PULSE: 62' as a relaxed heart rate, but the rest of the statistics meant nothing to him. However, the words 'PATIENT CONDITION: STABLE' meant something as did the fact that all the fields were glowing green. He walked around the table and examined the tube connected to her lower leg. He heard a faint beeping sound from a machine below the bed from which another tube snaked its way into her arm. Her face was partially obscured by a mask to which a third tube was connected.

Arkady briefly admired her pretty face before he strode toward the door on the aft side of the chamber. He reached into his back pocket for his card and waved it across the locking mechanism beside it. The door opened. He placed the card back in his pocket. Inside was a small supply room. To his left, simple shelves covered the wall from top to bottom. Each shelf was full of labeled boxes of various sizes. The wall in front of Arkady was similar, except two sets of transparent doors enclosed the shelves: one set for the top shelves; another for the bottom. Inside, more labeled boxes of various sizes were stacked alongside numerous jars and spare robot parts. To his right was an enormous refrigerator. The doors to the refrigerator were also transparent and inside Arkady saw various vials, bottles, hypos, and bags filled with pills and fluids. Remarkably, the inertial dampeners in the room had prevented any of the fragile contents from breaking.

He circled the room looking behind the boxes for any signs of damage to the bulkhead. The upper half of the enclosed shelves was locked but he could see inside well enough to see that there was no damage behind the contents. Finally he squeezed behind the refrigerator and saw that there was no damage there either. He suspected that the airlock was behind that wall.

Confident that the hull had not been breached anywhere in the medlab, Arkady closed the door to the supply room and rushed back to join the others. "There's no hull damage in the other medbay," Arkady said as he entered the room. He approached Percy and Shlitzee and asked, "Anything I can help with?"

"Welcome back to the madness. Shlitzee knows a lot about the computer system's query navigation, which is great since I'm drawing a blank."

"That's about the only thing you'll be drawing without paper, eh?"

"You are one funny guy. Glad the clone banks didn't scramble that trait of yours. We're gonna need it to keep the edge off our complete terror and rampant feeling of suffocation and claustrophobia!" Percy unbuttoned his shirt a few buttons and wiped his forehead. "Maybe we should make sure the environmental controls are working first, boost the air conditioning power or something?" Slightly guffawing to himself, he tried to summon environment control diagnostics on the computer screen, but his search results came up empty.

"Right, but I don't think we can do that from here. There are no external environment systems here. This medbay might not be the best place to regain control of the ship before the storm hits."

"You're probably right, but at least it's secure."

Arkady nodded and turned to face the robot. "Shlitzee," he began humbly (he suspected that he had nothing to fear from the robot, but his prejudices were such that he had difficulty trusting an autonomous robot with a deadly weapon), "will you please activate a nursing bot to revive our friend Amanda? We may need to move her soon."

Shlitzee flexed her mouth into a larger than humanly possible smile. "There's enough polyamphetamine back there to revive New Singapore. But I'm sure she won't require quite that much." She transmitted an order to her nursing bots to revive the patient with the standard protocols. Her pupils dilated slightly and turned a pinkish hue while she looked at Arkady. "Your cutie should be up in 5."

Arkady watched his reflection in Shlitzee's unblinking eye turn pink. "Thank you," he said. Shlitzee activated the gelbeads at the base of her Mohawk, producing a glistening, slightly odiferous effect. Arkady sniffed the air and suspected a burning circuit board. "Do you guys smell something?"

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