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Chapter 25: Terminus

Arkady and Percy stood in front of the door clearly labeled DANGER in red letters. Percy tried his card on the reader beside the door and it opened. Inside they found themselves in the middle of a long, narrow room that stretched from left to right. The wall behind them held bins for storage of spare parts: they were mostly empty. There was a small forge, a recycler, two fuel cell bins and what looked like a telescope mounted on the ceiling. But the dominant feature of the room was the thick, double-paned window that occupied the long wall in front of them. A dim, red light revealed little detail beyond. A decontamination chamber separated the windows into two halves; a familiar radiation symbol was emblazoned on its door.

Before Percy and Arkady had a chance to examine the room, they heard Shlitzee's voice in their comm devices say, "Secondary computer repairs are complete. However, to restore the AI the autonomic regulator will have to be installed by one of you carbon bags."

"Okay, which 'carbon bag' wants to install the autonomic regulator," they heard Bud say.

"Alright," Percy said, "secondary computer repairs are complete! That, uh... oh! Radio on. Team, this is Percy. That explains the ship's computer running the life forms search without our having to tell it to. The primary computer runs low level ship systems. The secondary computer is a higher level human interface. It's listening to our requests and performing functions as we require them. The autonomic regulator is required for the artificial intelligence to function. It must've shorted out somehow. Without it, the ship's computer can't perform higher level analytic functions. If we find an autonomic regulator, we'll see if we can install it! Uh, radio off!"

"What do we have here," Arkady said as he approached the decontamination chamber. Beside it was a passcard reader and two small computer readouts. One glowed green and said 'Decon: 3 millirems'. The one beside it glowed red and said 'Containment: 452 rems'. "Seems like the engine is running a little hot in there," Arkady deadpanned.

How many rems do you think the containment can hold... back," Percy nervously asked.

"Well, assuming there's no breach, and I'm sure the computer would let us know if there was, it should contain several thousand. It seems a little hot in there now, but when the engine's running it'll probably get a lot hotter. There may be some radioactive fuel that broke loose in there during the crash."

"I was expecting something cylindrical, maybe with light blue discs of neon light, and some kind of pulsating noise." Percy paused for effect. "At this point you're supposed to accuse me of watching too many golden age science fiction movies," he half-joked to the pilot.

"Nah, I used to read a lot of pulp scifi when I was a pilot: galactic federations, space battles, beautiful Venutians! Real space travel is 99.9 percent boredom, punctuated by white knuckled moments of sheer terror."

Percy walked to the telescope-like object. It was indeed a telescope. The theodolite that housed it in the ceiling was massive. He ran his fingers down the cold surface and followed the wires that came from the housing. They were attached to a computer and monitor. Another set of wires ran from the computer into the hull of the ship. "This looks fun, but we've got a reactor to attend to. I don't suppose there are any instruction books lying around: An Idiot's guide to Reactor Repair? Reactor Repair for Dummies? Waaaaaitaminute." He cleared his throat and tried to sound official. "Computer, engineering status!"

A recessed monitor and keyboard appeared from the wall below the large window to the right of the airlock. A chair rose from the floor below it. "Thanks Computer." Percy smiled as he sat down. He flexed his fingers and grinned. The monitor displayed several camera angles. Judging by the dim red lighting, he assumed the cameras were all on the other side of the window. Percy toggled through the various cameras. "This is almost too easy." Arkady nodded and watched over Percy's shoulder. The cameras seemed to be named after the region of the engine room they were pointed at: injector, fuel assembly, shield braces, impeller, thermocouplers, coolant systems. There was one camera that was pointed at the floor and shaking from side to side at an uneven pace. Percy read the caption above it. "Terminus? I wonder what that one is."

The camera moved up. For a moment Percy and Arkady saw themselves in the monitor. The camera was looking at them from behind the window and somewhere to their left. Then the camera swung slowly down to its original position and resumed the patternless shaking. Percy and Arkady looked through the window and saw a humanoid shaped robot sitting on a shield brace.

Suddenly the ship shuddered. Percy and Arkady grabbed the arms of the chair to keep from falling over.

"Percy and Arkady," Nike said over the radio. "Is there any way to erect a lightning rod, of sorts, to make our ship a less inviting target? Better make that analysis quick, guys."

"We're on it," Arkady said into the radio. "Radio off. Hey computer, can I get a terminal here?" Another terminal and chair appeared next to Percy. He sat down. "I need hull structure, shield analysis and electrical transduction details." The appropriate applications promptly appeared on the screen. Arkady scrutinized them and filed through a few menus. His memories of the procedures were returning to him. "Radio on, the shields have absorbed an indirect hit. The batteries and capacitors stored a little of the excess charge and released the rest into the sand. There's no guarantee the shield can handle a direct hit, but there's plenty of headroom. Anyone outside the ship at that time wouldn't stand a chance!"

"Suggestions about these natives, people?" Nike barked through the radio.

"I say, invite 'em in for... ah, fewmits," Percy cleared his throat as he released his grip from the chair. The ship seemed steady again. "Radio on. Nike, this is Percy, I say invite 'em in for refreshments! They probably know this storm'll pulverize them if they stay out there. Maybe take them to the galley for a little lunch, a little Q and A? We've got an engine to fix and a lightning rod to build, radio off!" He turned to Arkady. "Got any ideas for a lightning rod? Maybe we can remote control an escape pod and have it hover right above us, take the next blast instead of it hitting our shields? Maybe we figure out what robot hulkster bob is doing in the engine room, fix the reactor and boost our shield power so we don't have to worry about that storm? Maybe we--"

"Whoa, Percy!" Arkady interrupted. "You're bouncing a lot of ideas around, maybe we should consider one at a time?"

"Ah, yes." Percy paused for a breath, then started up again as if he'd been inspired--as he had been. "Waaaaaaitaminute! That's it! We bounce!" Percy paused for extra drama. "Think we can make our shielding electromagnetically identical to the storm blasts? You know, try pushing two magnetic north poles together--it doesn't work! We bounce the lightning off our shields, repel, maybe, instead of our shields absorbing the storm?"

"Well, it wouldn't bounce off, but if the polarity is opposite the damage might be less. But we won't know the polarity of the strike until it hits. In an afriumus storm..." Arkady had a eureka moment. "Gruber, I remember! An Afrimus storm is so hot that the lightning behaves like plasma!"

"Gruber? What's that and how does it help us?"

"He was my meteorology professor at New Eden University. Not sure how that helps, but... Oh, lightning usually strikes ground negatively. Usually, as in -- not always. It's random, but our chances are about ninety percent if you set the shield's negative pole up."

"Shield application please," Percy said. Diagrams of shield operations appeared on the monitor before him. Arkady and Percy kibbutzed over the details. Between the two of them, it was a simple matter to check the orientation of the shields. They were already upwardly negative so there was no need to do anything further. "What about a lightning rod?"

"Don't worry about the lightning rod," Arkady replied. "The computer's reporting that the anchors were properly implemented. Between that and the shields, we should be pretty safe."

Percy stood and looked through the window to get a better look at the robot. Multitasking was one of his strengths and he seemed to be better at it in this incarnation than he had been... originally. Maybe the clone program had scrambled his brain for the better in some ways. "Computer, please identify the robot in the reactor room, state its purpose, how long it's been in there, and its operational status!"

A message box appeared on the screen:
Name: Terminus
Purpose: Hazardous repair and maintenance
Elapsed time in engineering room: 4427634:21:58.02
Status: Operational; vocal command only
WARNING: Subject is dangerously irradiated and strictly quarantined
"Four million hours! What useless kind of programming is that," Percy fumed. "Computer, a calculator please." He sat back down at the computer and did some fast number crunching on the application that appeared. "That's 505 years and 5 months! Computer, open a voice channel to the engineering reactor room," Percy ordered quickly, although with four million hours having passed since the Terminus robot had entered the room, it probably wouldn't have mattered if Percy had taken his time.

A metallic tapping sound came from speakers above the window. "Terminus, this is Warden crew member Percy Jenkins. Do you copy?" As Terminus looked up, the monitor view looked from the floor to the window where Percy and Arkady sat.

"Who-is-there?" came a voice that sounded as if it were being filtered through a metal tube.

Percy looked at Arkady and shrugged. "Warden crew member Percy Jenkins," he repeated.

"Ter-minus... free... freezing in here..."

"Terminus, please reactivate! We need your assistance! We have to get this ship's reactor repaired!"

"Ter-minus... re-actor... Terminus in charge reactor," it repeated with something like moronic self-complacency. It continued sitting where it was.

Arkady started to get angry. Had all the robots around them gone mad?! The incessant tapping sound was also irritating him. It seemed to be patternless, unlike the steady noises he was accustomed to onboard a ship. "Get up!" he shouted for lack of anything better to say. They heard the grinding and screeching of metallic joints as Terminus drew itself up slowly as if having to overcome a powerful resistance. Oil leaks in the couplings had combined with dust to form a dark sludge. The tapping sound ceased.

"What kind of a robot has a name like Terminus?" Percy wondered while Terminus silently stared at them. It seemed like a death wish waiting to happen.

"Terminus, what's wrong with the reactor?" Arkady asked.

The robot paused before answering. "Containment chamber cooling system... replacement... necessary."

"Well, do we have a replacement?" Percy asked.

The robot's glass eyes rotated in opposite directions in 180 degree sweeps, lending the flat metal face a look of even greater vacuity. "No," it eventually replied.

Percy groaned with frustration and covered his face with his hands. "We can't exactly call central services! Where are we supposed to find a replacement?"

"Compiler... matter compiler... storage garage..."

Arkady and Percy slowly smiled. If there was a functioning matter compiler onboard, things weren't so bleak after all. They'd be able to construct anything they needed! Unable to believe their luck, they asked Terminus again. It confirmed that there was a matter compiler in lockdown inside the storage garage. It painfully spelled out the required part number. Percy carefully wrote it down on a sticky note and suggested they report back to Nike.

"Radio on," Arkady said. "Nike we've configured the shields and are using the ship's landing anchors as lightning rods."

"Good work, guys," Nike replied over the comm device. "We're in the Captain's Galley with our six guests."

"We need to construct a portion of the cooling system," Percy continued.

"Out of what? Bubblegum and toothpicks?"

"There's a matter compiler in the garage."

There was a moment of silence while Nike absorbed the fact that the lifeboat had a garage... and a matter compiler! Who would load so many resources onto a lifeboat? The UWSC, of course! The UWSC had practically unlimited mineral resources near Pluto and cheap robotic labor. They spared no expense, especially with such a high profile ship as the Warden.

"Bailey and I searched that quadrant," Bud whispered over the comm device. "The garage is in storage behind the door labeled 'Munitions'. You should have no trouble getting in there." Percy and Arkady thanked him for the directions and switched off their radios. They ordered Terminus to clean up the reactor room and look for radiation leaks, then left the room.

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