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Chapter 30: The Peace Pipe

Bailey looked out the window in the mess hall. It was dark outside but there was a little moonlight. "Some daycycle," he said and yawned. "I hope I get some sleep soon too."

Nike entered the room. Percy, Arkady, Bud and Bailey had already arrived. All the ship's occupants were together: Horatio and his students, the clones and the two recently thawed Warden crewmates.

"Thank you all for coming," Percy said before anyone else could take control of the conversation. "The first item on the agenda is radios! I got a lot of information about them from the computers, they're very informative! At first I was unable to find anything about the comm devices directly since I didn't really know what they were. But then I had more luck by searching for the command words. The interface was..."

Nike coughed politely.

"Oh, sorry. Well, anyways, there are several commands. You can tell it 'radio receive off' to stop getting messages so you can get some sleep while everyone else has a chat fest; then you can say 'radio receive on' to get messages again. You can also say 'radio', uh... never mind," he said waving his hands. "'Cancel'. I don't want to trigger anything just by explaining them." He got out his Post-It Notes and began writing commands on a single sheet: Percy scratched his head for a moment. "There were some other commands, but I've forgotten them already. There was a command, for instance, for changing the keywords, so in case you don't want to use the word 'radio', um..." He paused and considered how the comm device would interpret his next words. "Cancel. We can change the 'R' word to anything we want." Percy handed the Post-It to Nike. "The uppercase words are variables, the lowercase words are literals and words in square brackets are optional," he explained proudly. "Oh, and one other thing. I learned these systems were surgically embedded, probably before we were, um, born." Percy looked at Horatio who was hanging on his every word. He wondered how much he understood and if they should order up at least one new external comm device for Horatio if not for his students, too. "The internal devices," he continued, "were restricted to the Alpha Sequence Project and high ranking security officers." Bud and Bailey glanced at each other surreptitiously.

With wide eyes, David spoke softly to Horatio beside him. "Fallen ones are like mysterious."

"Verily," he replied.

"Radio appellation Arkady terminate," Arkady said experimentally.

Bud Asuda belched quietly after a few fistfuls of dried fruit and chunks of bread. "Mighty fillin' grubbs," he said to the priest-ish guests. "Thanks." He gave an Elvis finger point and wink to Horatio and fired up the medicinal marijuana clandestinely provided by Shlitzee moments before. After a few starter puffs, he passed the peace spleef clockwise.

Arkady was seated next to Bud. He looked from the burning spleef to Nike. Amanda watched curiously. He took it and handed it to Percy beside him. Arkady smiled and silently mouthed the word 'later' to Bud.

Taking a turn at Bud's peace 'pipe' for lack of a better catch phrase, Percy indulged a puff and recalled that he'd given up smoking a while back to make himself more attractive to the Warden recruiting corps. "Ah the sweet smell of COUGH GASP WHEEZE!" He passed the cancer stick along. "Well," he said to those assembled. "I guess they don't GASP clone smoke-resistant lungs like they COUGH used to, eh?"

"If we've got the juice," Bud said, "let it loose..." He looked at the blank faces around the table, especially his fellow Wardeneers. "...and by that," he continued, "I mean to say 'spool this puppy up'. Let's have a look at this rock from on high. Maybe see if 'mommabird' is returning our calls at the same time?"

Percy, eyes watering, mentioned he'd tried to find a working commline back in the medical bay without success. With the whole team assembled to focus on one task, maybe they could push something through. "Surely someone has to be listening, or at least watching us on radar, telescope, or something. I have to believe Zhaxier must be trying to find us." He trailed off in thought, but snapped back to the topic at hand. "But frak yeah, let's fire up the engines! We've been working with our resident radioactive robot, Terminus, in the engine room. He's helped us repair the damage to the engine."

"If the engines are functioning and we can get some lift we might be able to use radar or something similar to scan the surrounding terrain. Getting a look-see while it's still dark might give us an advantage if we want to keep our location a secret for the time being." Bud grinned at Horatio and his students. "How would you guys like to move from 'gonnabe' priests to cardinals and bishops in a week?"

"Bishops? Cardinals?" the students asked in confusion.

"Sounds crazy, but I bet we could show you some things that would blow the folks away back home, interested?" As he waited for his buzz to kick in, Bud's thoughts drifted back to field training with plasers and the lovely wreckage after each discharge...

"In the meantime," Percy said to Horatio and the other natives, "I bet you have lots of questions. I know we do. We're obviously all human--mostly, anyway. Wanna play 20 questions? You can start first, being the visitors."

"Ok," Horatio began. "Who are you? I mean, what tribe do you belong to?"

While the clones looked at each other questioningly, Bud said, "My name is Bud and we're the Crew!" He made a loud, undulating noise with his tongue that sounded like, "LI LI LI LI!"

"Hoo boy. I can see where this is going. I'll try some now, thanks," Arkady said as he took the peace pipe from Percy. He drew deeply from it and handed it back to Bud.

"Bud of the Crew, what lies beyond the sands?"

"Beyond the what? Is this some sort of koan?" Bud asked.

"He means the desert." Nike bit off another piece of bread.

"Oh. Well, I don't know really. We came from straight up." Horatio's students gasped and muttered to one another. "What did I say?"

"Please forgive my students. They think you are angels."

While Bud pondered the implications, Nike swallowed her mouthful of bread. "Bud of the Crew means our bird was blown off course. We are not familiar with your land."

Horatio nodded his understanding. "Where did you come from?"

Arkady exhaled and said proudly, "I'm from Mars. Born and raised in New Eden."

"I'm also from Eden," Horatio said excitedly. "I didn't know there was a New Eden. Where is Mars?"

"Oh, well I, uh... Mars is a planet," Arkady replied, which only caused more confusion.

"New Eden is a different city," Nike explained, "and Mars is a place that is far, far away. The rest of us are from Earth, except for Bud here."

"Triton," Bud quickly replied with a secret gesture.

"Horatio has informed me," Nike continued, "that Earth has been destroyed." The crew stared at her in disbelief. Bailey muttered something unintelligible through a mouthful of bread that suddenly seemed to taste like ashes.

"Destroyed by fire," Horatio explained. "That was many centuries ago. How could you have come from there?"

"The Crew tribe left there long ago," Nike explained.

"Ah, just like our tribe," Horatio nodded. The crew considered the awful news in silence. The Earth was gone! Was it true? How could it have happened? How could these backward natives know what had happened to Earth?

Bud reflected on the possibility that the Earth had finally taken the final step in stupidity... He was not, he discovered, shocked in the least: a substantial portion of his life had been spent with expatriated Earthers aboard the Warden, not to mention his own family which had left the homeworld generations ago. On some level, the collective consciousness of the species had been telling it to find a new home because the old one wouldn't survive its children's long adolescence... Bud wondered if the Warden bioengineers would have played some nasty trick and made it impossible for clones to cop a buzz.

In the awkward silence, Horatio stared at the patch on Percy's coveralls. He understood the words 'Warden' and 'Crew' marked clearly in red. "What about the Warden?" he asked. "What happened to her?"

Nike sighed. "Why do you want to find the Warden?"

"To save her, of course. She was wounded. We have been taught the great metal beasts live for millennia but they can't heal themselves."

"How long and difficult would a journey be to the library you spoke of earlier?"

"Eden is several days journey by foot through the desert, but the journey is dangerous. Sand Sikalas live in the dunes and snare those that come too close. The journey along the ridge is just over a week. Normally the ridge is safer, but the Zinhala that graze there are mating now and can be dangerous if approached. I wish we had mounts to speed the journey but there are none in Sigai."

"Percy, Arkady, Bud--if you had to give me your best estimate on how long it will take to get this hunk of bolts off the ground and back to Warden, what would you say?" Nike asked. Percy stammered, but before he could answer, she moved on, "I realize any estimate would be based on insufficient information, Perce. But I need the best estimation you can give me based on what you know right this second."

"Assuming this hunk is like other launch vehicles," Arkady interjected, "it might take close to an hour to get into orbit, plus time to locate and maneuver to her."

"And how long until we're ready to launch?"

"We're ready now," Percy beamed.

"Then what are we waiting for? Let's spool it up!" Nike replied. Bud whooped and cocked his fist back in a celebratory manner. Nike led the way through the corridors to the cockpit. The students' jaws dropped as they gazed at the impressive array of technology. Even Horatio was unable to completely hide his awe. Nike took a quick head count and asked Bailey to help their guests find a seat and fasten their seatbelts. She took her seat at the center console. Percy took his at the Post-It festooned computer console. Arkady sat on Nike's right, Amanda on her left and Bud took the last console seat. Chelydra took an aisle seat and kept an eye out for trouble. "Bud, will you please search for transmissions?"

"Roger, Big Momma!"

Nike checked the ship status indicators. She patted the console affectionately. "Come on Pandora," she whispered, "speak to us." She fired up the engines while Arkady craned his neck to watch her.

The ship trembled. The students cried out in terror and frantically tried to remove their harnesses. "Be just and fear not," Horatio intoned. His words soothed their fears although the rumble of the engines continued to increase. Elsewhere in the bowels of the ship, Terminus basked in the engine's radioactive warmth.

The ship rose with a jerk as it broke free of the sand then settled into an even ascent. "Fuel level 48 percent," Amanda said.

The sky was too dark to see anything through the cockpit windows other than the twinkling stars. However, a large holographic projector in front of Nike's console was visible to all. Percy had managed to turn it on. It showed a large model of the lifeboat in the center. He found the zoom control and the model shrank to no larger than a thumbnail. "The projection is displaying visible light right now," Percy said, "but we're not running with any lights. I should be able to... Ah, here we are! This is the radar image." The hologram instantly changed to a more abstract view. The ship model remained the same, but the dune sea below appeared as an evenly lit topographical map. As the ship continued to rise, the dunes steadily shrank and expanded in all directions. Foothills rose from the dunes in the north and became a small mountain chain in the midst of the desert. It intersected a larger chain of mountains further east.

Nike stopped the ship's ascent. The projection displayed the mountain range surrounded by a vast desert. "What other viewing options do you have there, Percy?" Nike asked.

"Oh, well, um..." he said, quickly adding another Post-It Note to his console. "There's visible light." The projection went black except for the ship model and a few groups of lights in the mountains.

Nike examined the projection for a few moments. "Anything else?"

"Ultraviolet." The view changed to a perfectly uniform purple image.

"Hmm," Nike said as she contemplated the view. "No rad spikes, just normal background radiation. Anything else?"

"Life form detection doesn't work at this range. The last option is infrared." The view changed again. There were spots of heat in the mountains that correlated to the visible lights, and many others where there had been no lights at all. Columns of warm air rose from many of them.

Nike pondered the hologram and their situation for a moment. "Percy, have you been recording the holographic view?"

"Ever since we took off," he said proudly.

"Anything from momma bird, Bud?"

"Negative. I've tried all the standard frequencies, but Warden's not broadcasting on any of them. I'm scanning the dial manually. If there's anyone else out there broadcasting, it could take a while to find them. Damn it, Jim," he mugged. "I'm a security officer, not a comm expert! Or a programmer for that matter."

"Fuel level 47.5 percent."

"Nike, these systems look more familiar to me now," Arkady added. "She's an entry vehicle. We won't be able to get her off planet by herself. She lacks the thrust to reach orbit. We'll have to find an alternate route home."

"No return flight..." Percy said in a mumble, pondering what that would mean. He had hoped this space bucket would get him back to Warden. He was glad he hadn't told the Watcher they'd be back for dinner. It looked to him like it was going to be planet food for a while. He missed the Warden vending machines, and he realized he'd be missing them for a while longer. "By the time we get back, Zhaxier oughta have Warden all fixed up," he said optimistically. "If he managed to escape the Watcher bots," he added somberly.

Nike pondered their next move. Before she could speak, Amanda excitedly cried, "There's a vehicle approaching from the east." The crew turned to look at the hologram. A bright, but very small heat source appeared. It was flying only a few hundred meters lower than them. They watched it move over the mountains in their direction, then it flared brighter.

"Nike, it's scanning us with a laser."

"Scan his ass right back, and tell me what the threat level is. Are shields operational? Hail them, if possible," Nike said to no one in particular.

Percy chuckled at Nike's style of Captaining. He looked for instrumentation for communications, shields and scanning. "Shields are fully powered. I don't see any other scanners other than the ones I showed you: heat and radiation. Life form detection is short range only, maybe 300 meters. There's a camera zoom but it's already zoomed in all the way. Communications... ah, here it is! Looks like I have the same interface as Bud, and the same problem too. What channel are they receiving?" Percy tried one at random, "Hello? Approaching craft, do you read me?" He listened for a moment. He heard static only. While he tried broadcasting on another frequency, he continued to refamiliarize himself with the computer console, taking notes and posting them in appropriate areas. He reviewed the damage reports for structural problems that would prevent them from actually flying. "After all, we did crash," he thought. Taking off was one matter, and he was thrilled they had accomplished it, but zooming off to explore the dunes was another and he wanted to make sure the ship was up for it. Happily, he found no structural problems, or any damage of any sort. All the ship's systems were green, except... "Oh yeah," he recalled to himself. "The ship's AI still has a damaged autonomic regulator. But we don't need that for flight!"

Meanwhile the craft grew nearer and larger in the hologram. It resembled a small, red sports car on jets. It looked like it might seat two. One seat seemed to be occupied by a large robot.

Bud and Percy heard a beep and saw a message flash on their consoles. Someone was sending them a message on the Warden's traffic control frequency. Bud tuned in and heard, "Engineering Bot THX-1492 communicating with Warden lifeboat. Response is requested."

As his buzz finally kicked in, Bud replied with a buzz-enhanced sense of humor, "Four Adam Twelve, Four Adam Twelve. This is 'Thrustercat Charlie Five', do you copy?" He switched off the transmitter for a moment. He pulled a 'radio-on' with his subvocal implant comm and signified all crew as recipients. "The spiffy lil' red rod is tuned to a Warden traffic control frequency. I've just given a level 2 security codespeak." He stifled a giggle at the thought of how ludicrous many of the security protocols of 23rd century humanity had become. "We're on an unsecure channel, and I seem to remember some mention of a 'Watcher'? Let's see if we get a message in kind. Looks like we're not the only ones with cool toys in the neighborhood, but it also seems like the best toys are relics. Did anyone else notice the lack of modernity in those settlements, if the utter lack of artificial signals on the comm channels is any gauge?" He continued to monitor transmissions while searching for the lifeboat's offensive capabilities and was dismayed to discover there were none.

"Yeah," Arkady replied. "The settlements look pretty small. I don't see any sign of a power grid of any sort anywhere."

"Looks like things haven't gone so well here in colonyville. To paraphrase the old 2-D icon Charlie Heston, 'Look on the bright side, if these are the best they have to offer, we'll be running this planet in a week!'"

"Thrustercat Charlie Five" the radio blared, "Four Adam Twelve response as follows. 'Adam-12, Adam-12, A two-eleven is in progress on fourth and Broadway streets. Repeat a TWO-ELEVEN! All units to respond. Ambulance and firefighting units en route. SWAT team is on standby. News 24hr chopper is overhead. The governor has placed the National Guard on standby as well.' Acknowledge Adam-12."

There was silence in the cockpit for a moment. The natives stared at the crew. The crew stared at Bud. Bud stared at the radio. He was speechless. "Was that an appropriate response?" Nike laughed.

"Warden Lifeboat," the radio blared again, "Engineering bot THX-1492 reporting. This unit is attempting to contact officers of Colony Ship Warden. To any human, mutant, or robot, please identify selves."

"Thanks THX-1492. This is Arkady Dmitrivich, pilot from the UWSC Colony Ship Warden."

Off comm, Percy inquired. "Another Warden refugee? Whoa! How did it find us? Where did it get that ship? Are there more, I wonder." He paused for breath. "Waaaaaaitaminute," Percy said ponderously. "What happened to THX eleven-thirty-nine through fourteen-ninety-one?" He looked around at his confused audience. "What, someone makes a Heston reference and you're fine with it, but throw a little sci-fi reference in there and I get stunned silence? Tough crowd!"

"Percy, we're living it," Nike replied. "It's not science fiction anymore. It's just science."

"Right she is! So now what do we do?" Percy asked. "Sounds to me like we should join forces with the robot and see what it can tell us. I for one would like something to happen that makes sense around here, instead of... well, not making much sense."

"Assuming the aircar is friendly, can we bring it into our cargo bay in mid-air?" Bud asked the group.

"We might be able to in an emergency," Nike replied, "but it's too dangerous."

"Fuel level 47 percent," Amanda intoned. Everyone waited uncomfortably for someone to speak, offer a suggestion or make a decision.

Lights suddenly flashed on all consoles. "What's going on?" Chelydra asked.

"Incoming object!" Percy and Bud shouted simultaneously.

"Is that aircar attacking us?" Nike asked.

"No," Bud replied. "This is something above us and descending."

"Rapidly," Percy continued. "It's red hot! The ship has calculated its trajectory. It's not going to come too close to us."

The hologram projection in front of Nike showed the falling object. It was indeed very hot and heading for the dunes. A few thousand meters before impact, there were a series of rocket thrusts that slowed the object's descent. It deployed a parachute and fell more slowly. The object suddenly cooled and they lost sight of it.

"THX-1492, this is Captain Nike Thomason, UWSC Marine Corps. Set your craft down on the ground below us. We will follow, over."

"Acknowledged, Captain Thomason."

"I like a robot who follows the proper chain of command." Percy stole a glance at Shlitzee. "Of course, I like medical robots too," he added seriously, nodding at their resident bartending medibot. Shlitzee raised her left eye-brow slightly higher than human norm.

The small aircar's lights dipped as it flew toward the planet's surface. "Arkady, please take the helm. Set us down on level ground where we can keep a close eye on THX's craft and the place where that, I'm presuming it's an escape pod, landed."

"Roger." Arkady's fingers flexed over the interface and a moment later the ship began to descend.

"Bud, keep dialing for active frequencies. That aircar had to have come from somewhere. I can't believe there aren't any transmissions anywhere!"

The crew watched their descent in the hologram projection. Percy switched to radar analysis so they could see the contours in the dark without turning on any external floodlights. Arkady picked out a nice, flat plateau above the landing place of both crafts.

"I've got something," Bud yelled. He flipped a switch on the console. The cockpit speakers blared forth a painful squeal. Horatio and his students all held their ears in pain. "Ouch, sorry," Bud apologized as he turned the speakers off. "It was feeding back. Huh, that's funny," he said as he pressed the radio monitor's headphones closer to his ears. "Now the signal's not there." He moved the dial minutely in the range of the frequency he had just heard, but it was completely gone. "Ah! I should have been recording it!"

Percy contemplated the feedback. "Did anyone have their radio turned on?"

"I did," Bud replied. "But I heard the feedback in the monitors, not my headphones."

"Horatio and his students heard it too," Chelydra noted over the radio, "and they don't have headphones."

"Maybe it has a recording feature." Percy queried his console and tapped his forehead. He searched for information about the radio that might yield a latent recorder. There were a few software options to record transmissions, but none of them were currently running. He looked at Shlitzee. He raised his finger and said, "Waaaaiitaminute. Shlitzee, you heard that! Any chance you can reproduce that sound so we could analyze it?"

Shlitzee immediately reproduced the sound at the same painful volume. She smiled at Percy and asked, "What does your analysis indicate?" She ran a dataline from her right nostril into an appropriate port and sent the info to the ship's computer. Looking up, she made eye contact with Percy and Nike and deadpanned, "Of course I'll run a back up analysis as well."

A moment later the computer responded with a message on an overhead display: 'Insufficient data. Analysis inconclusive'.

"Inconclusive!" Shlitzee responded incredulously. "I knew I was smart, but I didn't realize I was smarter than Pandora! For a small fraction of a second before the feedback occurs there is an unobscured signal with enough samples to make a limited analysis. I can tell you the signal was encrypted, but that's about all."

"Encrypted. Why would someone encrypt this signal? Piggybacking?" Percy thought to himself. He vowed to revisit the signal and perhaps do his own analysis later. For a second, he got the heebie-jeebies all over again as if he were being watched. "Damn that Watcher," he said aloud. "Now I'm paranoid for life!"

The crew watched the lifeboat in the hologram set landing gear down on a broad portion of sand. The ship was upright and stable. At last there was space beneath for all her doors to open safely. Arkady checked all systems and turned them off as necessary. "Radio Bud on," he silently vocalized into his comm practicing its covert application. "Nice creeper, Bud. Radio off."

"What's our fuel consumption, Amanda?" Nike asked.

"Our reserves are at 46.5%. We were aloft for 15 minutes. We burned 0.1% of our fuel reserve a minute. To put it another way, we can burn our engines for," her eyes rolled back as she calculated, "7 hours and 45 minutes."

Percy smiled at Amanda's calculations. He mused to himself how Warden had been stocked with the best of the best for its venture into space. If they were to make sense of their existence as clones made to effect a rescue of the Warden, they'd need every ounce of intelligence available. He had a thought. Maybe the cloning program hadn't been messed up after all. Maybe it had been scrambling genes in some kind of warped order to improve each cloned crewmember's chance of survival. Zhaxier's invisibility had sure helped him. Chelydra would have been dead without his shell to retract into back on the ship. Percy's Wolfman Jack routine had helped to save Amanda, and who knew what else it'd be good for. Slowly, the madness started to reform into mild insanity. Progress, of sorts.

"Thanks Amanda. Bailey, will you please stay here and see to our guests. Make sure they get a good show from up here. Anyone else who cares to join me, we're going to see who this THX-1492 is and what landed in that dune."

"I'll join you," Arkady said.

"Me too," said Amanda as she jumped from her seat.

"I'll come," Percy offered. He left his cloth bag of stuff near his seat, left his Post-It Notes® on the console and, with fanny pouch, duralloy suit and laser pistol on his person, followed Nike and the away team out of the ship.

Shlitzfarl looked over the remaining crew and appraised the natives aboard her ship. She decided the threat was minimal and joined the others. She pulled her kaftan hood over her mohawk.

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