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Chapter 31: Fabric Eating Monsters

Caleb awoke on the Warden in a cloning pod. He was cold and disoriented and shocked to learn he was no longer entirely human. His hands were malformed. He had fur like a coyote. Caleb wandered the abandoned cloning facilities and found his way into an endless warren of residences. Most of the corridors were unlit. The lighting had been damaged. Trash littered the floors. He scavenged through several rooms but the only useful item he found was an axe made of Duralloy with an aluminum handle.

Three days after he awoke, the halls echoed with the sounds of distant fighting. Caleb hid inside a residence and closed the door behind him. The room had a window, the first he'd seen. While the battle raged elsewhere, Caleb gazed out at the empty streets in the city below. He wished he could find a way down there.

The fighting went on for hours. After it had been quiet for a while, Caleb set off looking for a way downstairs. Before long a group of hovering robots stopped and attacked him. He ran. They pursued him relentlessly. In a desperate attempt to lose them, Caleb climbed into one of a series of holes he found along a long wall.

Inside the hole were a couple of seats and a lever. Caleb looked around the strange, yet oddly familiar room. He heard the robots coming closer and pulled the lever hopefully. A door with a small window closed over the hole. A light flashed. Caleb covered his eyes. There was a loud noise and the small room shook violently. Caleb opened his eyes. The light had stopped flashing.

Gravity gradually dissipated. Caleb floated around the cabin. He recognized the seatbelt warning light. He awkwardly managed to fasten himself into a seat. He stowed his axe where it wouldn't fly freely. Caleb's arms drifted weightlessly for a long, long time before the pull of gravity gradually returned.

Many hours passed. A small window at the top of the room was dark but for the stars. The room was eventually lit by a rising sun and replaced with a view of a planet's partially lit atmosphere. As Caleb grew heavier, the cabin grew warmer and the window glowed red. When it seemed like it couldn't get any hotter, the cabin roared and shook more violently than before. Caleb felt like he weighed a ton for a few interminable moments. Then it ended suddenly. The cabin began to fall again. There was a noise above and the cabin jerked downwards. White sticky foam covered the outside of the window. A minute or so later the cabin thumped to a stop. It dragged forward a few meters and came to rest on its side. Caleb unfastened his seatbelt and looked out the window. The foam had flaked off. He saw a brief hint of sand before a large sheet covered the landscape and the window.

"I am lucky to have escaped those robots," he said to himself. He saw a bright, yellow lever recessed into the wall beside the window. Taking hold of it with one misshapen paw-hand, he pulled on it. The lever moved. The seals around the door broke noisily. The door made a loud swishing sound as it slid past the fabric covering the vessel and landed in the sand below.

Caleb cautiously peered out the gaping hole. The fabric blocked his view of the surrounding area and it was dark outside. He retrieved his axe, pushed the fabric out of the way and climbed out the doorway. He jumped down to the sand a meter below. The fabric covered him like a tent. He held it over his head to see farther. His escape pod had landed on a slight incline of sand. Caleb could not see very far.

He put his nose to the wind and sniffed the air. It was hot and stale. In the silence, Caleb heard something thrashing against the fabric. It was only a dozen or so meters away.

Caleb moved toward the thrashing sound with axe in paw. He followed the sandy incline down toward the sound and away from the vessel that had carried him. It became harder to keep the fabric over his head as he drew closer because whatever was making the noise was near ground level and pulling at the fabric. Soon he was crouching. Caleb tried to see ahead, but the fabric was too close to the ground and it was too dark. He sniffed the air and smelled a hint of pine.

Caleb cut the fabric with his axe. He stepped out into the night breeze. By the light of a nearly full moon, Caleb saw the fabric stretching out around him. It covered the escape vessel and the surrounding dunes. He was standing near the top of a shallow ridge.

Caleb looked down the sloping dune to where the source of the sound was. The fabric was being thrashed about in several places. As he watched, he gradually became aware of the location of several large somethings below the fabric. They were close to the ground, perhaps even below it. In some places they were clutching at the fabric and pulling it down. Others were tossing it into the air.

Caleb walked down in order to get a better look at the several large somethings. The sand shifted uneasily beneath his feet. In the moonlight he saw a dark tentacle, which had torn through the thin material. It was pulling the surrounding fabric into a gaping maw lined with razor sharp teeth.

Unsure if the thing was a threat, Caleb tightened his grip on his battle axe. "I sure hope this thing prefers to eat fabric and doesn't like to use its razor sharp teeth on coyotes," he thought as he stepped closer to it. The thing stopped as if it had heard him somehow. It renewed its thrashing with more intensity and purpose. It swung its tentacles at Caleb. He jumped away and almost lost his footing in the sand.

Becka was a normal looking human girl except for her green hair. Irsa flew beside her. Irsa was a very large hamster with green feathers. They had never met before fate placed them in the same escape pod together. They left their landing site to seek shelter in the mountains. While they walked, Becka told Irsa about her village. It had been attacked by an insane android called the Watcher. She was telling Irsa how her people had fled from the Watcher's minions, but she stopped when they spotted another escape pod falling in the moonlight.

Becka and Irsa soon reached the top of the ridge above the fallen escape pod. They watched a humanoid coyote scramble away from a tentacle that reached out of the fabric surrounding the pod. "Initial contact," Irsa stated.

"And it looks hostile. You may need those spears after all." Becka looked up as a bright light suddenly came down at them. "What the, Irsa look!"

They crouched in the sand as the light got bigger and started making a noise like a loud wind. It resembled a large movement machine like the ones Becka had seen near her village, but this one looked new and was flying. It set down nearby and the top came off. A large, human shaped machine stepped out. It had a dull copper green exterior and rounded joints. There was a readout display on its chest. The contents of its computer brain were visible through its clear head.

The robot, THX-1492, turned on its sensors and examined its new surroundings. There were no signs of significant radiation. In the valley of sand where the escape pod had fallen there were ten moving heat sources that were non-human; most of them were beneath the parachute. Irsa, Becka and Caleb were warm bodied humanoids. It was too dark to see far, but there were no other significant heat sources within line of sight for a few kilometers. The robot ran a search algorithm to locate radio transmissions but didn't find anything immediately.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me!" Becka whispered harshly. "So now there's a sand monster, a dog-man, AND a walking metal whatever! I think I was better off with the frakin' Watcher!" She peered out over the sand dune at Caleb and THX-1492. "At least we know dog boy came from the same place we did. Maybe he has some food. Still, I'm not going anywhere till I know what that machine thing is up to." She gripped her umbrella tightly and ducked back behind the ridge.

Irsa, instead, decided the dogman needed help. She moved forward a bit and threw one of her spears at the tentacle. Becka started to protest, but it was too late. The spear flew straight and true but did not penetrate the tentacle's tough hide.

Caleb grunted as he saw Irsa's spear fly toward the tentacled sand creature. "Unexpected help is welcome!" he thought as he stood firm and swung his axe at the creature's mouth. It squealed in pain and contracted. It tried to tear the axe from Caleb's hands, but he pulled it free from the strong creature. Beneath the fabric, it turned itself upside down and began digging in the sand.

With a heavy sigh and without enthusiasm Becka approached the action but kept a safe distance from the writhing tentacles. She stayed even further from the strange metal man. Becka held her umbrella open between her and them - a shield of dubious effectiveness. While Irsa flew closer to the sand monster with her spear ready to attack, Becka heard another great wind nearby. She turned and became aware of an even larger machine descending. It had no lights, but was very noisy. It settled on the sandy plateau above them and the metal man walked toward it.

Caleb swung the axe over and over, but the hide on its backside was tough. Irsa put her feet on the ground and attacked the creature with her spear. After half a minute of hacking at it, they penetrated its hide five times and finally killed it. Irsa spotted five more creatures and touched Caleb's right arm, "Maybe we better leave the rest alone?"

Caleb turned and, with a feral gleam in his eye, examined the hamster standing next to him for the first time. His tail twitched as a strange memory of pulling a small rodent out of a hole in the ground and eating it crossed his mind. "Must... not... eat... talking hamster..." he thought. Becka held up her umbrella defensively. Caleb regained his composure. "Yes," he said. "Perhaps we should leave the rest alone."

"My name is Irsa. Want to be friends, please?" Irsa was bright eyed from adrenaline and excitement.

Caleb grinned and said, "Sure, why not? Nothing I have met since waking on that accursed ship has been friendly."

"Um, Irsa, I'm not entirely sure he's not a Wolfoid and... um... maybe we shouldn't talk to him. 'Cause he probably wants to eat you. I don't even know what part of Warden we're in now... And, well," Becka said gesturing toward THX-1492, "I think there's a walking death machine over there."

"The machine seems too friendly, Becka. It's just watching and not attacking us. A death machine attacks everything in its sight as soon as it gets close enough, and they can't operate movement machines either."

"I'm not sure what I am yet," Caleb interjected, "but I don't think I am one of those Wolfoids you seem to fear." He jabbed his thumb in the direction of the two landed ships. "What about them? Who are they?" Becka and Irsa shrugged.

The lifeboat's crew stepped off the gangplank and into the sand where the robot stood nearby. Percy bent down and grabbed some sand. He let it fall through his fingers as he stood up, surveying the place. He spotted THX-1492 and pointed out the obvious to Nike, "Look, sir, droid!"

THX spun its servos in agitation. Shlitzee Megawatt-1492 took a special interest in the new mechano-man. She made the universal bot sign for 'friendly'.

"Greetings Warden mates," THX exclaimed. "This unit is ready for service."

"Do you need to be serviced, as in, 'You have a problem'? Or do you want to serve us because you are programmed to serve crewmembers of Warden?" Percy asked. It was nice to have a pleasant conversation with a Warden robot, instead of running away from the ones with lasers trying to dissect people.

"Are you flirting with that fatherboard?" Shlitzee deadpanned.

Nike saluted the robot and noted the escape pod and nearby humanoids struggling with something in the distance. "What seems to be the problem down there?"

"A canine humanoid was attacked by an unknown creature. I am unfamiliar with the species. It is now dead."

Percy watched the rest of the unknown creatures tugging at the parachute material. "Hmmmmm, I believe I know of them. Fabricus Masticatianus, from the Latin, of course," he whispered. Being on solid ground and not running for his life had picked up his mood and his sarcasm.

"Five other unknown creatures are moving along the ground beneath the parachute," THX continued. "Another four remain hidden beneath the sand and are not moving."

"Where are the hidden ones?" Nike asked.

"They are below the ridge in the valley."

"So, what do you think we ought to do about them?" Amanda asked as she patted her protein disruptor pistol in her belt holster. Her other hand held her SK-19 Sturmkarabiner assault rifle. Percy kept a safe distance behind her. Heavily armed and eager mathematicians always made him nervous.

"Eradicate them," Arkady replied. "They're obviously a menace. You ready for some target practice?"

"Yeah," Amanda replied.

"Radio on. Bailey, can you give us some light down here?"

"Sure, Arkady. We can't see much from here, either. Life forms detection shows 3 humanoids and 1 robot besides our crew. I also see 9 large starfish like things: four of them aren't moving and a tenth one has just died."

In the valley below, Caleb heard Arkady and Bailey speaking as if they were standing right next to him. He looked around but couldn't see any other men nearby. Floodlights flashed and illuminated the dunes.

Arkady and Amanda walked along the ridge to the escape pod. They pulled the parachute up from the valley while the humanoids moved off and away from the creatures. When they gathered it into a ball, they saw several creatures that looked like large octopi but had five tentacles each. Three were scooting along the dunes. The other two were digging in the sand upside down.

"Let us know before we walk over one of these things, won't you Bailey?"

"Sure thing!"

Arkady and Amanda walked toward one of the digging creatures. As they passed the three humanoids, Arkady noted the Warden patch on Caleb's jumpsuit. He tipped an imaginary hat to him. "Greetings. The name's Arkady. Can we help you with these things?" Caleb recoginized Arkady's voice from the radio device in his head. It echoed slightly.

"Sure, if you want to. My name is Irsa," the hamster replied.

Caleb nodded and said, "Your help would be appreciated."

Arkady and Amanda approached one of the creatures. He unholstered his pistol, put a round in the chamber and took aim. He emptied the entire magazine of ten bullets. Only five struck the beast and penetrated its hide. Click. Click. The magazine was empty but the thing still lived! Arkady replaced the clip and fired three more shots. The last round finally killed it.

Amanda took aim with her Sturmkarabiner. She squeezed off a short burst. Four armor piercing, high explosive rounds tore into it and killed it instantly. She stood with her gun still smoking in her hand, looking dumbfounded at the creature pulverized by shards of copper-jacketed lead. She remembered other unidentified (and ugly) creatures she had seen since waking from her cryotrance.

"You're a natural at this!" Arkady grinned at her humbly.

Amanda snapped out if it and looked back at him. "A natural. Yeah, I seem to have a natural affinity for these things." She looked at her Sturmkarabiner. "I can't seem to remember where it comes from. I remember being a teacher, but I don't ever remember using these things before. You think I might have been a member of the NRA or something like that?" She sighed and said softly, "So, where do you think we will be going from here? I mean, aren't we stranded now?"

"We've got a working ship and a matter compiler. We're not stranded!" Arkady replied. "If there's a way to gain control of the Warden from this planet, we'll find it together. I suspect Nike will want to talk about our next plan of action soon." He holstered his gun and they returned to Caleb and Irsa. Becka remained aloof, not sure of who to be more frightened of: the caninoid or the people with guns. Arkady thumbed the patch on his jumpsuit. "Are all of you from the Warden? We are too."

"I am from Warden. My name is Irsa. The humanoid female is Becka and she's from Warden as well. What are your names, humans with gunj?"

"Arkady, maam, and this is Amanda. Your friend Becka doesn't seem very trusting but I don't blame her. I hope we can trust each other. I'll introduce you to our captain, if you'd like."

"Oh yes. Can always use more friends," Irsa replied. "Makes staying alive easier and more comfortable."

"Here's one of our friends now," Arkady said and introduced them to Bud. He was carrying the plaser rifle over his shoulder. Bud whiffed and noticed the smell of spent ammo and blood. He suddenly felt (oddly) very calm and focused. He surveyed his surroundings and noted the various humanoid presences. "Hi!" he said with a big wave and red, puffy eyes. "Officer Asuda, at your service. Radio on. Any one/thing here that needs to be vaporized?" Caleb heard his last sentence slightly louder and with an echo.

Arkady pointed to one of the pentapi crawling along the sand away from them. It was about four meters long from tip to tip.

"Hey, how much organic matter do you think we could harvest here?" Bud asked.

"A lot!"

"Good idea," Percy said over the radio. Caleb looked around but couldn't find the voice's source. "We should feed some of these sandstars into the matter compiler. But don't blast anybody else, they all seem to be friendly so far!"

Bud unfolded the stock and hefted the plaser to his shoulder. "Radio off. Watch out, this baby is hot!"

"Hey, Bud? Should you be operating heavy equipment?" Arkady asked.

"Son, I'm a professional."

Bud fired the rifle. A laser followed by a speeding bolt of plasma burned across the desert. The rifle ejected a cartridge to Bud's right. It sizzled in the sand. The plasma struck the creature and vaporized it along with the surrounding sand. He put the plaser over his shoulder and rejoined Arkady, Amanda and the strange mutants.

Percy approached them. "Waaaait a second, I'm Percy Jenkins from Warden. No really, I am," he insisted, seeing their doubtful looks. His light Duralloy plated suit of armor covered his official Warden uniform. "We're all from Warden."

"Hello Percyjenkins of the Warden. It's good to meet you. My name is Irsa."

"Winged hamsters?" Percy mentally filed the question for later. "Likewise, it is good to meet you! All of you."

The night air had grown still and quiet since the last of the creatures above ground had either died or buried themselves in the sand. Arkady shivered. "It's kinda creepy here now that the rest of those creatures are hiding. Let's get back to the ship. We can take care of the rest later and feed 'em to the recycler."

Percy, Amanda and Bud nodded. "Would you like to join us?" Percy asked Irsa, Becka and Caleb. "There's plenty of room."

"Yes please," Irsa replied. "I would like very much to see the inside of your movement machine. How does it work?"

"It, well... I," Percy fumbled, not quite sure of how the ship's engines worked. "There'll be plenty of time for that later," he beamed.

"Take what you want from the escape pod," Arkady suggested. "We may be able to recycle the pod too, if you don't mind."

Caleb hefted his axe. "This is my only possession."

"We did not come in that machine." Irsa pointed to the south, "We left ours back there somewhere." Becka nodded.

They all trudged up the dune together toward the enormous ship where Nike and Shlitzee stood talking with THX-1492. Irsa, Becka and Caleb gawked. The ship was nearly 110 meters wide, 90 meters long and 40 meters tall.

"Interrogative requested," THX-1492 said to Nike. "Please relate historical record of refugee flight from Warden."

"Most of our crew are Alpha Sequence clones," Nike replied, "except for Bud and Bailey. They're members of the original crew that were frozen. All of us have been awake for only a few days or so. Long story short, things are totally out of control on the Warden. From what little we saw, the robots there have gone mad and are trying to exterminate all humanoid life. We were forced to flee in this lifeboat."

"Question: do these units have return capability to Warden?"

"Units? You mean us? No, not yet. It doesn't look like she's capable of escape velocity, but she's a good ship. Ah, here comes her crew now." Nike patted the gangplank strut affectionately as the rest of the crew and the three strangers arrived. "What was the situation down there?"

"Four dead sandstars," Percy replied. "Two got away by digging into the sand. And we met these three refugees from the Warden. I think we should welcome them aboard."

"This starship is starting to resemble a flop house!"

"Actually this ship isn't a..." Arkady began pedantically.

Nike interrupted him, "It was a figure of speech. Yes, of course we're not going to leave you here to fend for yourselves with the sandstars. Come aboard. We'll give you the tour! Arkady, would you see that the recyclables are collected?"

Embarrassed, Arkady simply replied, "Of course." The tender moment they had shared after the crash suddenly seemed like an age ago.

Becka wondered why everyone talked about the Warden as if it were somewhere else. She finally found the courage to speak, "You people are all talking crazy talk. Of course we're all from Warden. Where the hell else would we be from? Speaking of which, does anyone know how I can get back to my village? I'm pretty sure the lift we took down here is broken."

The crew looked at each other nervously. "We're not on Warden anymore!" Percy replied. He looked up. "Warden is up there, in orbit! I'm sorry if this comes as a shock to you, but this isn't just another realistic environment deck. I'm assuming you know about the environment decks, since you know about Warden." Percy spoke to her as he might his own daughter. He paused mid-thought, and mid-explanation. He wondered for the first time if he had a daughter, or, for the second time, a wife for that matter. From within his gloves, he rubbed his fingers again searching for a wedding band. Then he realized he probably looked really silly walking around in armor. He pulled off his helmet and apologized for no good reason other than to explain that he wasn't the muscles of the operation, despite the armor and laser pistol. "Sorry about the combat get-up! Tell you what, Becka," he said reassuringly. "We're all survivors of sorts from Warden. How about I dump this silly get up and we take in a cup of coffee in the dining room? We can compare notes about what we've seen and heard both on and off the mothership."

Nike lead everyone up the gangplank and into the ship.

Arkady and THX-1492 brought up the rear. Arkady opened the supply room door and went inside. He noticed the robot following him. "You want to help?"


"It's nice to finally meet a robot that still functions properly after all these years."

Arkady rummaged through the supply room and found the laser sight. It attached simply to his pistol and fit inside his holster snuggly. His next stop was the armory. He took a Sturmkarabiner off the wall and made sure it was loaded. Next Arkady and THX entered the garage. "Hephaestus, I have a job for you."

The robot chamber opened and the engineering robot sprang to life. "Do you require assistance?" it asked.

"Yes. Follow me." Hephaestus and THX followed Arkady onto the cargo lift. Arkady pressed the down switch and the lift lowered them onto the sand below. They walked to the escape pod. Arkady searched it for any valuable parts. There were none. "Hephaestus, can you dismantle this escape pod and feed it into the recycler?"


"Great! Please do so, and avoid walking into the valley below. It's inhabited."


"I will assist," THX extended its grappling claws and prepared to carry pieces back to the ship.

"Thank you, THX."

"Commander Arkady, what is the status of communications from the Warden?"

"Commander, huh? Hmm, I like the sound of that," Arkady grinned. "Communications to and from the Warden seem to be completely down. We have personal comm devices, but we haven't been able to make contact with the Warden yet."

"Commander Arkady, if communications with Warden have not been established, what is the plan for rendezvousing with the Warden?"

"We don't really have one right now. Do you think this lifeboat could be made to escape this planet's gravity?"

"It could with booster rockets and a launch platform."

"If it comes to that, we might. We'll be stuck here for a while if we do."

"Radio on. Bailey, will you please direct me to where the sandstars are? I'm gonna take care of the last ones."

"Sure Ark. By the way, Horatio tells me they call the sandstars 'Sikalas'." Bailey explained where the last six Sikalas were.

"I'm going to use grenades to get them to the surface, so don't mind the noise."

"Wait, stop!" Nike said over the radio. "We don't want to attract attention to ourselves."

"I think it's too late for that. Besides, we've got the ship's life signs and heat detection sensors to warn us of any incoming threats. How do we look, Bailey?"

"Nothing but those six Sikalas within a couple hundred meters. There are no significant heat sources within about 20 kilometers."

"All right Arkady, but be careful."

Arkady fired a grenade at the place where Bailey told him a creature was hiding. It rolled in the sand and exploded. Near the detonation, the sand showered upward as a Sikala's tentacles grasped what it thought was its prey. Arkady fired five shots at it and killed it. He repeated the process. Each Sikala was easier to kill than the last.

Finally all ten corpses littered the valley. Bailey confirmed that Arkady was the only living thing outside the ship. Arkady examined the corpses. The one killed by Bud was fused with the surrounding sand into a glassy mess. None of it was recyclable. Arkady walked up the hill to where the robots were cutting the escape pod into smaller pieces to carry to the recycler. He asked Hephaestus to also carry the corpses to the recycler.

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