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Chapter 35: Derelict Duty

Irsa landed near THX and the two of them climbed the gangplank. Inside the ancient dropship, light and plant life penetrated only a little ways. In the dim light, Irsa saw a short corridor that branched to the right and left 15 meters from her. Irsa searched her pack but couldn't find a torch or flashlight. "THX, do you have a light source available?" she asked. "I don't have night vision and I'd rather see what's happening."

THX turned on its lamps and aimed them down the corridor. Irsa and the robot noticed burn marks on the wall. The floor was dusty and littered with dead leaves. Irsa readied a spear and told THX to be ready for trouble. Unequipped with weapons, the robot readied its heavy duty grappling claws for action! Irsa approached the intersection. "I hope nothing's hungry in here," she said with a false calm.

THX-1492 shone one of its lights down the north passage. It ended in another intersection. One passage turned to the left, the other was a flight of stairs going up. THX's other light swiveled around to illuminate the south passage. In the middle of the hallway, two large open doorways faced each other. Toward the end of the corridor there was a closed door on the left and a right turn at the end. "Let's check out those two open doors down there," Irsa said. She sounded more confident than she felt. "Coming, THX?"

"This unit will comply with instructions," THX responded. Irsa headed south and THX followed her.

"Check out the left door and then the right with your light, THX. Let's see what's in there." They reached the doorway and THX complied. The robot swung its light to the left but didn't enter the room.

Through the open doorway, they saw a large room filled with empty storage bins. The spotlight flashed across the room. Shadows danced on the walls. Through empty shelves and racks, they saw an elevator in a wire cage to the north and a closed door opposite the open doorway. THX turned its spotlights around to view the contents of the other room. It was much larger but emptier. Only a few work benches and shelves lined the walls. A portion of the floor angled down into an open ramp. Dead tendrils of vegetation snaked up through it. Irsa smelled the strong, musty odor of damp earth. She stepped into the room and walked up to the ramp. It was choked with mud. Closed doors to the north and south were the only other exits.

Onboard the Pandora, the crew watched via THX's video feed. Images of a sweaty man swinging on vines and running in front of a large, rolling boulder flashed in Nike's mind. "Indiana Jones!" she said aloud, shocked she could remember something as silly as an old classic movie.

Irsa returned to the old storage room across the hall. She searched the shelves and found a few large, black rocks that were too heavy to move. She approached the closed door on the other side of the room. THX followed her. A large yellow sign attached to the door said, "DANGER Radiation risk". Next to the door was a steel gray passcard reader. THX examined the door with its ultraviolet sensors. The door was hot! Standing in front of the door for more than twenty minutes would be harmful to humans.

"Let's leave that door for later," Irsa said. "THX, could you do an analysis of those black rocks on the shelves, please?"

THX analyzed the black rocks. There were four of them, perhaps 150 kilograms each, and made of basalt. They had once been part of the arms, legs and torso of an enormous statue. They seemed generally humanoid, but didn't reveal much of anything about the species they depicted. They were badly damaged.

THX shared with Irsa and the crew its analysis of the statue's remains and warned them about the door's radioactivity. Irsa thanked the robot for its concern and suggested they continue their investigation. They left the room and continued down the hallway to the left. THX-1492 left its ultraviolet sensors engaged.

As THX's video feed played on the bridge of the Pandora, Percy tried to map their traversal of the ship. He compared its layout to the Pandora's. They were greatly dissimilar. He searched the computer database for dropships and found diagrams of a Hercules class dropship. They had been commissioned to the Alexandria when she left Earth for the Eridani system. "Got it!" Percy eureka-ed loudly.

"Something you'd like to share with the class, Mister Jenkins?" Nike asked as she turned her head from the video screen to face Percy. As she awaited his reply, she tilted her head even further to the side, then back again slightly in a constrained move, stretching her neck muscles and extending her head vertically a bit like a baby velociraptor emerging from its egg.

"Ship schematic for Hercules class, Cap'! It looks like we're not the only ones with an engineering-cum-rad zone. That rad zone they passed, I think that was the door to the dropship's engineering hold. I wonder if they have their own irradiated engineering bot?" he queried aloud, thinking of Pandora's permanent reactor room resident, Terminus, the nervous robot. Percy copied the schematics into the local buffer so he could send it through the open channel to THX-1492. "How about we send it over to the robot so they're not exploring completely blind?" With a nod from Nike, Percy punched the commands to send the map. Clicking on the audio feed to THX and Irsa, he reported his find and the incoming transmission. He then scanned the controls and found a way to show the live feed on the left of the monitor and the map on the right. Percy wished he could track Irsa with the satellite, but there were no devices installed to triangulate her position. The satellites were passive communications devices, but his newly tapped satellite empire provided a host of protocols to transmit a broad spectrum of media. Percy asked THX to send him a GPS feed. The signal came through almost immediately. He loaded the coordinates into the ship's GPS software, but it was calibrated for a different planet, one orbiting Eridani. The coordinates matched the map, but the distances were incorrect.

"Oh," Amanda exclaimed, watching over Percy's shoulder. "I might be able to figure it out," she said, batting her eyes at Nike. She returned to her console and examined THX's partial map of the planet. She compared the longitude and latitude with the distance and determined the planet's circumference and distance between seconds of arc. "It's a simple bit of trigonometry," she explained matter-of-factly as she configured the GPS software. In front of the Hercules diagrams and THX's video feed on the bridge monitors, Amanda displayed a spinning globe on the holoprojector. A red dot appeared on the distant continent where THX and Irsa explored the abandoned dropship.

"Way to go with the map math!" Percy acknowledged his fellow Warden escapee. Percy wondered if her assistance made her feel a bit redeemed for having tricked them back on Warden. Thoughts of their battle with the wolfoids and his subsequent transformation into a wolfoid suddenly seemed to him to be more than coincidence. Just how many parallel lines of thought could he maintain? "That's what Post-Its™ are for," he whispered as he wrote himself another note to visit the medical bay to see if his wolfoid condition could be diagnosed or at least further explained. Amanda, meanwhile, stared dreamily at Nike who smiled politely but otherwise ignored her.

Percy finished writing his note and turned his attention to the satellites. "Whoa," he thought as he pondered their use. "If there's someone controlling these satellites and they find out I'm tapped in, they might change the password. Perhaps I should change it first, or code myself a back door. If I change it then it would definitely alert whoever might be running them to our access." The technical dilemma both concerned and excited him... and his teachers had thought he had been wasting time "exploring" (hacking) the back door to the mail gateway of the HP12000 back at school when he could have been studying his operating systems notes instead. He made his choice and changed the login password.

Back on the dropship, THX and Irsa stopped at the door near the end of the corridor. The door had a steel gray passcard reader. Another yellow sign said, "DANGER Radiation risk". THX searched for radiation around the door. "Irsa, this unit is monitoring for radiation leaks harmful to biologic life and mechanisms..."
September 8, 2555: Mike has completed repairs on our visual sensors. We can now see we've safely reached a star system. Mike will have the rest of our damaged systems working soon. The damage was caused by a stupid screw! One of the screws used to mount the propulsion control device to the ship's computer interface was too large. It pierced a circuit board beneath it and caused a short. I wish the technician that installed the device was here right now.

September 9, 2555: Amrit has determined we are in the Rho-1 Cancri system. Rho Cancri is a binary star system. The two stars are separated by 1,100 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and her sun). The Rho-1 Cancri stars either have an eccentric orbit or are two entirely separate star systems passing close by one another. Cancri A is a yellow-orange star with an Earthlike planet orbiting it. Cancri B is a red dwarf. Amrit has been unable to detect the Warden or any other artificial energy signatures nearby. We are descending toward the only habitable planet here, named "Rho Cancri" in the Sagan database.

September 11, 2555: Mike has finished programming the ship's computer to monitor transmissions. Each sweep of the frequency spectrum will take several hours.

September 13, 2555: Despite the presence of two other crewmates, I feel utterly alone. Sometimes I swear I hear the distinct cry of peacocks. I know it's just the sound of the engines or a pipe cooling, but it unnerves me. Instead of medicating, I've been listening to the Bach cello suites and the Musical Offering.

September 15, 2555: Amrit has been observing the planet's solitary moon and has discovered long, regular lines running parallel and perpendicular to one another. He thinks they might be the remains of the Warden. Mike thinks they look like cities. I'm not sure what they are. I've changed course for the moon to get a closer look.

September 18, 2555: As we draw closer to the moon, the mysterious lines on the surface are becoming clearer. I'm convinced there's something artificial down there. The computer has detected no transmissions yet. If there is life on this planet, why does it remain silent?

"This door is radioactive," THX continued in its own metallic voice. Irsa and the robot moved down the hall and turned the corner. "Your biological systems might be in need of rest or nourishment. Do you need recuperation?"

"Oh, yeah. Some food would be nice." Irsa looked in her left check pouch for food. She removed dried fruit and peanuts and ate them. She took a water bottle from her bag and drank half. She stuffed the half empty water bottle in her check pouch. It bulged obscenely. They passed a closed door with a brown card reader on the right. "Does that lead to the room with the dirt hole in it?" Irsa asked.

"Yes," THX replied. "That door leads to garage."

They passed by the door and turned the corner to the right. The hallway was a mess. Pipes along the walls were severed and detached. THX swung its lamps around to get a fuller view of the damage. There was laser scoring on the walls and ceiling. The floor was covered with dust. Up ahead was a large pile of debris. Irsa followed THX around it. As she passed the pile, looking for anything worth salvaging, the sight of a human head startled her.

Irsa raced after THX to a three-way intersection. THX shone its lights on the shape behind them. It was a human skeleton, its flesh had long since decayed.

"That must be the welcoming committee," Nike muttered over the comm. She was having trouble matching THX's video with their location on Percy's diagram. Nike wondered if it was indeed a Hercules class bird.

Relieved that the body would not move, Irsa opened her backpack. "Let's see what we can scavenge from the skeleton," she said as she walked closer.

The skeleton wore some sort of machinery on its chest, arms and legs. It had once been a very complicated device. Now it was garbage, perforated in dozens of places by holes the size of Irsa's thumb. She searched the hallway around the body. There was not much besides dust, pipes and debris but she noticed the dead man's left arm had fallen away from the rest of his body. It still clutched an ancient weapon. Irsa carefully removed the weapon from the skeletal hand. She placed it in her belt. "The ancient one was in a fight with others a long time ago," she concluded. "I wonder if we'll find other bodies like his or the bodies of those he fought with."

Irsa looked down the hall to the west. A faint light came through the open door at the end. She crept down the hallway, looking into two open doorways on either side of her. She was cautious but nothing moved. Both rooms were cluttered with the debris of broken machinery. She moved toward the last door and peeked in. Light streamed into the room at the end of the hallway through tiny broken windows. Ragged shards of glass were strewn about. Vegetation dominated the place. Roots grew in through open panes. Some roots were larger than the windows they penetrated. They had grown into the seats, computers and instruments and slowly torn them apart. A puddle of water covered the metal floor. "What is this place?" Irsa asked.

"Bridge," THX replied.

"What are those other two rooms?" Irsa asked, pointing to the rooms behind them.

"Sensors and communications."

"This ship has been abandoned for a long time. I wonder how long ago." Irsa searched around the bridge for any potential treasures. She flew into the air to avoid the broken glass on the floor and landed on the command chair overlooking the entire bridge. The room was very large. She flew from station to station but found only garbage. Undaunted, she tenaciously continued searching. Beneath a curtain of roots cascading over a control console, she found a bookcase. She used one of her knives to cut away the roots. She expected them to attack her, as plants sometimes did on the Warden, but the tree's roots didn't respond to her blade.

From the exposed bookcase, Irsa removed several large binders. The titles on the covers said they were operational and repair manuals. They smelled horribly of mildew and decay. The pages had the consistency of wet bread and flaked apart into useless clods under her fingers. She dumped the binders onto the deck. They were much safer to stand on than the glass-strewn floor. She probed the bookcase some more and was rewarded with a handful of ancient ink pens. She tested them on a piece of paper from her backpack. She removed the crust from their tips and discovered two still had ink in them. She put them safely in her backpack and left the bridge with THX behind her.

They reached the end of the corridor and turned left. It was identical to the hall on the other side of the ship. Besides THX's floodlight, it was completely dark and very dusty. Around the corner to the right, they passed another sealed door. Irsa looked at the door and the passcard reader and asked, "Garage?"

"Correct," THX replied.

They moved past the door to the flight of stairs leading up. The corridor on their right led back to the gangplank they'd used to enter the ship. "Well, we've searched the first level," Irsa said. "Now to see what's upstairs."

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