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Chapter 37: Awakenings

Alexei awoke on the Warden in a forced-growth chamber. The chamber opened and he sat up. Alexei immediately sensed all was not right. His vision was blurry. His body felt several sizes too small. He breathed his first unassisted breath and gagged. The air was putrid. His eyes gradually focused on distant walls but he couldn't clearly see anything close to him. Alexei's feet instinctively grasped the edge of the chamber. His feet had thumbs! He crawled out and climbed down. The floor was wet and slippery.

A drawer opened and Alexei felt around for the contents. He found a pair of shorts and put them on. They fit well even though his body felt strange and awkward. He found a pair of glasses and wore them. His eyes focused on his long, hairy arms. They looked like they belonged to a chimpanzee!

Alexei cursed out loud, "OH AH OH AH!" He put a furry hand over his mouth in horror. "What in the Borsch is going on?" he thought as he scratched his head with his right leg. He wasn�t one to talk to himself, or was he? He didn't know! He couldn't remember anything before his awakening in this stinking room. He jumped up and shook his arms high above his head in frustration. When he settled down, he looked in the drawer again for some answers. He found a small whiteboard and marker and put them in his pockets.

The drawer closed. Alexei looked around him. Most of the chambers were open. The one beside him was splattered with blood. Terrified, Alexei looked for an exit. He found one just as a medical robot entered the room with a chainsaw.

The robot pursued Alexei through filthy corridors. He found nowhere to rest. No sooner had he lost the medical bot than a pair of floating security bots fired their rifles at him.

Alexei ran past a row of small, sealed doors. He found an open door and climbed inside. Unfortunately, the space inside was tiny. It held only a few seats and no other exits! The security bots closed in for the kill. In desperation, Alexei pulled a lever. The door sealed shut and the room shook.

Too late, Alexei realized he was in an escape pod! He gripped the seats to keep his balance. Through a window in the sealed door, Alexei watched the Warden tumble away from him until it was too far away to see. Only the vastness of space filled the window. Alexei was a castaway.

Alexei tried to occupy his mind and ignore his stomach. "A condemned prisoner would have been provided with a last meal," he thought. He hadn't even been given his first! He wondered what would kill him: starvation or carbon dioxide poisoning.

Many, many hours later, Alexei's heart jumped as a glimmer of sunlight shone at the edge of the window above him. He pressed his face against the glass to see beyond the periphery. He watched a bright planet slowly spinning at the edge.

The pod rang suddenly as if it had been a bell. It shuddered and gravity returned for a moment. Alexei grasped the edge of a seat as the escape pod stopped tumbling. Through the window, the planet shifted into view until it entirely eclipsed the stars. The planet no longer spun. It remained as stable as the escape pod.

Alexei saw a vast ocean through the clouds below him. He wondered if the pod would float. He was traveling very fast, but he felt like he was moving in slow motion. An ice-covered continent gradually rose over the horizon. It looked cold and uninviting. Alexei sat down and tried to wait patiently for his (hopefully) soft landing on whatever planet this was. He hoped he would be landing soon. He really had to go to the bathroom.

The escape pod became warmer and the window glowed red. Alexei was growing heavier so he fastened himself into a seat just in time. The pod roared and shook violently. Alexei recognized the sound of rockets. For a few interminable moments, he felt like he weighed a ton then it suddenly ended. The pod fell again. There was a noise above him as the pod released its parachute. The pod jerked downward. White foam covered the outside of the window.

Minutes later, the pod came to a crashing halt. Alexei, thankful he was still alive, pulled the escape lever. The seal around the door noisily gave way. The door fell and made a crashing noise dozens of meters below. Alexei looked out and saw he was high up in a tree. The tree grew in a pit a couple of kilometers wide. At the bottom of the pit, several partially exposed, dark stone cubes sat in muddy trenches.

Irsa and THX were descending the ruined dropship's overgrown gangplank when they heard a crash and snapping wood. They ran into the clearing and saw tree limbs falling. An escape pod, similar to the one Irsa and Becka had taken from the Warden, was lodged in the branches of a very tall tree. Its parachute, ripped and torn, fluttered in the branches above it. The pod's door cracked open and fell down the side of the pit. A chimpanzee peered out.

Alexei saw a flying, green hamster next to a large robot below him and remembered his recent encounters with robots. He jumped out of the pod and climbed up the tree. He wished he had a weapon of some sort.

Irsa watched the chimpanzee climb higher. She set her pack down, unfurled her wings and flew up into the tree beside him. "Hi there," she said. "My name is Irsa and the robot is named THX-1492. He's friendly although he does recite parts of an ancient diary once in a while and can't remember doing so. What's your name?"

"Oh Oh Ah Ah," Alexei replied and clamped a hand over his mouth. He was still unaccustomed to his new vocal chords. He gripped the branches firmly with his hind feet and removed his marker and whiteboard from his boxers. He wrote something down and turned it around. Irsa read, "Alexei. Do all hamsters talk on this planet?"

"Hi Alexei," Irsa said, wondering why the chimp couldn't talk. Perhaps his voice box was defective, she surmised. "I'm the only winged hamster on the planet that I know of. The rest of my tribe is still on the Warden. I and a human named Becka hid in an escape pod to avoid a crazed robot, but she accidentally activated the pod and we ended up on this planet. She's down below somewhere."

Alexei was a little overwhelmed. Becka? Did he know her? Maybe. His mind was blank. Alexei shook his head.

THX moved quickly to the tree but avoided standing directly under the pod in case it fell. "Primate, this unit is Engineering Veribot THX-1492. Imperative that you relate critical information to this unit. Was Primate's point of origin the colony ship Warden? How long were you in Warden escape pod? Maximum escape pod velocity is known. If pod point of origin can be verified and duration of flight time of pod can be determined, the maximum radius of Warden position can be determined. Pod data module should have Warden flight data recorded. Can you determine if pod has crash data module aboard? Imperative that this information be obtained."

Alexei pushed his glasses further up his nose and scribbled on the whiteboard, "I will look inside the pod." He showed the message to Irsa and climbed back down.

The pod was firmly lodged between three enormous branches sprouting from the mighty trunk. Alexei gingerly climbed into the pod and looked around. He found nothing obvious, but he found a way to lift the seats up. Beneath one of the seats, he found a bright yellow panel. He grasped the panel and pulled out a small yellow box. It had a handle and tiny input/output jacks in the back. Confident he'd found what the robot was looking for, Alexei climbed down to the bottom of the tree and handed the box to THX-1492.

The robot took the flight recorder and inserted a lead into the back. It quickly scanned the data and found nothing but 28 hours of static! "Captain Nike," THX-1492 reported, "Pod FDR shows 28 hours of recording time, but no data. This unit can calculate radius of Warden's position." It reported the data to Nike. The point of origin was either a lunar or Lagrange orbit. In either case, the Warden was probably very far away.

Alexei looked at the robot and scratched his head. 28 hours? No wonder he had to go to the bathroom. He hoped this robot couldn't smell. Alexei ran into the underbrush to finally relieve himself.

Irsa flew to the stone building where Becka waited in the aircar. "Becka," she called. "You can come out now. We have a new friend, a chimpanzee named Alexei that I'd like you to meet."

Becka exited the building. She carried something with her. "Hey Irsa," she said. "This book is about a demon. Maybe it'll be useful against the demons in the desert."

Irsa looked at the book's cover. "The Modern what?" she said, trying to comprehend the title. She had no idea what the words 'Frankenstein' or 'Prometheus' meant.

Alexei returned from the underbrush. THX-1492 silently uploaded its data to the satellite. Alexei watched Irsa talk to Becka at the entrance to one of the dark, stone cubes. He figured he would tag along with these strangers. He wasn�t going to explore this planet alone! Alexei sat down at the robot's feet and started to clean himself. His fur seemed unnatural to him, but the act seemed perfectly normal. While he groomed, he looked around and recognized the ruins of a Hercules class dropship. It was overgrown like the cliff behind it.

Alexei spotted a small, rabbit-like creature with two small horns on its head. The creature stood between him and Irsa. It was sniffing the air curiously. A crowd of similar creatures crept through the weeds behind it.

Alexei wasn't sure what the creatures were, but he figured it wouldn't hurt to raise an alarm. He stood up, banged on the robot and flailed his other arm in the air. "Oh OH, ah, AH!" he shouted. He flashed his teeth, got down on all fours and tried to look as threatening as he could. He would have given his eye teeth for a blaster.

The crowd of rabbit-like creatures hid from Alexei, but the lead rabbit froze and stood its ground.

Irsa walked toward Alexei but stopped to say, "Hi there buddy," to the brave little rabbit. "Come to visit and say hi to your friend Irsa, did you? Want some more food? I'm running low, but here's some more." Irsa took the last of her food from her right cheek pouch and offered some to the rabbit.

The rabbit took the treat. The creature allowed Irsa to gently stroke its fur while it ate. Gradually the other rabbits came closer. Irsa sprinkled the rest of her food on the ground for them and walked toward Alexei. "There's nothing to be afraid of here. But just in case, here's a metal knife and two spears. The rabbits are friendly as long as you don't look threatening," Irsa told him.

Alexei took the primitive weapons from her. "Oh Oh," he said in chimp thanks and plunked down on the ground again. He hoped he wasn't losing his little chimpanzee mind. He stared at the strange rabbits and snorted derisively at them.

"Calm down Alexei. Do you know how to pilot an aircar?" Irsa asked. Alexei shook his head. "I'll try to do it. I think it's time we return to the rest of our group across the big stretch of water. Um, THX, could you give me a quick run through on how to fly an aircar?"

THX complied with Irsa's request. He searched for the appropriate files.

........bzzzzvvv vv....... ......... kkkkkllllwrrrrr. .........
November 5, 2555: We've left lunar orbit. The moon was full tonight, a spectacular send off.

November 8, 2555: We're half way between the moon and the planet. We'll begin our descent in a few hours. The Alexandria wasn't built to turn on a dime. She was built for speed but it takes a long time to build up a full head of steam. Mike has kept himself busy studying the alien devices. The polymers and white fibers are electrically non-conductive, non-magnetic and unresponsive to heat and light. Marie is cataloging the animal species depicted in the murals and examining the genome of the mold found in the polymers.

November 10, 2555: We've arrived in orbit around the planet. Marie has completed tests on the wood found at the lunar sites. As expected, they were too old for reliable carbon dating. Rubidium-strontium dating revealed the lunar soil was over six billion years old.

November 11, 2555: We are mapping the planet's surface. This place is pretty grim, unlike the murals in the 'Nursery'. It's in the middle of an ice age. Only a narrow band of land along the equator is temperate or desert. I wonder what it looked like when the aliens lived here.

November 12, 2555: We are preparing a dropship to make a landing in a small region of dense forest on the largest continent. Mike, Marie and I will go first.

November 13, 2555: We've seen many wild animals and exotic plants but none of them resembled the murals. The dropship's scanners detected dense, rectangular anomalies deep beneath the soil, so we set down in a nearby clearing. After four months of recycled oxygen, the air here smells terrific! Rain fell shortly after we landed. It felt good to get completely drenched!

November 21, 2555: We've returned to the ship. Robots are clearing the vegetation and soil from the anomalies. Ken and Amrit are taking the other dropship to explore more of the planet's surface. Marie is cataloging and sequencing the alien samples we brought back with us. We killed a medium-sized mammal and brought the carcass back with us. If Marie gives it the go ahead, we'll be eating fresh meat! Otherwise, we'll decompile it for carbon.

November 24, 2555: Mike is completely stumped by the alien devices. He's asked for help. The crew roster shows we have a cyber-geneticist frozen on board by the name of John Galt. He's thawing now. Marie OK-ed the meat we have on board. We cooked it tonight and ate it with a bottle of wine I'd been saving for a special occasion. It was delicious, a bit like chicken.

November 25, 2555: John is awake. He's a remarkable man. When I gave him the news from Earth, he barely acknowledged it. He acted as if he had already known. Instead of asking for details, he simply asked what his orders were. I showed him the artifacts we found at the lunar ruins and asked him to find out what they were. He's working with Mike now.

December 3, 2555: John is continuing his work with Mike. Amrit, Marie and I are planetside. We've explored a mountain range surrounded by desert. Even in this hard scrabble terrain there are many new life forms to be found. We've just received word from the robots at the excavation. They've exposed the anomalies.

December 4, 2555: We've returned and surveyed the site. The robots exposed large slabs of basalt, but mindlessly destroyed an intricate carving in the process of removing the topsoil. At least they stopped when they did. We need better programming for fine detail work. I've activated our Veribot, THX-1492, and loaded it with archeological excavation software. It's reprogramming our general purpose robots now.
............ ......wwwhrrrr. ......... ....bzzzzz. ......... .....CLANK. ....CLANK. .....CRUNCH. ........

A strange, scratching sound came from within the Veribot. It shuddered a little. Its delicate mechanical arm twisted inside its lower torso chassis. "Anomaly detected and neutralized. Information downloaded to system memory. Anomalous recordings overrided." THX-1492 proceeded to recite a simple essay on the correct procedure for piloting an aircar. "More advanced instructions are available in my database, Irsa."

"I just need to be able to follow you back to our ship. Fancier stuff can wait, I hope," Irsa replied.

Alexei followed Irsa down into one of the black stone ruins. The stone floor was dry despite the recent rain. Irsa and Alexei climbed into one of the fully fueled aircars and stowed their belongings behind them. Irsa turned the vehicle's power on. Besides THX's concise instructions, she had watched him fly the craft for several hours. She already understood most of the instruments. The aircar rose into the air and moved slowly toward the exit. Squeezing through the narrow passage gave Irsa a moment of concern, but the controls were intuitive and she piloted through without a scratch. Outside, she waited for THX and Becka.

THX-1492 refueled its aircar and climbed in with Becka. They left the ruins and rose into the air. Irsa and Alexei followed. As they rose, the noses of their aircars lowered. Alexei saw the ruined dropship below. When they were a hundred meters up, the jungle swallowed it whole. There was no trace visible from the air. They rose above the excavation and saw the vast canopy of jungle surrounding them. Irsa kept her eyes on the control panel. Alexei heard THX say, "Set nav-aid in center of console to 250, Irsa."

Irsa looked for the device THX had called a nav-aid on their flight to the excavation and dialed the number. "OK," she said into her comm. Irsa and Alexei followed THX over the jungle to the great ocean. Irsa had no trouble keeping sight of THX's aircar. Alexei watched the view from his seat. Becka sat quietly and read her book. Irsa smiled happily as she piloted the aircar back to the rest of the group. The trip took several hours. They passed over the great sea, a desert and the mountain range where the Pandora waited for them.

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