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Chapter 40: The Lizard King

Bailey sat upright and stared at the flashing light on his console. He shouted, "Nike, life-forms are approaching!"

"Frakking-Frell!" Bud said.

"Where? How many?" Nike snapped back.

Bailey glanced at the monitor in front of him. "Dozens of 'em, maybe over a hundred. They're approaching from the north, about a kilometer away."

"How fast can we lift off if it becomes prudent to do so?" Bud asked.

"Less than a minute," Nike replied, "if everyone is on board."

"Nike," Chelydra said over the comm, "I'm outside. I see a column of dust over the dunes north of us, but I can't see what's causing it yet. The recycling is all in and the area's secure. I'm armed in case there's trouble coming, but I could use some backup. Hey, I think I see our two aircars returning."

"Affirmative, C," Nike answered. "We see them on radar."

As Irsa, THX, Becka and Alexei approached the Pandora, they flew over nearly a hundred people approaching the lifeboat on foot. A column of dust rose into the air behind them. A few kilometers behind the crowd, a large beast with men on its back raced to catch up with them.

"We are about to have company," Irsa told the bridge crew over the comm. "Two groups of humans are coming, one of about a hundred and the second about four."

Alexei jumped up and down. "Oh oh ah ah!" he screamed. He frantically wrote on his white board, "Don't land. Maybe hostile!"

"We will land near the ship, Alexei, and let the others deal with those people," Irsa said, hoping to reassure Alexei.

THX-1492 landed its aircar next to the Pandora. Chelydra lowered the cargo lift and THX drove onto it. Irsa set her aircar down in the sand outside the gangplank as THX's aircar rose into the garage. Chelydra secured the lift and hurried over to Irsa and Alexei.

Percy watched them on the bridge's monitors. He said to everyone on comm, "If the second aircar can't come with us, maybe for our next jaunt one of us should fly it alongside, kind of like Voyager and the Delta Flyer! Or we could take it apart and feed the recycler," he suggested sarcastically.

Bud nodded and stood up, straight and tall. A plan was forming in his head. He walked across the bridge to their priestly chum Horatio and said, "Hey fella, I think there's a welcoming committee heading this way. They must be real anxious to say hello, comin' all this way into the dunes of tentacled death. Maybe we should go say hi?" Bud smiled his best let's-put-our-heads-together-and-make-this-happen smile and added, "But ya know, I seem to recall our bird seemed outta place here... Maybe you'd be gracious enough to introduce us to the newcomers?"

Horatio nodded. Nike agreed. Bud turned to his robot companion and said, "Shlitzee, meet me at the gangplank. Bring some bioscanners, midgrade uppers, my plaser and a few extra shells. Thanks, toots."

Shlitzee instantly stopped her low-speed liquimixing, loaded the frothing compound into a high-pressure dispenser and ingested it. After servo control returned, she hurried off to gather a humanachem party pack and a portable bioscanner from the medbay. She wobbled to Bud's quarters, slung his plaser over her shoulder and ambled toward the gangplank.

Bud and Horatio left the bridge together. Amanda followed them, cradling her Sturmkarabiner rifle. She hoped it might get some use soon. Nike wanted to join them too, to be in the thick of the front lines in case 'aggressive negotiations' were necessary, but if things got ugly she wanted to be the one who flew the Pandora to a safe destination. She decided to stay on the bridge.

"Hey," Bud said to Horatio as they walked down the corridor, "I'd sure love to hear more about the Prophets. How long ago did they walk this world as other men?"

"The Prophet Benalidino died in the year 47, over 250 years ago. The Almighty John Galt still walks among us."

Bud raised an eyebrow. Subvocally, he said to the Pandora's crew, "John Galt still walks among us... This guy's got a downright unnatural lifespan. Percy, can you pull any info from the Alexandria's database about this guy? Seeing how much juice he has around here could be a double-edger. The way I read this, we've got a minimum of four possibilities: 1) he's stranded here and duped the locals, 2) he's on some kind of power trip, 3) he's totally insane or 4) some combination of the first three. Any way you cut it, we're gonna have to be careful how we handle him and his followers. Chel, I'm heading to the gangplank with our native pal Horatio. Have you seen our uninvited guests yet?"

"Affirmative," Chelydra replied. "They look like farmers and they seem pissed off about something."

Shlitzee met Bud at the gangplank. Bud saw she held the bioscanner and said, "Scan everyone, especially the non-Warden members of this fiesta. Can you fix me up with a dose of mid-grade speed? I might need a little boost in the next couple of minutes." Shlitzee unshouldered the plaser and tossed it to Bud. He wielded the heavy weapon and waited while Shlitzee deployed a pneumo-dose of 'PEP' into his neck. Bud felt his heart race.

Percy said over the comm, "John Galt's on the Alexandria's manifest! There's not much here that wasn't mentioned in the captain's log. He's from New Plymouth on Eridani, heavily gene-modded at birth, graduated from New Alexandria University with a doctorate in cyber-genetics. He was a volunteer on the Alexandria, thawed on November 24th, 2555."

While Bud listened, he watched Amanda and Horatio join Chelydra standing in the sand and noticed Arkady had been absent for some time. Subvocally he messaged Arkady, "Just thought I'd keep you in the loop. We're either gonna have some new friends or a bunch of compost for the compiler."

Arkady replied blearily, "I was asleep, sorry. I'm on my way."

Arkady's unannounced absence suddenly bothered Percy. Sure, they were all tired, but with Nike running the ship and all the activity, he thought it odd no one knew he had disappeared. He made a quick check of the security systems and saw Arkady had entered his quarters almost 6 hours ago, around the time THX had landed at the excavation site. Arkady had not left his room since. There was no record of what he'd done during that time since none of the quarters had surveillance cameras. Arkady had not used the computer terminal in his room at all for those 6 hours. Percy noted the current time. The Pandora's computer said 23:20. He looked up at the sun and felt it was closer to 2:00 in the afternoon. He scratched his head and discreetly informed Nike of his findings.

Outside the Pandora, the crew observed the approaching mob. THX-1492, anticipating an unfortunate contingency, checked its systems for optimum efficiency. Irsa, not wanting to be mistaken for a demon, covered her folded wings with her cloak and gave serious thought to hiding with Alexei in her room onboard the ship. "Don't worry," she said to the chimpanzee. "My friends know what they're doing." Under her breath she muttered, "I hope they can handle this."

Alexei was not reassured by her words. He gripped his knife and spears tightly.

"Irsa, Becka," Nike said over the comm. Alexei also heard her. "Would you like to bring our latest Warden escapee to the bridge? I'm sure he has questions for us." Alexei looked at Irsa and shrugged. He tucked his whiteboard under his arm and followed Irsa and Becka up the gangplank. He contemplated locking the door behind him, but didn't want to strand the others.

Irsa was happy to leave dealing with the crowd to the human crew, but she wanted to stick around to see what would happen. Instead of going to the bridge, Irsa stopped at the entrance and turned to watch the crew. Alexei hid behind her. He positioned himself near the door mechanism in case the others came running.

Drake walked past Irsa, Becka and Alexei and stepped down the gangplank into the sand. "What's going on?" he asked through a mouthful of food, the last onboard the ship. Everyone else stared silently at the approaching mob. They were still a hundred meters or so away, waving their primitive farm tools menacingly.

Drake swallowed the last of the food and gazed at the angry mob. "I know how you feel about me," he said to Chelydra. "I'm used to not being trusted. I want to earn your trust." He stretched out his wings and flew toward the mob. He hovered in the air above them and tried to look menacing. He wanted to scare them away.

The mob cowered in terror for a moment. "A demon," someone shouted! Other voices answered him. "Abomination! A curse on it! Send it back to hell!" They threw their makeshift weapons at Drake. A pitchfork ripped the membrane of his wings. He fell and disappeared from sight as the mob fell upon him.

On the bridge monitors, Nike watched Drake fall. She smirked, but hoped he was ok. She remained calm. Nike trusted Bud to defuse the situation.

Horatio recognized the men in the mob. They were from the village of Sigai. He called out for them to stop. They heard his voice and obeyed. Someone in the crowd asked why Horatio was in the company of demons. They dumped Drake's battered but breathing body onto the ground before them.

"These are not demons," Horatio replied, horrified. "They are men. Don't you know that demons disappear when you hurt them?"

Bud watched the mob relax. "Well said, friend Horatio! As Horatio says, the man at your feet is no demon." He walked toward the villagers as he addressed them. "Are you the FAITHFUL? Do you HEED the words of the PROPHET BENALIDINO? He is from the WARDEN! This MIGHTY BIRD is from the WARDEN! My COMPANIONS and I are from the WARDEN! We are not the source of your anger. WE HAVE COME TO AID THE FAITHFUL!"

A murmur ran through the crowd. They looked uncertain. Horatio replied, "What this good man says is true. They have come to aid us and we will aid them."

"Holy bullshit, Bud," Nike said, chuckling over the comm. "You sure can talk circles around the fanatical masses... You must have the genetics of a politician in there, somewhere. Keep that crowd under control." She smiled at their situation in contrast to the chaos on the Warden only a short time ago. The Pandora had a good crew and they were taking care of business. She continued watching from the bridge.

Bud motioned for Shlitzee to follow him toward Drake's beaten body. Shlitzee examined Drake. He was unconscious. She applied medicines to stabilize him and carried his body to the medbay. As Shlitzee walked up the gangplank, she gave a robowink to THX. She tight-beamed, "It isn't easy taking care of these sacks of mostly-water."

THX-1492 responded on private channel, "Organic life-forms are inherently unstable and unreliable. Biological hydration status of these organisms is fragile with frequent breakdowns... .....clack..."

Bud kept his plaser ready. Subvocally, he said to Chelydra, "How many of these guys can you keep pinned down if I have to haul-ass back into the ship?"

"They seem cowardly. I can probably keep 'em all back with my boom stick."

Bud nodded and watched the villagers, looking for non-verbal clues as to their leadership. "What man of good will speaks for you?" he asked.

The men all shifted their feet uncomfortably. They clearly had no leader. They were a mob, but someone must have put them up to it. Someone finally said, "Cleetus told us."

Everyone stared at the man called Cleetus. He gave Horatio a guilty look. He opened and closed his slackened jaw several times before he said, "We totally got tired of these metal thangs spookin' our stock. We killed one of 'em last night in town!"

Bud secretly addressed the crew over the comm. "Sounds like a Warden pod just crashed on the yokel's village. We should check it out... And maybe see if we can start tracking and backward-trajectory plotting any more."

"I'll start keeping an eye on the radar for more escape pods," Bailey replied from the bridge.

Horatio said to Cleetus and the villagers, "If you came here to hurt these people, you must beg John Galt for forgiveness."

Cleetus's jaw fell open again. After a moment, he fell to his knees and lay prostrate in the sand, mumbling a prayer of forgiveness. Everyone in the crowd around him did likewise and added their voices to his prayer.

Arkady came down the gangplank. He held his 9mm Savalette Guardian pistol by his side. He saw the crowd of villagers prostrated before Bud and holstered his pistol. Arkady stood next to Chelydra and Amanda and quietly said into the comm, "Nice one Bud. Are you their new Sky Father or their Lizard King?"

Bud replied subvocally, "Probably a bit of both..." Bud was both pleased and concerned with how reverent the mob was behaving. His background in counter-insurgency had taught him a few lessons with regards to zealots and True Believers.

"Where have you been Arkady?" Nike asked over the comm.

Arkady grimaced. "Sorry, I fell asleep in my room."

"We're all exhausted," Nike replied. "But since you're rested you can help organize the DNA test. Shlitzee needs to get samples from the villagers and our crew."

Nike switched her comm to a private channel and said to Shlitzee, "Check Arkady's DNA sample first." Nike had listened to Percy's concerns about Arkady and shared them. Horatio's talk about shape-changers had made her paranoid. "Make sure he's the same Arkady we've been with all this time. There's something fishy going on here that is setting off my internal sensors, if you will. But keep it quiet... If it's a false alarm, I don't want to damage the fragile bridge of trust we have in our group."

"Right-o," Shlitzee replied.

Shlitzee returned from the medbay and approached Arkady. The rest of the crew kept an eye on the crowd while Arkady spoke with Horatio. He told him Shlitzee wanted to 'greet' him and his friends.

Horatio said, "Is this a custom with your people?"

"Yeah, it's a sort of custom. It's how we get to know our friends better."

"And how we find ways to help," Bud added, "as we did with your gehti, David."

Horatio nodded in acknowledgement. He interrupted the villagers' groveling and said, "Galt will forgive you as long as you remain humble. Pray for the recovery of the fallen one known as Drake. His friends wish to greet us and get to know us so we may all be friends."

Horatio turned toward the crew. The natives looked at them expectantly. Arkady showed Shlitzee his bare arm and the robot withdrew a small tissue sample.

"Who among you suffers from malady of body or thought?" Bud asked the crowd. The villagers looked at one another and wondered what 'malady' meant. "Each in your turn," Bud continued, "stand and approach our healer. Cleetus, you seem to be a man with shame in your heart. You shall be first!" Subvocally, Bud added to Shlitzee, "Can you throw a mild anti-anxiety agent into the mix? Maybe we can calm them down as we gather medical intel."

"Roger," Shlitzee replied over the comm.

Cleetus approached Shlitzee nervously. The robot took a tissue sample from his arm and dosed him. Cleetus ran to hide in the back of the crowd as the next villager stepped forward.

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