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Chapter 42: Over Eden

Nike looked up from her command console. "If you can," she said to Shlitzee, "find a way to make me a margarita."

Shlitzee considered making a joke but decided it was too facile. "One margarita coming up."

"Radio on," Nike said. "All right. Percy, you and Chelydra keep the ship secure. Bud and Amanda are coming with me. We're going alone to meet Galt. THX, if you wouldn't mind, please stay here and keep this base location secure."

"Acknowledged Captain," THX-1492 replied. The robot's neural net collated its data. "Captain Nike, this unit would estimate the odds of completing our mission at... Caught runtime error: NaN, restoring... ok."

Nike sighed and privately commed Percy and Arkady. "I want you two to run point with Chelydra on keeping things going while I am gone. Percy, you have a natural tendency to trust too quickly. I want you to role-play a paranoid freak while I'm gone. No one is to be on the bridge except Chelydra, Arkady, Percy or Shlitzee. Keep the bridge locked up tight until my return. If someone tries to force their way in, kill them. Don't hesitate, don't think--just shoot. No one else gets on this bridge even if it means they die."

She took a deep breath, allowed Percy to regain some color in his face and continued. "If you need to eat or take a leak, have someone relieve you. Have Irsa and the others, if they are willing, help you by running errands, etc. Something fishy is going on here and until we return your primary objective is preserving the goods and technology that we have at the moment. Oh, and I seem to recall from my days in the corps that there's a way to prevent anyone from hacking a computer from a remote terminal, but I can't remember how to do it. Can you pull that off?"

"Sure, I think I can," Percy replied.

"Good. Arkady, I need a plan to get to the Alexandria. No idea is too far-fetched. Run things by Percy when you have working ideas. Be ready to get this bucket of bolts out of here should the need arise. You are going to be the only resident pilot when I'm gone." Nike couldn't help but smile at him. He was so cute with his bedhead hair. "And Arkady, no more disappearances. If you need to sleep and it cannot wait, just let us know."

Nike commed everyone else and said, "Due to the tensions that are inherently present, I believe it is crucial that we have only a small delegation on this mission. As a result, I respectfully ask that you remain here with the ship until we return. Please do not enter the bridge and please comm Chelydra if you need anything or if you have not been assigned to quarters."

Nike commed Irsa, Becka and Alexei. "If you are willing," Nike said, "Percy and Chelydra could use some assistance with the ship's smooth operation while we are gone as well as food gathering and additional recon. Can we count you among our crew and ask for your help?"

"I'm good at gathering plants and exploring," Irsa said. "You need stuff done, I'll do what I can to help."

Becka replied, "Sure, yeah. Whatever."

Alexei squawked an unintelligible thought.

"Meet me outside by the aircar," Nike commed to Bud. She turned to Amanda and said, "Let's go. Somehow, I think this mission needs a woman's touch." She tried to ignore the flush on Amanda's face. Nike rose, gathered her things and headed for the supply room. Amanda followed. Her beautiful Sturmkarabiner rifle bounced against her backside. She tenderly held it by the barrel as it hung from her shoulder. Nike took a pistol from the weapons locker and headed for the great outdoors.

As they passed Shlitzee at the bottom of the gangplank, the robot offered Nike a beaker. Nike took the beaker and examined the liquid within. She screwed up her bravery and tasted the contents. It was delicious. It tasted like real limes. She downed the rest of the margarita and handed the empty beaker to Shlitzee. "Thanks," she said and winked at the robot. Shlitzee's eyes turned a bright shade of green as she winked back.

Nike and Amanda stepped into the sand. The villagers were all gone. Bud and THX waited for them by the aircar. Nike took one look at Bud's heavy plaser and said, "This aircar isn't big enough to haul the three of us and your plaser. Stow it on the Pandora and get something more manageable."

Bud frowned. He looked at the aircar and tried to imagine how he could make it fit but Nike was right. The plaser was too big. He ran back into the Pandora and left the plaser in his room. He had a 9mm pistol in his shoulder holster. He hoped that and Amanda's assault rifle would be enough firepower.

Nike examined the aircar while Bud was away. It took her a while to figure out how to open the door. She climbed in and took a look at the controls. She was still trying to understand them when Bud returned. "This vehicle makes no sense to me," she told him. "Are you familiar with it?"

Bud replaced Nike in the driver's seat and examined the controls. After a moment, he crossed his arms and whistled. "Bailey was right," he said. "This is some weird looking stuff. I've never seen anything like it. I wonder who made it." He looked at Nike but his eyes lingered on Amanda. He smiled an impish grin and added, "You're the captain. THX should show you how to pilot it. He showed Irsa how to do it. How difficult could it be?"

THX-1492 stood at the edge of the ship searching the area for security threats with its optic lenses. Nike called the robot over and asked it to explain the aircar's operation. Nike mastered the skills in several minutes. She refueled the aircar with two fresh power cells and told her team to prepare for departure.

Bud and Amanda climbed into the single passenger seat. They sat side-by-side. Amanda's Sturmkarabiner sat between her legs. The look on Bud's face indicated his pleasure with the seating arrangements. Nike took the wheel, sealed the cockpit and the aircar lifted off.

For the rest of the trip Amanda was miserable. She shifted uncomfortably. She slapped Bud when his hands wandered too close to her. She begged Nike to fly faster.

Nike was also eager to arrive but she had other things on her mind. She flew high over the mountain range. In the bright sun, she got a good look at the surrounding landscape. It was barren and rocky. Thin lines of green trees grew in tiny canyons cut into the mountains. Far to the north and south the mountains vanished into the desert's sands. The smaller range of mountains north of the Pandora extended west before they too vanished into the desert. The only other feature besides sand around them was a solitary mountain in the middle of the desert far southeast of the main mountain range.

They flew north until they reached the area Nike recognized from the Pandora's radar map. Nike switched on a camera and transmitted images back to the Pandora. A monitor on the dashboard lit up. Nike, Bud and Amanda soon saw what they were looking for. Even from a high elevation Eden was unmistakable. It was situated in a broad valley protected by the mountains on three sides. The valley was filled with wooded glens and wild fields. A long wall surrounded the place.

Nike switched on the aircar's ladar. The monitor's image became black and white. She zoomed in for a closer look at the city's wall. Its entire length consisted of two stone walls. They were separated by 10 meters of exotic trees. They looked nothing like the scrubby plants living outside the walls or the lush landscape within.

The entire perimeter of Eden was uniformly surrounded except where a single gate pierced the western wall. A building made of stone and wood sat near the gate. A couple of people stood nearby. They wore simple tunics. One of the men carried a staff. A dirt road led away from the gate into the interior of Eden. Nike followed the road with the ladar's joystick through a vast area of wilderness. The aircar's occupants saw dozens of strange docile animals. Children played with them in the tall grass. Men and women walked leisurely and talked.

Nike zoomed in and out until she finally found a sign of civilization. Through the trees she spotted the top of a black circular roof. A two-story building sat beneath the roof. It looked like a modern duralloy vacation home. A row of columns supported the wider second floor. Through large windows they saw furniture made of wood. Nike scanned the area around the building and soon found others. There were at least a dozen buildings among the trees below, all of them identical.

"Seems like some have it a little better than others on this dirtball," Bud said.

Nike nodded. She reconsidered her plan to initiate contact. "I think we have to be very careful. I'm a little hesitant to bring Pandora too close to this Eden. It looks a little too sculpted and perfect. Nothing completely natural is this perfect."

"I think we should take the Pandora back to the ruins in the jungle," Bud suggested. "We'll have plenty of organic matter for the compilers and be safe from these crazies."

"I agree with you," Nike said. They flew around a few more times but they found nothing else and headed back to the Pandora.

Amanda was disappointed that they hadn't stopped. The trip only became more uncomfortable for her. Every time she tried to move, Bud seemed to enjoy the friction. Amanda scowled at Nike for ignoring her discomfort.

"Nike," Shlitzee said on a private comm channel, "I have the results of the DNA tests."

"Good. What did you discover about Arkady?" she replied quietly. The paranoia had been getting to her. She hoped Shlitzee was going to put her fears to rest.

"His DNA matches pilot Arkady Dmitrivich."

"Oh, that's a relief. I don't believe a word of all this demon talk, but there's probably some grain of truth in it. I thought he might have been replaced by something that wasn't human."

"Arkady's not human, he's a bioroid."

"What!" Nike bit her lip and glanced at her passengers to see if they'd heard her. They had. "What in the hell is a bioroid?" she whispered.

"They're biologically grown androids raised in a zoom womb to an arbitrary age."

"Are you sure Arkady's a bioroid?"

"As sure as I can be of anything. His DNA has a copyright date and the words 'Intellectual Property of the UWSC' clearly written in it."

"Thanks Shlitzee, hold tight. We'll be there soon." Nike turned off her comm and said, "Arkady's a bioroid."

"Yeah, I know," Bud replied. Amanda and Nike stared at him.

"And you didn't warn me?"

"Warn you of what? You, Amanda, Percy, Arkady, Chelydra... You're all bioroids. You said you woke up in zoom wombs, right? Clone pods, I think you called them. Well, those pods created you from your original DNA. Nanobugs built your bodies like conventional robots except with bone and flesh instead of metal."

"I'm a robot?" Amanda looked horrified. "I don't feel like a robot."

"No sweet cheeks, you're human--an artificial human, but no one could tell the difference without reading your DNA."

"No difference at all?" Nike said.

"Well, almost. You won't have a monthly cycle but you can get pregnant. Arkady, Percy and Chelydra on the other hand are probably sterile. Just shooting blanks, I'm afraid," Bud said with a wink to Amanda.

Amanda stared out the window. Of all the clones on the Pandora, she had been alive the longest. She had wondered when she would start menstruating. Now she knew.

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