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Chapter 43: The Warden Wrangler

Davred felt weightless. Everything was dark. He smelled plastik, like the inside of a familiar facemask. He heard the roar of a distant crowd. Hundreds of tiny camera flashes winked at him.

When he awoke Davred was in a zoom womb, one of many. The canopy was open. He climbed out and noticed a drawer beside him. Inside he found a uniform. A blue patch said Warden - Lt/Sr. Another said Warden Wranglers. He saw the name Davred 'Deathblow' Knight embroidered on the back and wondered for a moment if the name was his. He picked it up and put it on. Memories of his previous life rushed at him: security teams, his commanding officer and the gravball court on which he had played. They hurt his head.

Davred massaged his temples and noticed there were other objects in the drawer: a webbed gear vest, a wooden sword (a bokken made of Australian hardwood), a well worn grey and black bandana, a small arms repair kit, two full clips and a pistol, a 9mm Savalette Guardian. He loaded the pistol, donned the vest and stashed the repair kit and spare clip. He holstered the Savalette in his vest and tucked the bokken through his belt.

Davred left his womb and walked around the room. He walked past rows of other wombs. Some were open. He came across the body of a man lying on the floor. Judging by the damage done and the size of the mess, Davred figured a power tool had eviscerated him.

"Ship's gone American McGee's Alice on me," he thought, "and I still haven't had my morning mug of Caff!"

A door opened and a medical robot entered the room with a vibro saw. It buzzed to life. The robot advanced toward Davred. He shouted for it to stop but it ignored him.

Davred fired 10 rounds at the robot but they did not stop it. He inserted the other clip and unloaded it on the robot. A lucky shot penetrated its brain. The robot thudded to a stop and the vibro saw ceased its buzzing.

Davred berated himself for being trigger-happy instead of pinpointing his target. He had spent all his ammunition and hadn't a clue what he might face next. Davred resolved to keep his game up from here on in. He examined the robot and attempted to dismantle the vibro saw. It was connected to the robot's chassis and would require some work to remove it.

The door opened again and two security bots entered the room. They fired their laser rifles at Davred. He holstered his empty pistol and ran for his life. The security bots chased him out of the room and into an enormous indoor residential area. Davred ran through a maze of corridors lined with locked doors. He stayed one step ahead of the robots but they had reinforcements. He spotted them down the corridor before he ran into them. He was trapped.

Davred ducked into a corridor filled with escape pods. Many were already missing. He jumped into one and closed the door behind him. Through a small window he watched from the shadows to see if the robots would pass him by.

The security bots headed straight for his pod. Davred saw a button flash beside him and pushed it. The pod's rockets threw him against the hatch. He picked himself up and found his balance as gravity vanished. Through the window Davred watched the Warden tumble away.

After a stunned moment of shock, Davred strapped himself into the crash-seat. He watched the Warden grow smaller through the hatch window. He growled under his breath, "Well this is just bloody colourful." His heart still raced from his escape. Davred closed his eyes and willed himself into a state of calm through an old technique he remembered. Several minutes later his heart rate reached his regular 42 beats per minute. Davred pulled the bandanna over his head and tied it in back.

He scanned the walls of the pod and found only a few controls and readouts. He punched a finger at the one he correctly guessed was the communication system. "Mayday! Mayday," he said. "This is Lieutenant Knight of the Starship Warden. I'm in a pod that's ejected from a whole ton of FUBAR and outbound to..." He looked up and saw a spinning blue and white planet looming into view. " huge iceball of a planet. If anyone is receiving, please acknowledge this transmission..."

Davred grit his teeth and waited but he heard only static. If anyone had heard him on the Warden, or anywhere else, they weren't responding.

He fell through space for many long boring hours. Without warning his pod rang like a bell. The pod shuddered and gravity returned for a moment. Davred held onto his seat as the escape pod stopped tumbling. Through the window Davred saw the planet no longer spun. It was as stable as the escape pod.

The pod fell toward the planet in a slow arc. The cabin air grew warmer. Davred secured his gear, clutched his seat harness and braced for impact. A rocket fired. The window foamed up. Davred hoped the parachute would open, although he couldn't tell how he knew the pod had a parachute. He heard it deploy above him and felt the snap. The pod decelerated with a lurch and continued falling. An eternity later the pod hit something and tipped over. It came to rest on something soft but solid.

"Nike," Arkady said over the comm, "an escape pod just landed near us."

"We're nearly there," Nike responded. "Are you ready to pilot the Pandora?"

"Of course. Where to?"

"To the escape pod." Nike switched channels and broadcast to the Pandora's crew, "Arkady's flying the Pandora to the escape pod that just landed. We'll meet you there. Percy, make sure there aren't any of those sandstar things around when you land."

"Sikalas," Percy explained.

"Whatever, Nike out."

Arkady prepared the Pandora's engines for lift off. He'd seen Nike do it before and he remembered a few things through the haze of half-formed bioroid memories but it took him several minutes to warm the engines.

Irsa couldn't wait. Hunger and boredom got the better of her. Her stomach ached. She went to the mess area to get something to eat but she was disappointed. The cupboards were bare. She wished she hadn't given the last of her food to the horned rabbits. She went to the gangplank, opened it, stepped outside and closed it behind her. She searched the nearby dunes for edible plants or seeds but the dunes were as barren as the endless night outside the Warden.

The Pandora's engines were still silent. Irsa decided to go see for herself who had come from the Warden in the escape pod. She remembered where the pod had come down in the holoprojection and headed off in that direction. She walked across the sandy plain. A Sikala surprised her. It erupted from the sand in front of her. Irsa jumped back and flew into the air. The beast's tentacles missed her.

Irsa considered diving straight into the center of the Sikala with her spear. "I am not your next meal, desert starfish," Irsa yelled. She readied her weapon but stayed her hand. She wondered how many more of these beasts lived between her and the fallen escape pod. "Hey," she realized, "I can just fly to the pod."

Davred unbuckled his harness and stretched out his post-crash woes with audible clicks and cracks. "Well that was a fun ride," he grumbled and gave the pod the once-over. He found the pod's bright yellow flight recorder underneath his seat. There was nothing else of value. He removed the recorder and opened the access door. He prepared to strike with his bokken as the voice of an old instructor came through his hazy memory. "Dere's only 2 kin's of warriors kiddies," he had said. "Prep'ed ones an' dead ones."

Outside the pod Davred saw a great field of sand. Beyond tall dunes he saw a mountain range. It was early afternoon and the air was hot and dry. Davred's eyes roved everywhere, looking for movement and trouble but he saw none. He stepped out and looked behind him. The desert surrounded his tiny craft.

A light wind blew across Davred's face as a shadow passed overhead. He looked up and saw a flying hamster with a backpack and spear. "Hello," the hamster said. "I come in peace." She landed near the pod and gave Davred a graceful bow.

A gobsmacked Davred blinked twice. "A flying hamster," he pondered, "that talks?" He gave a mental shrug and thought, "Ah, what the heck. I've been chased by psycho-bots from a horror film. I reckon I can handle an airborne hamster that says g'day. Besides, she's kinda cute in an I-have-a-sharp-spear-and-know-how-to-use-it kind of way."

Davred tucked his bokken into his belt and gave Irsa the friendliest grin he could muster. "Umm, hi there. Are you a native of this area or are you from the mad house that used to be the Warden like me?"

"I escaped from the Warden just like you. Was a crazed robot trying to kill you too?" Davred nodded. "Not good. Master Kyvu used to say robots were supposed to obey humans but they must have been broken inside. I wonder if there's any left on the Warden that will still properly obey. My name is Irsa. If you follow me I can lead you to the Pandora. It's a kind of ship and the crew is friendly. I'll help you avoid the desert starfish things that live under the sand. What's your name?"

While Davred listened to Irsa he recalled walking along a busy street while his self-proclaimed Number-One-Fan scampered alongside with his techpad in hand. "Mister-Knight," he had said with machine gun delivery. "That-was-a-great-game-Mister-Knight. Can-you-please-autograph-my-pad-again-here-Sir? Please-please-please?" A sudden blinding pain pierced Davred's skull as the memory passed. "That kid was a motor mouth like this hamster, but he was all right. I wonder what ever happened to him..."

Davred shook his head to clear the haze from his eyes. "Sorry for zoning out on you there Irsa. My head's been killing me since I woke up. A ship you said, eh? Glad to hear some of the crew made it out in something better than a flying tin can. Gah, where are my manners? I'm First Lieutenant Davred Knight. How about we start heading for your ship? What are these desert starfish we have to watch out for?"

"They live underneath the sand," Irsa said. She flew a few feet off the ground and headed toward the Pandora. She prodded the sand in front of her with the end of her spear. "They're nasty things if you step on them."

"Then I'll try not to step on them," Davred said and followed Irsa. He scanned his surroundings warily. "So, how many survivors are there in your group? Anyone of command rank?"

"I think Nike is in charge. I don't remember off hand the rest of the crew."

"Nike, eh?" Davred's brow furrowed as he tried to remember the names and faces he had once known but came up with a blank. "Name's not ringing a bell. But the Warden isn't exactly what you'd call a small..."

From behind a distant dune Davred saw a giant lifeboat ascend. It was enormous: 110 meters wide, 90 meters long and 40 meters tall. The crisp, rumbling sound of her jets blew across the hot desert air.

"...boat," Davred continued. "Well well well, looks like your shipmates spent a bit more time requisitioning inventory before making a mad dash for freedom than I did. This certainly changes things in our favour." The lifeboat's engines grew louder. It flew toward them and looked like it might pass overhead. "Do you have any way of contacting them? We might want to stop them from jetting off and making us chase them across the desert or deafen us to pieces!" Davred wiggled his index fingers in his ears to dampen the sound.

Irsa tried to think over the escalating roar of the Pandora's engines. Comm unit, on switch, press on. "Um, Pandora crew wait," Irsa yelled with panic in her voice. "This is Irsa! I found the person from the escape pod. Could you not leave just yet? I'm sorry I forgot to tell you I left the ship to check for the pod."

The Pandora flew over the escape pod. She descended and landed on a dune above it. Her engines wound down their song. A gangplank lowered and two figures stepped out of the Pandora's shadow. Davred saw one of them was a female robot. The other was a meter and a half tall, bipedal snapping turtle. He pointed a shotgun at the ground.

Davred and Irsa walked toward the gangplank. Davred noticed Chelydra and Shlitzee's relaxed, almost laid-back stances but their eyes watched for trouble, a sign of true professionalism. Davred nodded politely to Chelydra as he approached the ramp.

"You from around here?" Chelydra asked. "Know any good bars?"

Davred chuckled. "Judging by your method of transport, your Kansas is mine as well, Toto, and boy is it a real circus lately... When the Warden is cleaned up I'll certainly be getting the first round of drinks when we get some decent R&R.; I'm First Lieutenant Davred Knight, Alpha Security Group team 2, under the direct command of Captain Margulis. It seems my memory is getting a little better as we go along here. I assume you'd like me to surrender my side-arm before boarding?"

"Yes," Chelydra said, "please hand over your weapons. I don't suppose you have a security passcard, do you Mr. Knight?"

"Awww hell... Didn't even think of that." Davred quickly patted his pockets, just in case he had missed it but found nothing. "Blast! I must've missed it in the rush when I got my gear from the tube tray... Or the Mark One Version of me forgot to leave a spare. And uhhh, please call me Davred. Mr. Knight makes me sound like an old codger past his prime or something." Davred handed his bokken and pistol to Chelydra.

"No worries, Davred. My companion here can check your identity. Please bare your arm for her."

"You gonna check the Warden's crew records, Chelydra?" Irsa asked.

"Crew records? Whoa, you guys got the optional extras package with this boat. Here we go, this should clear everything up." Davred rolled up his sleeve and presented his arm to Shlitzee. "I wonder if these guys have had infiltration problems," he wondered to himself. "They sure have the reception committee down-pat for security detail."

Shlitzee sampled Davred's DNA. While she processed it, Davred gave her the flight recorder. "Something tells me you can put this to better use than I can," he said.

"THX," Chelydra said on a private comm channel, "I need you to analyze another flight recorder."

A moment later THX-1492 appeared at the gangplank. Its mechanical voice said, "Input specific information for this unit to analyze." THX took the flight recorder from Shlitzee and analyzed the device. Like Alexei's flight recorder, this one was blank. THX found nothing but 23 hours of static.

"We're approaching your position," Davred heard a woman say. Her voice was as clear as a temple bell, as if she had whispered the words into his ear. Davred looked around. He couldn't see anyone else but he noticed Chelydra quietly muttering to himself, his mouth barely moving. Old memories hit Davred. "Subvocal comm systems? That's a welcome sign. They're restricted to Special Forces and command staff if memory serves... As if I can count on that at the moment..."

Davred considered revealing his channel to the crew but he was still unsure if he was a compatriot or prisoner. He took a trusting gamble and whispered, "Radio on. Ma'am, your broadcast also came through on my channel. I assume that you are in command. Reporting for duty Ma'am, over."

"Hello," Nike answered. "Glad you're hearing me loud and clear. Now who the hell is this?"

"Apologies, ma'am. Davred Knight, Lieutenant, formerly of captain Margulis's personal security team. And now... well, I'm at your front door looking for a few good people to clean up the Warden. Given what I've seen so far, I think I've come to the right place."

"I hope so. I'm captain Nike Thomason, Marines. Glad to have you with us, out."

Davred exhaled and gave Chelydra a wry twist of his mouth. "Hope I didn't just scare ten years out of the boss just then, Chelydra... Unique name. I swear I've heard it before..." Davred's head hurt again. He dug taut fingers into his temples. His brain felt like it was about to explode, then it hit him. He gaped at the turtle-man, his well muscled frame, his piercing eyes and the no-nonsense, tight-lipped expression of an old friend. "Jackson?" Davred exclaimed. "Jay-sus, is that you?"

"I've got a match," Shlitzee broadcast to everyone on comm. "Davred Knight, nickname Deathblow, First Lieutenant in the Alpha Security team, star athlete in the Warden Wranglers gravball team."

Chelydra relaxed his gruff demeanor. He lowered his shotgun as he remembered where he'd seen Davred's face before. "We trained together in the dojo by the lake on Level 14, didn't we? Krav Maga I think it was... Sorry if I can't remember much more. Most of us here are clones. Our memories aren't all there."

Davred massaged his forehead and said, "Know the feeling old friend. My brain hasn't exactly cooperated since I woke up. Permission to come aboard and... get some heavy-duty painkillers?"

"Welcome aboard Davred. We can fix you up with a cocktail but whatever happened to the old No-Blood, No-Foul Deathblow?"

Davred relaxed with a long sigh and laughed. "Hey there Leonardo, stop using my old game policies against me or I'll sic my friend Miss Splinter on your tail," he said indicating Irsa. "Besides, I haven't had a good cup of Joe since I woke up. Everything becomes an exception to the rule until that happens."

"I suppose I haven't quite been myself either lately," Chelydra said with a wry chuckle. "I sure could have used this shell back in the dojo."

Davred rapped his knuckles on Chelydra's carapace and heard a hollow clonk. "Nice. Sure beats having to gear up combat armour when the fit hits the shan, so to speak. And speaking of gear I remember being trained in weapon repair. I'd be happy to check anything you need after I've checked out your offered cocktail."

"Would you like a margarita," Shlitzee said, "or an analgine meat-tenderizer? Perhaps something a little stronger?"

"That there margarita mix is sounding good to me. I only just got up so I don't want to knock myself for six already," Davred grinned. "Unless you guys consider me such a pain in the ass that you want me to emulate a monorail gridline, that is."

Shlitzee's internal systems whirred and a moment later she excreted a small plastik cup filled with a frothy liquid. She handed it to Davred. It smelled of lime and tequila. He raised the cup in salute to Shlitzee. "Heh, my first dose of the good stuff in this lifetime. Cheers!" He tossed it down in one gulp and savored the warmth and light buzz it provided.

"Davred," Irsa said. "Could you check out this weapon? I found it. It used to belong to a human before he became a skeleton." Irsa showed him the gun she'd found at the ruined dropship.

"Sure thing," he said. Davred took the gun from Irsa. The handle's heft in his hand felt familiar. He ejected the clip. It was empty. He looked down the weapon's barrel. "Seems in good condition. Nothing's corroded." He aimed it at the sand away from the Pandora and pulled the trigger a few times. There were no rounds in the chamber. "The trigger's all good. You found this with a skeleton? Weird."

"What is it?" Irsa asked.

"It's a Giscard 615 assault pistol," Davred replied, reading the make and model from the faceplate on the handle.

"How do I clean it and find ammo for it?"

"I think I can clean it for you, assuming the team is happy with me being the local gunsmith for the time being. Replacement parts and ammo will be an issue until we get some gear to fabricate what we need and find the basic materials. I wouldn't bank much on that until we get back to the Warden."

A loud gurgle interrupted the conversation. Davred was famished. He hadn't eaten anything in 24 hours, or ever for that matter. "Are you hungry?" Chelydra asked.

"Uhh, yeah just a tad." The alcohol in his empty stomach was making him light headed. Davred wished he had taken a nap during the long trip down in the escape pod. He hoped he would have time for a lie down after he'd gotten some food in him and met with the captain.

"I'm hungry too," Irsa said to Chelydra. "When will you get more food?"

"There isn't any food left on board. We'll have to make some more. Come on, I'll show you where the crew's quarters are and I'll whip something up while you're getting settled in."

Chelydra led the way into the Pandora. They walked past the storage room, the central corridor and the mess hall and stopped at the entrance to the crew's quarters. Chelydra flashed his passcard over the door's lock and opened the passage. Davred saw a corridor beyond lined with over a dozen closed doors.

"Pick yourself a room someone hasn't already locked and make yourself at home. I'll go make something to eat."

Davred looked at the passcard Chelydra stuck back in his web gear. "Any way I might be able to get a spare one of those? Would save people escorting me all over the place."

"We'll get you a passcard soon," Chelydra said. "You don't need one to select a room, just use your thumb. Oh, and this door opens from the inside without a card. By the way, here's your weapons back. Hopefully you won't need them anytime soon but you never know."

Davred took his gear with a solemn nod. "I'm outta ammo for the pistol anyways, so here's hoping I can get outfitted before any crap goes down. Might check out the armoury later and get myself something with a bit more kick."

Chelydra grunted a reply and excused himself. Davred entered the corridor and the door slid shut behind him. He walked past several doors. Each had a small security device in the wall beside it. Davred read their LCD monitors. Room C was unlocked. He opened the door and stepped inside. He dumped his gear on the bottom bed and lay down to catch his breath.

Nike saw the Pandora sitting in the sand below her. She began her descent and landed the aircar next to the lifeboat. The engines blew sand into the air. Amanda opened the canopy and a blast of wind blew hot sand into the cabin. She stormed off into the Pandora without looking back. Bud smirked and followed her.

Nike leaned forward onto the steering wheel and put her head in her hands. Her emotions threatened to break through her wall of discipline, a wall she had built over many years. "Ha," she laughed to herself. "It's really only been a couple of frikkin' days." She felt the first tears come. More cracks opened and stronger emotions poured forth.

"Shit," she muttered to herself. "Shit, shit, shit!" The last thing she wanted was for the guys to see her as a girl but, she told herself, there was only so much a person could take before needing a good cry. Discovering she was a bioroid had pushed her over the edge. She looked around to see if anyone had seen her vulnerability. Besides THX-1492, Nike was alone in the sand dunes outside the Pandora.

Nike wiped the tears from her eyes and composed herself. She climbed out of the aircar and cleared her throat. "THX," she said, "secure your aircar and prepare to follow us to our next destination."

"By your command," THX answered.

"Everyone prepare for departure," Nike broadcast to the crew. "Bailey and Caleb, keep our native guests confined to their quarters but prepare them for flight. Everyone else assemble on the bridge."

Davred heard her and sat up in his bed. "Mom's calling the kids to dinner," he said. "Radio on. On my way now, Cap." He picked up his bokken and hustled out the door. He looked forward to meeting the rest of the crew.

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