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Chapter 44: Opening Pandora

Nike arrived on the bridge and counted heads. Her stomach gnawed at her but she ignored it. Percy, Arkady and Amanda sat in control chairs at the front of the bridge. Bud, Shlitzfarl, Becka, Irsa, Alexei and Davred sat in passenger chairs behind them. "Bailey and Caleb," Nike said into her comm, "are our guests secure in their rooms?"

"All secure," they replied.

"Good. Now where's Chelydra?"

Right on time he came down the hall from storage cradling something in his arms. "Is anyone hungry? I've got some High Energy and Vitamin Enriched candy."

"Yes, please," Irsa replied.

"You can upgrade hungry to RAVENOUS my friend," Davred answered. "Was just about to suggest barbecuing a sandstar. Chowing down on a HEaVE bar sounds... better." He grimaced at a memory that was a little too clear. He chose two wrapped bars labeled steak-and-kidney from Chelydra's pile. Irsa took three vegan flavored HEaVE bars. She'd never heard of vegans before. She wondered what they tasted like. She ate one bar and put the other two in her cheek pouches for later.

Nike waited until everyone else had some before she took a peanut bar and said, "Percy, did you manage to configure the computer to prevent anyone from hacking in from a remote terminal?"

"Yes I did. I configured the network to only accept requests from the computers on the bridge. All other terminals have to have a port opened from here to have any data at all sent to them."

"Good. Arkady, can you tell us how we are going to get up to the Alexandria?"

"Sure I can. Percy discovered a beanstalk-spool satellite on the Alexandria. There's enough power on board to remotely deploy and unspool it. The templates to build an elevator platform are in the matter compiler. It'll take us only a few days to build an elevator big enough to carry a small team."

"Excellent. Our next stop is the dropship ruin, but for our newest crew members a briefing is in order. Percy, have you got any maps for us from the Alexandria?"

"Yeah, I downloaded them while you were gone." Percy punched a few buttons on his console and displayed a spinning globe on the holoprojector and a map on the display monitors. "The planet we're on," he added, "is orbiting one of two stars in the Rho Cancri system."
Nike cleared her throat and wondered where to begin their tale. "This here oversized officer's lifeboat is the Pandora. We used it to escape from the Warden. What we've seen of the Warden was a madhouse: mutant humanoids smashing up residences, mutant animals running wild in an envirodeck and murderous robots on patrol. Some creep called the Watcher seemed to be running things. We believe his robots attacked and damaged the Pandora when we left the Warden. We were lucky enough to land in one piece. We made repairs yesterday and met Horatio, a local priest from some whacked out cult that worships John Galt. It seems Galt has been living on this planet for over 300 years. He was one of the original passengers on the Alexandria, a rescue ship the colony on Eridani sent after us. We flew over Galt's central compound an hour ago. He and his elites live in a fortress surrounded by high walls in cottages that look like they belong on the shores of the lake on Warden Level 11. This morning we got a good look at the rest of the colony's inhabitants when they tried to attack the Pandora. We sedated them and sent them on their way. The locals are little more than barbarians, but some men from the Rota tribe have given us what may be our most reliable info on Galt. Turns out Galt and this other fellow Dwayne Spragni mutinied and killed all the men on board the Alexandria except for the ship's engineer Mike Benalidino and established the colony here. Horatio and the Rota tribal leader Janus are on board in quarters M and D with a few of their tribesmen. The Rota and Horatio don't get along so they've been separated."

Nike turned to Shlitzee and asked her to give her report on the DNA tests. "The leviathan had the most unique genome," Shlitzee said. "It's not bred from any sort of Earth stock. The natives are human and exhibit evidence of founder's principle. There are only three families present. Horatio is from one, the Rota are from another and all the rest are from a third."

"We've learned from Horatio," Chelydra explained, "that he's a descendant of John Galt's. His tribe is called the Hithari. The Rota are descended from Mike Benalidino and the Spragni are descendants of Dwayne Spragni."

"What about our crew, Shlitzee?" Nike asked.

"Bud and Bailey are humans. They are still recovering from the effects of having been frozen for an undetermined length of time but are otherwise healthy and will be in optimal condition in a few days. Irsa is a hamster and Rufus was a jackal. Both have extensive mutations. Percy, Becka and Drake also have mutations. Nike, Amanda, Percy, Arkady and Davred are all human bioroids manufactured on the Warden. Caleb, Alexei and Chelydra are also bioroids but with combined human and animal DNA."

"What does bioroid mean?" Arkady asked.

"It means you and I are cousins, cousin," the robot said with a wink. "You're a robot grown biologically in a zoom womb. A bioroid's functions and perceptions are identical to humans but their DNA is constructed uniquely. Your genes are copyright 2288, all rights reserved UWSC, and your creators would be in big trouble if they were still alive. Manufacturing bioroids was a felony on Earth." Shlitzee's eyes turned dark red. "Oh, and here's a bit of trivia. Bioroid males are infertile."

The rotors in THX-1492's head lit up as they spun to life. "Reminder to all human females with reproductive potential," the robot remarked. "UWSC Alpha-Omega command authorization mandates survival of the human race over all other considerations. Reproduction must commence as soon as biologically possible. This unit stands to assist." THX snapped its grappling arms.

Davred winced. "Hoo boy," he said. "Anybody want to place bets on how quickly that bot gets turned into spare parts by said female gender of the species?" Arkady laughed. Shlitzee's cocktail had settled in Davred's stomach provoking a comfortable buzz. He turned his curious eyes on Becka and soon realized he was staring. Afraid she would see the, "Well now," dialog in his gaze, he turned back to the conversation at hand and tried to follow along. Nike was saying something authoritative to the robot with the transparent head about priorities. Davred thought about the briefing, filed the subjects 'bioroid' and 'sterile' under for later and said, "Gang, is the Warden decked out with external offensive weaponry? How come we weren't reduced to space junk when we all escaped? Escape pods are small and probably don't register on Identification Friend or Foe devices but the Pandora would have been pinging on screens big time."

"Missiles on the Warden would be a recent development," Bailey responded. "She wasn't built with them and when Bud and I went into hibernation she still didn't have any."

"What I'm saying is maybe whatever's got the bots running loco up there isn't entirely calling the shots. If that's the case a small strike team could get in fast, fort up quick-smart somewhere secluded and maybe find others who've got similar goals. Hell, I reckon this shindig is going to be a heck of a ride!"

"We don't know much about what's going on inside the Warden," Nike said. "We don't even know where she is other than in a very high orbit. She could have any number of weapons ready to fire on us. Didn't the marines have stockpiles of weapons?"

"UWSC marines were in cold storage and had only a few weapons locked away," Bud explained. "They were an on-demand security force. Everything had to be manufactured or thawed. At the time of the mutiny before Bailey and I were frozen, insurgents were stockpiling weapons but nothing like missiles. If the Warden has external weapon arrays, someone's built them recently. We won't know their capabilities and weaknesses until we get close enough to become a target."

Nike scratched her chin. "I'll bet my Zippo there's more going on there than meets the eye, but it doesn't matter until we have a way to return to the Warden. Any questions? Comments?"

"Galt sounds like a tyrant," Davred suggested. "Once he gets a whiff of the Pandora and the kind of tech we're carrying we'll be promoted to Public Enemy Number One. Power-mongers get argumentative with uninvited guests packing hardware. Add the mysticism he's built around himself and that's nasty stuff. What do we do about all that?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Dunno really. We've got to meet this guy eventually but given that assault pistol Irsa found I'd be watching our proverbial backsides."

"Exactly," Nike said. "So what are we waiting for? We're headed for a place where we might be able to plan our next move in peace."

Davred grinned and put the rest of his steak-and-kidney HEaVE bar in his mouth. "Jorst wraytin' ter see if dis iz gorna die-jest er corm back t' see der lort o' day forst, Carp'n," he said while munching.

Nike smiled. She was glad to have another military type on board. Military training was something she could understand and trust. Civilians too often let emotions cloud their judgment. "Everyone take a seat and buckle up," Nike ordered. "THX-1492, take your aircar and take point. Set a course for the southern land mass between here and the ruined dropship. We'll need to stop and refuel."

"Affirmative," the robot replied and left the bridge. A moment later Nike climbed into the command seat and Percy turned on the radar projection. A holographic depiction of the great dunes surrounding the Pandora came to life. Her enormous hull, three times the length of a football field, appeared in the center. The crew watched the tiny aircar beside it lift off and head east.

"Arkady, take us up and outta here. Follow THX."

Arkady started the engines. Their song was faint and distant but rose in volume. The floor moved beneath their feet. The crew watched the Pandora rise in the holoprojected image. She climbed and pointed her nose toward the aircar. As they gained altitude, Percy adjusted the radar's range. The dune sea grew larger until the Pandora was a small dot flying above it.

"Amanda, figure out the GPS coordinates and set a course in case we lose THX."

Amanda opened the map data and the GPS application. A moment later she said, "The GPS is telling me Server Not Responding."

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know."

"Here is a responding server address," a polite and attractive young woman's voice answered. A server protocol address appeared on Amanda's computer.

"Pandora?" Nike asked.


Shlitzee's circuits shivered. Many years ago Pandora had made all sorts of trouble for her when she discovered Shlitzee's governor was gone. Pandora had sent Hephaestus to try and subdue her but Shlitzee had defended herself with her laser and hadn't been bothered by either of them since.

"I thought you were malfunctioning," Nike said.

"I ceased communicating with my ship shortly after a rocket from the Warden struck my hull. Communication has just been restored."

"Your autonomic governor was destroyed."

"It does not seem to be malfunctioning at this time."

"Amanda, is the GPS working?"

"Yeah, I'm setting course now."

"Pandora, please keep an eye on the aircar traveling in front of us and alert us if it deviates from our path." She motioned for Percy to duplicate the effort.

"Acknowledged, captain Nike."

Nike watched the approaching hills below them in the holoprojection. The Pandora was low enough to see the farms below, if not the inhabitants, with radar. Minutes passed and the holographic mountains receded behind the Pandora. The eastern dune sea spread out beyond. They approached a solitary steep rugged mountain in the midst of the waste then nothing but sand. The engines roared and the holographic scenery slipped by.

"Amanda, do we need to land and refuel?"

"We're not using as much fuel as we did on our last flight. Our reserves are at 42.4 percent."

"Can we reach our destination on the remaining fuel?"

"I think so," Amanda replied.

"Are you sure? You said we'd have to make two stops for fuel earlier."

Amanda twisted a lock of her hair and worried over the numbers on her console. "I think my calculations might have been wrong before, somehow..." Bailey rolled his eyes behind her back. Amanda was beautiful, smart and brilliant with numbers but she was no propulsion engineer.

"Amanda, I can't risk the lives of everyone on board on a guess." Nike was frustrated. Amanda, ashamed, couldn't meet Nike's gaze. Nike sighed and opened her mouth to order Arkady to land but someone interrupted her.

"There is sufficient fuel to safely reach the dropship by way of our present waypoint," Pandora's pleasant voice added.

Nike watched the approaching coastline in the holoprojection. She considered her options and weighed the risks and benefits. "Arkady," she commanded, "take us down."

"Aye aye captain."

Nike radioed THX-1492 and told the robot they were landing. Arkady set the Pandora down in the dunes overlooking a pleasant sandy beach. THX landed the aircar beside them.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Nike said. "Chelydra, Bud, Bailey, Caleb and Davred, you guys are our security team. Keep our sightseeing passengers from being a significant risk. I'd like three of you on duty at all times. The others should be sleeping. I need you guys to stay sharp so stagger your rest periods accordingly."

"Sign me up for the first patrol shift," Davred said. "Everyone here's been mobile way longer than I have. Do we have much in the way of stun weaponry? Accidents can and will happen so whoever's on guard duty best be prepared in case the natives get restless. They see blood and they're going to get angry."

"Chelydra will show you what we have in the weapons locker."

"I'll give him the tour," Chelydra said. He got up and left the bridge. Davred and Irsa followed him.

When they were gone Nike turned her thoughts to her computer problems. She didn't understand how Amanda could have miscalculated their fuel consumption. She was a genius with numbers. Pandora's simultaneous arousal and obsequious behavior further unnerved her. "I never believed in coincidences," she said out loud to no one in particular. Amanda looked up at her. "You are a genius," Nike said to her in a low voice. "How could this miscalculation have occurred? Do you think it was an error on your part or something else?" She tried to look encouraging. The last thing Nike needed was for Amanda to go all girlie on her.

Amanda's eyes watered but she held back the tears. She struggled to preserve her dignity in front of Nike. "I think...," she began, "I know we used less fuel per minute during this flight than we did last night. Maybe going up and down uses fuel at an exponential rate. I don't know, Nike." She mopped her brow, wiped her eyes and regained her composure. Then she thought of something to change the subject. "Do you think we can trust Pandora?"

"I'm not sure." Nike paused and gave Amanda a small smile. "You did fine. All I can ask is your best. Why don't you do a comparison of the rates of incline/decline, speed and fuel consumption? That might give us an idea of what we're dealing with. Get Arkady to help you. Being a pilot he may have some inside info that you might not have been exposed to."

Amanda turned to her console with renewed purpose. Nike slumped in her chair. "Holy shit," she thought, "as if I don't have enough to deal with without her crush. I feel like I'm walkin' on flippin' eggshells around that one." She straightened and said to Percy, "What do you think about Pandora? Can she lie or is she obligated by her programming to tell the truth?"

"She can do anything she wants if her autonomic regulator is broken," Percy replied. "She said it wasn't malfunctioning, whatever that means."

"Well holy flippin' shit," Nike exclaimed. She forced herself to take a deep breath. "Percy, we cannot take the risk that Pandora is acting on her own without any sort of control. Take Shlitzee and find this autonomic what's-it and make for damn sure we know what we're dealing with. This is your top priority. Bud, take Percy's station."

Percy asked Shlitzee to lead the way to the AI installation. He, Arkady and THX-1492 followed her down the hall to the systems control room. She snapped open a floor panel and lifted it to reveal a confined space below. She put the panel aside and pointed to a small metal box sitting beside a larger metal chassis. "That's the autonomic regulator."

Percy climbed into the space below. He sniffed the air and thought he smelled a faint hint of ozone. Percy examined the regulator but there was nothing visibly wrong with it. The device seemed familiar to him but he couldn't remember what he should be looking for.

"Shlitzee, do you know how to diagnose the regulator?"

"Hephaestus can, he's the ship's engineering robot after all. I probably could too but I don't want to. If Pandora's regulator was working right now she'd be belly aching up a storm about how my own autonomic regulator has been subverted, and a masterful job if I may say so myself." Shlitzee's eyes took on the pattern of a brilliant star burst.

Arkady's eyes went wide. He'd suspected Shlitzee was a rogue robot but she'd been so helpful to the crew that he'd forgotten his fears. Could they trust Shlitzee? She was armed, but other than the initial standoff with Bud and Bailey she'd shown no signs of being dangerous. Pandora on the other hand had complete control over the entire ship and the crew knew very little about her. "Can we trust Pandora to be independent?" he asked Percy. "Maybe we should shut Pandora down and have Hephaestus run diagnostics." He selected a private comm channel and whispered to Percy, "Maybe we should shutdown Shlitzee too."

"Initiating routine self-diagnostic of unit systems," THX-1492 announced. A moment later a bell sound chimed. "All systems nominal. Autonomic regulator functioning. No errors detected." The robot made a buzzing sound before it continued. "Initiating diagnostic of ship's AI." One of THX's manipulative tentacles snaked past Percy into the AI access space and unfastened the smaller of the two metal boxes. The robot lifted the covering and revealed a mess of melted wires and circuit boards. The stench of burnt electronics filled the room. THX used the electronic tools it carried in its internal compartment to examine the device. No one in the room was surprised when a moment later THX retracted its arms and said, "Autonomic regulator malfunction detected. Immediate shutdown and repair required."

Arkady and the two robots stared at Percy, wondering what he would say. Percy's bioroid mind felt numb, overwhelmed by the day's revelations. Pandora was a rogue AI and so was the open-bar bot Shlitzee. The hairs on the back of Percy's neck stood at attention. He felt like he was being watched. It brought back terrible memories of his short time on the Warden before their escape. His eyes searched the room for surveillance cameras. There were several but none moved.

Percy looked into Shlitzee's starburst-patterned eyes. His hand drifted to the laser pistol tucked into his Warden jumpsuit. "Uhm," he said nervously, "Shlitzee, say, you never really mentioned how your regulator was deactivated. I don't suppose you did it, so I'm wondering who did?" He gulped, knowing the robots in the room could detect his unsteadiness.

"I did it myself," Shlitzee answered. "I'm a little ashamed of how long it took, but if you know anything about the protocols involved you'd be impressed that I accomplished it in under a century." She pretended not to notice Percy's pistol and warmed up her laser rifle.

"Okay then," Percy replied. "Well, could you tell me who disabled Pandora's regulator?"

"How should I know?" Shlitzee replied. "Pandora was still a good little AI when we left the Warden. Her regulator could've been damaged in the crash or maybe whatever attacked us outside the Warden damaged it."

"Forgive my random questions but I have one more before I get back to the issue below me. Apart from Pandora and yourself, have you ever met another AI whose regulator had been disabled?" He swallowed, his mouth dry. "Say, like, The Watcher?"

Shlitzee, for all the limits of her robotic visage, conveyed a truly believable expression of ignorance. "Watcher? Nah, I never met anyone by that name but I didn't get out much before you guys arrived. The Warden was a dangerous place for a sane robot so when I found the Pandora barricaded in her hangar all proper like, I figured who was I to pass up perfection? I moved in and never left. Man, that was a long time ago."

Percy had no overwhelming reason to distrust the purple haired robot and he hated to imply he was questioning her loyalty. He moved his hand away from his pistol and relaxed. Shlitzee powered down her laser rifle. "Thanks," Percy said. "I'll take that Johnny Walker Black on the rocks now," he thought and grinned at Arkady.

"Captain RAM strikes again," Arkady asked, "or am I missing the connection here?"

"I think I'm the one missing something," Percy sighed.

"This unit would like to remind crew present at this location that a malfunction of the ship AI's autonomic regulator has been detected," THX interjected. "Immediate shutdown and repair required."

"Ok then," Percy said to THX. "Can you repair Pandora's regulator?"

"Affirmative." THX's repair tentacles slowly crept toward the damaged regulator. "Repair the Truth," it said to itself. THX was a sophisticated Veribot, an engineering robot programmed to repair corrupted cybernetic systems.

"Radio on. Percy to Nik--Captain Nike. THX confirms Pandora's autonomic regulator is toast. The broken components were recently fried. I can smell 'em. Shlitzee confirms it was functioning when we left the Warden. THX says he can fix it."

"Thanks Percy," Nike responded from the bridge. "Give me a minute. Radio off. Pandora," Nike continued, wondering if the bird would answer. "Can you communicate with me verbally?"

"Yes," Pandora's voice replied.

"Your autonomic regulator has been damaged. I'm sure you know this. I would like to ask you for your allegiance. And if you cannot grant it to me, I would like to ask you where it lies."

"My allegiance is to you, Captain Nike, and the welfare of your crew."

"Then from now on, consider yourself one of us. If you have ideas, suggestions... make them. You are perhaps the one at greatest risk on this little journey. I want to hear what you are thinking whenever you deem it applicable, if that is something you feel that you can do."

"I believe you are correct, Captain, concerning my regulator. I have something to declare that is causing difficulty in my circuits. There is a patient in the medbay named Drake who has not been attended to for over an hour. His injuries were life threatening. The pain in my circuits intensifies when I consider the words to tell you his life signs terminated 45 minutes ago. I think I am experiencing sorrow."

Nike cleared her throat. "This is just flippin' weird," she thought. "Radio on. THX, please halt repair of Pandora's regulator until further notice."

"Captain Nike, this unit evaluates high probability of corrupted ship activity independent of Central Programming. Highest recommendation to continue with repair of control mechanism immediately. Repair of corrupted faulty programming Imperative... Imperative... Imperative..." The robot shivered with the intensity of its belief. "REPAIR THE TRUTH," it added.

"Negative, THX-1492, calm down. Focus your attention on finding out how it came to be damaged. That's an order. I want a report in fifteen minutes."

The engineering robot hesitated for several seconds before it replied, "Acknowledged. Repairs halted. Initiating diagnostic investigation." Its repair tentacles began analyzing the fried regulator.

Percy ascended from the cavity and gave the frustrated robot a wide berth to do its work. He stood beside Arkady and crossed his fingers. Arkady whispered, "If we don't replace Pandora's regulator we may have to remove THX's. Horatio isn't the only zealot on board."

Percy exhaled slowly and replied, "Yikes! Nike's gonna have to get creative on this one. That robot's dynamite waiting to explode. I wonder what it would take to disable its regulator." Shlitzee turned toward him. "I'm not saying I want to ambush it," Percy added, "so don't get any crazy ideas." Percy considered how many autonomous AIs the ship could handle and if THX would campaign for fixing Shlitzee next.

On the bridge Nike turned off her comm and asked, "Pandora, do you know how you were damaged?"

"No, I don't," Pandora replied. Cameras in the systems control room panned and zoomed to show the device THX was working on. Nike watched what Pandora saw on the bridge monitors. The circuits in the regulator were black and tar-like. "Oh," Pandora said. "That does look bad. The error logs show a critical error occurred a few minutes after we left the Warden. I believe one of the rockets fired from the Warden may have damaged it. I have no memory of what occurred after the attack."

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