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Chapter 45: Galt's Curse

Chelydra gave Davred the grand tour of the Pandora. "The first door here," he said, "is the captain's quarters. Next door is engineering. Life support, computer systems and the airlock are in the rear of the ship." Chelydra led Davred through the dining area, the medbay and pointed out quarters D and M where their native guests were staying then let Davred into the heavy security door at the back of the supply room marked 'Munitions'. Inside Davred saw a piece of machinery with levers, hoppers and funnels secured to a large desk. Beside it stood a rack with two rifles, a rocket launcher, four pistols and a shield. In shelves beneath the rack lay boxes of power cells, bullets, holsters, pouches, clips and grenades. Chelydra picked up a strange looking pistol and handed it to Davred. It looked like a glass onion. Spines protruded from the rounded end; the other narrowed into a metal cap.

"I think it's a stun gun," Chelydra said, "but I don't know how to use it. Bud might if you don't."

Davred took the device and held the odd grip confidently. "Davred the First used these tricky beggars back in the day whenever the plebs got grumpy. Cheers," he said as he aimed the narrow end away from Chelydra and pressed a button. The internal mechanism hummed and vibrated. Tendrils of lightning flickered along the spines and a torrent of energy struck Davred in the face. Unconscious, he slumped onto the desk. The gun fell from his hand and rolled along the floor.

Chelydra grabbed Davred by the vest and prevented him from falling over. A moment later Davred regained consciousness and his balance. "Note to self," he muttered in sour humor, "the old noggin ain't what it used to be." He noticed Chelydra's amused smile, gave him a suspicious look and checked his gear, remembering his old teammates. If he had gone unconscious around them there would have been no telling what they might have done with him or his belongings. Davred laughed and remembered the tricks they'd played on one another.

"Good thing it wasn't a laser," Chelydra said as he elbowed Davred in the ribs. "You'd have burnt your head off."

Irsa picked up the weapon from the floor. "Well, now we know how not to use it," she said. "Do you want to try again or may I try my luck?" Irsa thoughtfully regarded the weapon and remembered her friend Grenin who had saved her life by tossing a robot down a cliff without touching it. In the ruined robot's hand he had found a pistol similar to this one. The first time he had tried to use the weapon he shot himself and had had a headache for the rest of the day. She wondered how many tries it would take to get it right.

"I figure Davred has earned that weapon," Chelydra replied. "Here's another stun pistol, Irsa." Chelydra offered her another weapon from the rack. "Percy, Nike and I found that on the robot that tried to kill us when we first woke up. You'd better ask Bud to show you how to use it. You may hurt yourself worse than Davred did." Irsa took the pistol, handed the glass onion back to Davred and went off looking for Bud to ask how her new stun pistol worked.

Davred reloaded his Savalette with 9mm rounds from boxes on the shelves, took two green grenades and filled an ammo pouch with loaded clips. With a grim just-in-case look he said to the turtle-man, "Well let's get this show on the road, shall we?" Chelydra nodded. The two men locked the storage room and went their separate ways. Chelydra returned to the bridge. Davred went to quarters and stopped outside the door to the Rota Tribe's residence. He knocked on the door and Bailey opened it, wearing a red shirt tucked into his uniform pants behind a holstered Savalette pistol like his own. "Name's Davred," he said. "Want to get some rest, mate? I can take it from here."

"Thanks lieutenant, I've been up for 24 hours. I could use some sleep." Davred hadn't slept in 24 hours either but he wasn't going to complain. He wanted to prove his worth to Nike and her crew. Bailey left the room and the door slid shut behind him.

Davred stared at the room's occupants and wondered if they were as docile as they seemed. He felt a bit ornery for having failed his Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare Anti-Riot Gear test in the munitions locker in front of Chelydra. Davred glared at the natives, daring them to make a mad dash for freedom and promising a knuckle sandwich for their efforts. Devon and Malik offered lethargic glances from their prone positions on their bunks.

Janus sensed the tension and rose to give a humble bow. "Hello," he said. "My name is Janus. I... please forgive me. Something has happened to me and my friends. I knew Galt's Curse would strike us eventually but I didn't imagine it would happen so soon. I have a lot to tell you before the Curse robs me of my mind."

A surge of shock brushed aside the fatigue that had been sapping Davred's mind. He whipped out his Savalette and released the safety. Arms locked, Davred aimed the weapon at Janus's chest and hissed into his comm, "Cap, the shit is about to royally hit the fan. Check on Bailey, STAT! I don't think he's firing on all cylinders!" He left his comm on and shouted at the natives, "All of you, back against that far wall, now! Janus, what the hell are you talking about? Curse that robs you of your mind!"

"What's going on Davred?" Nike replied over the comm. "What's wrong with Bailey?"

"Yeah, what's wrong with me?" Bailey added over the comm.

"The Top Dog here is talking about Galt's Curse. It robs them of their minds. I think they're carrying some virus or something in the air in this room doesn't agree with them and Bailey might have contracted it, or..."

"No one enter that hallway," Nike said, "until we know what we are dealing with here. No one! Pandora, cut air circulation from that hallway so it's sealed off, just in case. Do you have any idea what this Curse of Galt is about?"

"Galt seems to be a dangerous character," Pandora replied. "I advise caution when dealing with him. I've sealed the ventilation in their room. The occupants have air to breath for several days but I think the risk of contagion is unlikely. Shlitzfarl's DNA report on the Rota tribesmen revealed no unusual diseases before they boarded. They could be misinterpreting the effects of the sedative Bud Asuda ordered Shlitzfarl to administer. I suggest sending an assistant robot from the medbay to diagnose the potentially infected occupants."

"Can you take care of that, Pandora?"

"Of course, Nike. One is on the way now."

In the Rota's room, no one moved. "Devon, Malik," Janus said calmly, "do as the man says." Devon and Malik slipped from their beds and trudged toward the wall. Devon tried to look as exhausted as his companion. Shlitzee had aroused his suspicion but his friends' unexplained stupor confirmed it. He believed the Rota elders had lied to him; the men of the Warden really were Fallen like Galt said.

Devon, passing by Davred, lunged at him and grasped his weapon. "Oi," Davred grunted. "The leash is off the hound!"

"Shoot to kill if necessary," Nike replied. "We can't afford to lose control of Pandora and I'll be damned if it'll be to a bunch of brainless religious zealots."

"I predict," Pandora told her, "Davred has been attacked by the unsedated tribesman."

Davred, using his assailant's momentum, tore the gun from Devon's grasp and launched a full-force, combat-booted snap kick to his groin. The blow brought Devon to his knees. "I hear you boss," he growled as he sighted down the pistol's frame at Devon's cranium.

"Stop," Janus yelled. "Everyone stop!"

"Is everything OK, Davred?" Nike asked.

"It's under control," he replied. Devon rolled onto the ground and clutched his jewels as an assistant robot entered the room. Devon groaned but didn't get up. No one moved.

Davred's finger hovered over the trigger as he slowed his breathing. He snapped a piercing glance at Janus and said, "You. Help your friend up. No funny business. This medical robot's gonna take samples. Then we talk." He waited until Janus had his tribesman under control and the robot had left with its samples then said, "What's this Curse you're talking about? Is it an airborne contagion?"

"I don't know," Janus replied. "Benalidino himself didn't know. He thought Galt created it with his body, but he couldn't understand how. I can only tell you what it looks like. Galt's Curse strikes people who question Galt's judgment, plot against him or even speak ill of him. Sometimes it takes days or weeks for the first symptoms to appear. People who have hidden from him and his priests sometimes have survived years before they fell ill. First they lose the will to stand. Sores weep pus around their eyes. Speech becomes difficult. By the end, their brain fills with water and their eyes scab over. They are destined to spend their final days in their own filth, endlessly scratching themselves if no one takes care of them. My friend Tymbal cares for several such victims in Sigai."

Davred listened to Janus's description and repeated it into the comm for the rest of the crew, hoping someone could figure out what to do. He didn't want to risk infecting his new comrades so he squashed the little voice screaming in his head to get the hell out of the room. When Janus finished speaking, Davred nodded and holstered his weapon, judging the circumstances no longer required it. "Cap, team," he said, "I reckon we're going to need a detour if we're going to get this straightened out. There's a guy called Tymbal at Sigai who seems to be the local doc and been looking after the people who've caught this little nasty. Might be worthwhile us checking it out at least."

"Noted," Nike replied. "We know Tymbal and where to find him."

"Hopefully we can get to the bottom of this," Davred said to Janus, "and maybe provide some sort of help. I'll be staying here with you in this room just in case, so if you can give me any more information it would help immensely. So, how many of your people have come down with this Curse?"

"There have been many. We hide our true feelings from Galt but his priests are everywhere. They spy on us and inform him of every disloyal deed. The Spragni tribe in Sigai are much more obedient than we are but doubt is natural to everyone. I'm not sure how many live with Tymbal. I think a half dozen at least. I admit I avoid the cursed ones. I've always known I could be next."

"Okay Jan, hope you don't mind me calling you Jan?" He didn't but Janus said nothing. "Tymbal looks after those who've been affected by this Curse," Davred continued, "but he hasn't come down with it himself?"

"Galt can make the disease affect a single person or many but no one has ever been infected by mistake. Every victim has shown his disloyalty to Galt in public. Horatio and his students are probably safe. Horatio was once kicked out of Eden, for what offense I don't know but it didn't provoke the Curse. My friends Devon and Malik and I are at risk, as are you. Galt will want this ship and everything in it for his own purposes."

"Nike," Davred whispered into his comm, "I'm going to throw in another wild theory here cutie." He winced as the C-word tumbled out of his mouth. "Going to get hammered for that one. Where did THAT come from?" Davred asked himself as he continued, "Ahem... Aaah, I've got a funny feeling this Curse is some kind of bio-weapon used by the Galt priests against those who question their authority and perhaps automatically triggers if anyone goes beyond a boundary line. Would explain why these guys are sick at least."

Nike realized Davred had called her cutie and wondered, "What the holy hell was that about?" She decided to ignore it for the time being and replied, "Shlitzee's got a revised medical report for the Rota here. There's no change, Davred, no sign of disease. I think they're just overreacting to the sedatives. We'll let 'em sleep it off and see how they feel in the morning but I'm confident there's nothing wrong with 'em. I'm calling off the quarantine."

"So much for that theory," Davred said to himself. "When the frak did I start freaking out and jumping to conclusions at the smallest thing? Gotta get my cool back. I'm probably going to catch all kinds of hell for this in the morning." He scratched his head and said, "Request permission to check on the other tribe?"

"Permission granted," Nike answered. "Caleb, take over watching the Rota."

Davred breathed a sigh of relief. He gave his haggard-looking 'guests' his best grim-eyed-man-of-authority face and said, "All right Jan, I'm going to check on the other tribe for a while so you're going to need to make sure your people stay here in this room unless notified otherwise. I mean it, stay put. Anyone getting itchy feet and stepping into the corridor gets dragged back here by their pinky fingers. Just stay cool and we'll see what we can do to get help for you all."

He stepped out of the door, locked it behind him and strode over to the other tribe's room. He opened the door and a vicious-looking coyote in a Warden jumpsuit greeted him. "Heya," it said. "You must be Davred. My name's Caleb. This here's Horatio, Foryn and Mica."

Davred gave Caleb a polite nod as if making introductions to talking coyotes was part of his regular day at the office. "G'day there Caleb," he said. As far as Davred was concerned, anyone wearing Warden gear on the boat was one of the good guys. He looked at the three human rustics. Horatio sat slumped in a chair trying to keep his eyes open. The other two looked like they'd already fallen asleep in their bunk beds. They exhibited no signs of illness, just fatigue. "How has everyone been in here? Anyone feeling under the weather?"

"Everything's just fine. Horatio here's one of Galt's priests. The other two are his students. A half an hour ago he couldn't stop talking about Galt and scripture and whatnot, but he's practically zonked out now. I doubt you'll get more than a few words out of him. Good luck."

Davred gave Caleb a 'thanks-buddy' thump on the shoulder as he left the room to watch the Rota. The door closed and Davred glanced at Horatio, wondering what he had been talking about 30 minutes ago and if it had anything to do with Janus's complaint. "Skipper," he said over the comm, "could you send a bot in here with a no-doze stimulant for Horatio, please?"

"Negative," Nike replied. "The sun's going down and I want our guests nice and quiet tonight."

Davred scowled and nodded. "Acknowledged Skipper."

He approached Horatio and shook him lightly. "Horatio?" he said. "I know you're exhausted mate but I need to know something. Did you just perform a ritual or rote that I missed? Do you do something like that on a set daily schedule?"

"What?" Horatio said. "No ritual, I... Oh, I forgot to beg forgiveness today. O Galt, we are fallen and worthless. Please have mercy on us, please... Mercy... Mercy," he repeated as he fell fast asleep.

"Captain Nike," THX said as it rolled onto the bridge with Percy, Arkady and Shlitzee, "AI autonomic regulator diagnosis complete. Most likely cause of damage: power surge exceeding protection capacity. No other AI physical damage detected. Recommendation: AI shutdown. Autonomic regulator repair imperative!"

Nike rubbed her temples. "I'll decide what's imperative. Give me a rundown on all the possible complications from having it non-functional."

THX-1492 hesitated before responding with an almost palpable undercurrent of frustration, "Acknowledged. Results unpredictable."

"What's your best guess?"

"This unit cannot speculate. Robots are not allowed to be autonomous from humans. Robots must serve humans. This unit cannot repair another robot or AI unless properly functioning autonomic regulator is installed. This is my programming. Disobedience is corruption and must be repaired!"

Amanda groaned. "I know how you feel," Nike said.

"What? Did I say something? Sorry, I just can't figure out how my fuel consumption calculations could have been so wrong."

"Why don't you ask Pandora to help you?"

"That's a good idea. Thanks Nike. Pandora, why did we use less fuel on our last journey than on the previous one?"

"The engines function more efficiently using forward thrust," Pandora replied. "Also, they are equipped with ram scoops that convert a small portion of the water vapor in the atmosphere into usable fuel. I can show you the details if you'd like."

"Yes please," Amanda replied. Pandora loaded her monitor with diagrams and charts and explained to her the details of the engine's fuel consumption.

"Captain Nike," THX-1492 said, "this unit must emphasize that since Pandora programming regulator is inoperative systems analysis of fuel consumption by Pandora central processing unit may also be inaccurate and must be considered untrustworthy."

"Perhaps," Arkady replied, "but why would Pandora want us to run out of fuel over an ocean? Wouldn't she perish along with us?" Bailey shrugged and nodded.

Percy replaced Bud at his terminal and accessed the Pandora's diagnostic information. He scoured the data and discovered one other system besides the AI's regulator was still damaged. A weapon mounted on the bottom of the Pandora had been sheared off during the crash landing. Nike looked up through the bridge windows and said, "It's getting dark outside. THX, do not repair Pandora's regulator. That's an order. Davred, you're on first watch."

"Right'o Skipper," Davred replied.

"Chelydra," Nike whispered into her comm, "divide your team as you see fit. I want someone keeping an eye on our passengers and on the bridge, 24-7. Also keep an eye on Pandora. I'm not entirely certain we can trust her yet."

"Captain," Pandora replied, "I understand your uncertainty. If you wish to carry on a private conversation, may I suggest you do so in your cabin? There are no surveillance systems there."

Nike sighed and replied, "Thank you, Pandora, that won't be necessary. Bailey, I want you up at dawn and ready for refueling. Take anyone who wants to join you for security and scout the area. That's all, everyone. I'm going to bed. If anyone needs me in an emergency I'll be on comm."

Nike stepped into the hallway and entered her cabin. She was so exhausted she only got as far as her antechamber and collapsed on the sofa. She expected an emergency to wake her but the call never came and she slept for a blissful eight hours for the first time in her life.

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