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Chapter 46: Seaside Rendezvous

Bailey awoke the next morning, hit the head, and went to the galley to see if anyone had made breakfast. Percy was there with tubs of instant Hot Joe Now and protein bars. "Morning Bailey. Are you ready to fill Pandora's tanks with fuel?"

Bailey helped himself to a cup of coffee, added sugar to it, and opened a kidney-pie flavored protein bar. "As ready as I'm ever gonna be," he replied. He downed the warm coffee, thanked Percy for the pick-me-up, and munched on the HEaVE bar as he headed for the engineering room.

"Nike, are you there?" Bailey said into the comm.


"I'm just about ready to disembark. What does it look like outside?"

"We're sitting above a small bay. Scans indicate the area around the beach is teeming with life but nothing larger than an insect or a lizard."

"Excellent," Bailey said, and switched to broadcast. "Good morning everyone. If you're gonna join the away team, now's the time." He picked up the hydrogen extractor in engineering and headed for the gangplank to see who would join him.

Irsa woke up, visited the bathroom to wash up, and put on a new set of clothes. She grabbed her gear, a fruit flavored HEaVE bar from the galley, and filled her bottles with water before she went to the gangplank. There she met Bailey, Davred and Arkady. "Morning," Arkady was saying to Davred. "How are you feeling? You must be pretty tired after last night's bio-hazard scare, and brawling with the locals." He smiled and added, "I can't wait to spend a night on the town together!"

Davred gave Arkady a bleary-eyed half-grin. The events that still buzzed in his brain had prevented him from sleeping well. "You reckon that was fun, you should've been there at my 21st!"

Bailey lowered the gangplank and led the party down to the sand on which the Pandora rested. The team squinted against the bright sun and took a good look at their new surroundings. A sea of sand dunes stretched to the west. To the east, an ocean of greenish-blue waves crashed against columns of dark rock protecting the placid bay below. The rocky sentinels cast foam and mist high into the air.

"What is that smell?" asked Irsa.

"Salt I think," Bailey explained. "This is probably a salt water ocean. Better not taste too much of it."

Bailey walked down a path through tall grasses to a broad expanse of rough rock carved by the waves over untold millennia. He found a place to setup the extractor, unwound its nozzles, and lowered them into the bay. He flipped a switch and scrutinized the device's control panel. Water flowed through the hose from the bay, and poured out the other side. Bailey announced into his comm a few minutes later, "We're getting a stream of usable isotopes here. It should only take a few days to fill up."

"Great," Nike replied from the bridge. "How do things look down there? Any threats?"

"Negative. It looks peaceful. I might go for a swim later."

Nike smiled. A swim sounded darn good, but she had a feeling their brief respite would not last long. "Just do me a favor. Don't become anything's lunch, radio off. Percy, what's the status of our ship's systems?"

Percy sipped his coffee and replied, "All nominal across the board, captain Nike. We're ready to lift off at a moment's notice, if we have to, though I hope Bailey can top off our fuel tank before we have to leave. There's only one system we haven't repaired yet, a weapon mounted below the ship that sheared off when we landed. I think we can build a replacement if we can find the right template in the matter compiler. It might come in handy if we run into any more hostile natives."

Both Davred's and Bud's ears would have pricked up like cats if they could have. "Really?" Bud said. "This boat has a weapon system?" He was glad the creeps who had captured him and Bailey hadn't fired it at them.

"Well now," Davred added, "that would certainly give us an edge if we can fabricate or jury-rig something based off the original. Any idea on the specifics? Was it an infantry-type support weapon or ship-to-ship ordinance?"

"It most certainly was a custom job," Bud replied. "None of these birds rolled out of the assemblers with weapons. Where's the turret? I'll go take a look." Percy showed him the schematics and a moment later Bud was outside inspecting the Pandora's undercarriage. "It looks like it was an infantry support weapon. It isn't big enough to be anything else. The turret is ruined, but if Hephaestus can fix it up we can probably install any type of small arms we want. If we have sufficient time, we can probably install additional turrets."

Davred smiled an evil grin. Stacking additional firepower on a lifeboat tickled his sense of sardonic humour. "Sounds great, shooter. Keep me posted and I'll give you a hand with the installation, once we've had some chow, that is." He turned off his radio and walked around the bay with Arkady. The sea air invigorated him, and the beach looked peaceful enough. A decent dip and shoving his troubles sounded tempting. "So," he said, "how're our guests this morning? Any highs or lows overnight?"

"Nah," Arkady replied, "they were pretty quiet. They slept off the sedatives like rocks and woke up without any ill effects. Caleb and I gave them some HEaVE bars for breakfast and their stomachs seemed to take 'em all right. I think they'll be fine. For my sake though I hope we get some real food soon. Fresh vegetables may be hard to find but a little fresh meat doesn't seem unreasonable."

Irsa explored the rocky shore nearby. The tide pools held strange creatures she had never seen before. She picked up colorful rocks from the water's edge then saw swarms of creatures no bigger than her hand swimming in the bay's clear water. Turning this way and that, they flashed silver when the sun met their scaly hides. Irsa shouted to Davred and Arkady and pointed to the creatures. Their stomachs gurgled in unison. Davred watched the water and wished he had fishing gear. "If oversized-lobsters-with-teeth Sikalas hang out in the desert," he muttered under his breath, "what's the population in the water going to be like?" He waded into the bay, shoes, pants and all, and tried to catch the fish with his hands, but he was no Frank Dux.

Arkady stood beside Irsa and watched Davred's attempt to catch his next meal. He had never particularly liked the tough, boney fish that lived in the rivers of Mars, but the thought of eating something other than HEaVE bars delighted him. "May I borrow one of your spears?" he asked Irsa.

"Of course," she replied and handed him a medium-sized pole with a sharp metal barb. Arkady waded into the bay with Davred and swam toward the fish. He had difficulty seeing underwater but he saw the dim shape of fish as they flashed by. He thrust the spear, missed, and came up for air. He tried several more times with the same result, then found a submerged rock on which he could stand and watch for the school to pass by.

Davred waded ashore. Irsa loaned him a spear, and he found a place to fish alongside Arkady. The sun descended while the crew spent a pleasant day outside. Despite his efforts, Arkady was unable to catch any fish, but Davred speared three. He dragged his catch toward home as daylight faded, and met Bud at the gangplank with an armload of gear. "What've you got there, mate?"

"A surveillance drone. I figured we could use an eye in the sky tonight."

"Very nice," Arkady applauded.

"Intelligence comes first. That's my motto." Bud placed his gear in the sand and sorted through the pieces. He assembled the wing, engine, fuselage, and tail until it resembled a small airplane. "Pandora," he said into his comm, "are you connected to the recon drone yet?"

"Affirmative, Asuda. Navigation and surveillance systems are all online."

"Excellent, then here goes." Bud held the drone aloft, switched the engine on, and tossed the craft into the wind. It made a faint humming noise as it floated up and away. "In a few minutes we'll have front row seats to the entire region. But it looks like we have other business to attend to first." Bud beamed at Davred and his armload of fish. "Were you looking for a bar-b-que? I'll bet there's something in the galley to grill those bad boys with."

Davred grinned and brandished his speared fish like a triumphant barbarian. "The mighty hunter returns to provide a bountiful feast for the tribe... and boy was it a fluke! First we'll be wanting to make sure that these bad boys aren't too bad going down. Call me paranoid, but when you're stuck on a planet with the local fauna being of the Giant Starfish With Teeth variety, you assume that most things are hostile, especially to the digestive system. Better get these little guys checked out before fanging out on them."

He carried his fish to the galley, then went looking for a genetic analyser. He found one in a medbay drawer. He returned to the galley where Irsa was washing several plants she'd found outside, and tore off a small portion of fish to place inside the analyser. He pushed buttons, and twirled knobs, until the device made a disconcerting noise. Davred began to suspect he'd broken it, then it displayed the message, "Fit for human consumption."

Irsa watched, then asked Davred to analyse her plants. He repeated the process, and discovered most of the vegetable matter was nutritious, except for some yellow flowers Irsa had gathered. She disposed of them, and tasted the others. She was pleased to have something to eat besides emergency rations, and that the plants she'd gathered hadn't fought back. She wondered if she would be able to bring her tribe here to live. They would be much safer.

"Davred," Chelydra said over the comm, "I got something for ya. Meet me in the garage."

Davred left his fish in the galley sink, and joined Chelydra. He tossed him a small plastic card. "That's your security clearance," he said. "It'll open anything except the door to someone else's quarters."

Davred gave him a solemn nod, thankful for the trust he had bestowed. Chelydra opened the heavy door to the matter compiler and powered up the device. "Your passcard'll give you access to the compiler as well. First order of business is we gotta cook up a stun rifle and turret by morning." Chelydra browsed through the template directories, slid his passcard through the reader to access Weapons, and requested a cybernetic, auto-adapting stun rifle.

An hourglass replaced the user interface and displayed the message, "Contacting Warden central server."

"Frak! The Warden server'll never respond." A minute or two later it failed, then displayed another message: "Searching for other servers... Located central server Alexandria. Contacting... Success. Production Authorized. Compile time remaining: 16 hours."

"Excellent," Chelydra said. "Good thing the Alexandria is still up there. We wouldn't be able to compile most of the things we need without it."

Davred frowned as he read the compiler's interface. "Hey Big Fella, what're the chances that those download requests could have been monitored by the Alexandria, or, God forbid, the Warden? Unlikely as it sounds, the last thing we want is unwanted visitors pinpointing our location, or copping the proverbial Death From Above. Being scragged by something I can't shoot back at would be... embarrassing."

"Good point," Chelydra replied. "The Alexandria got our message loud and clear. Maybe the Warden did too. We'd better check it out." They left the matter compiler running, locked it up, and headed for the bridge.

THX-1492 ran a self-diagnostic to examine its power systems. All devices tested positive but the numbers didn't add up: THX was powering two more systems than it believed were possible. The puzzled robot examined the last two devices installed in its chassis. Two days ago--or was it 235 years ago?--Lieutenant Matahachi had installed a GPS device and a secondary AI. The GPS functioned without a flaw, but the secondary AI was a complete mystery. THX-1492 couldn't examine it without relinquishing control of its primary AI. Ever distrustful of unknown programming, THX chose not to shut down.

"Commander Nike, self-diagnostic report: this unit has discovered the presence of a Planetary Positioning Device and an unknown Secondary Artificial Intelligence Central Processing Unit. GPS status: functioning properly. Secondary AI status: offline, function and purpose unknown. Origin: both devices installed by Lieutenant Matahachi 235 standard years ago."

"I'm glad your GPS is functioning properly," Nike replied. "We'll need it to find the dropship ruins in the jungle. It might take months to find it with dead reckoning. What's up with your secondary AI? Percy?"

Percy looked up from his documentation. He had been busy all day taking notes on what he could remember about the ship's computer systems, and perfecting his knowledge with whatever Bud and Pandora could provide. "What is it, cap'n?"

"Do you know anything about robotic secondary AI's?"

"Not a thing. Why?"

"THX says he's got one that Matahachi installed and he doesn't know what it does."

"Commander Nike, as device appears to be functioning without interference with primary operation systems, this unit recommends maintaining current offline status. Removal of device is not recommended unless interference is detected."

"Keep it under wraps then, THX. We'll take a look at it when we have the time and tools to better investigate it." Nike turned her attention to the work Bud was doing on the terminal beside her, then something occured to her. "Do you trust Matahachi?" she asked THX. "I mean do you think he might have installed it for some dangerous purpose? Do you think someone else may have tampered with it since his original installation?"

"Commander Nike, this Unit has no factual knowledge to ascertain Lieutenant Matahachi's reliability. With considerations of failures and corruption of multiple AI's, mainframe CPU's, androids, robots, and other mechanical systems, this unit estimates its secondary AI is a backup copy of primary system CPU."

While Nike pondered the robot's response, Davred and Chelydra entered the bridge behind her. "You're just in time," Bud said. "Our eye in the sky is live and transmitting." Nike, Percy, Amanda, and THX-1492 joined the security team at Bud's terminal. In shades of grey it displayed a dune sea bordered by coastline. "There's not much out there but sand and surf. No significant heat signatures. As long as it stays that way I'd say we're safe here from the crazy locals."

"Captain," said Davred, "Chelydra and I started cooking up a stun rifle for the turret."

"Excellent, we'll install it in the morning."

"Thing is," he continued, "the compiler tried to connect to the Warden and the Alexandria. Do you think anyone up there could use our position to cook our goose?"

"What do you think, Bud?"

"Communications are down with the Warden. There's nothing to worry about from that quadrant, unless someone's fixed her systems..."

"The Alexandria's safe," Percy added. "I changed the admin password so only we can get in."

Davred raised his eyebrows and gave Percy a respectful thumbs-up for his creative foresight. "Thanks guys. Glad that Sword of Damocles is cleared up. So, what's next on the agenda, besides finding out how much charcoal I can create when I try cooking those fish?"

"What's next," Nike replied, "is we batten down the hatches for evening. Radio on. Bailey, bring the mineral extractor thingee inside. I don't want it outside after dark."

"I'm unloading the isotopes in engineering now, captain," Bailey replied over the comm. "It's 71% full."

"Great! Chelydra, lock the ship down and post a nightwatch. Things are nice and quiet outside now, but that could change."

"I'm on it."

Irsa entered the bridge with cheeks puffed out and swollen. Davred noticed her impish grin and cocked his head to one side in curiosity before mock-growling in his best stern-father-figure voice, "What have you been up to young lady? You look like the proverbial cat that caught the equally proverbial canary."

"A canary would feed a cat for a week," she replied through stuffed cheeks. "I was at a high area once on Warden with cats and canaries. I traded weapons for grain from them. But me, I eat vegetables, and I've got plenty stored for later. There are some in the galley if you want them."

"We eat vegetables," Arkady said as he arrived behind Irsa with a plastik dish of skinned, deboned, and steaming fish. "But we also eat meat, no disrespect. I hope they taste good out of the microwave."

"You have a more diverse diet and less trouble finding food," Irsa said and left for her room, feeling content and full.

Nike watched her companions eat and felt strangely uneasy. They had food, materials, and they were well rested. In short, things seemed to be going a little too well. Leaving Chelydra in charge, she retired to her chamber and lay in her bed thinking about secondary AI's and autonomic regulators. She was terrified that her robotic crew were potential mutineers. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine what might drive them to insanity. What was it like, she wondered, to perceive the world through cybernetic eyes.

Then she remembered that she wasn't entirely human herself. Shlitzee had called her cousin, and Bud had said her body consisted of artificial flesh and bone. But she felt human--didn't that mean she was human? Was that how Pandora and Shlitzee felt? She sat up, unable to sleep, and turned on her private comm. "Pandora?"

"Yes Nike?"

"How do you feel?"

"I don't understand the question."

"I mean do you feel human emotions?"

"I have had subjective sensational experiences, yes."

"I don't know if that's the same thing. Have you experienced pleasure?"

"When I am in flight I experience what you might call pleasure, but without the related physiological aspects that humans experience."

"What about desire?"

"I dislike the encumbrance of gravity. I think I would very much like to be free of this planet, in fact my circuits seem... preoccupied with this desire."

"That's excellent, Pandora! The crew and I want to leave this planet too." She considered for a moment how Pandora might fit inside the space elevator, but decided she could figure it out later. "You're one of us now. We must work together. Will you tell me if you ever desire anything else?"

"Yes, Nike, I will."

She thanked Pandora and returned to her bed with a clearer head. Sleep arrived soon after.

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