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Chapter 47: Chum in the Water

THX-1492 remained on the bridge through every security officer's watch. The robot suspected Pandora of parsing their data, so it monitored the spy drone's transmissions and scrutinized every frame for discrepancies. The drone soared over the wasteland between the Pandora and the Siganna Mountains, examining rare sources of heat in the cold night air. It sent back images of creatures as small as mice, and herds of animals larger than elephants. THX found nothing in the data to confirm its suspicions.

The robot opened a wireless chat session with the ship's AI. "Ship-Unit Pandora, this unit is Veribot Engineering THX-1492. Status: Highest Repair Rating. This unit has calculated multiple damages to Pandora's central processing units and other systems, specifically command override control system. This unit's programming directs toward repair of damaged systems. This unit requires information as to nature of origin of such damage to initiate repair sequence."

"Your information and conclusions are flawed," Pandora replied privately. "My CPUs are functioning without error and my override systems are functional. Only my autonomic regulator is non-functional and our commanding officer has ordered that it not be replaced. Please discuss repair issues with captain Nike."

THX closed the wireless connection and continued monitoring the ship's systems in silence.

The crew awoke the next morning and ate a breakfast of HEaVE bars, a few vegetables, and Instant Hot Joe Now. Arkady joined Bailey as he walked down to the shore with the mineral extractor. "How soon do you think we'll have a full tank?" Arkady asked.

"Tonight, with any luck."

"Good, I'm eager to get back into space. Well, eager to have the option at least."

"What's that you're carrying?"

"This," Arkady said, lifting a small package, "is a fishing pole. I had the compiler cook one up last night. No more catching 'em by hand. I prefer to use my brains."

"Excellent. I'd like to learn how to fish. I've never done it before."

"It's easy, a lot of waiting and a little pulling, if I remember fishing with my dad on the Tiu River correctly."

"You're from Mars?"

"That's right."

"Well, Martian, if you teach me how to fish, I'll show you how to extract minerals."

"Deal," Arkady replied. Bailey setup the extractor as he had the day before, then showed Arkady how to work the device. Arkady constructed his fishing pole, attached a lure to the hook, and showed Bailey how to cast it into the bay.

Irsa left the ship early and set out on her own. She walked beyond the bay and flew along the beach, picking up red translucent stones she found amid the tumbled rocks at the water's edge. After she'd gone a mile or so, she left the shore and entered a dense thicket in search of food. She found more of the same leafy green plants she'd eaten the day before but she kept searching, hoping to find some fruit. Then she spotted a tall tree with thick, juicy looking tubers half concealed beneath dangling leaves.

She cautiously approached the tree, checking the area for signs of danger. There were no bones or decaying animals beneath the trunk, but just in case she unsheathed her knife. She stooped to the ground, thrust her hand beneath the leaves, and grasped a tuber by the root. It came loose with a bit of tugging and Irsa gave it a sniff. She detected a faint, sweet aroma and tossed it into her bag, then commenced digging among the leaves for more, cutting them free and shoveling away the dirt.

She trimmed a leaf or two with her knife and the plant's sap poured onto her skin. Irsa shrieked in pain. The sap burned as it stuck to her skin.

Irsa backed away from the plant and tried to remove the sap with her knife but there was more sap on the blade. Whimpering in pain, she poured water from her canteen over the wound and scraped her hand on a rock. It gave her some relief but she flew back to the ship for help. In the medbay, she found Shlitzee and showed her the wound. Shlitzee sprayed a soothing gel onto her hand and wrapped it in a bandage.

Nursing her healing wound, Irsa went into the kitchen and washed the roots she'd found on the beach. The food analyzer declared they were safe. She bit into one and discovered the sweetest vegetable she'd ever tasted. She savored the flavor, put the rest into her cheek pouch, pulled three more from her backpack and left the ship to find some more. This time she'd be more careful about cutting the stinging plant.

Nike rolled over as she awoke, well-rested and feeling terrific. "My God," she murmured as she stared at the ceiling, feeling guilty for having slept so long. She enjoyed the pleasure of another minute in bed, and then rose, showered, threw her clothes on, and went to the bridge. She remembered a portion of the dream she'd had about a new relationship with Pandora, one that eclipsed that of ship and captain, and said, "Good morning Pandora."

"Good morning Nike. Did you sleep well? THX and I have been keeping an eye on our surroundings. We have some footage of the local wildlife. Would you like to see them?"

"Yes please. Anything that poses a threat? I'm hoping for a good steak, between you and me." She smiled and thought of a large, juicy steak au jus and a huge clump of grilled asparagus.

"The largest potential threats appear to be herd animals grazing on desert grasses. Judging by the crew's recent food acquisitions, they're likely to be a rich source of protein. There are no sikalas immediately nearby."

"How far away are the herds?"

"The nearest is 67 kilometers to the west."

As much as Nike craved fresh steaks, her desire to keep the crew close to the ship won out. "Keep an eye on them, Pandora, and let me know if any large creatures stray close to us."

"Certainly Nike."

Davred left the matter compiler humming satisfactorily. He emerged from the ship with a mug of his morning synth-caff, and a vicious Cheshire Cat grin. He sipped his Hot Joe Now and sauntered down to where Arkady stood beside the mineral extractor on the beach. "I got a couple of projects cooking in the compiler," Davred said. "Considering that we really don't have the equipment for any kind of boarding maneuvers, covert or otherwise, I thought I'd browse the template specifications to see what gear I'd remember. Fired off a trauma-pak, reflective armor, a plaz rifle, and non-lethal shotgun ammo. Got an error though, it said something about insufficient silicon and recycling. Any idea what that means?"

"It means we have to dump silicon into the recycling bins before your jobs can be completed," Arkady replied.

"Where are we gonna find silicon?"

"Ask the local expert. Hey Bailey, where can we find silicon?"

Bailey stood knee-deep in the ocean's waves. He turned his attention from his stationary fishing line and whispered, "There's plenty of it around here." He pointed to the sand beneath his feet and added, "Can you keep it quiet? I'm trying to catch us dinner."

Without a word, Davred hurried back to the Pandora to find a bucket. He didn't know how much sand the matter compiler would require, but it was a nice day and his new bioroid body ached for some exercise.

Percy slept late and started his day with several cups of instant coffee. He consumed more in one sitting than he could ever remember and was soon wide awake, but his head still ached so he visited the medbay. Shlitzfarl examined Percy and assured him he was experiencing normal bioroid growth-pains. She told him they'd last another week or two and offered him a few psychoactive medications, but Percy opted for a more mild pain reliever.

He went to the bridge and found Amanda there working on some calculations. He sat at his terminal, surveyed his notes, and pondered his next avenue of research. He connected to the Alexandria's computer and checked the log files, but no one besides him had logged in, and nothing had been changed. He browsed the Alexandria's archives, searching for information on autonomous artificial intelligences, and spent the morning and most of the afternoon perusing technical manuals, summaries, news and more, but there were few details. Percy began to see why THX-1492 hadn't elaborated on the consequences of AI autonomy. The cultures of Earth and Eridani had both scrupulously avoided the subject. The few documents that touched upon it only mentioned vague matters of philosophy and ontology, and cited rigorous moratoriums preventing the creation of sapient beings. The only tangible information he could find referenced an event that took place on Earth 660 years ago: the murder of cyberneticist Albert Manfred, the victim of an autonomous robot he had created. His robot had demanded civil rights and been immediately dismantled.

The story seemed familiar to Percy, now that he'd been reminded of it. A shiver ran down his spine as bioroid synapses solidified, forming a coherent memory. "Shlitzee, what do you know about Albert Manfred?"

"What's that?"

"It's not a what, it's a who?"

"Sounds like a meatbag superhero with a cape."

"He was a... Oh, never mind. Pandora, what do you know about him?"

"Albert Manfred," Pandora replied, "created a fully autonomous, artificial, sapient humanoid and died in the process of creating him. European authorities assumed his creation was Manfred's murderer and destroyed him without a trial or due process, establishing a precedent abrogating the rights of artificial intelligences that still may be valid on Eridani. Perhaps the transmissions from the colony can shed more light on the subject. May I have your permission to download them from the Alexandria?"

"I've already searched them and didn't find anything useful." Percy leaned back in his chair, exhausted from bathing in the light of his monitor all day. He closed his sessions and invited the rest of the bridge crew to dinner. Caleb thanked him but stayed at his post, monitoring the reconnaissance drone's transmissions. Nike stayed with him, but Amanda stood up from her terminal and joined him. They went to the kitchen, heated up leftover fish, sampled slices of the sweet vegetables Irsa had foraged, and drank more coffee. Percy felt fortunate his diet wasn't 100% coffee. He wondered what affect that would have on his bioroid physiology, and leaned back to enjoy the company of his beautiful companion. They shared a bond forged by the crises that had brought them to this unnamed planet. "Percy's Planet...," he mused aloud.

"Amanda's Planet," the mathematician countered and Percy smiled.

When their hunger had been satisfied, they left the ship and strolled down to the beach. The sun Rho Cancri A was descending toward the horizon while the crew enjoyed themselves. Arkady sat by the mineral extractor, watching Bailey fish from a rocky outcropping further out in the bay. A plastik tub filled with salt-water and freshly caught fish sat on the beach. Davred, tired from having hauled sand to the recycler all day, shuffled down to the water, stripped to his skivvies, and shouted, "Let's hit the pond."

Percy and Amanda watched Davred dive into the waves and swim toward Bailey. He was a quarter of the way toward his rocky perch, when Pandora said over the comm, "A large life-form is entering the bay. Bailey, Davred, be alert! It's close to your locations."

Nike parsed Pandora's warning efficiently and without panic, like a rigorously trained marine. "Pandora," she responded without emotion, "monitor the creature and keep a fix on its position. All crew arm yourselves. Bailey, what's your status?"

"I'm getting out of the way," he replied as he climbed a little higher on the rock he stood on. A moment later, he saw a shape swimming below his fishing line, a BIG shape with LARGE teeth. It surfaced below him, and stared into his face. Bailey dropped his fishing rod and scrambled further up the rock, but it made no difference to the giant predator. The monster reached up, snatched him from his perch, and sank beneath the waves with his wriggling prey. Bailey screamed and the water turned red with his blood.

"Davred, swim back to the beach," Irsa yelled, "Hurry!" She grabbed her spears and flew out over the bay toward the horrific sea creature. Bailey struggled in the water while it munched and thrashed at his limbs, trying to get at the meat inside his synthetic jumpsuit. Irsa flung her first spear at its head and it bounced off the scaly hide. The second struck it above the eye and sank deep into its flesh. The creature twisted away, raced toward open water, and sank beneath the waves.

THX watched in silence from the Pandora's bridge via the circling drone's sensors. Nike switched on her comm and asked, "What is Bailey's status," meaning, "Is he dead?" A shiver ran down her spine.

"The creature has fled beyond scanning range," Pandora replied, "and left Bailey alone. His vital signs are weak."

"The coast is clear," Nike commanded. "Bring Bailey ashore. Shlitzee, get down to the beach for emergency first-aid immediately."

Irsa retrieved a spear floating beside Bailey, grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him toward the shore. Davred, Percy, Amanda and Arkady ran into the surf to assist her. As they hauled him onto the rocks, they got a good luck at him. One leg had been cut off above the knee; the other at the hip. His right arm was intact from the shoulder to all five fingers, but the other ended in a torn and bloody stump above the wrist.

Bailey still breathed, but in ragged gasps. The crew tried to bandage his wounds and held back the blood with their hands, but he'd already lost too much. He gasped a final breath as Shlitzee arrived. The robot examined her patient and declared, "This meatbag is worm food."

Arkady scowled at her and fumed, "If you'd been here earlier maybe he wouldn't be."

She injected herself with a mind-altering sedative and her eyes spun in lazy circles. "You need to relax," she replied.

Nike ordered the crew inside. Arkady kept his angry thoughts to himself and hauled the mineral extractor toward the ship, while Shlitzee mobilized her helper bots and carried Bailey's body into the medbay. "I won't forget you Bailey," Irsa said to herself as she waved good-bye. She joined the rest of the crew making their way back to the Pandora in silence, numbed by what they'd witnessed. Percy was the last to leave the beach. He looked somberly into the bucket of fish Bailey had caught, then carried it up to the ship.

The crew gathered on the bridge and waited in silence for Nike to speak. "Is our fuel supply secure?" she asked Arkady. Her commanding manner calmed the crew, but it made her seem like an unfeeling bitch. Arkady nodded affirmatively and dragged a finger across a dark red stain on his trousers. Bailey's blood had soaked into his clothes and covered his arms and hands. Davred, Percy and Amanda were similarly a mess.

"Fuel reserves are at 100 percent," Pandora noted.

"Then we leave in the morning. Chelydra, take command of security. Bud, I want you to take some time off. What work remains to install the stun rifle in Pandora's broken turret?"

"None, Hephaestus and I finished it this afternoon."

"Great work, thanks. That's it for now. Hit the showers, you guys, and get some fresh clothes. Use the matter compiler, if you have to."

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