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Chapter 48: Hall of the Mountain King

Arkady slept uneasily that night. Half-formed memories of his father and mother swam in a sea of forgotten shadows. Unfamiliar faces shared tales, the details of which he could not recall. He tossed and turned, woke early, and said a prayer for Bailey to the magnetic icon on the bulkhead beside him.

With a towel around his waist, Arkady walked through the ship to the matter compiler. Orderly rows of shoes, shirts, trousers, socks, underwear, and a case of shotgun shells sat beside Hephaestus's power station. The attire was plain, but sturdy. When he was dressed and feeling human again, Arkady scrutinized the ammunition: 12 shells, non-lethal. The compiler was still humming. Its display announced it had restarted a suit of reflective armor.

Arkady locked the shells in the munitions locker, left the rest of the clothes outside the crew's quarters, and went to the bridge. He was not surprised to find Nike and Chelydra already there and wide awake. "Good morning, Arkady," Nike said. "Did you sleep well?"

"Not really. I couldn't stop thinking about Bailey. If I hadn't given him that fishing pole..."

"It wasn't your fault."

Arkady nodded and closed his eyes, but still he saw the hideous creature with Bailey in its maw and remembered how he had reached for his weapon and hesitated, afraid of hitting Bailey instead. Had he fired, would Bailey still be alive?

"It's a good thing you're up early. I'm eager to get out of here so we can make camp in daylight, but something came up that I'd like everyone to see before we leave. Pandora, would you please send a reveille and muster the crew on the bridge? Perhaps a little music would be nicer to wake up to than a marine's voice."

"Do you have any suggestions?"

"I don't know, something that starts quiet and builds, but not too long."

"Edvard Grieg, Hall of the Mountain King," Pandora replied and loaded the file. French horns gently buzzed in the crew's ears, and pizzicato strings marched softly through their dreams. Slow and steady, they increased their feverish melody until a choir, shouting at full volume, joined the orchestra. When the music was over, Pandora said, "Good morning. Nike requests your presence on the bridge."

As bleary-eyed crew members stumbled up the corridor, Nike sent the reconnaissance drone's video feed to the holoprojector. It displayed a portion of the desert near the mountains. "Pandora alerted us this morning that there's a caravan heading our way." Nike zoomed in and revealed twenty or so leviathans like the one they had seen Janus riding days earlier. A speed indicator noted they were traveling at 25 KPH. Nike turned on the terrain notes Horatio had given them, and the crew saw the caravan was moving away from the city he had called Eden. She flew in closer and they saw men riding in broad wooden saddles. As many as five or six rode on each creature's back. A single leviathan in the middle bore a wooden litter, 2 meters long and a meter tall with curtained windows; two riders sat above the beast's neck. Some of the men pointed at the camera and shouted to one another, but the crew on the Pandora heard nothing. One of the two drivers, without slowing his steed, climbed from his seat and knocked on the wall of the litter behind him. He waited for a reply, and then returned to his seat.

"How far away are they," Bud asked, "and whose bright idea was the Evil Boss music?"

Irsa walked onto the bridge, yawning, and said, "Is it really called Evil Boss Music? It was Morris's favorite. I miss Morris."

"I doubt it," Bud replied. "It just reminded me of a video game."

"They're 875 kilometers away," Nike answered. "At their present speed they'll arrive here in 35 hours, assuming they don't stop to battle sikalas or rest their mounts. And Pandora chose the music, we're taking suggestions."

Bud grumbled and watched the holoprojector display.

Arkady pointed at the palanquin-like box on the back of the leviathan. "I assume John Galt's riding inside there, enjoying the shade. His followers will soon be baking in the sun. Are they heading straight toward us?"

"Nearly. He seems to have a good intelligence network," Nike said. Bud nodded. "But I don't think we should wait around for him. I'd rather not face him yet, unless there are any objections." No one spoke. "Ok then, to your stations. We're taking off."

Nike, Percy, Amanda, Bud and Arkady sat in the five command chairs. The rest of the crew sat behind them, and everyone fastened themselves into a grav harness. Chelydra joined them after letting THX-1492 out of the ship. The robot flew the spare aircar up and over the cove where they had spent the last three nights, and the Pandora lifted off behind it. As the ship rumbled and roared into the sky, the shaking compiler aborted its current project and recycled the partially constructed reflective armor.

The crew watched the ocean glide by on the video displays and holoprojector. The windows gave only a view of the sky above. Becka read her book while the rest of the crew settled in for a long trip. They were silent at first, but boredom soon drew them into conversation. Percy listened to his crewmates chatter over the comm about their plans to reach orbit, the Alexandria, the Warden, and the beauty of the uninhabited world below. He scratched at the stubble scattered about his cheeks, chin, and emerging wattle. He was no spring chicken. He wondered why the Warden clone bays had spit out such a mid-life version of him. Perhaps he had been this age when he last submitted an alpha sequence scan.

Percy ended his introspection and considered their mission. They had lofty but achievable goals: save the Warden and solve the mystery of Rho-1 Cancri A, but ultimately were they supposed to populate the galaxy with the human race? If so, they were doing a lousy job. How many had died in his company since he had risen from his clone pod? He frowned, then shook his head and looked up from his station. His gaze drifted from the Pandora's marine captain Nike, to Amanda the math professor, to Bud, now bereft of his best friend, and Arkady. A pilot, the oldest living human, a soldier, and two academics. Sounded like a bar joke. The rest of the crew and guests on board were counting on them, on him for their survival, to lead them, to find answers, to save the day. "One day at a time, Mister Jenkins," he thought.

When at last they reached the far side of the ocean, rich green mountains rose from the waters and silenced the crew once more; no signs of civilization marred the natural wonder of this untouched land. Pandora followed THX over mountainous jungles, and they descended into a valley that seemed no different from any of the others around it; they could not see the clearing until they were practically on top of it. THX flew the aircar into one of the ruins and Arkady set the Pandora down on the dense grass at the bottom of the pit, north of the ruins. The holoprojectors and video monitors displayed the dense jungle surrounding them. "Welcome to our new home for a while," Nike said. "Arkady, you're on elevator duty. Make it the compiler's top priority. Security team, secure the area."

As the crew stood and departed from the bridge, Percy caught Nike's attention. "I'm having a mid-life crisis," he admitted, holding up a hand to stave off her reply. "No, I don't want to drive the sports car," he sighed, "not that kind of crisis. I feel I'm a bit misplaced for this... mission. I had my crack at surviving the hazards of a career on the Warden, and I failed. But Warden's clone bays have given me a second chance. Presumably, there's something up here," he knocked on his head, "that Warden felt was needed to ensure its crew's survival, or at least her survival, and I don't think resuming a career as a computer programmer is my destiny, or my personal career aspiration. Amanda can probably keep this fancy bucket's computers going.... I guess what I'm saying is, I think I'm going to assign myself to the uh, away team."

"This ain't Star Trek, Percy," Nike smirked.

"Well whatever you want to call it," he laughed. "I'm gonna suit up and head out. Transform and roll out. Stretch my legs. Explore the ruins."

"Well, you don't need my permission. I'll claim to be the captain of the Pandora, but I'm not one of the Warden Captains. Wherever they are, they've long since stopped giving orders, even to recombinant crew members." She playfully punched Percy in the chest and added, "You want to go play jungle man, go for it."

Percy smiled. He did not need to, but he saluted; then headed to his quarters and changed his clothes. He grimaced when he realized he had been wearing the same uniform for several days. He strapped his light duralloy plated armor on top of his Warden uniform, clipped on his laser pistol, grabbed sheets of paper from the bag he had procured back on the Warden, put them in his fanny pack and stuffed it into a compartment attached to his suit. Before he left, Percy looked at his computer terminal, silent since he had deactivated everything outside the bridge, and remembered something from the previous day. He turned on his comm and said, "Nike, think you can get Pandora to download the colony transmissions from the Alexandria? A little light reading for when I get back."

"Sure thing," Nike replied.

Percy strolled to the storage room, humming the tune to which he had awakened. He grabbed two 1-liter bottles of water, and stuffed them into straps in his armor. He also grabbed three small Type IV hydrogen cells from the weapons locker. He was not sure what he would be shooting at, but he figured 40 shots from an energy pistol were better than 10. He did not see any combat knives or machetes, so he went to the garage where he found Arkady hunched over the matter compiler's display.

"What's up Ark? Is there a decent knife in the template files? I may need one while I'm out exploring the jungle."

"The compiler's cooking up parts for the elevator, Percy. It's gonna take a while. The instructions aren't as easy as I'd hoped they'd be. I've got a pocket knife, if you think you can use it. I found it on the Warden." Arkady fished through his pockets, found the knife, and gave it to Percy. He took the knife, thanked Arkady, and left the Pandora to view the valley they had landed in.

THX was already on the ground, scouting around the ruins for danger, when Arkady landed the Pandora. Her engines ceased their rumbling and the surrounding jungle was perfectly still, except for the faint sound of wind blowing through the trees high above the excavation. THX's infrared sensors scanned the area but detected no significant heat signatures. Pandora told the crew over their comms, "My sensors show no threats in our immediate vicinity, but I cannot see outside the excavation. Please be careful."

Irsa followed Percy and Chelydra's security team down the gangplank. She flew around the area and up the embankment, searching for potential food. The vegetation was mostly rough underbrush, trees and vines. She collected samples of leaves that looked edible, but nothing seemed particularly appetizing.

Percy had seen the place through THX-1492's sensors from half a world away, but there was nothing like witnessing it first-hand. He wandered among the monumental black stones, carved by alien hands, and etched with eldritch runes. He cast furtive glances at the trees towering above him, feeling as if the alien builders, or their descendants, were still there, watching him.

He hiked to the southern end of the valley where the crumbling dropship lay in ruins. He entered the yawning portal, tread carefully past Matahachi's long dead corpse in power armor, and journeyed through the dropship's root infested chambers and corridors, avoiding the chamber THX had warned them was contaminated with radiation. He searched through the ruins for anything of value, but found only a few moldy and chewed-up pamphlets describing life on the Eridani colonies.

Percy left the dropship before sundown. Darkness swallowed the bottom of the deep excavation in minutes. He returned to the Pandora with the rest of the crew and found Arkady on the bridge explaining to Nike what he had accomplished. "Hephaestus can assemble the parts, but it's too dangerous to assemble here. There's a tall rocky hill nearby that looks suitable for construction. Hephaestus could use the aircars to shuttle the pieces for assembly but we'd soon run out of Hydrogen cells, and building a cell energizer will take too long. I suggest we construct a few vibroblades and reprogram our two medbot assistants to cut a path to the hill."

"How long will the elevator take to build?" Nike asked.

Arkady's hands danced awkwardly from his pockets and back again. "Several weeks, I think. We can get the anchor assembled in a few days, but the first cable drop will take a week, and we have to be sure there are no storms coming before we send up climbers to insulate and strengthen the tether. Assuming the weather goes our way, we could be in orbit in three weeks."

"Can we start lowering the tether from the Alexandria now?"

"As long as we don't deploy the last 18 kilometers of cable during a storm and expose the Alexandria to a lightning strike, sure."

"Right, crossing the streams is bad, got it. Amanda, can you take care of that?"

Sitting behind Percy's Post-It-Noted workstation, Amanda logged into the orbiting ship's computer and executed Nike's commands. Many kilometers above them, a satellite detached and drifted a safe distance away from the Alexandria, then fired a small projectile toward the planet. As the projectile fell, dragging a thin cable behind it, the satellite drifted upward, converting the friction in its unwinding spool into energy for the rockets that kept it stable. Amanda, monitoring the video feed from a camera in the projectile, watched the planet below as the rest of the crew settled in for the evening.

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