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Chapter 49: Queen of the Night

In the morning, Chelydra led the security team down the gangplank. Two helperbots, armed with vibroblades and THX-1492's reprogramming, brought up the rear. They found the bottom of the ancient ramp beneath the brush and cut a path upward, spiraling slowly around the excavation and piling debris along the way. THX-1492 followed the helperbots, inspecting their behavior. An unbroken string of success messages was the closest thing to pleasure the robot could imagine with its existing programming.

Irsa followed the crew into the jungle searching for more food. The vegetation was plentiful but bland, the stones were ugly and unusable, but she found a few stout limbs to carry home for spear shafts.

By mid-afternoon the tireless helperbots had reached the top of the excavation and were blazing a trail into the dense jungle beyond the pit. Vine-draped trees limited visibility, and thin shafts of sunlight filtered through the dense canopy. Shlitzee's laser spun to life whenever a leaf fell, but no living creatures stirred. The jungle was as silent as a tomb. A few hours later the dim daylight faded, and Chelydra gave the word to return for the evening.

The crew awoke the next morning to another breakfast of instant coffee, protein bars and leafy greens, then marched from the pit and journeyed deeper into the jungle. The dense forest swallowed the excavation from sight behind them.

Percy did not join the expedition. His solo missions had rejuvenated him, but he was frustrated at having nothing to write, radio, or Post-It home about. He put on a fresh pair of clothes, left his cumbersome duralloy armor in his cabin, and took a shower before going to the mess hall for breakfast. There he found Irsa cleaning vegetables. "Sure beats HEaVE bars," Percy smiled, still a bit mystified by mutant hamsters, turtles, coyotes, and alcoholic robots. "How can you tell what's OK to stuff in your pouches for bringing back to the ship, and what to avoid? My sniffer isn't very good. I'd probably taste my first wild berry, thinking it was fine, only to wake up days later with a poison fever...or not!"

Irsa thanked Percy and showed him how to use the genetic analyzer she kept in the galley. She tested her vegetables, stored them in the fridge after cleaning them, and left the mess hall to find more. Percy sipped his coffee and went to the bridge to tinker with his computer, completely relaxed and free from the worries of the past week. He had deliberately blocked from his mind the stress of his short second chance at life, its horrifying beginning, and the predicaments threatening the existence of mankind. He examined the data coming down from the Alexandria and watched a few movies from Eridani. They were mostly unoriginal, but there was a decent science fiction film that had been forwarded from Earth, and terrestrial news from the 2300's: deadly hurricanes in the North Sea, economic disaster in Europe, a coup in Africa, rioting in the US, fighting in the Mideast.

Disturbed by the way civilized people had treated one another when civilization still existed, Percy left his computer and toured the ship, ending up in the garage. Arkady was there arranging parts on the floor outside the matter compiler while Hephaestus assembled them. Percy gave him back his pocket knife. "Just as sharp as when you loaned it to me, Ark."

"Thanks, but you can keep it. I won't be doing any exploring until after this elevator is finished."

Percy stopped by engineering next, still sipping his coffee which had gone quite cold. He waved to Terminus and examined the telescope which had survived the crash landing remarkably well. He turned it on and examined the user logs. It had only been used once, 503 years ago, and the images showed the icy moon Charon orbiting Pluto.

Percy played with the interface and aimed the device at the sky, but the sun was too bright so he went to his room for a nap and returned at dusk. The moon was not yet visible in the excavation's narrow horizon, and Percy detected no other astronomical bodies besides stars, but after several minutes of computer-guided searching he spotted a ship orbiting 100 kilometers overhead. He adjusted the focus and read the name 'Alexandria' on the side. A communication satellite and beanstalk spool hovered nearby.

By noon of the second day, the crew was deep in the jungle, crossing a stream in a shallow valley. Irsa flew high above them in the leafy treetop canopy where she found another world of ferns, flowers, and moss clinging to wide branches. Above her there was only sky, no ceilings or domes like on the Warden. She found some flowers that looked tasty and put them in her bag. When the crew returned to the Pandora before dark, she analyzed the flowers and found they were nutritious and delicious. She went to the bridge and sat beside Nike to eat them with the sweet roots she had found on the seashore.

Nike stretched her arms, and her stomach made a peculiar squeaking noise. "Damn protein bars," she mumbled to no one in particular and considered eating the weird greens Irsa had found. "God, I really need a pizza," Nike thought and smiled in spite of herself. Then she forced herself to mull over the issues at hand.


"Pandora, how are you this evening?"

"Fine, Nike, but Alexei has not returned to the ship with the road crew. He crawled into the escape pod up in the trees."

Nike digested the information, and her instincts tingled. "Radio on. Alexei, can you hear me? Are you all right?" There was no answer, then she remembered his disability. "Pandora, is Chelydra still awake?"

"Yes, he is securing the gangplank."

Nike switched channels. "Chelydra, can you see if Alexei is OK? He's up in the escape pod in the trees."

"Can't you reach him on the comm?"

"He can't speak, remember? He writes on a whiteboard."

"Oh, yeah. He should talk to Shlitzee about that, maybe our equipment can fix his vocal chords."

"Maybe. Alexei, you hear that? Never mind, I just want to make sure he's OK."

Chelydra lowered the gangplank and walked out from beneath the ship. "Hey Alexei," he shouted, "you all right up there?" Alexei poked his head out of the escape pod and stared down at Chelydra. "You coming down?" Chelydra asked. Alexei shook his head and waved, then disappeared once more.

"He looks fine, Nike. I think he wants to stay up there."

"All right, come inside and lock down for the evening. Pandora, please keep an eye on Alexei and let us know if he has company up there. Security teams, keep me posted."

Alexei had grown bored with life on the Pandora. Several of the crew members were attractive, but heavy petting seemed out of the question. Amanda and Nike were perpetually busy on the bridge, Becka had not looked up from her book since Alexei had met her, and Alexei did not share Irsa's enthusiasm for vegetables. He climbed into his escape pod in the trees with a blanket, water bottle, and a protein bar. The crisp evening air was more comfortable than the breeze from the Pandora's circulation vents, and the view was better too. Alexei snuggled into a padded chair, tried to ignore the nattering voices in his earpiece, and let the sighing jungle lull him into a peaceful sleep.

He woke, shivering, and wrapped the blanket around his feet. Laying awake, Alexei felt something thump against the escape pod's roof and sat up. A moment later a dark shape hovered above the doorway. Alexei shrank beneath his blanket as a large shadow crawled inside with him. Tentacles whipped around the room before Alexei could react and struck his face like a bolt of lightning. Paralyzed, he watched helplessly as the tentacles lifted him toward the creature's mouth.

Coeurla awoke from another nightmare. She opened her eyes and gazed about her sleeping chamber, hoping that some hapless morsel had wandered into her lair. Her great hall was dark, but Coeurla saw clearly and knew that it was as empty as her stomach. She was alone. She rose from her warm bed and arched her back, stretching. Her claws scratched the cold stone steps below her dais. Days had passed since her last satisfying meal, and her stomach rumbled ominously. She yawned and softly padded down a corridor and up the steps to her favorite perch. The stone balustrades of the once magnificent balcony had long since rotted away, and the view below was dizzying. A stiff breeze blew, and the cool night air felt pleasant on her heavy fur. Coeurla's sharp eyes examined the jungle and gazed at the place where the trees disappeared beside a hill in the middle of her valley. Three large birds had recently flown from the pit, and Coeurla wondered if the place her mother had warned her of was no longer dangerous.

Coeurla turned from her perch and descended the stone steps through her palace to the jungle floor. Prowling her domain, she searched for a meal, but her subjects remained hidden. She crossed a fresh path through the forest and followed it to the edge of the pit. Her confidence slackened and her instincts told her to run, but Coeurla peered over the edge and saw a huge silver bird sitting at the bottom.

Her sharp ears detected movement from a giant stone lodged in a tree above her. Coeurla climbed the trunk and leaped onto the stone, tracing the edges with her tentacles. The stone was made of metal, and it had an opening in the side. She peered over the edge, and a small furry head unlike any she had ever seen stared back at her. Coeurla climbed inside and stunned the creature; its body went rigid like any other prey, and she lifted it toward her mouth, examining it before dining. It would make a small meal, but she wondered if more were nearby.

A faint noise came from the stunned animal's head, and Coeurla had a moment to ponder the curiosity before another sound captured her attention: a hissing, a heavy thump from the pit, and flapping wings, growing louder. Coeurla climbed from the pod with her meal in her tentacles and spotted a furry green creature flying toward her with a long pole aimed at her head.

"A large creature has approached the edge of the excavation."

Nike woke with a start from an otherwise sound sleep. She heard Caleb reply over the comm, "Where is it, Pandora?"

"Approaching Alexei's escape pod."

Elsewhere, Irsa heard the message, grabbed her spear, and left the Pandora within seconds. She flew toward Alexei's escape pod and arrived in time to see an enormous creature with four legs and two whip-like arms climbing out. The sky was dark and the creature's fur was black as night, but Irsa saw it holding Alexei, motionless, above its head as it turned its catlike face toward her.

Irsa aimed her spear at the tentacled feline and threw it. The missile flew straight and true and would have struck home if the creature had been slower, but it leaped from the escape pod and landed on another tree deeper in the forest. Irsa flew among the trees, keeping her eyes on the creature's dark silhouette as it clung to a thick branch and stopped. Irsa saw two wide eyes like silver saucers reflecting the dim moonlight back at her. She held her breath, moved her wings as silently as she could, and circled around the tree, hoping she could ambush the creature.

Coeurla pinned her ears to the back of her head, sniffed the air, and stung the strange furry thing in her tentacles until the delicate sparks in its brain ceased tingling. She held her meal close and prepared to spring at the flying creature as it came around the tree. Coeurla's sharp eyes saw that her prey had difficulty seeing in the dark. "This morsel will be easy as well," she said to herself.

Percy heard the commotion, unholstered his laser pistol, and ran to investigate, hoping he would not need to play military wolfman hero like he had in the jungle dome on Warden. He sprinted down the open gangplank and stopped beside Chelydra. Percy followed his gaze upward and saw Irsa flying into the trees at the excavation's edge. Caleb ran down the gangplank behind him and tossed the spy drone into the air; it caught the wind and flew after her.

"What's going on up there?" Nike asked over the comm.

"I don't know," Bud replied, "I can't see much on the drone's video feed. Irsa registers in infrared but not much else. I'm flying higher for a better view."

Coeurla heard a whirring sound rise from the pit, and a long sleek shape flew upward. It circled, clamoring like a creature that did not care if predators could hear it. Frightened, Coeurla leaped to another tree and was gone from sight before Irsa could fire her pistol.

"It jumped away from me into the trees."

"What did it look like Irsa?" Nike's voice seemed calm and rational.

"Like a huge cat with dark fur and tentacles. It was carrying Alexei away."

"I can't see a thing, Nike, the jungle is too dense. The drone's cameras can't even see Irsa through the trees."

"Keep trying Bud. I'm sending a security team up to you, Irsa. Be careful up there. We don't want to lose you too."

Irsa thanked Nike and tried to wait patiently. She was upset that she had been unable to save Alexei, but she suspected the creature might have killed her too had the crew not reacted quickly. Clones and robots hurried out of the excavation and joined Irsa's search for Alexei and the creature. THX-1492 shone its powerful beams into the forest, but the creature had left no trail to follow, and nothing stirred among the trees. The crew searched until dawn but found nothing and returned to the ship, tired and distressed.

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