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Chapter 50: Rock of Ages

The sky grew lighter through Pandora's windows, and Nike struggled to stay awake in her comfortable command chair as she watched the monitors: the flying drone's video feed showed an endless stretch of jungle, and the feed from the beanstalk displayed the planet, looming larger in the camera's lens. A row of numbers decremented toward the beanstalk's touchdown: over 60,000 km to go.

"Nike," Arkady said over the comm, "the natives in the crew quarters have been cooped up in here for almost five days. Can we let them out to stretch their legs and fumigate the rooms?"

"All right, let them out around noon when the sun is overhead and clean them up. In the meantime, I want you to compile some infrared video cameras and install them around the excavation's perimeter. I don't want to get ambushed again tonight."

"I have a lot more parts to build for the elevator."

"You'll have plenty of time. The first cable won't touchdown for another four days at least, and you have enough pieces for Hephaestus to begin construction already."

"Ok, but we're running out of carbon. Between HEaVE bars and diamondoid elevator parts, the compiler is quickly going through our reserves."

"Use the buckets in the storage room and haul in the debris the robots have cut along the trail."

"Roger," Arkady grumbled.

Irsa led a quiet memorial service for Alexei as the brightest of two suns rose over the excavation. Becka kept her book closed in her lap as she sat in the grass and watched Irsa clear a grassy space above the stone ruins. Irsa buried a sweet root she had found near the beach in place of the body she felt they might never find. The root had grown tiny stalks since being picked, and Irsa hoped it might one day grow into a tree, a fitting tribute to Alexei's memory.

Percy escorted Horatio and his two students, freshly bathed, down the gangplank. The students trembled when they saw their lush surroundings and fell to their knees. Their teacher calmly recited a prayer, but he lacked his usual bravado, and when Percy asked him a question, Horatio was uncharacteristically silent. Percy wanted to know about Horatio's heritage, but he would only say he was John Galt's descendant. Benalidino and Spragni were the only other names from the Alexandria's roster that meant anything to Horatio. Percy asked how he had found the Pandora, and how he had known he could enter the ship through the airlock, and Horatio replied by reciting the Prophet Benalidino's scripture, a strange and seemingly sacred description of Silver Birds and a Gate that Holds Back the Wind.

Horatio and his students huddled in the Pandora's shadow until the security team told them they could return to their room, but the Rota tribesmen seemed much happier to be allowed outside. Awed by the sights, Janus, Malik, and Devon explored the ruins as far as the armed crew allowed them. Percy regaled the Rota with tales of the Warden, about cities and parks and lakes and flowing water, and life aboard the mighty ship. The ancient ruins, the wilderness, and Percy's strange tales enchanted them. Feeling he was winning their trust, Percy asked, "What do you know about your ancestors?"

Janus's eyes brightened. His mind, no longer fogged by Shlitzee's sedatives, was quick, and his words were to the point. He traced his lineage through several generations, naming each male ancestor back to one of Mike Benalidino's sons. "All my tribesmen are Benalidino's descendents. He taught Galt's sons about the Warden and trained them to use her technologies to capture her, but secretly he told his own sons about Galt's crimes and warned them to stay quiet until the Warden's crew arrived."

"What happened to your ancestor Benalidino?"

"Galt punished everyone he suspected of disloyalty. He killed them or cast them out of Eden, and his faithful followers built a wall around the city. Galt was paranoid, and the faithful accused one another of disloyalty for their own selfish reasons. Benalidino was afraid his sons would be killed, so he sent them away to find a place to live in the wilderness beyond Galt's control, and many of his sons escaped before Galt discovered what was happening. Benalidino was the first to be inflicted with Galt's Curse, and he lingered for more years than most."

"Oh, this is good," Percy exclaimed. "I mean, that's terrible, but wait, let me get this down." He fumbled through his fanny-pack for an ink pen and a sheet of paper he had found on the Warden, and he leaned over a dark stone pedestal to scratch out a few notes. "Where did Benalidino's sons go?"

"They built villages in the mountains and explored the desert. Some expeditions never returned, but one found a place that Galt had not discovered: a cave where faces in sacred windows revealed things about life before Ithark that Benalidino had not taught his sons."

The road crew cut a path through the jungle, and in the late afternoon they reached a clearing where an old tree had fallen. Through a gap in the forest canopy they caught a glimpse of the rocky hill where they planned to anchor their elevator. The sheer rock face seemed to mock their efforts.

Davred stopped dead in his tracks and wiped sweat from his brow. "I hope there's a back way; I'm not climbing that cliff."

"We'll find a way," Bud replied. "Maybe we'll send the bots up first, but we're not likely to reach it today. There's only a few hours of daylight left."

The crew cut a path through the fallen tree's trunk and ventured another half kilometer into the jungle before turning toward home. Arkady waited for them on Pandora's bridge, testing feeds from the cameras he had attached to trees along the excavation's perimeter. "I saw you guys before you were within 300 meters of us."

"That's good, but will we see anything when the lights go out?" Bud asked.

"Infrared is enabled."

Nike patted Arkady on the shoulder. "Good work. We'll keep an eye on it. No one leaves Pandora tonight without an armed guard."

Percy flopped into his bridge chair and indulged his penchant for introspective technological stimulation via his computer terminal. He sifted through the data downloaded from the Alexandria; not knowing exactly what he was looking for, Percy was data mining, like reading an encyclopedia set without caring which articles or topics he read. As Percy stumbled through the information on the computer, he paused at an entry concerning the cloning bays. He read about bioroid technology and recalled a conversation in which Bud had told him that Percy and the other male bioroids were sterile. There was only one way to find out without involving any female crew members and carefully timed encounters, forgetting for the moment the significant time necessary to foster a copacetic rendezvous, so he paid Shlitzee a visit in the medbay and offered himself up for medical examination.

Shlitzee asked Percy about his medical history and listened to the story of his strange transformation into a wolfoid on the Warden. She muttered an electronic sound of surprise and said, "Either you've been watching too many monster movies in the archives, or..."

"Or?" Percy waited for the alternative.

"Or you are a werewolf."

"Oh, I definitely am a werewolf, watch this!" Percy closed his eyes and clenched his teeth to aid his concentration. His skin crawled; a moment later his skin changed color, thick gray hair sprouted everywhere, and his body changed into a wolflike humanoid.

"Nice show," Shlitzee said as her robotic eyes faded into a purple haze. "Were you bitten by a wolfoid-meatbag?"

"A wolfoid?" Percy growled. "No I wasn't bitten, but I fought a pack of them back on the Warden."

"Have you ever changed into something else? I saw some strange things back on the Warden. Maybe you're a shape-changer."

"Waaaiitaminute, what?"

"A doppelganger, a mimic, a shape-shifter. Have you tried to change into anything else?"

"Yes, but I only seem to be able to do wolfoids."

"Maybe you haven't concentrated long enough on your subject."

Percy approached the three bodies Shlitzee kept on ice in the medbay. He walked solemnly past Rufus and Bailey, and stopped at Drake's suspension-coffin. He concentrated on Drake's face for several minutes, gritting his teeth and screwing up his eyes, and a moment later Percy looked just like him.

Shlitzee whistled and rummaged in a chest beneath one of the medbay beds. "Hop onto the table. I've never met a real, live shape-changer who didn't want to dismantle me."

Percy was anxious but excited as he lay upon the table. "All right, but just an examination, no dissections! And while you're examining me, is it true that all boy bioroids are sterile? Does the Jenkins line end with me? Will my offspring be shape-changers too?"

"Yes. Not necessarily. I don't know."

"Not necessarily?" Percy scratched his head, trying to remember the order in which he had asked his questions. "You mean bioroid sterility is reversible?"

"Technically speaking, no, because that would violate UWSC law. But your birth was technically a crime, so what the hell do I know? Just between us humans, I see no reason not to fix your plumbing." Shlitzee lifted a bone saw from the chest and spun the blade for a fraction of a second, her eyes spinning slowly and changing color in pulsating bands of red.

Percy dreamed of algorithm lectures, self-erasing white boards, freshly-pressed Warden uniforms filled out nicely by shapely crew members, anything and everything to keep his mind from the dread of Shlitzee's examination.

Shlitzee chuckled mechanically at the look on Percy's face. "Just kidding, that's for autopsies only. Nanobots perform the surgery. You sit back, relax, drift off, and in a few hours you will wake up and the surgery will be complete. I require a few minutes to program the nanodocs for your bioroid physiology." Shlitzee took a sample of Percy's skin and blood cells, passed them through a DNA parser, and said, "Your DNA matches your last sample. You may have wings and look like the meatbag formerly known as Drake, but genetically you are still Percy."

Percy fixated on a memory of his face in a mirror, shaving, and slowly he resembled his old self. He made up his mind and said, "Yes, I want you to, uh... fix the plumbing. Do I need to call in special authorization to override some kind of UWSC regulation?"

"Puh-lease. Your say so is all the authorization I need."

"Will I need to schedule a follow-up, or is it just some tweak you introduce into my fake human nano-pieces?"

"Oh, it's a tweak all-right. You should experience some bruising. See me in 24 hours for a check-up. Possible adverse side-effects may include, but are not limited to, infection, inflammation, hemorrhaging, scarring, changes of local blood flow, loss of weight, loss of function, testosterone imbalance, estrogen imbalance, and unplanned pregnancies."

Irsa, a bit bored aboard ship, went outside. After checking to be sure the area was safe, she spread her wings and flew around the excavation, checking it out from the air. The dark, rectangular stone ruins stood out against the green grass, but the ruined dropship vanished in the undergrowth.

It was not yet night-time, but the sky was growing darker. The strange, cotton-like things scudding across the sky (Percy had called them "clouds") had turned grey, and they hid the two bright lights in the sky (Percy had said they were "suns".) Drops of rain started falling. Irsa sought shelter in one of the stone ruins and considered another mystery of this new world: water on the Warden only fell from the sky at night. Irsa dried her feathers and watched puddles form in the trenches outside. The rain fell in sheets with no sign of letting up. She flew around the chamber and examined the ancient words carved into the rock wall, but she made no sense of their meaning.

The rain finally stopped falling an hour later, and Irsa came out of hiding. The puddles sank into the ground in a few minutes. And this, Irsa thought, was another difference between her world and this one: rain on the Warden only lasted a few minutes, and the puddles lasted for hours. Irsa's wing muscles were tired and sore, so she returned to the ship to rest.

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