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Preparations

Echo-1: Part 23

I couldn’t help thinking about that opening scene in Apocalypse Now, how everyone gets everything they want and all he ever wanted was a mission. Was this all I ever really wanted? Would I want another?

I parked my gogo outside the pressurized entrance. There was a standard four-person vehicle parked outside, with two guards, I assumed keeping an eye on the car. I gave them a nod and they both returned it. It was odd to get respect from such huge soldiers. I went through the hatch and out onto the beach. The skylight was open and the soft Varan sunlight filtered in.

Sunshine was on the beach in a fluorescent pink bikini. She was laying in the sand with a small pile of clothes next to her and a clear plastic box containing the rusty whale sized neural transmitter.

I walked up to her. “Hi, I’m Ferris Bueller.”

She squinted up at me and laughed. “That was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid back home. We don’t really tan well, but I love laying in the sun. Charlie asked that I deliver this to you personally and he insisted I bring a couple of goons with me. I made them wait with the car.”

I picked up the transmitter. On close examination, I noticed that Charlie had rebuilt it. He kept the outer shell and the send/receive node made of the rusty metal. The rest of the interior was made of traditional materials. He also coated the entire device in a clear coating of plastic.

The sound of a whale surfacing and spouting into the air made me look up. It was Jonas.

“Well, I got to get to work, enjoy the beach.”

“Sure thing brother.” Sunshine leaned her head back down and closed her eyes.

The sun did feel good. I kicked off my boots and jacket and went in. I swam out to Jonas. We talked via transmitter while I worked.

“I think it would be best if you remove my normal transmitter completely and replace it with this new one. Charlie assures me it will function perfectly and in the event that the Vedma kill all of you and come after the Banga, I should be able to maintain a certain degree of control over the ship. Charlie’s working on a plan to shield a section of the main computer with sheets of the rusty metal Mox had on his ship. It would be a kind of computer safe room and could override navigational and engine control for the ship as well as life support for the passengers. It’s minimal, but at least we wouldn’t lose everything.”

“That’s a great idea. They took out a ship half the size of the Banga with no problem. I think it is safe to assume they could do the same to us.”

“On this mission, the priority is you get the whale and bring him back alive. I want you to stay focused on this goal. As soon as you get the whale off the ship you head back here. Don’t wait for anyone. It’s going to be a small team with all the usual players. You, X, Death, Werner and Forklift, Mox and his crew. Don’t take your droids. I’d send a bunch of troopers with you, but every indication says they wouldn’t do very much good. We have no idea what is going to happen onboard. Mox will head up the mission, so follow his lead. You can trust him, I’ve known him my whole life. He seems to think this will go off without a hitch, but I’m not entirely sure. And watch out for those giant wolves.”

I powered on the new unit and attached it to Jonas. I swam out a bit and looked at his eye.

“Don’t worry, Vronsky is piloting the ship, not that we are going anywhere right now. It’s safe to remove my transmitter.”

Jonas knew what I was thinking without me saying anything. I swam back to his side, removed his normal unit and replaced it with the new rust coated transmitter. Connected it and sent him a test transmission.

“Testing. Are you receiving my signal?”

“Loud and clear. I have complete access to all ships functions. I’m retaking navigational control. Sensor array transmission connected and functioning properly. All safety parameters met. It looks like these transmitters work. As soon as you have yours implanted contact me.”

“I will.” I pushed off his side and swam toward the shore.

“Thank you.”

Jonas rolled and moved away from the beach, submerged, and breached with a tremendous splash. Then he swam off into the depths of the ship.

I made my way back to shore and handed off the old transmitter to Sunshine, who would return it to Charlie’s workshop. She tossed it to her side, she clearly planned on enjoying the beach a little longer.

“You take it easy, Bueller.”

When I arrived at the central science lab Dixon was talking with a synthetic female with four arms. The four armed woman turned to me and had the single pupil pale blue eyes of Veronica. They both smiled at me when I walked up to them.

“Veronica?”

“This is my surgical unit.”

She was identical to her other self, but with no hair and the extra arms. The hands on her second set of arms had seven fingers on each with two sets of thumbs.

Dixon took both my hands in her’s and squeezed them with a purr. I swear she is part cat.

“Did you get rid of those whale killing Inuit?”

“Yes, they stayed behind on Varanidi. I got a ship, a Varan diamond scout ship. I guess I’ll have to think of a name for her.”

The four-armed Veronica led us back into a sterile room. We passed through a decontamination glass closet where we were cleared to enter. Four tables in a kind of cross formation with a two-meter space in the middle filled the center of the room. On one of the tables was Veronica’s normal marionette self.

“There has been a lot of discussion on whom is going to receive the fourth rust unit and I have decided it’s going to be me. The trick is I’ll have to bring my actual body along on the trip. The Save the Whales crew is working on retrofitting a small tank in the cargo hold of the Brick. In case something goes wrong with the cargo ship, we can put the baby whale in the tank with me for the return trip. It’s a small space and will be tight, but it will work, and I should be close enough to control my synthetic, assuming there is no additional interference. Other than the Vedma beam of course, which shouldn’t infect the transmitters.”

Dixon went to the corner where she was working on coating the three remaining transmitters. Veronica lead me over to the table and took back a plastic cover that revealed the inner workings of her other bodies head. It was crayon green in color, though somewhat resembled a human brain. There was also a good deal of electrical circuitry that connected the transmitter directly to the brain. It was fascinating.

“I need to download a medical degree or something.”

Dixon looked up from her table. “Why don’t you?”

I hadn’t even thought about doing anything like that. I accessed the ship’s computer and pulled down extensive medical records for artificial life forms. Zang, with a flash I had the knowledge of the biological and mechanical makeup of the last ten generations of our synthetic life forms. I understood how the brain was based on a cloning technique used in brain replacement surgeries. It was basically a raw storage device waiting to be filled. The electronic elements stimulated accelerated neural pathway creation. When we learned things our minds physically changed. Just like humans. There was also a micro-fiber element that integrated with our mechanical elements. We were mostly biologic, with re-inforced spinal columns, brains, and autonomic nervous systems. Our musculature was based on a primitive humanoid species that rose to the top of the food chain on what could be called a super-Earth. A planet where physicality is god and might makes right. We get our agility and strength from a race of primitive giants. I understood the surgical procedure for adapting a living brain with a neural transmitter. It was how we expanded our minds and interfaced with the ship’s computers.

I must have been staring into space for some time trying to digest all this new medical knowledge.

“Hands, don’t fry your brain, take it slow on the uploads. It’s good to let them sink in a little. I’d like to start you and Uzi at the same time. I didn’t have any complications with my other self. And Jonas says, his new transmitter is working fine. I’ll do Mox last, he is slightly more complicated, but luckily I put in his last transmitter so all the hardware is in place. Hopefully, there will be no issue. Why don’t you lay down on the table and let all your recent downloads and adventure sink in.”

I got up on the table and relaxed. Veronica hooked me up to a few monitoring wires and gave me an injection.

“Try not to mess up my hair.” I smiled at her.

The last thing I remembered was the bald-headed Veronica standing over me. Everything went completely black. Dreamless.

I opened my eyes. One thing is the same in all worlds and that is the strangeness of waking up after surgery. I stretched. I yawned. My vision came into focus. I felt my head. I didn’t notice any difference. I ran my fingers through my hair. I felt a very faint small line that was somewhat tender. I looked up at a ceiling with lights. For a moment I thought it could have all just been a dream.

Then I looked to my left and saw an unconscious lizard man on the table across from me.

“How do you feel? Can you connect with the ship’s computer? Can you hear me?”

It was Dixon. I looked around the room. The four-armed Veronica was gone and had been replaced by the two armed one. She was doing something over Mox. Dixon walked into the room and this time spoke using her mouth.

“How do you feel?”

I sat up on the table. “A little blurry. It’s coming back though. I could hear you through the transmitter.”

I thought about connecting to the computer. I got full access. I tapped into the external sensor array. We were still in orbit outside the Varan system.

“I have full access.”

I established contact with ship-wide communications. “Hands to Jonas. Operation a success. Everything appears to be functioning normally.”

He replied that I should take it easy for the rest of the day, but if I was up to it, to attempt piloting a vehicle using the new transmitter.

Dixon handed me one of her smoothies. “Drink this, it will get your strength back.”

I took a sip. It was good. Sorta like bananas.

“Banana?”

She smiled. “It’s kind of a star fruit shaped banana. Space banana if you will. Funny how tastes come along with memory isn’t it. I’m still into eating really good things when I do eat.”

She walked over to Uzi who was also waking up. They didn’t speak, with their voices anyway. She walked out of the room. Uzi sat up and looked around. He opened his eyes. He looked exactly the same. I wondered why they didn’t fix his scare or why they didn’t replace his robotic red eye. I understood we had the medical know how to do so. I guess he liked looking intimidating. He really did look like the bad guy from the movies. Over the transmitter, he connected to me.

“Do I look as bad as I feel?”

I transmitted a message back. “Worse.”

He laughed out loud and coughed. “It looks like these new transmitters are a success, doctor.”

Veronica patted Uzi on the shoulder. “Yes, mine is functioning perfectly. I may have made a mistake putting it in my two armed self. I had forgotten how nice it is to have the extra pair. Whale’s arm envy I suppose.”

The lizardman croaked and then was motionless. We all looked at each other for a moment.

“The Varan never really go unconscious. I drugged the hell out of him, but he still drifts in and out. His head must be pounding.”

Veronica went over and injected Mox with a painkiller. The foggy feeling was starting to lift. The drink did really help. Dixon returned to the room and handed one to Uzi. He tried to refuse it, but she wasn’t having any of that.

“It helps. It really does help.”

I slung my legs over the side of the table and sat up completely. Uzi sat up, nursing his smoothy. I slugged down the last of mine. It did hit the spot.

“The tenderness and any pain you have should be gone by tomorrow. These bodies recover very quickly.”

I stood up and stretched. “I think I’ll go for a swim.”

Uzi looked at me when I spoke and the sneer on his lips curled into a smile. “I’ll join you.”

He leaned forward, stabilized himself a bit, stood up off the table and nearly fell over in the process. He walked over next to Veronica and myself and looked down at Mox, who was breathing very slowly.

“These Varan are amazing creatures. I used to have a pet lizard when I was a kid. We were some of the first people to live in the desert after World War II ended. I guess all that doesn’t matter much though. But it sure seemed real. And it sure seems like a bunch of madness now. To think how evolved the Varan are. How far they have traveled. Their immense knowledge of the galaxy. You know when I died and left the simulation one of my last memories was of a gecko climbing a wall. Maybe I was reflecting back on childhood or maybe it was a tell of the life to come.”

He paused. It was the first time I had heard him converse like a regular person. It was short lived.

“How long will Mox’s recovery time be?” Uzi had recovered his sensibilities.

“I shouldn’t think more than twenty-four hours. The Varan are also very hardy creatures. I think he could get up and go right now if he wanted to. He requested I give him three doses of this serum he brought with him. It’s an extract from a jungle tree sap on the Varan homeworld. It seems more like a narcotic than a sedative. He’s probably high as a kite.”

Uzi walked to the door and entered to the decontamination anti-room. “You coming?”

I set my glass down on the table. “Thanks, Veronica, see ya later.”

I ran over to Uzi. The glass doors sealed us in for a moment then cleared us for exit. Dixon was on the other side. She handed Uzi his trench coat. He put it on. She was giving him a very serious look.

“You don’t have to worry about anyone. They’re all very tough people and they’ll all return from the mission.”

She seemed to believe him and be somewhat comforted by his statements.

“Yes, yes, of course. Thank you.” She ran her hand across my chest and down my side. Smiled. Purred at me. Squeezed my hand and went back into the surgery room.

“What do you think about that?” I asked.

Uzi looked at me. “I don’t know what you are waiting for, she couldn’t be more obvious.”

We walked through the science lab and out to the hallway. Two guards were waiting there with Uzi’s armored transport.

“He’s coming with us, grab his bike.”

One of the guards lifted my gogo up with one hand and put it on the back of the tank. We all climbed in. Inside it had a mini control room with direct access to most of the ship’s operating systems.

“Mobile command.” Uzi motioned that I take a seat next to him. “To the moonlight beach ocean entry point.”

“Aye-aye sir.” Gruffed the driver.

The tank leapt into motion and cruised through the ship with speed and purpose. We rode on in silence for some time. Then Uzi gave me another of his mission briefings.

“Assuming Mox is ready to go tomorrow, we are heading to Vedma ship. Slight change of caste, but basically the same plan. Three ships; the Brick, a whale transport and you in the Sunshine diamond scout. Blunt will be Piloting the Brick with Veronica and Dixon in the hold. In the whale transport ship will be Mox, his rust sentinel robot, X, Dr. Death, Werner and Forklift inside rust armor combat suits. Keep a fucking eye on them. Mox is taking the last Monster Polar Bear, he thinks it will intimidate them. You know, bring something bigger than the wolves I guess. You and that other rust robot Styx will fly in the diamond scout. You’re going to have to board the Magus and who knows what will be waiting for you. You may have to blast your way out.

“The Brick will stay outside as the only ace we have. Chances are we will lose the diamond scout, but it might sweeten the deal enough for them to trade with you, no strings attached. Don’t offer it up though. Let them ask for it. The 100 Year Lifespan system is what they want and they’re going to get it.”

He seemed to be weighing the options, contemplating possibilities. I waited for him to continue.

“This is going to be a real crapshoot. We’ll arm you all with Mox’s rust weapons, but there is no way you could take on thousands of those Therion wolf shock troopers. And who knows what these three witches have up their sleeves. You’ll go in as Mox’s crew, follow his lead.

“No contact with the Banga, no matter what. It’s radio silence until you get back inside our hangar. You’ll dress down and have nothing that will link you back to the Banga. We’ll smash up the outside of the transport ship so it looks old and crappy. On the way back, transfer the whale and everyone else onto the Brick. Ditch the transport ship outside the shipping lanes. The Banga will resume course after you leave and you can catch up to us in the Brick.

“I don’t want them following you back here. Double crossing these Vedma isn’t the best idea. If we could take the whale by force I’d be all for it. Get the whale, get out, and come back here unseen. That is the mission.”

He paused as he does.

“It seems the Varan have an alternative motive. This is their big chance to get inside the Vedma ship. They want to know what’s happening there. They’re in this for a recon mission. I think the whale is secondary to for them. But for us, it’s the priority.”

I spoke. “You do realize I’ve never done anything like this before and I have absolutely no military training. Other than the stuff I’ve downloaded. But I am game. I feel like I should go. Like I’m meant to go.”

Uzi squinted at me in a real Clint Eastwood fashion. His mechanical eye focused faster than his other eye. He snarled his lip.

I have to admit my last statement was true. It concerned Uzi to no end at the time and after I said it aloud I realized how bad it sounded. If just watching a video of the Vedma was enough to draw me to them, what would happen when I met them? I had a deep feeling that my destiny lay ahead of us on the ship following the comet. This is exactly what people who followed the cult felt like and when they went aboard they never came back. I felt massively compelled to go, even if it was to my doom. I wanted the mission.

“Look, Hands, the reason you’re going is that you have a unique ability to navigate surreal experiences. And this mission is sizing up to be just that. You’ll be able to bring the others through in the event they get lost. Also, you might be clueless enough about women to avoid their snares. They’re sirens you know. Succubi. Try to make it back alive. Just stick with Mox, if he’s one thing, he is a survivor.”

We pulled up to the hatch, left our escort to mind the tank, went through the airlock and walked out onto the beach.

“Sunshine you light up an old man’s heart. Come swimming with me and make sure I don’t drown.”

She was faux asleep on the beach and woke up with a start when Uzi called to her.

“Sure thing pops, let’s go surfing.”

Uzi through off his coat and stripped out of his clothes and ran down the beach with Sunshine and went splashing into the water. I did the same and followed. It was a sunny beautiful afternoon that never ended, under a Varan sun that would never set, given our position on the edge of the system. We swam for hours. I floated on my back looking out into space through the retracted ceiling.

I once swam in a rooftop hotel pool in Tokyo, which at the time was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. Swimming with that endless skyline was a very happy memory for me. I formed a whole new idea of happiness floating and looking out on an entire solar system. What a truly human experience. Or maybe it’s better put, what a truly amazing experience it is to be alive. What a view. There was so much to see out in the galaxy.

At one point a pod of whales swam by not far from us and we all dove under to watch them swim. With our enhanced bodies we were all natural deep divers and we swam out toward the pod. The light shone through the water in wavy beams. Five females and two young turned and wiggled through the sunlight.

Why don’t we download Jacques Cousteau? I felt just like him, fascinated by the underwater world. We swam and interacted with the pod. Sunshine was the first to reach out and touch them. Holding onto their fins and being pulling through the water. We played with the young ones and they darted around us. These huge creatures interacted with us in wonderful, magical ways.

Uzi, the mister tough guy commander, swam under one of the females and putting both his arms up, glided his hands over her entire body from nose to tail as she passed over him. He had a shit eating grin on his face. The old man had a soft side. It made me laugh so much I had to surface for air. I popped out of the silent blue playground, laughing water out of my flat nose.

Sunshine shot out of the water like a dolphin, turned in mid-air, arched her back and mimicked a whale breaching. She sprang again to the surface behind me.

“Was that the cutest thing you’ve ever seen or what?”

The sunlight sparkled in the water and Sunshines wet hair stuck to her face. Her smile was big and her perfectly square teeth glistened like pearls.

“That Uzi, he’s all tough exterior, but he’s got a giant heart of gold, I’ll tell you what.”

She submerged and rocketed out of the water again, doing another backflip, then swam off chasing Uzi and the whales. Her webbed digits certainly gave her an edge in the water. I watched their silhouettes drift away from me in the shimmering water.

It was a real ‘for your eyes only’ moment. Dark naked shapes swimming through the water, like the credits from an old spy movie. Uzi really was James Bond. Everything around me that afternoon was beyond sublime, words fail me. I swam back to the beach alone and lay in the sunlight feeling that it was a perfect day. I fell into a gentle sleep listening to the quiet sound of water on the shoreline.

I woke later to Uzi and Sunshine talking and walking towards me across the sand. They had been walking the length of the beach, which was probably about a kilometer or so. I sat up when they reached where I was laying.

“Hands, we’re going, I’ll leave your Robo-a-gogo outside. I’m going to check in on Mox’s recovery. I’ll notify you when we start prepping for departure. That swim really hit the spot, thanks for the idea.” His mechanical eye with the big white scar going through it gave me what seemed like a forced wink.

He grabbed their gear and walked off with Sunshine towards the pressure hatch.

Sunshine flashed me a webbed peace sign. “Peace brotha.”

I found myself wondering what one does with free time in space. I napped on the beach for a little while longer. It was always one of my life rules to take advantage of lazy sunny days.

When I exited the beach through the airlock Wingus and Dingus were waiting for me. They were singing one of their electronic songs, doing a kind of call and response thing. One singing a line and the other repeating, then switching back and forth on lead. I climbed in my bike suit.

“Load up guys.”

They attached themselves to the back of the gogo and we took off. I headed back to the port hangar. I’d been thinking about Mox’s offer to join the crew of the Brick. I wanted to check out that ship a little more and I knew they were doing some work on her before the mission. As I drove through the ship I was going through some of the Bricks specs in my mind. It was a very interesting fossil of a ship. Its technology was fascinating and seemed to break most of the rules of physics as far as I understood them. The ship itself was almost two thousand years old and it was unclear how long it has been coated in the rust metal. It was a kind of long-distance science vessel initially but had been enhanced and altered extensively. The fact that I was unable to comprehend how it worked fascinated me. Of course, that was an almost daily event in my life. I wanted to master the controls and flight capabilities of the Brick just in case.

I wished I had pulled info about the first mate when I had access to the Brick’s computer. After our experience with the Inuit, I began to feel that Zandar Vandar Blunt was the kind of guy I might get along with. Even though I have to admit he was scary looking to me, at first. I set to the task of memorizing the functionality of the Brick and was still lost in thought when I pulled into the hangar.

The bay was a flurry of activity. Droids were moving everywhere, transferring materials from one place to another. My scout ship was moved to the back and parked at the end of a row of Banga fighters. There were two big blue handprints of abnormal size, one on each side of the nose. It was like a giant blue creature had tried to pick up the ship from the front and left impressions from where it lifted. The Blue Hand? It wasn’t a bad name for a ship.

I parked next to the Brick. Droids were loading missiles into the other diamond scout. I walked over to it and went inside. Charlie was there with a few robots going through the ship’s systems one by one. He was standing on the dashboard of the cockpit with a small interlink device in his hands. I sat down in the main pilot seat.

“Ah, Hands my fine fellow. We are calling this one the Sunshine Scout. These ships are really fantastic. The structural integrity of the material is out of site. The surface is carved in such a way that there isn’t a single imperfection. Any weakness that one would think could be exploited with the fracturing possibilities of such a material has been completely covered. The only way you could crack it would be from the inside and given the size of the interior that would be nearly impossible. I’m really not exactly sure how they formed it. I ran some tests on its integrity and any type of conventional blaster will just reflect off the surface. They will have one seriously challenging time trying to shoot down this craft. Assuming it doesn’t fall under the Vedma’s spell. We’d have a rough time defending ourselves against a ship like this.”

Charlie brought up the ship on a view screen.

“It has one forward cannon and two missile launching tubes, which hold seven rockets each. We are giving you a full payload of diamond cased projectiles, which may or may not be effective against the Vedma. You’ll have to test that out yourself. The best research is always done in the field. I’m hoping for a mission handled with tactful diplomacy, not brute force.”

He put his tiny chubby finger to his nose and breathed in deeply, I assumed waiting to see if I had any reaction.

“It doesn’t feel like a diplomatic mission to me. It’s all missiles, assault rifles, and cloak and dagger double cross plans as far as I can tell.”

Little Charlie scratched his head and stared into his interface device. Then he looked up at me with a rather serious expression on his round face.

“Well, you aren’t going to like what I tell you next. I’m installing a self-destruct unit. It will be a small internal explosion, tapping into the ships one weakness. It should literally crack the ship in half from within. I sincerely hope you won’t need to use it. This is such a fine vessel. Its craftsmanship is unmatched. She was made to last.”

He was a sentimental little guy when it came to great machinery, a true artist.

“Anyway, the device itself needs to be something that the Vedma can’t control so I’m implanting it inside the left arm of the robot Styx. He will have to jam his hand into the section under the dash here and detach his arm. The self-destruct won’t cause any real damage but should cleave the diamond rendering the ship useless. He can set a timer to whatever is best at the moment. I’m going to have him consult with you before he does this. Unless of course, you are not able to be consulted with, then he will turn to Mox or Lieutenant X. In the event that you are all unable to make the call, he will make the best decision he can given the situation. I would advise you to keep him on board this ship at all times, no matter what might go on with your transaction with the Vedma.” Charlie walked to the edge of the dash. “Hands, I think you are a rational being and I’m counting on you to keep your head during this mission. There are certainly a lot of unknown variables.”

I stood up and walked a few steps toward the door. I turned around and tried to reassure him.

“I’ll do my best. I have a good feeling about this mission. We’ll get that whale back. It’s all going to work out.”

I think he believed me. I believed it. I exited the scout ship back into the hangar bay.

“Klamstrogintav, Glimdortu.”

Styx walked past me giving me a kind of familiar gesture. He boarded the scout ship. He had a secondary arm unit attached to his back. It was a shoebox size rectangular unit with a primitive looking three-pronged claw. I thought about the rusty stuff in my head, but I couldn’t feel it. I followed him back into the Sunshine Scout.

“Charlie, how intelligent is Styx?”

“Gallakstinz Biddledistan. Any Situation. Blordsst. Adaptive.”

Styx had a way of looking straight through you with his glowing red rectangular eye. I really couldn’t tell if he was even alive or functioning or whatever he was. He just looked like a fucked up rusty mannequin with no face. He had no expressions and spoke primarily in his crazy language.

“Hands, Styx here has a processing ability equal to yours. He seems to have a limited communication ability, but he understands completely, follows instructions to a T, can pilot ships, interact with computer systems, and even work completely independently. He is holistically bound to Mox and his intentions and those of his crew and allies. I feel he is 100% dependable.”

“Klagstrom. Affirmative.”

I had to take their word for it. “Ok, sorry I doubted you Styx. It’s a new universe to me and I’m still learning.”

He answered me in choppy English. “Of Course. Hands. Understood. Bleekstromo Tarzfli.”

Well, almost English, it was like he had an electronic version of Tourette Syndrome. I left them to finish their work on the self-destructing robot arm project and headed out across the hangar.

The Brick’s door was open and I walked inside. I had to pause in the airlock, while the outside door closed and then the inner opened long enough for me to walk inside.

“Don’t let any of the monkeys get out!”

I stepped in quickly and the inner door closed behind me. Werner was there at the cargo bay entrance.

“A couple got out before and we had a hell of a time catching them and getting them back in here. Those suckers bite too.” He held up his arm, which had four sets of puncture wounds where a Lutung had bitten him.

“Wow, does that hurt?”

“Not really.” He rubbed his forearm. “I just poured some sealant in the holes. I’ll probably have to have it looked at eventually. Come check out the tank systems we’ve been setting up.”

Half the floor of the cargo hold was taken up with a very large steel framed tank with glass walls. Next to it was a smaller version with only two glass walls. It had a top and bottom and a built-in hover system. It floated a few centimeters off the floor. Forklift was sealing the back corner of the large tank with a laser welding device. In between blasts he gave me a nod, which I returned. When he fired off the laser again all the monkeys went wild in the trees above us.

I thought about the remaining space in this three-story cargo hold. There was maybe room for a small craft, but with all the whale tanks on the floor, I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to park the scout ship for the return trip. Luckily, Werner had thought of everything.

“So, the big tank will hold Veronica, she won’t have much room to move around, but it is only temporary. She will be able to access the Brick’s communication system from here and control her avatar. The smaller tank is obviously for the baby whale we are going to pick up. It will also be small for him. But get this, we built it to hover, pressurize, and handle exposure to space. We built it like a small transport ship. If worse comes to worse, we could drive back to the Banga riding on top of this bad boy.”

Werner was real proud of his creation.

“Ok maybe not back to the Banga, but we could take it into space. We may have to jump from one ship to another. Of course, we’ll have the only two safe Robo-com suits. Death is totally pissed. He is too big to fit inside them. They are geared for smaller beings. Anyway, we took this baby out into space wearing the two rust Robo-com suits, which, while maybe indestructible, still have a bit of a… I’ll just say musky odor on the inside. It takes some getting used to.”

Forklift stopped laser welding.

“You’re telling me, those suits give me the willies. It’s no picnic being stuck inside them either. Smells like a three-day-old burrito made out of lizard feet.”

The laser resumed, the monkeys panicked, and Werner continued.

“Right so, our test was a total success. We even fired a few blasters at it. It’s strong, it can take a hit. It won’t leak. The little guy will be safe once we get him in. We’ll be ditching the transport ship on the way back anyway. We can’t have any trails back to the Banga. You know this is the first military type mission we’ve actually gone on. We’ve been practicing picking up whales wearing the Robo-com suites as well. They don’t like it but if there isn’t another option we can pick him up and put him in the tank using the suit’s strength. I think it’s going to be a successful mission.”

The laser stopped again. “Me too!” The laser welder resumed, the monkeys spazzed.

“I’m glad you guys have such a positive outlook. I do too. I really want to go aboard that ship. The Vedma are fascinating. Where are they going to put that monster polar bear?”

“Oh, Blunt rode it over to the transport ship. We fashioned a two-part cargo container in the back for the whale tank and the polar bear. That thing is vicious, yet it acts like a kitten when the Varan are around. They have some ability to talk with animals. Maybe it’s that they’re animals?”

I wondered. “Aren’t we animals? Of a sort I guess?”

Werner thought about this for a bit.

“Well, that might be, but we were manufactured, part Jonas program, part Veronica cloning project, part gnome ingenuity. We are a culmination of centuries of research and innovation. Our bodies are anyway.”

He was right, we were.

The outer door closed, all the monkeys vanished from sight and went silent. The inner door opened and Blunt walked in.

“Rodolfo is all secure and I fed him a monkey, I think after that we’ll let him get hungry for wolf blood.”

He turned to me and switched to Varan: “Greetings, Hands, it’s going to be you and me piloting and keeping these guys alive when we head off tomorrow.”

“I’ll be right there with you.” I told him in Varan.

He switched back to English: “Tim has Veronica loaded in a transport truck. They should be here in a few hours. Will you be ready?”

The welding stopped a final time. “Don’t wait on me, we’ll be ready for her.” Forklift immediately returned to his task.

Werner echoed his sentiment. “Don’t worry Blunt, we’ll get it all sorted. We’ve done this a few times before. We’re the experts.”

“Ok.”

Blunt switched back to Varan: “Keep an eye on these guys.”

He laughed. I laughed. Werner laughed. Forklift chuckled behind his welding. Even the monkey seemed to catch the infectiousness of a Varan laugh. They came into view again in the fruit trees of the Brick’s cargo bay. Blunt walked off through the main doorway and into the other half of the ship, his thick black tail dragging behind him, not entirely unlike a man in a Godzilla suit. The door closed. Maybe this wasn’t the right time for me to bond with him. I decided I would leave too.

“I’ll see you guys later.”

“Hey, Ok.”

“Later man.”

I headed out through the airlock into the hangar bay again. Wingus and Dingus were there outside the Brick when the outer door opened. They simultaneously chimed their incoming message song to me. One of their electric eyes changed to a video projection of Dr. Death.

“Hands, meet me in the port armory locker. We need to gear you up for this mission.”

“On my way.”

He ended the communication. Short talker that guy. I lead my two droids back to my gogo bike and we headed off to the armory. It wasn’t far. The armory entrance was similar to the bridge entrance, two big guards, and a big door. It was open so I just drove straight in. The guards didn’t even flinch. I guessed they knew I was coming. I climbed out and left my Robo-a-gogo inside the main door. There were two rows of Zero-G commandos lining the walls. They all stood inside square open faced closets, stacked two high. There were a hundred hulks at the ready in this room, all seemingly asleep in a state of suspended animation. These were the bigger sized artificial beings, the grunt troopers. They all had a basic combat profile loaded into their minds. Physically they were created like me, but they had a much simpler brain functioning. Not that they were unintelligent. They’re similar to robots as they have an artificial intelligence, though a far more sophisticated one than my simple attendant droids. They’re designed to follow orders and perform combat duties. Maximum efficiency in battle and policing operations was their game. They were not the free thinkers that I and the others who came out of the simulation were.

They reminded me of the great terracotta warriors of ancient China.

Once I passed the hall of sleeping troops the armory opened up into a multi-level open space. Troop transport vehicles and tanks lined the sides and the back wall was covered in weapons. It’s like the armor section of the Metropolitan Museum, but futuristic. The bottom wall was one continuous gun rack. More exotic weapons hung above them. On the second level walkway that ringed the room sat empty Robo-combat suits. It was like exploring the tomb of a sleeping space army. In the center of that big room was Dr. Death and two pilot commandos. They were both completely black from head to toe. There clothing and skin. They both had dull green triple pupil eyes similar to my own, it was their only color.

Death was wearing camo body armor, arm and leg plates, shoulder pads, and plates on his chest and back. He looked like a camouflaged knight. There was a helmet on the floor that looked like it belonged to a samurai, though space gray camo in color. They had a selection of weapons laid across a series of open crates behind them.

“This is Lee and Harvey. Both former US Special Forces, just like me. Snipers. They are my elite hit squad.”

The two men in black said “Hey.” “Hey.” and I returned the sentiment.

“You are both from the simulation? What do you do one board?”

Harvey fielded this one. “We train.”

Ok, so these guys were all military, all the way. Dr. Death picked up a rusty looking machine gun.

“This is a rust-blade assault rifle. According to Mox’s intelligence report, all our blaster rifles will be rendered useless against the Vedma. They have a way of knocking us back to the stone age with that light virus of theirs. But these babies should work just fine. Here is the catch though, we only have fifty of these to potentially fight off thousands of Mega Therion shock troops. We have three handheld rust turbo cannons. Two are for Uzi’s personal guards and I have one.”

He glanced to the weapon on the ground next to his helmet. It looked like an oversized rusty leaf blower that someone had left out in the yard during the apocalypse. It was a square box with a long cylinder extending out of it, which I assumed was the barrel. It was a meter long and looked way too heavy for anyone who wasn’t Dr. Death’s size. It was hard to believe it was functioning.

The rust-blade assault rifles had a similar, found stuck to the side of the Titanic after being on the bottom of the ocean for a thousand years look.

“We’ve been allotted only five rifles for this mission. The rest of them will be distributed about the ship at key locations, just in case. Lee, Harvey, Werner, Forklift, are all getting one and this one is for you.”

He handed me the weapon. It was much lighter than I thought it would be and the grips were very smooth and comfortable. The nose of the barrel was jagged, spiky, and sharp.

“You have 10,000 pulse blasts and then you’ll have to beat people with it. Whatever you do, don’t lose this gun. Even if it is empty from shooting, you bring it back. Here is an additional power pack.”

I couldn’t imagine needing to shoot more than 20,000 times. I assumed my arms would fall off first. At least the additional power pack was also rather small and light and even came with a handy strap. I noticed both Lee and Harvey had packs strapped to their thighs. I attached the amo back up pack to my left leg and easily held my new rifle with one hand.

“Let’s see if you can shoot.” Death indicated a space at the end of the armory where one vehicle was missing. There were three attendant droid casings stacked in a pyramid. “Try to knock the top one off.”

I held up the rifle and focused my attention on the center of the top droid target. I thought ‘fire’ and the gun fired without me pulling the trigger. The laser pulse hit the target dead center. Then I raised the rifle up to eye level and pulled the trigger this time. I hit the center casing and knocked the stack of dorid casings over completely.

“I think I’m better when I focus.”

Lee and Harvey seemed rather impressed. “He’s a natural.”

Really, we all were. With our enhanced vision and hand-eye coordination, we had abilities to master many different challenges with relative ease, things that would be impossible for a human to master without a lifetime of practice.

I tried to access the files on Lee and Harvey, half expecting some direct connection to Oswald. They had a creepy vibe to go with their shadowy appearance. They both had an air of coldness and cruelty to them. They hardly spoke nor moved. They just stood there like ghosts. They had both killed as a way of life in the simulation. Their Echo-1 files were limited, but they both seemed to have been orphans recruited out of tough youth homes into CIA special training units. They had seriously demented checkered pasts full of abuse and criminal records. They were natural born killers. I had no intention of killing anyone. But these two, I think it was all they thought about. It turned out Death had requested two soldiers with killer instincts that could work directly for him. He had already been through ten sets of synthetic soldiers and he insisted that ones with human personalities like his own would be much hardier replacements. These two were seriously sinister and frankly, scary looking dudes. They would shoot their own mother in the back for fun. The synthetic versions of pure evil.

“Do you want any armor?”

Death snapped me out of it. I thought about that for a minute. I had seen the videos of what those giant wolves were capable of. The armor would probably make me a more fun chew toy.

“I think I’ll be ok. I’ll keep this weapon with me, though. I’ll see you when we are ready to launch.”

I walked over to my gogo, stowed my rifle, climbed in and got the hell away from those guys. I drove out of the armory and left those three to whatever it is people who live by the sword liked to do.

I was driving around the ship. I was ready as I could be. I was waiting for the call that would put this plan into action. I stopped at the central science lab. When I entered there were only robots around, then I saw them moving around in one of the sterile rooms. I passed through the clean room airlock. Dixon and the four-armed Veronica both in their white lab scientist outfits were working away. The room had five rows of incubators in it. Each had some kind of heating system to it. Rows of little clear plastic cases, but there didn’t seem to be anything inside.

“So what are you too up to now?”

They both kept working for the moment. Dixon replied first.

“We are setting the initial forty mammoth clones. We are also making five polar bear couples. It’s a regular pre-historic Earth factory in here.”

Veronica singled that I should grab a seat in the corner for a while. I sat down and watched them work. This little science lab was just what I needed. I sat cross-legged in one of the chairs in the corner and closed my eyes. It was nearly silent. I could hear their footsteps and movements, the clink of vials, the closing of boxes, adjustment of instruments. I listened and imagined the dance of creation in the room. I could even hear them breathing.

I found myself practicing old breath techniques I had learned from monks during the travels of my previous life. The monks claimed they were universal techniques. They seemed to calm this new body as well as my old one. They still gave a focus and a clarity to my thoughts. A good deal of time passed and I felt Dixon’s hand touch mine. I hadn’t heard her coming. My mind was lost in a daydream. Even with this new super brain, meditation was a challenge. It was still a task to keep the mind skillfully focused. I opened my eyes and smiled at her.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to disturb you, you just looked so peaceful. It’s been nice working with you in the room.” She said.

“That’s ok, how’s it going?”

“We have completed all the initial sample planting. Meiosis has successfully occurred in every instance. It will be like going back in time. We will have full blown wooly mammoths! Can you imagine? This is like a biologist’s dream come true. And polar bears, not like the fierce monstrous ones before, but real Earth polar bears. We’re bringing extinct species back to life.” She was a giddy schoolgirl.

“Unlike the legend of god making the world in seven days, I’m going to make mine in 70 years. I think all this is going to my head. The technology is amazing and Veronica is a genius. I’ve learned more working with her than I could have ever imagined. It’s mind-boggling. I feel like a grad student doing my first real research again.” She leaned forward hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. “This truly is the time for scientists.”

I couldn’t have agreed more with her, but I had to add, “and explorers.”

This new life was a marvelous adventure. I walked through the lab with Dixon and Veronica. They showed me the forming cells that would one day soon be a small parade of prehistoric pachyderms.

Veronica tipped us off that the call would be coming soon. Her avatar froze in place for a moment. Then shook all over, her four arms flailing out to the sides. Then she stood still again for a long moment. Her eyes were closed. A minute later she opened them and seemed perfectly normal.

“They just dropped me in the tank. It was a bit of a shock and much smaller than I thought it would be. Hands, I’d like to take this body with me as well. In case someone gets hurt. I can keep her aboard the Brick. We’re all done here, why don’t you take me down to the Brick.”

I wasn’t sure we could both fit in the Robo-a-gogo. It really was a one person thing.

“I’ll drive you, I am heading back to the frozen sea and I can drop you on the way.” Dixon said.

We left the lab together. Veronica and Dixon boarded a four-person hover vehicle and I took my gogo bike. I was much faster, but I took the trip at a leisurely pace, following along behind them. About halfway to the hangar, I got the call.

“Incoming communication from the captain.”

The small holographic Jonas swam around above my head.

“Please report to the main port side hangar, all the team will rendezvous there before departing. Are you ready for this mission?”

“I’m totally ready. I have a sense that it will be a success.”

“Well, don’t lose your head over there. Literally. Follow Mox’s lead, he’ll get you all through. He plans to let you work independently from the others, so follow your gut. Veronica would normally oversee this venture, but since the Vedma are expecting to deal with Mox, we’ll change things up. The command structure will be Mox, his first mate Zandar Vandar, then Veronica, Cindy, and Dr. Death. You may be the bottom rung, but your role will be somewhat autonomous. You’ll be in your own ship with the rust robot. Stick with the transport ship. The Brick can take care of herself. Any questions?”

I thought for a moment. I probably had a million. I decided that the best move was to jump in.

“No, I’m ready. On my way now. Hands out.” It was the first time I referred to myself with my new name. The holographic whale flickered and faded away.

“Good luck.”

When we hit the hangar I parked my bike at the back of the hangar. Wingus and Dingus instinctively started to follow me.

“You guys are staying here. I’ll be back in two days.”

They both beeped at me and sang me an electronic bon voyage. Dixon had just dropped the four-armed Veronica off at the Brick. Then she stopped next to me on her way out.

“Be careful out there. I don’t like the sound of these Vedma at all.”

She stepped out of the car and gave me a hug. I held on to her for a good long time. She was a very physical person and I liked it very much. Our embrace ended and she smiled at me. Then she got back in her vehicle and blowing me a kiss sped out of the hangar. I watched her drive out of site. I walked over to the ships; the Brick, the Sunshine scout, and the transport ship. The transport ship was all covered in dents and scratches and rust spots and didn’t look anything like a Banga transport anymore. Werner and Forklift had suited up in the rust Robo-combat suits and beaten up the outside of it t to make it look more like an old clunker. They did a convincing job. The sparkling diamond scout ship sitting between them looked seriously out of place.

I could hear loud smashing and scraping sounds coming out of the transport ship. Werner and Forklift emerged from the transports main cargo hatch. They had smashed up the interior as well. They looked like big rusty robots themselves in their rust armor suits. They walked over to the Brick and went inside. Two minutes later they came out with the portable whale tank and moved it onto the transport ship. Styx and the two-armed Veronica came out of the Brick with them.

“Preflight. Klastrom. Vendie.”

“Um, yes, be my guest.”

Styx boarded the Sunshine scout. I turned to Veronica.

“I can’t decide if I like you better with two arms or four. Maybe four. It could be the hair seems out of place with this body.”

She laughed at me. She was wearing dark brown leather pants, boots and a zip up the front matching brown leather jacket.

“It gets confusing to me. After using the four-armed version all day, I feel somewhat limited in this one. I do like the hair though.” She tossed her long mane of black hair around, then tossed me a bundle of clothing very similar to her own.

“Change into these and leave your regular clothing behind. We need to look like Mox’s crew. I took the clothes and walked back to my robo bike. I changed into the leather outfit. There were boots in the center of the bundle. They looked very much like cowboy boots. I pulled them on and then, reaching into my other boot, I pulled out the bone knife the Inuit had given me. I gripped it for a moment, admiring the skill of its simple construction. I slid it into the side of my new right boot and zipped up my jacket. It was kind of dirty and smelled a bit like monkey. I grabbed my assault rifle which I had possibly purposefully forgotten before. I walked back over to Veronica who was standing just outside the transport ship.

“Where is everyone else?”

And as if I asked on queue, the Brick doors opened up and out came Mox, Blunt, X, and the rust Sentinel droid. The droid’s central eye full of red electric lightning looked more menacing than ever. It was holding two giant battle axes, one in each of its huge claw hands. He was like the most dangerous kid’s toy you’ve ever seen. If your kid was a giant. Mox was sporting his leather vest again. He had added a thick leather belt with a rusty looking sidearm that could have been an old navy six-shooter from the civil war and on his left side a kind of rusty looking rapier. Space lizard pirate? Blunt was in his usually pants only get up, with his new bear tooth necklace prominently displayed on his red and black scaled chest. I reached up to my chest and felt that my whale amulet was under my jacket. Blunt gave me a nod. Did he believe in the power of an Inuit talisman?

X was of course completely naked.

“Where the fuck is Death and his hit squad?” She paused silently for a moment. Clearly communicating with Death. “Ok, he’s right outside, so he says. Hands, you look like a regular space pirate. Hardcore. Though I have to say Veronica looks sexier in that outfit. Roaww!”

She threw an arm around Veronica and grabbed her ass. This sent both Mox and Blunt into a fit of Varan laughter that spread to us all. We were still laughing when Dr. Death drove into the hangar.

“Look at this fucking guy!”

X ran over to him and punched him in the stomach. He was a wall of camo with a samurai helmet on. He picked up his rust turbo cannon off the back of the hover car. Lee and Harvey walked silently behind him. Both carrying two rust blade assault rifles. Werner and Forklift came out of the transport hold and were handed a rifle each.

Mox stepped out in front of the group.

“Alright, here’s the deal. Hands, you take the scout with Styx and cover the transport. If those wolves start anything feel free to blast them, let them know we mean business. You’re really the only armed ship. The Brick is mostly a defensive weapon. Of course, we can always crash into their fighters and that will make them back off. You’ll probably lose control of your systems, but hopefully, Styx will be able to fight off the beam. The transport ship is a sitting duck, but we’ll have the simulation system and we should be able to trade with them. We’re going on board and that is for certain. If it’s possible for Lee and Harvey to sneak off to an unnoticed position once on the Magus, then, by all means, try to back us up. We have no idea what to expect, but we will look like a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, they may not see it that way at all.

“Death, you and your troops are going to be isolated, no communication devices will work. Hands, Veronica, and I will be able to communicate with each other and with the Brick and the Sunshine scout. Great name by the way.

“X, you’ll stay inside the rust Robo-a-gogo at all times, which will protect you from pretty much anything and also keep you in the communications loop.

“The Sentinel will have my back. And I don’t want you talking to those witches.”

He paused and gave the robot a mean look.

“Affirmative. Bleeork.”

“Ok then. Werner and Forklift, the weapons can attach to the back of your suits. I’d leave them there unless you need them.”

They both reached back and their guns magnetically grabbed onto their suits.

“You two will follow Veronica’s lead and are on whale management. We have no idea what condition the little guy will be in or what kind of holding tank they have him in. Your mission is to get him sealed in the portable tank. Then stay with him and get him off the ship any way you can. Once he is in the tank, guard him until all of you are on the Brick. Even if it means leaving us behind and taking him into space. You get him off the Vedma ship and onto the Brick. Whatever else may happen that is your task.”

“Lee and Harvey, if the shit hits the fan, just start killing everything that moves. So basically follow Death’s lead.”

All three seemed to have no issue with that idea.

“It might be rather hostile at first so if you two are hiding somewhere don’t reveal yourselves until we really need you. We’re bound to get into a fight, but maybe everything will go smoothly. Let me do all the talking. If for some reason I am down, X will lead the negotiation. If we’re both out, Hands you step in. We want them to test the equipment and then give us the whale.

“Finally, we’ll need to get out of there. It will take as long as it needs to take.”

Mox seemed to think for a second, in case he was forgetting something.

“And I’ll be riding the polar bear so that should keep me at arm’s length from all the Mega Therions. Any questions?”

{ Part 1 ~ Part 24 }

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