THAW: The Ship of Fools. Chapter ZZZ
c 1994, Rory Cargill

         "Hey, you!!", Knetryxx yowled as she hurled a broken commslink helmet across a once glistening flight deck that now resembled a cross between a bombsite and a computer hardware junkshop. A strange mixture of wildly coloured avians and saurians seem to be busy at work. A closer inspection reveals that few are actually doing any real work. Some think they are, others make a big fuss of looking busy. The majority appear to be skiving off chattering in groups dotted around the vast (and I mean hugely vast!) flight deck in and amongst masses of smashed up electronic hardware as if nothing were amiss. Is this a ship of fools?
         Terminals blink randomly and the huge vid screens lend the flight deck the ambiance of a dubious night club dominated by malevolent fruit machines as less than half of the screens work properly, the rest either flash streams of nonsense image data, run through diagnostic routines, are dying or already dead. "Yes, you, you half-feathered brainless freak! You were supposed to get this useless heap o' junk patched up", as the black glassteel ovoid sailed past the back of a semi-avian head hollowly bouncing off a dead comms unit, loose wires flaying in all directions. Slowly, the head turned to face its' assailant. Some other heads also turned in her direction, most turn back, bored. A few remain watching a drama unfold...
         "Ah, stow it, you old lizard." Wootjan-Oooo replied in the bored tone of one who has learned the art of humouring the terminally insane in order to survive. "You're lucky you've got anyone from the Techies Guild on this rustbucket of yours. My group only signed up because you're going to HomeNest."
"HomeNest, GnomeNest," Knetryxx lashed her tail and started changing her colours to dangerous hues, "At the rate your lot screw up we'll not even get within parsecs of it."
         "Go suck an egg," Wootjan-Oooo warmed up.
         "Childkiller!" the Raptor replied in emotional reflex.
         "At least my mother laid real eggs," the pterian was getting into his stride. The repartee continued for some time in this singularly vicious manner until it proved to be too much for Knetryxx who was by now breathing paroxysmically. The colour patterns in her scales had gone totally haywire as if echoing the chaos on the faulty monitor screens overhead. "Shit," he thought, "what would I say if she died? No one would believe me. The Guild wouldn't back me up and her family'd have my feathers for hatpins before you could flutter your feathers at an Apato. Then, continuing in mock nest-guide fashion, "Now, now playtime's over. Let's see if we can apply our morning's lesson in applied systems synergetics with a bit of teamwork... And don't go changing your colours at me like that either," Wootjan-Oooo added, wagging a claw at Knetryxx.
         In the background, a few bored onlookers added their jeers, jibes and catcalls as Knetryxx flashed her claws, bared her fangs, lashed her tail and flicked her reptilian tongue whilst going through the sequence of colour patterns associated more with ritual sacrifice and bloodsport. This only brought her howls of derisive laughter and a harmless shower of electronic junk.
         Knetryxx fumed and hated the way Wootjan-Oooo played her emotions so easily. She put it down to the basic pterian character and remembered the good old days when everyone knew their place and... was about to plunge headlong down familiar emotional paths into the ever familiar abyss of self-pity, when she remembered her mothers' words: Never let insubordinate crew get the last word. You must always be seen to be in command, even if you're wrong. After all, it's your ship and your word is law!
         "Just remember, berry eater, I eat birds!" Knetryxx petulantly hissed back in a bad attempt at evening the score.
         "Hey, c'mon Knetryxx, what makes you think any of us wanna die out here? Vacuum decompression is a hideous way to go and anyway, you'd choke on my bones if ya did ever try to eat me. Look, if you ever want to sell your ship, the Guild has offered to buy it as a museum piece and training ship with a full guarantee to restore it to its' original condition with an honourable mention for your family." Wootjan-Oooo hated doing the sales-pitch, but that was part of the reason he'd signed up for this trip, as well as a chance of promotion in the Guild.
         "Never!" Knetryxx replied with the defiant smugness of the blissfully deluded. "This ship has been in my family's name since the Exodus and will be for generations to come", she replied boldly, beginning to regain some of her lost confidence.
         "Have it your way, but it'll cost you a fortune to put this monster through dry-dock and you'll never earn that much in your lifetime. You can barely afford to keep it operational as it is. The Guilds' offer stands for you to take up at any time. You could buy yourself a smart new Galac Class cruiser or a luxury home on a pleasure dome or whatever you want." Wootjan-Oooo added in his best "I'm being reasonable" tone of voice.
         "This is my home."
         "Yeah, and it'll be your grave, too."
         "It will be and my family will continue here." Knetryxx added defiantly, concealing from Wootjan-Oooo, her employee, the fact that she was currently at severe odds with her family, who were largely in favour of selling the old world ship to which Knetryxx held the title. She had narrowly escaped out of port ahead of a compulsory sale order engineered by her great uncle (who still maintained to this very day that he was the rightful heir to the old world-ship) on the grounds that Knetryxx was no longer financially able to maintain an artifact of great cultural value. Knetryxx had picked up a contract to ship several billion "humans" in cryo-hibernation from HomeNest to a colony planet somewhere or other and was making a run for it. They were prepared to pay well and thought her ship to be more than suitable. Whatever were they used to??? She shuddered at the thought.
         Fortunately, they accepted her lie that the absence of biolife support systems in large sections of the ship was down to the fact that they were merely shut down as they were not needed for cargo sections which were normally kept at hard vacuum. Cargo sections indeed! How many had lived and died in this ship during the exodus? It would not be in vain, Knetryxx told herself.
         Turning to Wootjan-Oooo, she continued, "And when can we start fitting in the new deck?"
         "Not long now. The Cultural Analysis group had to simulate a "Post-Collapse Ambiance" to prepare themselves for their work at HomeNest." Wootjan-Oooo replied.
         "But it would've been easier for them to fill up a couple of the holds with rubbish and leave 'em to party on down there." Knetryxx continued with the air of one who is beginning to doubt whether she'd struck such a good deal with the Techies' Guild. "We could've dumped all that junk in deep space and no one would be any the wiser."
         "Sure, I know that too," Wootjan-Oooo added, "but the Guild felt that even if you never took them up on their offer that was the least they could do to show the sincerity of their offer."
         "What? Smash up my flight deck?"
         "Come off it." Wootjan-Oooo added in the hurt tone of a misunderstood philanthropist. "It's being totally refitted to current spec. And we've refitted all the torch drives. OK, it's a bit irregular having all the work done in transit. But there wasn't any time. The story about HomeNest was breaking fast and the Guild felt that it would be a fitting tribute for the original Ark of Exodus to make this journey for all of us. Our people negotiated a plum deal for you. You ought to be thankful. The original Ark all rust and rags. Hmmph! Shameful."
         "Well, your guarantee better hold or else I'll roast you and eat you." Knetryxx retaliated in an attempt to appear as the aggrieved party when she knew that Wootjan-Oooo was right about the 'plum deal'".
         "Yeah, sure, I know and your great, great gran thought hunting Pteros was such a laugh. I've heard it all before. Look, if you can't make yourself useful right now, why don't you take a break. Everything's safe as eggs."
         At this point, a mixed group of avians and saurians engaged in animated conversation drifts over. A male saurian steps over towards Knetryxx, predictably displaying the young adult colour patterns of "I'm full of hormones and ready for sex anytime all the time" puts down a beaker of fluid, clears his throat and sets himself up for a pratfall: "Hey, wow, it's Knetryxx, Keeper of the Ark! You're looking real cool, babe. Wow, dig your colours! Hot to trot or what?!" He opened with breezy aplomb and followed it up with the standard lie: "Y'know, we've just been talking about you".
         Knetryxx cursed under her breath wondering why she had to suffer such fools and looked around for a way out. Her colours shifted to a jet-black "I'm not here" and on to a graphic animated picture sequence of eggs being smashed, as if to tell the young fool the she wished he'd never been born. Something that Wootjan-Oooo picked up on.
         "Actually, one of our jobs is to interview you", our young stud admitted. "But there's no hurry on that. How do you feel about taking the Ark back to HomeNest? What do you think of the Tr'Zhall theory that HomeNest herself throws its' young out into space as soon as they are ready? Or the Mknnreochj theory that HomeNest is fatally flawed? And what about..."
         But he was cut off by Wootjan-Oooo who reminded this keen young buck that interviews had to wait until the flight deck had been refitted and that if they weren't part of the refit and maintenance workers he and his collection of lounge lizards could go jump out of a vacuum lock as soon as the Post-Apocalypse Orientation seminar was completed.
         Our intrepid reporter, totally unfazed, rejoined his group of chattering socialites with a casual flick of his tail. Knetryxx breathed a sigh of relief as they drifted off to plague some other hapless victim. "Why me?" She asked no-one in particular.
Wootjan-Oooo, always quick on the uptake, rejoined: "Look, they've got a living to make, too. Even if it does seem unreal and banal to us. And anyway, everyone of us Wanderers wants the full low down on what went wrong at HomeNest. No one ever thought it could happen twice. Some even think that the Destroyers are starting back on their rampage, although, by the sound of things it doesn't sound like their handiwork."
         Then, changing the subject, he continued, "I've gotta go over to hold #5 to sort out those M'Trakhai. I better shout at them to make busy until we get to HomeNest. I don't want them to think they can get away with selling us a semi operational monitoring system like they did last time. On top of that, I've gotta work on an angle to show that they deliberately misled us. That way, we can take 'em to the Galac Traders Court and sue them. Serve 'em right, too.
         "Y'know, if the system they'd sold us the first time had worked properly," Wootjan-Oooo added, jumping out of the way of an enormous shower of sparks that emanated from a dying computer terminal beside his right armwing and hastily checking to make sure none of his iridescent plumage was singed, "we'd've been able to send a couple of cruisers over to HomeNest in time to stop the war that those stupid "humans" went and trashed the place with. Do you realize that they and all those mammalians evolved from the vermin in our sewers we left behind when this very Ark took off on the Exodus! True, a couple of loonies in the BioTech Guild, checked it out on an off-chance and the DNA lines up like eggs in a nest! I kid you not. Anyway, I'm going past the residential deck. I'll walk over with you, if you want to take a break."
         "Thanks, Wootjan-Oooo," Knetryxx replied, "but I'll stay here for a while. Make sure you've got a good airsuit on when you go in. And don't use any of the delta bank airlocks. They all leak. We'll just have to weld them shut for the time being. Can't have the M'Trakhai's poisonous atmosphere leaking into the rest of this ship. It'd kill the lot of us. Just as well they're contented pacifists, they could take over this ship only too easily if they put their minds to it. Yes, go and put the fear of the Traders' Court in them. That ought to keep them on the hop."

         Knetryxx looked in the direction that Wootjan-Oooo started walking off in for a few moments before busying herself with some other aspect of the endless task of running a worldship, even if it is a dilapidated one. As for Wootjan-Oooo, he was in no hurry to visit the M'Trakhai. Not the least reason being the fact that the airsuits tended to damage his exquisite plumage of which he was justifiably proud. So he thought he'd go for stroll along the residential parkland deck near his nest after getting off the spoke shuttle before going below to check up on the M'Trakhai.
         Wootjan-Oooo only had a temporary nest on The Ark of Exodus as it wasn't his nest-ship. He was still (relatively) young, and felt that it would be interesting to live and work on some of the other worldships before going back to settle on his own. His flock was letting out his nest to other transient workers. It was a fair system and it also kept the Wanderer's worldship communities from becoming too isolated from each other. In return, Wootjan-Oooo was able to work on other worldships with other members of his guild as well as meeting and socializing with other Wanderers in his own age group. Nothing like spreading ones' wings and getting around a bit before settling down and raising a brood.
         Oh, it was so reassuring to be away from all that machinery for a while in amongst the giant cycads, conifers and ferns hearing the sound of running water in the streams, surrounded by the sight, sound and smell of other animals, plants, soil and air. For sure, there were no predators that would disturb the restful, reinvigorating parkland ambiance allowed into this deck (although it did happen from time to time). No one was sure whether it was accidental or a planned ploy to keep complacency from setting in. Heavy predators were kept on the livestock deck to keep the herds from becoming too lethargic and weak as well as on the wildlands decks.
         All worldships had to have a wildlands deck of which no two were the same. Yet all of them were apparently based on real ecosystems that had existed on HomeNest. The BioCultures chapter of the Historians Guild said so. And why should they lie? HomeNest must have been such a varied planet, he mused wistfully, before shaking himself out of his reverie with the hard cold fact that he, Wootjan-Oooo, was chapter secretary for his guild on The Ark of Exodus which was, at this very moment, heading back to HomeNest at translight velocities with passengers from HomeNest, who call it "Terra" and had never heard of the Wanderers up until very recently.
         "Heady stuff", he thought, as he rested beside a giant cycad. It seemed only a short while ago that he was trying to convince his parents that it was a good thing to leave his flock and work on some of the other worldships and that yes, of course, he would keep in touch whenever possible and most certainly come back home.
         "How nice it would be to really fly like the other birds and pteros", he thought to himself. "Well, we can think and have created all this and more while they just flit about mindlessly eating and laying eggs. Not a bad trade-off", he thought as he stretched his armwings and preened his feathers. "Still, it would be nice...", he thought as he looked up past the treetops, past the soaring birds and pteros, past the microfusion sol and out through the vaulting transparent dome that covered his section of the residential deck, past the sparkles of micrometeorites being vapourized in the ionization shield and out into the crazily streaked depths of space. Look one way and you'd see the blue-shift of stars that are in the general direction you're moving. Turn around and see the red-shift. The ones that are too far away or at right angles to your line of motion don't seem to be doing all that much. Nowhere near as dynamic as the lights in even the dullest of night-clubs, but no club he'd ever been in or heard of could match this patch of parkland with its' deep space vista!
         Wootjan-Oooo's thoughts gradually trailed off as they will do when one is confronted with the vastness of our universe until they reach that long pause affectionately known as "Oneness with the Universe". He'd been in that blissed out state for quite a while when he was brought rudely back to reality by the memopaging system in his personal data terminal repeatedly calling out in its' subdued, servile, but remorselessly insistent tones: "Tech Guild transient workers' chapter secretary Wootjan-Oooo, please report to holding bay #5. Tech Guild..." CLICK! As Wootjan-Oooo faffed around with the input pad to shut the stupid thing up and to send out a "message received" confirmation, while he squawked and crowed as he picked himself up, stretched out his armwings, ruffled his feathers and made his way over to the main concourse clucking to himself about how it was almost impossible to get a moment's rest.
         He was making his way through waist high grasses and reeds near a stand of giant ferns, when he was nearly bowled over by a gang of cheery, cheeky hatchlings and juveniles who were chasing each other through the parkland. "Hey, can't you lot watch where you're going, you'll ruin my feathers!", Wootjan-Oooo screeched at them, realizing as the thoughts formed and the words came out of his beak, he was already beginning to act like the old, nasty nest-leaders that he used to hate when he was a hatchling. "I really ought to get out and meet some of the local hens", he said to himself. "It'd really help me loosen up!"

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