Monday, July 27, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 9

Mech Base 012
It was just at sunset as the team geared up to leave the abandoned and desolate Mech Base 012.  They'd disabled the two towering Mechs by removing the Power-Couplings and Fred had obtained as much archive materials from the base's data vault as he felt he could reasonably make use of.  100 Terabytes should give them a pretty good idea of what this tiny military outpost was doing way out here in the middle of the Painted Desert. And so they rolled out into the twilight, heading north on route 89.

But they didn't roll very far. Maybe about 500', or so.  There, along the side of the road, they found the old Navajo Trading Post.  On the porch sat a figure wearing on old weather beaten cowboy hat, and poncho, eating out of a wooden bowl.  He looked up without an particular expression of shock or fear as the giant Armored Ground Vehicle pulled up in front of his tiny shack.  From a loud speaker, Guns had Linda play a little cheerful sounding musical tune.  The man on the porch put down his wooden bowl, reached into his poncho, and pulled out a pipe, and a match, and lighting the pipe, took a long puff of smoke.

Captain Samwise went to the mic and made a little greeting speech, saying they came in peace and whatnot.  The old man slowly stood up, his bones clearly creaking under his own weight, and waved at them.

And so Samwise and Pita suited up, and went out to greet the old man, entirely against, it might be added, Guns' every objection.  He'd become pretty darn dead-set against "side quests".  Always was, actually, but now he felt compelled to express himself in no uncertain terms.  But it made no difference.  The good Captain and Pita stepped out into the night air in order to greet the old timer in person.

As it happened the old man, unsurprisingly perhaps, turned out to be an elder Native American.  He seemed very casual, as if nothing ever phased him.  He looked at the two men approaching without much expression, except in his eyes, which gazed deeply into their own.

He asked them if they wanted some stew.  They took him up on the offer.  It was a really terrific stew.  He spoke to them darkly about being warriors.  And he said, "In a world where death is the hunter, there is no time for regrets or doubt. There is only time for decisions"*.  He asked Pita if he was a warrior, and Pita said he was always ready for death.  The old man said he had the right spirit.  He didn't seem as sure about Captain Samwise.

"How come you are so willing to trust us?" asked Pita, suspiciously.

"If I resisted you, what chance would I have?" replied the old man serenely.

"So you are giving in to us out of fear," concluded Pita.

"Not fear.  I have no fear of death.  It is always near.  It is sitting here with us.  My death sits next to me.  Your death sits next to you.  Why should I be afraid?" replied the old man.

The old man asked them how many graves did they count at the base.  They hadn't counted.  The old man asked how many children they had seen.  They asked him if he was friends with the children, and he said that he helped them now and then, and added that he had seen how the team had helped the children and so he offered them food because they were good people.

The old man asked again, how many graves were at the base, and Samwise realized the connection.  He asked the old man if there were any survivors of the massacre.

"One," said the old man.  "The children do not know it."

"What's his name?" asked Pita.

"He calls himself Maloy," replied the old man.

Pita commed over to Linda to see if they could find any records of a "Maloy" in the base archives that Fred had taken.  "Indeed", she replied shortly, "there is a record of a Lt. James Maloy.  He had a sterling service record.  It says he was bright, efficient, and an excellent adjunct to the Commander."

"Where is this Maloy?" asked Samwise.

"I can take you to him," replied the old man.  And so they trekked far out into the darkening desert along paths illuminated by the last dying light of the sun.  The AGV followed at a discrete distance behind them. After two miles they came to a small round hut in a circular gully.  Inside was a round room, and on a bed on the far side lay a figure.  Samwise and Pita went inside.  It was lit dimly by a single candle.  They found a man laying on a cot, sweltering in the heat.  He looked ill.  His skin was gray and puss oozed from his right eye.

"He's been like this since he came back from his meeting with the old shadow of darkness.  He is not right in the head," said the old man.  "He's too sick to kill.  He's too sick live.  I take care of him.  But he is not right in the head.  You will see."

He had the same illness that Billy had picked up after he had "heard the call" of the Black Lion, the nightmare beast whose lair was in Las Vegas, and its hunting range some 200 miles round about that accursed city.  Had either Samwise or Ptia taken a close look and thought more deeply about it, they might have noticed a passing resemblance between Lieutenant Maloy and Billy.

"Is this James Maloy?  Lieutenant James Maloy?" asked Captain Samwise.  The man looked over with a jaundiced gaze, fearful, haunted and hostile.  He was not right in his head at all.  He grimaced at the sound of his name, and snarled back in reply, "Who are you?"

"My name is Sam.  Me and my friends are coming up through this territory.  We stumbled upon your base.  We were wondering if you can tell us what happened?"

He struggled to get himself up on one elbow, and he said, "I've been chosen.  Chosen to bring people to justice.  For people to die.  They must be brought to justice."

"Justice, ah?  For what crimes?  What crimes did they commit that called for justice?"

"They will not obey the master of the desert.  They must die.  You all must die.  You all will die."

"Who is this desert master you speak of?  This lion that everyone fears?"

"The Shadow of the Dark," replied Maloy.  "You must obey him.  You must follow him.  Go south to the fiery mountain and you will meet him.  Take me with you to meet him.  We will meet him together."

Samwise turned to the old man.  He was looking at the ground.

"You know what he's talking about?" asked Sam.

"He wants you to take him to the mountain of fire, south."

Behind the old man, about 100 feet up on an outcropping of rock, Samwise saw a strange looking figure, barely visible in the dark, and yet distinct enough by the moonlight for him to make out the contorts of his body, and the markings of his strange cloths, and bizarre head.  Samwise went out of the hut to see more clearly, and passed next to the old man.  "Who is that there?", he asked pointing upward to the outcropping.

"It is Kachina," said the old man without looking.

"Who is Kachina?" asked Samwise.

"Kachina of the old earth," came the solemn reply.  As he looked the figure became more ethereal and shadowy, and eventually he could no longer make it out in the darkness at all.

"Did you see that, Pita?"

"No, sir," replied Pita.

"You didn't see the figure on the outcropping?"

"I was looking but I didn't see anything, sir.  Have you been spending a little too much time with Fred, perhaps?" asked Pita scratching his head, a bit bewildered.

"Kachina," spoke the old man, "is Protector of the Land.  Of my people.  Of the innocent children. He is my protector. And yours. Sometimes he comes when I bring food to Maloy."

Captain Samwise turned around and went back into the hut to speak with Maloy.  "I don't know what poison you got from the south, but no one is going to take you there to spread the poison further".

"Then why did you come here?  What do you want?" snarled Maloy, growing rapidly more paranoid and hostile.  He lurching his hand to his chest suddenly. "You won't get it!  I won't give it to you!" sputtered Maloy manically, clutching something in his tightened fist.

"I don't want whatever poison you've got.  I don't want it," said Samwise.

"You're lying!" rasped Maloy, "You can't have it!  It's mine!"

"What's he yammering about?" asked Samwise of the old man who had come to stand by the door.

"I do not know. It is some secret he holds. He does not show it to me."

"You know, Maloy, I don't want whatever your judge is offering.  You can keep it."  And with that, he turned and went back outside.  He heard behind him Maloy suddenly break down and start quietly crying, as if he knew he had done some terrible thing, but was helpless and terrified like a child.

Samwise decided then he didn't want anything to do with the crazy man.  He didn't want it. He started walking back to the AGV.

Pita followed behind him, watching wearily in every direction, glancing behind him repeatedly. Unluckly, he was looking the wrong way at the exact moment Maloy emerged at the door of the hut, pistol in hand.  But something, the slightest of sounds, caught his attention.  Was it the sound of Maloy's boot scraping lintel of the door?  Was it the faint voice of the Kachina that warned him?  Who knows?  But at that moment he caught sight of Maloy taking aim at the back of the Captain's head.

Dropping instantly to one knee he took the shot with his Lewiston. The crimson beam lanced out and instantly scorched a hole through the Lieutenant's right shoulder.  He spun backwards and fell to the ground inside the hut, his pistol skittering out of his hand across the dirt floor.  Pita waited to see if he was immobile. There was no appreciable movement. Maloy was still breathing, but unable to drag himself further than a few inches towards his gun, his breath rasping and flashes of pain causing him to gasp with every move.

When it became clear Maloy was not a danger, Pita ran over to him to see if he could apply first aid to the fallen man.  Captain Samwise walked back to the hut.  After a brief attempt at resuscitation, which Maloy resisted, the once excellent officer died in Pita's arms.  After a pause, and a meaningful glance at the Captain, who gave the nod, he pried open Maloy's cold dead fingers and found therein a military grade Data Crystal.  A bit worn, and covered in grit, but intact, and apparently still powered.

"What in the world could be on this thing that made you kill your entire Mech Team, and then try to kill us, too?" asked Samwise rhetorically. He took the small black and chrome stick, and walked down the path back to the AGV.  The old man had begun dancing in a circle around the hut, chanting a Native American song that they couldn't understand. A burial hymn of the ancestors, perhaps.

Captain Samwise tossed the Data Crystal over to Fred to have him take a look.  He mounted his Computer Spike... but on second thought, he decided to ask Linda if she would allow him to use her spare field computer.  Just in case.  The thing is, some of those military grade Data Crystals could be boobietrapped.  And this one sure was.  The AI slipped out from the portable via a wireless port, and at one point Fred lost it in the network. Fortunately, Linda has "The Knack" and so just before it bored its way into the AGV's main memory she gave it a whack. Somehow, as The Knack took effect, the AI wound up skipping a memory register and glitching-out for a microsecond, and this was just enough signal for Fred to latch on to and track it, hack it, and finally contain it. He trapped it on a sealed side-memory unit just two bytes shy of the Mainline Memory Bus. With the AI contained, the entire crew ran diagnostics up and down the wazzu, on the portables, on the Spike, and the entire AVG's electrical, memory, data, and computational systems. In the end, after several tense hours, Fred was satisfied that he'd indeed contained the beast. One thing he knew for sure - that AI could have easily killed them all had it gained access to the Main Memory Bus. And so he took the Data Crystal and the memory board and locked them safely away in a lock box.  Fred was drenched in sweat by that point. Military Grade AIs are nerve wracking. No two ways about it.

And so they drove north on Route 89, making their way towards Marble Canyon, where they planned to cross over the bridge there on their way to Ely, and then to Route 80 where they would come onto the Salt Lake from the West.

The journey lasted most of the night, and into the wee hours.  When they arrived at Marble Canyon they came to a bridge.  It spanned a 200 foot drop down into the dark waters far below.  They drove up to the bridge, but as they did, Guns was the first to see, by the light of the moon, that a large 100 foot circle stood off on north side of the road.  And in that circle were about 50 crucifixes, each with a skeleton hanging on it, crucified.

Captain Samwise, who was taking a rest at the time, dreamed he was outside the AGV and gliding towards the circle, and all the skeletons on their crosses held their hands out towards him.  Before he entered the circle he woke up in a cold sweat. Realizing it was a nightmare he took some solace, until he saw the skeletons hanging from their crosses in the moonlight.

"What the hell is that?!" he demanded.  But of course, no one knew. They quickly moved down the road towards the bridge.  And as soon as they passed the Circle of Crucifixes, everyone noticed that the night got palpably darker, and the air turned cold enough to chill them to their bones.  Linda put on a sweater.  It didn't help.  They asked LexiB what the temperature in the AGV was, and he reported "72.4 degrees, sir."

When they came to the bridge they stopped the AGV and took a look.  One span had collapsed, only part of it dangling precariously from the far canyon wall.
They were not at all sure that the remaining span could sustain the weight of the AGV.  It looked less than stable. They sent LexiB out to investigate, and so he walked across the bridge, and then brakiated along the bottom while inspecting every mechanical and structural detail with every scanner at his disposal.

"I believe there is a 66.6% chance that the AGV will make it across the bridge safely, sir", reported LexiB.

The odds didn't appeal to Captain Samwise.  And the night was too dark, and too cold.  He didn't like the sense of the place at all.  And so he decided to turn around and head down the road back to the intersection at Bitter Springs and take 89A up to the town of Page, instead.  There they would find the Glen Canyon Dam, and another bridge spanning the river there.  Maybe that one would do.  Guns said more than once that he thought it a waste of time, since every bridge in the area would have suffered the same uncertain fate as this one.  But Samwise thought it best to go see for themselves.

Guns then suggested that they take their Rocket Bikes the rest of the way up to Salt Lake.  He presented the idea that since they had four bikes they could leave LexiB with the AGV and as the bikes could handle two people, it would be no problem for them to fly up there, see what there was to see and get back in time for breakfast.  However, LexiB, doing the math, determined that they didn't happen to have enough Crystalline Batteries for them to make the trip, and even if they took two bikes instead of four, they'd still wind up with too few Power Units to make their way back to Kitt Peak after they completed their Mission.  Rocket Bikes run on Plasma Jets.  They take a lot of juice.  Much more than the AGV pound for pound.  But they are fast.  Very fast.  1200 mph fast, at full throttle.

It was about dawn when they arrived on the outskirts of Page.  A few lights could be seen in the town.  And that said a lot.  So they stopped there to survey before proceeding forwards.  Probably a wise choice.  Probably.

And that's where we left things.

* - If you recognize the source of the quote, you get a little "Aha, you know these things!", reward.  Keep it to yourself.  It'll last longer that way, and leave my players blissfully clueless on the topic.  At least for a while.  :)

Sunday, July 12, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 8

Having stopped in the pitch darkness outside of the small derelict Mech-Base just north of Gray Mountain, Arizona on Route 89, the party sat in the Armored Ground Vehicle (AGV) surveying the scene on their Visi-screens in every spectrum of light from ultra-violet to infrared. Captain Samwise cut the lights and went on Low Power Mode in order to avert a possible panic inside the base.

The only sign of life, however, was a rattle snake which slithered across the road ahead of the AGV. They had rolled to a stop at 100 feet before the locked gate of the derelict military installation. Through the chain linked fence they could see the two towering Mechs looming in the darkness. They each stood 30' tall, and a careful surface inspection by Pita showed that they were weather worn, but in all other ways appeared to be serviceable, though the lack of any energy signatures at all suggested that they were completely drained of power.  There were no lights in the base, and no sign that anyone had been there for a long time.

A brief conversation took place among the crew as to what to do next. Guns suggested that they either send in one man (himself) "ninja style" into the compound, or they announce themselves via the AGV's loud speakers and see if anyone comes out. Samwise, the Captain, decided to wait until dawn before taking the latter action. As it was 3am at that point, everyone hunkered down for a few hours of rest.

As he looked absent mindedly through the AGV window, just beyond the fence inside the compound, Samewise became convinced that someone was standing there in the shadows. It looked almost like the old hermit he'd killed at the end of their encounter with the Mutmaw Gang. The oddly disjointed figure seemed to be extending handless arms towards him. The good Captain became alarmed. No one else saw it, and there was no Visi-screen signature to be seen on the infrared spectrum, or any other spectrum. Sam flipped a switch, and the flood lights turned on.  In the moment before he was temporarily blinded by the sudden glare of high beams, he saw it very distinctly... the old hermit bearing the same hair, same beard, and same sky blue robe he'd last been seen in before he was killed by a single shot of the Captain's Lewiston Beam Pistol. But when his eyes adjusted to the brightness, and in the glare of the AGVs flood lights, there was nothing there except a set of tattered cloths hanging from an old set of rusting iron bins and broken crates. The Captain wondered briefly if he was losing his mind, shrugged, and flipped the flood lights back off. He was both relieved and worried at the same time.  He wasn't the kind of man to believe in ghosts.  And yet...

The Unexpected Visitor

Guns, sitting up in the gun turret, aka 'the Perch', was keeping watch. He swiveled the gun turret around at random looking for signs of life in infrared, and taking aim at anything that moved. Nothing moved. Until something did. On the other side of Highway 89, westward, he spotted what looked like the mop-top head of an 10 year old boy, peering at the AGV from behind a rock, with avid, earnest, and deadly serious eyes. The head bobbed up and down a few times, and moved about 4 feet to the right, then bobbed again. Guns streamed the image to the other members of the crew.

It was decided to send up a few Micro-Drones over to where the kid was hiding and talk with him through the drone's speakers. There was a steady 20mph wind blowing over the Painted Sands Desert, but that would not cause the tiny dragonfly shaped drones much trouble as they have powerful stabilizers and are pretty stable in winds up to 50mph. Up went the four micro-drones. When they got to where the kid was hiding, Guns positioned one behind the young fellow about 3' off the ground and 15' behind him, and said "Hey kid, whachya doing out so late?"

Startled beyond belief, the kid bolted. He ran into the desert dodging between rocks and sage brush until the Micro-Drone lost visual contact. "Hey kid, I'm not going to chase you. I'm going to leave the drone here. Come back when you stop being a little kid." No sign of the young fellow was to be seen. And so Guns parked the Micro-Drones where they were and went back to scanning the area from the Perch.

Meanwhile, from his viewing station towards the rear of the AGV, Fred had popped one of the drones up about 100' in order to survey the area, and from that height the view of the volcanic crater known as "Shit Pot Crater" caught his eye. He zoomed in on the crater lip looking for "sharks". He was kidding around, but still fascinated by the crater's explosive lava expulsions. And yet, something on the lip of the crater, which loomed black against the bright yellow-orange of the lava and illuminated clouds of ash, made him zoom in further. Something was moving. It was a shadow-like thing moving among the rocks of the crater's lip. At one point it looked like the silhouette of a lion. Then it appeared, for a single instant, to be a gigantic bat. And then a lion, but with what looked like a scorpion tail hovering over its black mane. Fred, used to hallucinations from his years on psychedelic drugs, almost shrugged it off. But instead he streamed the feed to Linda, who recorded it, and advised the Captain, "Sir, the Visi-screen is showing that ... something ... is moving along the lip of the SP Crater volcano. It doesn't look ... um, normal ... sir." Samwise took a look.

"Well, dang... is that a Manticore?" asked Fred incredulously.  They played the stream back a few times and everyone took a look. At the end of the clip the thing was seen looking in their direction, and then disappearing into the shadows as it moved down the crater towards them. Or so it appeared. The volcano, being some 18 miles south, didn't concern them, and so they let it go and went back to focusing on their immediate situation. It would be dawn in a few hours. They decided to continue scanning, and keeping eyes alert.

Suddenly a loud rattling sound was heard inside and towards the rear section of the AGV, near where Fred was stationed. Everyone looked but there was nothing there to be seen. Then the rattling sound again. Very strange. Samwise and Fred went to investigate, and found that the sound was coming from a cabinet beneath the coach along the rear compartment. They opened the latch and inside were the Talon'ed hands, and iron chain, of the late Martial Arts Naturalist, once known as "Iron Talon Hermit". Nothing was moving. But a faint blue glow was seen coming from the inside of one of the electro-mechanical Talon-arms (fabulously crafted by a true master). The chain, made of black iron links, suddenly flickered with static electricity. Samwise put on his work gloves and took one of the Talon-arms, closed the cabinet door, and went to his work bench. It was very slowly clenching and un-clenching its three smoothly polished metal talons. This should not be happening as far as Sam understood things. It would require a power source, yet none seemed present. He began to investigate. With the talon clamped as securely as he could manage in his vice grips, he went to work.  But he found no power source that would explain the talon's movement. Strange.

At about 4 in the morning Linda spotted a number of heat signatures coming up along Route 89 from the south. Four. No, five.  Everyone got geared up, and snapped to their command consoles.

Kids. All of them were kids. And so Guns sent the Micro-Drones over and again confronted them with his down-to-earth style. Four the kids darted into the desert, but one remained.

"Where you from?" demanded the boy. "You with 'The Lion', or not?" he demanded to know.  He wasn't guffing around. Guns tried to find out what the boy was talking about, but the kid was smart, and evasive. He argued, he questioned, and he disbelieved Guns every step of the way... until Guns mentioned that the Federation had Space Ships. That caught the kid's imagination. "No way. Y'er lyin! I don't believe that. Space ships? No way! Y'er lyin!" exclaimed the boy. And then Guns said, "I can show you pictures". So Linda used the micro-drone to whip up some dust into the air, and projected a video stream of the Silver Eye I mission launch from Kitt Peak, up through the small starry hole in the otherwise iridescent Ionosphere into space.  "Wow!" said the boy, finally convinced.

And after that they began to have a conversation, via the Micro-Drone. The boy told them that his father had been the Chief Engineering Officer on the base, but everyone there was dead. "... they all ... killed each other ...I guess", said the boy.  He said that the kids had survived on their own out in the desert, and they "didn't need no help from no one".  He also let out that they had another member, Billy, who wasn't there because he was sick. When questioned about this, he said that Billy had "Gotten the call", and had walked alone down to "Shit Pot Crater" some time ago. When he came back, he was sick, covered with sores, and mumbling crazy things about what The Lion had told him. Like that the Lion's den was in Las Vegas, and his hunting range was exactly 200 miles, and that the Lion was something people should stay as far away from as they could. Guns asked if anyone else had "gotten the call", and the boy said, "Yes, sir. One of the men from the base said he'd gotten the call, too, before all of everyone there done killed each other.  Or so I heard from my Paw, fore he died." The boy ended that statement with a tone of despair so deep that Guns stopped asking him questions about it.

Nevertheless, he convinced the kid to let them take a look at Billy to see if there was anything they could do to help. And so the boy arranged for them to meet the kids at their homestead, about two miles off a side road from Route 89 just to the south. There they found a few run down buildings, no electricity, but a small pig and chicken farm, a fruit tree, and a vegetable garden. Slung around the grounds were furs and hides being tanned and prepped for cloths or tools. The kids could take care of themselves. Except for Billy. He was awful sick, and didn't open his eyes or say anything as LexiB gave him an examination while the rest of the crew remained in the AGV.  They didn't want to crowd the kids by coming outside, and none of the kids wanted to go into the AGV.  They communicated through the Micro-Drones.

"The boy has Bromine Monochloride poisoning," stated LexiB shortly. "He needs medical attention". After a brief discussion, LexiB constructed a small oxygen tent, and treated the boy's skin lesions. He provided the kids with medicine, some medical supplies and instructions. The kids all listened intently, and absorbed what the Android had to say. They thanked Guns and the rest of the crew, and handed LexiB the only thing of real value they had as payment for the team's help. A canteen of water.

Having helped as best they could, they wished the kids good luck, and drove back to the Mech-Base to see what else they could find out there.

Exploring the Base

It was after dawn when they rammed through the fence. They parked the AGV inside the enormous Mech-Hanger and donned their protective suits. They went out and took a look around. The base had been badly ravaged, and there was signs of battle everywhere. Broken machinery, desks, computers and equipment all ruined, crushed, shattered and piled in haphazard disarray throughout the hanger.

The explorers paused. There were no bodies to be seen, but clearly a savage and brutal battle had taken place, and that quite a long time ago. Fred, the only Cybernaut among the crew members, declined to waste time hacking into any of the network sockets in the hanger. He knew from experience that nothing of particular value would be found in that network, but only the mundane reports of mechanics and maintenance crews. Instead, he suggested they find the Administration building, and look for better data troves there.

They took the AGV the hundred feet necessary to exit the hanger and parked it in front of the Administrative Offices of the base, located on the north west corner of the lot, next to the power plant. They entered and began to look around. Inside was the same shattered work area, shattered equipment, tattered papers, and broken furniture as they had seen in the hanger. The battle had clearly raged everywhere. And now they could see blood stains outlined on the old and worn carpets of the once efficient office.

In the center of the windowless north wall of the office, unscathed, and apparently untouched, was the massive solid steel door, glinting in a ray of early morning sunlight that passed through a shattered window. There were no bodies anywhere. But the blood stains indicated that the bodies had been dragged away, and it wasn't long before they found a crude cemetery on the other side of the power plant.

"I expect the kids may have buried their folks here, don't you know," said Guns somberly.

They took a look at the power plant and found that it was largely intact except for the control panels which had been taken to with a crowbar.

Fred understood immediately the implication of the steel door. It meant the base had a "Data Vault". Not surprising. But what might happen to be inside that vault, well, that could turn out to be surprising indeed. As a Cybernaut Fred was well acquainted with the military protocols that enshrouded such facilities, and he knew precisely what to look for. Somewhere there had to be a network socket that control access to the vault door. It might be obvious. Or it might be hidden. It might be trapped.

He began a careful, meticulous search. Eventually, after several hours of fruitless labor, he found the jack. It was hidden in a small office behind a sliding steel panel behind what once must have been the Station Commander's desk. Out came Fred's Computer-Spike. A specialty item that was part and parcel of his trade; it was a fully equipped tool kit for hacking computer systems. He went to work. It was delicate business and took time. He took some chances, waged a few calculated bets against the possibility of triggering a trap, and came away with the vital information he required. He discovered that the Vault was a C-Class facility, which meant that it was designed to contain Super-Classified information. It also meant that there was a 50% chance that the vault system had a fail-safe trigger which would be designed to either destroy all of the data in the vault, or potentially even destroy the entire compound. There was no way to know that, as all of that information would be neatly squared away inside the vault's own security network, and impossible to access from the outside. They would have to take their chances if he was to continue.  They needed to enter the vault.

The rub was that the vault might contain something truly valuable. Something Altissimus-X, the Civilization-saving Super AI, would potentially pay handsomely for. Or it could contain something dangerous. And potentially... very dangerous. Not only for the crew, but dangerous for every survivor of the Ultra-War that was trying to carve out a new Civilization out of the wreckage of the world.

Fred knew, as every Cybernaut knew (and feared to the marrow of their bones), that in the worst case scenario, what might lay dormant and hidden in that vault could be a WAR-GAI; a Warrior-Class General-Artificial-Intelligence.  These AI were so cunning, and so lethal, that its release could potentially spell doom for the entire Civilization. If it had not been for the last minute intervention of Alt-X at the end of the Ultra-War, no human being would have survived the final onslaught of the WAR-GAI. Accidentally releasing one now, this far away from Federation Cyberspace, with only limited Ultra Low-Frequency communications, and no access to Alt-X at all ... could be the beginning of the end for humanity. The final shoe to drop that everyone subconsciously feared.

Fred explained this, with some downplay as to the risk, to Captain Samwise. The Captain gave the OK.  They were going in.

After several attempts, and with sweat pouring from his brow, Fred finally triggered the key codes, and the solid steel door of the vault slid silently open. They peered into the dark room with the rows upon rows of neatly stacked and cabled computer banks, flickering with thousands of multi-colored indicator lights. There at the center of the room stood the Primary Control Console.

Fred would need to jack into it. And that was the first risk he'd have to run. He would have to physically enter the room. And he knew well that there could be physical traps in a C-Class facility. In fact, he helped to design several such facilities during the Ultra-War, and was familiar with the basic tenets of their design. A physical trap could take the form of a plate that stepped on would trigger a release of Sarin gas, or a dummy network port triggering 100,000 volts of electric current, or a 'bad key' on the console keyboard triggering the detonation of a bomb that would destroy the entire facility. Any of those were possible, and many more.

After scanning the room from the door, and using all of his skill and knowledge, he finally detected what he thought would likely be the physical trap. The network ports panel at the console had been installed upside down. This was not the kind of mistake that would be likely to be made by the professionals who designed such a chamber.

The three of them, Fred, the Captain, and LexiB, stepped gingerly, cautiously, into the room and walked lightly to the Command Console. Fred examined it minutely. On the other side, facing away from the door, he found another network port panel, this one installed correctly. Thinking it over, he decided it would be best to exit the room and have a Micro-Drone plug a dummy connector into the right-side up panel. They did so, and then heard the distinctive crystal crack, and watched as the steel door slide instantly shut. Inside, they knew, the Micro-Drone, had it been a human being, would have died within a few seconds.

After a suitable waiting period to allow the gas to clear, Fred went back to the Commander's desk, and re-ran the protocol that opened the Steel door, and sure enough it slid silently open.  LexiB aired the room out with a turbo fan in his right arm.

Next, Fred tried the Micro-Drone on the upside-down panel. Voila. He was hooked in, and off to the races. The first thing he did with his Computer-Spike was to run a silent scan on the outer security protocols. They reported the the version, model and type of the security network, but of course not the key. This he would have to hack on his own. And so he did. It was slow and tedious work, and again sweat began pouring down his forehead, and soaking his shirt. One false, or mis-timed key stroke could easily be the end of him and everyone else there. He again used a partial retrieval of the key segment, and advanced pattern recognition to deduce the salt-hash. This took a bit of Alt-X trickery, and he was lucky to have such a tool available. But such are the benefits of having previous successful raids, that Alt-X in its delight had granted him access to such an algorithm.

Fred was ready. The password had been deduced. He needed only to press the Enter key to see if he was to gain access, or die. Without hesitation he pressed the Enter key. And so he gained access. The system was now fully available to him, and he had Administrative Rights. He immediately carved out a 100 Terebyte Void in the system memory that not even the two Maintenance-AI that were roving the system could detect. He began copying the following logs and reports into the Void.
  • Mechanics Report
  • Quartermasters Report
  • Mech Specs
  • All-Sensors Logs
  • IT Departmental Records Log
That last one took up most of the 100 Terebytes. He then began to look for Specialty Items. These were things that he knew Alt-X might take an interest in. They could be anything from the pre-Ultra-War era. An archive of pornography files. A set of Google Search Results. A Digital Encyclopedia. An unpopular software installation. Digital maps, or geological data. Anything. Alt-X was hungry for pre-War data. And it would pay a LOT of Federation Credits for such artifacts. And so he browsed the network at will, despite the fact that the Maintenance-AI had already noticed that cluster space was inexplicably reduced by 100 TB, and yet no network, system or hardware errors had been detected.  The Maintenance-AI got busy.

Searching a data trove of the size of a Data-Vault was no trivial task. Cybernauts were known to spend weeks exploring such installations. Days at the minimum. Since he had no idea what he was looking for, it was much like performing a negative search on a needle in a haystack, where the question was, "What is in this haystack that might not normally belong here?" A much easier question to ask than to asnwer.

Good Captain Samwise, however, had only so much patience. And after an hour, he pulled Fred by the collar and said, "It's time to go." Fred, who expected that, was annoyed, but agreed without arguing. He had managed to find at least one article that seemed potentially interesting, and even needed to dump some of his IT Log data to grab it. It was a Geological Survey of the local environment dating back to Feb 6, 1942, and covering the entire period up until the present. Not only might Alt-X find this of interest, he thought, but sifting through that data might reveal some important information about the volcanic activity in the region as well. That could be useful to the team, possibly.

Meanwhile, something alarming was happening in the AGV.

Dangerous Rattling

Idling their time while waiting for the Captain and crew to return, Linda was monitoring the local terrain while Pita kept an eye on the Mechs via their Visi-Screens, the rattle from the cabinet occurred again. This time it was quite loud. Pita got up, donned his Armored Body Suit and suggested Linda arm herself as well. Linda got up and withdrew her Lewiston Beam Pistol. They cautiously made their way to the rear compartment and stared at the cabinet door. For a a minute they didn't hear anything. Linda looked at Pita. Suddenly the rattling sound occurred again.  This time louder, and something banged against the inside of the cabinet door. They crept closer.

Pita took the Smart-Net and prepared it with a "Capture & Hold" command. Linda took out her Lewiston and pointed it at the door. Nothing happened. They waited. Still nothing.

"Why are you messing with that at all?" asked Guns from the Perch. "Why not just leave the damn thing alone?"

Undeterred, Pita opened the cabinet door. Inside they saw the iron chain and the Talon'ed forearm. Blue static-electric charges leapt along the links of the chain.
The three talons opened and closed spasmodically.

Pita threw the Smart-Net and it immediately wrapped itself around the Talon-arm and trapped it inside the compartment. Suddenly, like a snake, the iron chain lashed forward and wrapped itself around Pita's right boot.

For all intents and purposes the iron chain was simply that. An iron chain. It had no mechanical parts, no electronics, no devices. And yet, it flickered with the blue crackle of static electricity and moved very much like a snake. And above the chain the three fingered Talons opened and closed, a slight blue glow coming from beneath its polished wooden arm plate.

Pita took out his broadsword and took a hack at the chain. Blue sparks flew... but to no avail. The steel of the blade did not even bite into the iron links, but instead, glancing off of of them, it cut through his armored boot and wound up giving his foot a small gash. It wasn't serious, but it was certainly annoying, and began bleeding profusely.

Quite alarmed by this turn of events, he pulled out his Lewiston Rifle, and took aim at the chain. The coruscating crimson beam instantly set the carpet on fire and bored a one inch diameter hole through the bottom of the AGV flooring. The smell of burning carpet and circuitry wafted through the air. But the iron chain appeared unscathed. It began constricting Pita's leg, and so at this point he lay down on the floor and cried out for help.

"Help! Help!", he cried plaintively.

Guns poked his head down from the Perch. "So you thought it was a good idea to mess with the thing, huh? Hold on. I'm coming down. But I think I'll take a picture first. Smile," he said as he took a picture with his Wrist Comm. Pita graciously tried to smile, and wave, while pointing a finger at the iron chain. The picture came out pretty good, and Guns was pleased with it. He saved it to his local drive. Climbing down from the Perch, he grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out the fire that was burning along the carpet where the Lewiston Beam carved a hole in the floor.

"Linda, why don't you get LexiB back over here?" said Guns, and she called on the Comm, telling him to come back immediately.

Inside the Vault, LexiB responded to Linda's call by informing Captain Samwise that he'd received an emergency call from Linda.

Inside The Data-Vault

And so Samwise, with Fred in tow, turned to the door. And there Samwise, and only Samwise, saw the old Hermit standing on the outside of the steel doorway, leering at him with a horrible scowl, his handless arms outstretched, silent as the dead.

"How many times do I have to kill you?" asked Samwise as he marched towards the doorway.

And then the steel door slid shut. Samwise turned around and pushed Fred back to the computer console. LexiB also hadn't made it out the door, and so the three of them were trapped inside the vault.

As this was happening, back in the AGV, Guns leapt down from the Perch, put on a pair of utility gloves with clinical precision, and grabbed the chain in his two brawny hands and began to attempt unravelling it from Pita's boot.  With Linda's help he wrestled the boot off of Pita's leg, at which point the chain crushed the boot amid a shower of blue sparks.

"My daddy always said, 'Leave haunted chains in the cabinet.'", quoted Guns.

The chain writhed in his hands, trying to wrap itself around his arms as he muscled it back into the cabinet compartment, while Linda slammed the door shut. And that was that.

Guns, without a further word, took the utility gloves off, put them back in the utility kit, and climbed back into the Perch. Pita, unspeakably relieved, eyed the cabinet warily. He considered removing the entire coach as the cabinet was part of the coach unit, but decided it would prove impractical to attempt it.

"Ya'll ought to just learn to leave well enough alone, don't you know?" Guns commented again.

Meanwhile, in the sealed vault, Samwise and Fred stood at the Command Console sweating profusely. As it was, all communications was cut off inside the Vault, as the only access to the network was through the single port at the Commander's desk, and that was not a communications port, but merely a security node designed to open the vault.

"Um, so, what just happened?" asked Fred. "I'm not sure... did you just say a ghost close the door on us!?"

"Just open the vault door," replied Samwise tersely. Unfortunately, Fred's first attempt failed. It seemed like there was some kind of interference. He tried again. No luck. He tried a third time. No luck again. It seemed that the Maintenance-AI had begun to interfere with his activities. He then tried to connect to an outer antenna so he could communicate with the AGV, but that also failed. He ran a Administrative Scan to find out what the M-AI were up to, and found that they were undoing his re-routing commands on assumption that these commands were system errors.

Fred having cleared out an area within the Computer-Spike Void, ran a customized Comm-AI Application to link to the Comm. It worked. He connected to the outer antenna.

"Help?! Help?!", shouted Fred into the Comm.

Linda responded immediately, and they exchanged descriptions of their respective situations briefly.

"What's going on over there?" shouted Samewise into the Comm.

Guns gleefully sent him the picture of Pita lying on the floor with the iron chain, blood and fire.

"Oh my," said Captain Samwise. "I leave you people for a minute and look what happens!  For Pete's sake."

Fred instructed Linda to make her way to the Administration Building, and repeat the steps he took to open the vault door. Since was experienced with electronics, she grabbed her own portable computer, put on an armored suit and promptly made her way to the Administration office. Following Fred's very precise instructions to the letter, she connected to the secret port, ran the Protocols Program, and in a few minutes the vault door slid silently open. Seeing this, Fred grabbed his Computer-Spike and bull-rushed through the door.

"Oh thank God," he cried as he exited into the open air of the Administrative Office.

Unfortunately, Samwise, now alone in the vault, again saw the horrible figure of the Hermit blocking the doorway, hideously glaring at him.

"You brought all of this on yourself!", shouted Sam as he marched out the door and walked right through the Hermit's angry apparition. The apparition's face expressed, for a second time, shock and surprise, then extreme disappointment... and then he vanished like a wisp of smoke. And that, it seems, was the end of the Hermit, once and for all.

The crew made their way quickly to the AGV, clambered inside, sealed the door shut, and everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief.

"I say we chuck the Talon's into the volcano," offered Fred, once they had rested and exchanged stories.  No one paid attention to that eminently sensible suggestion, however.

LexiB was put to work helping Pita bind the gash on his foot, while the Captain assessed the damage to the AGV that was caused by the Lewiston Rifle fire, and set about running diagnostics and making repairs. He also took the time to examine the Talon hand that was still locked into the vice at his work bench. It was motionless and the blue energy indicator showed no sign of power. They decided to weld the cabinet door shut, and Pita gratefully took care of that.  The Captain then issued orders for Linda to use the ULF Transmitter to send a status report to Federation Command, and sent Pita and Guns to go and examine the two Mechs while he conducted his repairs.

Guns found the manual hatch and opened it on the American Mech's right leg. He clambered in and climbed the steel ladder to the first compartment. This is where the Mechanics Officer would sit. On the console there he found a small booklet. He leafed through it, and found that it was a copy of the United States Constitution. He put it in his jacket pocket and continued up to the second deck. This is where the Gunnery Officer would sit. He liked what he saw. There were a ton of armaments on the Mech. Everything from Guided Missiles, to Plasma Beams. It even had two Rheinmetall Rh-120 Cannons, one at each shoulder. He whistled through is teeth. Then up the ladder to the Pilot's Station. This was more than he could handle. It would take someone with Pita's skills to manage all of those controls!

Pita, following Guns' lead, took a look around as well. But his interest was in determining the current capabilities of the Mechs. So while Guns headed on over to the Russian Mech, he took a look around the American model. No power to be had. It seemed the Crystalline Batteries had been drained dry for some time. Fortunately, this class of C-Batts could be re-charged, and he had taken note of the power plant on the north west corner of the base. The plant's control panels had been wrecked in the fighting so they would need to be repaired, and then the Mech's charged up. He figured the entire operation could take two days to complete. Meanwhile, Guns explored the other Mech and found that it was a heavy duty Russian model, slower than the American, but with heavier shielding.  He found in the Pilot's Station a photograph of a pretty young woman, and on the back was written the name "Ravina", with a heart drawn in below it. He took that, too.

They returned to the AGV and gave their report to the Captain. It was about 8pm at that point, and Linda mentioned that she'd spotted two heat signatures just outside the compound gate. It was two of the kids. They came to say good-bye, and thank the team for helping them with Billy. They gave a final warning to "beware the lion", and Guns told them to keep an eye on the base as they intended to return sometime later on. They gave the kids five t-shirts with Federation Command logos on them. The kids were delighted and ran off to deliver the treasures to their friends.

Should they take the Mechs and abandon the AGV? They could port the AGV Crystalline Battery units over, perhaps. Or they could fix the power plant and charge the mechs up.  Captain Samwise wasn't convinced that the Mechs would prove all that useful to them on this mission. After all, they don't want to show up at a survivor's encampment bristling with fire power and armed to the teeth. That might solicit an unwanted reaction.  On the other hand, the Mechs could fly.  How much power do Mechs take while in flight? He wondered if it would be worth it to fly both Mechs down to Kitt Peak, and then fly one back. But that plan had "impractical" stamped all over it for various reasons. At any rate, only Pita and LexiB where qualified to fly the Mechs as only they had the requisite skills necessary to do so. Pita noted that technically the Mechs, at least the American one, could even reach the edge of Space, at sub orbital height. On the other hand, there were other considerations, as the Mechs were designed for combat, not transportation. A lot of useful equipment might have to be left behind if they took the Mechs.  Still, though, each Mech had room for three, and they might just be what the doctor ordered in the event that the Black Wind V Facility happened to be hostile, for whatever reason.

It would take some time for them to decide what to do about the Mechs.

And that is where we left things this game.  Fun times!

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 7

Captain Samewise
And so it continues ... the Black Wind Team left "Parks", Arizona and headed East on route 40 towards Flagstaff. Linda's Ultra-Low Frequency transmission of the expedition update to Federation Command was successful, and they managed to receive a partial reply. Unfortunately. the extended distance and the presence of ground tremors in the area cause a good deal of static so they only got back the following:


Along the way Guns sat in the turret swiveling to keep an eye on the surrounding environment. There was a quick debate about whether or not they should return to the town of Seligman to finish off the Mutmaw Gang, but Captain Samwise decided against it. Guns suggested they could tackle that on the return trip, and Pita seconded the point by urging them to stay On-Mission. So Eastward they went. Guns spotted a small crowd of bears moving along the side of the road in the same direction as they were going, but the instruments onboard didn't pick them up. When Linda climbed up into The Perch to take a look she didn't see them either. Guns had a strange feeling about it, but pushed it out of his mind and they continued on their way.

Ahead a storm was brewing over Flagstaff. A big dark storm (I rolled for weather). Lots of lightning. An iridescent glow emanated from the surface of the higher clouds. It looked pretty scary. Dust devils were kicking up across the desert on both sides of the road. They decided to seek shelter on the outskirts of Bellemont. There was a derelict warehouse they found to shelter next to.

Guns had LexiB (their Android) scan the storm to find out how long it would last. He started the scan and about 3 minutes in he says "Captain, my sensors are picking up ..." and then LexiB shuts down. Pita went over to see what happened, and he saw only a slight fluttering of light in LexiB's eyes, but no other indication of serviceability.  Very strange.  This should not happen.  He pulled out his robotics pack and ran a full range of diagnostics. As Pita was doing this, Fred started a full diagnostics on the AGV as well. Linda continued to monitor radio frequencies and scan for any anomalies. Samwise anchored the AGV next to the warehouse (the Armored Ground Vehicle has huge rivets that bore into the ground to anchor the vehicle).

They determined that LexiB would not have frozen in this fashion by any normal processes. The diagnostics didn't reveal any technical problems with LexiB. Guns speculated that maybe LexiB simply didn't want to answer the question, and recommended turning the Android off. At that point LexiB wakes up and says that he seems to have suffered a technical malfunction. "This has never happened to me before," said the Android.  Pita asked him to answer the original question about the storm, and LexiB replied that he would need to run the analysis again.

Suddenly a massive bolt of lightning hits the AGV. No effect on the machinery as it is completely grounded, but everyone inside is temporarily blinded by the brilliance.

"Captain, my sensors have picked up..." and then LexiB goes dark again. Guns insists that there must be something outside causing this, and urges the Captain to leave the area as soon as possible.

Meanwhile Fred has completely mastered the art of Compartmentalization as he watches the numbers crunch down the multiple screens of his AGV diagnostics. He noticed a sudden power surge in the data.  Cross-scanning screens he discovered that the power spike occurred in all six of the Crystalline-Batteries of the AGV at 200% for 250 milliseconds. The power surge came from the energy crystals inside each of the batteries. Any greater surge would have shorted out the AGV's circuitry. He then cross-referenced the AGV diagnostics with the LexiB diagnostics and found that the surge happened at the same moment as LexiB's missing log data. Another strange event that should not have happened.  It was then that Fred noticed the strangest fact of all.  LexiB was running the same exact code on simultaneous processors.  That, as far as he understands Androids, should be an impossibility. Only Quantum Chip machines might do something like this... and Androids do not carry Quantum Chips.  Strange indeed.

Guns spotted something in the shadows along a trajectory that he pre-determined would be a likely avenue for a sneak attack. What he saw, by a flash of lightning, was the shadow of ... a bear? It loomed against the white wall of the warehouse. He shot the machine gun at the container near where the shadow appeared. The container is blasted with bullet holes. But nothing was there.  The machine gun fire, and the circumstances, rattled everyone's nerves.

At this point the entire AGV turned off. All equipment went dead, including LexiB. They were standing in the dark. Fred pulled out a lighter and they could only see by the flickering shadows, among which Fred thought he saw a dark figure standing next to Captain Samwise. He hurled the lighter at it, and they were are in the dark again. After about 20 seconds the lights in the AGV came back on and all systems rebooted. It took about 10 minutes for every system to come back online. After a thorough diagnostic they determined that everything, including LexiB, were back to normal.  And at this time the storm overhead abated, and the winds died down again.  Scanning the horizon east they saw that there was no such abatement over Flagstaff however, and the storm continued to swirl ominously over the city.

Chapel of the Holy Dove
After these events Captain Samwise became wary of taking the AGV into Flagstaff. He started scanning for alternate routes and found a number of back roads that wound themselves through the hills to the north and would allow them to skirt Flagstaff and still get onto route 89 north. So, off into the wilds they went. The roads were rough and the going slow, but they traveled through the night and by dawn they came upon the Chapel of the Holy Dove on Route 180. Outside the red door sat an old man in black.  He seemed to be whittling something.  When they parked the AGV in the lot outside the church, he stood up and went inside the chapel, taking no notice of the party at all.  Samwise, Guns and Linda suited up and went to see what they could make of it.  Once they entered the Chapel they found the old man slumped over the alter beneath the large and broken stain glass window on the far side.  There were a few small pews, and dust covered everything.  The old man, they soon found out, was not among the living.  His robe was intact, but beneath it was a skeleton, its right hand holding a bible open on the verse Matthew 8:22.  Samwise read the verse out loud.

"But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead."

And when he had finished reading the verse the air was silent and crystal clear, and a single ray of sunlight found a way through the clouds and shone down upon the chapel and all the area around it. And all of the members of the Black Wind team felt refreshed, and all minor wounds were healed, and even Pita felt himself restored to full vigor. After resting there for a little while, they decided to leave and make their way to route 89. But as they prepared to return to the AGV, Samwise spotted a cloaked figure standing in the trees not far from the Chapel. He tried to address it, but the man gave no reply, other than to lift his hand and point at the chapel, and then ominously clench his bony fist. When Guns shined his flashlight on the figure, it turned out to be shadows of branches in the trees and was a figment of their imaginations. And so they climbed aboard the AGV and continued through the back country until the came out upon a long flat plane bounded to the west by vast canyons, and upon which they found a smoldering volcano. The Captain was not inclined to tackle such and obsticle, even in the AGV, and so they turned the sturdy vehicle around and went back the way they came, and found a more southern route by which to access route 89. And while they did so they got a good look at Flagstaff.

The buildings of the city were standing, but dark beneath the storm that swirled over it. Flashes of lightning illuminated the desolate place. It looked empty, and shattered, and unwholesome. They passed by without regrets and found their way onto route 89.

From there they headed north, and after a time, about midday, they came to the plane of the volcano, known as Shit Pot Crater by those who lived in the region before the Ultra-War. In those days it was dormant, but now it was alive with smoke and flame, and the lava flow to the north of it extended for some 5 miles, all alight with red fires. They decided not to take the westward road that lead up to S P Crater, but instead made their way north into the spectacular lands of the Panted Desert. Beyond that the found their way into Gray Mountain. It was empty except for an old worn down truck stop and diner that seemed to have no occupants to speak of. It was now about 2:00 in the morning. Pita took over driving and they moved on.

At about 3am they came to an old Mech Base, probably last used during the war. But it seemed empty as well, though they could see from the road two towering Mechs on their platform stations. They were each 30' tall, and had insignia on them that could be clearly seen with their Vizi-Screens. One was Russian, the other American. Probably the Russian one had been captured during the War, but it was hard to say. The Captain, curious to know if either of the Mechs might be operational after all this time, decided to investigate. And so they turned east onto the small service road and proceeded to inch forward towards the derelict buildings.

And that is where we left things for this session. Fun times.