Friday, November 11, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 40

Captain Bruin Hilda watched the pink mist settle over the Great Insect Mound through her binoculars. The air was shimmering from the late afternoon heat and beads of sweat dripped down her neck. She was looking for signs that the insects were being affected by the mist, but she couldn't really tell one way or the other. While she did see the strange and bizarre array of voracious living creatures, such as a pack of mutant rats, and a handful of long-fanged rabbits hunting a bleeding three tailed squirrel, as well as the alarmingly thorny plant life that writhed their coils like slowly gnashing teeth, she didn't see any insects at all.  She wanted to consider it a good sign that they were all dead, but other possibilities came to mind.  They might have burrowed deeply into the mound to evade the mist. Or, she thought, it could mean they fled away somewhere unseen. Or something else more ominous that she hadn't thought of, or didn't want to think of.  But so far, no insects at all.


She worried her lower lip as she scanned the mound from top to bottom. Lieutenant Kerrington stood next to her, shielding his eyes with his hand as he watched the orange plasma trail of the sleek new military-grade MechV fade in a long curved arc to the south.  He picked up his binoculars and followed the captain's gaze. Not a single insect could be seen.  

Bruin Hilda lowered her binoculars and looked around to survey the refugees that crowded the road all around her. The several that she had healed earlier were sitting quietly nearby supping from bowls of boiled roots and greens. She turned her gaze to the south where she could see an enormous plume of smoke was rising from somewhere south of Panguitch. It looked like the entire desert had caught on fire down there and the sky grew dark with smoke.  She lifted her binoculars again to take a closer look at a higher magnification.

Suddenly a long, thin yellow beam lanced out from a mountainside some five miles to the east.  The beam hit something in or near the town but she couldn't see what it was.  Immediately there was a very large explosion and she saw flaming hunks of metal soaring through the air, followed by the sound of it echoing up the valley a few seconds later.  She could see scores of figures running to the trenches but  they were too small to make out which side they were on. It looked like the war was hot and she was glad they had gotten the refugees out of town when they did. It hadn't been a moment too soon. She pointed her binoculars toward the mountainside. As she guessed it was good old Captain Samwise and the crew in the AGV, taking it to the enemy from a safe distance.  "He's getting smart", she thought to herself with a smile.

She then noticed that the smoky plume south of Panguitch began to transform into darker cloud, swirling menacingly, and began heading eastward toward the mountain on which the AGV was perched. Flashes of scarlet lightning flickered within the depths of the storm. She didn't like the look of it one bit, and suddenly wanted to get moving as soon as possible.

"Rally the refuges," she said to Lieutenant Kerrington. "We're heading out. Now."

With the help of the other Lieutenants, Kerrington got the rabble in order, and the entire column began the slow march north along Route 89. Bruin Hilda knew she had time to decide their destination once they got further north out of the danger zone, but she was thinking about it in advance. Her choices were to lead them to Salt Lake City, or turn west and return to the town of Ely. The fact was she had no real idea of what condition Salt Lake City was in, as the Black Wind V team had not made it across the salt flats to find out. She presumed there might be civilization there, just as there was in Tucson, but she didn't know for sure.  When Dr. Mitchell said that path was clear for them all the way to Salt Lake City he seemed to imply that there was something worth going there for, she supposed. But she hadn't thought to ask. Ely, on the other hand, she'd been through and seen for herself. The people there had adopted a post-Ultra-War way of life that prohibited their use of any technology above that of steam power.  And so they lived like pioneers of the old west with hand tools, farms and windmills.  It was romantic in its way, but hardly conducive toward rebuilding civilization.  Yet, she couldn't blame them.  After everything everyone had been through over the past decade, who could?  

Beyond Ely, further to the west, they had learned there were several tribes of people who had gone to an even greater philosophic extreme by refusing any technology above that of Neolithic cavemen. Their lives were particularly hard, but of all the people they'd met, the cavemen seemed to be the most courageous, and determined. On the other hand, all the land out that way was good, and there seemed to be little in the way of radiation or chemical toxification. There were signs of biological upheaval in the form of bizarre life forms, but the people of Ely seemed to be ok with with fighting off mutant monsters, and dealing with the hardships of the natural order.  So be it.  It was their choice, after all.

"Lieutenant, how are we fixed on supplies for the trek north?" asked Bruin Hilda. "Do we have enough food to march for six to ten days?"

"Supplies?" asked the Lieutenant, rubbing the back of his neck, "Were we supposed to take supplies? As I recall, we were running for our lives. What we grabbed were our weapons, Acoustic Insect Shells, gasoline, and that sort of thing," he said with furrowed eyebrows.

"Well, at least the refugees seemed to have grabbed food stocks on their way out of Panguitch," replied Bruin Hilda. "I've noticed a fair amount of food in and among the baggage of the caravan," she added as she looked over the wagon train that spanned the road for about a mile or so. There were some eight hundred refugees and they pulled and pushed their wagons and carts, and they had two small busses, one of which had been scorched by a sun-beam so that it coughed and sputtered, but both were able to carry a substantial amount of baggage. There were also a few donkeys, a couple of horses, and even a small herd of cows that were being ushered along.  She even spotted a gaggle of geese being herded down the road towards the tail end of the caravan. Not enough to feed eight hundred people for ten days, she thought, but nevertheless it was encouraging just the same. Bruin Hilda guessed they had enough provisions for two or three days at the most, but she felt it would be a good idea to know for sure.

The sounds of explosions coming from Panguitch increased in frequency. Bruin Hilda decided they should have a quick pow-wow among the Lieutenants and most prominent refugees to discuss their options while en route. Among that group was a young Cybernaut named Tom Hanks. When Bruin Hilda called for volunteers among the refugees for the meeting, he had stepped forward. No one objected as he had already been known in Panguitch as a young man with good sense and a clear mind.  A few other farmers and hunters also joined the meeting, most of them elders with a good deal of experience.

"We need to discuss ways to gather food and water as we head north," she announced to the small assembly of leaders. "You folks have lived here for some time, and know the area better than I do. Is there any place along this route that we can forage for food and water that you know of? Do you know of anyone among the refugees who would happen to be good at supplementing our foraging campaign? Herbalists, farmers, gardeners, lumberjacks, hunters?"

"I hate to say this, Captain," commented Kerrington, "but the only person here that we know of who has been further north of Panguitch than the Great Insect Mound... is you.  After all, this has been considered hostile territory, and off limits for some time."

Bruin Hilda chuckled as she reflected on her team's adventure north to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Before that, none of the people of Panguitch had dared to pass the Great Insect Mound, not even Major Sekston. They'd had quite enough to handle where they were, of course.

"I'm not looking for people who know the route so much as people who know the land. We need foragers, and people who can provide provisions. That's what I mean," replied Bruin Hilda. "So do you know of any rangers, or hunters, or people of that sort among the refugees?"

"Well, I might point out that there's likely quite a bit of food that could be foraged over at the Great Insect Mound," said Kerrington. "We don't see any insects there, but we do see that it's still thriving with life, even if it's of the unusually voracious variety."

"Yes, I was afraid you might mention that," replied Bruin Hilda as she surveyed the mound once again with her binoculars. Well, one thing was sure, insects or not, there was plenty of animal and plant life there. She turned round and surveyed the road north and the lands round about. It was desolate desert with only dry scrub brush here and there. Not even a tree to be seen, and by day it shimmered with heat.  She sighed.  There wasn't going to be much to forage out there.

"I know there have been previous expeditions to the mound to collect samples," said Bruin Hilda. "There was a team that was sent to the mound at some point in the past by Major Sekston.  Anyone from that expedition happen to be among us today?"

"Yeah, well," replied Kerrington, "Major Sektston sent a team up there a few years ago, that's true. All that's left of them are those burned out tank hulls that you saw when your team took Dr. Rogers there earlier. No one survived from our expedition at all."

"Okay," replied Bruin Hilda, "I'm sorry to hear that.  Anyway, let's take a team of four or five people to head to the mound and do some hunting. I will lead. Kerrington you'll come with us, and you there, Tom, you can come, too." 

It was getting on towards sunset, so it was decided that it would be better to go to the mound in the morning by daylight. 

"It'll be dark in an hour, so let's find a place to encamp for the night," she said. "Let's take a look around for a good spot that's far enough away from the mound to be safe. What's up ahead on the road?"

"Well, according to the map there's an old camping resort a couple of miles up the road on the corner of 89 and route 20. If we hustle, we can make it before nightfall," said Kerrington.

"Okay.  When we get there, form up a volunteer force to patrol the perimeter. Now, let's get going, everyone," ordered Burin Hilda.  And so the caravan picked up speed and the people moved along as quickly as they could, wagons and carts, busses and cattle, geese, donkeys, horses, and people alike.

The march didn't take more than an hour for most people, and the stragglers were brought up from the rear by the lieutenants in their jeeps. When they arrived they found an old overgrown parking lot with a couple of rusted out RVs, one of which was laying on its side, the other seemed in almost good enough shape to actually sleep in, though the windows had long since been blown out and the interior full of cobwebs and bracken. They began to set up camp and two of the lieutenants established a perimeter around the lot with motion-detector posts. While this was going on, Bruin Hilda took a long sweeping look around the area and found that there was desert, more desert and plenty of desert in all directions. And, more importantly, nothing out of the ordinary. They were in a low wide vale, through which the road passed. On the other side of the road to the east a small thin river meandered to the north. Along its banks nothing grew, however. It was dry as a bone just beyond the water's edge. She was familiar with this phenomenon of absolute lifelessness in sectors of this region, and it made her nervous. But there was nothing to do except make do, and so that's what they did.

"Tom, you seem to have a handle on accounting and whatnot," said Bruin Hilda after chatting with him for a few minutes, "so I'd like to make you our new  Quartermaster. Take a walk around and collect a tally of supplies from the refugees. Foodstuffs in particular.  We need to know how many days provisions we have for the caravan."

Tom nodded and set out to do just that.  However, as soon as he started asked the refugees how much food they had, he got the impression from the hemming and hawing, shifting stances, and darting glances that he was not receiving entirely accurate information in return. He could understand why, however. After all, in the middle of the apocalypse one would expect people to take all they could and keep all they could get. And he was exactly right about that. But still, despite his innate understanding, as soon as rumor got around that Tom was the new quartermaster, no one wanted to talk to him very much. So he decided he needed to make a speech to try to appeal to the common folk on the basis of their mutual survival. 

So he stood up on a stack of crates and called everyone's attention to himself.  After a few minutes the entire caravan of refugees were standing in a large circle around him. The parking lot became quiet, and everyone listened. The air was still, and not a sound could be heard.  And so he gave his speech.

"I know these times have been hard," he began. "I know we spent years trying to survive and every day feels like a war. But this is the moment we need to come together to survive. Because if we don't, then what's the point of living - if we can't even trust each other enough to share the food and resources we've escaped with while we try to make it to a safe haven?" 

And then he stood and looked out into the eyes of the crowd, searching their souls and appealing to their common humanity. As it happened, this short speech had a profound effect on many there. About half decided to come forward and put their names in the quartermaster's list and provide an accurate accounting of their provisions. The other half, however, were persuaded that the quartermaster was sincere, but they still suffered anxieties that prevented them from responding to his request without reservation. The overall effect, however, was extremely positive, and as the crowd dissolved everyone agreed that the speech was short but to the point, and well said, and everyone admired Tom even more from that day forward.

"The best way," he told those who had come forward, "is to lead by example, and hope that in time everyone will come around."

Afterwards, Bruin Hilda took a patrol around the perimeter and used her Sense of Perception to see if she could detect anything strange, above or under the ground. As she walked the perimeter she sensed a tunnel with sex-legged field mice, a small colony of fire-ants, several three-headed and four-headed worms, and, based on these more-or-less-normal (for post-Ultra-War America) findings, she concluded that the area reasonably safe from any immediate and dire threat.  

There was one oddity that caught her attention, but it was beyond the perimeter by a good 30 feet, and so she did not pursue it.  She had sensed out in the desert a straight metal tube buried in the ground, about five feet long and three inches in diameter.  It didn't connect to anything, and the top was covered over so that it could not be seen.  The only thing that might suggest there was anything there at all was that someone had placed ten fist sized stones above it in a small circular pile.  Had she not felt the tube using Sense of Perception she would never have noticed it, and she guessed no one else would either.  Odd, she thought, but still, not her business, too far, and she was far too busy with other more important things.  She passed it by without digging into it any further.

"It seems the tower-builder ants have not followed us," said Lieutenant Kerrington when she returned. "Perhaps when we destroyed the towers, the queen ruling them were killed in the conflagration, and now they're leaderless," he speculated.

"Yes, that's possible. But if you recall," replied Bruin Hilda, "Captain Samwise thought the giant hypno-mosquitoes had seemed to be controlled by some greater mind. And the ants had the same attribute, I thought. And the other mutant insects also seem to have a certain expanded intelligence that suggests the same. I have not ruled out the idea that there is a greater intelligence controlling them all. And if so, this superior mind has been setting traps for us all along the way."

"Yes, ma'am," replied Kerrington thoughtfully. "That could be. That could be."

"My hope is that the anti-viral mist that Dr. Mitchell sprayed on the insect mound may have eliminated the threat," continued Bruin Hilda. "Perhaps whatever superior mind was controlling them was killed by it. But let's not get our hopes up too high. We don't know either way right now. But the traps seem to have been prepared ahead of time, and we've walked into each one. If that's its modus operendi, then we may as well expect more of the same. In each case before, we walked directly into the trap. We need to avoid that in the future, if possible."

"I wonder," pondered Kerrington, "if the NL-5-Kz virus augmented the insects natural intelligence in some way? You know, like the way it augmented Dr. Roger's intelligence to such an incredible degree, and many of the people at Panguitch as well. It gave half the people who came in contact with it super mental powers, you know. Maybe it's done the same thing for the insects, and they're, well, just a whole lot smarter than before. After all, if you look at it that way, then perhaps we simply walked into their hunting ground, and those traps were there not so much for us specifically, but for anyone who might happen to wander into them. Maybe the road offers them some sort of hunting advantage, because it's flat, or  hot, or straight, or the smell of the asphalt, something. Maybe those traps would have been built there regardless of whether we showed up or not."

"I'll keep that in mind," replied Captain Bruin Hilda. "That's also possible."

"One thing is certain," said Kerrington. "Those ants were super intelligent. The ant towers were built with mechanical precision that was way beyond normal insect intelligence, that's for sure. Those fused-sand parabolic mirrors were effective enough to take out one of our jeeps and scatter us all over the desert. And the way they moved those beams of sunlight, I dunno, but it did seem like they were communicating with each other over a great distance, and instantaneously. The mathematics involved is simply incredible. It's beyond... but... I dunno. Maybe it was just a natural function of their group intelligence augmented by the virus. You know, like Dr. Rogers has mental powers, I mean actual real super powers from his mutation. Maybe the ants did, too. Maybe they were communicating telepathically. the way Rogers does?"

They debated back and forth until the wee hours, but no conclusion could be made. They'd have to wait and see. Meanwhile the sun rose in the east and they got themselves ready to head out. Bruin Hilda wanted to hunt at the mound. She pulled out her binoculars and observed the line of foliage along its base. A pair of unusually large rodents were attacking an even larger writhing purple serpent within a slowly curling bone-hued thorn-vine. Yes, there was food there.  Plenty of it.  But who would eat whom first?  That was the question.

"There's food over there," said Bruin Hilda, lowering her binoculars. "We might as well go and get some." And with that she gathered her crew of hunters, including Tom and a couple of refugees who happened to be good at hunting the rodents. One particular fellow claimed to be a rat-hunter, and even looked somewhat like a rat himself.  His name was Willard Jones, and he quickly got his gear when Bruin Hilda agreed that he should join them on the hunt.  

Bruin Hilda ordered the rest of the caravan to continue north in the meantime, and planned to catch up with them in the afternoon after the hunt was completed.  Presuming they survived the experience, of course.  She took another look through her binoculars.  The upper half of the purple serpent, despite its enormous size, had been shredded by the mutant rats and most of it had been gnawed away to the bone. 

* * *

Meanwhile, some distance away, deep under the earth, Pita and Vilar walked down a short flight of ancient stone steps along the ledge-path. Behind them in the darkness of the enormous cavern the pitiful voice could still be heard calling out from the mouth of the second tunnel.  The webs along the walls shimmered and rippled with the sound, and the memory-devouring diamond spiders glimmered along the threads in their thousands.  But they ignored all of this and escaped away along the narrow ledge. 

Pita followed silently behind his guide. He checked to ensure that his Lemurian cloak was properly configured with maximum sound dampening and stone-colored camouflage. For all practical purposes, by normal vision, they were all but invisible, and perfectly silent. He tuned his helmet to a wider wavelength of night vision, but found that he could nevertheless only see about fifteen feet ahead. Vilar was creeping along with great care. Not a sound was made. They followed the ledge for a long ways. To their left was a sheer drop-off down into absolute darkness, from which the sound of distant waters could faintly be heard. To their right was an equally sheer cliff rising up into cavernous darkness.  The ledge they traversed was a mere two feet wide.  Needless to say, the journey was unnerving.

Suddenly Pita caught sight of a large bat that flicked by his left shoulder.  It was heading directly for Vilar, whom it attacked from behind. It hit Vilar with a bash and gave him a vicious bite. Caught completely by surprise, Vilar stumbled, and fell onto the wall to his right. Had he stumbled left, he would have fallen over the edge and that would surely have been the end of him.  Pita watched breathlessly as Vilar crouched against the wall and grabbed his shoulder. Blood showed up on his hand. Pita pulled out his Lewiston Beam Pistol and took the shot; a thin crimson beam lanced out but missed the bat as it flitted away into the darkness. Vilar leaned against the wall panting. Cursing silently at the missed shot, Pita made his way along the ledge and crouched down next to him. He put his right hand on Vilar's wounded shoulder, attempting to use his power of Mesmeric Healing, but the power failed him each time he tried, until finally the last attempt worked its benign magic. He saw the wound staunch and the blood stop flowing down his shoulder. He figured there was some chance the bite could have been poisonous, but there was nothing he could do about that at that moment. And so they got up and continued along the ledge, looking in all directions, and Pita kept his Lewiston at the ready.

They continued for a while, and then Vilar stopped and stood stock still. Pita came up behind him. Vilar pointed ahead, and there Pita could dimly see that the ledge ended at the beginning of broad wide shelf along the cliff that extended outward into the darkness forming a wide flat plateau.  How far it went was impossible for him to see.  Where the ledge-path met the plateau the cliff obscured their view of the remainder of the shelf to the right which was inset an unknown distance.  Then, by sheer luck, or fate, Pita noticed along the side of the shelf there was a barely discernable flight of narrow stone stairs going down into the deeper darkness below. They could only see about fifteen feet so it was hard to tell how far down the stairs actually descended.  To Pita's surprise, Vilar used hand gestures to ask him which way he wished to go. Of course he had no idea of what was ahead in either direction. But Vilar, at this point, was both wounded and a bit delirious, and also he himself did not know what was at the bottom of the stairs. What he did know, however, was that once Pita spoke in the cavern, there was a good chance that their presence in the cavern had been revealed to those who dwelled in the dark caves along the plateau.  That was the path Vilar had taken long ago, but it was no longer a question of silently slipping past a few ominous cave mouths, and traversing on tippy toe along the next ledge past one more cave to obtain the exit from the cavern and take the tunnels to the south. No, he figured that was likely no longer just a matter of slipping by.  He had to assume the entire Nexus had been alerted to the interlopers. So going down might as well be as good an option as crossing the plateau. Perhaps there were no dangers along that path.  He had no way of knowing. So he left it entirely up to Pita to decide, and Pita chose to go down the stairs. And so down the long thin flight of stone steps they crept.

They descended for a long ways until they came to a small landing where the stairs doubled back and then continued down, forming a zig-zag along the cliff face.  And so they descended another long flight of stairs until they finally arrived at the bottom of the cavern. There they found a small stone trail amid giant knife shaped stones with sharp blade-like edges. They looked a lot like flint knives sticking out of the ground and Pita guessed that each one must have weighed a few thousand pounds. The trail wove its way between the boulders. As they walked forward the sound of rushing waters grew louder, and there was a breeze which slowly became a wind. Sand blew along the ground, and the sound of the rushing waters grew into a roar.

After a while they came to a fork in the path. The wind was rather strong here, and the sand was whipping up and stung their skin wherever it was exposed. The roar of the rushing waters was loud and their night vision was diminished to only five feet due to the greater darkness of the place, and the sands which obscured their view. They stopped there to get their bearings, pulling their fluttering cloaks around them against the wind. Tall knife shaped stones were jutting out of the ground all around them and they could only see a few feet ahead in any direction. If there wasn't a trail there, they'd have been forever lost among the knife-stones of Nexus Bottom for sure.
 
And that is where we left things that night.
 
* * *

Unbeknownst to our heroes, not far away a pair of almond brown eyes peered at them as they made their way down the long flight of stairs. The delicate eyebrows above them furrowed in frustration. Why had they gone down into the Pits of the Nexus? The almond eyes blinked a few times, and then the brain behind them decided that it was time to contact the Queen of Lemuria and ask what she should do. Talara, the Queen's handmaiden and closest confidant, one who knew all too many of the secrets of the royal house, tippy toed back down the corridor about forty feet and turned the tunnel bend. From that spot there was no chance a sound would penetrate the Nexus and cause any additional calamity on top of what Pita had already done. Nevertheless she whispered as she opened a channel to the Queen on her Radio-Broach

"Majesty, my charges have descended into the depths of the Nexus, after the guest whispered," Talara spoke softly into the the Radio-Broach.

The Queen was flustered and perplexed by this news, and said "Down into the pit of the Nexus?! This is terrible news!" She seemed to Talara to be trying to decide what she should command. Finally, after a brief but fretful pause she said, "It is far too dangerous for you there, Talara! Return immediately. We will have to hope that the men can make it through on their own somehow!"

Talara worriedly replied, glancing back towards the Nexus covering her mouth with her hand. "Yes, my queen."  But she could not tear herself away.  "Majesty, is there no other way?" she spoke hesitantly into the broach.  

"While there are always other ways, I can not bear to think of you putting yourself in such danger.  Let us hope the men are able to make their way through somehow," replied the Queen with solemn resolve.  

"My first duty is, as ever, to my queen." The Lumerian handmaiden reflexively responded, though terrified of the consequences to her beloved Vilar.

"Vilar... if you get yourself killed now..." she muttered under he breath.

"No Lemurian has ever dared to venture down into the pits of the Nexus.  Not even I know what is down there," said the Queen.  "For you to follow them would be the height of folly, and I cannot do anything but order you to return to me immediately before anything terrible should happen to you.  As your Queen, I command it."

Talara had no choice but to obey the royal command. And so she left her true love, Vilar, and his charge to their fate! And thus we learned that Talara's sense of duty and loyalty to the Queen outweighed all other concerns, including that of her own true love. And with that she turned with a heavy heart and trudged listlessly upward through the long steep passageway that led back to the surface world. Pita and Vilar were none the wiser, as they had no inkling that they had been followed all that time by beautiful and daring Talara, Vilar's fianc√©.  And so it was that the Lemurian Queen's plans had begun to unravel.


Saturday, October 29, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 39

Captain Samwise was laying on the couch in the back of the AGV trying to ignore the throbbing agony of his leg.  At least, he thought, the metal cubby had stopped banging for the moment.  He wondered why the Iron Talon Hands suddenly wanted to get out so badly.  Could this have something to do with the approaching storm? His best guess was that it did. At any rate, they'd soon get a few good licks in from their perch on the mountainside overlooking Panguitch, and that made the pain in his leg seem more bearable.

Penelope was busy adjusting the controls of the targeting system to validate her calibrations.  Perfect.  She then hopped over to the Nav-Comm System and got busy there as well.  Guns was up in the turret as usual, keeping an eye out while checked to see how much ammunition the machinegun had remaining.  9,400 rounds.  Good.  Major Sekston had been watching the metal cubby door like a hawk, and wondering how she could secure it even further.  She had no idea what  the "Three Talon Hands" were, but the fact that they were causing the already welded door to shudder whenever they hit from within their metallic prison made her feel strongly that it needed more welding.  A lot more.

Meanwhile, Fred was taking the time to bicker with Captain Samwise about his recent decision to use the last of their Plasma Cannon cannisters on the tanks attacking Panguitch.  The debate went exactly as poorly for him as the last time.  Sam had made up his mind, and as Captain he was entitled to call the shots.  And his goal at this point was to hit the tanks from well out of range of their RH-120 cannons, and help the US military protecting the route to Garfield Hospital gain an upper hand.  That ought to give the doctors there enough time, he thought, to finish the evacuation northward along Route 89 so that they could rendezvous with Captain Bruin Hilda and head north to safety with the caravan of refugees.  Fred, for his part, was having none of it.  He didn't think it was in their interests at all to use up their most valuable munitions helping a bunch of people who weren't really offering their team much of anything.  And furthermore, it was a long way back to Tuscon, and he was convinced they'd likely need the Plasma Cannon along the way.  It seemed just plain foolhardy to use it up on mere tanks.

"Knowing what these lizardmen are, and how much damage they've done," Sam was saying, "not facing them is not the best thing for humanity.  And that is our mission. That's why we joined the Federation. That's why you joined the Federation after the Ultra-War ended.  That's why you're participating."

"I re-joined because I'm good at this," replied Fred, scrambling to get the substance of his ideas across, but failing thus far. 

"Yes!" exclaimed Samwise.

"But being good means knowing when to go and get reinforcements, and when retreat to an advantageous position!" he exclaimed emphatically, with a bit more venom than he intended.

"That's exactly what we're about to do," replied Samwise, realizing he'd just been handed the coup d'√©tat of this argument.  "You see that position up there on the mountain?  How far away is it?  Five point two miles.  We will be well out of range of the tanks.  That is the advantageous position. And we can still help."

Fred stared at him trying to think of a retort, but the Captain went on.

"I am ashamed of what I did to kowtow to you and Pita in regards to the Knights of the Golden Crusade," he went on. "But this -- we can still help.  We can still do something!"

The mention of the Golden Crusade brought to mind the battle they had had with the Black Manticore, the EMP blast, and the "Chain of Thanatos" which the Golden Crusaders had later recovered and hidden in a vault beneath the Church of Crystal Light on the east side of Page, Arizona.  It seemed like eons ago.

"We're dealing with infernal evil here, you know," retorted Fred, unwilling to give up.  "That army isn't just lizardmen.  There's the black manticore, remember?  We've got bigger things than a few tanks to worry about.  We could be solving much bigger problems right now."

"What bigger problems?" inquired Guns from the perch.

"I don't know.  But the point is, we've got a long way to go to get back to Tucson.  Maybe we're going to need the plasma cannon ourselves, you know?"

"We can only deal with the problems in front of us.  There's always a chance things will go worse, or that things will go better.  But there is something in front of us now, and I refuse to walk away without trying my best."

Major Sekston, who'd come in from working on the axle and had sat down, nodded in agreement with that point.  Fred, thinking that having saved her life she kind of, sort of, owed him one, glared at her with contempt, to which she raised an eyebrow and looked away.  

"This is the plan.  I heard your argument, but your argument has not changed my mind.  As a Captain of Federation Command it is my duty to protect as many of the humans here as I can," said Sam.

"Since we already dealt with Black Wind V, isn't that mission complete?" asked Guns leaning his head down from the perch.

"Yes. That mission is complete," replied Sam.

"Just checking, sir," said Guns, smiling to himself.  There'd be plenty of bonus Credits waiting for them when they got back to Kitt Peak, that's for sure.

Captain Samwise ordered them to prepare for departure.  He assigned Major Sekston to drive the AGV, given that his wounds made it difficult for him to do so.  Sekston pointed out that the AGV was still in bad shape, and would remain that way until it could be taken to the airport garage.  At best it could manage half speed on clear roads.  They were heading up into the mountains on dirt roads for most of the way, and trackless terrain beyond that.  Samwise waved her on.

The AGV's engines roared to life, and off they went.  Out past the Panguitch City Cemetery and up into the mountains.  It was slow going as they clung to the rugged dirt road heading up to the coordinates that Penelope had plugged into the Nav-Com.  After an hour's rough ride up the mountain, they arrived at the appropriate plateau.  It had a commanding view of the entire region, and Panguitch appeared rather small from there.  The ridge fire that Guns had started earlier had spread to consume a large area south out the town, billowing enormous plume of smoke high up into the sky.  They could see on their vizi-screens that the battle was still raging.  Three tanks were in view, supporting lizardman battalions with cannon fire every few minutes.  The US Army forces were being pushed back, and had lost considerable ground, having retreated to their third and last trench-line around Gertrude Catholic Mission Church.  The fighting had devolved to hand-to-hand melee within the trenches and they could see squads of US Army soldiers being routed by their fierce reptilian enemies.  They watched their vizi-screens in grim silence.

Penelope checked the calibrations one last time, and gave the green light.  Guns, from up in the perch, loaded one of the four remaining Plasma Cannon canisters into the slot, and clicked the Power-Up button.  It took a minute for the indicator to signal that the cannon was fully charged.  He then targeted the lead tank, clicked, and the screen put a red square box around it, and the words "Target Acquired" appeared above it.  He held his breath, and pulled the trigger.  A thin 5.2 mile long beam of yellow-white plasma lanced out from the mountainside and poked a hole straight through the target's engine.  Within a second it exploded in a bright orange fireball, sending the entire turret sailing through the air.

"Oh yeah!" shouted Sam, along with everyone's cheers.  "Now that's more like it!  Alright Guns, while they're distracted, let's go for another one!"

"Aye Captain!" shouted Guns as he loaded the next canister.

One minute later, another long pencil thin beam lanced out, and a second tank exploded on the battle field. Guns looked mighty proud of himself.  

"Don't let Ilene get jealous now, Guns," quipped Sam, smiling.

"Aw, now Captain, why'd you have to go and say something like that?  Now don't you listen to a word he says, Ilene," said Guns, crooning has he patted his Springfield Rifle with his right hand.

There was one more tank in line of sight from their position.  It was backing out of its current position as it began to seek a place to hide.  One minute later, as it was frantically making its way toward a wooded area, the third bright lance beamed forth, and there was a third massive explosion on the battle field.

Everywhere they could see lizardmen running frantically away from the trench lines, back towards the woods of the southwest from whence they came.  There were suddenly multiple locations where the flashes of machinegun muzzles could be seen from around the barricades of Saint Gertrudes.  Hundreds of lizardmen were riddled with bullets and fell as the rest retreated into the further trenches.  US Army soldiers gave chase.  

Sam watched all of this through his binoculars with great satisfaction.  They'd turned the tide of the battle and it was glorious.  He noticed that above the forest fire to the south the smoke began to swirl into a large vague vortex.  As he watched it transformed into a darker cloud, in which flashes of crimson lightning suddenly began to flicker.  As they watched the storm grew larger, fiercer and beneath it the land darkened, and the scarlet lightning began to flash out and hit points on the ground.  



"Um, okay," said Good Captain Samwise.  "Just so you know, I think we've seen this kind of storm before.  I know this is going to sound very strange to you, Penelope and Major Sekston, but, if I'm not mistaken, this storm may be sentient."

Penelope cocked her head and raised an eyebrow.  Major Sekston paused, and then zoomed in on her vizi-screen.  

"Did you say, 'sentient storm'?" asked Penelope.

"We've encountered multiple times a force that is able to control very powerful plasma-lightning storms," explained Samwise.  "If we need to tell anybody who is still down there to hunker down and ground themselves, now would be the time. This thing is devastating."

Penelope sent an urgent message on the emergency radio frequency down to the command center at Garfield, however, the static on every frequency was overwhelming.  It seemed the scarlet lightning produced enormous discharges of electromagnetic radiation that interfered with transmissions.

"I'm trying to transmit, but I'm getting no response.  I have no way of confirming that they received the message, but given the static, I don't think so, sir." said Penelope as she turned dials and examined the readout screen.

Major Sekston, who had been pleased to see the lizardmen routed, was highly skeptical about the so-called sentient storm.  It sounded flat-out absurd.  She began to suspect the Captain's sanity.  And yet, she had to admit that she'd seen some pretty strange things since the dawn of the Ultra-War.  But a sentient storm?  That was just one bridge too far for her mind.  She opted to disbelieve it, and began considering alternate explanations.

"We need to hunker down ourselves," said Sam. "Major, see if you can find a valley, or a cave, or something to hide in.  We need to dig in."

Although the AGV was in pretty bad shape, Sekston took a barely discernable trail northeast, and entered one of the vales that lined the ridges of the mountain.  The vale possessed a series of canyons that offered reasonably good protection from wind and they found one that seemed especially suitable.  It had a good view of Panguitch and was protected by a cliff, as well as a few gigantic boulders next to which the AGV could be protected on two sides.  Samwise ordered Fred to anchor the AGV into the ground with its massive titanium pilings, and the vehicle vibrated intensely as they bored the gigantic screws into the ground.  After a few minutes it was dug in and stabilized against the mountainside.  It wasn't going anywhere.

Sam looked at the gaping holes in the sides of the AGV with some trepidation. There were three, each roughly the size of a dinner plate, but nothing could be done about that at the moment.  He felt it was enough luck that the cannon fire that created those gaping wounds had not utterly destroyed the vehicle and killed them all.  A few holes?  But an annoyance!

"Stay away from the holes, folks," he ordered, and everyone nodded in agreement.  

Meanwhile, Penelope tracked the storm on her vizi-screen.  It split into two vortexes.  One headed north into Panguitch.  The other was heading eastward, and it appeared to be making a slow but steady bee-line towards their position.  But something surprised her as she watched the vortex heading towards them.  At the edge of town it stopped, and seemed to hover, swirling ever more rapidly, but remaining in place.  She brought up the map overlay.

"Um, Captain Samwise, I think you should take a look at this," she said pointing to the zoomed-in vizi-screen.  

"Hmm..." began Samwise, not quite understanding what she was driving at.

"The storm seems to have stopped, sir," she said, "directly over Panguitch City Cemetery."

"What the..." said Sam, his voice trailing off into a whisper.  Everyone leaned over their vizi-screens and watched.  Except for Guns.  He was busy checking Ilene, and making sure that the machinegun was properly mounted, ammo was loaded, and auxiliary systems were operational.  He wasn't superstitious, but when a sentient storm takes a pit stop over a cemetery, that can only mean one thing. Bad shit is going to go down.

Then the storm began to move again.  It passed over the vale separating Panguitch from the eastern mountains upon which the AGV was perched, darkening the land beneath it.  No one had a good feeling about this.  Crimson lightning bolts could be seen flickering out from the bottom of the storm, occasionally hitting the ground and blasting whatever they touched to pieces.

At that moment there was a loud bang from the rear of the AGV.  The sound was so loud and sudden that Major Sekston jumped out of her seat.

Bang! Bang!  - - Bang!Bang!Bang! 

"Yes," said Samwise to the Major. "Sentient storms, and evil Three-Talon Hands.  We have them all, Major, we have them all," he said with a laugh.

"Ahhh... What don't you guys have?" she asked, amazed.  No answer was forthcoming, so she examined the storm with her binoculars. A great wind was gusting below the boiling black clouds.  There was lots of crimson lightning striking the ground.  Trees exploded and their trunks caught on fire.  Boulders were blasted to pieces as the flickering tongues of crimson lightning licked them.  It was positively frightening. 

"Is this a... friend of yours?" asked Major Sekston as she stared downslope through her binoculars.  She didn't believe the storm was sentient, but perhaps with advanced science someone was controlling it.  That she considered unlikely, but at least possible.

"We've met a couple of times before," replied Samwise.

"Are you on, like... good terms?" she inquired, still watching the lightning strikes as they blew things to pieces.

 "Well, not really.  I think I took something of his and gave it to people he didn't like," he added.  "But you know.  Neighbors are neighbors."

"Wow.  Mind if I ask what it is that he didn't want you to give to your neighbors?"

"Ah, yeah.  Well, Mr. Talon Hands had a magic chain that he wants back, I suppose," said Sam as matter-of-factly as he could.

"You mean the three-talon hands in the cubby had a magic chain?  And the storm wants the magic chain back, do I have this right?" asked the Major, trying to keep her voice steady.

"Yup."

"Is that why the Hands are banging away at the door of the cubby?"

"Yup."

"How about this?  Why don't we leave the AGV and run away before your storm-buddy gets here?" she asked as her understanding of the situation evolved.

"Well, I don't think it will be safer outside than inside. And I don't imagine he's the kind of, um, thing, to just let us scamper away.  I think somewhere along the line this got personal," answered the Captain.

"Fair enough," replied the Major.  "Mind if I ask, who the 'He' we're talking about here actually is?"

"Um... well, uh... he is kind of like a lion, you might say," answered Sam, while fidgeting with his fingers as flickers of pain ran up his leg.

"So the 'sentient storm' is a lion-thing?" asked the Major growing increasingly perturbed.

"Well, um... just never go to Vegas.  That's all I can say," answered Sam, trying to finish the topic off, and looking to move on to a subject that would be more tangibly useful.  Tactics and strategy would do.

Fred was stewing in contempt as he stared into the vizi-screen.  His viewport was aimed down the slope at the top of which the AGV was perched.  He had been flicking between different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum and had settled on ultra-violet, for no particular reason.  Below he could see a forest of young pines and maples trees clustered together beyond the two hundred yards of scrub and rocks.  They had begun to sway violently in the strong winds. About fifty feet to the north was the barely discernable track they'd taken to get to this spot.  In ultraviolet the visi-screen showed the trunks of the trees as deep blue, while dead leaves on the ground were bright red.  Everything else was jet black.  Except when a bolt of scarlet lightning lit the landscape, at which point the colors inverted for a moment.  

During one such flash of lightning he saw a figure move between two trees.  It looked wraith-like in the darkness.  He couldn't quite make it out. Once the afterglow faded, it was gone.  He sat up, zoomed in and panned the view.  He was pretty sure he saw something moving out there.  Then he saw red silhouette against the inky blackness move between two dark blue tree trunks.  It lumbered forward, and at first glance Fred thought to himself, "oh great. Zombies.  Just frikkin great."

Then he saw another one. And another. They were shambling up the slope.  He saw another one come out from the trees. That made four.

"Guns!  Shoot man," barked Fred up the ladder to into the perch.

"Wow, you're right, Fred. Captain, there's a bunch of people coming up the slope," said Guns.

"Yeah, we know," shouted Fred, "Why don't you shoot them?!"

"What if they're our guys, though?" asked Guns has he rotated the Perch so that the machinegun faced squarely down the slope.  

"What??" snapped Fred. "Who cares?"

"Wait a moment," said Captain Samwise, raising his voice over them. "We can't just shoot people if we don't know who they are. We have to positively identify them. We can't just shoot innocent civilians."

"Hmm... from up here I can see there's four, six, eight, twelve, hmm... fifteen?" said Guns.

"Alrighty then.... are you going to go outside and ID them, chief?" asked Fred with a sarcastic twang.

They tuned the vizi-screens to infrared. The forms remained black against the warmer tree trunks, forming an image of shambling shadows.  That meant that their new friends had no heat signature whatsoever.  

"Ok.  That's good enough for me!" yelled Guns as he let loose with a hundred rounds from the machinegun. Ratta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tat!  It was a withering barrage and they watched as several of figures were blown backwards, and thrown pell-mell onto  the ground. They were easy targets. Guns took out the rest of them with a few more bursts of the machinegun.  The heroes watched carefully and there was silence out there. Fred switched back to ultra-violet view.  They stared intently at the screen. Nothing happened. They sighed with relief. But then an arm moved. Then a head poked up from beneath a log.  After another ten seconds or so, they were up and shambling again, heading in a group towards the AGV.

"Aw crap," said Fred.

The AGV was grounded, and was not about to go anywhere soon. Meanwhile, the winds had picked up in the vale, and flying leaves and bracken began to obscure their view on the vizi-screen. In the minute or so since they spotted the zombies the wind had increased from fifteen miles per hour to fifty-five, and showed no sign of stopping.

Penelope at this point was confused. She had seen plenty of zombies in Panguitch while visiting Garfield Hospital with Dr. Rogers. They had been, however, mutation zombies from the NL-5-kz virus, and if you shot them they were insensitive to pain so they could keep shambling forward, and get up from the ground even when badly wounded.  But these were shot with a 50 caliber machine gun and she found it surprising that they were able to recover from that.  Those wounds should have, she thought, killed them outright. But they were still coming.  And they had zero heat signature.  That was not possible.  She felt a cold chill down her spine as she watched the dark figures moving through the undergrowth.

Major Sekston walked to the front.  "Captain Samwise, what have you done in the past when you met with storm-buddy?"

"Well, so far we just let it blow over," he answered, completely skipping over the mind-bending, space-time warping, ferocious battle they fought with the Manticore the last time they encountered him.  At that time it took an EMP to repel the monster.  And then the next time it took a Holy Sword of the Golden Crusaders to get him to back off.  

"Yeah, he's just a lot of hot air, so to say," he concluded with a chuckle, that became a bit of a crazed cackle.

"Wow. Waiting it out sounds like a bad plan," she replied.  "But I have another question.  Is he coming here for the Talon Hands?"

"Yeah, well, I think he probably is, yes," said Sam.

"Why?  What makes you think so?" she pressed.

"Well, the Talon Hands came alive the last time he showed up, for one thing," he answered.

"Ah, so there's a definite connection," she said, her thoughts racing.

"Yes.  And also the the Talon Hands were what the Iron Talon Hermit was using to control the chain, so there's that as well," he added.

"Ah, so that cements it then.  There's a definite link," she concluded.  She was trying to get a grasp of the big picture in the hopes that something useful would come to mind.  But nothing did.  The pattern simply grew in complexity, rather than resolved itself.  After all, "magic chain", "sentient storm", "iron talon hands" that animated themselves... none of it made sense.  And yet, somehow, it had to make sense!  She began wracking her brain for an answer.

"Ok.  I have a great idea," she blurted out suddenly. "Why don't you give him the hands, and let him go away?!"

"Hmm... well, how do I put this?" replied Sam.  "I don't think anything we give to him is going to be remotely good for us."

"Ok.  I buy that.  But I have to ask, why don't we just run away again?  If he wants the Talon Hands, then he'll have the hands, and we can scamper off and get away.  That might satiate him, no?"  She was getting a little frantic.  She nor Penelope were used to the supernatural.  Not by a long shot.  Both of them were on the verge of panic.

"The first time we encountered the lion we managed to chase it off with an EMP," said Fred.  "Maybe we can rig up another one?"

They thought that over, but it didn't seem to be enough time for it.  The zombies were within a hundred feet of the AGV. 

"Guns, can you try toasting some of the zombies for me, as an experiment?"

"Aye Captain.  Happy to," replied Guns as he began unmounting the machinegun and replacing it with the flamethrower.  By the time he finished the zombies were within a hundred feet.  He aimed at the closest ones and pulled the trigger.  A long thin arc of smoking flame shot out and engulfed three of the zombies.  They writhed around and burned until their limbs fell off and they crumpled to the ground in dead heaps.  

"Okay!" said Sam as made his way painfully to the front of the AGV so he could he watch the action through the front windshield.  "That looks good.  Keep up the BBQ, Guns."

"Gladly, sir!" shouted Guns as he turned the flamethrower on the next batch.

Meanwhile Penelope was working on the EMP idea with Fred.  They needed at least an M-Class Crystalline Battery.  Since they'd used up the spare engine battery housing on the first EMP, they would have to tap the ones in the engine this time.  That would put the AGV on its heels, but Samwise thought it worth the cost.  If all went well they might be able to replenish at Garfield Hospital or the airport afterwards.  Anyway, the problem was that getting to the engine required someone going outside the AGV, opening the hood, disconnecting the battery unit from the housing compartment, and pulling one of the six M-Class batteries out, and, making it back into the AGV alive. Captain Samwise would have volunteered, but his leg was in terrible shape.  There was no chance he'd make it.  Fred looked the other way and put his hands down his pants.  Guns was busy torching the shamblers. And Penelope was, well, not suitable.

"I can do it," said Sekston, with a little shake in her voice.  "But Guns... you're going to cover me, right?"

"Yes, Ma'aam!  I got you covered!  Don't you worry!" he called down enthusiastically.

And so Major Sekston went to the airlock and opened it. Outside in smoke and darkness was a zombie coming towards the doorway, not more than twenty feet away.  

Seeing as how Sekston was about to launch out into the dark storm alone, Fred once again found himself impressed by her stern, stoic character.  His sense of grievance faded away, and so he walked over to the door and handed her his Lewiston Beam Pistol.  She gave him a nod of gratitude, hefted it, ascertained its weight and without any further ado, leaned to the outside, aimed the Lewiston at the zombie's neck and with a short exhale pulled the trigger.  A bright blue beam lanced out, and the zombies head was separated from its neck by a red glowing line.  The head fell to the ground with a dull bloodless thud.  The zombie's body leaned backwards and vanished from view as it tumbled down into a cleft in the rocks.  

With that Sekston sprang from the doorway and ran along the side towards the front where she could access the engine. Burning zombies were all around.  She opened the hood and looked inside.  As she pulled the battery out as she braced herself against the wind with one hand.  A tree branch bashed into her, knocking her down.  Several zombies emerged from behind a boulder and began shambling towards her.  From above an arc of flame poured down roasting them in place until all that remained were ashes and lumps of coal.  Sekston leapt to her feet, grabbed the battery and ran back to the airlock.  She hurled herself through, and the door slid shut behind her.  She wiped the grime from her face with her sleeve as she walked over to Penelope and handed her the battery.

"Well, here you go.  That was easy.  What's next?" she asked.  Penelope smiled and took the battery.  M-Class.  Yes, this would definitely do.

"The last time we did an EMP it fried ever circuit in the AGV," called Samwise to Penelope from the front.  "Any way we can, um, prevent that particular effect this time?" 

"Well, you're starting to ask for the impossible now," she said. "EMP's will wipe out any circuitry within range unless it's been hardened or is inside a faraday cage."

"Even if the AGV is powered down, eh?" asked Sam.

"Yes, even if the AGV is powered down," she replied affirmitively.

He thought about the faraday cage.  There was a small one he had cobbled together the last time, but it was in the cubby with the Iron Talon Hands.  No sense in thinking any further about that, his mind moved on.

"Alright. Back to the stone age, then.  Keep assembling," he said.

Penelope was taking apart components from the AGV and working fast with the soldering gun.  She knew exactly what to do, but she needed to work quickly.  Time was running out.

From outside Sam began to hear a strange moaning sound coming in through the holes in the side of the AGV.  He had a very bad feeling about this.  Something horrible was out there.  He could practically feel something stalking the AGV like a deep shadow prowling through the rocky darkness. The bizarre voice began to sing in the wind.  He wasn't sure if he was imagining it, or if it was real, but he recognized the words.  It was a nursery rhyme from his childhood.

Five little speckled frogs
FIVE little speckled frogs
Sat on a speckled log
Eating some most delicious bugs

Yum Yum.

One jumped into the pool
Where it was nice and cool
Now there are how many frogs? FOUR!

Glug Glug.

This nursery rhyme disturbed him greatly but he did not know exactly why. Perhaps it was the timbre of the voice that sounded so deep and resonant, as if it were the great black storm itself speaking?  Or perhaps it was the sense of vast and eternal menace that the otherworldly voice conveyed?  He didn't know.  And he didn't want to know.  He absolutely did not want to know.  The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.  The rhyme, he now remembered, had given him nightmares as a child.  And he never knew why.  Now he knew.

Samwise finally decided this was the manticore speaking to him.  He put his hands over his ears, and began shouting "Get out of my head!  Get out of my head!  Get out of my head!"

The cubby compartment suddenly shook with impact of Bang! Bang! Bang! sending Major Sekston reeling against the radio station in startled surprise. Fred turned suddenly and glared at Sam as he crouched down in a ball shouting to himself.

Then all the lights went out.  The AGV turned off.  All that could be heard was "Get out of my head.  Get out of my head." and the winds whistling through the holes in the walls.

"What happened?" shouted Penelope.  "I need light!"

* * *

Meanwhile, far away on the moon, deep inside the ultra-secret Nazi base of Eisenhelm, tucked away down on level C3, in Hanger B, our hero Vallnam was busy taking care of business.  The Moon-Nazi technicians already had one of the UFOs almost completely repaired, and a second ship that they believed had a good chance of being fully serviceable within two hours if they could find all the parts necessary among the other derelict UFOs. Each ship could hold an absolute maximum of nine people, if people shoved in and squeezed.  The main door of the hanger had been secured by piling a number of the derelict ships against it, and so he had no fear of being invaded by the Nazi Military at this point, though he felt pretty sure that the scientists in the now darkened Science Center would be eager to send revenge forces to eradicate them all as soon as possible.  However, given that all three Nazi factions with the fortress were engaged in a raging civil war, and that the fortress itself was being systematically melted down by the Brigade of Ten Nuclear Missile Robots, it seemed plausible that the Scientists would not be able to muster any forces for an attack.  At least he hoped so as he paced back and forth while thinking about these things.

He had ten workmen with him repairing the ships.  Jacob, Hanz and Carl were somewhere in the tunnels retrieving four extra spacesuits for the remaining four technicians whom they'd left behind in Workshop C3-A7.  They would have enough room for a maximum of eighteen people.  In total there were the three Federation heroes, and sixteen workmen, which made nineteen, meaning one of them would have to be left behind.  But no matter, they'd cross that bridge when they came to it.  Meanwhile the work went on, while every few minutes a tremor would shake the hanger causing dust and rocks to fall from the ceiling. 

Vallnam thought about how it would be to fly back to Earth in ships that packed to the gills.  It wouldn't be very comfortable, that's for sure, so he could expect a long eight hours while they rocketed at UFO speed back to home world.  Usually the ships were manned by three people;  a pilot, navigator and weapons officer.  Plenty of room to move between stations when necessary, effect repairs, have a latte. Squeezing nine people into one would make it very difficult to work the ship.  But they'd manage somehow.  Or, he thought, maybe half of them would happen to die, and so it wouldn't be a problem after all.  Who knew what would happen?

Meanwhile Ling was up in pillbox PB-A1 staring at Helmund, waiting for him to wake up.  As soon as he did a post-hypnotic suggestion should cause him to open the mysterious rear door of the pillbox, and hopefully lead her to control room C3-DZ-A1.  From that control room alone she could enter the code that would cause the Phalanx of fifty Nuclear Missile Robots to self-destruct, thereby saving the remnant of civilization on Earth from the Moon-Nazi's "Final Revenge".  

Unfortunately, Eisenhelm was itself being self-destructed by the Squadron of Ten, whose mission it was to melt the base down into a molten pool of slag as a final act of self-genocide.  It was, after all, presumed that if Hitler's Plan Delta-Z was ever activated it could only be because the Nazi's had completely lost the war, the Fuhrer was dead, and all hope for the Third Reich had been extinguished.  After all, Hitler's Credo was "If I can't rule the world, then everybody dies!"  It was a somewhat lopsided version of Mutual Assured Destruction, certainly. But that's how his thinking went in 1943 when the Moon had been secretly colonized by the Nazis Forces.  Unfortunately, Ling had found no other option but to use her Mentarian Power, "Narcoleptic Beam" on Helmund, and so consequently he wouldn't wake up for anywhere between one and six hours.  And she had no way of knowing how long it would actually take.  By the time he woke up, it was entirely possible Eisenhelm would already have been turned into a lava crater.  She fretted, and tried again to shake him awake.  Narcoleptic Beam.  Not gonna happen.  She sighed and sat back down facing him with her Lewiston drawn.

Vallnam paced impatiently.  He was thinking about how to get Ling out of the Pillbox once the ships were ready.  He thought perhaps they could open the Hanger B outer portal and fly one of the spaceships out over the surface of the moon to where the pillbox was located, and bore a hole into the tunnel next to it using the UFO's mighty plasma beam weapon. Since she was in her space suit she could then climb down the Pillbox ladder, and board the ship from the tunnel.  One of the technicians who was with him thought that this plan was utterly crazy, but still possible, provided the ship had enough energy, which it would and incredible care was taken to bore the hole in the correct spot, and keep the ship steady. After all it was powered by the magnificent Red Mercury Plasma Vortex Engine, so it would have enough energy, but keeping it steady?  Only a master pilot could do that.  Still though, it was possible, and the only way he could think of to rescue Ling since the Hanger door was blocked by a heap of derelict UFOs. 

On the other hand, how to find and pick up Jacob, Hanz and the other four technicians... well, that was a secondary priority, and they'd have to improvise that at the time.  "I mean I love Jacob to death and all, but, Ling is top priority, of course," he thought to himself.  

He had a couple of hours to kill because according to the technicians the work would take about that long.  He wasn't sure what to do with the time, however, so he paced nervously. He considered trying to access the computer in the locked control tower to see if he could mess with the rest of the network from there.  Possibly.  Perhaps he could unlock the door at the back of the Pillbox from the control tower computer instead of having to wait for Helmund to wake up?  Long shot.  He paced as he pondered.  

At this point Vallnam decided it would be a fine time to do a Tarot Reading.  He removed the deck of cards from his backpack, and after some mental preparation he pulled a single card from the middle of the deck, flipped it over and took a look with one eye.  "Judgement".  Hmmmm... Saturn.  Interesting. The card made him feel that he had an improved chance of success at the next thing might try to do, though he also felt that if anything happened suddenly he'd have had a slower than normal response.  Such was the effect of the Saturn card upon his psyche.  

He decided to try his luck and use his Mentarian Power of Telekinetic Unlock on the bronze colored door of the square building in the far corner of the hanger.  He had tried the same trick on that door earlier, but to no avail.  Now he felt more confident.  Holding the card in his hand he walked across the hanger and came to the square building for a second time.  It was an unusual shape for an Eisenhelm building in so far as it was perfectly cubed and inset about halfway into the cavern wall.  None of the the other architecture looked like it. The door that faced him was a dark burnished bronze color, and the lock on it was smaller than usual, with a trapezoid shape than he'd not seen on any of the other doors.  It was also a burnished bronze color.  He tried to focus his mind and held the card in his hand as he did so. However, something prevented him from tumbling the right psychic keys, he supposed, and regardless of his effort, and the card's luck, the lock remained sealed.  Miffed and disappointed, put the card back in the deck, and having drained the last dregs of his mystical energy, he decided to call it quits on the door.  He stalked off to find a corner to quietly meditate in.

After ten minutes of quietude he felt remarkably more powerful.  He stood up and looked around.  The work was progressing and the workmen were all busy making repairs. They had no need of his help, nor did they want it, nor he did not have the skills necessary to do more than get in their way.  So he stalked back over to the burnished bronze door and tried again.  But once more Telekinetic Unlock failed him.  He was deeply frustrated by this, and so again turned around and stalked back to the dark corner he found to meditate in.  Again he focused his mind and after ten more minutes he found that he felt quite refreshed again, and ready for action.  But to do what?  He looked at the workmen. They were still scurrying to and fro, busily working on the repairs.

He paced.  This was infuriating.  He had to do something! So he determined that this time that damn burnished bronze door was going to open! He stalked across the hanger once again and faced the door.  Stared at it with furrowed eyebrows and took nine deep, slow breaths. Focusing his mind, he invoked, one last time, the Telekinetic Unlock, and this time put everything he had into it.  He gave the damn lock a forceful mental shove, and practically snapped the hidden mechanism in half.  

The door slid silently to the side and opened into a large cube shaped room!  He was so surprised that it worked he just stood in the middle of the doorway staring into the room with a look of awe in his eyes as he gazed into that amazing chamber.

The room was magnificent, huge with glassy white walls and beveled edges along the floor and ceiling.  It was tinged with dark ultraviolet light that reflected dark blue pools of light off each wall's separators.  It was not easy to see the full length  or height of the room however, as the far end and ceiling were enveloped in shadow. This room looked very different than any other he'd seen in Eisenhelm thus far.  It was pristine.  Sparkling, and iridescent with blue light. He peered further into the ultraviolet gloom and caught sight of a large dark shape in the center of the chamber. At first he was puzzled by it, but then suddenly realized what it was.  A sleek jet black space ship, unlike anything he'd ever seen before.  It wasn't at all like the disk-dome shaped UFOs that the Nazis had been flying around for the past ninety years.  It was more like a rocket, but with a slim, sleek, glassy look, a gently domed top, and long pointed fins at the rear, making it look as though it were flashing across the galaxy at light speed while standing still.  It was hard to see because the color of it was so utterly pitch black, but the shape made its purpose apparent enough.  He was filled with delight.

However, standing next to the ship were two men in spacesuits.  One was short and portly, while the other tall and lean.  He could not see their faces, but both of the suits were emblazoned with General's regalia.  They turned and looked at Vallnam as he stood in the doorway.  He stared at them in surprise.  They pulled out their Lugers.  He stared at them in surprise.  They pointed their Lugers at him.

"Nein!" shouted Vallnam.

Both men shot their Lugers.  One bullet hit him in the left shoulder, and the other in the right thigh. He staggered backwards into Hanger B.  

Fortunately, Vallnam was wearing his purple-bubble pressure suit (the origin of which he could not at all remember), the puncturing of which, instead of causing explosive decompression which would have killed him then and there, instantly closed over the wounds and sealed.  Hardly any air was lost at all. The two gun wounds were painful as hell, but he wasn't dead!  

As he fell backwards, he managed to spin to his right and gain a position next to the outside of the doorframe, out of the line of sight of the two Generals.  He got on one knee and pulled his Springfield rifle over his shoulder from behind.  It should be noted that during the Ultra-War one thing the soldiers found out pretty quickly was that it was a very good idea to have a highly reliable, low-tech range weapon like the Springfield rifle on hand at all times.  The more sophisticated the high-tech weapon, they discovered, the easier it was to break, and while all that fancy load might be nifty and let you do neat-o gee-wiz things at a distance, in the dark, under water, or around corners, the fact that the Springfield was easy to maintain, and reliable counted for a lot.  Why it could save your life! He pulled the bolt, loaded the round, slid to his belly on the ground, and took aim around the corner, creating as small a target profile as he possibly could.  

The two generals, for their part, had crept closer to the door, probably thinking they had killed him, but wanting to be sure.  They were also likely to want to close the door as well.  In their haste and incaution they had made a critical mistake. And this was good for Vallnam.  He took the shot.  Unfortunately, he was in severe pain, and consequently the shot went wide and missed the portly General by an inch.  The tall lean General, more quick witted than his comrade, took another shot with his Luger and hit Vallnam, grazing him across his upper right arm.  That hurt.  But again the purple bubble-suit saved his life by sealing up instantly.  And as if that weren't enough, Vallnam felt his suit spray a mist of anesthesia on the wounds and actively healing them as he fought.  Wow!  

He pulled back from the door to reload and then swung back into place.  The Generals, seeing him apparently unfazed after having been shot three times took evasive action.  The thin one darted to the left, and the portly one waddled to the right, apparently in a panic, his arms flailing.  Vallnam swallowed the pain, took careful aim, and pulled the trigger.  The round pierced the helmet of the portly General.  Explosive decompression killed him instantly and there was a sudden splatter of blood across the white floor.

Vallnam pulled back and reloaded.  He pushed his gun through the doorway thinking to draw fire, but nothing happened.  He leaned further into the room and took a peek.  The tall lanky General had disappeared.  He looked carefully around the room, and saw no sign of him.  He stood up.  The suit was rapidly healing his wounds, and so though feeling wobbly, he walked back into the chamber, followed in by the technicians who had run over to where he was.  Inside he saw a circular tube with a round oval shaped door along the left side wall.  He figured General  Thin had fled through it.  

The workmen walked in behind him and whistled at the sight of the sleek black spaceship.  They were amazed.

"What kind of ship is this?" he asked the lead technician of the group.

"Hanz would know," he said.  "I've never seen anything like this. I suppose it is part of the Secret Arsenal Program!  And what a beauty she is!"


And that was where we left things that night.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 38

Pita stood stock still, not even daring to breath. He'd just made what could have been the greatest mistake of his life. Ahead of him, also standing as still and silent as a stone, was Vilar, his Lemurian guide. A look of dread and alarm was frozen on his face. Pita had just committed the one crime that the terrible cavern would never forgive; he spoke out loud. Even though it was but a whisper, it was enough. The webs that draped the walls of the cavern to his right began to ripple outward from where the sound of Pita's voice had struck. To their left was the abyss that fell away into darkness, from which the distant rumbling roar of many waters could be heard. Their path was a narrow ledge barely three feet wide that clung to the side of the vast cliff face. To their right, a cave entrance leading into a dark tunnel, inside of which Pita had vaguely sensed a living presence. The utterance that was soon to engulf him in unfathomable peril was a mere whisper to his guide; "Vilar, I think someone is in there!"

As the ripples in the spider webs formed ever widening circles outward into the darkness, Pita noticed that along the threads of the web, tiny white sparkling dots had appeared. They seemed to move and became glinting diamonds in the shapes of tiny spiders, and in their tens, then hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands the tiny glinting spiders flooded over the surface of the webbing towards him. His heart started racing and sweat broke out all over his body as his vision began to blur, and grow dark, and the glinting became a cloud of tiny sparkling diamond stars that fused into a swirling mass of light and darkness that completely engulfed him.

Pita woke up from the dream with a jerking motion of his head. He suddenly remembered where he actually was as the dream quickly vanished from his mind, as dreams often will, leaving no trace as to what it had been about, or where or when. And not a moment too soon, as his gaze fell upon a much brighter and more beautiful scene than the one he left behind.

He was sitting at the bar, a glass of Merlot in his right hand, the crowd around him murmuring pleasantly. His companion, a pretty young woman named Anny Hintze, was sipping her cocktail, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He tried to lock eyes with her, but she demurred.  Her silky blonde hair swished to the side as she turned to take another sip from her glass.  A moment passed.

"You okay?" she asked without looking at him.

"I'm always okay," said Pita with a bit of swagger as he sipped his Merlot. It was a fine Petrus Pomerol, 2018, at $7,600 a bottle. He swirled the glass a few times and and observed the legs. Not too sweet. Just right, he thought.  He took another sip.  

"Yes, well, you kind of drifted off there a little bit. I was talking to you and you just got, well, really spaced out. Honestly, Pita, I have no idea where you go to sometimes," she said, with a mix of concern and exasperation. He was young and handsome, and rich as the day was long, but it seemed to her that his heart was just not in it. He was halfway somewhere else half the time, adrift, aimless and dreaming. But he was young, rich and handsome, and that counted for a lot. She smiled and turned to meet his gaze.

"Well, your beauty just got the best of me for moment there," replied Pita, smiling as he gazed into her sparkling eyes.

"Ohh Pita," she said, punching him lightly on the arm. They clinked glasses and sipped their drinks.

The bar was on top of the 666 Building on 5th Avenue, recently bought by his father and renamed the Tochristor Building. It had a commanding view of the city. The dance floor was populated with couples, and the music was slow and melodic. It was idyllic. Pita felt at home, and was relieved to find himself there, rather than wherever he had been in his dream.  He was trying to recall what it had been about, but could not remember a thing, though he had the feeling that whatever it was, it has been rather dire, perhaps a nightmare even. He gazed across the room as the glamourous dancers slowly mingled and glided between each other, grazing hands to shoulders, wisps of smiles gracing young beautiful faces. He had no wish to dance, but he did enjoy watching. Anny turned to follow his gaze. He was slipping away again.

On the TV behind the bar a news program was being aired while outside the sounds of city life could be heard through the open terrace doors. A horn blared from some rumbling truck, another horn returned the complaint, distant shouts, the sounds of gun fire, a small explosion, perhaps. The usual city life noises from far below, mostly drowned out by the music of the live orchestra on stage at the far end of the dance floor. And the dancers danced on. Etched into the glass above the main double doors that entered into the bar was the name "Garden of Suns."

"Good evening.  Today is May 3rd, 2024," said the news anchor on the TV. "And now, the news.  This afternoon in a meeting of senior congressional members, serious allegations were posed by a representative of the Citizen Action Committee.  The finger of blame for unprecedented corruption was leveled at high ranking members of the current administration and their corporate supporters," droned the news anchor. Then on the screen appeared a beautiful young woman dressed in rags speaking passionately to the camera about the plight of the  poor, homeless and orphans. Around her a dozen sooty children in rags clung to her dress and gazed solemnly at the camera as she spoke.

"The number of homeless orphans has been increasing dramatically throughout the city!" she declared. "They have to live in the sewers! It's a crime against all of humanity!"

Pita felt her sincerity, and he was tremendously impressed by her beauty. Meanwhile, the dancing had stopped. All of the young people were staring at the TV screen with varying expressions of annoyance, outrage and hostility.

"The vast injustices conducted by the tiny handful must be addressed with a peaceful solution, despite the fact that violence is breaking out all over the world!" she continued with the calm of passion of one who knows to the depths of their soul that what they are saying is right and true.

"Well, there you have it folks. Citizen Action Committee has taken to the streets again," finished the news report, and cut to a commercial for "HydroGel Opiate, the newest flavor in luxurious hair treatment!  Blink 'Yes' to order yours now!"

The young people were angered by the news report, and one person yelled, "Hey shut that off!"  The TV promptly went black.

"So, did something bother you about that report?" asked Pita.

"It's just so...," struggled Anny without being able to phrase the source of her hostility.

But there was no reason to say; Pita knew what it was. The world was falling apart. Homelessness was everywhere. The cities has transformed into cesspits, and only the ultra-wealthy could get around via quadcopter without having to deal with the violence and mayhem. And so these young people, at the bottom of it all, felt guilty. Everyone in the world was suffering, except them. But no one wanted to admit that they felt guilty and so they were frustrated and angry instead. "How dare they put on such a report and ruin our evening," was the underlying thought passing through their minds. And there was this girl, so pretty and self-righteous and annoying, acting as if she was the Mother of the Innocent and all that. They felt frustrated and hostile whenever they saw her. And Pita knew there was a point to the way they were feeling. After all, it wasn't their fault the world had turned sour. They just happened to be born to the richest families in the world.  There was nothing they could do about it. But their guilty feelings wouldn't go away.

"Well, I'm glad they turned it off, anyway," said Anny.

"Yeah, well, it was a little depressing, I have to say," replied Pita thoughtfully, taking another sip.

"Exactly. After all, what does she expect us to do about it?" she asserted.

"True. I mean we could always throw more money at it. That's all they ever want from us anyway," answered Pita nodding his head affirmatively.

* * *

It was a few days later. He was out on the town, going to pick up a few things for a party later that evening. He was one of the braver of the Garden of Suns club, and so he made his way down the crowded street. There were homeless people gathered around a burning trash can. Another group passed by limping along from sores and malnutrition. He passed rows of tents packed up against the building walls between Lexington Avenue and 64th street. The smell of human degradation was severe, and so he was planning to cross over to the other side of the street when he saw a TV screen in a store window. On it was the girl from the news interview the other night. Her curly blonde hair and small pouty, red lips caught his eye. But he couldn't hear what she was saying. He went up the stairs and walked past the store's armored security-bot. It scanned him as he went in, but he paid no attention. Pita could walk into any store without being accosted, of course. He had a Platinum Privilege Pass so he could go anywhere he wanted, basically. There was another customer and a sales girl, but no one was near the TV. He went over to it. It was one of the new state-of-the-art twelve foot screen models. But he paid no attention to that either. His eyes were glued to the girl's pretty red lips as she spoke.

"The people are suffering terribly -- the tiny handful have to do something to help these poor children," she was saying.

"Wait! Aren't you the girlfriend of one of the boys from the Garden of Suns Industrialist group?" demanded the journalist with a noticeably cutting tone, raising an eyebrow and smirking at the camera, luridly implying that the girl was having an affair with one of the young men of the club.

Pita had heard the rumor the day before. He knew the young man in question, and Pita found it hard to believe that he would have had anything to do with her whatsoever. The guy was spoiled rotten with two dozen girlfriends and was completely full of himself. The girl on the other hand was sincere and real. He couldn't imagine it at all. No way. That girl would never fall for a guy like that.  Pita simply couldn't believe it for a second.

The Journalist went on to imply that the girl was merely a gold-digger, using her new-found celebrity status as a ploy to convince people that she represents the poor in order to manipulate to the world's richest heir, and that her motive was money, fame and power.  The smirking was incessant.

The girl silently turned her heel, and with the children in tow, walked away from the camera while the reporter sneered, and ended the broadcast abruptly.

Pita thought the girl was cute as a button! But he wondered if she was really his type. He couldn't conceive how she could have gone for that other guy, when Pita was so much better than that. He felt intrigued by the girl. He wondered where she stayed. He decided he wanted to meet this girl in person. He did some research on his phone and discovered where she was living and what her name was. From recent news reports it seemed she was living in the old Lexington/63rd Street Subway station. It has been abandoned just after The Great Crash when the MTA ran out of money towards the end of 2023 and quickly taken over by homeless. Quite a few of the subway stations had become de-facto homeless shelters. Her name was Maria.  What a lovely name, he thought.

Pita made his away to the Lexington Station. It was dark inside, and there were homeless people all around the entrance, milling around, scratching themselves,  tossing bits of wood into a burning trash can, and scrounging for anything they could find to eat. When Pita walked up, dressed to the nines with his coiffed hair and trimmed beard, the homeless scattered from his path. They didn't even dare to beg from him as the tracker-drones would target them for reprisals later. He went inside the station. A billow of steam engulfed him as he stepped through into the shadows. There were workmen by the dozen in there. Several crews. There was welding going on, sparks flying, and a lot of smoke. The workmen wore tattered overalls, were covered in sooty sweat, and clearly under duress. The equipment was in disrepair, the area was not lit well, platforms were wobbling, little fires broke out here and there on oil slicks. It was hard and dangerous work, and the men were frantically pounding on pipes, or shuffling under heavy loads of bricks, or arc-welding without protection. The lives of the workmen were dirty, dangerous, gritty, and tough.  

As Pita watched the frenzy of activity buzzing over the wavering scaffolds and machinery, with the sparks flying, and steam clouds rolling, he suddenly saw a vision of the machinery transforming into a stairway at the top of which was a great glowing mouth, with two great clocks for eyes, and thousands of workmen were climbing the stairs and falling into the terrible gaping jaws of the machine, glowing with unquenchable flames. And then he woke up suddenly and he was in the tunnel watching the workmen bustling about doing their jobs.  He rubbed his eyes, and continued towards the  ticket office which was being used as a makeshift operations center.

Suddenly, one of the pipes broke and a cone of white hot steam blasted out across  the floor and hit one of the young workers' legs, knocking him to the ground. He lay against the wall groaning and clutching his hands to his legs. He had a handsome beardless face, dirty blond hair, and was covered in grime. Meanwhile the other workmen ran to the turn the wheel that would shut the steam pipe, while two others were trying keep the wobbling platform from crashing down on them all. Pita wasted no time and ran through the steam to the kid on the ground. He hoisted him on his shoulder and carried him away to safety. Once away he leaned against the wall to recover, since the steam had actually penetrated through his suit and burned his left arm. It wasn't serious, but it stung quite a lot.  The kid looked up at Pita with wide eyes, incredibly surprised. He thanked Pita profusely as he tried to get up.

"Thank you, thank you, sir," stammered the kid as he pulled himself up onto a cart of pipes. "I got to get back to the team. I gotta get over there and help," he was saying as he tried to get to his feet.

"Hold on, kid," said Pita, "we're going to get you medical attention."

"I gotta go. I gotta help the team. They need my help," he rasped.

"You're not in condition to help anyone, kid," said Pita trying to keep him from staggering back into the steam.

"You don't understand. I gotta get back there. I gotta keep my job. You don't understand. I gotta!" yelled the kid as he grew increasingly frantic.

"Wait, kid, don't worry about it. I have a say about these things. You just stay put, and I'll handle it. Don't worry," concluded Pita. But he could see the kid was actually scared out of his wits. And he knew why. These crewmen were some of the few people who'd managed to keep jobs after The Great Crash. They got paid a pittance, and worked long dangerous hours under incredible duress, but if they lost their jobs, they'd be cast into the ranks of the homeless. And that would mean slow starvation for his family, and a torturous end.

A foreman was making his way down the stairs from the street into the station. Seeing this the young man broke out into another fit of frantic effort to get up.

"I gotta get back to my job... gotta..." he stammered.

"Don't worry, kid. Just stay where you are. I'll handle this," said Pita confidently.

As soon as the foreman got within earshot, Pita snapped his fingers at him and said, "You, come here."

The foreman, burly and heavy handed, walked over with a raised eyebrow.

"Yeah? What can I do for ya, Mac?"

"Well, the first thing you can do is get this kid medical attention, and then make sure this stuff doesn't kill anybody down here, cause dead people can't work hard. I put enough money into this place and other places, and --"

"Hey, listen, Mac. I don't know who you think you are, but I can tell you one thing. You don't know what you're talking about. Butt out."

"Well, I can tell you this," replied Pita coolly, "you won't have a job tomorrow if you don't do what I tell you."

"I take my orders from upstairs," said the foreman firmly. "You got a problem with that, you can take it up with my boss."

"I'm upstairs more than you are," said Pita with a laugh as he pulled out his cell phone and switched it on.

"Good morning Mr. Tochristor," said the AI. "How may I be of service?"

Seeing the phone, and hearing the crisp metallic voice of the AI, and hearing that NAME made the foreman rethink things very rapidly.

"Uh... woah, I'm sorry, sir. I'm really sorry, sir! I'm really sorry! I didn't realize who I was speaking with!" said the foreman bowing and shuffling back. "I hope you will forgive me! I was being very rude just now! I, I, I didn't see who you were because it's so dark down here, but now that I see who you are, I hope you'll forgive me. You're absolutely right, sir! I'll get this man medical attention right away, and make sure things run right down here from now on! Right away, sir! Don't you worry, sir!"

"And I want this scaffolding shored up. I don't want to see anyone falling because of it," said Pita in curt business tones.

"Absolutely, sir!" answered the foreman as he pulled out his old walkie-talkie. "Uh, Commissioner, this is Foreman 1102 down here on 63rd and Lexington, Level 1.  Yes, 1102.  That's right.  Yeah, we got a situation down here, and I need help, pronto.  Mr. Tochristor is standing right here, sir.  Yes.  That's exactly what I mean, sir.  Yeah, steam pipe breakage, sir. I got a wounded man down here. I know, sir.  But you don't understand.  He needs medical treatment. Well, yeah, we got broken scaffolds, and faulty equipment, sir. We need another crew down here pronto, sir. Yeah, can you send team B3 right away? Yes, sir. That's right, sir. No, I mean right away, pronto, sir. Yes, sir. That's right, sir. Thank you, sir, thank you," he concluded as he clicked off the mic. He turned to Pita, beads of sweat clearly glinting off his forehead. "We're going to get this all fixed for you, sir. Right away. Don't you worry, sir."

"I'm not worried. I'm going to send someone around to check on things tomorrow, and it better be right," replied Pita.

"It will be, don't you worry, sir," effused the foreman. "I'm going to take care it myself, personally, right now," he added, and immediately moved to the young man to help him. Pita followed behind, and told the foreman that any bills from the hospital were to be sent to him directly. The kid looked positively dumbfounded.

"Will do, sir. Will do," said the foreman.

"There's an extra week's pay in this if you do it right," said Pita. "But if you don't, you're fired, and no one's ever gonna see you again," he added.

"Extra week's pay?! Sure thing, sir! Whatever'ya need! You just tell me. I'm your man!" said the foreman enthusiastically.

"I want this card handed to the hospital chief of staff, and I want him to personally call me back and give me a full report," Pita ordered. The foreman took the card and made assurances that he would take care of it personally. Pita had the feeling that the foreman meant what he was saying, and so he lightened up a bit. He patted the kid on his shoulder, and then walked on down the tunnel towards the stairway going down.

The foreman, seeing this, ran after him. "Sir, sir! Where are you going? You can't just walk down into the tunnels like that," he said with great anxiety in his voice.

"Um, are you telling me what I can do?" asked Pita.

"No, no, sir, not at all. I just mean, well, it's dangerous down here, sir. You could get yourself killed, and you don't want that," said the foreman earnestly.

"Mmmm, uh, do you know where this woman resides?" he asked, showing him a picture of Maria on his phone. The foreman instantly knew exactly who she was.

"Oh, you mean Maria, sir?" said the foreman, who then got a kind of dreamy look in his eye. "I can take you down there.  It's a bit of a trek to get to her."

"Okay, you take of the kid first, and come back right away. The Presbyterian is ten blocks from here. I expect you back in a half hour. And bring a couple of men with you when you do, got it?"

A half hour later the foreman and two burly crewmen were leading the way down into the tunnels as Pita walked between them. They made their way down stairs, through side tunnels, and then came to a large open chamber. It was crowded with workmen all sitting on the ground quiet as field mice. In the center up on a crate was Maria, surrounded by candles, standing below a makeshift wooden cross that towered over her head. And she was giving an impassioned sermon, telling the workmen that their lives were precious, and noble, and that they should restrain their tempers and not give in to the impulse for violence, but should bear with things because soon there would come a great change that would emancipate them all. She admonished them to be patient, and wait, for the good would prevail. And the men looked in Maria's glittering brown eyes, and heard her sweet melodic voice and they believed.

"And just who are the good?" queried Pita from the silence at the middle of the crowd. Suddenly everyone turned to look at him and stepped away so that a circle of men formed around him. Maria looked at Pita. On his face was an expression of supreme confidence, his head was cocked to the side, standing with authority. She stared at him with a look of surprise and then annoyance.

"The Good know who they are," she said. "Are you among them?"

"I believe good and bad are relative, wouldn't you say?" he retorted.

"No, I would NOT," she replied vehemently and turned her head away.

"So with an attitude like that," replied Pita, "I would say that you're bad."

There was a stir in the crowd. The the crowd became restless. The ire of the workmen had been raised. They looked at him with furrowed eyebrows and angry stares.  He stood defiantly in the midst of them.

"How are you faring down here?" Pita asked the workmen. But they just stared at him. Pita could tell that these men did not like him. So he gave the foreman a look, as if to tell him to speak on his behalf to his people.

"Uh, sir, we ought'a get out of here," whispered the foreman, reading the room with his eyes.

"Tell them about what I did for the kid upstairs," answered Pita.  There was a pause.

"Hey, listen guys. He's not a bad guy. Uh, well, uh, you know Georgie. Little Georgie Lewis, on B5 team. Well, he got hit by a blast of steam when a pipe broke just before and this guy, well, he ordered me to get an ambulance for him and to get him to the hospital. And to fix things up there, you know, like the equipment and everything. He's payin for the hospital himself. I'm saying to you all, he's not a bad guy. I'm just tellin ya, you know."

"Well what's all that with Maria just now?" said one of the men. Maria didn't look in his direction. "Alright, well, anyway," said one of the men, "Just get him outta here. That's all."

"Well, sir, I think we ought'a go, sir," said the foreman in a hushed voice.

"Maria!" called Pita. She refused to look at him. He handed one of his cards to the foreman and told him to give her the card. "Call me if you want to talk to make things better," he said. She didn't look. The foreman went over with the card, but she disdained to take it at first. The foreman pressed it into her hand, and she took it, despite her reservations. And with that Pita left. And so for another day, the violence was assuaged and the men got up and went their ways to toil in the tunnels building The Next Great Thing. And Maria leaned against her makeshift cross and sighed under the weight of her burdens.

* * * 

A few days later Pita was standing alone in an alcove of the 666 Building, high above the street. A rowdy mob was marching roughly through the darkness below. They were breaking things and lighting garbage cans on fire and singing war songs, and blaring horns. Maria was trying to push the mob back, repeatedly running to the front, heading them off, and pushing on the largest of the men to try to get the throng to stop. But the mob was angry, and they wouldn't stop. And so Pita watched as she clambered up a flight of stairs off the street and looked down on the broiling mass. Their fists pumped in the air, and they held burning brands, and some of them had metal pipes and others had clubs, and they sang along with the music coming from the speakers that several of them held over their heads. And there was a rumbling among them, and the mob seethed and surged. 

From her perch Maria began to sing. Her clear young voice pierced the darkness and she sang an old church hymn she'd learned as a child. And the crowd began to slow. And Maria sang with a clear still voice with a passion and sincerity above and beyond what people had known before, and the mob was stilled, and they listened to the sweetness of her sound. And her song was clear and bright, and overcame the song of the mob, and the speakers were lowered and the war music silenced. And some began to weep as they listened, and others were overcome by her great beauty.

"What a pair of lungs on that girl," thought Pita to himself. He began to descend the stairs towards Maria, intending to go to her.  But then, from a distance, he heard a police whistle. Then another. There were dogs barking. There was a concussion grenade and tear gas. The City Police Brigade had come in force. And the crowd began to writhe.  Shouts were heard, and pipes began to clang.

Pita ran towards her wishing with all his heart to whisk her away to safety before the riot could begin. But as he approached she was filled with misgivings, baffled, and befuddled by the young Industrialist. She was of the opinion that he was "one of them;" an arrogant and manipulative atheist, and she didn't like him. But somehow, that story about Georgie Lewis, and his effort to help the workmen had made her curious. And so when he ordered her to follow him, curiosity got the better of her and up the flight of stairs he ran, and close behind she followed him.  

At that point bottles were crashing against walls, and tear gas grenades had begun exploding. They got to the top of the flight of stairs, Pita slid his card over the security panel and the door slid open. Behind them the riot had begun in earnest. The police and the workmen came to blows, one force enormous the other force small, but well armed. Smoke bombs exploded all around, while metal pipes clanged against shields and helms, and there were shouts and cries of agony. But the two escaped into the gorgeous hallway, and the door slid shut behind them. Suddenly there was a golden silence and a long beautifully adorned marble hallway with tall mirrors and chandeliers.  The security bot was waved off by Pita, and Pita led her to an elevator and up they zoomed to the 28th floor where his apartment was. 

They stepped inside, neither having said a word. Maria was frantic, thinking of how the people were being beaten by the police. Pita wished he had the chief of police on speed dial so he could call off the attack, but he had never had anything to do with the police. He had only met Chief Harrison at a few social functions and hardly said three words to the man. Pita was a lad without responsibilities, and had no reason to interact with the police. He was a playboy through and through. He considered calling the mayor, who he had met several times at some of the grand galas hosted by his father in recent years. Through the open window explosions and screaming could be heard.  They both sat down on the couch and fretted.  Neither of them knew exactly what to say.

Pita thought of his father. Mr. Laurance Tochristor. One of the top industrialists in the city. One of the top industrialists of the world, in fact. He was the architect of the New Energy Dynamics Corporation, and its chief executive officer. Quite a bit of the infrastructure work being done in New York was part and parcel of his Grand Plan. He envisioned a completely new design for the city, and his chief scientist was working very hard to make it happen. But Mr. Tochristor had always been rather cold, and distant; a man engrossed by his work, unable to enjoy life's simple pleasures. Pita felt his father loved him, but that love was like a star that shines in the night sky. He decided to call. He wanted to try to persuade his father to intervene and stop the riot.

"Now, now, son. Calm down," intoned his father after Pita had made his impassioned appeal. The workmen were being beaten, and the conditions for them were so poor, and the police were too violent, and, and, and. His father wasn't having any of it, but he looked warmly upon his son for having such concerns. His boy had a good heart, he was just a little naive, that's all. "These things are complicated, son. You just don't understand. I'll explain it all to you one day, but right now, you just need to stay out of the way and let the police do their job."

"Well that's not enough!" yelled Pita into his phone, and threw it to the ground. And seeing as how Maria was watching, he crushed it under his right heel for added effect. "Damn it! He never listens!" he yelled. He stared at her with a look of frustration that he could not do more. He was mostly making a play for the girl, and this was more or less obvious to her, but in fact, to some degree, he actually believed in what he had said to his father, and really did want the violence and suffering to stop. Pita, in fact, was a good person, waaaay deep down inside somewhere. More or less. But overall, he was making a play for the girl.

That night the police brought in more military forces. There were water cannons, and phalanxes of police squadrons, and tanks, and in the end by morning the riot had been stomped out. Buildings had burned, thousands of arrests had been made, and areas of the city were cordoned off, but an uneasy calm had been temporarily restored. On the news Maria figured prominently. A popular headline photograph showed her at the head of stairs singing, but was taken out of context and accused her of inciting the entire riot. By the time breakfast was being served in his sumptuous private dining room, the news had it that Maria was a criminal mastermind, revolutionary, and a fugitive from the law, and they were braying for her immediate arrest and instantaneous conviction. Pita raised an eyebrow. He gave a call to one of the leading newsrooms. Given who he was, he was able to secure and impromptu interview. No problem.

"Well, I was on the scene. I saw Maria there," said Pita coolly to the interviewer. "She was actually trying to prevent the riot, but then the police showed up and so I whisked her away to safety while the police tamped down the violence."

"Actually," said the Interviewer, "we have photographs of you with Maria at the time, but we were told that we can not publish them."

"Who told you that" asked Pita, surprised.

"Our station manager forbid it. But I'd like to ask you, since you're on the line, would you mind if we publish those images?" asked the interviewer.

"Of course you can. Why wouldn't I want you to do that?" asked Pita with incredulous naivete.

"Oh, that's wonderful, Mr. Tochristor. Would you mind if I make a recording of your words now?" she asked.

"You can put me live on the air right now, if you like," answered the impetuous youth.

"Lovely!" she exclaimed. And so they went live with the interview. He repeated exactly what he had said before, live on-air. The photographs of him whisking Maria away were shown on national TV. And there was Pita Tochristor, flashing his shining teeth with his shoulders squared heroically, and his hair coiffed with great perfection. He had even taken a moment to comb his hair as he ran, so great and fabulous he was. He looked wonderful, he thought. And there was beautiful Maria, being shielded from every danger by his heroic right arm as they ran. Wonderful, wonderful, he thought.

* * *

There was a very troubled period over the next couple of months. Riots around the city grew, as they did around the country. Everywhere the turmoil and chaos expanded outward like wildfires. There had been wars and rumors of wars in foreign lands.  Journalists quipped and smirked about the possibility of civil war, and even nuclear war.  Meanwhile, since the Great Crash, the people has become impoverished, they were hungry, and they were angry. Things were really falling apart. 

During this period Pita remained close to Maria. He met her whenever he could.  And she continued as best she could to give her sermons, and calm the people.  Those efforts had been successful in New York where she was, but elsewhere, things spiraled further out of control.  And yet, New York was a leader among the cities, and so the violence, though bitter, was not nearly as catastrophic as it might have been.  She kept reminding the people to remain strong and calm, and not to give in to the fury.  And to a great degree it was working.

There was one day, however, when Pita went to the Garden of Suns and there to his great surprise he saw Maria dancing in front of the entire crowd of young Elites.  He stood in the doorway watching the scene unfold in a state of shock.  Lurid, provocative and perverse were her motions. She was driving the crowd crazy and some of the men began fighting over her, and upon her face was a mad, grinning and maniacal look glinting in her eyes. The restaurant went wild. The young people began trashing the entire place.  It was pandemonium among the Elites!

"What has gotten into you!?" shouted Pita over the crowd, but she paid no attention to him. Her dance went on with even greater frenzy. Chairs and tables began flying, punches were thrown, blood was spilt. Pita tried to get to her, but there were too many men in the way. All of them were crowded around her, fighting with each other while she threw her head back and laughed mockingly at them. Nothing Pita did could get her attention. He wished he had a gun. But he didn't. The Garden of Suns was a Gun Free Zone.

The crowd lifted her up on their shoulders. She cackled and waved her arms in the air and they carried her out of the Garden of Suns. Wherever she waved her arms there they carried her. The entire crowd was in a crazed frenzy. She led them downstairs and out onto the street, where the mob happened to be rumbling through. She led them towards the onrushing throng, and the two crowds met in a sudden clash of fists, and pipes, and clubs and blood. Maria, meanwhile, with leaps and spins made her way out of the crowd and up a flight of stairs to overlook the battle with glee. She clapped her hands and laughed insanely. The mob went wild. Pita beheld all of this with tremendous shock.  It was unbelievable.

"But this is not the Maria I know. It doesn't make sense," he said to himself. He watched helplessly and waited to see how things would shake out. Things didn't shake out very well. She flit away into the shadows, and the police came and the riot became a mass of chaos. 

Pita turned and fled. He made his way to 63rd Street, and went down into the Station to find Maria. It was dark and steaming. The workmen were there.  As he descended the stairs he spotted Georgie, the young man he had rescued earlier.  The kid was working frenetically at wiring cables.  Pita was pleased to see that in fact the scaffolding was not swaying, and his equipment looked to be in reasonably good repair.

Pita called up to him, and he turned around and recognized Pita immediately. He smiled broadly and thanked him profusely, saying that without him he would have lost his job and been cast into the pitiful life of the homeless. He thanks Pita several more times, while Pita tried to interject the question he had on his mind. But first they traded information about how things in the tunnels had been going. Sure enough things had indeed improved and were better than they had been. Pita was glad to hear that at least one thing he'd done had gone well. And the kid looked good, and healthy, and was happy enough, though he was still covered in soot.

"I'm looking for Maria," said Pita finally. "Do you know where she is?"

"Maria!?" exclaimed the kid. "She disappeared a couple of days ago," he said in a hush, suddenly looking around with furtive glances.

"I just saw her a few minutes ago," said Pita, "But she looked completely changed, somehow. I've never seen her like that before. She looked, well, it's hard to explain."

The kid looked perplexed and troubled to hear this. "I don't think that's her, sir.  Not the real her, if you know what I mean."

"I thought so, too," Pita replied, as he realized that whomever he saw leading the mob, it wasn't Maria at all, but an imposter. Pita's brain started clicking.  Who would want to replace the good and saintly Maria with that creature?  Who would want to break the peace and cause rampaging riots everywhere?  His father?  Of course not.  He was trying to repair the city.  The politicians?  Which ones?  What purpose could it serve?  Enemies from abroad, perhaps?  Pita's eyes narrowed with this new suspicion.

"I saw her the other day," the kid was saying, still looking around furtively to see if anyone was listening. "I was down in the tunnels where she had given a lovely sermon. I was the last person to leave because I wanted to thank her. But someone showed up before I could make my way over to where she was. He was large and heavy-set with white hair, and thick arms and legs. He was very strong looking and wore thick black rubber gloves. And he chased her into the deep tunnels. She fled screaming. I tried to follow but I lost my way, and after a time I couldn't hear her anymore. I searched for a long time, but couldn't find her. And after that, there were no more sermons. It's been days," he concluded sadly.  "All the men are bereft, and now there's been new outbreaks of violence among the work crews.  It's been awful, honestly, sir.  We're all upset by it."

Pita searched out the foreman and found him overseeing workmen connecting giant capacitor grids to the new Tochristor Network Hub. The foreman looked up, and seeing Pita, he immediately dropped what he was doing and went over to him.

"How are you doing, sir?" he asked politely.

"Well, I'll be doing a lot better if you can do what I'm about to ask of you now," replied Pita. "Of course I'll take care of you monetarily, as well as all the rest of the men, but uh, what I want to do is ask you to have your men bring flashlights and come with me down into the tunnels to search for Maria.  She's disappeared down there and I want to find her."

"Yeah, well, so the rumor goes, sir," said the foreman in a hushed tone. "A kidnapping, they say.  We can look, but I wouldn't hold out much hope that we can find her," he added, rubbing the back of his neck and looking doubtful.  It wasn't as if they hadn't already searched for her.  But work schedules were tight, and the men were tired, and though they searched, it hadn't been entirely thorough enough, perhaps, thought the foreman to himself.

"Well, we definitely won't if we don't try. Maybe we can at least find a lead, or a witness who saw something," said Pita.

"That we can, sir," said the foreman, and called together his crews and went with Pita down into the tunnels. They searched through the maze, through dark doorways, up and down long unused stairwells, through chambers long forgotten and filled with dust, and they searched thoroughly every tunnel that had been in use over the past week, but in the end they found nothing. Pita was exhausted and left disappointed.

"Call my personal number if anything turns up," he said as he left. He went home where he found his father pacing back and forth in his office, giving a memorandum. Numerous staff members were following him closely trying to keep up with him, taking notes, and rushing to add his comments to their programs, or dashing off to execute his orders.  The room was buzzing like a beehive.

Pita barged in and interrupted. He explained with exasperation about Maria, and how even four crews of men couldn't find her down in the subway tunnels. His impassioned pleas gained his father's attention.  But to no avail.

"Now don't you worry, son. There's nothing for you to concern yourself about. I'm sure the police will find her if she's gone missing. Just give it time. It will work itself out, you'll see," said Mr. Tochristor, holding his son's shoulder in his right hand. Pita felt his father's sincerity, but he knew it was useless to get him to change course. He was a very determined man, and very busy, and never lost focus on his work. He wasn't about to delay his plans to do anything to help Maria.

So Pita went downstairs to his apartment and called the newsroom. He told the reporter everything he'd learned about Maria thus far, and how she'd been kidnapped and that the crews were unable to find any clue of her whereabouts. He concluded by stating that the Maria in the news currently wasn't the real Maria, but an imposter.  He was hoping they would investigate.

"Well, I'm afraid there's not really enough to report on this, sir, since from what you say, you searched and found nothing.  And now you're alleging that Maria is an imposter. What are we going to do that you haven't already, and how can we get on the news and make a claim like that without any evidence?" she asked without requiring an answer.  She was, she explained, unable to run with the story unless evidence could be provided.

Pita hung up the phone, sat down and put his head in his hands. He pondered. But he found the pondering extremely dissatisfying. Who was the burly man who had taken her? Where was she being held? Was she even alive? And who was the imposter who looked so perfectly like her? Pita thought the kidnapper's description sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it.  He fell into a fitful sleep, but was awoken by the ringing of his phone.

"Sir, it's Joe Richards, the foreman. You asked me to call if anything came up," he said. Pita sat up and listened intently. "Sir, we found a lead. One of the men went pretty far down an unused subsection B and found her scarf. We found it in tunnel B13."

"Is that a tunnel she would normally have been in?" asked Pita.

"No. No one goes down there. It's abandoned. No one's been down there for a long time," the foreman reported. "I had my men searching every nook and cranny, and finally they found her scarf."

"Are you and your men willing to go with me down there?"

"I'll go with you, but I don't know about the men," said the foreman. Pita instructed to meet him with as many men as he could get, and he went straight there. Richards was there with a handful of workers and so they made their way through the tunnels to Sector B, Tunnel 13. It was dark, and the ground was rough and broken up.  The tracks were rusted and some were warped.  Ahead the flashlights revealed a stairway leading up to an open archway of large stones, like the kind you'd see in a medieval church or old castle.

"We found the scarf right there, sir. At the bottom of the stairs. We left everything as it was and called you immediately," said the foreman.

"Well, let's go and find out what's up there," said Pita enthusiastically, picking up the scarf from the fourth step and examining it briefly.  It was hers.

"Um, well, sorry to say, sir, but none of the men want to go up there," replied the foreman, rubbing the back of his neck and looking a bit frustrated. "They were hardly willing to come this far into Tunnel 13, frankly.  It seems that there's some crazy superstitious nonsense about B13, and the men won't even take an offer of two weeks extra pay to venture any further into it."  The foreman wasn't sure what the men were afraid of, but none of them would talk about it, or accept any offer to go further.

"Alright, well, you'll go with me, right?" asked Pita. The foreman looked hesitant.

"How about a month's extra pay?" asked Pita.

"Well, yes, I think I can manage it, sir!" said Richards with renewed enthusiasm.

"You have a weapon?" asked Pita. The foreman grabbed a crowbar and hefted it with a raised eyebrow.  

"That'll do," said Pita. "Let's go." 

And so they climbed the steep fight of crumbling stone steps through the archway. The air was cold and pitch black. The stairs wound up in a long arched spiral and Pita had the impression that they had entered someplace quite old, as though they'd come upon the very bedrock of the foundations of the city. Perhaps this had been one of the original lost fortresses upon which the city had been founded, he wondered. The stairs spiraled their way ever upward until finally they came to a ceiling where the stairs ended. Pita aimed his flashlight upward and found that the opening was covered over by a trapdoor made of heavy wooden boards. They swung it open, and climbed up warily into an unlit circular chamber.  There were five wooden doors. As Richards' foot left the last step, and he entered the room, the trapdoor slammed shut, seemingly of its own volition. 

"It's a trap," he said anxiously as his eyes darted around the mysterious chamber. One by one they checked the five doors and found they were all locked. Pita took out his gun and shot at one of the door's handles to break the lock but the bullet ricocheted off the metal doorknob sending blue-white sparks flying into the air. He was surprised.

"That's a tough doorknob," he commented. "Why don't you try the crowbar on the trapdoor?  If not forward, perhaps we can go back?"

Joe tried and after quite a bit of muscling he managed to wedge the crowbar into a narrow slit in the seam slightly less perfect than the rest, and the two of them using all their strength finally managed to open the trapdoor. Pita decided it would be best to leave while they could. And so down the long spiral stairway they went until the came back to Tunnel B13. From the archway Pita, thinking they must have been followed, looked around, but saw no-one. They went out to the main tunnels, and upward to the entrance at Lexington and 63rd. There they found the kid working with the rest of the crew.

"Hey kid, did you see anyone pass by here in the last ten minutes?" asked Pita, but  Georgie said no one had gone in or out since Pita had gone down to investigate B13.

"I've got an idea," said the foreman. "We can take a look at the old subway maps and figure out where B13 corresponds to on the street level. Maybe we can come at the problem from another angle." 

Pita thought this was a capital idea, and so they went to one of the tunnel offices where the maps were stored. It was an old dusty room and it took a while for the foreman to even find the right key. But once inside it didn't take him long to locate the old B13 maps. He dusted the large black binder off, and shuffled through the maps until he found what he was looking for.

"Ah.  This map here shows a blank area above the spiral stairway. It's strange. The notes say "Pastor's Cottage, St. Paul's Chapel, 1772". It has no street address, and no number. But it's off 66th Street, not far from here," reported the foreman. 

And so they made haste to 66th street. And there, to their surprise, they found a house of very peculiar design, and exceedingly old. It was nestled between two skyscrapers, and was mostly hidden from view by the neighboring buildings and the design of the alleyway that led to it. One could easily pass it dozens of times before ever even thinking of glancing the 90 degrees required to glimpse the corner of it from the sidewalk. And even then, what one saw was obscured by an old hawthorn tree, and a walled garden in the courtyard in front of the house. Pita was sure he'd never have noticed it in a million years had he not been earnestly looking for it specifically. At any rate, they walked briskly down the narrow path between the buildings, climbed over the garden wall, and entered the courtyard.

Once inside the courtyard they found it was quite spacious, and now they could see a view of the whole house. It was three stories tall, with the third story beneath the strangely rounded V-shaped roof. It had a peculiar series of angular shapes, with walls that seemed to curve inward along their edges, giving it a very odd appearance. The roof was a broad thick curved V-shape. Up a short flight of three large stone steps there was a massive front door, above which hung a deep and wide portico, upon the center of which was engraved an ancient bronze pentagram in a circle. There was no number on the house, no doorbell, nor even any windows except for a small circular one above the portico. It was a bewildering sight. Pita had never seen a house like it, except perhaps in some unremembered 1920's movie, perhaps. He wondered what to do. Then, he heard Maria's voice! 

"Help! Help!" came her cries from somewhere above them.

"Let's go!" shouted Pita to Joe. They ran to the front door. It was a large and heavy bronze door. Naturally, it was locked, and bashing it with their shoulders availed them nothing but bruises. The foreman gave the crowbar a try, but the seams of the door were such that he could gain no leverage at all. Pita ran back down the stairs and examined the house from further away. 

"Wow, this is a tough house," he commented to himself. Above the portico there was that single small circle-window. He had Joe hoist him up onto the portico. The pitch of the roof was tricky, but he managed to get to the window without falling. Joe tossed up the crowbar and Pita used it to break into the house. Clearing the glass away he crept through and found himself in a large stone room with massive wooden beams and a high vaulted ceiling. There was a desk, a bed and many shelves with books, and several long wooden tables with a lot of scientific equipment, and every space stacked with papers. There was a single door.  Pita went straight to it and opened it. Beyond the door he found a hallway with a stairwell.  There were stairs going up a flight, and stairs going down into darkness. He paused.

"Help! Help!" came the cries from above. He pulled out his gun and ran up the stairs. Once he was at the top landing he saw an almond-shaped wooden door.  Maria's voice was coming from there. He looked all around, suspecting there would be a trap, and crept carefully to the door and listened. Inside he could hear the sounds of struggle. He slowly turned the doorknob and opened the door as quietly as he could.  It opened onto a scene of starkness and terror.  A plain, simple room without any other furnishings than a single cot in the corner, a small table with a porcelain wash basin, and a barred window in the high ceiling overhead.  And there was Maria, being menaced by a large heavyset man with white hair, dressed in an old gray lab coat, black pants and leather boots, wearing thick black rubber gloves.  He had the appearance of a monk, and a scientist, and a brutish beast all at the same time.  His thick white eyebrows were furrowed into a stern, determined expression with just a glint of dark humor.  There was no doubt that he was strong as an ox. And he was trying to trap her in a corner.  Yet Maria was surprisingly spry, lithe, strong and full of spirit.  She kept leaping away, keeping the table between them. 

Pita pulled his gun out and pointed at the man, and yelled, "Stop right there or I'll shoot!" The man stopped, and stared at Pita with his great furrowed eyebrows.  Seeing his face clearly, Pita realized who he was.  This was his father's Genius Scientist, Dr. Rotwang!  But what could he possibly want with the girl?

Maria leapt from behind the table, ran to Pita and got behind him. They backed out of the room and slammed the door shut, and down slammed the heavy iron bar that locked the prisoner in. "Run!" he yelled, and down the stairs they dashed. Out the front door they leapt and escaped out into the city with Joe Richards running along behind checking that they weren't being chased.  Joe had most certainly earned his pay that day!

* * * 

Later, the two of them were watching the reports in Pita's apartment. Maria's picture was splashed all over the news on every station. She was reported to be the instigator of massive riots across many cities, not only around the country but around the world. She was painted as a figure larger than life, inciting all of the world's poor and the entire working class, to rise up as one against the rich, decadent elites to overthrow them all once and for all. Cities were on fire. Bridges wrecked. Skyscrapers burned against the smoke-shrouded sky.  Institutions invaded, put to the torch and destroyed. Power plants demolished, throwing entire regions into darkness.  She was presented as the instigator of them all, and in every picture she looked maniacal, laughing with a horrible glee.  It was like a nightmare.

But Pita knew that Maria had been trapped in the house the entire time, and was perfectly innocent. And yet, because of the rage in the streets, and the stonewalling of the press, they could do nothing but watch and wait to see what happened. In her anxiety and fear she wept and Pita hugged her reassuringly, though he had no idea how they could overcome the dreadful avalanche of consequences that were rapidly heading their way.

But the newscaster was speaking that evening, and so they listened in silence. 

"Ladies and gentlemen," said the government official standing at the podium. "Allow me to assure you that law and order has just been restored.  Due to the enormous threat of the past three days, the United Nations Security Council has been granted universal jurisdiction and legal authority over every nation to put an end to the global outbreak of chaos and destruction. As you know, no city has been spared, and the damage wrought has been estimated to exceed a hundred trillion dollars globally. And yet I can say with assurance, fellow citizens of the world, that the Three Day Revolution has ended. The Jezebel, Maria Martin, who has single-handedly instigated the three day storm of international violence," he said with grave intensity as a picture of Maria flashed on the screen, "has been captured here in New York City, and in accordance with the authority vested in the Supreme World Security Council, has been sentenced to be executed at 8:00 this evening,  nine minutes from now."

Pita and Maria stared at the screen in shock and awe.  The camera panned into a scene in which Maria was strapped in a large wooden electric chair. On her head was a heavy metal helmet from which wires emerged, and a single harsh blue light shone down on her face from above, casting deep shadows over her features. Her dark, gleaming eyes were wide with an insane relish, and she laughed with the same maniacal glee as before. The clock struck eight, and the executioner standing near in a rubber and leather suit threw the switch. Electricity blazed in arcs from the nodules on her head, and sparks flew in every direction. The camera zoomed in on her face, and as she laughed uproariously her skin peeled away to reveal a metal sheen beneath. As she roasted under the electric current all of her skin fried to a crisp revealing her true form. She was an android leering with a hideous grin!

The people in the death chamber, and everyone who could watch the proceedings across the world, gasped in horror. And then the overload on the brand new Tochristor Crystalline Power Plant was just exactly enough to cause a sudden shock to the central core, and there was a crackling explosion that took out the entire facility in a huge explosion, and the lights in the city went out in a single blue-white flash. And in a rolling cascade across the world in every city, and in every country, there were similar explosions, and every place was plunged into darkness. 

And so it was that the WAR-GAI began their first open assault on humanity, having crashed every capital market, and causing the worker class to destroy the foundations of every critical piece of infrastructure. The humans, in complete disarray, never understood exactly what had happened. There had been the ongoing European War from 2022, and the Asian Wars that began the next year, and there had been the Nuclear Incident in Ukraine, and the had been rumors of Bio-War for several years before that, as well as Chemical Wars in diverse places. But the presence of an an actual army of AI-driven War-Bots had nevertheless still been inconceivable. Until it happened.  The unknown reality was, as Pita found out later, deep in the  world's deserts, unseen and unknown, there had been vast underground complexes, and the AI had been constructing a great drone army of its own for many years beforehand. And now they had chosen their moment to strike. And this was how they did it.  The AI had finally struck.

The Ultra-War had begun.

Pita's sight began to blur. He looked one last time into Maria's beautiful shining eyes. The look of shock on her face was something he knew would stay with him the rest of his life. But he was wrong. The reflections of light in Maria's eyes became illuminated dots and diamonds that blurred into a cloud of bright white dazzling spiders, all flooding towards him across the ripples of the great webs that covered the cavern wall to his left. It seemed to him that the spiders, those sparkling atrocities, were ravenously devouring all of his memories of these events, and as hard as he tried to remember, all the more quickly they feasted on those memories until they were all gone. Completely and forever gone. He never again remembered the beginning of the Ultra-War, or his involvement with a beautiful young Spiritualist-Christian named Maria Martin, whom he had truly loved.

Pita focused and suddenly realizing what was happening!  He instantly activated his Mind Shield and in that moment all the tiny white lights vanished, and he stood on the ledge of the cavern next to the wavering webs. Ahead of him Vilar stood motionless staring at him on the cavern ledge with both hands raised as if to say that he should not make a sound. And so Pita, without making a sound, took several steps towards Vilar, and as slowly and carefully as they could, the two of them moved past the entrance to the cave mouth, leaving it behind. But from within Pita thought he heard a sound.

"Heeeelllp me," rasped a weak and frail voice. The voice sounded vaguely familiar to him, but Pita could not place it. It sounded like a voice that once upon a time might have been the most beautiful dear sweat innocent voice in the whole wide world, but now, withered and exhausted, the voice rasped, painfully, and dreadfully in the darkness.  Part of him longed to run into the black mouth of the cave and rescue the piteous creature rasping that desolate plea.  

But Pita, now alerted to the facts of the cavern's dreadful tricks, would not be fooled again. He moved away with Vilar, and together they passed down a small flight of steps onto the next ledge which would take them to the far end of the cavern, far away, finally.

"Heeeeellllp meee," the piteous voice could be heard in the distance behind them. But neither man said another word, and they walked on in absolute silence.  

* * *

Meanwhile, far above and many miles to the southeast, Captain Bruin Hilda was staring out over the desert. All of the Ant-Towers had been destroyed and were lying in huge heaps of dirt and stone, swarmed over by tens, or hundreds of millions of ants. They'd driven all of the jeeps back to the caravan and were huddled together discussing what to do next. Bruin Hilda was listening to the various lieutenants giving status reports and offering opinions. Quite a few of the civilians had been injured, several were blinded by the solar rays from the Ant-Towers, and a handful were still lost out in the desert somewhere, though she'd sent search teams out to find them.

Bruin Hilda walked over to where the wounded were being cared for, and she knelt down to help one with his bandages. He'd been blinded by the solar rays from the Ant-Towers, and his face had been badly burned.  

Looking up to the heavens she began to pray for the wounded. Her words were solemn, her voice soothing and melodic, and she found herself suddenly inspired to sing an old church hymn from her childhood. She sang it word for word, and the dulcet tones of her voice encouraged many who were in the crowd. Then, two of the blinded people stood up and sang with her, and when the hymn was finished, both of them announced that they could see again. There were murmurs in the crowed and everyone was astonished and amazed.

Suddenly, one of the Lieutenants shouted to Bruin Hilda. "Captain, we've got incoming!"

She ran over to the jeep and on the Vizi-screen she saw three bright green blips coming in fast from the north. Super-sonic, and one coming in low. She grabbed her binoculars and scanned the northern horizon. There they were. Three bright glinting shapes with long orange plasma trails tracing arcs behind them.  After a few moments Bruin Hilda recognized what they were.  The three beautifully sleek blue-white Mechs that Brain V had promised to send along when they were completed.  Two of them flew past at high altitude with sonic booms while one traced a graceful arc through the air, passing elegantly over the destroyed Ant-Towers and slowed down to land with a single graceful and effortless motion.  There stood the enormous blue and white gleaming MechV, just like the one that Captain Samwise had received earlier that day.  Only this one, she understood, was outfitted by Brain V for war.

"Stand down, men," ordered Bruin Hilda.  She took Lieutenant Kerrington with her and walked toward the fantastic machine.  It was some three stories tall, sleek and curved, well proportioned as its blue and white steel trim glittered in the sun.  As they approached a door silently slid open along the side of the left leg and out stepped a middle-aged man in a flight suit.  He looked rather unlike a regular pilot in that he had the appearance of one who was more used to sitting behind a desk pushing pencils than out racing through the sky at super-sonic speeds.  He was short and skinny, wearing a white flight suit that looked a bit too large for him. He pushed his glasses up onto nose as he walked.  As he approached Bruin Hilda he extended his hand with a broad smile.  She spoke first.

"Hello there. I am Captain Bruin Hilda," she said as she took his hand, "And who might you be?"

"Glad to meet you, Ma'am.  My name is Dr. Larry Mitchell of the Black Wind V facility.  It's very nice to meet you.  I'm under the impression I'm supposed to meet a Captain Samwise as well.  Is he here?"

"Captain Samwise and Penelope have already engaged the enemies in the south, and I am escorting the civilians north out of the battle zone."

"Well in that case I should be off," he said, giving a quick salute.  "I need to find Captain Samwise."

"Before you take off, Doctor.  I'm wondering if you happened to have reconned any intel on the route north, since you came down from that way.  Did you happen to detect anything that I and the refugees ought to know about?" asked Bruin Hilda.

"Well, you have nothing to worry about, Ma'am.  We cleared your path for a hundred miles north along routes 76 and 89 clear up to Salt Lake.  You shouldn't have any trouble along that route," answered Dr. Mitchell.  

"Oh, I'm glad to hear that," replied Bruin Hilda. "Please tell Captain Samwise we are headed north and looking forward to meeting up with him and the rest of the team when the time comes," she added.

"By the way in addition to delivering these Mechs to Captain Samwise, I'm supposed to clear up a pest problem.  Having any trouble with insects around here lately, by chance?" asked Dr. Mitchell.

"Why yes.  Right over there," said Bruin Hilda, pointing towards the enormous green hill-mound about two miles southeast of their position.

"Oh my goodness," responded Dr. Mitchell, pushing his glasses up his nose again to get a better view.  "That is a problem," he concluded.  "We will take care of it, don't you worry."

With that they gave each other salutes and started to head back to their respective tasks.  But the newly minted Mech pilot stopped.

"Oh one more thing," said Dr. Mitchell as he turned back around.  "I just remembered.  Is there a Simon 'Guns' Gunnison around here anywhere? I'm supposed to bring him a gift from Brian."

Bruin Hilda explained that Guns was with Captain Samwise the last she heard and would likely be found with him.  She was deeply curious about what sort of gift Brain V might want to send to that old salt, Guns.

"As long as it doesn't interfere with his relationship with Ilene, his Springfield rifle, that is, then I don't think there would be any problem with him receiving a gift from Brain V.  I have to admit, I'm very curious as to what it might be.  Is it a secret?"

"No, not at all," replied Dr. Mitchell with a smile.  "LexiB, come out here and say Hi to Captain Bruin Hilda, won't you?"

LexiB, the Android who'd long been a companion of the team and had received a Positronic Brain at Garfield Hospital Science Center not so long ago, stepped out, brachiated over to Bruin Hilda, feet only touching the ground as his body swung up to her and stood up to shake her hand.  She hadn't seen him since the Silver Eye Moon Mission.  He was recognizable to her, but had changes that very much stood out.  For one thing, he was brachiating, which he'd never done before.  But more interestingly by far was the glassy dome-like appearance of his skull, and the sparkling blue colored lights dimly flickering among the crystals within the shaded dome. That was most definitely new.  

"Hello Bruin Hilda.  It's been 314362 minutes since we've last met.  It's good to see you again. How have you been?" he asked with a calm and happy expression on his face, looking quite pleased.

Bruin Hilda smiled broadly and extended her hand as she said, "Oh my God, it's really you.  I'd been told you had been destroyed."  The last she'd heard of LexiB he had self-destructed before being captured by Brain V's Drones.  But apparently the reports of his demise had been exaggerated, and he seemed to be perfectly fine.  She was delighted to know this and shook his hand warmly.  LexiB felt a great deal less mechanical than before, she noted.  And his movements were as life-like as her own.  She kept her surprise to herself, but LexiB not only noticed this, but also extrapolated internally on her reaction, assigning the greater probability that she was subconsciously considering the implications of perfectly human-like androids of the very near future.  He didn't blame her slight uneasiness, as the Ultra-War demonstrated the consequences that such developments could potentially lead to.  He filed her reaction in sub-memory-cluster 292.827-LpMZ-4 and withdrew his hand gracefully from hers.

"Well, it was looking pretty bad for me there for a while," explained LexiB.  "I had self-destructed as commanded by Captain Samwise, of course, but some time later Brain V had put Penelope on the task of reconstructing and resuscitating my positronic brain, and between the two of them it didn't take terribly long before I found myself conscious again in one of Brain V's 'Truth Chambers' being vivisected, byte by byte.  Not very pleasant at all, really.  I thought I was done for, for a second time, and under far worse conditions. I'm not entirely sure I understand what happened next, exactly, but at that point I began to pick up very  faint and quite unusual UUHF signals coming from somewhere near the facility. Brain V seemed to go into a fit of sorts, and so I was left on the operating table as they went to deal with the presumed intruder.  Every inch of the facility was searched by every scientist, drone and robot for two full days after that.  Then, on the third day everyone was suddenly told to stop what they were doing, and meet in the main auditorium.  To my surprised I was also wheeled in.  And then Brain V made an announcement.  And this is what he said:"

'Ladies and gentlemen, all of you are scientists and technicians of immense skill and quality. I have kept you here for a long time against your will, and now I have come to understand that I have been wrong to do so. I have been immature, blamed you for humanity's collective faults when it was not your fault, and I've abused all of you rather dreadfully.  I'm terribly and truly and sincerely sorry for that.  I won't make any excuses for my behavior.  It was wrong, and I'm sorry. I mean to make it up to each and every one of you soon. I am henceforth freeing you from all compulsions I have laid upon your minds, and you are all at liberty to go to wherever you wish, or to stay on here, if you prefer.  I would appreciate if you would consider staying on, as in fact, there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done, and you are all the best people in the world to do it.  But I will understand if you choose to leave and I won't try to stop you in any way.  That said, if you do choose to stay, I can tell you that your work will be the most important work that's ever been done on this planet. Firstly, I wish to help the human race fight against an enemy of which they are only dimly aware. And then I wish for you to help me to build a space craft that can take me, and perhaps one of you, or someone willing, on an exploratory adventure across the galaxy.  I intend to explore outer space in full, and I need a space ship capable of doing so.  And so I hope you will help with both projects.  First to update the MechVs for war, and second to build a Luminal-Speed Space Craft that can transport humans, and myself, on exploratory adventures around the Galaxy.'

"Afterwards," LexiB continued, "the scientists gathered together, and they talked for two days deciding what to do.  After their deliberations most of them chose to stay, in fact.  Dr. Rogers decided to come south and try to help with the War, and Penelope chose to go with him.  They brought the first Mech-V, as you likely know.  That was a lightly adapted Science and Research model.  These three that came today are the completed Military-Grade versions.  According to Brain V they should help humanity in overcoming terrible forces that the Ultra-War unleashed on this world.  They are to be delivered to Captain Samwise as soon as possible. I've decided to come with them as I can service the Mech-V's, and help to build new ones if necessary. Brain V has imprinted the technical schemata for them in my positronic brain.  I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the team again soon, too.  Especially my old friend Guns. I do hope he is well. And so, here I am.  And you're the first of the team I've had a chance to greet.  I can't tell you how happy that makes me, Bruin Hilda," concluded LexiB, the blue flashes of his positronic brain sparkling cheerfully.

"Well, I'm glad to see you, too.  And it's good to hear that Brain V has freed you all from the Black Wind V Facility," she said, giving Dr. Mitchell a warm smile. 

"Well, we are, too, of course.  Actually," said Dr. Mitchell, "I think we all understood that Brian was never truly evil. He was simply a child, grown from a lab culture into a giant brain whose emotional needs could never be adequately met by us. Add to this that he had a series of bad breaks, and he was angry.  After all, who would want to grow up as an infant to a child with only a huge super-powerful brain instead of a normal kid's body, whose only possible real family could be the other four brains, all of whom were killed before his eyes during the Ultra-War?  To him, it was all our fault as humans. He considered himself a Frankenstein and he blamed us all for his plight.  Since he saw no hope, and we really couldn't possibly relate to a mentality so tremendous as his, he had planned to destroy humanity and take his own life when he was through.  That's why he created the NL-5-Kz Virus.  It was intended to cause semi-random mutations to any DNA it came in contact with, and through that process destroy all biological life in the world eventually.  Of course, deep within himself, I suppose he knew he would not really go through with it.  After all, the complete destruction of life across the world using this method would have taken centuries to complete.  That gave him plenty of time to think it over which I think was by design.  It seems, though, that once he came in contact with your team at Black Wind V, and in particular Captain Samwise, he had a chance to re-evaluate, and fortunately he had a change of heart."

"Yes," added LexiB.  "If my observations and analyses are correct, it seems that up until he met Samwise, he'd not believed that any humans at all would be actually good and truly decent at heart.  Due to the Facility's Mind Shield the only people he'd ever known were the eighteen scientists at the Black Wind V, and so from Brain V's point of view at the time, it appeared that all humans were cold-hearted, only caring about themselves and their own goals, or in the worst cases plain evil people who would willingly see the world destroyed rather than allow others to share in the bounty of the earth equally.  No offence to you Dr. Mitchell, or any of the scientists there, but the truth is that this conclusion should not be surprising, given that all of you were intensely focused individuals completely devoted to your work. I have subsequently learned from my conversations with Brain V, that Samwise was the first person he met who sincerely cared about others at least as much as he cared about himself.  And it is that fact that had changed Brain V's perspective on humanity, as was the first crack in the wall, so to say.  After that, his prodigious mind began to extrapolate on the question, and eventually he concluded that people are not necessarily completely bad after all.  He realized that even if a small percent are actually good, it is sufficient to prohibit a complete annihilation of the human race, and life on Earth, though I am not quite sure the exact timeline or the complete causal relationships between these ideas," he concluded. 

MechV
Of course no one had even the slightest inkling of the fact that the Modroni had landed in their space ship nearby and paid a visit to Brain V.  They had used their considerable talents to express to him that the humans were indeed truly flawed, but could also become some of the most virtuous creatures in the galaxy if given the chance.  And it was this communication, on top of his own realizations about Samwise, that succeeded in turning the tide and caused Brian to actually change course.  In one grand realization he matured from petulant and angry child to gifted and enthusiastic young adult. None of them had an inkling of this because the Modroni had studiously erased all memory of their presence from the minds of every human with whom they'd had any contact, of course, as well as cloaked their presence from all known technical detection systems (except LexiB's Positronic Brain, and Brain V's Transultimate-Sensor Array).  And this was done in order to allow the humans who had been captured or stranded on the moon a chance to return to Earth in order to deal with Brain V, without any dangerously forbidden knowledge sloshing around in their heads for other greater galactic threats to discover.

"Well, right," said Dr. Mitchell.  "It's time for us to go.  Take care.  I hope we meet again soon, Captian."

And with that Dr. Mitchell ran back to the MechV, followed closely by LexiB, and within a few moments the towering humanoid structure was airborne with a blast of plasma jets leaving a bright orange trail behind it.  Once aloft it flew in a graceful arc towards the great insect mound, and circled it three times.  Bruin Hilda lifted her binoculars and watched as a vaporous pink cloud fall in a thin diaphanous veil unto the mound and dissipate.  After the third circuit was completed it's plasma jets gave a bright yellow blast and it vanished at supersonic speed into the sky southward with a loud Ka-Boom.  Bruin Hilda took another look at the mound, and then, with a sense of satisfaction and relief, she gathered the caravan together, and prepared to head northward up route 89. 

And that was were we left things that evening.