Saturday, February 20, 2021

WoAF - Game Session 18

And so, the team repaired their heavily damaged Armored Ground Vehicle at the airport just north of Panguitch, UT.  Pita received his Mech Training from Captain Sekston, and took a spin around the area with Guns, who used the Mech loud speakers to alert the Zombies and Mutants of Panguitch that a vaccine for the virus was on the way and that they could stop fighting.  Whether or not that had any effect on the trench warfare of the town was not evident from the air.  

In the morning Captain Samwise and the crew rolled out of Panguitch and headed north on 89, and then west on route 20.  Once they passed the airport they drove into the desert and built a double faraday cage.  Fred took the data crystal that they had liberated from Mech Base 12 and fought a quick and decisive battle against the dangerous bit of AI on the disk.  He wanted to retrieve any pertinent information that might be useful for the scientists, or anyone else for that matter.  He gingerly linked the disk to his new computer spike (a specialized hacking tool used by Cybernauts for just this purpose), and flipped the switch on his neural-net.  This kicked his mind into Virtual-Space, at which point his mental reactions were operating at micro-millisecond speeds, enabling him to match wits with the AI.  He won the conflict more easily than he expected, in fact, and within 750 milliseconds he had retrieved two map files and a data file that keyed the maps.  He immediately disengaged before the raging AI could make another move.  His mind was intact.  He was pleased.

The maps revealed what Mech Base 12 had been monitoring in the west.  A vast war centering on Las Vegas and extending in a 200 mile radius was being waged by the Red Force, and the Green Force, and the maps showed the disposition and locations of all of the major groups involved.  They surmised that the Red Force must be the Lizardman army, lead by the Shadow King, an ancient Manticore nightmare come to life sometime after the Ultra-War.  The Green Force represented the remnants of the US Army which appeared to be focusing its attack around the town of Saint George.  They transmitted the maps and their findings to the Garfield Hospital Scientists, and Linda gave them specifications for an Ultra-Low Frequency Transmission Station, and the frequencies they could use to communicate with Federation Command.  All of this done, they dug a hole in the desert, marked it, and plopped the old faraday cage with the original spike and the data crystal into it, and covered it over with rocks and dirt.  The AI would not be going anywhere soon.

They cut north on highway 15, and then west on route 21.  They passed through the ruins of Minersville and Milford.  They stayed inside the hermitically sealed AGV with their body suits on, and drove straight through.  The land became increasingly barren, and along route 20 nothing living could be seen at all, not even insects.  Lexi-B conducted mutli-frequency scans, and not even microbes were found alive along certain stretches of the highway.  It was rough country, and the hard dusty ride took a couple of hours.  

They came to the town of Garrison, where they encountered the third site of crucified skeletons just south of the town.  Several members of the crew were sent into paroxysms of despair, but fast thinking and immediate action allowed them to escape driving in reverse over the crest of the hill so that they could get out of visual range of the skeletons.  They decided to route around and went off road north to route 50 and took that east, bypassing Garrison and Baker entirely, and then wound their way along that road to Ely.  Once they went over the pass between Mount Moriah and Windy Peak they found some patches of flora, and once through the gap south of Cave Mountain the flora and fauna returned to normal.  They drove north to Ely and there they discovered two communities living side by side.  The first were the Pioneers who had rebuilt the town in the fashion of the old west, and said that they rejected all modern technology, as they saw the Ultra-War being the inevitable result of High Tech.  Further out, on Cave Mountain, lived the Naturalists, who sent a small group to sniff out the strangers.  These people would not even brook any tech above that of cavemen, and for the same reasons as the Pioneers, only having taken a more radical position on the matter.  In either case, both communities live peaceably.  The people of Ely were friendly and welcoming, and offered the Team food and sustenance.  

Captain Samwise decided not to tarry there long, and so they made their way north towards the Salt Flats along route 93.  They finally arrived at the where Alt-X believed the original radio transmissions had triangulated on.  The mysterious Black Wind V facility could be seen in the distance using the Vizi-Screens.  From a distance it looked like a mere speck in the vast white expanse of the desert.  Just a tiny cluster of buildings and nothing more.

As the AGV edged slowly north, they came upon a cluster of dead trees that were laying prone across the highway.  As they approached the trees began to move, and then lumber horizontally towards the AGV with their branches being used as arms and legs.  It was a bizarre thing to see.  and Samwise sensed that they could in fact be quite dangerous.  Some of the tree-creatures were up to 70' long, and many were at least 50'.  They must have weighed hundreds of tons each.  Guns took some shots at one, but though the branches splintered, the tree kept moving towards them.  Even the splinters continued to move towards them. Captain Samwise, never one to pass up a science opportunity, suited up, and ran outside to collect a sample.  This was easier said than done, as even the smallest splinter had great strength and writhed slowly in his metal tweezers trying to get at his hand.  He dropped it and it began to bore into the asphalt of the road.  Grabbing it with the tongs again he plopped it into a metal box, and took it aboard.  With this he decided it would be a good idea to stay as far way from the tree-creatures as possible.


As they backed the AGV away, Guns spotted a thin white tower of metal on a hill due east of their position at about 4 miles.  It was located on top of a rocky outcropping.  It positively gleamed with whiteness.  As they watched, the tower unfurled a large metallic disk, and from another tower about five miles south, there emitted a bluish beam of energy which struck the dish, and was absorbed.  The beam persisted for 45 seconds, and then the dish then furled itself up, and sealed itself away within the top of the tower again.  

They used the Vizi-Screens to carefully survey the area and found another tower linked to a gigantic 2000' wide metal net that had been slung between two canyon walls, and appeared to be collecting energy off of what looked like and aurora hovering over the north face of Ferguson Mountain.  They found this entire construction mystifying, as they had never seen or heard of anything like it.  It seemed that energy was being siphoned off the mountain by the metallic net and then beamed north to the collection dish.

At this time it was about 6pm and the sun was getting low.  Linda picked up sounds on the desert and zoomed in on the audio.  It turned out to be a man staggering across the salt flats southward towards the tower.  Zooming in with their Vizi-Screens they saw that the man was ragged, tattered and staggering.  The good Captain sent Lexi-B on a rocket bike to go fetch the man with water and a medical kit.  When the android arrived he helped the man on to the bike.  The Team listened through Lexi-B's audio and found that the man was exhausted and speaking gibberish.  Lexi-B gave him water and flew him back to the AGV.  They tried in vain to question the man, but he appeared to have gone insane with fear.  Linda and Pita tried to read his mind, but as soon as they touched it, the man convulsed with fear and, with a final spasm died.

They looted the body.  On his person they found what Fred identified as a highly sophisticated Pass-Key.  It was jet black, and unblemished with a single scratch and no markings, other than what looked like a spot for a finger print scan.  They decided to follow the man's lead and head towards the north tower.  It was located on the westernmost rocks of the Salt Springs Management Area, east of which appeared to be a wild life refuge within the vast white sands desert.

Fred was nominated to lead Pita and Linda into the tower, if possible.  Samwise surgically removed the dead man's hand so that they could use it to gain access with the card, as it appeared to Fred that without the hand, the card would not function.  The tower appeared to be made of a white metal that none of them could identify.  When Fred tried to scratch it to take a sample for analysis, he found that he was entirely unable to do so.  The metal was harder than diamond.  The three were able to gain access in this manner, and inside they found a highly complex and sophisticated control room.  The panels were entirely unfamiliar to any of them.  They discovered an round doorway at the bottom of a small flight of stairs, and using the Pass Key they found a tunnel stretching off into the darkness north.  The controls of the tower appeared to be completely self-automated.  Having used the Pass-Key it appeared that they triggered no alarms, and so after recording their findings they returned to the AGV.

Meanwhile, the lumbering tree-creatures had made their way along the dirt road and were heading slowly but steadily towards the AVG.  The Team geared up and went off road north to get back onto Route 93.  The drove north.

At this point Pita and Linda, having discussed the dead man's mental state, decided it might be prudent for them to put on their Mind Shields.  They did so, and immediately sensed the presence of another Mind Shield - one of enormous size and strength, forming a huge dome in the desert, and covering the Black Wind facility.

Captain Samwise sent Lexi-B north on a rocket bike to the Wendover Airport in order to test whether or not the gigantic Mind Shield would cause an issue.  Lexi-B did not encounter any resistance, and found the Airport to be completely empty, and devoid of signs of human habitation.  He flew back to the AGV and made his report.  

Samwise felt that the next logical step would be for Lexi-B and he to take a rocket bike together through the Mind Shield and see what might happen.  This was discussed back and forth by the members of the crew for quite some time.  At this point it was about 3am, and the desert was dimly illuminated by a thin sliver of the moon.  Where the tree-creatures were was anyone's guess.  Why the man died so suddenly when his mind was probed was a mystery.  What technologies were in play at the towers was unknown.  There was a lot to discuss.

And that is where we left things for the day.  Fun times.  :)

Friday, January 22, 2021

WoAF - Game Session 17

Having spent the night deep in the bowels of the Garfield Hospital, the party began the day with a rapid repair of essential components of the Armored Ground Vehicle, parked outside in the heavily defended front lot. Samwise contemplated Lexi-B's new personality, having been upgraded with a new and experimental Positronic Brain. Interestingly, he thought, Lexi's personality seemed to resemble Pita's. Which made sense, as Pita, who worked on the upgrade, was the first person who the Positronic Brain encountered, and it is likely that its initial personality building protocols drew from the first available source. Interesting.

The AGV was now equipped with an ultraviolit decontamination entrance pod, which meant that they were ready to head to the airport in order to repair the AGV's Accoustic Insect Shell. From there Samwise planned to head north to the Great Insect Mound in order to retrieve a sample of one of the mutant Dragonflies. With this the scientists of the 19th Division would finally have all of the necessary material required for a complete analysis of the NL-5-Kz virus. With that, in theory, they ought to be able to execute the Rogers-Mordesh plan, which involved creating a new sub-virus that would attach itself to the NL-5-Kz, and replicate along side of it, but craftily undo all of the DNA mutations caused by the virus as it created them. It would also replicate itself into every new version of the NL-5-Kz, thus propagating as far and as wide as the virus itself. This brilliant plan, should it work, would mitigate and eventually end the threat of the Mutant Insectoids, which had already spread as far south as Phoenix, Arizona, and possibly a great deal further. If it didn't work, then the last remnants of humanity might be facing a final annihilation from the billions of mutant insects being spawned from the tiny town of Panguitch, Utah.

The airport was not far. Only a few miles north along River Lane. Doctor Rogers expressed a willingness to join them on this mission, and so he was placed in the rear AGV trailer on blanket with cushions, and with that Pita revved the engines, and off they went.

"So Lexi", asked Guns, "...what's your opinion of killing all humans?"

"Is that a joke?", asked Lexi with a wry look on his face.

"Nope. That there was a leeegitimate question," replied Guns earnestly.

"Ah," said Lexi with a smile, "I thought that was a joke."

"Did ya'all see that? Lexi smiled!" announced Guns to the group. "Clearly a threat to mankind." Everyone had a laugh, as the AGV rumbled toward the airport.

"Say, Fred, do you still still have that data crystal sitting in the cabinet with the spike?" asked Lexi out of the blue.

"I don't know," he responded suddenly on edge, "why do you ask?"

"Well, the last time I checked the data crystal had a virulent WAR-GAI on it, no?"

"Well, yeah. So? What do you think we should do about it?"

"I would recommend thinking carefully about that," replied Lexi.

And with that Fred sauntered to the sealed cabinet, unlocked the steel door, took the crystal out of the Faraday Cage, looked over its sleek green-black exterior, and handed it to Lexi.

"Here, you take care of it," said Fred nonchalantly.  Lexi backed away from it.

"What the hell are you doing!?" barked Samwise. "Put that back in the cabinet and seal it!"

Lexi stared impassively at Fred, as if his point was already well made, and that somehow everyone on board understood what his point was. This annoyed Fred even more, as he intuitively grasped that he had just fallen into Lexi's first rhetorical psych-trap, and had already made a critical mistake. Removing the data crystal from the Faraday Cage could potentially have released it into the AGV's electronics... had the AGV any electronics left for it to escape into. However, the AGV's entire onboard computer system had been obliterated by the EMP strike the week before, and the risk was actually rather low. The only real target could have been Lexi himself. And Lexi, certainly no dope with his new Positronic Brain, had already sealed every port on his exterior before engaging Fred on the topic. So the only risk was the possibility that it could leap into Linda's hardwired vacuum tube radio equipment, or into the semi-repaired communications or navigation system. None of these had a higher than .0229% probability, and as Lexi's analysis had included that possibility he had been specifically watching for any indication that such an event might have take place. No such indication was evident, and Lexi was satisfied that the probability of the WAR-GAI having escaped was below his alert threshold. Fred put the data crystal back in the cage and sealed the steel door.

"You could say that there is a hiiigh probability that the WAR-GAI on that data crystal is likely to bite you in the butt one day, Fred," stated Lexi trying out a bit of the hillbilly drawl that he picked up from Guns.

"Maybe we should drop it off with the scientists at the Hospital," commented Fred to Captain Samwise.

"Might be safer," added Lexi, letting the sentence trail off for added significance.

"You'd like that wouldn't you?" accused Fred.

"Why not?" asked Lexi, not quite understanding what Fred was getting at. This was a classic trick of the Cybernauts that worked to confuse AI. To suddenly state an entirely unsupported accusation with enough invective to cause the AI to have to wrestle with the concept in order to spend energy cycles to refute it. It served to slow the AI down, and buy time.

"Because I don't trust those guys! Maybe that's why? Listen Lexi, why don't you stick to working on AGV repairs and leave the AI to me, ok? That's my job."

"Ok whatever you say, boss," replied Lexi sat down in a rear seat, and buckled himself in, as he turned to examine one of the damaged control panels. 

And so after a bumpy 20 minute ride they arrived at Panguitch Airport. It was small with one air strip and seven squat sturdy buildings and a number of military vehicles. On the far end of the tarmac stood two Mechs, both in good looking condition, and of the same model, the famous AT-28P. These tank-like Mechs were used heavily during the Ultra-War for close quarters fighting. They were slow, and due to their weight didn't fly higher than 20 meters, but were fierce on firepower and heavily armored.

Greeting the AGV was a man in a Hazmat suit with a clipboard. They rolled up to his position, and prepared to disembark. Linda, Guns and Fred stayed in the vehicle to run diagnostics and keep watch on things. Fred had a slight concern that having moved the data crystal out of the Faraday Cage could, possibly, have allowed it to escape, though he thought the chances of that were low.  For one thing, there were all still alive. Still, running diagnostics wouldn't do any harm. Pita and Captain Samwise suited up and prepared to head out and greet the man with the clipboard. He had been joined by a woman, also in a hazmat suit. Her rank of Captain was clearly designated on her shoulder pad. The man was identifiable as a Lieutenant.

Stepping outside, Samwise and Pita walked forward to greet the two officers.

"Captain Samwise, I presume," greeted the woman pleasantly.

"Yes," he replied, "And you would be?"

"My name is Captain Sekston. I've been notified by Central Command that you are here to pick up equipment for repairs. I'm instructed to give you any assistance you may need. Is Doctor Rogers with you as well?"

"Yes he's in the van," said Samwise, and they got to work. The Lieutenant was instructed to provide the team with whatever they need, and so they began by asking about replacement parts for the Acoustic Insect Shell. As it turned out, they had four spare units available and so a complete replacement was made in short order. Doctor Rogers elected to remain in the van, and mentioned that all Samwise would need to do to get his help would be to reach out to him with his thoughts.

Meanwhile, Pita took a stroll down the tarmac towards the Mechs. The soldiers there informed him that they couldn't provide a tour of the Mechs without the Captain's approval. It occurred to Pita that their mini-phones had been fried by the EMP as well, and a replacement set would be helpful as well. And so he took another stroll back down the tarmac to find Captain Sekston and ask her if he could get a tour. Meeting with her was no problem, and after a short conversation he secured a tour of the Mechs for after the mission. She was interested in his piloting ability, and though he had no particular experience with piloting the AT-28P, with a few hours of virtual training he should be up to speed quickly enough. It was agreed that upon their return from the Insect Mount Mission he would take the course, and get the tour. He could tell that she was in fact hoping he might sign on as a pilot with her outfit, though he didn't say anything about that.

Since the AGV had been seriously damaged installing the Acoustic Insect Shell was not as simple as would normally be the case, but the Lieutenant was an electronics expert, and so two hours later the Acoustic Insect Shell was fully installed. They tested it, and it was working as anticipated, forming an acoustic shell around the AGV that few insects could possibly penetrate. They also acquired six new Mini-Phones.

"Sir," said Lexi, "just to let you know, the more electronics you add to the AGV, the greater the risk from the WAR-GAI.  Those mini-phones, for example..."

"Thank you Lexi, I appreciate the warning," interjected Captain Samwise. "I will keep that under advisement."

"Lieutenant, would there happen to be any personal Acoustic Insect Shell units available in case we need to step outside of the AVG?", asked Captain Samwise. And so they received six of those as well. He also inquired about getting a SmartNet, and so they acquired one of those as well.

After two hours they were ready to embark on Mission: Insectoid Capture. Off in the distance they could see the mound towering above the tree line. The mound was about two miles north, and rose a towering 100 feet in the air along the edges, like a wall, and rising to a height at the center of 1000 feet. It had a cone shaped appearance. Around the mound they could see what looked like a hazy cloud. Captain Samwise thought it was a mist, but Doctor Rogers corrected him.

"That is a cloud of insects", he said into Samwise's mind.

"Ah. Hm. Dang," mentally replied the good Captain. From his point of view the AGV was potentially vulnerable to insects. For one thing, during the battle with the Black Manticore Pita had inadvertently seared a hole through the floor of the AGV with his Lewiston Beam Rifle. They spent an hour armoring up the hole in the AGV, and effecting any other precautions. 

Pita and Guns happen to notice a dark grey line forming along the north east horizon, and the wind began to pick up.

"Storm incoming, Captain," said Pita. The clouds were flashing with iridescent light, but that didn't mean it would be an actual Radiation Storm, which blasted out bolts of radioactive lightning, but likely it would be severe just the same. Outside soldiers could be seen scrambling to secure materials and equipment.

"Linda, see if you can raise the Base Captain and ask if we can get a spot to hunker down with them."

Using the vacuum tube rig, which she affectionately called Nelly, she raised Captain Sekston, and requested a hanger. They were directed to Hanger 4, and they secured themselves within. The bunkers were solid, and well protected against such storms, as violent as they could be. Inside were supplies, including a refrigerator.

"Lexi, see if you can go raid the fridge over there," commanded Samwise.

"Sure thing," said Lexi. He returned with the entire 100lb refrigerator under his arm. And so they had enough food for a couple of days. The red warning light flashed above the solid steel door for as long as the storm lasted, which in this case was only about a half hour. The steel doors slid opened. Outside a flood of water about three inches deep was washing past the base, filled with tree limbs and dead animals. As Pita drove the AGV out of the bunker, Samwise noticed that the tree limbs that were in the water had green leaves... which very quickly turned brown and died. He took note of this, but it did not surprise him. He reflected on the fact that there was a very stark distinction in this region between the living areas of land, and dead areas of land. In the green areas the fauna and flora were ferociously alive, with even the plant life having a powerful animus. But on the lands that were dead, it was a completely lifeless desert, where upon even insects were scoured clean.

Without further ado, they buckled in and set out.  Pita drove the AGV northward past the end of the tarmac onto the Airport Road. Samwise decided to head off-road, moving straight northward through the desert, and staying clear of the green-lands. Watching them with his binoculars he could see the writhing masses of life within. Strange animals with bizarre features were spotted amid the shadows of plants that writhed with a hunger for flesh. Fierce birds flew over the jungles, while hundreds of insects would gather on one unfortunate animal or another and within minutes pick it clean to the bones. It was a horrifying sight and one that begged the question... which was more terrifying, the living green-lands, or the dead-lands?  

They past a series of tank tread tracks that could be seen through the inch or so of water. Soon they passed a series of destroyed vehicles. Several jeeps, tanks, and a mech, each riddled with irregular shaped holes and covered by vines and writing torn bushes, laying in various positions of demise. Ahead they saw the Great Insect Mound about a thousand feet to the north. Insect swarms emerged from the far side of the cone. Two distinct clouds made long arcs through the air in unison like a single mass. One was tinted blue, and other tinted black. The black cloud made a wide arc and then began a long descending path towards the AGV. A fierce tactical battle ensued. The cloud of Bore Beetles attempted to penetrate the AGV's defenses, and the Captain and crew doing everything in their power to prevent them.

At first Samwise held the Acoustic Shell at medium intensity, but a significant number of Bore Beetles were able to penetrate the shell and land with distinctive sounding thuds on the AGV. The Captain raised the power level of the Shell to maximum intensity, and this stopped the infiltrators. However, it wasn't long before the Bore Beetles changed tactics and began forming drill shaped structures in flight, the outer portion of which would be shattered by the vibrations of the Shell, but on each attack a handful of the inner portion of beetles would manage survive long enough to get through. These survivors would then latch on to the hull of the AGV and using their ultra-hard mandibles and acid saliva, bore holes into the hull. It was at this point that Sam and Pita geared up in hazmat suits, put on their personal Acoustic Shells and stepped outside to clean off the surface of the AGV by walking around it and climbing up on the sides. Some of the Beetles had drilled themselves a half inch or more into the hull in before the two heroes located and destroyed them.

Doctor Rogers reported that he was under the distinct impression that some powerful mentality was controlling the insects, but what it was, or even where it was, he could not discern. He continued to make every effort to do so, but whatever it was had been too elusive for him to trace. There was, he said, something out there, somewhere.

Fred constructed a make-shift flame thrower and Guns geared up and stepped outside to use it. With it he lit up thousands of Bore Beetles, and this caused them to make a temporary retreat. After a while they gathered force again, and continued with their relentless assault. Fighting the Bore Beetles was gritty and grim. Fifty of them had managed to make their way through the water, attached themselves to the bottom of the AGV and were boring up, but Samwise discovered them before they managed to emerge inside the AGV. Once inside, the crew would have had little chance of survival. Fortunately for our heroes it didn't come to that.

Once they figured out that they could walk around outside the AGV between the outer Acoustic Shell and the hull with their own persona Shells on maximum power, they worked on using the SmartNet to capture their pray.  To this end they stalked the rim of the jungle looking for Dragonflies, and finally, a handful of the little monsters were found and captured. With this achievement, they backed away from the cloud of Bore Beetles, turned tail, and fled south back to the base. After a mile or so, the Bore Beetles gave up the chase and returned to the Great Mound.

Having succeeded in their mission, the party celebrated at the base. And all was good, and everyone was happy enough to be back at the base. The last thing to do was to transport the Dragonflies and Doctor Rogers back to Garfield Hospital. That done, the mission was complete.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 16

So there they were, on the edge of the town of Panguitch.  Behind them, the zombie-man that they rushed passed in their Armored Ground Vehicle (AGV), was still flailing one arm in the air, and making horrible gurgling noises.  

Guns stared, wide-eye'd, at the half-pig, half-worm, that was wallowing its way across the mud flat next to them.  

To the south of them was a burned out barn house surrounded by wooden barricades, mostly broken.  Pita, glancing around, happened to be the first to notice that the building was changing color.  Like a long flowing blanket was covering the building turning it from wood to what looked like a writhing mass of grape jelly.  And like a river the purple flowed from the building across the ground.  Guns, seeing this, shouted "Back it up, back it up - I don't want to be purple!"

"I want to pet the creature," said Fred, staring out the rear window with a vague smile.

The shambling zombie came staggering up the road as fast as it could, also seeming to run away from the purple river.  It was flowing quickly, covering anything it came in contact with. It might have been a hundred feet wide.  Captain Samwise, eyeing the thing with increasing alarm, estimated that it would reach their location in about three minutes. He pulled out his binoculars and examined the smoothly rolling purple glinting river in detail.  Zooming in at maximum he discovered that the burbling gelatinous flow was actually a writhing mass of small plum colored ants with glinting razor sharp mandibles. Millions upon millions of plum colored ants with glinting razor sharp mandibles.

"Pita, get us out of here!" he shouted.

The shambling man came running up along side of the AGV.  Both Samwise and Guns noted that the Zombie was carrying a brown leather bound book in its left hand.  It looked like a journal, perhaps.  This was odd.

"I got to say, Captain," said Guns, "I'm kinda interested in this!"

"Yeah?" said Sam, glancing sideways.

"I give you permission, ... Sir", said Guns with a grin.

"I might be tempted, but not with a river of purple ants heading towards us, sorry", replied Sam as he gripped the dashboard of the AGV.  They were moving fast, and Pita wasn't taking prisoners.

"Permission to shoot the ants, sir?" requested Guns with a shout.

"Go ahead," cried the good Captain over the roar of the engine. The bullets strafed the ants, but it had no visible effect on their movement whatsoever.  

Meanwhile, the shambling man had reached the back of the AGV staggering forward with his right arm in the air, and making horrible gurgling sounds.  Linda threw three switches on her board triggering voltaic arcs... the rigged up radio equipment picked up the creature's sounds and dutifully recorded them into her ad-hoc magnetic receptors.

Pita swerved to the right and hit the gas hard.  The AGV lurched forward with a roar.  They left the shambling zombie behind and sped off down the road, heading North.  Linda climbed up into The Perch where Guns was located, and started getting in his way.  He tried to block her but she insisted.

"No," said Guns, "there ain't enough room up here for me and Ilene (his Springfield rifle) and any other woman!"

"Let her up," yelled Sam, to which Guns reluctantly relented and climbed down, with Ilene to give Linda room.

"Sir," called Linda from The Perch, "I think we should stop."

"What?!" everyone shouted in various pitches of surprise and dismay.

"I felt something touch my mind, Sir.  I wanted to see this thing.  Now that I'm looking at him - I am sure there's a real person in that decaying zombie body.  What I heard was a distinct cry for help."

"Uh, yeah, duh," yelled Guns up the turret ladder, "sometimes the universe just tells you stuff, ya know?"

"Oh I'm going to regret this," said Captain Samwise as he tapped Pita on the shoulder.  "Ok.  Stop here.  But be ready the moment I say move - you move."

The shambling creature was trying to make his way up to the AGV, while behind it they could see that the purple river was fast catching up with it.  Pita wanted to get within a 10' range so that he could try to use his Mind Reading power to tap the monster's mind.  

"Are you serious?" asked Sam incredulously.

"Yes, sir.  I got the same feeling as Linda, Sir."

Good Captain Samwise's expertise in Biohacking and his understanding of diseases told him that it was possible that the the creature, the Zombie, was infected with a disease that could have left its mind intact, despite its outward appearance.  That was possible.  Very distantly possible.  But possible.

"Monsters don't carry books," pointed out Guns.  "It's a well known fact, Sir."

Samwise really couldn't decide. The creature was oozing blood and vomiting green puss.  Other times the creature looked poignantly desperate and waved its arm in the air like it was hailing them. 

"Ok, you can get within 10' of this thing, but not within 5'.  You got that Pita?", demanded Samwise as he took the wheel.

Guns suited up into his heavy armored suit.  Sam drove backwards slowly while Pita made his way to the rear door of the AGV where he could get as close as possible to the thing.  Linda also climbed down and grabbed the Hazmat suits from the closet, and everyone geared up.  As they sped towards the shambling monster the purple river was steadily mounting up behind it, and already formed a three foot tall wave that sped towards the horrible thing like a giant wad of gelatin.  It shambled forward as fast as its disjointed legs could carry it, dripping pieces of flesh and vomiting a bloody green puss as it groaned and gurgled with great urgency.  A pitiful sight if ever there was one.

As they skidded to a stop in front of the creature, it stopped reached into its pocket and pulled out a pen and began scrawling into the book.  Pita activated his Mentarian Power of Mind Reading, and reached out to the creature's mind.  

"aaahggghhh... it hurts... it hurts... stop... stop... I need to tell you... something..." was what Pita heard within the mind of the creature.  Pita told the Captain.

"Ok, we can let him in, but only to the first airlock.  Not beyond," said Samwise definitively.

Guns, now in his Hazmat suit, prepared to open the door to the outer airlock, but has he did so, the creature held up the journal he'd been scrawling in.  

"Keep going!  Turn right!" was scrawled on the page in crude disjointed letters, and the zombie gabbed on with his free arm to a bar next to the door. 

Pita, who was also at the door, yelled to the Captain, "Floor it, Sir!  And turn right onto the side the road up ahead!"

And so the AGV roared down the road splashing a wall of water on both sides as the zombie clung to the vehicle, and when they got to Roller Mill Road, did a sideways drift and rumbled onto it.  The purple river was left behind as they crossed a short bridge over a foaming brook.  To the right there was a forest of enormous trees with dark colored bark, and thorny vines covering it.  Inside the forest was a thick fauna of hundreds of writhing plants, covered in six inch thorns, and thousands of brightly colored flowers blossoming and waving in the air. Patches of these writhing woodlands dotted the terrain on all sides.  Elsewhere there were wide patches of completely barren desert, entirely devoid of any life at all.  It was a bizarre and disturbing mix of terrains.  

The road wrapped around the edge of the writing forest, and ended at a turquoise colored pool.  The zombie held up his hand to indicate they should stop there, and so they did.  Once they stopped the zombie fell to the ground with a thud and a splat.  Goo ran freely from an open gash on its face. Guns prepared to bring a med kit, but the zombie waved his hand to indicate he should not come out, scrawled in the book and held it up.

"Contamination!  Stay inside."

Guns, through the window, watched as the zombie wrote again in the book, now more calmly.  Pita was still able to get impressions from the creature's mind, and he heard the words as they were being written onto the journal page.

"My name is Doctor Zachariah Mordesh of the 19th Division of the US Army", he was writing, and these words Pita could clearly hear in ringing out from his mind.  "This region is contaminated with Bio-War Virus named NL-5-Kz.  Stay inside your vehicle."

The AGV was hermetically sealed down with internal air filtration. Entering required going through the airlock, and decontamination pod.  Pita took up the mic at the door so he could speak to the shambling man through the external speaker which Linda had previously wired up when rigging the radio equipment.  While he could not speak into the man's mind, which would have required Telepathy, he could hear his thoughts.  This would do.

"I can read your thoughts, Doctor", he said into the mic, "so you do not have to write down your statements.  Is there anything we can do to help you with your ailments?"

The answer was a flat out No.  As it turns out, four years previously, Dr. Mordesh was the Chief Medical Officer sent to Panguitch by the 19th Division when Biological Warfare broke out near the township and began to devastate the region.  He was sent to investigate and report.  He came with a team, and for quite some time they'd been bunkered in Garfield Hospital, which they fortified against the virus.  They tried to help, but the virus was entirely out of control.  It caused either severe mutations, or necrotization of the flesh, including extreme brain damage.  Half of the victims turned into mindless Zombies, while the other half turned into bizarre mutations.  It depended on the genetics of the victim.

Unfortunately, after a very long and difficult period, a member of the team contracted the disease.  Then another.  Then several more.  Dr. Mordesh tried everything he could to save them. Their ends were gruesome.  Due to exhaustion, he made a mistake. There was an accident in the lab. Fortunately, if you can say that, he had previously inoculated himself with his own experimental vaccine.  It had the effect of protecting his brain from decay, even though the rest of his body has been severely impacted.  Very severely. Unfortunately, he explained, he would not live much longer.  He would inevitably succumb to the virus and transform into a mindlessness Zombie.  They would have to destroyed him at the last.  

He went on to explain that in the basement of the Garfield hospital there is a small community of un-infected survivors from the original team, and a handful of patients who have to various degrees recovered from the viral infection due to the experimental vaccines, some of which worked, to varying degrees, though many more failed.  Perhaps twenty people in total, men, women, and some children flashed vision-like through Pita's mind as he observed intently the Doctor's story.  Some were scientists working in a laboratory, others tending patients, or working machines, preparing food, or fixing equipment.

He also learned that the mutants would typically be transformed into bizarre animal hybrids.  All kinds of hybrids.  Even a Pig-Worm hybrid. And he also learned that the fauna around Panguitch was voraciously alive with a ferocious hunger for the flesh of animals. They could move and crawl and break through wooden walls, and given time even stone walls. The plants could hunt for their prey in frightful ways.  

But the worst of all were the insect mutations.  Thousands of varieties of hybrid insects had been spawned over the years.  The purple ants were one example. But the most dangerous acid spitting, flying shelled insects that were a combination of dragonfly, beetle, and wasp.  These they called the Dragonfly-Insectoids. They created huge colonies, so large they formed enormous mound-hives with millions upon millions of inhabitants. All of these mutations were a product of NL-5-Kz.

The Dr. revealed that originally the virus was in the air as a purple mist, but that dissipated over time and transformed. Now, the virus is spread via direct contact.  They never found out what the original source of the mist was, but they believed it had been a kind of plant that long since mutated into other ... things.  The insect virus is considered the most dangerous because the insects can travel far and wide, taking the virus with them everywhere.  Their reach was global.

Five minutes had gone by while Pita silently nodded his head, or said "Oh my", or "hmmm...", or "I see".  He would also periodically provide the team with quick recaps of what he had learned. At the end he asked Dr. Mordesh, "Do you want me to put you out of your misery?"

The answer was no.  The Doctor had several important matters to take care of, including the completion of two critical experiments, before he perished.  If the experiments were to prove successful he would have found a remedy to the Insect-variant of the virus.  In fact, he might even be able to unravel the DNA damage that had already been done, and help to return things more or less back to normal. By implanting a DNA Destroyer Sequence along with every viral replication, his sub-viral counter attack could potentially follow it around like a genetic assassin and take it out wherever it went, wiping out viral colonies that it came in contact with.  It was an ambitious, and dangerous plan.  If it went wrong, things could also become far worse.

"Is there anything we can do to help?", asked Pita, a bit dwarfed by the Doctor's astonishing plan.

"Yes, but I don't want you to risk your lives.  It is too dangerous.  You need to continue north, and go as quickly as possible," he urged Pita.

But Pita saw in his mind's eye that the scientist needed insect samples. Desperately.  And those samples needed to come from the great Insectoid Hive that he had pointed out earlier.  He was planning to walk to the mound himself to get a sample of the dragonfly DNA, though that was likely a suicide mission.  Still though, most of the Insectoids didn't care for Zombie flesh, so there was a chance he could make it. The success of his experiment could potentially unravel the virus, so he had to take the risk.

As for how the people were surviving, in Pita's mind's eye he saw that they had found ways to very carefully hunt for small game along the edges of the forests, which yielded them a continuous supply of meat, so long as they were careful not to get too close to the voracious fauna, or fall into any of its insidious traps.  There was no chance of growing food, however, as any plants that grew in the area transformed quickly into flesh eating plants.  But they had managed to survive in this manner, and in particular the kids had become adept at stealthily catching wildlife... most of which was frightful to look at, and dangerous to handle, but edible nonetheless.

What he also discovered from the mind of Dr. Mordesh is that the town of Panguitch was at war.  It was a killing zone.  The three factions were the surviving members of the 19th Division, the Zombies, and the Mutants.  There were tunnels, fortified houses, trenches, and supply lines.  That's why the Doctor didn't want the team to simply blunder forward into the town but lead them instead to the pond so he could explain the situation.  While inside the AGV they were most likely have been safe, but had they ventured outside along the way, they would have very likely to encounter serious trouble.  The kind that gets everyone killed.

He also found out that another victim of the virus' propensity to turn ordinary humans into bizarre animal hybrids happen to be that horribly awkward looking creature they saw earlier slithering its way across the mud waddle, the Pig-Worm. 

That, in fact, was his dear friend and fellow scientist, Dr. Rogers.

When they encountered him, Dr. Mordesh was trying to find Dr. Rogers. They had been separated by the sudden emergence of the purple ant column, and that was why Dr. Mordesh had been running down the middle of the road, and Dr. Rogers was slithering away through the mud waddle.  

As it happened, Dr. Rogers, just like Dr. Mordesh, had a fully functional mind.  And in fact, the mind within Dr. Rogers was a premium mind at that.  Dr. Mordesh was of the opinion that Rogers was the most brilliant scientist that he had ever met.  Or even heard of.  An Einstein level Bio-Chemical-Engineer.  Replete with strange and inexplicable mental powers.  

While Pita was perceiving all of this in rapport with Dr. Mordesh, from his vantagepoint at the rear AGV window, Guns happen to be gazing at a large pond covered with a thick mat of turquoise colored algae.  The center of the pond had begun to burble forth with a bubbling froth that was emitting a faint cloud of rose colored gas.  He scratched his chin.  Yep, no doubt about it.  There was a rosy colored mist coming up out of that pond.

"Um, folks... I think we should go.  Something is coming up out of that pond, over there," he said loudly as he made his way up the Perch ladder.  Linda, as she came down passed him a look. One of those looks.  He smiled, tried to ignore it, and hustled himself up to the Perch where he buckled himself into the machine gunner's chair.  He used the mechanical gears to turn the turret so he could keep two eyes on the pond.  

Below, there was some conversation as to how to proceed. They decided that the Doctor should get into the AGV trailer.  Unfortunately, the trailer itself was locked, and armored.  So Sam ordered Guns to go outside and let the Zombie Doctor into the trailer.  

"Shouldn't we drive away from the pond, first?" asked Guns, incredulously.  As the mist was floating on a breeze and heading in their direction, the Captain decided they should hustle away faster rather than slower after all.  The Doctor hung on to the steel bar near the door, which he grabbed onto as Pita revved the engine, and sped away down the road.

Behind them the pool began frothing, and a large mound of yellowish water began to form at the center, and out of froth emerged several pinkish colored tendrils with ochre suction cups along bottom sides.  The tendrils were laden with long bony spikes, and the entire effect was like a fang-shrouded octopus.  The tendrils writhed in the air as the AGV came screeching to a stop at what seemed a safe distance and Guns unbuckled, slid down the ladder, hustled himself through the airlock, ran to the rear where the Trailer door was, punched in the code "1, 2, 3, 4" and helped the Doctor scramble inside.  The rosy mist was rising off the pond like a soft cloud. Not wishing to take any chances, Guns hustled himself back to the airlock, slammed the door shut, and turned on the bio-cleansing system.  Pita hit the gas and off roared the AGV, a cloud of dust billowing up behind it.

They went back the way they had come, towards Panguitch over the bridge and back onto the main road.  They knew there was a mud wash on their right, but they couldn't see it through the writhing rambles. They sped along until they passed the brambles, and caught site of the Pig-Worm.  The purple ants were nowhere to be seen.  However, where they passed the land was stripped of all life and completely bare down to dirt.  

By this time Pita's connection with Dr. Mordesh had faded, and so he went back to driving the AGV.  The Captain, relieved, took the navigator's seat, and they surveyed the land around them.  The Pig-Worm was wallowing in the mud, apparently trying to make its way over to a patch of relatively dry land and brambles on the east side of the mud waddle. 

Concerned that the AGV could get stuck in the mud, they stopped about a hundred yards away along the road, and Sam, Guns and Pita stepped outside in their hazmat suits.  Their plan was to to circle the Pig-Worm and try to corral it into the trailer with Dr. Mordesh.  They weren't sure if the Pig-Worm would come willingly, or ... do something ... strange.  They decided not to take any chances, grabbed some rope, and their mesh-net.  Fred suggested a harpoon from his seat on the sofa, but this suggestion was not approved.  Guns, on the other hand, grabbed a couple of apples from the AGV pantry and got ready to wade through the mud to get to the Pig-Worm.

They approached the mud waddle and found that the water was six inches deep, and the mud about a foot below that, so going was going to be something of a slog.  Sam's plan to encircle the Pig-Worm, lasso it with ropes and the smart-mesh and drag it out of the mud seemed to him to be the most plausible.

"Sir, you ain't never lived out on a farm, have you?" asked Guns.  "Let me take care of this."

"Go ahead," conceded the good Captain.

He took an apple and tossed it into the mud waddle not far from the Pig-Worm, and called "Suuuuuwweeeee!  Suuuuuuuwweeeee!"  

The Pig-Worm turned and faced Guns and gazed at him with an expression that was hard to interpret.  Have you ever seen a pig with a look of sardonic bemusement?  Neither had they.

"Hey, Mr. Pig, we are trying to help your Doctor friend, you know?" said Guns.  "He wants us to get you and bring you back to do some science and stuff."

The Pig-Worm continued to gaze at Guns without moving.  As this was going on, Samwise used his Mentarian Power, finally, of Mind Reading.  His mind came in contact with the mind of the Pig-Worm.  This was, he discovered, in fact, a mind far, far more powerful than his own.  He practically reeled away in shock at the intensity and power of the Pig-Mind.

"A certain Dr. Mordesh sent us to find you," Sam said out loud, though in a quiet voice as he was aware that the Pig-Worm was fully capable of reading his own mind.

"Dr. Mordesh is my friend and fellow scientist," came the disembodied answer inside Captain Samwise's head, loud as a church bell.  "Where is he now?"

"He is in the trailer behind us," replied Samwise, though he realized that the Pig-Worm knew what he was going to say before he said it. "Dr. Mordesh told us of his experiments and the reason for them, and he needs us to help you to complete them," he continued to say out loud out of force of habit. "Gentlemen," he said to his companions, "I have made mental contact with Dr. Rogers.  We are reading minds now."

"Don't ... think ... of ... bacon!", repeated Guns over and over to himself in his head. "Damit... I'm thinking of ... bacon!  Bacon!  I just love bacon! Damnit! Shut up, brain!  Shut up!"  

Fortunately, it appeared that Dr. Rogers, the Pig-Worm, was attuned to the Captain's mind, and not Guns' at that moment, so no hell broke loose, and the two  continued to parley without unseemly interruption.  

"I am Dr. Rogers, a scientist of the 19th Division, US Army.  I am trapped within this mutant body, repugnant to you as it may be, but my mind is fully intact, for the same reason as Dr. Mordesh.  I can see through your mind that he is well.  I'm relieved.  I am crossing the mud waddle in the hope that I can get to the edge of the wooded area over there, and remain still for long enough, despite the danger, so that I might be able to encounter one of the Dragonfly-Insectoids that Dr. Mordesh described to your companion Pita.  If so, I may be able to mentally stun it, and bring it back to the lab. I should like to thank you for being kind enough to help us."

All of this was transmitted directly and instantly into the good Captain's mind in a single flash of insight, rather than as discrete sentences.  It was as if Sam simply had known these things all along.  Such was the power of Dr. Roger's mind. 

Captian Samwise reflected on Dr. Roger's plan.  He considered the nature of the Dragonfly-Insectoids in question.  Their venom, as he understood it, was extremely potent.  Their armored shells could withstand being pounded on by a rock. They ranged in size between a half inch and eight inches.  There were likely millions of them in the Mound-Hive. And they were likely not the only Insectoid species in the vicinity.  He shuddered.

Taking out his binoculars he scanned the edge of the wood brambles to see if he could spot any of the Insectoids, but he didn't see any.  The Mound-Hive was located about a mile or so north of their position, and over the tops of the brambles Samwise could see the top of the mound, which itself was covered with wooded brambles. 

One fact he considered in their favor was that they did not need to capture a living sample of the Insectoids in order for the scientists to extract the DNA sequence they needed. 

The Captain thought about all of this, and came to the conclusion that the AGV could well suffice to keep the crew out of harms way while they collected one or more samples, as there was no chance the creatures could gain entrance to the AGV once it has been hermetically sealed.  All they would need to do is run over some, and their DNA would be crushed into the tread.  They could drive off and collect the sample afterwards.

"I think we may be able to help you obtain your sample," said Samwise to the Pig-Worm.

"No," replied Dr. Rogers.  "I do not want you to put yourselves at risk.  We were sent with the 19th to take that risk.  It is what we signed up for.  But you are just passing through.  We can't ask you to take such a risk."

"We have the AGV," commented the Captain.

"You are forgetting something," said Dr. Rogers, perfectly aware of Sam's thoughts.  "There are many kinds of mutant insects flooding out from this region, and there are Bore Beetles in the area.  The same kind as you met in the south on your way here."

"Ah," replied Samwise.  The Bore Beetles could chew through stone and metal, he recalled.  He thought of the Acoustic Anti-Insect Shell.

"Yes, that's true," interjected Dr. Rogers into Sam's thoughts, "You do have such a device, but again, you are forgetting... it was destroyed by the EMP blast when you fought the Shadow King back in the desert south of Page," he added, showing that not only had he read the Captain's mind, but scanned his entire memory, and knew every detail with perfect clarity.

"On the other hand," he added, "we have the facilities here to repair your AGV, and provide you with any necessary supplies and equipment you may need."

And so a plan was formulated. 

At that moment Pita detected momentary Mind Scan attempting to penetrate into his thoughts, and warded it off by a lucky dodge of mental reflection.  He knew it was only luck that saved him.  The invasion attempt, he also knew, came from Pig-Worm.  Pita commented on this event to the Captain, quietly.  

"Please convey my apology to your friend," said Dr. Rogers into Sam's mind.  "It's just a habit I have to read the minds around me.  No offence intended.  Usually no one even notices.  I will try to remember to refrain from doing so again."

"Ah, ok, I will mention that to Pita. No worries, I think," said Samwise aloud, and went on to extend Dr. Roger's apology.

Back in the AGV, Fred happen to be chatting to Linda as they listened to the one sided conversation outside over the speakers.  

"You know, just thinking out loud here, but what if these are somehow rival scientists or something, and one of them happens to be evil?" asked Fred

"What do you think is going on?"

"I don't know," he replied hesitantly.

"Didn't Dr. Mordesh say that the Pig is a great scientist...? I had the impression they are friends," she added.

"Well, of course he would want us to think that," replied Fred.

"So... you think Dr. Mordesh is the evil one?"

"I'm not sure.  Dr. Mordesh could be trying to fool us. If we were like ... if the Pig was like evil and we ... and Dr. Mordesh was the good guy, but maybe trying to make it, that like he's afraid the Pig isn't going to mind control us or something and make it bad, and he doesn't want to take the chance.  Because he can protect himself from the Pig, but we can't." 

"So let me get this straight," said Linda, struggling.  "So you think Mordesh is evil, and that the pig is good, and that Mordesh doesn't want the pig to take over our minds because then we would act good, and Mordesh wouldn't want that?"

"Well, yeah, if that was the case then yes.  But what if the Pig is evil?"  

"Then wouldn't Mordesh have warned us about the pig?" asked Linda, trying to reason through the possibilities.

"Not if he had some kind of ulterior motive."

"What kind ulterior motive?"

"Maybe there's a rivalry, or something," answered Fred waving his finger in the air abstractly.

"But as far as I understand," replied Linda, "they're working together to find a solution to the virus problem, no?"

"So then they're both working together to fool us.  I get what you're saying.  I getchya," concluded Fred with a knowing nod of his head, and rubbing his chin sagely with two fingers.

The conversation went around in circles a few more times, but still lead to nothing conclusive. Finally, Fred laid his cards on the table and tried to force the issue.

"I just want to, you know, to know, that you are on the right... the right side... of history," said Fred.

"On the right side of history?  Can I kind of give you my assurance that I'm on the right side of history?  Would that do?" she asked, trying to keep Fred from spiraling off into the ozone.

"Are you against the Pig Menace?", he demanded, "That's what I want to know!"

"Ah!  The Pig Menace!  ... Are you against the 'Pig Menace'?", she countered.  "So you're against the pig, is that what you're saying? You're against the pig?"

"I'm against any menace," replied Fred defensively.

"Well, ok, I'm against any menace, too," Linda reassured him.

"Well, good. And I know, what when Guns gets himself in trouble out there, you'll do the right thing," said Fred.

"Yeah," she added, "I think you'll do the right thing, too."

"Yep.  Definitely!", he answered emphatically.

"Ok. Good. I'm glad we had this little talk," she said and went back to repairing some vacuum tube circuits on the radio apparatus.

Fred stalked away to snort a line of cocaine in preparation of the doom-storm to come.

Meanwhile outside, Captain Sam wanted to go back to the AGV and get out of the open.  The Pig-Worm was surprisingly agile in the mud.  He squealed and with its worm-tail he moved through the waters towards the AGV with surprising rapidity. He looked disturbingly like a large fat pink sperm cell.  Sam tried to erase that thought, but it just slipped out.  The Pig-Worm stopped, turned his head, and gave him that sardonic gaze.  And then went back to swimming merrily through the mud to the AGV.

Fred, seeing it coming through the window, snorted another line, and suddenly felt that something happened in his mind... it suddenly brightened up in a flash, and then went back to normal.  He had no idea what it was.  But he didn't like it one bit.  He decided that going forward he would create a set of Compartmentalization Zones in his mind in order to confuse and distract any would-be mind readers from knowing what he was really thinking.  The first two would be normal processes, one would be simply white noise, another all about bacon mixed in with Shakespearean insults.  This ought to do the trick, he thought, though in fact, it was far too late for anything like that.  His mind had already been completely scanned and analyzed by Dr. Rogers.  But his mind was now compartmentalized into Mental Zones, and he found it rather entertaining.

The crew members returned to the AGV, and they put Dr. Rogers in the trailer with Dr. Mordesh.  The two appeared to converse by mental means as they both stood still and nodded their heads occassionally.

"Ah so I see that things have been arranged, and we're ready to go.  This is good," conveyed Dr. Rogers to Captain Samwise on behalf of Dr. Mordesh.  "We appreciate your help."

Upon boarding the AGV, the team went through the usual decontamination ritual at the air lock.  Part of the process was manual because the AGV was severely damaged.  The UV lighting component was broken so they used extra anti-biological mist. Having both was obviously best, but under the circumstances Samwise felt that an extra dose of decon-mist was very likely not quite enough protection under the circumstances.  Everyone, including those inside the AGV, were wearing their Hazmat Suits.  But if any contamination got inside the AGV it would be nearly impossible to remove it after the fact.  They needed to find an effective way to decontaminate their suits.  They applied three applications of the mist.

"That will not be sufficient," said Dr. Rogers into the Captain's head.

"What would do it?" asked Samwise.

"We have a capable decontamination unit at the Hospital," said Dr. Rogers.

So the team mounted onto the AGV exterior by hanging on, with Guns having climbed up on top to the turret and tied the iron chain that was still there around his waist. Linda drove the AGV.  It wasn't exactly something she was well trained for, but she had driven one a number of times back at HQ in Tuscon.  She could manage.

They rumbled through overhanging forest, and as long as they kept moving at a fast enough clip, although the vines swayed towards them, they were not fast enough to catch hold of anyone. As they rolled through Dr. Rogers mentioned to Sam that they had an ointment that repels the plants, but it was hard to manufacture, rare, and so used quite sparingly.  But if they wanted some, they were welcome to what the Hospital could spare.  Which wouldn't be much.  Captain Samwise thanked him for the offer.

They entered the town of Panguitch.  The houses were fortified with spiked boards, barbed wire, and ditches.  No movement was seen, but they had a sense they were being watched.

"The most dangerous group, in fact, are the mutants," commented Dr. Rogers as they rolled along.  "They have mental powers, and can crush the weak minded, but they are afraid of me, so they won't be a problem so long as I'm here.  Mostly they pray on the Zombies by altering their sense of direction, or creating illusions for them to get snared by.  But it's a war of attrition because the Zombies are notoriously hard to kill.  Well, actually, they're already dead, so the best that can be done is to stall them, and if possible immobilize them with traps."

They turned a corner and rumbled down a main street, went a few desolate fortified blocks, saw no one, and arrived at Garfield Hospital without incident.  They rolled up into the parking lot.  Fred climbed up into the turret to man the machine gun, while the men outside prepared to enter the hospital with Dr. Mordesh and Dr. Rogers.  There were robotic machine gun nests positioned in a dozen places, covering all angles of approach with triple lines of fire.  There were ditches, thick walls of barbed wire, and metal barriers.  No one was getting into the Hospital easily.  Sam, Pita and Guns disembarked, opened the trailer, and Dr. Rogers and Mordesh lead the Team to the front gate.  The radio controlled Robot Soldiers stood down and let them pass.

As soon as they entered through the large steel double doors of the Hospital Lobby they encountered a highly sophisticated and extremely thorough decontamination process that involved a series of airlocked corridors and chambers. It took quite some time to get through all of the decontamination routines.  Some of them were rather unpleasant, but no one dwelled on that.  They soldiered through and made their way from station to station without comment.

After they had passed through the last the decontamination chamber everyone was given new decontaminated suits, and both of the Doctors were given hermetically sealed containment suits, due to their condition.  Dr. Roger's was shaped, and motorized, specifically for Pig-Worm.  He looked out at them from within a thick glass bubble on top of a wheeled contraption.  The containment suit looked quite sturdy, and had a something of an ominous look, in fact.

They were directed by the doctors down a long zig zagging corridor.  At the first portal they were joined by two armed guards, also wearing protective armor.  Down a side corridor they saw a large glass enclosed containment chamber in which were sealed and heavily armored cages.  Each of the cages had a zombie in it, rasping, raging, and trying its best to escape.  To no avail.  Those cages were built by no-nonsense military engineers to contain zombies.  And that they did quite well.  

They arrived at an armored elevator, with a mini-machine gun turret over the doors, which descended a long way down, though the elevator controls showed only five floors.  If there was more here than met the eye, none of the crew took notice of it.  It was good enough that they were getting help from eminent scientists working on a cure for the Insectoid Virus.  When they got to the third level down the doors slid silently open, and they emerged into a circular corridor lit by a combination of ultra-violet and orange lights which dotted the rim of the ceiling every five feet.  The walls were colored a bright yellow, and appeared to be plastic.  They came to doorway, also guarded, and were permitted entrance after the Doctors were scanned and verified.  Everyone was given a metallic pass-plate which had a black band on it.  If the band were to turn any color other than black, instructions would be provided and they would need to comply immediately.

In this section of the facility there were numerous laboratories, sparsely populated by small teams of scientists in hazmat suits.  Some of the scientists, in fact, were teenagers, and there was even one who could not have been more than twelve years old.  Observing the facility through the glass partitions it seemed as though hundreds of experiments were being conducted.  Androids could be seen working at stations, setting configurations, inspecting test tubes, cleaning, and transporting materials here and there.  It was a busy place.  Dr. Mordesh excused himself with a hand wave, and went to confer with several scientists on urgent matters.  Dr. Rogers continued on with the heroes and led them to a broad steel door, which slid silently open. Within was a dark room, but as the door opened lights switched in in a series, and the room became well illuminated.  There were rows of cabinets, bins, shelves, and stacks of equipment.

"Inside you will find all of the materials, tools and utilities necessary to refurbish your AGV up to all essential services and features," spoke Dr. Rogers into Captain Samwise's mind.

"Thank you," replied Samwise, aloud, so that Pita and Guns would know a conversation was being had.  They went inside and found every tool, circuit, device, and part they might need to repair the AGV.  

"It is no trouble," replied Dr. Rogers.  "You plan to help us on a dangerous mission, so it is the least we can do.  Please, take whatever you may need."

Delighted, Pita and Guns filled several crates, and put them on a motorized trolley.  

"There's more equipment at the air base, about two miles from here, as well. Between these two stores, if you want to, I am certain you can bring your AGV fully back on line in mint condition.  Maybe even add a perk or two," said Dr. Rogers as they walked next to the trolley towards the cafeteria.  

Samwise's scientific curiosity was deeply aroused by the facility, and he was wondering if he could look at the lab results thus far, and Dr. Rogers intuited to him that he certainly could, but there was a hesitation.  Samwise understood without being told that the experiments being conducted were quite a bit above his level of education and understanding, despite his scientific and bio-hacking skills.  In fact, his skills were effective for field work, but not really up to the level of what was being conducted on Level -3 of Garfield Hospital.  He felt sure he would learn a lot, even if he didn't understand everything off the top, so he planned on dong a little light reading over night.

Pita, who had more military experience than the others, noticed that the hospital's Automated Defensive System was the ADS-XL-7 model, which suggested that the 19th Regiment had sent some of its top tier military men to this theater along with the scientists.  He wondered if they happen to have the kind of resources that would allow him to fix Lexi, their all but destroyed Android.  He asked Dr. Rogers if that was possible.

Dr. Rogers brought them to another armored room.  Inside was everything Pita might need for the project.  He was overjoyed.

They went back up and conferred with the team.  It was decided that they could afford to spend the time to conduct repairs on the AGV and Lexi.  Pita started the conversation.  

"This is our best chance to get everything back up and running to the level we were at when we left Tuscon.  We may never got this opportunity again.  However, I should inform you, to effect all the repairs on Lexi and the AGV necessary will take me about a week.  But why not take the time to do it proper?  We're not in a rush.  As long as we're safe, we should avail ourselves of the Hospitality, so to say, if you know what I mean."

"While we work on repairs, I'd like to see Linda's equipment repaired so that we can communicate with Federation Command more quickly," said Sam.

"Well, the fact is," replied Linda, "no matter what repairs we do, and they are very welcome, Sir... but it won't improve our communications speed at all.  The atmosphere, sir, is the culprit here.  All those scintillating bands of radiation spiraling around the planet we see every night have all but eliminated our ability to conduct radio transmissions through the atmosphere, except on a line-of-sight basis.  And even that is spotty.  That's why we need to use the Ultra-Low Frequency Transmissions though the ground.  And that does take time.  So repairs would be helpful of course, as it would make the equipment obviously far more reliable that what I've been able to cobble together, but I can't do miracles, Sir."

"Understood," replied Sam, a bit disappointed.  "Still though, let's do the best we can with what we've got, eh?"

And so, the heroes began what would be a long night of hard work, and repairs were under way.  Lexi-B, to everyone's amazement, was not only fully repaired by the morning, but as it happened, one of the scientists, a young woman by the name of Janet Langly, a genius at AI, had been working on an experimental Positronic Brain, and Guns and Pita managed to talk her into installing one into Lexi-B.  

"It's for the mission," they said in unison.  She seemed hesitant.  "We might need some serious AI to get to that Insectoid Mound-Hive thing, and back again ... alive, you know.  With the ... Insectoid DNA.  Right?" 

Dr. Rogers spoke with Janet and recommended they try the Positronic Brain in Lexi-B.  There was some question as to whether or not a normal Proximatic Industrial Android could integrate such an advanced device.  

"It would make for definitive experimental conditions, wouldn't you agree Dr. Langly?" asked Dr. Rogers.  And so it was decided that the new Positronic Brain would be installed in Lexi-B.  And by 10:20 am, Lexi-B began to think for himself.

"Well, he'll probably kill us all," commented Guns, "but I guess that's all right, then, I suppose... you know, for science and shit."

"As long as it is good for machine-kind, all is well," said Lexi-B with a slight smile.

Someone laughed awkwardly.  

~~~~

And this is where we left the game for the night.  Fun times, foooo shizzle.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

WoAF - Game Session 15

And so we find our heroes hightailing it down Route 89 back the way they came.  Eastward they rumbled the Armored Ground Vehicle.  Good Captain Samwise considered their options.  If they head back all the way to Page, Arizona, they'd likely find the Paladins of the Golden Lion giving them an unfriendly welcome.  While Fred wanted desperately to head south back to Tuscon, there were really no good routes available for that, and in addition, the other members of the party decided that they wanted to complete the mission after all.

"This needs to stop," said Fred emphatically.  "Look, Captain, you almost just got shanked back there because we could not hear what you were saying because the audio equipment of the AGV is all busted.  We have all this information to deliver back to Federation Command.  We should go south, deliver the goods, re-equip, and then head back to Utah and do the mission."

"Well," started Samwise, "we're halfway -"

"No! We're halfway to nowhere!" interrupted Fred.

There was a fierce debate.  Guns suggested going back to Tuscon to get Rocket Jets to go to Tuscon.  There didn't seem a practical avenue to accomplish that. 

"The question is," said Sam, "has the team given up on the Mission?"

In the end, the answer was no.  And so when they came to Johnson Canyon Road, they cut a sharp left turn, and headed north.

They passed derelict burned out farmlands, and into a canyon valley that snaked along a windy little river. About 15 miles in the road turned westward.  They drove through the forested hills, and at one point they passed what looked like a small cluster of houses high up on the ridge of a cliff.  There showed no signs of life, so they continued westward into a region of ever thickening forest.  In the air there were orange sized dandelion puffs floating by the hundreds, then thousands. They passed a herd of deer that stared out at them from within the covert of a shadowy wood, several of which had eight legs and six eyes, and bizarrely shaped horns. Samwise noticed that all of the fauna in the region appeared to have been mutated.  Wherever the puffs landed, they began sprouting leaves and vines within a few minutes.  The number of these puffs increased steadily the further west they went.  It was not entirely comforting.  They secured the ventilation system and kept moving westward.

The road entered directly into a long wall of dark and gigantic forest.  The trees grew to the size of Sequoias, the tallest towering nearly 300 feet into the glowering sky.  The forest appeared to have grow up around a regular forest, whose thousands of oaks and pines formed a skeletal under-forest, dead, leafless and decomposing.  Amid the dead branches of the under-forest a murder of crows was seen flocking, cawing, and staring at the passing AGV with a strange intensity.  The giant trees seemed to crowd in on the road, and roots of those trees had begun to break through the road in certain spots.  From the high branches enormous vines draped down, crossing ominously above the road.  Guns thought they seemed to be moving sinuously, but it might just have been the shadowy light playing tricks with his eyes.  On the other hand, he also thought the vines could be sentient.  He wanted to shoot them.  The good Captain gave the order.

As the machine gun fire hit the enormous vines they shattered, and flocks of crows scattered cawing madly in all directions.  They continued forward cautiously. The vines grew thicker, and the trees closer.  It grew darker beneath the enormous cathedral of trees, until not a hint of sunlight could be detected.  It was nearly pitch black, and they travelled very slowly so as to not lose the road.  Guns swiveled the turret randomly picking targets in the foliage, but not firing at anything. 

Eventually, they came to a dark burbling stream crossing the road.  The water was about 3 feet deep and deep mud covered the banks.  Up the stream, about 50 feet or so, on the edge overlooking from a little cliff that hung over the stream bed, they saw the corner of an old dilapidated wooden house.  Guns aimed the machine gun at the house.  The porch was obscured by trees and deep shadows.

"For all we know, this house could be full of Tech," said Pita.  But no one wanted to find out.  And so they rumbled slowly past, wondering if 'old granny' had put out warm ginger cookies for them.  Yep.  No one wanted to find out.  They crossed the stream and kept going.

After a long slow drive, the forest began to thin out, and after some time the trees lessened in size and eventually they came to a river, the crossing of which allowed them to leave the forest behind.  Good riddance, they said.

The road snaked westward through the hills.  They spotted another cluster of lifeless buildings up on a hill, and passed by.  After a time they came to the town of Glendale.  

Captain Samwise stopped the vehicle, and they surveyed the town from a concealed position.  Glendale had activity.  Military activity.  Jeeps, tanks, troops, and there were occupied houses, and people on the streets.  It looked busy-busy down there.

"At this point in time, I do not really want to tangle with the U.S. Army.  I don't think we can assume a friendly response," said Samwise.  He was inclined to go off road.

Pita recommended they find a place to hide and do any necessary repairs on the AGV before heading off road. They plotted a course on the maps that Fred had been able to recover from Mech Base 12.  They headed up a backroad up towards a nearby lake that looked unoccupied.  The area around the lake was desolate.  They parked and Linda suggested that she could transmit to Federation Command using the Ultra-Low Frequency transmission.  It would take a minimum of four hours to transmit and receive any reply, which coincided roughly with the amount of time it might take to effect repairs.  

It was early evening, and would get dark in about an hour.  Guns thought that it might be better to do what they need to do during the day, rather than at night.  Linda, for her part, liked the spot because the terrain would help to transmit as the area around the lake was flat.  They decided to transmit for two hours, provide a time to recommend Federation Command to transmit their reply, and effect some repairs.  Fred and Sam suited up and stepped outside to work on the AGV.  

Guns wanted a half hour to stretch his legs and scout around a bit.  He donned the heavy armored suit, and took his trusty Springfield rifle, Ilene, and headed out for a half hour perimeter search.  He climbed up on a hill to the north, found a concealing spot, and with his binoculars took a look around.  He was able to see the military forces in the town from his position, and noted that there were no military forces north of the town.  All activity seemed clustered around the south side of Glendale.

Meanwhile, Pita took the time to take a look at the AGV's electronics to see if he could repair anything else.  Linda transmitted to Federation Command.  Samwise climbed up into the Perch to keep a lookout.

By the time the ULF transmission was complete, it was dark, but the moon was shining brightly, and there were no clouds.  High above, the sky was pierced by the never ending multi-colored coruscating bands of radiation in the upper atmosphere, making their characteristic high pitched twirping-hissing sounds.  Then they heard the sound of Thunder in the distance.  

Samwise decided to travel northward without lights, to try to avoid observation by the military.  As they drove the sounds of thunder grew fast and furious and the trees lit up with reflected flashes of light.  But no storm approached.  Guns swiveled the turret around in all directions, and to the south he saw what it was.  Over the horizon, beyond the mountains, perhaps 20 miles southward, massive explosions were lighting up the sky and creating a thunderous display.  It looked like a full scale war to the south west.

"Bombs bursting in mid-air, gave fruit to the night", intoned Guns somberly.

"Fruit to the night?", asked Samwise.

"I always wondered what kind of fruit that was," replied Guns thoughtfully, scratching his chin.

The team moved slowly forward, Pita guiding the AGV along a back road towards Golden Haven Ranch.  There was activity there, but not of a military nature.  They slowly passed by, trying not to draw attention.  They got back on 89 and headed north.  Sam was surprised it was that easy, but no one came out of the ranch house, and so they took their good luck and ran with it.

"If we stay on 89, we can almost make it all the way to the Salt Lake," said Sam, to Fred's intense annoyance.  They poured over the map carefully.  He recalled that originally Alt-X had recommended coming in from the west onto the Salt Lake Flats, so he looked for a route up 89 that would get them to the west side.  It was midnight.  The roads were desolate.  It would be about 100 miles before they intersected with Route 70.  Samwise estimated they would arrive there by the morning, if all went well.  Fred was no end of annoyed by these plans.

Behind them the explosions continued beyond the mountains.  

"Well, at least nothing is going on up here," said Samwise to the crew.

"Wanna see me tempt fate?  Thank goodness," replied Fred with a snicker, and popped a couple of pills and went to bed.  

They passed several empty and desolate towns, such as Gravel Pass, and Hatch, as the road snaked its way through hills.  They came to the intersection of Route 89 and Route 12.  It was about 3 in the morning.  

Guns was the first to spot the circle of crosses on the side of the road.  On it were chained skeletons.  A storm began to come in from the north west.  The wind picked up.  Scanning around with his binoculars by the flashes of lightning, Sam saw that every house nearby was covered in massive vines, through the doors and windows, and through holes in the rooves.  As the storm was approaching rapidly with wild flairs of lightning, the Captain decided to hunker down and bolt the AVG's pilons into the ground.  He directed Pita to a spot about 1500 feet to the west of the road on a flat area.  They talked about waking Fred up to handle the Retro-Tech required to drive the pilons into the ground, but he had drugged himself into a virtual coma and was snoring away in a deep slumber.  

Sam gave Fred a little kick, to which Fred flailed his arms, fell off the couch and smacked his face on the floor.  This woke him up.  The Captain directed him to use the manual override to drill down the pilons, and Fred shook himself, and prepared.  It would require going outside and manually running each pilon using the gear mechanisms.  He and Sam suited up, and went outside.  The winds had picked up to 70 to 80 mph, and a driving rain began to fall.  Enormous strikes of lightning began peppering the nearby hills.  They scrambled around the AGV, and a couple of times nearly got blown away by huge gusts of winds, but their tethers held and they managed to complete the job and scramble back inside.  

The storm flooded the area with a three foot deluge, and they found themselves bolted down in the middle of fast moving river.  By morning, however, the storm began to abate.  They remained hunkered down for a few hours to let the waters recede while Linda worked the ULF receptors, and at about noon she picked up a signal from Federation Command.  Her rig, full of vacuum tubes and sparking wires, managed to receive the message.

"GOOD JOB.  STOP. AQCUIRE ALLIES.  STOP. PROCEED TO BLACK WIND. STOP."

"Your dad would want us to bring you home safe and sound," stated Fred.

"I think my dad would want us to complete the Mission, actually," replied Linda.

There was another fierce debate about what they should do next.  At this point Fred had gained the support of Guns, who also began to think that they simply were no longer equipped to handle the kind of terrors they were inevitably going to face.  Linda, on the other hand, was determined to complete the mission, and Sam felt the same way.  Pita agreed to do whatever the Captain decided, though personally, he felt Fred and Guns were probably right.  They went back and forth on the question for quite a while, covering all possible pros and cons.

Eventually, the good Captain decided to forge ahead.  Fred popped a pill and went straight back to sleep.

They withdrew the pilons from the ground, and made their way to the road.  Passing the circle of skeletons they got very bad feeling.  Pita took a glance over, he couldn't help himself.  He noticed that every skeleton in the circle had its head turned towards him, and was staring at him with their dead and empty eye sockets.  A wave of hopelessness came over him like a tsunami.  It suddenly seemed to him that death is inevitable.  There was really just no point in fighting it.  There never had been.  As this feeling washed over him, he maintained just enough wit to activate his Mentarian Mind Shield.  Unfortunately, while he was able to see the attack in time to prevent it, his poor luck came into play once again, and the Mind Shield fizzled into nothingness before the inky darkness of the Rays of Un-Life that overwhelmed him.  And so, having lost control of his mind, he took his foot off the gas, put it on the break instead, ground the AGV to a sudden lurching halt, and threw the gear into park.  Without further ado he slumped over in his chair, and limply slid to the floor of the AGV waiting for the end to come and put them all out of their misery, forever.  Such is the spiritual wickedness that has engulfed the world after mankind's fateful decision to wage the Ultra-War. 

"Pita," yelled Guns, popping his head upside-down from the turret, "what's going on down there?  Why'd we stop? You ok?"

"It's just not worth it," moaned Pita from the floor, drool running down his cheek to the floor.

"You know when I'm feeling down, and I feel like the whole world's against me" said Guns encouragingly, "I take out good old Ilene and and shoot things until I feel better. What do you want me to shoot, man?  Name it!"

"You might as well just shoot me," said Pita in the most despairing voice any of them had ever heard.

"Captain, request permission to blow the shit out of those skeletons," said Guns, his voice trailing off as he eyed the crosses with furrowed brows, a sense of dread and doom overwhelming him. He imagined that they would all be on those horrible crosses soon.

Fred was dreaming.  It was a nightmare.  He was running through the fields, but he had no legs.  He looked down and saw his body was a poisonous snake writhing in the mud.  Skeletons on crosses were reaching out for him, and lifting him up, nailed him onto one of the crosses, their empty eyes staring at him with a terrifying gloom.  All around him in every direction was pitch black horror.  The horror of a universe dying.  He could not move.  He lay on the couch, drooling.

Samwise leapt over to Pita and tried to rouse him with a violent shake.  That however, only solicited a dismal groan from the poor miserable hero.  Sam jumped into the pilot's seat, grabbed the steering wheel, flipped the gear shift into 3rd, and slammed his foot on the gas.  This caused the AGV to lurch forward suddenly and descend into a muddy ditch, unfortunately.

Meanwhile, Linda had managed to spring into action, having activated her Mind Shield in time.  She ran over to Pita and used her Mentarian Power of Influence Emotions to try to rouse Pita from his despair.  With all of the mental energies she could put into it, it would last only two minutes at the most. With her best and most encouraging words, however, she was unable to rouse him. Sam was trying to get the AGV out of the ditch.  He revved the engine three times, turned the steering wheel wildly, and commanded the vehicle to move forward - to no avail.  It just slid around in the mud uselessly.

Guns, who was also being infected by waves of despair, decided to focus all of his attention on taking apart Ilene, cleaning each part carefully, and reassemble her with great and unerring care.  This actually worked wonders to keep him from becoming immobilized.  However, he wouldn't do anything at all but that.

"Pita, come back to me!" yelled Linda, throwing her arms around him, and putting everything she had into it.  When Pita heard her voice, he realized how beautiful she truly was, and this brought him back to his senses.  He grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her.  The sense of being alive filled him, cleared his mind, and he immediately grabbed the wheel from Sam, pushing him out of the way, and floored the gas.  Pita, unlike Samwise, was an expert Pilot. At first the wheels slipped and slid sideways, drifting the massive vehicle leftwards about 10 feet.  But Pita also had The Gnack.  

"Common, baby," he cooed has he gave the dashboard a whack with his fist. The AVG engine roared, and slid to the right about 15 feet.  He stacked his skill of Insane Persistence on top over everything else, and tried one more time.  This time the AGV gained traction on the rock base beneath the mud, and suddenly the vehicle lurched out of the ditch.  

This all took about 45 seconds. Across the floodwater flats towards Route 89 they roared, and without a hitch Pita got the AGV back onto the road, flooded as it might have been.  They roared northward. The further away from the Skeleton circle they got, the more Fred's dream went from nightmare into bizarre drug induced fantasy.  Crushing the bones of the skeletons onto a mirror he happened to be sitting in front of, he proceeded to snort the white boney powder like a mad man.  All kinds of bizarre images were flashing through his incoherent.

Pita drove furiously, sweat pouring off his brow.  But before they could get entirely out of the range of the Skeletal Horror... the wondrous Influence Emotions wore off... it had been two minutes, and now he realized that it was all a dark ruse.  There was no way to escape the skeletons, and they were all doomed no matter what.  Even if they made it up the road, death would soon find them, encircle them, drown them, kill them, ransack their souls, and feed them to the Maw of Horror.  Despair covered him completely.  And so, he slid quietly back to the floor and laid down, drooling to himself incoherently.  The AGV came rolling to a halt. 

Meanwhile, Fred failed to snort enough of the skeletons, there being hundreds of them in his nightmare.  He began to see boney fingers protruding from his snake body.  The sky was bright pink and green, with dark holes in it leading beyond into a sky of infinite blackness.  There were no stars up there anymore.  He vomited. 

Sam leapt into the pilot seat and attempted to take control of the AGV.  Once again, a deficit of skill and luck lead the AGV to drift sideways, but this time Sam managed to gain control of the situation and kept the AGV on the road.  The vehicle churned through three feet of flood water.  They could mark the road only by the signs that stuck up out of the water at various tilts.

The all pervasive doom had Pita, Fred and even Guns in its horrendous grip one way or another.  Linda went around to each of them in turn to find out how they were doing, and try to provide comfort.  When she got to Fred her voice invaded his dream, and so he somehow managed to mumble "my bag... my bag".

She looked around and found a small bag on his belt, and intuiting that this was significant, she opened it.  Inside she found a number of bottles, carefully labelled.  Drugs of various kinds.  Lots of drugs.

She took the bag to Sam who was struggling to keep the rig on the road, and he listened as she listed the names.  Sam selected Sertraline IV, a powerful anti-depressant.  Linda gave one to Fred, who swallowed it in his sleep, and one to Pita.  Guns declined and stuck with assembling Ilene.  The effect of the drug was somewhat negligible, but it did help to some degree to keep Pita and Fred from the worst of the Despair. Their drooling lessened a bit, and Linda took this as a hopeful sign.

Eventually, however, Sam drove them far enough away, and by the time they arrived at the southern edge of Panguich, the influence of the skeletons had abated.  Although the sense of misery, loss and absolutely pointlessness still clung to them, they had mostly shaken off the worst of the effects.  After a few fits and starts, Fred, who woke up by then, took a few steps, fell, smacked his face on the floor, and then slowly, groggily stood up again.  He seemed more or less back to his usual self.  Pita, not to be second bested, also stood up, wiped the drool from his chin, smiled faintly, and took the wheel of the AGV.  He did not feel well at all.  But he could still drive.  However, Sam, seeing the look in Pita's eyes, said he could continue to drive for a while, and sent him back to recover.  He promptly turned and went to the back of the vehicle and laid down next to where Linda was sitting.  She put her arm around his shoulder and they sat quietly as the AGV rumbled along.

The weather was gloomy, clouds churning darkly in the sky, the cold winds howling.  The road turned west, and there ahead they caught a glimpse of the township of Panguich.  Biological assault was evident everywhere.  Tall spindly orange colored vines with unnaturally phosphorescent blue flowers clustered everywhere.  There in the mud to the right was a creature slithering towards a rocky mound protruding from the swirling waters.  The creature had the upper body of a pig with the lower body of a giant fat worm.  Near it a 40 pound toad sitting on a moldy purple tree stump belched a spray of green acid at the pig.  It squealed and slithered away.  Further ahead, on the road a man in a torn trench coat was staggering down the road.  He was missing the top part of his right thigh.  His face looked partially torn away.  He swayed his arms as he staggered towards the AGV.

Good Captain Samwise wished very much to skirt the town.  He didn't want to go towards the staggering man, and looked around for another way to go, but the road seemed the only path forward, as on both sides of them was a huge mud waddle which he thought the AGV would simply get stuck in.  The shambling man made bizarre gestures, and flailed his arms as he approached he uttered strange gurgling noises.  He appeared to be trying to intercept the AGV.  He did not look well at all.

"That's a zombie, isn't it?", asked Fred craning his head to get a view of it through the wind shield.  "I say we blow him up".

Sam ignored this and rolled the AGV past the creature.  The zombie tried to grab on to the side of the vehicle, possibly, or something.  It was hard to say because they lost sight of it as they rolled past, but they heard some banging sounds, and in their rear view mirror they could see the creature slashing around in the water, groaning horribly and making loud and bizarre guttural noises.

"Friendly," commented Sam.  "You know, I don't like the look of this town," he added thoughtfully.  "The welcoming committee hasn't impressed me as much as I had hoped."

"We could try to befriend them," said Pita, his head laying on Linda's lap.

"Well, that has worked like never before," replied Linda stroking his hair.

And so Captain Samwise rounded the bend and they took a first look out at the ruins of Panguich pensively.  It looked like a bio-war horror show.  What to do?  What to do?

And so we left things there for the night.

Fun times for the Heroes of Federation Command.