Monday, August 08, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 36

Captain Bruin Hilda IV thrummed her fingers impatiently on her jeep's dashboard.  It was tilted at an odd angle since she had crashed it into an ant-ditch and busted an axle.  She took another long look into the desert trying to tell where the mirrors on the tops of the ant-pillars were focusing their searing solar beams.  None of them were focused on her and Kerrington at the moment, but instead they appeared to all be concentrating their fiery attention on the area of Route 89 where the other jeeps and the convoy were busy scurrying around... "like ants", she finished the thought.  She watched the refugees scattering in every direction and fanning out across the desert while the jeeps and wagons circled randomly trying to avoid the beams. It wasn't hard to do so long as everyone kept moving.  But the desert was hot.  And the light from the solar beams was blinding.  And the refugees were getting further and further away from the road, and she lost sight of many of them out in the desert.  Not good.  

There was loud clanging coming from under the jeep where Lieutenant Kerrington was busy trying to repair the axle with a maintenance robot.  He guessed it might take 15 to 20 minutes, if it could be done at all.  The robot had already removed the wheel and was examining the axle rod. It had snapped under the weight of the impact at the hub and would need to be re-welded.  Kerrington grumbled under his breath as he guided the squat bulky robot, instructing it when to cut unnecessary corners. They needed to get the job done as quickly as possible.  The robot beeped its disapprovals, but worked according to Kerrington's directives just the same.

Surrounding them was the enormous writhing carpet of ants, a sea of black, brown and maroon compound eyes, legs, antenna and stingers. The only thing keeping that voracious army at bay were the three Acoustic Insect Shells (AIS) they had turned on moments earlier, and without which they'd have been covered over and picked clean to the bones in minutes.  

It was brutally hot. Bruin Hilda stood up, wiped the sweat off her forehead, and checked her belt-mounted personal AIS. The radius was set to 5 feet. She adjusted the Power Level to 7/10.  For ants, that ought to suffice, she thought. The Jeep's larger and more powerful model (JM6) had a radius of 30 feet and was set at PL-10.  Nothing was getting through that barrier, as millions of shattered ant bodies testified all around them.

She stepped down from the jeep and walked slowly northwest.  Her estimate was that the sea of ants was about a foot deep within a two or three foot circle around the jeep.  They'd piled themselves up presumably because that's where their prey  (the only fresh meat in the area) was, and, it seemed likely to her that they might even want revenge for her having blown the top off their closest reflector tower.  Further beyond that they thinned out to cover the ground with a massive half inch high swarm that appeared to cover everything within three to four hundred feet around the tower.  It was positively frightening to behold.

She was unsure whether or not the AIS shells would interfere with each other if they came in contact.  Her knowledge of physics was not extensive, and she felt a need to be cautious.  So she inched forward watching the dust-spattering vibrations on the ground that signified the edge of her own shell.  While not significantly harmful in small doses, coming in direct contact with the vibration field was enough to rattle the nerves.  But it was quite sufficient to shatter chitin covered insects to smithereens. This was because the AIS units were specifically tuned to the resonant frequency of the molecular structure of insect chitin.  

She walked forward slowly until her shell almost touched the Jeep's shell and stopped for a moment.  Very gingerly, she inched forward until her shell intersected with the jeep's.  Outside the Jeep's shell thousands of ants per second had been busily trying to breach the destructive barrier and were being pulverized into bits and pieces.  When the two shells intersected, however, the vibrations combined force, and the ants were not merely shattered, but instantly vaporized into small brown clouds of dust.  Bruin Hilda smiled. So nothing to worry about then. She could walk through the Jeep's shell without letting a flood of ants through the perimeter and Kerrington had nothing to worry about.  Perfect.  

"Lieutenant, I'm going to investigate the tower. You keep working on the jeep.  I'll be back in ten minutes," she said, as she set her wrist-com to the jeep's radio frequency. Kerrington grunted his acknowledgement and kept working.  The repairs were going poorly.  The damage might be too bad, and the robot only gave it a 33% chance of success within the time limit.  He picked up the pace and cut another corner. 

She marched out into the desert heading towards the closest tower, which she now thought resembled an obelisk due to its straight sides, and flat surfaces. As she walked the ants were being shattered in a ten foot diameter around her, and so she was stepping on a thick carpet of shattered chitin, probably about four inches thick. She was concerned that under the carpet of ants there might be any number of ditches, or worse.  And so she spent some of her mystic energy to activate a special power known as Sense of Perception, which allowed her to "see" through and into objects as if they were translucent.  She peered through the morass of ants to detect anything underneath that might be ahead of her.  

After about twenty steps she noticed that the ants were now clearing a way before her as she strode forward.  "Smart," she thought. She soon came across another ditch.  With her Sense of Perception she could see through the thick covering of bracken that hid the ditch, and what she saw surprised her.  It was perfectly cut with exact ninety degree angles, and near zero deviation in either width or height.  They where so precise they looked machine tooled.  The ruts were one foot wide and six inches deep, and made of hard compacted dirt, nearly as hard as stone.  She passed ruts every twenty feet, and determined they ran in seemingly random directions.

When she arrived at the obelisk she found it covered with long straight lines of ants moving along the grooves in the surface of the obelisk's walls.  When she came closer the ants cleared away and so she got an unobstructed view.  The walls were smooth, and also made of compact dirt.  As far as she could tell the ant lines went all the way to the top.  She used her Sense of Perception to detect if there was life inside of the structure, and so she saw internal tubes within the obelisk, as well as numerous chambers that contained ants, and food and eggs and small pools of water.

"Giant towering ant colonies that have movable mirrors on top that can focus sunlight?  Wow," she thought.  She took a slow walk around the obelisk, the ants clearing a path for her as she went.  Using her sword she scratched a groove into the smooth surface, but it wasn't as easy as she expected.  The tower was composed of what amounted to sun-dried brick.  Fascinating, indeed.

Having found out as much as she wanted to know, she walked back to the jeep to check on Kerrington.  He had determined the jeep was actually repairable, but it would take another twenty minutes.  

"Do we have any explosives on the jeep?" she asked him.

"Sorry, ma'am.  We do have two more rockets, though, if that is any use."

She asked the lieutenant how many rockets in total they had in the convoy.

"Well, at last count we had five rocket launchers, and if I recall correctly, somewhere around 15 rockets remaining, ma'am.  We took three of the rockets with us", replied Kerrington glancing to the back seat to make sure the crates were still fastened in.

"I see.  Hmm... ok," continued Bruin Hilda, "How many plasma rifles in total do we have?"

"Ah, we have eight plasma rifles, ma'am," he said as he fine tuned the robot's actuators. The welding was half finished and after that would be a matter of reassembling the axle and fitting it into place.  Bruin Hilda pitched in to help with the repairs.  She was unusually strong, and so with her help it cut the repair time in half.  Meanwhile the wall of ants around them had massed up and was now approximately fifteen inches high.  Despite the Anti-Insect Shells, it was still unnerving to the nth degree.

After five minutes or so, Bruin Hilda noticed the bright glare of one of the towers out of the corner of her eye.  She looked up and took note that several of the towers were slowly wheeling towards her jeep and the beams were now starting to converge on their location.  She watched for about thirty seconds and noted that ten of the towers were aligning on their position.  Even with two beams on them they were starting to feel uncomfortably hot.  Then when the third hit, they started to feel the burn.  Four beams would likely start catching loose materials on fire. With ten? Bruin Hilda had the impression the jeep itself might catch on fire.  

There was a chance they could finish the repairs and hustle away, but there was also the chance they'd get cooked in the process. She started collecting equipment, including their Crystalline Batteries, canteens, ammo, and rockets and piling them into their carry bags.  She then carefully detached the AIS JM6 from the dashboard and holding on to it with a firm grip in both hands. Kerrington scrambled out from under the jeep.  He shielded his eyes from the solar beams and began picking up bags for the trek back to the main group.

"We're not going that way," said Bruin Hilda.  "We're going to the next obelisk."

"Ah.  Yeah... to the next obelisk," stammered Kerrington as he followed her northwest.  

There was a call in on her wrist-com.  "Captain where are you going?  We see you walking out into the desert.  What's going on?"

"Yes, Lieutenant, we're heading to the next obelisk.  I know this is going to sound crazy, but I think these obelisks are being built by super intelligent ants.  We're heading over to the next closest tower to take it out with our plasma rifle.  I recommend you do likewise," she concluded and signed off.  She and Kerrington marched towards the next closest tower.  Ahead of them the wall of ants gave way and they walked over the lines of ditches that crisscrossed the area.  

One of the three Lieutenants back on Route 89 was a reasonably bright young fellow.  His name was Lt. Lewis.  He got on the horn with Captain Bruin Hilda.

"Hello, ma'am.  Lieutenant Lewis here.  I figure we could take the jeeps north on Route 89 and get as close to the towers as we can from the road, and take shots from there.  As the towers form a semi-circle around the road at a rough distance of 1200 feet or so, our Lewiston's (having an effective range of 1500') ought to be able to hit at that distance if we aim well.  If after each shot we quickly move along the road, and only stop to take a shot, we can probably stay out of the line of the converging solar beams long enough to get the job done, ma'am," he said.

"Very good, Lieutenant.  Carry on," ordered Bruin Hilda, relieved to find that at least one of her Lieutenants had some brains in his head.  In the meantime she and Kerrington hoofed it over to the next tower.  They got within 300 feet.  Since they didn't have a Lewiston with them, Kerrington took the shot with a rocket.  But the rocket missed the tower and its smoke trail extended off into the hazy distance.  Far out in the desert the rocket exploded uselessly, wasting a valuable asset.  

"Gimmi that," ordered Bruin Hilda, annoyed.  She took the rocket launcher, got into position, took the shot and the rocket hit the tower with a glancing blow,  but exploded on contact and collapsed the top of the tower.  They walked through the cloud of dust to the broken tower.  It was surrounded by a sea of ants, all of whom got out of their way.  She searched around for whatever chunk of mirror might have survived, and found a fist sized section.  Hefting it in her hand, she studied it carefully.  It was composed of hardened compressed sand where the facets of the surface were very carefully positioned so that the glassy sides all aligned to form a slightly concave surface.  It was perfectly crafted.

"Wow," she said.  "These ants are smarter than usual, I'd say."

Behind her ten towers had been focusing their beams on her jeep.  When the seventh one aligned it caught fire.  When the ninth one aligned the windshield melted.  When the tenth aligned that was it for the jeep.  It exploded sending up a long plume of dark black smoke.  Bruin Hilda sighed.  At least they'd gotten away with their equipment.  Kerrington had even smartly ordered the maintenance bot to take a position fifty feet away from the jeep, and so it sat nearby recording its demise, beeped its disapproval a few times, and waited for further instructions.

Meanwhile, on the road, one of the three jeeps stopped and Lt. Lewis stood up in the cab, aimed his Beam Rifle the twelve hundred and eighty seven feet, and took the shot.  A  thin blazing orange beam cut through the rough surface of the tower about 30 feet down from the top, and carved a glowing diagonal line.  The tower stood motionless for a few moments, and then the entire top section slid to the side and came crashing to the ground with a thunderous "phhhoooooom".  

The other jeeps did likewise and between the three of them, within twenty minutes all of the towers had been cut down to the ground.

Bruin Hilda stood looking out across the desert vastness with some satisfaction.  Now it was a matter of collecting up the scattered refugees and getting back on the road north to safety.  She took a look back at Panguitch.  It was clear that heavy fighting was taking place back that way.  They were down a jeep, and had a half dozen members of their group had been blinded, or burned by the solar beams, and there were a dozen or so who got lost in the desert.  But it hadn't been a complete disaster.  They were now in the clear to make it north, and she figured in more few miles they'd be out from under its baleful shadow of The Great Insect Mound.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the Moon, in the super-secret Nazi fortress of Eisenhelm, all hell was breaking loose.  A cataclysmic civil war was raging beneath the stark and silent craters of Mare Frigoris.  But the ratta-tat-tat of the civil war was nothing compared with the real source of destruction. The entire region shook and trembled beneath the massive foundations-melting beam rays of the Giant Nuclear Missile Robots that had suddenly activated with the dread code, Delta-Z: the Final Increment of the Nazi Doom-Clock.  As Fortress Eisenhelm was being systematically destroyed by "Squadron X", the larger squadron of fifty, named "Phalanx", was on its way at maximum velocity towards Earth.  Once in the atmosphere, according to the original Nazi Delta-Z plan, they would position themselves over the fifty of most important and populous cities of Earth and explode with Cobalt encased thermonuclear warheads measuring 500 megatons each; enough destructive firepower to wipe all life larger than microbes off the entire surface of the planet. The fallout would blanket the planet in a cloud of lethal radiation for at least a thousand years.  As the planners of the Third Reich would have it, if Hitler could not rule the world, then they would utterly destroy it.  And so, after 90 years Plan Delta-Z had finally been activated, and this was their ultimate "Dick Move".  Doubtlessly, the Planners, from their graves, held up their middle fingers at the world and smirked with a lurid hatred.

Jacob reflected with some puzzlement and relief on the fact that despite the outbreak of the Nazi civil war, and blazing assault of Squadron X, the tunnel they had escaped into, Level C3, seemed relatively quiet. In fact it was. This was because the civil war was taking place on three other levels of the base, and the Robots had been programmed to attack wherever the highest concentration of personnel was located.  Hans had known this was the case as he'd done maintenance on the Nuclear Missile Robots on a number of occasions and had taken the opportunity to sneak a peek into their Delta-Z Protocols.  He had known what was coming for a long time. This is why he and the technicians had been holed up on in the workroom C3-W1 to begin with, and why when they'd fled from the attack on Hanger A, he'd chosen the route to C3 rather than any of the others.  

Level C3 had been quiet for a long time; ever since the Battle of the Wolf-Brigade had taken out C3 Military Command with the elimination of General Viktor von Krasnik.  It seemed that Admiral Ludendorff, who had been at the helm of the fleet previously, had been supplanted by General Max Von Hertling in the Command Hierarchy.  Hertling did not favor the UFO program, preferring the Giant Nuclear Missile Robot Army which had always been under his command. "These Machines of mine are solid, nuclear powered behemoths!  Not like your rickety Red Mercury Plasma Vortex machines! They are constantly breaking, Ludendorff!", the General had been fond of barking whenever the opportunity arose.  Of course, originally, both the UFO Fleet and the Giant Nuclear Missile Robot Army had been integral parts of Plan Delta-A, which was supposed to have been executed sometime between 1947 and 1949 but never had the chance for reasons no one in Eisenhelm had ever actually understood.  They'd been waiting for Order Delta-A 1-0-1-0 forever, but had been abandoned in absolute secrecy on the moon ever since.  One Faction still believed that Hitler was merely in hiding and could order plan Delta-A at any time.  The other Factions were under no such illusions.

On Level C3, only two Science Centers remained in operation along with three Staff Administrative Offices.  The Military Command Centers had been obliterated in the Wolf-Brigade rebellion.  Franz and Hans had often debated as to why there  still needed to be three offices to support two Science Centers, but their deliberations had always led to a dead end. They chalked it up to one of many of Eisenhelm's mysteries.  At any rate, it was after the rebellion that the UFO program began to go astray, and their ability to repair the fleet had begun to seriously diminish.  Within a few years they only had five fully functioning UFOs in Hanger A.  The remaining 13 UFOs there were being used for spare parts.  In Hanger B was the UFO Workshop and all of the ships that were potentially serviceable but had elements which required repairs. There were 7 ships there.  Three of them were hopeless cases.  One of them required extensive work.  Two were nearly service ready, but required power couplings which, due to mismanagement at high levels, had been unavailable for some time.  And there was one ship that was nearly ready to bring back to Hanger A for service, but required a full Multi-Bank Capacitor Charge in order to Kick-Up the Red Mercury Plasma Vortex.  Since Hanger B had long since had its power commandeered by Science Center C3-S1, the technicians hadn't been able to anything further, and so Hanger B had been largely abandoned... until now. 

Vallnam, who knew nothing of these things, craned his neck around the corner of the Supply Depot to take a look at the guards standing in front of the the Control Gate to Hanger B.  He watched for a few minutes as his gang of technicians hid behind him.  The two guards appeared to be arguing with each other.  As such, they had not noticed the stealthy raiding team making their way through the shadows of the great cavernous chamber as they crossed to their current hiding spot.  

"Is there a code we can use to get the guards to let us into the Power Station?" whispered Vallnam into his radio.  There was really no need for him to whisper, though, as their Comms were set on Tight-Beam Two-Way on a side band that the technicians had calibrated their own radios to reach, but no others in the complex.  It was about as private a channel as you could get in Eisenhelm.

"Nein," answered one of the technicians. "That's not how Eisenhelm works, my friend. If we're not on the maintenance schedule, then there is no code to be used."

"So the only way to get in there is to subdue or kill the two guards, eh?" asked Vallnam.

"Ja. That would do," the technician answered to the approving nods of all the other technicians.

Vallnam formulated a plan.  He would leave the technicians where they were and use his stealthy skills to head due south in order to get as far away from the guards as possible while still being hidden by the Supply Depot which he would keep between them and himself.  Then he would traverse the open gap in the far shadows, which would be the moment of risk.  Then he could make his way along the hanger wall until he was behind the Control Gate.  This would put him within sixty feet of the guards, and from there he could catch them from behind. If all went well, he could take out the two guards without anyone in the Science Center knowing what happened.  After that he would signal the technicians to follow his path, and from there they could proceed to the Power Station. Gaining entrance there would allow them to de-couple the power chain from the Science Center and re-link it to Hanger B.  Of course, the technicians could have split the coupling to provide power to both, but as it happened they were quite eager to cut the power to the Science Center despite the inherent risk in doing so, and so they neglected to mention that fact to Vallnam.  After all, among the various factions of Eisenhelm, the Scientists were by far the most feared, and the most hated of all.

Vallnam had pretty good stealth skills, and so he knew how and where to step, when to pause for a few moments without moving a muscle, how to slide from shadow to shadow, and move noiselessly through the night.  He got to his intended position behind the Control Gate without being seen, and was now within the sixty foot limit of the Mentarian Power he intended to use.  His focus was on the Nazi guard closest to him, around the corner, at a range of approximately 50 feet.  While Vallnam could not hear the guards, he could tell by their gesturing that they were in a heated argument.

"Klaus, you idiot!  We should escape while we have a chance!  Just look at this place!  It's falling apart!"

"No, you fool! There is no place to go!  Delta-Z, you imbecile!  Don't you know we will be killed no matter what? Stay at your post for the Fatherland!"

Vallnam took a breath, focused his mind, and cast a Narcoleptic Beam towards the brainstem of his target.  Whoosh, down went the first guard to the ground without a word.  Instant sleepy time.

"Wilhelm!  Wilhelm!  What are you doing?!  Get up, you stupid idiot!"

Vallnam aimed another beam at Klaus and as luck would have it, his brainstem was just as weak as Wilhelm's, and he too immediately crumpled to the ground without a word.  And so both guards had been put to sleep, and they would remain that way for several hours. Vallnam, quite pleased with himself, signaled for the technicians to move up, and so they did.

Before they could commandeer the equipment they needed from the Supply Depot, they required a key-pass.  One of the technicians slunk over to Wilhelm and pulled the key-pass from his satchel and returned to their hiding spot behind the Control Gate.  Now several of the technicians followed the path laid out by Vallnam back to the Supply Depot to get the equipment.  They soon returned to the Control Gate carrying several toolboxes, cable-rolls and heavy-duty connectors.  From there the entire group, one at a time, slinked over to the Power Station.  Their big fear was that someone in the Science Center might be paying attention to the monitors and notice them.  Good fortune was with them at that point, and they made it to the Power Station without triggering any alarms, secured access with Wilhem's key-pass, and four of them entered.  Vallnam stayed at the door to keep an eye on the Science Center.  It's tall frame was on enormous stilts, and so it gave the appearance of being a chrome and glass tower floating above the floor, and nearly touching the ceiling of the cavern some hundred feet up.  There were lights on the inside, but it was not possible from their angle to peer inside to see what was going on.  And the windows had a reflective tint to them which made it all the more difficult.  Vallnam gave up on that, and watched the underbelly of the tower with extreme vigilance.  There was a singular shaft that extended from the lowest floor to the ground, and Vallnam assumed that was an elevator and air lock.  He was quite right about that.  He did not see any guards. 

At this point there was a tremendous vibration, and they felt the ground rumble beneath their feet.  Suddenly a huge mass of rock from the cavern roof fell in and collapsed onto the floor in a cloud dust.  Everyone held their breath.  The dust slowly lofted into the chamber, but nothing else happened.  They waited a full minute with baited breath.  Nothing. Meanwhile, inside the Power Station the technicians were keeping very busy preparing for the power transfer.  It was difficult work, and dangerous.  The moonquake they just experienced could have easily killed any of them. 

It took about ten minutes for the technicians to set up.  At that point they were ready to throw the switch, which would turn off all power going to the Science Center.  They would then throw the second switch and route the power through the Control Gate into Hanger B.  

"Sir, we are ready to switch off the power in the Science Center," reported the lead technician to Vallnam.

"What is the usual protocol for switching off the power in the Science Center?" asked Vallnam, curious as to how much of an impact this was about to have.

"Ja, the standard protocol is for us to give the Commanding Administrator 72 hour notification that we need to do so, and this initiates the 72 hour "Cool Down Period" where the scientists must take their experiments and such off-line.  Then we notify them that we are ready to decouple.  When the Administrator signal s that the Science Center is ready with all proper security precautions, they notify us that they are ready.  With that we turn the switch and power down the Science Center, and route power to Hanger B.  In this case we are skipping the intermediate steps."

"Gotchya," said Vallnam.  The technicians all looked at each other with nervous grins.

"Well, just do it as fast as you can so we can get the heck out of here," said Vallnam.

One of the technicians stepped a little close to Vallam, and with a slight grin he said, "You see, the problem is that we don't know what will happen if we don't give them their 72 hour cool down period.  We've never done that before.  They have experiments going on in the Science Center.  Beneath the Science Center.  Above it, maybe.  We don't know.  We're never allowed to see more than only what is absolutely necessary to do repairs in there.  And that, really, is quite enough for us."

"Don't they have a secondary power supply in case the main power gets shut down?"

"They do, but that is for temporary outages, and those generators only provide power to a few mission critical systems.  In theory that should do.  But that's just theory.  We technicians know that theory and reality don't always match, you know.  So we are not sure what will happen when we throw the switch.  Haha.  It will be a great surprise to those damn scientists!"

"Well, if the secondary power comes on, then when we switch off the main power coupling, they will see the secondary systems online, and hopefully assume that the main power will come back on soon. So long as they delay action long enough and we can get into Hanger B and do what we need to do before they sound the alarm, then we should be good. Ja?"

"The one thing you must always remember is that the Scientists are insane," answered the technician without the slightest hint of humor or exaggeration.

"What do you mean by insane, exactly?" asked Vallnam.

"They are unpredictable.  They can not be relied on.  They are a dangerous force.  We all fear and dread them.  They do terrible things, those scientists!" replied the technician with conviction.  The others all nodded in agreement.  "And yet, Eisenhelm could not survive without them."

"Right," said Vallnam, starting to get the big picture. 

"Chances are they are inside preparing for military assault.  They are probably preparing for it, and have been for some time.  You see, once the Military Factions settle who is currently in control of Eisenhelm, a Faction Commander will be sent to the various Science Centers to assume control, and imprison any Counter-Faction Scientists who are in the Center at that time.  It will be Code Red until then. Of course, in this case, Plan Delta-Z in in effect, so there can be no resolution, and Code Ultra-Violet will go into effect -- and that will be that.  The end of us all."

"I see," said Vallnam.  "Ok, then.  Well, actually, we have no choice.  Let's get this done, and get the hell out of here."

At that moment red lights began flashing around the base of the Science Center.  It seemed the gig was up.

"We should hurry," said one of the technicians nervously.

"Yes, hurry," encouraged Vallnam as the technicians finished hooking the convertor to the power hubs, flicked the last five switches before throwing the main switch.  He was keeping watch at the door.  It would be a long ten seconds.

Then something odd happened.  On the bottom of the Science Center a circular aperture opened.  It was dimly lit from within by a dark red light.  From it emerged five polished black and chrome spheres, each one being about five feet in diameter.  Vallnam could barely make them out.  They fell straight down twenty feet and just before hitting the ground, they seemed to bounce as if on an invisible cushion, and then with a final descent of two or three feet, the hit the ground with a dull thud.  They began rolling towards the Power Station.

"Do you happen to know what those are?" asked Vallnam of no one in particular, trying to sound nonchalant.  

One of the technicians poked his head out, and then quickly pulled it back inside the doorway. 

"I have no idea," he said with a look in his eyes that spoke volumes.  "But whatever they are, they're very bad. Those are very bad.  Trust me."

"You fellows can throw the switch any time," said Vallnam trying to remain nonchalant.

"They've unleashed death-balls or something!  Hurry you idiots!" yelled the technician to the others.  And with that they threw the switch.  

All the lights in the Science Center suddenly went out in an instant, including the red flashing lights.  It was absolutely pitch black in the cavern for a few moments until the secondary power generators in sub-stations on the third floor of the Science Center kicked in.  A series of emergency lights on the upper floors flickered on, emitting a greenish yellow light.  Several silhouettes appeared at a window high up on the sixth floor.  Team Vallnam did not wait to find out what the scientists might decide to do next.  

"Flip the switch!" he yelled.

They flipped the main switch to reroute power to Hanger B.  The metal door that separated the Science Center cavern from Hanger B illuminated with a rim of blue lights.  Hanger B's power was on. 

* * * 

Nearby, at the far end of tunnel C3-T2, Jacob looked down at the officer's dead body.  His face was clean shaven.  His hair was tinged with silver.  His skin was pale.  His face was gaunt, and his eyes at the moment of death were filled raw visceral hatred.  He watched as a dark crimson pool was spreading out slowly over the officer's chest.  

He looked up to check that the Smart Net had positioned itself correctly over the door to the stairway.  He glanced into the stairwell beyond, at the bottom of which Carl was keeping an eye on the airlock.  Next to him in the corridor was Hans, the most capable technician in Eisenhelm.  

The ground shook violently for a few moments and out the window he watched as chunks of tunnel ceiling fell to the ground creating large clouds of billowing grey dust.

Jacob studied the wound.  A single bullet to the heart.  Expert shot.

"You recognize this man?" asked Jacob over his Comm.

"Yes. That is Lieutenant Wagner.  A real secretive hard-ass, he was," replied Hans with some distaste.


"He was a lead officer of Section 2. Not high ranking, but he had political clout across two Factions," replied Hans without any particular admiration. 

Jacob nodded as he looted the body.  A Luger and six gold pieces.  He flipped one to Hans.  "Nice, thanks" said Hans hefting it in one hand.  Jacob looked at the coin.  It had a Nazi symbols on it.  

"Meh, this'll suck when we get back to Earth. Well, I can melt it down, anyway," thought Jacob to himself.

He checked his weapons.  With a machete in his left hand, and his Lewiston Beam Pistol in his right, he decided to give the Lugar to Hans.  He extended the gun to Hans, but Hans wouldn't touch it.  Technicians of Eisenhelm were trained from youth to be completely incapable of handling weapons, and even fearing to touch them.  Thus the rigid class structure of Eisenhelm Society was maintained.  Technicians squarely at the bottom, or close to it.  Only the Cleaners had lower status. No matter that his entire world was crashing down around them, he could not override his training.  He refused to take the gun, despite Jacob's repeated insistence.  So Jacob removed the dead officer's gun holster, strapped it on and holstered the Luger.  Who knows?  Might come in handy.

They went to the door at the end of the corridor.  It was locked and required a metal key-pass card.  Jacob looked at Hans.  The technician pulled out a box of metallic cards and began flipping through them.  He pulled one out with satisfaction.  He handed it to Jacob.  

"I know my way around," he said with a smile.

"We have company," reported Carl from downstairs over their private Comm.

"Where?" asked Jacob.

"A troop is coming in along T2, where we came in from."

"Did you break the airlock?" asked Jacob.

"Ja, you said to break it, so I broke it."

"So there's no air in there, right?"

"No. I just broke the mechanism that opens the door.  You want the air out?"

"I want you to expel the air," said Jacob with slight exasperation.

"Ah.  Jawohl!," said Carl.

They double checked their helmets.  After a moment there was a massive woosh as the air went flooding out of the Staff Center's corridors linked to the main entrance. All of the doors in the complex sealed themselves shut do to the sudden decompression, except for the door where the Smart Net was holding it open.  It was waiting for anyone to come through so that it could spring on them, wrap them up, and immediately send a notification to Jacob that it had completed its mission, as it had been instructed.  

"How many?" asked Jacob.

"Seven infantry with machine guns," replied Carl nervously.

"Ok.  Let's keep going, Hans. What can we expect on the other side of this door?" he asked pointing to the door in front of them.

"A storage room," replied Hans.

"What's in there besides spacesuits?"

"Tools, equipment, spare parts," replied Hans.

"Okay, open the door," ordered Jacob.

The two of them braced themselves for the rush of air.  

"Carl, find a place to hide," called Jacob, and they waited for a few seconds before opening the door.  Hans slid the card, and the door flew open with a great "whoooooshhh" of air.  Some light items like tin foil sheets and plastic utensils came flying out of the room.  They stepped inside.  It was a fifteen foot square room with shelves filled with tools, equipment and spare parts.  In the corner was a rack of spacesuits.  There were four.  It looked like the room had been ransacked by someone before they came in.  There were two doors leading out of the room.  Jacob pointed and asked Hans where those doors led.

"That one is a pantry," said Hans. "That one is the Lieutenant's office."  

"Is there any other way out of this building?"  

"I don't know of any.  I'm not an architect, though, I'm only a technician, don't you know? If there's another way, I've never been told about it."

"Well the murderer is either still here somewhere or he's gotten out through another way," said Jacob.

Carl from downstairs reported that the soldiers were almost at the front door.

"Is there any way we could dislodge the stairs and get them to collapse down to the first floor?" asked Jacob.

"Nein.  Solid German engineering," answered Hans with pride.  "They'll be here longer than all of us."

"Carl, get to the top of the stairs, and hide there.  Don't go through the open door.  Brace yourself," he said.

Jacob looked around the room.  He couldn't figure out what might have been in the room that anyone would have wanted.  It was just office supplies, equipment, tools, spare spacesuits, and the like.  But things were scattered everywhere, shelves and cabinets were open, and several tool boxes were lying on their sides with the tools spilled out on the floor.

"It could be Lt. Wagner hid something in here.  There's a lot of intrigue among the officers.  Quite a lot," offered Hans.

"Yeah, so I would imagine.  Okay, open that door," said Jacob gesturing towards the pantry.  He braced himself against a cabinet and pointed his Lewiston at the door.  Hans stood to the side and opened it.  A whoosh of air.  Inside was the pantry.  Shelves of food.  Nothing else.  Despite pangs of hunger, Jacob decided they didn't have time for food.  He ignored it and kept focused on the task at hand.

"The other room," said Jacob and braced himself and pointed his beam pistol at the office door.

It was locked.  Hans inserted the Lieutenant's key-pass to open the door and at that moment the entire building shook again.  Hans looked around nervously.  He tried opening the door.  It wouldn't open.  

"Can you bypass it?"

"This key is the bypass," replied Hans with some annoyance.

Jacob went to the door and gave it a whack with his fist.  In fact he was attempting to use a Mentarian Power known as "The Glitch", which had the property of inexplicably breaking equipment and electronics.  Unfortunately, that too did not work. The door declined to open.

Meanwhile downstairs the soldiers had come to the main entrance, and were investigating the Jacob's previous handy work - the two dead soldiers at the foot of the doorway.  The Comms-Network within the Staff Office flared up with shouting and tersely barked orders.

Jacob pointed his Lewiston at the lock and burned a golf ball sized hole straight through it.  Hans, having seen this surprising weapon in action, was amazed. The only appreciable weapons of this kind that he had ever heard of were the Eye-Beams of the Giant Nuclear Missile Robots.  That a tiny handheld device could emit a plasma ray was fascinating to him, and cemented his conviction that Jacob was indeed a member of an utterly secret service within Nazi Command.  But he was fooling himself.  And he knew it.  Jacob was no Nazi.  But it comforted Hans to tell himself so, and so he did. 

There was an enormous rush of air through the hole.  While they waited for the wooooooooosh to finish flooding out of the tiny hole they grabbed the four spacesuits off the rack.  They were neatly designed to be compact so each of them could carry two suits under one arm, the bulky part being the helmets.  When the air had finished rushing through, the door swung open.  He aimed his pistol inside but there was no movement, and no one was in the office.  

"They are coming up the stairs," whispered Carl.

"If you get caught, just say you don't know what's going on, and don't give us away, Carl," ordered Jacob.

"Jawolt!" answered Carl, although he knew there was little chance of his evading the inevitable question of what he was doing there outside of scheduled maintenance, and the dreadful consequences that would follow.  He quivered in his boots at the thought.

They pushed into the room, a long narrow office maintained with impeccable efficiency.  At the far end was a Nazi-Computer.  It was fifteen feet wide, and looked something like a small mainframe computer, but with vacuum tubes, silvery metallic ribbons running along brass rimmed reels, and a hundred or more multicolored blinking lights.  Hans admired it tremendously.  The XMP-Zenon-1100 series, with over 2MB of memory storage!  So fabulous.  Along the walls were long metal cabinets.  There was a small desk, piled high with metallic folders. They put the spacesuits down on a chair and began searching.

"Could the door have been locked from the outside?" asked Jacob as he searched.  He felt pretty sure that the murderer must have come in this room and escaped through a secret door.  What else could have happened? Perhaps it was his Mentarian Powers speaking to him from beyond his conscious mind, or perhaps it was the influence of a pair of distant eyes that silently watched the proceedings within Level C3 with a cold and morally unclouded interest.  Who knows?  

The office was not ransacked, but then the cabinets were solid steel and locked. Inside were thousands of metallic sheets imprinted with Staff Section 2 records in the indecipherable form of nine-square-dots.  Jacob scanned the room for anything that seemed out of place, but for him, the entirety of Eisenhelm was out of place.  What a setup the Nazi's had!  And for 90 years, alone, on the moon, maintaining a secret fortress from which Hitler had planned to rule the world!  Wow!

"Ya, it could have been locked from the outside," answered Hans as he gingerly moved around the room pressing small square sections on the walls, cabinet doors, and floor tiles one at a time and very precisely.

"We must be careful," said Hans quietly.  "This room could be boobytrapped. But if it is, we will die quickly, so don't worry," he said.  "I think I found one," he added.  "You leave the room, and I will investigate. If it is a boobytrap, well, then good-bye."

The soldiers had gotten to the landing on the stairs where they found Carl cowering in his space suit.  The commander of the group began interrogating him, and Carl did his best to be as confusing as possible.  But as a technician he was not a masterful liar, and the commander's technique was indisputably effective. The commander quickly comprehended that something was happening up stairs, and that Carl was involved. Fortunately, he decided that Carl was of no further use at the moment, and so ascended to the next landing with his men, leaving one man to take custody of Carl.  This was Sargent Heinrich von Schlick, a young and nervous soldier in Nazi Squadron 113.  The world was falling apart, and young Heinrich wasn't really at all ready to die.  He looked around with large brown eyes full of despair.

Jacob went to hide in the Pantry and blasted a hole through the door with his Lewiston so that he could see through it into the storage room.  In fact, this action caused Hans a slight twinge of doubt.  Had he misjudged Jacob after all?  He hadn't expected Jacob to run and hide in order to save his own life.  After all, if there was a boobytrap, most likely nerve gas, there would be no escape for Jacob anyway, and he would most certainly fall into the hands of Viktor Von Schuler, the officer coming up the stairs whom he knew quite well from his voice on the Comms. It would undoubtedly be a fate far worse than death, he thought.  And yet, Jacob seemed to have no concern about Hans' life at that point.  It gave him pause.  Well, he thought, there was nothing else to do but give the trigger section a twist and see what happens.  Left?  or Right?  He chose right, recalling that Wagner was right handed.  Best chance, he thought.  Tazzzzzitz.  

"I found something," whispered Hans after a few moments into his Comm.

"What?" whispered Jacob peering through the still glowing hole in the wall.

"There is a secret passageway. Quickly, come take a look," answered Jacob.  The sense of relief in his voice was notable.

At this Jacob made a dash across the storage room to the office, and ran to the far end by the computer where Hans was standing.  Indeed a narrow panel in the wall had opened up.  He pointed his Lewiston toward the opening.  They slid the door open further and peered into a dimly lit corridor that turned immediately to the right.  There was a flight of stairs going down into darkness.  

"Carl, we're putting the spacesuits on the desk in Wagner's office. I know it's a lot but you gotta get these suits to your friends somehow.  We don't know where we're going to wind up.  Get the suits to your friends and meet us in Hanger B as soon as you can," ordered Jacob.  

"I will try!" replied Carl into his mic, though in fact he and Hans both knew that this would be quite impossible.  Carl was doomed already.

And that is where we left things that night.

As they stepped into the dim corridor Commander von Schuler was entering the corridor outside Wagner's office.  There was a trip wire, and whirring of tiny machinery as the Smart Net wound itself up and enmeshed the commander within its steel grip.  It sent a message to Jacob's Comm.  "Mission Accomplished". 

...Carl looked at Henrich, and out of the blue, a new idea came tnto his head. 

"Hienrich, we have a plan to escape Eisenhelm," he whispered earnestly on the private channel to the nervous and despairing young soldier. Henrich looked this way, and then that way, and then with a gust of enthusiasm nodded "Ja! Ja!" The two young Nazi traitors slunk through the airlock and out into the dark smoky tunnel. Clinging to the shadows Carl led them towards Hanger B. Hans, whose Comm was listening in on everything in the vicinity, nodded his approval. Good Carl. Get away. Hans picked up two of the space suits and with a clever trick of folding and latch-work hitched all four suits together and slung the unwieldy mass over his back and prepared to follow Jacob into the secret stairwell, to what fate neither of them had anyi dea.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

New Elthos RPG Book For Gygax Day!

 Happy Gygax Day!

Here is my offering ... a new free book in the Elthos RPG DTRPG Store!

Thanks Gary for so many years of creativity, friendships and inspiration! So awesome! And of course thank you to everyone who helped create and sustain this fabulous hobby of ours for so many years! Ya'll R Great!

Saturday, July 23, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 35

Ratta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tat! -- Ratta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tat!

Once his machine gun emptied its clip into the open turret of the tank, Good Captain Samwise pushed the dead Lizardman Captain to the side and took a long look downward.  It was too dark to see anything other than a few blinking lights on a control panel.  Inside the ricocheting bullets had resounded against the hull for a few moments, after which only the thundering roar of fires all around him could be heard.  The heat was getting unbearable. He turned his mind to the mind of the last living Lizardman inside.  There was a torrent of garbled guttural fury and pain, but the mind soon cooled, faded, and then, with a final agonizing realization of death, it was gone.  It was a bit disturbing to be inside the mind of a brutal, hostile, dying Lizardman, actually.  But Captain Samwise was made of stern stuff and shook it off; there was no time to waste.

He glanced around the area of the tank. The pain radiating from his leg sent rippling spasms of agony throughout his body.  He was, literally, on his last leg, he thought grimly with a slight smile. There was a raging brush fire on the south side of the tank where the tread had been melted through by the AGV's Plasma Cannon earlier.  On the north side was a plume of white smoke, but as yet no fire was visible.  Holding on to the cannon he made his way to the front of the tank, and leaned over precariously to look down the two hundred foot drop to the AGV below.  Through the diamond-glass dome of "the Perch" he could see Guns inside.  He was alive, although somewhat shell-shocked from the hits that struck the AGV a few moments earlier.  Through the front window he caught sight of Fred, covered in black soot, a thousand mile stare, and a little smile on his face as he watched the flames on the top of the ridge burn.  

So both of them were alive.  Good enough.  Samwise returned to the tank hatch.  There was no sign of the four Delta-Z tanks from his position. He decided to climb inside and find out what systems were still working.  Perhaps he could still turn the turret and fire the cannon, he thought.  He gazed for a moment at the large icon on the side of the tank turret.  It was the Manticore, and the words Delta-Z.  Damn that beast!

He shoved the Lizardman Captain down the ladder so he could make his way inside.  The climb down was painful and treacherous but he made it to the bottom without injuring himself further.  There was a good deal of smoke inside.  A small fire had broken out near the driver's seat. Sparks were spewing out in cascades at the rear of the cabin. It was hot in there. 

He scanned the interior with squinted eyes and saw the dead gunner, his blood-spattered crocodile maw still wide open in a last horrendous grimace.  He sought and found the gunner's satchel.  Inside he found three machine gun magazines and a hand grenade.  He looked around for a first aid kit.  On the south wall he found a panel in which he expected there might be one.  Below it was another dead Lizardman.  The light of the flames flickered more brightly.  He grabbed the panel door and yanked it open.  Inside was a medical kit.  He took it.  The fire was now climbing along a thin rivulet of oil along the floor.  He looked around for anything else that might be useful.  At this point it would probably be a good idea to exit as quickly as possible, he thought.  There was some chance that the fire would ignite a pool of oil somewhere, or get into the ammunition, which would be bad.  He grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall and tried to suppress the fire, but quickly realized that was futile.

Meanwhile, down below, Fred revved the AGV engine.   It was working.  He wiped the soot from his face with his sleeve and threw it in reverse.  With his left hand he set the radio to Major Sekston's frequency.

"Major Sekston, come in," said Fred. "What's your status?  Major Sekston, can you read me?  Over."

There was some static but then her voice came through.  They tersely exchanged status reports.  She had made it further south in the Rhino, taken out another tank, and was at the moment concealed behind a set of earthworks as the remaining Delta-Z tanks had a bead on her position.  Fred explained the situation with the AGV.  She informed him that the four Delta-Z tanks that had been climbing the ridge to engage the AGV had been forced back down by the forest fire and were now circling around the major spur to the southwest of them.  She was in the process of distracting their attention.  Fred thanked her and said they would try to make it back north to her position.

Meanwhile, Samwise pulled up his wrist Comm and got on the line with Fred.

"Fred, Fred, this is Captain Sam.  What's your status?"

They also exchanged status reports, and Fred relayed what Major Sekston had told him. 

"We're retreating North.  That's it.  This is over," said Fred.  "We can't get the AGV up the cliff, so you're going to have to make your way North on foot, sir."

"My leg is kinda busted up, but I think I can make it," replied Sam hoarsely.  

Guns interrupted to state that he intended to exit the AGV, climb along the north face of the cliff (where there was no fire as yet), and get over to Sam in order to help him make his way north.   It was agreed that they would meet at a rendezvous point at the southern-most tip of a road that went along the top of the ridge from Panguitch to within a half mile of Sam's current position.  They could make it if they scrambled. 

Guns hopped out of the AGV and closed the airlock behind him.  He whistled to himself as he surveyed the damage.  Once again, the AGV was a mess.  Smoke was coming out of one of the holes the tank fire had made, and he could see that a good deal of the armor had been blasted apart on the port side.  Not so great.  He checked Ilene, his ever trusty Springfield rifle, and slung her over his back.  It was going to be a rough haul to get up to where Sam was.  He got going.

Fred took the AGV northeast.  He spotted Penelope walking along the far eastern road heading north.  He planned to pick her up, and then swing around to go pick up Sam and Guns on the top of the ridge to his west.  Since there were no Delta-Z tanks on his side of the ridge, he figured this was the best thing to do.  It was flat desert scrubland so the AGV could get up to roughly 40mph, which should be sufficient to execute his plan.  Off he roared, heading due east.

There was a lot of smoke along the top of the ridge. Guns made his way over to Sam's tank, but the flames from the brush fire were already starting to engulf the north side as well.  He only had a minute or so to get the Captain out before the entire tank was engulfed.  He swore under his breath at the Manticore symbol, and then heard Sam clambering about trying to get up the ladder.  His leg was pretty bad by now.  He could hardly walk.  Guns scrambled up the side of the tank, made his way to the turret, reached down, grabbed Samwise by the back of the collar and pulled him up.  Guns, in case anyone didn't know, was as strong as a bull.  Maybe two.

"Come on," said Guns, "Let's get out of here."

The two of them began making their way north along the ridge line.  But Sam's leg was too damaged for him to walk, let alone run.  Guns lifted him onto his back and they made their way toward the rendezvous point.  Unfortunately, the winds were such that the fire was catching along the brush and trees just about as fast as they could run.  Looking over Gun's shoulder Sam spotted one of the Delta-Z tanks round the corner of the southern spur, putting them in line of sight with it. It rumbled towards their position.  Then another tank rounded the corner behind it.  Two tanks! 

"Guns, pick up the pace.  We've got company," said Sam.  Guns glared at this news, furrowed his eyebrows and began trying to find cover as he ran.  Their best bet was for him to dodge along the ledge of the eastern side of the ridge, and pray they didn't step on a lose rock.  The fall over the edge of the ridge would probably have been enough to finish Sam off given the condition he was in.  And so Guns, carrying his Captain on his back, scrambled along the eastern-most side of the ridge as quickly as he could. Sam clenched his teeth and grimaced in pain, but said nothing further.

Fred, was roaring towards Penelope.  He honked the AGV horn.  Penelope stopped on the road, turned and when she saw the smoking, rattling hulk of the AGV being driven pell-mell by Fred toward her, she waved.  She had mixed emotions.  Fred was, after all, a drug addled maniac who had a penchant for being as rude and crude as possible.  He also wanted to leave her to die on the Salt Flats a couple of days earlier.  But on the other hand, it was war, the enemy had just shot her and Sam out of the sky, she was lucky to be alive, and Fred was coming to the rescue.  Okay.  Fred.  Fine.  She waved.

"Get in, loser," he said as he skidded to a stop in front of her, "We're saving the world."

She smiled. Fred, in his own weird and obnoxious way, was still one of the good guys. She hopped into the airlock and they roared off, heading back west to the rendezvous point, and leaving a long trail of dust behind.  Once inside the cabin, Fred directed Penelope to climb up into the turret and so she began figuring out how to work the flamethrower. 

"We want to get the whole west side of the ridge on fire," he said. "We're gonna light this whole thing up, ok?"

"Sounds exciting," she answered enthusiastically as she studied the firing mechanism. She'd never seen an M32-A up close before, but she was a scientist, and a mechanic.  It only took her a few moments to assess how to operate it.

Fred drove the AGV hard, bouncing over obstacles and cutting corners wherever he could.  He watched on the Vizi-Screen as the forest fire crept forward, just behind Guns and Sam as they darted along the top of the ridge.  He was half-convinced that they might not get there in time.

"As soon as you can see Guns and Sam, use the flamethrower to lob a line over their position onto the woods on the west side of the ridge.  We need to provide them as much cover as possible," he shouted up the Perch ladder.

"Aye-Aye, sir," she said with a grin. This would be fun.

Sam, looking over Guns' shoulder, estimated the tanks to their west were approximately a quarter mile and closing fast.  To the east he watched the AGV kicking up dust in a ragged line along the desert floor.  

A small drone swarm was fanning out ahead of the tanks. There was no question they had already come into firing range, but Guns' dodging between boulders along the east side of the ridge seemed to be working.  It was likely that the tanks were not able to get a targeting bead on their position, as line of sight was constantly being broken.  If they were relying on computer targeting (which they were), then there was a good chance they couldn't acquire the target.  

Sam heard a loud "KRACK-Ka-BOOM!" as the second tank that had come around the spur fired its cannon.  The shell sailed due north.  It was aimed at Major Sekston's Rhino.  Fortunately, the shot missed its target as she darted the flying tank into a gully.  The explosion blasted a cloud of dirt into the air, but Sekston was already hundreds of feet away.

Fred contacted Guns by radio and requested his coordinates. 

"We're hugging the east side of the ridge," reported Guns.

"You ahead of the fire?"

"Yes, but it's slow going," reported Guns.

"Penelope is getting ready to light up the west side of the ridge," said Fred.

"Great," replied Guns with a mix of terror and enthusiasm, depending on which way his mind saw that playing out.

About thirty seconds passed as the Rhino dodged more tank fire, and itself returned fire while dodging among the rills.  Major Sekston was making her way eastward to try to get a good line of sight on the remaining tanks as they came around the spur.

When he got to the top of the ridge, Fred parked the AGV, and told Penelope to begin lighting up the western forest.  He jumped out of the AGV and ran over to where Guns and Sam were struggling forward.  There was a lot of smoke, and the fire was hopping along the bushes and undergrowth close behind them.  Overhead suddenly launched a long narrow stream of flames with black smoke pouring off of it.  Penelope yelled out loud, she was so excited.

"Woooo-Hhoooo!", she cried as she guided the flaming stream across the entire western ridge line.  Huge plumes of fire sprang up along the western side of the ridge.  Fred, Guns and Sam hustled into the AGV and slammed the airlock shut.  Sam laid himself down on the couch in the rear.  Penelope gave up her seat to Guns, and climbed down to help Sam.  He was not doing so well.  Fred checked to see if he still had control of his drone swarm, but unfortunately the cannon fire that hit the AGV earlier took out control system antenna.  So those drones were hovering up there on their own, and were effectively useless.  "Damnit," he muttered under his breath.

"Fred, why don't we take a shot at one of the tanks with the Plasma Cannon?" said Guns, with a tone of determination that suggested this was less a question than an order.

"I don't think that's a good idea," replied Fred.

"Why not?" asked Guns.

"We have a wall of fire between us.  If we shoot at them they'll notice us and start shooting back, don't you think?" answered Fred, his intonation more as a counter command than a question.

"Well, sure but..."

"Guns!" yelled Sam from his couch. "Don't listen to Fred. Fire up the Plasma Cannon and take the shot!"

As the AGV turned onto Dd Hollow Road bearing west Guns got a clear line of sight on the lead Delta-Z tank as it came into view.  He turned the targeting system off and eyed the tank.  Fred was going to stop the AGV to give Guns the best shot possible, but Guns would not have it.

"Don't even stop!" yelled Guns.

The tanks, which had been tracking the battlefield with their drones, took the first shots.  Four tanks fired their cannons.  The first one missed.  Two shots hit the Rhino as Major Sekston dodged between two rills on her way to rendezvous with the AGV.  One of those two shots glanced off her hull, but the other was a direct hit.  And a critical one.  The Rhino shuddered under the concussive impact of the explosion and spiraled down into a gully, smoke billowing from its side.  The third shot hit the AGV just as Guns was taking his shot. 

The Plasma Beam flickered out from the AGV's top turret.  Guns, despite being jolted and the targeting computer going off-line, aimed with cool handed precision.  The coruscating beam bored a neat basketball sized hole directly into the engine block of the lead tank, and punched its way through to the back.  It ground to a halt, thick black smoke billowing into the blazing blue sky.  Fortunately the tanks were not equipped with Plasma Shields.

The Rhino had crashed down on its side and slid about 40 yards down into the gully.  Major Sekston was badly wounded in the crash, but alive.  Inside the cab smoke and flames emerged from the control panels.  As the Rhino descended, Sekston assessed the situation through the shattered windshield.  Three tanks were still operational on the plain, and two were still moving north on route 89.  Fred skidded off-road and headed west toward the Rhino's position at 65 mph.

The tanks fired again.  One of the tanks was hit by friendly fire, ricocheting off its hull with a blaze of sparks.  However, two shells hit the AGV.  One of them square on.  The entire crew was hit with the shock wave as the last of the AGV's anti-tank armor was blown to smithereens.  Everyone was braced for the impact except Captain Samwise.  Having been so gravely wounded to begin with, this was an impact he could not take.  He was thrown to the floor of the AGV, his head impacting with the corner of a bench.  He fell unconscious.  Penelope leapt to his side and immediately began attempting to revive him.  It didn't look good.  She pulled him back onto the couch, and strapped him in with the seat buckles.

Just as the AGV was hit Guns fired another shot with the Plasma Cannon.  But the shot went high and that was that.  He watched in dismay as the scintillating orange beam vanished over the horizon.  "Damnit!" he muttered under his breath.

* * * 

Somewhere many miles to the north Pita scanned the horizon from within the cool confines of his Lemurian Steel helmet. The force field that covered his face shimmered slightly, though it was nearly invisible when put in transparency mode.  His Lemurian cloak also kept him cool.  The shimmering white sands of the salt flat surrounded them for as far as the eye could see.  With him was Vilar, his Lemurian guide.  They were at the start of a mission that would hopefully resolve the question that the Queen of Lemuria wished to have answered.  What was the cause of the mysterious vibrations coming from the south?  They had five days to investigate, and return to Lemuria with their findings. Returning was a matter of proving his loyalty to Linda.  He patted his horse on the neck and turned to look westward.

The yellow flowers of the Sacred Hawthorn Tree, mysteriously growing in the middle of the salt flat, waved in the slight breeze that was blowing across the desert from the north.  This was a tree that could grant visions and Pita had had his fair share.  He thought about the white haired mage who had handed him a calling card - a small black gem which he had said would summon him in case of dire need.  Pita had secreted it into an inner pocket and hoped he wouldn't need to use it.

Vilar had set his cloak to "Translucent Camouflaged", so at the moment he was nearly invisible, but then changed the coloration to metallic sand, and blended into the scenery.  Finally he decided to use the Camouflaged mode which blended automatically.  He recommended Pita do the same. 

Pita was thinking about which way to go.  They had a map, and it showed the region, and there was an "X" where the Queen's scientists believed the  strange vibrations were coming from.

Pita drew some circles and arrows on the upper portion of the map while he thought. The red circle is where the Sacred Hawthorn tree was located, and where they were currently.  The green arrow was the general location of the secret entrance to Lemuria, but where exactly it was Pita could not say because he did not know.  The purple arrow to the southwest was the direction of the "X".  Lastly there is the purple circle to the east which is where Pita and Linda had been instructed to leave their Rocket Bikes.  He wondered if there was an significance to the fact that the map divided the east and west regions of the salt flat on the exact line where the Sacred Hawthorn tree was located.  Other than the tree, and a few stones indicating that some structure had once stood there ages ago, there was nothing.  The desert looked indistinguishable from the ground.  At any rate, he presumed the Queen was good to her word, and that their Rocket Bikes had been faithfully guarded, even after all the time they had spent down in Lemuria.  As his first sight of open land in such a long time, Pita was inwardly thrilled.  Fresh air.  Open sky!  How grand and beautiful the upper world was! The bliss of it was enormous.  Could he really ever return to the dark underworld of the Lemurians?

But now it was time to decide which way to go.  He thought about the options.  They could head straight southwest across the salt flats directly towards the "X".  They could cross the desert to a range of brown hills on the western edge and follow those south.  This might provide some cover, but Vilar knew nothing of that area, having never ventured that way.  There were the hills to the east which Vilar knew well, and those could be followed south. However, these hills were hazardous to cross, due to the fact they harbored tribes of feral mutant tribes that dwelled in those hills, among other Upper World dangers.  Finally, Pita asked Vilar which way he would choose to go if it were up to him.

"The caves," replied Vilar.

"Of course," returned Pita.  "The caves. Naturally."

"We are a people of the deep earth.  It is our home."

"Do you know the caves that could bring us south to our destination?"

"Yes," replied Vilar.

"Have you gone this way before?"

"Once," answered Vilar.

"Once, huh," laughed Pita lightly. "Was there anything living down there, or was it pretty quiet?"

"There are things that live down there," said Vilar solemnly.  The word "things" in Mon'Tang (the language of the Lemurians) had many meanings, but in the context of the sentence Pita had the impression it meant "monsters of the deep").

"I see," replied Pita.  "Ok, sounds good.  To the caves it is then."  Pita checked his weapons.  He patted his trusty Lewiston Beam Pistol in its sleek leather holster.  He felt behind his shoulder for his Adaptive Combat Rifle.  Good.  He checked his belt for the scabbard of his broadsword, and then slid his hand to the satchel at his side in which were two Frag Grenades and two Pepper Grenades.  And lastly, he reached around to his rear belt-holster to check on his FN Browning 9mm.  Yep.  All good.  He felt a little better now. Monster Caves? Ok.  No problem.  He was ready.

They rode their horses along the faint but perfectly straight dirt road  across the salt flats due east.  As they came closer to the line of low brown hills they passed the secret Lemurian Watch Post that looked like a mere cluster of rocks and sage brush on a slight rise, just east of a long narrow prominence that crossed the pathway perpendicularly.  Beautiful, silent, secret eyes watched them as they passed, but Pita was unaware of this.  

Once they reached the hills they soon came upon the outcropping where the Lemurians had stationed a guard to watch over the Rocket Bikes.  Had the guard not stepped out from the comfortable shade of his hidden vestibule in the side of the low hanging cliff, they'd not have seen him at all.  Looking past the guard, Pita could see their Rocket Bikes positioned along a wall of the inner stone chamber, next to which was a small stone table with victuals, a chair, and in the far corner a cot.  The fellow had been faithfully watching over the bikes for quite some time, and seemed a bit eager to be relieved of this duty.  However, it was not to be.  Pita and Vilar saluted him, but rode past him toward the brown canyons ahead.  Pita took the time to indicate that he appreciated the man's dedication as they passed.  The guard saluted and soon the two of them had passed out of sight.  He signaled back to Lemuria by his broach radio, went back into the vestibule, closed the entrance, and took his place at the watch station.  His eyes peered to and fro across the salt flats. Nothing. It was a tedious job, but he was a dedicated Lemurian soldier who never failed to perform his duty, and he knew he was likely to be well compensated for his efforts by the Queen upon his return to Lemuria.

After an hour or so of riding along a narrow stream bed at the bottom of a narrow gully Vilar stopped.  The terrain ahead widened out where an ancient long-forgotten river once formed a small flood plane, now only dirt, a few small bushes, brambles and rocks.  He scanned the ground carefully with an experienced eye.  He got down off his horse, and went on one knee.

"Someone has passed this way, recently," he said pointing at some faint markings on the ground.  "They came to this point from the east," he said pointing up the canyon, "stopped here, and then turned around and returned the way they came."

"Could it be other guards, having come down this way?" asked Pita.

"No," replied Vilar.  "We come from opposite directions. It would be unlikely."  

"Do you think they may have been spying on the enclosure?" asked Pita, suddenly concerned about his Rocket Bikes.

"I do not know," replied Vilar tersely, though he thought this too was unlikely, as these footprints were an hour's ride east of the enclosure, and they stopped here.  It was possible they returned northeast to try another route, but as there was no evidence of that he simply raised an eyebrow and said, "It is strange though.  Do you want to go back and try another way?"

"I think perhaps we should follow the tracks and get further information.  What do you think of that idea?" inquired Pita.

"It is your decision," said Vilar.  He had been instructed by the Queen to follow whatever directions Pita might give, and he was as curious as she to see the measure of the man by his choices.

"Can you tell how long ago the tracks were made?" asked Pita.

"Within a day," replied Vilar.

"So they came, they stopped, and then went back. Hmmm...", said Pita.  "Let's continue to follow them as we are heading in the same direction."

And so they continued in silence another hour or so.  The ravine had widened into a flat sunken plain, walled in by cliffs on both sides.  The air in the canyon was hot and without a breeze.  The clopping of their horse's hooves echoed off the cliff walls as they went.  Up ahead the canyon forked.  One branch lead northeast, the other to the southeast.  They stopped.  Vilar surveyed the ground carefully. 

"They went northeast," he said. "Our path leads us this way," he concluded somberly, pointing to the southeast.

"Where does the northeast way lead to?" asked Pita, wondering whether they should pursue the mysterious tracks, or continue on their journey to the caves.

"We have not been there in a long time, but in that direction lie the Great Salt Flats.  We have scouts who ventured that far in the past, but not in recent years."

"Perhaps on the way back we will check that.  Let's stay with our first task, which is to find out about these vibrations."

"As you wish," replied Vilar as he hopped back up on his horse.

They continued for a half day until they came to a maze-like area in which crisscrossing gullies formed a dizzying pattern.  They led the horses on foot for a while as the gullies became more narrow and rocky, and then Vilar stopped below an overhanging cliff, where in ancient days there had been a waterfall that carved out a small grotto.  

"We must leave the horses here," he said.  At the base of the cliff there were green plants nestled around a spring that was burbling up from the ground.  Buzzing insects swished excitedly through the air. There was a pool of clear water about four feet wide and six feet long.  The horses drank as the men did likewise and filled their canteens.  Pita, looked around.  The gully at this point had cliff walls some fifteen feet high, so they could not be seen from the desert, nor would anyone have seen them enter in through the maze.  He felt satisfied that the horses would likely be safe there, provided no one happened upon them by chance.  Vilar was unconcerned, as he knew the Lemurians would come to pick up the horses if they became stranded.

They continued on foot, passing into a narrow ravine, and then making their way over rough, rocky ground, surrounded by tall cliffs.  Eventually, they arrived at a cave entrance in the side of the ravine that was hidden from above by an overhang.  It was now starting to get dark.  The air began to cool in the desert.  A wind picked up.  It would be a clear, cold night out on the salt flats.  Not a cloud in the sky.  The rippling river of iridescent radiation that was a remnant of the Ultra-War could be heard over head.  Other than that, all was quiet.

The opening to the cave was rather narrow.  About two feet wide, and four feet high, so it required a bit of crawling to get inside.  They crept forward and then the passage began to slope gently downward for about a hundred and fifty feet.  The tunnel turned a corner and widened.  They entered a grotto.  Tunnels led out in a dozen directions. At this point Vilar stopped and took a careful look around.  They could see by virtue of their helmets which provided them with Dark-Vision, despite the pitch blackness within the cave.

"This is the spot," said Vilar, pointing to one wall.  "Notice the striated green and yellow stone work over here."

Pita studied the wall carefully, and suddenly realized that they were striated with multicolored bands, which had green-and-yellow tinted striations.  In fact, they formed a consistent geometrical pattern for about six feet, though Pita felt sure that had Vilar not pointed it out he would never have noticed.  

"Do you see any stone here that is out of place?" asked Vilar.

Pita looked carefully.  He scanned every stone.  Nothing seemed out of place.  It was a cave, after all. There were stones and rocks, and sand everywhere.  However, Pita was a man with insane persistence.  He looked more carefully.  And then he noticed it.  A stalagmite was offset against the wall in a way that seemed every so slightly odd, though he couldn't have explained why if he were asked to.  There was just something "not quite exactly right" about it.

"Yes, that's it," said Vilar following his gaze.  "Turn it."

"Which way?  To the right, or to the left?" asked Pita, thinking that it might just make a difference.

"Good question.  To the left," answered Vilar approvingly.  Pita did so, and lo!  The green and yellow-tinted section of the grotto opened up soundlessly before them.  A five foot wide opening led into a long straight tunnel.  Although Pita did not know this, had he turned the stalagmite to the right it would have caused the door to seal from the inside, thus blocking their route, and released an odorless sleeping gas.  Lemurian guards would have then been alerted to assess the situation and take appropriate action.  This had occurred once over the past five hundred years, and the Indian who had triggered the event was released to the desert, never the wiser as to what had happened, and the man never returned to the spot, but instead warned his tribe to stay away from the "maze-ravines", which became taboo thereafter.

"This is the entranceway to the Deeper Earth," Vilar said as he led the way inside.  Once in, he turned another stalagmite, and the doorway silently closed.  The walls were smooth, but looked naturally formed, as if by an ancient underground river.  Along the walls on both sides were a line of one foot tall glyphs which ran on for about ten feet, and were etched into the rock

"Those are warnings," said Vilar solemnly.  They say "Do Not Trespass Here."

"Are we trespassing?" asked Pita, a bit alarmed.

"No. These are Lemurian tunnels.  It is a warning to others."

"I see," said Pita, much reassured.  He examined the writing and noted that it was written in Mon'Tang, and the meanings that reverberated from the words and their patterns of context made his head reel.  They spoke of dire eternal consequences, monsters, traps, and cosmic fury against those who disobeyed the warning.  He shuddered as he peered ahead down the long tunnel.

"I have been this way once.  You must be careful.  There are deadly things here."

Pita noticed that the meaning of the Mon-Tang word "things" in this case reflected more than creatures, but also hinted treacherous terrain, and even, possibly, traps of some sort.  He thought about his various Mentarian Powers, and decided to focus on his surroundings, and linked his center of focus to a point just over his head.  This Mind-Junction would track with him for some time, perhaps a few hours.  He focused and activated it.  It would, he expected, alert him if any living creature should come within ten feet of him, whether hidden or otherwise.  He didn't sense anything at the moment.  Vilar led them forward into the tunnel.

They came after some two hundred feet to an open dome shaped chamber at the center of which was a roughly circular fountain. Around the edged of the chamber were two foot tall alcoves in which sat stone statues of various shapes and sizes. The statues were crude, almost barbaric in nature.  They were, Pita thought, of people in meditative positions, but their expressions were anything but calm or peaceful.

"What is the fountain for?" asked Pita.

"It is for the profane," replied Vilar with finality.  "Whomever shall drink of this fountain will remain here forever," he said after a long pause.

"Ahhh... so I should not drink from the fountain?"

"No one should drink from the fountain.  Let us continue from this place." 

As they departed down one of the many side tunnels that separated the alcoves, Pita might have noticed that the statues were strangely deformed and stylized, grotesque each in its own way, and yet weirdly, faintly, realistic and somehow... all too human.  Faces frozen in terrifying realizations, long since worn down by the dripping waters and the sands of time.  However, Pita did not dwell on these things, but instead followed Vilar past them into one of the dark tunnels without further reflection.

"We Lemurians guard our pathways with great care. It is why we have never been discovered by the Upper Worlders.  We are a secret people.  There are penalties to those who uncover our secrets."

Pita cleared his throat a bit.  "I can tell," he replied finally.

"We have been here longer than all of the civilizations of the Upper World combined.  And yet, we still remain unknown to your people.  Because we are careful.  Remember it well," said Vilar with a tone of warning.

They continued down the pathway until they came to a place where the tunnel ahead appeared to open into a vast yawning chamber.  Vilar stopped and said, "We now will enter the 'Domain of Danger'.  You must be absolutely silent.  Follow in my exact footsteps.  Do not touch anything that I do not touch.  Make no noise."

"Okay, I will be careful," replied Pita.  He thought further about what powers he might employ in this circumstance.  He was already using Detect Presence, but he considered adding Heightened Reflexes.  This would make the odds of being surprised by any attack almost impossible and give him a better chance of walking and doing only and exactly what Vilar himself did. He summoned his mystic reserves and activated the power.  Suddenly he felt as light as a butterfly, and his senses seemed doubled in range and sensitivity.

For a hundred feet they slowly tiptoed, as quiet as mice, until they came to the opening. It was six feet high and four feet wide, and beyond it was a yawning crevasse that spanned a great distance ahead of them.  It was so far that even with his Lemurian Helmet he was unable to make out the far wall.  The bottom dropped down into unfathomable darkness from which a distant thunderous roar could be heard.  But the trail did not stop there.  It bent to the right and vanished out of view.  Only the narrow ledge at the trail's head could be seen from where Pita and Vilar were standing.

Vilar stopped there and turned to face Pita and put one finger to his lips.  It was clear what the intent was.  Pita made no sound. Vilar turned around and gingerly stepped onto the path, turned to the right and walked out of view.  Pita followed close behind.

They found themselves traversing a narrow ledge that clung to the cliff face, which continued to the right, finally vanishing into the vast, looming distance beyond.  The path was a mere three feet wide.  To their immediate right, ascending upward into cavernous darkness, was a jagged stony wall.  It seemed to be glinting in the dark ever so slightly.  Pita took a closer look and found it was covered in tiny white gossamer threads that fluttered and wavered in the slight breeze that was caused by his passing.  He looked up. The veil clung to the wall as high up as his eyes could see.  He did not like the look of that at all.

Pita followed his guide closely.  Vilar took pains to avoid touching the wall.  Pita studiously avoided touching the wall as well.  He stepped diligently into the exact footprints that the Lemurian made as he went.  If Vilar turned his shoulder to the left, so did Pita when he reached the same spot.  His focus never wavered as he strove to mimic every move his guide made.

After three hundred feet Vilar stopped and turned slowly and carefully around.  He again held a finger to his lips and then pointed ahead on the path.  There Pita could make out an opening in the wall ahead.  It was, he estimated, about twelve feet tall, and perhaps eight feet wide, and shaped like a rough hewn archway. It was impossibly dark within it, so he could make out nothing but the shape of the portal.  Above it there was a capstone at the top of the archway. On it was a single glyph, but it was neither Mon'Tang, nor English, nor any other language he recognized. They proceeded to inch along as quietly as possible.  

Pita followed Vilar's every step precisely.  As Vilar passed the portal, he did not do anything but tiptoe past, looking neither to the right side nor the left.  Pita, determined to do exactly likewise, kept his eyes on Vilar and Vilar alone.  As he passed the cave, he declined to even take a single peek inside.

However, his power of 'Sense Presence' began to prickle his skin and tingle along his right side.  There was something, something alive, inside the cave.  He was absolutely sure of it.  And not deep within, but perhaps ten feet or less.  He distinctly felt that someone, or something, was there in the darkness sitting on the floor next to the wall of the cave on the right side, although he did not look inside even for a moment.

As soon as he sensed that presence Pita whispered... "Vilar... there is something near..."

The whisper of Pita's voice echoed ever so faintly throughout the great cavern.  The veils covering the walls wavered with the vibration of those words.

* * * 

And that, my friends, is where we left things that night.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

On the Use of Race or Species

Whether to use "Race" or "Species" as a term in Role Playing Games is a legitimate question. It's not an easy one to answer because there's been muddied waters on this for quite a long time. Tolkien used "Race" to describe dwarves and elves. Science fiction authors have also been known to do the same. For example Wookie, I believe, was termed as a race in Star Wars. You can kind of tell this if you compare the phrase "the dwarven race" with "the dwarven species"... which sounds more like something you'd read in a book or hear in a movie or at a gaming table? I would say "dwarven race" simply sounds better... for some reason. 

That reason may be that the word "race" has been used in this way in science fiction and fantasy for a long time, and we got used to it. This is despite the fact that technically it is not accurate. Dwarves would most likely be a distinct species, not a race, at least so far as the modern dictionary definition is concerned. However, we should keep in mind that Oxford dictionary, when Tolkien was writing (and was a scholar of language, btw), had it "race" was, apparently, 'A group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin.' ... however I am unable at the moment to properly validate that assertion (found here: as the link to which the responder references to Oxford English Dictionary is apparently dead now, unfortunately. 

At any rate, to my mind, "the race of dwarves" flows better off the tounge than "the species of dwarves". I would also say that for me this holds true much more for fantasy genre games than sci-fi, as I could also easily see a group of scientist-astronaut adventurers saying something like "we have landed on a planet upon which the predominant species are Elves and Dwarves" ... as scientific nomenclature this is both correct, and would make sense to hear in context of the game world. But for Fantasy, for me, not so much. I just can't quite imagine Aragorn or Gandalf saying "the dwarven species".  It simply doesn't sound right to me.